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 …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Spy Story June 3, 1965