Germany Calling

Colin Holmes’s biography of William Joyce challenges the sanitised image of the man who came to be known as “Lord Haw-Haw”

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William Joyce’s arrest in Germany, 1945: He was hanged for treason in 1946

One of the major problems when researching the history of the British Right in the run-up to and during the Second World War is the existence of a whole series of myths, usually created by the main players after the event. These myths, though in no way backed up by convincing documentation, have tended to be repeated without question by succeeding writers over many years. A prime example is that of Sir Oswald Mosley, who by the tweaking and purposeful misinterpretation of his earlier statements succeeded in convincing generations of writers that he had taken up an entirely patriotic stand once war had broken out.

Prominent among such mythmakers were the various British “renegades” who broadcast for Nazi Germany. It was only when the tapestries of lies that they had woven were placed by the authorities, at their trials, alongside actual contemporary documents, that these tactics were revealed for what they were.

William Joyce, the most famous of all the broadcasters, eschewed such tactics. He knew what he stood for, and he made no excuses. At his trial, he remained silent. Nevertheless, a major myth was later created around him, not by himself, but by a succession of authors writing right up to the present day, under the influence of legends created by Joyce’s family and friends. And perhaps because such interpretations (which had been created after his death) could obviously not be challenged at his trial, they have continued to flourish.

It is the great virtue of Colin Holmes’s book that it challenges these suppositions, this “sanitised image”, which had made of Joyce a much less rebarbative figure than he was. These writers had, among other things, all given the impression (so similar to those created by the other renegades about themselves) that Joyce and his wife had not planned their journey to Germany just before the war (but had reacted to a tip-off by MI5 that Joyce was to be arrested), and that, once war had broken out, they had tried in vain to get back to England. This is shown to be the nonsense that it is, as are all the other examples used to palliate his actions. Instead, the image emerges of a coherent plan, with Joyce’s trusted lieutenant, Angus Macnab, left behind to prepare for the eventual triumph of Germany and of Joyce’s form of “National Socialism”.

This is, however, merely one of the aspects by which this admirable book enlightens and enthrals us. Holmes has delved thoroughly into all available resources, in the British and American National Archives, in the German Bundesarchiv, in the Yale University Archive, in the extensive archive at Sheffield University devoted to the study of British Fascism, and in many other places. In particular, private collections have been of importance; and his access to the abundant letters written by Joyce from jail, to his wife and others, has brought much more insight into what made the man tick (though rather more direct quotation from these last sources might have been useful).

All this research has contributed to providing a rounded picture of Joyce’s career. In particular, certain previously undervalued episodes (such as his involvement in the British Fascisti in the 1920s) are fully treated, with the National Socialist League he formed in 1937-9 being now seen, not as the “insignificant little coterie” described by other biographers, but as a significant pointer to Joyce’s ideas, values and aspirations. Though the centrepoint of the book is the period spent in Berlin working for the Nazi government, the book is also full of fascinating and important material in relation to Joyce’s trial, and the forces at work behind the scenes.

What we are left to ask is this: what was it, in Joyce’s nature, that made him hold the views, and undertake the actions, that he did? What made him, above all, such a vicious anti-Semite? These are the questions we have to ask in relation to so many of the British fascists of this period, and which it is vital to try to answer, if such aberrations are to be avoided in future.

It sometimes seems a thankless task. But Holmes, I feel, gets closer to an understanding of Joyce than all previous commentators. He makes no bones about the man’s viciousness, his dogmatism, his single-mindedness. At the same time he gives us glimpses of another Joyce, a man still devoted to literature and things of the mind, a man whom the surgeon dealing with him after his arrest could describe as “a most engaging personality entirely free of inhibitions and ready to talk with anyone on anything”, and whose “courage and blazing sincerity” were admired by the Scotland Yard officer who brought him back to Britain. It is such contradictions, so common in descriptions of people like Joyce, Goebbels or Himmler, that nevertheless still leave us groping for a true understanding of what made these people what they were.

One thing stands out in this book: it is vastly entertaining. Holmes has a rare and robust turn of phrase, whether he is referring to Rebecca West’s “literary canonisation”, and the fact that her “indulgence in character sketches suggests she was composing a morality tract”, or when he is excoriating the “Mosley fan club”. His final judgment on Joyce is particularly telling:

In many respects it was clearly a disappointing and sad life. It is also the case that in private — when dropping his bullying and pedantry — he could be an engaging companion. But when operating as a politico another persona quickly came on display. In pursuit of his goals he was always ruthless, frequently vicious, often violent. He believed in killing Jews. He was dangerous.