William Joyce spent World War II in Berlin, where he devoted his considerable talents to broadcasting Nazi propaganda to the British. Speaking with an idiosyncratic accent that made him familiar to the public as Lord Haw-Haw, he knew how to play on national anxiety and defeatism, especially in the early years of the war, when the Wehrmacht was blitzing country after country. His employer, Josef Goebbels, the minister of propaganda, noted in his diary in March 1941 that Joyce was “the best horse in our stable.” Man and master were two of a kind. Both had a way with words and put it to the service of fanaticism. Joyce was the Goebbels of the English language, and as such became an object of hate unrivaled in British history. After the war, he was tried for treason, found guilty, and hanged.
Posterity has acquired its image of Joyce from Rebecca West’s book The Meaning of Treason, a brilliant piece of reporting. She had attended his trial and saw him as an oddity, a misfit as pitiful as he was sinister. “He was a tiny little creature,” she wrote, “and, though not very ugly, was exhaustively so.” His extremism, it is suggested, was a form of compensation for inadequacies. Several subsequent biographies have taken much the same line.
Colin Holmes is an emeritus professor of history at the University of Sheffield and a foremost authority on British Fascism. Searching for Lord Haw-Haw rests on long and careful research. The chapter on the errors and omissions of other writers, including Rebecca West, is a wonderful example of how to be scholarly and polite. In Holmes’s view, a literary approach to Joyce ends up leaving much too soft a portrait of him. Holmes has made the case once and for all that Joyce is one of the most odious personalities in the history of fascism and anti-Semitism.
Joyce’s background is full of ambiguity. His father was Catholic, his mother Protestant. Socially and financially insecure, they moved from Ireland to New York. Born in Brooklyn in 1906, Joyce could claim American citizenship. The family then returned home to settle in Galway. His mother appears to have needed to spoil him and set him apart. As Irish nationalism came to a head in what were known as “the Troubles,” Joyce attached himself to a British regiment and to the Black and Tans, a British paramilitary unit of thugs. In the atmosphere of tension at home and in the country at large, Joyce acquired “an overbearing sense of self-importance,” always believing that “he knew best about everything.”
Already a disillusioned British patriot when he quit Ireland, Joyce went to Birkbeck College in London to study literature. Dryden was his lifelong favorite poet and he obtained first-class honors. The Bolsheviks and the Red Peril, Indian nationalism, and the failure of Conservative politicians to put in place Conservative policies were the issues that caught Joyce’s attention and turned him into a “politico” (Holmes’s dismissive word). One of his ambitions was to join the Foreign Office, and another, wild to the point of absurdity, was to become viceroy of India.
British fascists in the 1920s were unimpressive nonentities and cranks busy dividing into splinter groups. Joyce shone in such circles as an orator and a street fighter: “His politics had always thrived on aggression.” A deep, disfiguring scar ran from the right corner of his mouth across his cheek to his ear. He claimed that a Communist had cut him up, but it turns out that this was one of his myths: A woman he had maltreated was the attacker.
The British Union of Fascists, Sir Oswald Mosley’s party, almost succeeded in becoming a mass movement in the 1930s. Mosley’s drive for power had propelled him into and out of the main political parties. He was on easy terms with Hitler, accepted subsidies from Goebbels’s ministry, and modelled the BUF on the Nazi Party. Recognizing a natural fascist when he saw one, he recruited Joyce to be his deputy: the “Leader” and the brawler side by side, the one at home in chancelleries and salons, the other at home in pubs and on platforms.
Together, they entrenched and spread anti-Semitism. Every German Nazi and British Fascist believed that the Jews were engaged in a conspiracy to rule the world. Moreover, they were all supposed to be in it together, the Jewish Bolshevik in Moscow and the Jewish capitalist in New York. The fact that there was no evidence for this only showed how cunningly the conspirators concealed what they were up to. Joyce’s gutter hatred of Jews was all myth and fantasy; he could interpret reality solely in the light of prejudice. He had no experience of Jews or Jewish life. At Birkbeck, he had walked out of the dining hall whenever a Jew came in. Sigmund Freud arrived in London as a refugee from Nazi-occupied Vienna, only to be accused by Joyce of undermining society through pornography. Jews ought to be hanged from lampposts, he ranted, or machine-gunned in the street. Holmes has hit on the phrase “exterminatory anti-Semitism” to describe this mindset. After a dispute about what degree of violence should be used against Jews, Joyce split from Mosley and with a few friends launched the National Socialist League, their own even more extreme party.
Reliable witnesses, such as the American journalists William Shirer and H. W. Flannery, testify to the rackety life Joyce and his wife, Margaret, lived in wartime Berlin. Sometimes he thrashed her. They were unfaithful, they were near-alcoholics, they divorced and soon remarried each other. Unlike Goebbels, his employer at the radio station, Joyce never met Hitler but hero-worshiped him, coming to the conclusion that the German people had let down their Führer. As the defeat of Nazi Germany approached, the favorite theme of Joyce’s broadcasts — that the fulfillment of British patriotism involved emulating Nazi Germany — became absurd. It seems poetic justice that the British officer who finally arrested Joyce, and in the process wounded him, was Jewish.
At his trial, the only words Joyce spoke were “Not guilty.” He had good reason to think he might be acquitted. At the time, and ever since, the case has been a lawyer’s delight. Nationality, citizenship, and his British passport and the way he had obtained it were so many open questions. Furthermore, if he was not British, he could not be a traitor to Britain. If he was British, did broadcasting from Berlin qualify as treason, and were the broadcasts actually treasonable? In the course of infiltrating fascist movements, MI5, the secret service, had intercepted a coded letter sent from London in April 1940 via a foreign legation to Joyce in Berlin. Its information was hardly secret; Mosley and his wife, for instance, were described as “very friendly” to the Nazi regime. The letter influenced judge and jury against Joyce. Holmes confidently identifies its hitherto unknown author as one John Macnab, Joyce’s closest friend and personal financier. In the manner of Joyce himself, Macnab went abroad for refuge in Franco’s Spain, where, according to Holmes, he wrote an ode to Hermann Goering.
Other British Nazis who were as guilty of treason as Joyce received lenient sentences, as though the authorities had no idea what to do except make an example of the crudest and turn the page as fast as possible. Joyce took a gamble that Germany would win the war, and he lost. Many all over Europe had made the same misjudgment. But he paid with his life for the persona he had created of Lord Haw-Haw. Egotism, self-importance, drove him to it. The explanation offered in this book is that he was a narcissist, that is to say one so concerned with himself that he remained indifferent to everyone else. “For years he had believed that he was being prepared for some great task” is one judgment that seems right, and another wraps up the lifelong wishful thinking that “his ultimate destiny was to act as a key agent in the triumph of fascism.”
Professor Holmes is very careful to keep moralizing in check, but the prose of some summary final chapters gives away that he knows Joyce to be someone whose evil still has the power to shock. The Nuremberg trials had opened when Joyce was in the condemned cell in Wandsworth prison. He could not help knowing about Auschwitz and the reality of mass murder. He never mentioned it. A farewell message was a last flourish of exterminatory anti-Semitism: “I defy the Jews who caused this last war: and I defy the power of Darkness which they represent.” He went farther in one of the last letters that he wrote to his wife, saying that he had been an idealist and therefore would die without ever having “uttered a single word of apology, much less recantation.” He uses the German word “Hakenkreuz” to tell her that the swastika would one day conquer.
This is a perfect cautionary tale for present times.