Peter Davies. Dangerous Liaisons: Collaboration and World War Two. Harlow: Pearson Education Limited, 2004. vii + 218 pp. $26.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-582-77227-4.
Reviewed by Kelly McFall (Department of History/Political Science, Newman University)
Published on H-War (April, 2006)
The Difficulty of Accessibility
Despite the thousands of books published about World War Two, assigning books for undergraduate courses on the war is often frustratingly difficult. Many books written at a level appropriate for undergraduates focus primarily on military strategy or campaigns, while books about the economy, home front, or resistance are too specialized or academic to appeal to a broad cross-section of students. Peter Davies attempts to offer a middle ground with his recent work Dangerous Liaisons: Collaboration and World War Two. Davies teaches history at the University of Huddersfield. His publications addressing teaching and his nominations for prestigious teaching awards demonstrate his skill and passion for that area of academia. His research has until now focused largely on the right wing in France. With Dangerous Liaisons, he shifts his focus to offer a synthesis of the history of collaboration in the Second World War in Europe in a form accessible to undergraduates and lay readers. Unfortunately, his effort is less successful than one would hope.
Dangerous Liaisons is truly a survey rather than a sustained argument, and the book's structure reflects this. Following two short chapters that briefly explore the concept of collaboration and offer something of a chronology of the war, Davies approaches his topic thematically. He offers chapters examining questions of motivation, political, social and, economic collaboration, as well as a short study of the Holocaust. Finally, he offers a brief assessment of the legacies of collaboration.
Davies uses his survey to make several claims about collaboration. He insists, for example, the term is imprecise, and its use as an umbrella label for all interaction with the German occupiers does not really fit the widely varying institutional and political wartime context. According to Davies, the terms of collaboration were fundamentally set by Hitler, and it was his decision to treat each region differently that drove different local responses. He also repeatedly urges his reader to account for the social and political pressures (including those present before the war) on individuals when evaluating people's behavior during the war. His position becomes quite clear in his chapter addressing the question of the motives behind collaboration, where he claims "individuals, organizations and governments had very little choice but to collaborate"(p. 69). Those who collaborated because of political, social, or economic pressure were just doing what they needed to survive and should be judged sympathetically. Indeed, he suggests much "social collaboration" was inconsequential precisely because it was unavoidable. Naturally, this is an argument resistors were and are unlikely to view sympathetically. However, he judges those who cooperated with the Germans for personal gain or out of ideological sympathy more harshly. The trouble with this, of course, is the difficulty of distinguishing the two, and of assessing the cultural and social impact of interpersonal contacts between occupied and occupiers. Finally, he stresses the longevity and influence of the postwar legacy of collaboration. Remembrance has obstructed attempts to bring modern-day conflicts to an end rather than solve them, he suggests, and believes less memory might be better than more (p. 189).
It is important to acknowledge the difficulty of the task Davies sets himself. To write an effective survey of collaboration requires acquainting oneself with a tremendous range of regions, cultures, and contexts and wrestling with the narrative and interpretive challenges of such a morally problematic topic. Doing all of this at a level appropriate to undergraduates adds another layer of complexity. Davies is to be praised for his attempt to tackle such a difficult project.
Unfortunately, he does not quite bring it off. First, he never quite resolves the difficulties inherent in defining his subject. He offers a set of definitions or categorizations of collaboration in his first chapter. Any definition is open to nitpicking, and I would quibble with his on several points. But he then abandons them and uses a variety of other terms and labels in the remainder of his work. Certainly, one of his goals is to highlight for students how problematic the concept of collaboration is. But the lack of a coherent and consistent set of definitions leaves the reader, especially one without much historical background and experience, wondering exactly what Davies' subject really is.
In addition, Davies's book lacks the depth of content necessary to recommend the book even for undergraduates. Davies's focus, even in the chapter on collaboration in the social realm, lies with famous individuals and political leaders. The more ordinary person is honored in the abstract but is rarely present. Indeed, in a book aimed at undergraduates, one would anticipate a thorough discussion of the question of interpersonal relationships between occupied and occupiers. But this topic gets relatively little attention. The political narratives themselves show an idiosyncratic selection of detail versus summary that may jar undergraduates. One understands the difficult choices facing Davies in decisions about focus and pitch. But even in a book aimed at lay readers, one wishes for a bit more meat.
His discussion clearly leans toward his own areas of expertise. His discussion of France is significantly more detailed and nuanced than his treatment of Southern or Eastern Europe. His citations also reflect this. Certainly, one must be careful in evaluating research based on citations and a bibliography in a book aimed at undergraduates. Nevertheless, while his discussion of France demonstrates sustained use of a broad array of research, his sections dealing with the rest of Europe rely predominantly on one or two sources for each region, occasionally books which deal with collaboration only incidentally. While one acknowledges the limitations of secondary research, one wishes his discussion of the rest of Europe had approached the subtlety and insight of his treatment of France.
Finally, the book is marred by serious problems with style and editing. In some cases these could have been corrected with more careful attention (the contention that the allies crossed into the Netherlands in June of 1944, for instance), others are the result of sloppy writing. More serious, however, are stylistic issues that make Davies's book much less appealing to undergraduates. Davies resorts repeatedly to long quotes that simply provide factual information without adding flavor or interest. Because his narrative tone is often informal, he periodically uses words that will cause many American undergraduates difficulty. Because he structures the book thematically, he repeats the same political accounts several times throughout the book--a sure way to make an undergraduate lose interest--and missed an opportunity to include a wider range of detail. And he habitually cites the opinions of other historians without integrating them effectively into his own argument or narrative.
The result then is a book, which, despite its considerable potential and honorable intent, does not really succeed. A reader of Davies's book will certainly come away with a few anecdotes about collaboration and a clear sense of how problematic the subject is. But the book's weaknesses, both stylistic and argumentative, make it incapable of filling the gap Davies has so astutely identified.
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Kelly McFall. Review of Davies, Peter, Dangerous Liaisons: Collaboration and World War Two.
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