History taken on trust

Colditz castle, the wartime PoW camp, is enduringly linked to stories of plucky British prisoners attempting to escape. These tales, Ben Macintyre claims in the preface to his new book, comprise the Colditz “myth”, which “has stood unchallenged for more than seventy years”. Colditz: Prisoners of the castle, we are told, is “the real Colditz story”. The jacket bills it as “deeply researched”, “the definitive history”, and based on “an range of material”.

Whipped along in classic Macintyre style, most of the book is an engaging retelling of a tale that some readers – albeit mostly of a certain age – may well have felt they knew. The narrative begins in 1940, with the arrival at Colditz Castle of the first party of British prisoners. Thereafter, although Macintyre inevitably spends a lot of time on the escapes, his approach is to blend the escaping with tales of life in Colditz and portraits of its population. Men of other nations were held there, and some attention is paid to them. The tedium and frustrations of imprisonment, the mental and physical strain, hunger, spying, treachery, politics, social and racial tension, and sexual tension, are all touched on. The guards get a look-in. Even a few women feature, like the dentist’s assistant from Colditz town who riskily passed along news of the outside world in secret messages sent up to the castle.

Certainly, there is greater range here than that found in Pat Reid’s The Colditz Story (1952), the bestselling memoir of one of the first British officers to break out, and a book that did more than most to associate the place with “tales of gallant escapes, schoolboy humour and cheerful derring-do”, as Macintyre puts it. Less familiar characters in his larger cast include a captured Indian doctor in the Royal Army Medical Corps, Birendranath Mazumdar, whose experiences in Colditz included battling prejudice and a lengthy period on hunger strike. The German perspective, too, shifts the story some distance from the old “adventure narratives.” The relationship between captors and captives was complex and changing, shaped by hopes, fears and expectations on both sides. Macintyre understands this and devotes much space to it. Early writers such as Reid knew little about the priorities, privations and private lives of the guards, and, unsurprisingly, cared less.

sorry, Colditz‘s claim to be distinguished by novelty and definitiveness comes with a significant flaw: unless you are on intimate terms with most of its sources, you will have to take the book’s word for it. Macintyre’s text is bereft of footnotes, endnotes and, indeed, any effort to assist the scrutiny of its “unprecedented range of material”, save for a short “Note on Sources” comprised of a list of primary sources and a select bibliography.

Possibly this is a criticism less of Macintyre than of his publisher and/or its marketing team, but it justifies discussion. Noting sources of quotes and claims allows readers to assess whether you are trustworthy and credible, if your research is authentic and verifiable, and the extent to which your claims to originality (and being “definitive”) are measured and deserved. Good references are a courtesy too. Citing sources creates opportunities for readers to follow up points of interest, demonstrates awareness of others’ work and the debt that your own owes to theirs, and assures writers whose paths have informed yours that you recognize where and when credit is due.

Given the claims made for Colditz, and the fact that Macintyre’s previous books came with citations of this sort, it seems reasonable also to speculate about explanations for their absence in this one. Is it about cost? Although leaving out notes can weaken a text, the expense of printing a few extra pages explains some publishers’ preferences for excluding them. But a publisher of Viking’s size, and an author who sells as well as Macintyre, would be hard pressed to justify cuts on those grounds.

Or perhaps the omissions arise from doubts about the legitimacy of the book’s assertion to be offering a really fresh take. Colditz has possibly the best publicly documented past of any prison in the world. The perspectives of most of Macintyre’s principal actors – Reid, Reinhold Eggers, Airey Neave, Micky Burn, Giles Romilly, Michael Alexander, Georg Schädlich – have existed in print for years, while Simon MacKenzie’s pioneering The Colditz Myth, a formidable piece of primary research that Macintyre lists in his brief bibliography, but mentions nowhere else, comprehensively covered much of the same ground twenty years ago. Could attributing every quote to its individual starting place have exposed Macintyre’s narrative as too reliant on (or too similar to) others’ research and established sources?

A few well-placed pointers could have made such speculation redundant. As it is, an editorial assumption about the book’s readership seems clear: for this audience, telling, not showing, will be sufficient. Or to put it another way: so long as the story is spun well (and sells?), who cares about its integrity? Of course, consumers want different things – from historical books, from historical films and from history itself. Publishers of popular histories cannot be expected to put in place the same hoops that satisfy readers of more academic ones. But it is one thing to publish a readable story aimed squarely at a mass market. It is another for a serious publisher to herald its launch with exaggerated claims about its achievement in advancing the historical record. There is a difference between a convincing argument that adds meaningfully to our understanding of historical events, and a good yarn that primarily entertains.

Something of the same assumption seems to affect Robert Verkaik’s The Traitor of Colditz. Ostensibly, to judge from its title, this should be about Walter Purdy, a British prisoner of war and turncoat who made radio broadcasts for the Nazis from Berlin and was fortunate to escape execution by his enraged compatriots during a fleeting Colditz visit. The book is about him, mostly, but two other characters run him close: John Brown, a captured British soldier who masqueraded as a Nazi sympathizer to gather secret information, and Julius Green, a captured British Army dentist who was able to send intelligence to London from Colditz and other camps, and who, like Purdy, features also in Macintyre’s book. It is nice to see Brown, in particular, attracting fresh attention after all these years.

Welbeck claims less for The Traitor of Colditz than Viking does for Colditz. Verkaik also gives his sources. These are clear about his heavy debt to protagonists’ accounts – notably those of Brown and Green – published decades ago, but they show, too, that he has perused new files from the National Archives that document MI5’s efforts to investigate Purdy and build a case against him. Unfortunately, most of Verkaik’s references are scattered across his text so sparsely and illogically that the credibility of much of his narrative is impossible to discern. Attention to detail might also have improved his book’s front cover: a mirror image of Colditz castle. (On Macintyre’s it is the right way round.)

There are better contexts for comments about the importance of reliable facts in a post-truth world, but it does seem a pity that the humble citation, this tiny indicator of identifiable sources and processes, Frank Kermode’s “enemy of the enemies of truth”, It seems to be in decline, as publishers narrow their options to a choice between, on the one hand, storytelling and, on the other, fusty academics with their footnotes and references. It is possible to adopt a methodical, transparent, accountable approach to history and to tell a great tale; And, when writers, like these two, have the skills to do both, they can make a greater contribution, and deserve to be well supported in doing so.

Roderick Bailey is a historian at the University of Oxford

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