Thursday, October 30, 2008

Rebecca West and William Joyce

Rebecca West is a name I've occasionally conjured with. I've been reading her for the first time recently, and before that I knew her by reputation as a sometime lover of H G Wells and a prolific writer/journalist, a fairly formidable figure in English letters in the first half of the twentieth century. When, a few years ago, I was reading up on Serbia and the Balkans, I came across her hefty tome, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, in a second-hand bookshop, but finally decided against buying it. Now, having almost finished her fascinating book-length essay on William Joyce [aka Lord Haw-Haw] in a collection entitled The Meaning of Treason, I can't wait to write about her and to read more. 
As Wikipedia tells us, West had a very long as well as productive life, dying in 1983 at the age of ninety, and always participating energetically in the issues of the day. Her writing on Joyce shows her to be a shrewd psychologist and a political pragmatist, wryly realistic and nobody's fool. It's a fascinating account of the polical tensions before and after WW2, with communists switching to fascism then switching back to communism, with anti-democratic political ideals holding far greater sway in the west than they do today, and with so many people caught up in the vagaries of family ideology, competing nationalisms and generally divided sympathies. 
William Joyce, for example, was born in the USA to Irish Unionist parents - which, since they were also Catholic, immediately rendered them anomalous. He returned to Ireland with his family as a young boy, where he received a good Jesuit education, proving himself industrious and disciplined. He moved to England as a teenager, and made various attempts to join the military. From an early age he seems to have been drawn to conflict and controversy. He was a rabid anti-semite and when he became prominent in the British fascist movement he emphasised that element in his oratory, polarising opinion on the BUF [British Union of Fascists] and possibly creating tensions with its leader, Mosley. 
Bigotry is an intriguing phenomenon. We know that it's all around us - anti-semitism, racism, homophobia - and we associate it with ignorance, and we find people who espouse  such thinking boring as well as dangerous, but its very familiarity masks its essential mystery - why do people engage in wholesale hatreds based on such flimsy pretexts? How did this way of thinking become so popular as to convulse the whole of Europe for a decade? Why did it attract so many reasonably well-educated types as well as the usual misfits and crazies?

West is ultimately no more able to provide answers to these questions than I could. In any case, anti-semitism was much more fashionable then than it is now, at least in Western Europe. Well, no, not just there, think of the USA, think of the highly respectable Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh, and the backdrop that made their views respectable. Think too of the emphasis on race and eugenics in those pre-war days.   

Joyce’s hatred of communists was also something of a fashion, but it should also be noted that then as now, the people most consumed with the activities and the danger to society of the extreme left were those of the extreme right, and vice versa. It’s a kind of co-dependence in which each side must necessarily over-value the negative impact of the other. When Joyce was a young man he was slashed by an assailant at a conservative party meeting he was convening. It left him badly scarred. He always claimed the culprit to be a communist Jew. Of course if that were true it might be cause for resentment, but it’s much more likely to have been a convenient fabrication.

West makes much of the issue of class in Joyce’s ambitious make-up. He wasn’t a gentleman – West uses the term with only partial irony – in spite of his educated airs, and Mosley would never have considered him his equal. This seemed to make him more determined than ever to make his mark, and we get a strong sense of someone who feels himself worthy of better things than others are willing to concede to him. He wanted to become a British officer but was somehow blocked in that ambition. As a fascist organizer he was probably more successful than Mosley but was given little credit by him. When he finally left for Germany just as war was about to break out, the Nazis treated him with suspicion and disdain, to such a degree that he almost turned tail for England and incarceration for the duration. When, with great reluctance, he was given his head over more ‘gentlemanly’ broadcasters [the name Lord Haw Haw was transferred to him from earlier, more plummy announcers], he proved to be their most reliable propagandist.

Of course it was a very circumscribed success. Fascism, by its very nature, was always bound for failure, and its spectacular failure and spectacular destructiveness in the thirties and forties has discredited anything like it for a long time to come. Joyce’s broadcasts in any case probably did more good than harm to the British cause. He became a figure of fun but also a rallying point. People tuned into him both for amusement and to try to get a handle on how the enemy saw them, and how they were coping with the war.

West's reportage of the case, her description of the trial process and Joyce's response to it, is wholly absorbing. Her general remarks about treason are more open to question, though. However, my response comes from a time when Western Europe has known decades of peace and stability, and has even formed a union of sorts, with a common currency. Globalism has also played its part in rendering the concept of treason quaint, to some. It's worth having a closer look at West's reasoning in the light of the twenty-first century, and i'll do that next time. 

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