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William Joyce: The Anglo-American Fascist

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By the end of World War II, William Joyce had aroused more hatred in England than anyone else, with the possible exception of the Nazi hierarchs themselves. Popularly known as Lord Haw-Haw, he began as a comic figure and eventually became a catchphrase.

As the military situation in the West deteriorated, the joke turned sour. At the height of his success, Haw-Haw, who encouraged “his countrymen” to go over to the Nazis and not do battle, was a grotesque diversion in the dreadfulness of war: it was estimated that more than a quarter of the British population regularly listened to his broadcasts from Berlin in the English language.

Later there was a drastic drop in listenership, while rumors of espionage multiplied. Haw-Haw was credited with possessing astonishingly accurate information about local conditions in England, including follow-up reports of bomb damage, and may have been deliberately encouraged by Mosley’s scattered fascist sympathizers, among whom our character had militated. But the rumor flew insistently and dramatically over a population under the pressure and anguish of war. Finally, the concept of traitor became a reality for the first time when Lord Haw-Haw was accused of radio treason and subsequently sentenced at the Old Bailey court to hang by a rope around his neck until he was dead. The same fate would later befall John Amery, at the hands of Albert Pierrepoint, London’s hangman.

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Cicely Isabel Fairfield (1892-1983), better known by Rebecca West, the pseudonym under which she wrote her books, was a dazzling journalist and writer, a feminist in the most difficult years, and an influential lady in English letters. She wrote novels, reportage and essays, and published articles on politics in newspapers. We owe her, among other works, Black Lamb, Grey Hawk, the best travel book ever written about the former Yugoslavia and without which it is more difficult to understand the Balkan conflict, and The Meaning of Treason, a most interesting study of the moral implications of traitors from Joyce and John Amery, collaborators and radio propagandists of the Nazi regime, to John Profumo.

West describes in an astonishing way the lives and integration of Joyce and Amery in British fascism and, with them, that world, raising with admirable lucidity the ethical implications of traitors. From World War II she moves on to other characters of a different kind, university students and intellectuals of communist ideology, such as the scientist Allan Nunn, Harry Gold and Klaus Emil Fuchs. The author moves from one totalitarianism to another, from Nazism to Soviet communism. Rebecca West, a liberal, hated the former and the latter equally, supported the Republic during the Spanish Civil War and never tired of denouncing the abuses of dictatorships. The flow of her great essay on treason leads to the history of Soviet espionage during the “cold war”: Guy Burgess, George Blake, Kim Philby and Donald MacLean, up to the famous “Profumo case”, starring that Minister of War whose shady relationship with the young Christine Keeler brought the United Kingdom to its knees.

The case of Lord Haw-Haw is particularly striking. The son of an Irish Unionist businessman, originally from Galway, who emigrated to the United States, he was born in Brooklyn and it was his own nickname that finally cost him his death by hanging. I mean that he was popularly known by a title of nobility granted by the British Crown. That, or as Juan Benet explains in the epilogue, in Boveri’s words, “the fact that his perverse love for England took him so far that he preferred to die as an English traitor rather than be acquitted as an American”. Benet himself makes it clear: “When William Joyce’s lawyer proved that his defendant had never -not even for an instant- been a British subject, the trial was on the verge of being suspended. The charge of high treason was based on a law of 1351 according to which “if a man raise arms against the King Our Lord, in his kingdom, adheres to the King’s enemies in his kingdom, to give them support and aid in his kingdom or elsewhere, he is guilty of treason.” On the day the German-Soviet pact was signed, heralding an inevitable war, William Joyce had renewed a British passport, which had dire consequences for him. Benet also recounts that British public opinion, wounded in its national feelings, took pity on itself by proclaiming that a passport could not turn an American into an Englishman. However, Lord Haw-Haw, faithful to his verbosity, insisted until the last moment in denying his condition of traitor and reaffirming that he had done what was convenient in favor of peace and England.

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Rebecca West firmly presented the reasons against the traitor. Benet pointed out that, after his failure, the traitor strengthens tribal ties and the State, with his punishment, obtains the guarantee that its offer is the best. An exciting book.

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