A Battle for Neutral Europe
British Cultural Propaganda during the Second World War
London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013
Hardcover. xii+259p. ISBN 978-1441199638. £65.00
Reviewed by Hilary Footitt
University of Reading
As Edward Corse rightly suggests, ‘The
British Council’s wartime activities are one of the forgotten stories of the
Second World War’ . Corse makes a major contribution to remedying this
situation in his detailed study of British Council activity in four neutral
countries during the war years –
What actually happened on the ground in the Council’s work in these neutral countries depended on a host of contextual factors which Corse explores with care. To begin with, there were personal issues which depended to a large extent on the key personalities in the local Embassies and Consulates, and the nature of their working relationships with Council representatives. In Spain for example, the Ambassador, Sir Samuel Hoare, clearly viewing his present posting as a dramatic down-grading after holding office as Foreign Secretary, found the British Council representative, Professor Walter Starkie, extremely difficult, and the hostility was duly returned on Starkie’s side. One of the strengths of Corse’s book is to bring alive the varied personalities who directed British Council activities at that time – the poet Ronald Bottrall who led the Council in Sweden; the eminent Portuguese scholar, Professor George West, who directed work in Lisbon; and the ebullient Walter Starkie with his much appreciated lectures on the ‘raggle-taggle’ gypsies of Spain.
British Institutes were established in
three of the countries – Turkey was the exception because the Embassy feared
any such organisation would be closed down or taken over – and became centres for cultural activity. In
As today with the British Council’s work, teaching English was a major part of the outreach activity, either within the Institute itself, or in collaboration with other bodies – in Turkey for example, British professors, Professor Steven Runciman most notably, were placed within the local higher education structures. Distinguished British guests were invited to the countries by the Council, and exhibitions and concerts were held. In Portugal for example, ‘ Only over a longer period of time could British music be played without being interspersed with music from other nations, as the Portuguese audiences were not used to hearing it’ .
As well as the wealth of detail (and anecdote) which Corse provides on what British wartime cultural propaganda looked like in neutral countries, he has a scholarly chapter seeking to assess the influence of all this work, and reflecting on the types of issues which make such an assessment so problematic. None of the Council offices worked in a vacuum, so that the perception of their work on the ground was dependent on a range of local factors. Given that measuring the actual impact of cultural activities funded by the State has become a question of some burning importance in cash-strapped European countries, Corse’s analysis and the questions it raises have a relevance well beyond the war period.
This book, the fruit of a doctoral
thesis, is a welcome contribution to an under-researched area of
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