In the pantheon of Dulwich notables one name stands out for being notable for all the wrong reasons - William Joyce, "Lord Haw-Haw", the last man to be hanged for treason in Britain. But Dulwich should not be too ashamed since he did not live here for very long. A new biography by distinguished journalist and leading Irish feminist, Mary Kenny, not only digs deeply into Joyce and the motivation behind his embracing Nazism rather than democracy but also into the rather seedy world of British fascism in the 1930s.
Joyce's father, Michael, an extremely law abiding citizen, despaired of the lawlessness in his native Ireland in the 1880s. He was, unusually, fervently pro-British, but not wishing to join the Catholic Irish in England (where they were considered the lowest of the low) he emigrated to the United States in 1888, and, as so many Irish immigrants had done before and since, went into the building trade. In 1905 he married an Englishwoman, with Ulster Protestant connections, and in 1906 William was born.
The Irish had controlled a good deal of New York but soon the contracts began to dry up. A tide of immigration from Eastern Europe had changed the demography and soon the businessmen dominating the trade associations were Jewish. Times became harder and it may have been his father's resentment at this trend that sowed the seeds of William Joyce's violent anti-Semitism. Michael, though, had already made a reasonable amount of money and when William was three years old the family returned to Ireland where Joyce senior ran a pub in Galway and became involved in the transport business. His son went on to be educated at a Jesuit school and educated very well. He was an extremely bright boy, and very good at languages. As he grew up the fight for Irish independence increased. The start of the War of Independence in 1920 made life very difficult for an outspoken loyalist in a Catholic school. He had a fight with another boy, which resulted in a broken nose - an injury that probably gave him his notorious nasal broadcasting voice. He was seen to hang around with the "Black and Tans" who considered him a nuisance but it made him a target for Sinn Fein. It was said, possibly erroneously, that he had been implicated in the murder of a priest by the Black and Tans so the fifteen year old was sent to England, at first to stay with his mother's relations in Oldham.
Mary Kenny has gone into much more detail of Joyce's Irish roots than previous biographers, but this is a weakness as well as a strength; although he was the antithesis of an Irish patriot she sees his later anti British behavior as a redeeming feature of a flawed and evil man.
Having left Ireland, and briefly serving in the British army (although very much under age) Joyce began his journey into extreme right wing politics and notoriety. He came to London, took digs in Battersea and attended Battersea Polytechnic but already his extreme views were giving rise to criticism from his teachers. At that time Battersea had Britain's first black mayor, and it was during a meeting organised by the mayor's Tory opponent that Joyce received his trademark facial scar. This he blamed on "Jewish Communists", thus reinforcing his prejudice. The rest of the family came to England and in 1923 moved to 7 Allison Grove. College dropout William was reunited with his family, ironically only a few hundred yards from where both the prosecutor at his trial, Hartley Shawcross and another man who broadcast from wartime Germany, however innocently, PG Wodehouse, were educated.
Joyce was an intelligent man but was something of a misfit. While living at home with his parents he had time to devote to his studies and he enrolled at Birkbeck College, where he gained a first class honours degree in English. He had already joined the "British Fascisti", an organisation based on Mussolini's party in Italy and had ambitions of being an M.P. In 1927 he married and left Dulwich for a small flat in Chelsea. Having failed to be nominated as a Tory candidate he tried to get into the Foreign Office. In spite of support from a former Tory candidate for Dulwich, and the Foreign Office accepting that he had American nationality, he was rejected, largely because the Head of Battersea Poly informed the FO that Joyce held "extreme views and upheld the use of violence in political action"
He scraped a living from teaching and in 1933 found his place in the world as a leading orator and sometime Director of Propaganda in Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists. He was an acknowledged star of the movement, but lost his wife to another member of the party but was soon to marry yet another fascist who was to share his life to the end.
He tried to arouse interest in Fascism in Dulwich, but was refused the hire of St. Barnabas Hall by the Vicar, the Reverend Wilfred Brown. He managed to organise a couple of meetings at Dulwich Library, but he was on far from fertile ground. He had idolised Mosley "There is no greater man that God has created" but the idol proved to have feet of clay. Factional infighting within the BUF was intense, support was dwindling and during a funding crisis in 1938 Joyce was expelled. He tried to form a new party but without much success. His bitterness at being rejected by the country he had tried to embrace knew no bounds, and fearing internment if a war was to come, he and his wife, Margaret, fled to Germany.
At first it was difficult to find work. Life was hard, but after a few months he was put in contact with German radio and he became a star of the airwaves. His sneering, nasal tones gave him the soubriquet "Lord Haw-Haw" (although the description was originally of another broadcaster). He was listened too during the earlier part of the war, more for amusement than enlightenment. His anti-British sentiment went down much better in Ireland than over here. Interestingly, he was not allowed to broadcast on Berlin Radio's Irish Service.
Joyce's significance is greatly over-rated by Kenny. She describes him as a brilliant broadcaster, but as someone who has spent a lifetime in broadcasting and has heard some of the few remaining tapes, I would disagree. He wrote well, but not necessarily for the voice. He was a good polemicist, but he was not a natural at the microphone. He aimed at the British working classes; telling them that they were oppressed by the capitalist system and the "International Jewish financiers". His life in Berlin was at times dissolute; he drank to excess and had affairs. His wife had a long affair with a German officer; there was a divorce followed by a reconciliation. Additionally, he had uneasy relationships with his broadcasting colleagues and superiors, but he continued to broadcast.
Kenny is at her weakest in this part of the book. Her German is not perfect and she should have quoted more from the transcripts of his broadcasts to give the reader more of a sense of what he was about. She reveals how the Nazis were pleased to employ paranoid inadequates like Joyce, who was often violent, coarse in manner and certainly unstable. Nevertheless there is always some implied sympathy for him in Kenny's book. In fairness the American Correspondent, William Shirer, wrote "if you can get over the initial revulsion at his being a traitor, you find an amusing and even intelligent fellow."
He was caught by British soldiers near Flensburg in Schleswig - Holstein and was brought to trial for treason. The defence was that he was an American, because of his birth and his father's adopted nationality, and had since become German. He had had a British passport since the 1930s but this had been obtained by a false declaration. Sir Hartley Shawcross conducted a spirited prosecution and at 3.37 p.m. on September 20th. 1945 the jury retired. At 4p.m they returned a verdict of guilty. The Judge, Mr Justice Tucker donned the black cap. At the end of October Joyce's appeal was rejected. An appeal to the House of Lords followed. This, too, was turned down and he returned to Wandsworth prison to await execution. He was hanged on January 3rd 1946. There has always been doubt about the legality of the verdict; although morally culpable in law he had never been British. A J.P Taylor said that he had been hanged for a false declaration on a passport form, the usual penalty for which was two pounds.
After his death there were floods of letters of condolence from Ireland. Many people said that this was judicial murder. Perhaps they were right, certainly Kenny takes that view. Her summation of her subject is charitable to say the least "He had beenhhorrid, nasty, selfish, arrogant and unforgivably prejudiced" but adds "there was something redemptive about his walk to the gallows." Not all her readers would agree. The man prostituted his talents on behalf of one of the most evil regimes and most misguided ideologies in history. His life scarcely merited such a sympathetic and readable biography.
Germany Calling by Mary Kenny is published by New Island, Dublin £17.99