~ Posted by Guy Walters, February 1st 2013
One of the problems with being a historian is that you can never make people happy. Editors want your books to tell the nice sort of narrative you get in thrillers; fellow historians want the book to revise previous accounts; and readers don't want to have their preconceptions shattered. It's hard to find a balance—perhaps impossible.
Take the example of my latest book, "The Real Great Escape", which examines the reality behind the much-loved film starring Steve McQueen and Richard Attenborough (above). The film tells the true story of how 80 Allied POWs tunnelled out of their camp in Lower Silesia in March 1944, with 50 of them being shot by the Nazis for their pains. Conventional wisdom does indeed hold that the escape was "great", and that although only three escapers made it to Britain, the breakout tied up many vital German resources that could have been used for the war effort.
The story has been told before of course, and on each retelling, it gets a little more tall and heroic. I decided to strip back the layers of gloss applied by previous writers, and study documents and listen to old interviews in order to get to the truth behind the jingoistic varnish. The picture that emerged was, perhaps predictably, very different. Many POWs, far from being the homogenous bunch of escape-hungry young men that we are led to believe, had no desire to escape, and often regarded those that did as troublemakers. The escape itself was described by one American POW as an act of "military madness", which saw lives wasted. Furthermore, it did not hamper the Nazi war machine one iota, and, ironically enough, even helped the Germans, as in the ensuing search, they rounded up thousands of other escapers throughout the Reich. My conclusion is that the escape, ultimately, was not-so-great.
Some readers who have heard about my book and its arguments have responded angrily, claiming that I have besmirched memories and so forth. That is understandable, and I am careful in the book to be sensitive to the memory of those that died. Some have been very angry, and have threatened to punch me. However, the most frustrating criticism is perhaps the most common, and it goes along the lines of: "You weren't there. How can you possibly know what it was like? Who are you to judge?"
We can bat away the first bit easily. Of course I wasn't there, and neither are most historians present at the events they describe. If we hold that criticism to be valid, then it negates the study of the past, and it puts a stop to the production of historical works.
The second point carries more weight. Nevertheless, trying to work out "what it was like" is my job, and having spent two years sifting through archive material and listening to many hours of interviews, I am confident that I have a better idea of what it was like in Stalag Luft III than my detractors. Of course, we can never know precisely what it was like, but that elusive quality is part of history's frustrating charm.
As for making judgements, well, I happen to think that too is my job. Hindsight can be correctly applied, so long as the historian is not basing his opinion on data that his subjects could not possibly have had access to. As it happens, the POWs were repeatedly warned that bad things would happen to them, and in March 1944, people did know which way the war was going.
If someone wants to challenge my book, then great, but do show me your working. If not, then perhaps we should just step outside into the carpark.
Guy Walters is the author of 10 books including "Hunting Evil" and "Berlin Games".