University of Southampton
This essay examines a major shift in Rebecca West’s status as a public intellectual in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, focusing upon her reports on a series of treason trials in London, notably that of the German propagandist William Joyce, known as “Lord Haw-Haw.” Despite the widespread fear that Joyce’s broadcasts evoked, including the belief that his programs were fed by a large network of spies and fifth columnists, his conviction and subsequent execution was controversial, largely because his defense counsel was able to prove that he was an American citizen and not a subject of the British Crown. West’s bestselling book The Meaning of Treason (1947) has been cited as the definitive argument that Joyce was morally guilty, even though his punishment effectively rested upon a legal technicality. To assess the validity of this claim, the essay considers West’s dissection of Joyce’s character, his past, and his politics, and especially her uncanny suggestion that “a drop or two of treason in their veins” helps to inoculate patriotic subjects against the temptation of disloyalty.
Keywords: treason / Rebecca West / Lord Haw-Haw / Irishness / Fascism / New Journalism / mass society
Alice had never been in a court of justice before, but she had read about them in books.
—Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
The 1940s marked a turning point in Rebecca West’s professional life. In this, her experience might be thought to be far from unique, a change in fortune that was merely a sign of the times. The bloody convulsions that the Second World War brought into the everyday lives of millions had a profound impact upon the work of many writers, and on women as much as men. But well before the outbreak of hostilities, West’s literary antennae were already closely attuned to the destructive social and psychic undercurrents that were to energize the conflict. Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941), a politico-historical travelogue based on a series of visits to the Balkans and Yugoslavia, not only laid bare the ethnic, religious and national conflicts that had plagued the region for over a hundred years, but directly foreshadowed the coming European debacle, which had arrived with a vengeance by the time the book was in press. Its publication also heralded a renaissance in West’s reputation as a journalist and commentator on current affairs and, by the early 1950s, she had decisively taken on the mantle of what would today be called a public intellectual, one whose interventions give shape to the events that define an era, authoritatively placing the issues they raise within the wider political field. When the moment came for the victors to settle accounts with the vanquished, West was asked to attend the treason trials at the Old Bailey (1945) and the International Military Tribunal at Nuremburg (1946). It is with her responses to the former and her published reports about them that this essay will be concerned, particularly with the light they cast on the relationship between writing and the “political ethics” that underpinned the law and ensured fair treatment for both citizens and non-citizens (Lauterpacht 335).
The Meaning of Treason was without doubt West’s most commercially successful work of non-fiction. On its first American publication in December 1947, it sold a thousand copies per day; in the same month, West’s face was featured on the cover of Time magazine, where she was lauded as “indisputably the world’s No. 1 woman writer” (Gibb 186; Glendinning 187). Although the book did not appear in Britain until nearly two years later, by then the rapturous acclaim received in the United States had been echoed in a more traditional accolade: on 9 June 1949 King George VI named her a Commander of the British Empire (“King’s Birthday Honours List”). However, its popularity underestimates the general availability of her writings and the circulation of her ideas. Her reports of the British treason trials were commissioned by the New Yorker magazine and published as articles in 1945 and 1946 on both sides of the Atlantic and subsequently parts of her book were serialized in the London Evening Standard in 1949. Within the upmarket magazine context, West’s pieces drew on two well-established styles of reporting. In the mid-1940s the New Yorker regularly featured dispatches from afar, predominantly from Europe, which consolingly pointed up the daily hardships that the war had brought about: the terrible Parisian food and fuel shortages under exceptionally harsh winter conditions or the omnipresence of rationing in Britain where it was said that even schooling had become a matter of queuing. West’s powerful descriptions of the damage inflicted on the Central Criminal Court buildings, with the shattered glass dome of Court No. 1 temporarily replaced by wooden boards, belong to this genre.
But West’s dissection of the courtroom proceedings also reflected the influence of the “New Journalism” which, from the late nineteenth to the twentieth century, had gradually spread across a whole range of popular and “middlebrow” publications (Pykett). This mode of writing was distinguished by the use of novelistic techniques when reporting “hard” factual news stories, and foregrounding their “human interest” and local color by mobilizing all the resources of character and plot to engage the reader’s attention. As V.S. Pritchett noted in his review of The Meaning of Treason, West’s brilliance as an observer lay in her pursuit of “the accidental gesture, the unguarded remark, until it yields its comment on human corruption,” a view that has been echoed by several critics (Pritchett 332). More recently, for example, Carl Rollyson has argued that West combined the skills of novelist, historian and biographer, seeking to know “not only what William Joyce thought, but how he moved,” to grasp what Lyndsey Stonebridge later described as “the unconscious structures of feeling” that can be felt “both inside and outside” a courtroom (Rollyson 10; Stonebridge 26). West’s willingness to tack between literary practices and conventions, much in evidence in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, was integral to her “genre-straddling career” and was what made her work so singular, not least in what she called her “reportage” (Collier 186; Cowan). Her versatility as a writer did much to strengthen her hand as a public intellectual, encouraging a vivid sense of why such stories mattered and how readers might reach a judgment as to how events could have been handled differently. In legal cases this kind of reporting offered a verdict upon a verdict, teasing out the broader implications of a courtroom decision rather than simply offering a summary critique, promoting an awareness of loose ends and unexamined questions in place of an impatient dismissal, and never giving short shrift to questions of subjectivity and motivation.
The string of treason trials that West covered in 1945 were dominated by one major case, that of William Joyce, better known as “Lord Haw-Haw,” and this disturbing figure lies at the heart of The Meaning of Treason. Scarcely remembered today, despite being the subject of at least five biographies between 1964 and 2016, Joyce was literally a household name throughout the war and during the immediate post-war period. An ex-member of Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, Joyce left England for Germany in August 1939 and soon surfaced as a radio broadcaster of enemy propaganda in Berlin. Eight years later, after the Allies had taken Germany, he was brought to London to stand trial and became the last man to be hung for treason in Britain. The trial was highly controversial and continued to rankle long after Joyce’s death. Indeed, an attempt by one of his daughters to salvage Joyce’s reputation resulted in the disinterment of his remains from the grounds of Wandsworth Prison and their reburial in Galway in August 1976. Another sign of these beyond-the grave perturbations can be found in the memoirs of the British Attorney-General who had led the prosecution of Joyce in 1945, Sir Hartley Shawcross. As though still haunted by what he had seen and heard, Shawcross confessed that he continued to feel the verdict rested purely on a technicality, convincing enough for those with the requisite professional training in the law, but failing to carry sufficient weight among “non-legal minds." For, while there was never any reasonable doubt that it was Joyce whose voice had been heard on German radio by British listeners right up until the end of the war, the accused man had pleaded “not guilty.” More to the point, it was the identification of this voice by a quick-witted British soldier in Germany that had led to its owner’s prompt arrest and imprisonment. But the timbre of his voice had little bearing on the main thrust of Joyce’s defense which turned upon a single unalterable datum: that he had been born in New York, shortly after his father had become a naturalized American citizen, and so, no matter how morally and politically repugnant his words and deeds might be, they necessarily fell outside the jurisdiction of the British courts. This inconvenient discrepancy was not easily forgotten. In the eyes of many members of “the great British public,” Shawcross noted, an American might be an alien, and, more specifically, an enemy alien, but he could not be “guilty of treason against the British Crown” (Shawcross 83).
Two audiences and a contested verdict: was it possible that this split could be resolved even after Joyce’s execution? And, if so, how could this apparently unfinished business finally be laid to rest? Shawcross suggested that in practice the groundwork for clearing up the matter was already in place, but had been overlooked. Commending West’s “masterful discussion” of the trial, he claimed that, in The Meaning of Treason, this “brilliant and philosophical writer” had plainly demonstrated Joyce’s “moral guilt” (Shawcross 83, 135, emphasis added). Shawcross was enormously impressed by West’s work and he had helped sponsor her coverage of the Nuremberg war tribunal, another indication of her rapidly rising stock at this time (Feigel 188). But as to what precisely he believed West had actually achieved in her book—West had died some twelve years before his own memoirs had appeared in print—Shawcross was oddly silent. The most likely implication of his brief remarks is that West had been able to shift the angle of vision on Joyce’s prosecution in a way that remained closed to legal counsel, revealing the weaknesses of character that lay behind his traitorous actions and offering a verdict that made sense in human terms. What Shawcross neglected to mention, however, was that West’s writings about treason in general and on Joyce in particular had been a long drawn-out work in progress, the subject of constant revision over a period of nearly twenty years, leading to an expanded 1965 edition that was marketed as “a contemporary classic” (according to the rear cover). So, as an initial step in clarifying how West came to an understanding of Joyce’s political life, it will be necessary to return to West’s own first impressions and to see why she was convinced that the courts were right all along. In other words, to ask: what did she really think was at stake in Joyce’s trial in 1945?
West opened her first New Yorker column in media res: “Everybody in London wanted to see William Joyce when he was brought to trial as a radio traitor, for he was something new in the history of the world” (West, “The Crown" 30). In couching Joyce’s uniqueness in these hyperbolically global terms, West was making a remarkably strong statement about his social and political significance, and it is worth pausing to consider how such a judgement could have been justified. Certainly she was correct in highlighting the term “radio traitor” as a phrase that had only recently come into use. It seems to have originated around 1940 in glossy American popular magazines such as Life or Harper’s and would therefore have been increasingly familiar to readers of the New Yorker. To help them grasp Joyce’s importance, West likened his voice to one that many Americans had already heard, that of the Michigan-based demagogue, Father Charles Coughlin, whose radio broadcasts were taken off the air in the late 1930s because of his leanings towards the fascist politics of Hitler and Mussolini. In the United States, as elsewhere in the world, the technological possibilities of broadcast radio brought people together, heightening their collective identifications. But its mystique also stemmed from an uncanny power to disrupt or undermine the certainties of ordinary domestic life, turning familiarity into terror and bringing melodramatic phantasms into the home. In October 1938, America’s largest radio network aired an invasion drama adapted by the actor Orson Welles from H.G. Wells’s science-fiction novel The War of the Worlds which did exactly that, creating mass panic that was partly fed by growing fears of an inexorable slide into military conflict in Europe (Cantril 199–204). Around a million listeners were lulled by carefully simulated emergency news bulletins into believing that a real attack was taking place and some fled for their lives.
Joyce was far from being a carbon copy of Father Coughlin, however. Under German tutelage Joyce had learned to weaponize radio, turning it into a direct instrument of war to a degree that is now difficult to imagine in our own visually sophisticated computerized age, in which propaganda is typically disseminated by other means, despite the occasional scariness of “talk radio.” West argued that his voice had become an insidiously intimate presence in the private spaces of the household, a “familiar unknown” as instantly recognizable as that of “a husband or a brother or a close friend,” yet one whose physical appearance was left to the listener’s imagination (Meaning 3). According to this characterization, Joyce emerges as the renegade brother, the shameful sibling and, as will become clear presently, West drew on this familial trope in her reports of the trial, bringing it to a transatlantic Anglophone public sphere. Closer to home, Joyce personified the idea of the enemy’s omniscience for British audiences, the possibility of a defeat brought about through the fantasy of a vast system of intelligence, a spider’s web of Nazi sympathizers and fifth columnists which became an essential part of Joyce’s mystique and integral to his litany of imminent victories. In the early years of the war, according to BBC listener research, over a quarter of the UK population were following Joyce’s broadcasts and radio schedules were changed to win audiences away from him (Morley 4-5). If Joyce’s broadcasts were designed to lower morale, they did so by pointing towards the fragility of Britain’s psychological defenses, the notion that the country’s vaunted bulldog spirit and stubborn resolve might be weakened or even destroyed in a highly mediated battle for hearts and minds, well before enemy forces had even arrived. Of course, such fears were not the whole story. The insistent broadcasting signature “Jairmany calling; Jairmany calling” also invited parody and burlesque in the theatre and the music hall and especially in BBC comedy shows, but the abundance of ridicule never completely displaced the malign tones punctually heard on shortwave radio.
Joyce’s hold upon the national imaginary peaked at two decisive points in the war. During the Blitz and the fight for air supremacy over Britain (1940-41) Joyce’s radio bulletins and the rumors they generated deeply affected popular morale and were a cause for serious concern in government circles. As in Orson Welles’s 1938 drama, German propagandists always sought to include local detail to bolster their claims in the hope that their stories would be passed on by word of mouth and repeated. Conversely, where detail was lacking or was of a questionable nature, credibility was strained. For example, when Albert Hunt, a Special Branch Officer who had monitored pre-war fascist meetings, testified at Joyce’s trial that in either September or October 1939 he had heard a German radio broadcast by a man whose voice he recognized as belonging to the man in the dock, this piece of evidence for the prosecution was sharply criticized by the defense. The court was told that this spurious news announcement had boasted of the destruction of Dover and Folkestone, an assertion Hunt knew to be false because he was stationed in Folkestone at the time. Gerald Slade, Joyce’s counsel, was quick to point out that not only was this “fantastic” report uncharacteristically vague—Hunt could remember no specific items of content from the broadcast nor which frequency he had tuned into—but it would also have been extremely unconvincing in its own right, since “no bomb of any description was dropped on this country until about September 1940” (Hall 70). Nevertheless, the question of the extent of Joyce’s wartime influence was unavoidably complex as the numbers of listeners fluctuated in response to the ups and downs of the conflict and its effect upon different parts of the country. Notwithstanding Hunt’s own certainty when giving evidence, Lord Haw-Haw’s true identity remained open to speculation among the general population until at least 1940. And, by summer 1941, when the Blitz had come to an end, the impact of his broadcasts slipped into a long process of decline from which they never fully recovered.
When Joyce’s audience did start to revive it was on a more limited scale and largely centered on the southeast of England, between summer and autumn 1944. These were the months when new German V-1 missiles or “buzz-bombs,” later supplanted by V-2 rockets, began to fall on London and the Home Counties, sparking a fresh wave of rumors about Lord Haw-Haw’s powers of prediction about the success of the Nazi war effort. Doubtful at first, Hitler had finally given the green light for the Vergeltungswaffen (or “vengeance weapons”) in reprisal for the Allied bombing of German cities (Tooze 618-24). On the principle that attack is the best form of defense, these devices represented a dramatic shift in the nature of aerial bombardment: in primitive form, they were the precursors of the drones and intercontinental ballistic missiles that comprise the most deadly wing of the twenty-first century military arsenal. For a brief moment it appeared as though Joyce’s exuberant declaration that Germany’s militarized “scientific economy” based on the “application of energy” rather than “on slogging” and “squandering” could still be a winning formula for the Third Reich (qtd. in Doherty 174). The British government’s clumsy efforts to outwit the Germans by controlling public knowledge of their missiles’ accuracy did little to help. For example, when Chiswick was hit by one of the more advanced V-2 rockets in September 1944, there was no official confirmation of what had happened until early November. The field was left clear for Joyce’s propaganda, and demoralizing gossip quickly filled the information gap created by the security forces. In her report on the crowd that gathered outside Wandsworth Prison on the morning of Joyce’s execution, Rebecca West showed how raw were the memories of such attacks. In a bitter exchange with an elderly man whose grandchildren had been killed by a V-1, West heard how, on returning from the mortuary later that evening, he had switched on his radio only to find himself assailed by the sound of Lord Haw-Haw’s voice: “There he was, mocking me” (Meaning 60).
William Joyce was an unusual figure in the history of enemy broadcast propaganda. As a rule, radio propagandists can be divided into two types. On the one hand, there are those that have a generic name and, usually, cultural distance is an important factor in producing these most mobile of stereotypes. In the Pacific theatre of war, for instance, the name “Tokyo Rose” was given to more than a dozen female Japanese broadcasters by members of the American armed forces. By contrast, when the Nazis persuaded the novelist P.G. Wodehouse to broadcast on their behalf in June 1941, their captive’s fame was obviously at a premium. But “Lord Haw-Haw” fitted neither of these models exactly. In the first place, Joyce’s alias ultimately derived from a column in the Daily Express (8 September 1939) in which a journalist humorously described a German propaganda broadcast by someone who spoke English in a “haw-haw, damit-get-out-of-my-way”, Bertie Wooster-ish manner, with an air of “gentlemanly indignation” (qtd. in Doherty 9-31). However, Joyce did not commence working for the Reichsrundfunkgesellschaft (RRG) until later that same month and the question as to who the speaker in the news story actually was has continued to be disputed. But the phrase stuck and before the end of September the idea of an elusive upper-class English broadcaster became a stock device through which British journalists and entertainers could poke fun at a hostile radio network with unidentified enemy newsreaders.
Joyce could hardly be described as a true-blue upper-class Englishman, yet his masterstroke was to seize hold of the “Lord Haw-Haw” label as his own brand or trademark, an exercise in mimicry that enabled him fully to occupy and then re-create the persona, turning the nickname against British wags so that their joke transmuted into nightmare. Between autumn 1939 and summer 1940, a number of British listeners eagerly informed the authorities that they had specifically picked out Joyce’s voice from among Germany’s other anonymous Anglophone propagandists. Variations on this story regularly cropped up in the British press, including an article by his first wife in the Sunday Pictorial in mid-December 1939. Accounts differ as to precisely when the RRG first officially linked Joyce’s name with that of “Lord Haw-Haw.” According to British intelligence files on Joyce this connection was first made by the German Overseas Service on 3 August 1940, but some historians cite 2 April 1941 as the moment when Joyce identified himself as “Lord Haw-Haw” at the end of a broadcast in which he lambasted the Evening Standard for claiming he had spied for the Nazis before the outbreak of war (Martland 42; Holmes 278). The earlier of the two dates would have been some six weeks prior to the onset of the Blitz (and near the end of the so-called “nuisance raids”), while the later broadcast occurred during its penultimate month. What is known is that Joyce and his second wife Margaret took German citizenship on 26 September 1940—dining out at the grand Kaiserhof Hotel where Hitler had once lived and Goering had celebrated his marriage—when the heavy bombing of British cities had just begun (Holmes 190).
Ascertaining the exact point in time at which Joyce was first employed by the German state and the day on which his request for naturalization was granted were examples of the dry forensic details that Sir Hartley Shawcross believed would produce an open-and-shut case against him. Once Joyce had become a German citizen, for example, none of his work for the Nazis could be used as the basis for a charge of high treason as this was laid down according to the letter of the law. Who and what Joyce was before 26 September 1940 and how he had acted were therefore absolutely critical in determining his guilt. West’s analysis was, of necessity, based on different premises. But could they produce the kind of indictment that Shawcross later felt to be so essential? Was her writing able to make the larger moral argument that the law was forced to set aside in its single-minded practical search for the most propitious legal precedents?
From the outset, West’s interpretation or, better put, her reconstruction of the trial gave its chief protagonist a pedigree that was firmly dismissed by the court during its three days of deliberations. In both her magazine and book-length accounts from the 1940s West associated the trial with a famous case of treason from the First World War that had also ended in an execution: the trial of Sir Roger Casement in April 1916. This was a point she reiterated: in the New Yorker “this case … was an Irish set-up,” a phrase she had also used in a letter to her sister on 25 September 1945, but which she changed to “an Irish drama” in the first edition of her book (qtd. in Scott 31; "Crown" 31; Meaning 7). And then, once again, in both tellings the claim recurs as a kind of summing up: “The story developed during the first day and the morning of the second day and, yes, it was an Irish story” ("Crown" 32; cf. Meaning 8). It was Irish because, as revealed in the unsparing glare of the court’s electric lighting, Joyce resembled nothing so much as an “East European peasant, newly driven off the land by poverty into a factory town and wearing his first suit of Western clothes,” an impression registered without any apparent Ostjüdische insinuations and one that quickly modulated, after a long hard look, into “a not very fortunate example of the small, nippy, jig-dancing Irish peasant,” a man with “the real Donnybrook air.” This Irish aura was also conveyed by Joyce’s brother Quentin and by the coterie of grotesques who made up the accused’s proto-Fascist “followers” at the trial, with their putatively “strong traces of Irish origin” (Meaning 5-7).
But if the link between Irishness and treason was what animated and transfixed West’s perception of these events, it was a connection that played only a limited part in Joyce’s trial. In fact, the few references to Sir Roger Casement were solely concerned with clarifying whether it was legally possible for someone domiciled outside the British Isles to commit an act of treason. While Casement made his Irishness the core issue in his statement to the court after a guilty verdict had been returned, as far as Rex v. Casement was concerned he was unquestionably a British subject, a man who had served with distinction in the British Colonial Service and Foreign Office and had received a knighthood in 1911, an honor that was only rescinded on 30 June 1916, the day after the court had sentenced him to death. Early in the trial Casement’s defense counsel had unsuccessfully attempted to quash the charge of high treason by arguing that one of the acts of which he had been accused—that, while in Germany, he had sought to form an Irish Brigade to fight for independence—could not be upheld because it did not take place “within the realm” or “within any territory in which His Majesty claims dominion of any kind” (Knott 4). But the Lord Chief Justice, Viscount Reading, ruled that this “doctrine of venue,” as it is called in law, was not in itself sufficient to invalidate the charges against Casement. For the court was reminded that the offense of high treason was rooted in a relationship: that of a subject to the Crown. Thus high treason occurs when someone violates his or her “duties of allegiance to the Sovereign,” irrespective of where and when the act of disloyalty took place (Knott 183). Or, as the point was put in the Court of Appeal: a subject “is the King’s liege wherever he may be” and may bring “aid and comfort to the King’s enemies” while overseas, no less than at home (Knott 282). It was this novel rendition of what the legal notion of “natural allegiance” entailed that was to form the main plank of the prosecution case in Rex v. Joyce.
In other respects Rex v. Joyce was almost the reverse of Rex v. Casement. The rhetoric of Irish nationalism enabled Casement to invoke a patriotic community of fellow countrymen that was unavailable to Joyce. In his final address to the court, Casement claimed that true loyalty to one’s country must be freely, not to say lovingly, given, and would be meaningless if it were in any way constrained. Thus, as an Irishman, he could argue that he deserved to be tried before his peers in Ireland, since “they alone, are competent to decide my guilt or my innocence” (Knott 199). No such audience was at William Joyce’s disposal and, unsurprisingly, he never made a personal declaration to the court, other than to enter his plea of “not guilty.” But, as West told her sister, though Joyce was small in stature, “a poor little runt” who was “hideously disfigured with a scar from mouth to ear,” on that one occasion when he did speak “you looked round to see who had really said it” (qtd. in Scott 206). In contrast to Casement, Joyce never volunteered a political defense of his actions while at the Old Bailey. Instead, to reiterate an earlier point, the argument of his counsel was that the charge of treason was fundamentally misplaced and that he should not have been brought before a British court.
Irish, American, German or British? Joyce had accumulated a bewildering array of possible statuses. And if, as Lyndsey Stonebridge has argued, West believed that the modern treason trial “made the laws and customs of the nation newly sacred for a secular world,” then the incoherence of Joyce’s position as a “subject” or “citizen,” terms that were used rather loosely in court, posed a formidable judicial problem (Stonebridge 41). So, before further considering Rebecca West’s analysis of the relationship between national identity and “moral guilt”, it is important to pause and clarify who or what it was that the trial determined Joyce to be. In the very full two-page statement that he gave at the General Hospital in Lüneberg following his capture in May 1945, Joyce put on record the little-known fact that he had been born in Brooklyn, USA on 24 April 1906 when his Irish-born father Michael was a naturalized American citizen. Unfortunately, William Joyce possessed no documentation to support either of these assertions and did not press the point. Instead he briskly moved on and declared that his work for the Nazis had been motivated purely by “political conviction,” his patriotic belief that the war would be a disaster for Britain and was likely to lead to the loss of its Empire (qtd. in Martland 199-200).
Following his pre-trial appearance at Bow Street Magistrate’s Court, MI5 liaised with the FBI to see whether copies of Joyce’s American birth certificate and his father’s naturalization papers could be found. For Joyce’s lawyers had already started to stress the legal importance of their client’s place of birth, reminding the court that before December 1941 the USA was not at war with Germany, whereas the prosecution drew attention to those occasions when he had flatly declared himself to be British. One such incident was when Joyce had applied for a British passport, a point first aired during the second hearing on 25 June 1945. Three days later the magistrate ruled that Joyce did have a case to answer and committed him for trial at the Old Bailey. But deciding the truth of Joyce’s contradictory claims continued to provoke anxiety and during his pre-trial detention MI5 monitored his mail, visitors and the conversations that could be overheard in his prison cell, looking for clues as to how Joyce’s defense was developing. For example, after a discussion with his brother Quentin on 2 July 1945, an official expressed concern that “the plan” might be for Joyce to assert “Irish nationality” and urged that this possibility be kept firmly “in mind” (Martland 86). By mid-August the FBI had acquired definitive proof of Joyce’s US citizenship, but by that time defense counsel had successfully managed to postpone the trial in order to look more carefully into the question of his nationality. The case finally opened at the Old Bailey on 17 September 1945.
These backstage maneuvers were completely hidden from Rebecca West, not to mention her British and American readers. The story of how the security forces kept Joyce and his family and friends under surveillance, intercepting his mail and eavesdropping on his visits, did not enter the public domain until 2000 when the relevant secret papers were officially declassified and placed in the National Archives. The headline “Joyce Pleads Not Guilty to Treason Charge” on the grounds that he was “a Subject of the US” came as a complete surprise and created a sensation from day one, turning the trial into a genuine cliffhanger (“Joyce Pleads”). By the second day the presiding judge, Mr Justice Tucker, had gone so far in recognizing the strengths of the defense’s case that he effectively ruled out two of the counts with which Joyce was charged, believing the documentary evidence of his American citizenship to be “overwhelming” (Hall 133). So, being born in the USA to naturalized American parents invalidated the charge that, from 18 September 1939 (the date when his employment as a news announcer began, according to his “German State Workbook”) until 29 May 1945 (when he was captured), Joyce “did traitorously adhere to and aid and comfort” the King’s enemies by broadcasting propaganda (Hall 43). Similarly, Joyce could not be guilty of treason through “purporting to become naturalized as a subject of the Realm of Germany,” since his American citizenship meant he owed no allegiance to the King (Hall 44). And this remained the case despite the other claims Joyce had made or that had been made on his behalf, such as the declaration that he was “of pure British descent” or the letter from his father stating that “We are all British and not American citizens,” both written in support of an application to join the Officer Training Corps in 1922 (Hall 60-62).
But it was the third and final count that sealed Joyce’s fate. On the last day of the trial, at very short notice, Sir Hartley Shawcross accepted Tucker’s ruling that the first two charges had failed, but then requested an apparently minor point of clarification that underscored the contrast between Joyce’s actual citizenship and his legal status given in the wording of the indictment. Joyce was now not merely “a person owing allegiance” to the King, but “a British subject” (Hall 170). Because the first two counts had assumed incorrectly that Joyce was a British national, Shawcross’s amendment supported the defense’s insistence on Joyce’s American birth. However, the third count was quite different. Although superficially similar to the first two, the third and final charge referred to a different and shorter time-frame, one that brought the argument concerning Joyce’s passport application fully into play. As in the first count, the start date was that given in the “German State Workbook,” 18 September 1939, but, crucially, the charge now terminated on 2 July 1940, the date when the passport used by Joyce and his wife on their journey to Germany had expired. The crux of the prosecution’s argument was that possession of a British passport with its pledge of assistance and protection to its holder meant that Joyce not only owed allegiance to the British Crown, just as any other foreigner or “resident alien” would do during the time that they lived within the King’s realm, but also that, practically speaking, it made him “a British subject.” Surveying the history of treason cases from 1543 to 1917, Shawcross contended that “anybody, British subjects or foreigners, any person,” whether their allegiance was temporary or permanent (i.e., based on country of origin), could be arraigned on charges of treason. Moreover, even if their acts were committed “outside the realm” (as in Rex v. Casement) their offenses would still be “triable in the King’s Courts” (Hall 190).
What this line of legal reasoning revealed were the feudal residues embodied in the concept of a “British subject.” The legal formula on which the institution of the passport rested derived from the work of the Elizabethan and Jacobean jurist Sir Edward Coke. As quoted by Shawcross, this dictum asserts that “Protection draws allegiance and allegiance draws protection,” and thus the relationship between political authority and legal subject is deemed to continue for as long as such protection endures (Hall 195). It cannot therefore be revoked by an individual act of will. That is to say, in relationships between Crown and subjects, allegiance is taken as given. Writing long before the modern passport system came into being, the eighteenth-century jurist Sir William Blackstone emphasized that the law held there to be “an implied, original, and virtual allegiance … antecedently to any express promise” and irrespective of whether a formal oath had actually been sworn (Blackstone 356). As Professor Hersch Lauterpacht, then one of Shawcross’s most eminent legal advisers, noted, the coupling of protection and allegiance had outlasted its feudal origins and had survived because “above all” it strengthened “the security of the State” precisely because it covered those instances where British law “shelters” and thus protects a foreigner while abroad, no matter how briefly (Lauterpacht 335). So it made perfect legal sense that Joyce should be accused of actions “contrary to the Treason Act, 1351” and that Blackstone’s remarks on “the people, whether aliens, denizens, or natives” were a point of reference for both the defense and the prosecution (Hall 43; Blackstone 354).
A major effect of the legal definition of allegiance was to de-psychologize the accused’s relation to the charges that he faced, ruling out any considerations of motive and intention. From the perspective of the court, what counted were “material” facts and “material” dates, that is to say relevant circumstances that could be verified by evidence. As Gerald Slade noted in his explanation of why, as defense counsel, he was not calling Joyce as a witness, the question of whether the application for a passport conferred “upon the prisoner the duty of allegiance” was “a pure question of law” which it was for the judge to decide (Hall 117). Joyce’s own beliefs about the consequences that his possession of a British passport might have for his American citizenship were neither here nor there. Similarly, the question of whether Joyce had “voluntarily” brought “aid and comfort to the King’s enemies” would be answered by reference to his actions, to what in fact he did (Hall 223). His own testimony as to what his real intentions were would have been immaterial.
West’s portrait of Joyce is an exploration of what treason means to the traitor and makes up the larger part of her book. In comparison, figures like Norman Baillie-Stewart were treated as small fry. By concentrating on Joyce she attempted to go beyond the technical specificities of legal argument and, in particular, to extend and fill out the bare-bones courtroom account of intention that had cut short any fanciful excursions into the ideas behind his private actions. This might be thought of as a fitting task for a littérateur with all the resources of fiction at her disposal, enabling her to restore what Wai Chee Dimock has called “the stubborn densities of human experience” that the abstracted idioms of legal language omit and suppress—and it is true that West’s report of the trial brought the proceedings to life in a way that a plain court transcript could never do (Dimock 5). But West’s project was far more than a highly seasoned chronicle. In probing the question of Joyce’s pathology, not only why he became a Fascist but the kind of Fascist he had become, West reached for a weightier socio-philosophical explanation, almost verging on the metaphysical, a fateful diagnosis of the times in which she and her readers were living. One American legal scholar reviewing the 1947 volume itemized no fewer than six different hypotheses in total, a very fair summation. In essence, however, they revolve around two main axes: Joyce’s relation to Ireland and then, in a more theoretical vein, to the dilemmas of the modern outsider (Kalven, Jr. 378–91).
At the most general level, West saw in Joyce an able, versatile, and ambitious man who would never be allowed to occupy the “position of power” that he felt was his due and who not only knew deep down that this was his lot, but knew that others knew it too (Meaning 212). There was no doubt as to his intelligence: he had a first class London University honors degree in English and was an excellent linguist and teacher. Yet his intellectualism was perceived as somehow flawed. West refers vaguely to “a moral deficiency” manifesting itself in a “capacity for cynicism and brutality” (Meaning 212). More witheringly, a security officer who monitored Joyce’s prison letters found behind the “precise and academic style” and “biting classical wit … a thin, but none the less distinct line of almost ‘guttersnipe’ coarseness” (Martland 251). As in the mind, so in the body: West lists Joyce’s rather mixed abilities as a horse-rider, a swimmer, a fencer, and a featherweight boxer, but later cites the riposte by an unnamed upper-class Mosley supporter who, on hearing praise for Joyce’s horsemanship, agreed that he rode “marvellously”—“But not like a gentleman” (Meaning 92-3). For West these imperfections in the body’s mastery and decorum demonstrated “the same resistance to culture as his mind” (Meaning 53). Yet despite the class condescension of these judgments, West argued that the degradation of the class system into what she regarded as a new mass society with its “mindless, traditionless, possessionless urban populations” guaranteed a place for Joyce above this vast anonymous stratum. His lower middle-class, small property-owning background distanced him from these “children of the machine,” just as it rendered him unpalatable to upper-class members of the radical right (Meaning 210).
Paradoxically, it was this double alienation that made him a thoroughgoing outsider for West, anticipating a sociological archetype that became ubiquitous in the 1950s. His was an empty place, a non-place. Set apart from the masses but without the moral scrupulousness that might have moved him up the political ladder into the role of leader or party boss, West described Joyce as one of the casualties typically produced by modern secular democracies. The egalitarian ideology of democracy denied Joyce the possibility of excusing his political failure by social disadvantage, a condition thrown into relief in the moment of Labour’s 1945 victory for, in the era of Ernest Bevin or Herbert Morrison, “poor or mediocre origins” were less than ever regarded as a barrier to political office (Meaning 212). But, in lumping together the idea of a mass society with a traditional account of the British class structure, it is debatable whether West was actually providing an adequate image of a society under pressure. Indeed, she compounded her eclecticism by arguing that the decline of religion had created a deracinated social world peopled with lost individuals who turn for solace to a political creed. On this view, totalitarianism of the Left or Right emerges as a substitute religion—but a “God” that would always fail (Crossman).
In fact, Joyce was born into a Christian family, with a Catholic father and a Protestant mother. That split was vital to “the Irish set-up” that West identified on the first day of the trial, though narrating this “Irish story” proved to be no less difficult than prosecuting Joyce himself. The story was one of Irish emigration, but with a twist. In 1888 Michael Joyce joined the Irish diaspora and sailed to the United States, becoming an American citizen on 25 October 1894. His future wife Gertrude followed him in April 1905 and they were married in a Roman Catholic Church in New York two days after her arrival. By the end of the decade Michael and Gertrude had returned to Ireland with a very young William, moving from Mayo to Galway. West found Michael Joyce’s comings and goings hard to explain, but she guessed that their deeply contradictory character “nourished a strain” in his son that held the key to the later politics (Meaning 23). Joyce was proud of his father’s loyalism, but he never mentioned how untypical this was in an Irish Roman Catholic. Thus, if Michael Joyce was so attached to Britain, why did he leave for the United States and choose to abandon being a British subject, a status he never reclaimed on his return, even after the family’s move to England in 1923? West argues that William Joyce’s Fascism was a direct result of the Anglo-Irish War (1919-21) since, in his eyes, conceding Home Rule to Ireland was “an actual, material betrayal” of the British Empire, a weakness that put the lives of his own family at risk, forcing them to leave a country in which they were no longer welcome. As she notes, Joyce’s “love of an obsolete England” referred to “an England who held Ireland by force” (Meaning 19-20). V.S. Pritchett went further, suggesting that when Joyce “turned to Fascism he desired to build in England the kind of police state he had seen in Ireland in the time of the Black and Tans” (Pritchett 332). Joyce often boasted of serving with this military police force while a teenager and West describes an old 1920s photograph of him in battle-dress that supports this claim (Meaning 18). Indeed, recent evidence indicates that Joyce narrowly escaped an IRA assassin’s bullet. He left Ireland in December 1921, eighteen months ahead of his family (Kenny 59).
West’s picture of Joyce as motivated by blind nostalgia clashes with one of the Attorney-General’s boldest rhetorical flourishes. In his opening speech, Shawcross argued that by securing the protection of a British passport, Joyce had “not merely clothed himself with the status of a British subject,” but had “so to speak, enveloped himself in the Union Jack” (Hall 53). This turn of phrase implies an act in bad faith or a cynical ploy on Joyce’s part. But the judge rightly insisted that Shawcross’s “rather picturesque” formulation was “misleading” insofar as it failed to give due weight to the binding, inescapable power of passport-based allegiance: one either owed allegiance or one did not (Hall 216-17). Yet, if West was right in claiming that Joyce had a perverse faith in what he took his country to be, then her study raises the scandalous possibility of a patriotic Fascism. In her “Epilogue,” West sketched out an analysis of the state in which the desire for liberty always comes up against the sacrifices demanded by the patria. Unless the nation is to stagnate, she argues, “all men should have a drop or two of treason in their veins” to prevent their country from going “soft” (Meaning 339). As a gesture towards the need for critical principles in political life, West’s argument is impeccable. Yet when juxtaposed with Joyce’s own political credo, it has disquieting echoes. Perhaps Joyce genuinely did “admire and honor the British Empire,” but he also thought its proponents failed to see the crippling hold that “international finance” had upon it, a coded allusion to Jewish “financiers” (Joyce 115, 118). When Joyce introduces himself to his readers in Twilight over England (1940), a polemic commissioned by the Third Reich’s Foreign Office, he stressed the preponderance of “Norman blood” in his veins—but five pages later he was extolling “the German blood which flowed in the veins of some of my ancestors” (Joyce 7, 12). West’s linking of treason and blood is intended to stimulate difficult moral reflection. But, in the end, her sanguinary metaphor leads her—and us—into an ethical impasse, an uncomfortable imaginary in which the traitor and the citizen are necessarily closer than we care to think, and a recalcitrant subject for justice.
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