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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).

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