The New Meaning of Treason
Hazlitt once said that half the controversies in the world are not much more than a history of nicknames. Words which might well be carved on the tomb of William Joyce; for it is scarcely exaggerating to say that Joyce’s nickname cost him his life. Technically, at any rate, his conviction for treason was open to doubt. He was born in Brooklyn, never took out British naturalization papers, and became a German citizen in 1940. True, he had spent his adult life until the outbreak of war in England, claiming to be a British subject; when he applied for a passport in 1933 he made a false declaration, putting down Ireland as his place of birth, and effectively signed his own death-warrant. But holding a passport isn’t quite the same thing as possessing citizenship, and in view of the legal question-mark hanging over Joyce’s trial there were strong grounds for granting him a reprieve—especially since no other renegade British broadcasters were executed (apart from John Amery, the wayward son of a famous Tory politician—and he had pleaded guilty to various other charges of treason, besides broadcasting). This was the attitude taken at the time in some quarters where there was certainly no love for Joyce: by the Manchester Guardian, for instance. But the misgivings of the minority were swept aside, for in the immediate post-war climate it would have been difficult for any British government not to have hanged the man who for most people had become the walking embodiment of treason.
By the end of the war Joyce aroused more hatred in England than anyone else, with the possible exception of the Nazi leaders themselves. Lord Haw-Haw had started as a figure of fun, a drawling cad or monocled ass out of P.G. Wodehouse: “Jairmany Calling” became a popular catchphrase. (As a small child I used to mix up Haw-Haw with Funf, the German spy on a famous BBC comedy series.) But as the military situation in the west deteriorated, the joke turned sour. At the peak of Haw-Haw’s success as a phony-war diversion, it was estimated that over a quarter of the population were tuning in regularly to English-language broadcasts from Germany. Later there was a drastic drop in listening figures, while at the same time rumors multiplied. Haw-Haw was credited with possessing uncannily accurate information about local conditions in England, including up-to-the-minute reports on bomb damage. (Through some strange quirk of mass-psychology, he was supposed to be especially expert on townhall clocks which were running slow.) This kind of talk may sometimes have been deliberately encouraged by scattered Fascist sympathizers, but for the most part it came naturally to a population living on edge, under the stress of wartime anxieties. At any rate, it rested on a slender factual basis: there were many more rumors than broadcasts.
But then Lord Haw-Haw himself, as Mr. Cole shows, was a mythical beast, the product of propaganda and counter-propaganda. The name was coined by the radio columnist of the Daily Express, inspired by he sarcastic tones of a commentator who subsequently turned out to be Norman Baillie-Stewart, the “Officer in the Tower” of a pre-war Official Secrets case. Other Daily Express soubriquets for Nazi broadcasters (such as “Winnie the Whopper” and “Uncle Boo-Hoo”) were less felicitous, and understandably never caught on; but Haw-Haw stuck. There was a great deal of speculation about his true identity, until gradually the label was pinned on Joyce, who had meanwhile emerged as easily the most skillful of the English-speaking radio team in Berlin. From the Nazi point of view the nickname had become a valuable asset, a trademark which ensured publicity; they took it over, using it first as the generic pseudonym for all their English commentators, and then allowing Joyce to claim it as his own. In 1941 he revealed who he was in a brief personal statement on the air, and from then on he was announced as “William Joyce, otherwise known as Lord Haw-Haw.” As the relative nonentity William Joyce he might well have got away with a prison term; but as Lord Haw-Haw he was doomed.
Not that he arrived at his bad eminence altogether by accident. In the half-world where he moved he was marked out by both abilities and genuine convictions. He had spent most of his life in an atmosphere of political violence, beginning as a fifteen-year-old when he worked as an informer for the Black and Tans. His family, who had come back from New York to Ireland when he was three, were actively pro-British, and found it healthier to move to England in 1921. Joyce himself went through some strange patriotic convolutions: he used to alarm his friends by making them stand to attention and sing the National Anthem at the end of casual social gatherings, and when he was being flown back to London to stand trial in 1945 he wrote some extraordinary tear-jerking stuff about the white cliffs of Dover in the autograph book of one of the men guarding him. Perhaps his whole career could be read as a study in frustrated patriotism, and no doubt a psychoanalyst would have something to say about the fact that his mother was English. Under other circumstances he might have been an empire-builder, and as it was he had hopes of a military career. He enlisted in the army as soon as his family landed in England, and later on, at London University, he was an enthusiastic officer cadet. But conventional English politics in the 1920s couldn’t provide an outlet for his swashbuckling fantasies, and while still a student he joined the strong-arm squad of the British Fascisti Limited, a lunatic-fringe group who saw a bolshevik under every bush. This was the period during which he mastered the art of brawling and acquired a notable razor-scar across his cheek. The Fascisti didn’t last for long, but Mosley’s British Union of Fascists offered greater scope. Within a year of joining Joyce was full-time Propaganda Director, but by 1937 he had broken with Mosley and formed his own minute National Socialist League. A week before the outbreak of war, he and his wife slipped away to Berlin. He had almost no contacts there, and the Germans were slow to appreciate his value to them; his dealings with Büro Concordia, Goebbel’s English-language radio department, show once again how the legend of the Nazi war-machine’s super-human efficiency won’t stand up to scrutiny. But eventually his effectiveness as a speaker and dedication to the job made him indispensable.
Joyce was dedicated, beyond all doubt. He was that rare thing, an authentic British Nazi, as opposed to the many admirers-from-a-distance and partial supporters whom Hitler had in pre-war Britain. It isn’t surprising that he quarreled with Mosley, whom he regarded as a half-hearted opportunist—as did various other splinter-group Fascists, including Arnold Leese, from whom Colin Jordan and his followers claim direct political descent. (Leese was advocating genocide by gas-chamber as early as 1935; for a much fuller account of this malodorous corner of British history than Mr. Cole gives, readers are recommended to The Fascists in Britain, by Colin Cross .) In the event, there was no future for Fascism (or Communism) in the Britain of the 1930s: the democratic tradition was too strong, and a sufficiently revolutionary situation didn’t exist. Across the Channel, there were Joyces by the thousand; he would have been happy as a Cagoulard or a Camelot du Roi. Only against an English background does he look an unusual figure. True, he was a fairly intelligent and well-read man with fitful academic ambitions. (He even succeeded in having an article on phonetics accepted by the Review of English Studies, which is the nearest thing to a British counterpart of PMLA.) He had a certain shrewd if malicious humour, too. But all said and done he was a drab and vicious nobody, full of the most extreme racist fantasies. Mr. Cole in no way shares his views, but he tries to be detached where detachment is surely impossible. In almost any other context, for instance, there might have been as much pathos as he implies in the initial isolation of the Joyces in Berlin, or the troubles of their marriage; but not here. However, he tells his story well, and the book is extremely gripping without stooping to sensationalism. My own feeling is that it was a mistake to hang Joyce, but that there were about twenty million other victims of the last war with a prior claim on our sympathy. After twenty years of covering up the short-comings of the Allies between 1939 and 1945, we must beware of making too much of them for novelty’s sake—though it’s bound to happen. It’s probably only a matter of time before somebody suggests that Churchill was as much a creation of the mass-media as Haw-Haw.
The advantage of telling a story in detail can be seen by comparing Mr. Cole’s book with Rebecca West’s much briefer account of Joyce in The New Meaning of Treason. In the first Joyce emerges, whatever else he may have been, as a human being; in the second he remains that slightly unreal manikin, the prisoner in the dock. Dame Rebecca is an outstanding trial-reporter, in fact, at her best covering a story like the Hume-Setty murder case, which she dealt with in A Train of Powder. Nothing in the present book seems to me as good. There is something basically wrong about the tone, for a start—a mixture of arrogance and testiness and weary resignation such as Jove might be expected to show as he addressed himself to the Day of Judgment. And there isn’t enough solid information. Admittedly this is a field where facts are hard to come by, and often impossible to disclose. When she hints at the tales which she could unfold if only she were at liberty to do so, Dame Rebecca reminds me of Dr. Watson making cryptic references to such unpublished exploits of Sherlock Holmes as “the history of the Giant Rat of Sumatra, for which the world is not yet ready.” She is forced to lean heavily on mere supposition, too. Was George Blake (who, if his 42-year prison sentence is any guide, ranks as the most important spy to be picked up in recent years) a Communist agent before his internment in Korea? He may have worked with Dutch Communists who may have sabotaged a Resistance operation for reasons of their own in 1942: Dame Rebecca clearly thinks that it was very likely that he did. But the only real evidence is that “he was moving in the magnetic field of the persons responsible.” Again and again she is reduced to making bricks with very little straw—although to be fair it’s inherent in the nature of her subject.
The original Meaning of Treason dealt mainly with Joyce and Amery The new version, which is nearly twice as long, covers the major Cold War espionage and security scandals from Nunn May to the Profumo affair. The types of treason represented by a Joyce, a Fuchs, or a Burgess and Maclean are too various to be discussed collectively with much profit although Dame Rebecca does have one consistent theme in the apparent laxness of British security arrangements There may be dark reasons for this but other areas of contemporary British life suggest that sheer inefficiency is the most likely explanation. We may perhaps console ourselves with the thought that when it comes to fiction nowadays our secret agents are unsurpassed.
Spy Story June 3, 1965