The war on paper
The Imperial Museum has published a new book that reveals World War II through famous documents
A new book from the IWM reveals WWII through famous documents
The War On Paper tells the story of the most destructive conflict in history through 20 key documents held in the Imperial War Museum’s archives. Written by Anthony Richards, Head of Documents and Sound at the IWM, the book contains fascinating records, including Adolf Hitler’s orders to invade Poland, Winston Churchill’s draft for his famous ‘End of the Beginning’ speech and the German surrender that was witnessed and signed by Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery. Speaking exclusively to history of war, Richards discusses why he wrote the book, his favourite documents and the importance of paper in preserving history.
WHAT WAS THE IDEA BEHIND WRITING THE BOOK?
We wanted to tell the story of the Second World War but in a slightly different way. It struck me that the big advantage the Imperial War Museum has is its rich and varied collection. Everything is based on that and so we thought it would be really nice to almost let the documents speak for themselves.
When you read history books they constantly use documents as evidence. What people tend to do is take information from the documents but they then almost discard the document itself. My idea was to treat the documents as objects in their own right. The book looks at their creation, who used them and the context in which they were used.
WHAT CAN READERS EXPECT TO SEE?
It’s a very visual book, and there are very highquality images of 20 key documents, which are snapshots of key themes, incidents and events of the Second World War. Each chapter tells its own story, but when you look at them together they give you the history of the war.
My job is as an archivist so I deal with bits of paper, whether they’re diaries, letters, memoirs etc. One of the most special things is being able to handle the original documents. We want to give people that sense of interacting with the original records with facsimiles and high-quality images.
HOW VALUABLE IS THE IWM’S WWII PAPER ARCHIVE?
It’s probably fair to say that it’s one of the leading archives in the world for the study of both world wars. Additionally, the story of how we acquired some documents is often just as interesting as the records themselves.
Take the example of Hitler’s will. It is a very important document in itself, but the actual story of how it was created in the bunker and how many copies were sent out with couriers who were subsequently captured is interesting in its own right.
WHAT RANGE OF DOCUMENTS APPEAR IN THE BOOK?
We try to cover the most obvious and popular themes from different perspectives. For example, we have key ‘high level’ documents like the Anglo-german accord before the war. This was supremely ironic because it became a meaningless document when Hitler chose to ignore it. Then you’ve got Hitler’s orders to invade Poland, and right at the end there is the Lüneberg Heath surrender document. You’ve therefore got the documents that both started and ended the war.
Neville Chamberlain brandishes the signed paper of the infamous Anglo-german Declaration on 30 September 1938