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A Battle for Neutral Europe

British Cultural Propaganda during the Second World War


Edward Corse


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’ [169]. 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 – Spain, Portugal, Sweden and Turkey. Importantly, Corse seeks to situate the beginning of this story within the relationships which the Council enjoyed with other actors in the British institutional machinery of cultural propaganda and warfare. At the outset of war, it was widely assumed that the British Council would be mothballed, and indeed Lord Beaverbrook campaigned vociferously to have the organisation closed down on the grounds that cultural propaganda was not the best use of scarce war-making resources. Despite this however, the Council survived, largely because of the intervention of Anthony Eden and the Foreign Office.

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 Spain, Starkie set up a school for Spanish pupils as a means of competing with the German schools that existed, and even contrived to arrange a bus service for the children as a rival to the five buses which the German administration was operating. The pedagogic methods employed were radically different from those current in Spain, as one ex-pupil recalled: ‘we were learning by playing, singing [and] doing gym [,] and in the [S]panish one everything was done by memory and punishments’ [94].

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’ [112].

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 Britain’s ‘soft power’ policies during the Second World War. Tighter editing, and a clearer understanding of the difference between thesis and book audiences would have made the endeavour even more accessible.  


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