“Canadian Official Historians and the Writing of the World Wars,” Tim Cook

In his dissertation, Cook “attempt[s] to unravel the history behind the history” of Canada’s involvement in WWI and WWII by examining the “official” historians, how they “shaped the archival record,” and analyzes “how the war records were created, and what pressures were applied to them before they were ever transferred to form the defense archives of the nation” (pg 7). While some of the backstory is familiar from Robert McIntosh’s article “The Great War: Archives and Modern Memory,” Cook goes into much greater detail about the origins of the official historian positions, their place in the military and government hierarchy, their involvement in the creation, management, and use of war records, and the subsequent works published by their offices.

As McIntosh detailed, the WWI records were under the jurisdiction of two different offices, the CWRO (headed by the non-military but politically-connected and affluent Max Aitken) and the CWNS (founded by General Currie partially to counteract the perceived consolidation of historiographic power by Aiken). Aitken’s CWRO was overtly hagiographic, seeking to construct from scratch a Canadian national identity. Thus, his office was much more involved in records creation, elision, and manipulation. Currie’s CWNS, while no less self-serving, sought to institutionalize recordkeeping and archival preservation in order to maintain reputation control over the historical record. At the same time, the Dominion Archivist back in Canada was undertaking his own project to collect diaries, letters, and other war records. All saw the inordinate power that records would have in defining the war for the general populace and shaping all subsequent historical scholarship. WWII saw the official historians take on more of an archival role, collecting after-action reports, chasing down documents, and safeguarding records. While they still had an active role in shaping the war record by prodding officers and enlisted alike in the creation of their “official” records, there was much greater institutional support and coordination regarding the records were acquired and managed.

The post-war years found the official historians tasked with managing the transfer, disposal, and preservation of the records. As well, given the significant time lapse from the end of WWI and the publishing of the first “official history,” the WWII historians were under significant pressure to produce a quick history geared both to the public and to the officer class which had supported their efforts during the war. The continuing pressure to publish both broad, general-interest “official histories” and the appetite for specific service branch, regimental, and even unit histories exposed the unformed or outright exclusive access policies of the archives. Additionally, post-war attempts to consolidate the many branch records highlighted the haphazard retention and physical control mechanisms of these repositories.

Cook focuses, in slightly laborious detail, on the difficulties and machinations faced by each conflict’s historians both in assembling, managing, and preserving the war records and in fulfilling their mandate to pen “official” histories. As well as the obvious difficulties in scouring the voluminous records while researching these works, the historian also had to create a history which answered the demands of many different constituencies and achieve, as Cook says, “that difficult balance that appealed to both the politician and the generals, but also to the veterans, the historical community, and the book-buying public”  (pg. 252).

Cook is wise enough to see the confluence between an “official historian” and an archivist and frequently evokes the many ethical and practical entanglements faced by those employed by an institution and responsible for maintaining its history (with the added demands, for these historians, of helping forge individual reputations and a national identity). Those often-conflicting responsibilities had subtle and profound influences on the way they managed fundamental archival practices such as appraisal (and advisement on, or outright creation of, records), acquisition, arrangement, administration (including ongoing retention and disposal), and especially access. His explication of the saga of official historians reinforces the subjectivity of acquisition, the many influences that can shape the archival record, how issues of access impact scholarship and collective memory, and how those managing the archival record inextricably shape what is known, remembered, and reinterpreted.

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