If you had read my Wikipedia entry several years ago you would have found the following: “His long-awaited biography of Lord Haw-Haw is now long overdue.” Thank you, to that anonymous scribe.
Even some friends began to think that my talking about a book on William Joyce was no more than a fantasy. Others, who knew better, nevertheless thought I had become infected by Gustave Flaubert’s disease; immersed in ink and then dissatisfied with what appeared on the page, I had consigned sheet after sheet of script to the wastepaper basket. But steadily, inexorably, a book was taking shape and in the very late summer of 2016, Routledge published Searching for Lord Haw-Haw: The Political Lives of William Joyce. It discusses the life and times of a fascist activist who left Britain in August 1939 to throw in his lot with Hitler and at the end of the War was found guilty of treason.
Two factors particularly accounted for its delayed appearance.
First: I met with a number of problems relating to the official files on Joyce. When I began work some documents had not yet entered the public domain. Under the Public Record Act they were subject to what is known as “extended closure.” When more files did begin to emerge, as the archives opened up particularly in the 1990s, this material never gushed out in a raging torrent: the releases amounted to more of a gentle, slow-moving trickle. A file on an individual here. A document on a group there.
Then silence. Nothing. Then another release. I was constantly left wondering what lay ahead. For that reason alone I became reluctant, in spite of the urging of friends, to hand over my manuscript to a publisher.
In some cases it required FOI requests to the Home Office, Foreign Office and Lord Chancellor’s Department, to secure documents. This process proved time-consuming. Legislation lays down that replies to FOI applications be given within twenty-one working days. But the twenty-first day sometimes led to officials asking for more time to reach a decision. In certain cases it took months to resolve the matter. Even then I remained acutely aware that some documents — on Joyce’s Nazi contacts in Britain to cite one important example — had not been made available. And MI5 which would have created these files is exempt from FOI legislation. But eventually, gathering up my slowly accumulating harvest, I felt reasonably confident I could discern the main contours of Joyce’s political career.
Late on, however, another serious problem dramatically and unexpectedly intruded into my plans which threatened to scupper the entire project. This difficulty calls for a double-barrelled explanation.
First; letters and photographs linked to fascists, as well as standards and banners that once belonged to the British Union of Fascists, and in some cases even rare published literature, are much sought after by collectors and once these artefacts disappear into private hands they can remain out of reach to most researchers. Favoured individuals might be granted access: others will be less fortunate.
A sign of this squirreling urge occurred a few years ago. The Wiener Library had acquired a small but valuable collection of material on the Right Club, an important Nazi fellow-travelling group of the late ‘30s. These items had been gathered together and placed in a box. One sheet is now missing. The last page of a letter has disappeared. Autograph hunters are also on the prowl to have fascist memorabilia in their collections.
I turn now to the second strand of my explanation. Ownership does not automatically confer copyright. But some collectors manage by various means to secure that right. And my problem related to a claim over Joyce’s prison letters written at the end of the War as well as other of his literary remains. It took more than six months for the lawyers and publisher to resolve this tangled issue.
This unwanted episode proved stressful but fortunately I did not have to throw my manuscript on the back of the fire. I felt able eventually to let it go. And then? George Orwell once remarked that to write a book is to subject oneself to “some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.” With that demon exorcised I experienced — and always have with my books — along with a sense of satisfaction, a task completed, a simultaneous sense of loss.
Has all the sweat, toil and angst been worthwhile? Reviewers so far have been very generous and now, standing back from my manuscript, I believe it contained a number of important emphases.
It destroys the mass of inventions, fakery and myth which have hitherto been present in the literature on Joyce.
The book also fills an important gap in the history of British fascism and by introducing and emphasising Joyce’s narcissism—on which more soon— it helps us to better understand someone who, in Robert Skidelsky’s words, featured as one of the most “remarkable personalities” ever to commit to British fascism
My book also demolishes the claim, peddled incessantly by Mosleyites, that the BUF never indulged in anti-Semitism. Joyce, I argue, was an exterminatory Jew-hater.
Furthermore, Searching for Lord Haw Haw brings centre stage that strand of treason which has surfaced on the political Right. This emphasis counterbalances that seemingly ever-growing, already mountainous pile of literature which dwells on Stalin’s Englishmen.
Joyce’s politics linked to the great events and ambience of his day. His fears regarding the loss of Empire: the dangers, as he perceived them, of Bolshevism: the economic problems which ravaged so many lives in the inter-war years: the tang of anti-Semitism which hung heavy in the air in pre-war London: the lure and excitement he felt at the flowering of European fascism, particularly in Hitler’s Germany. His succession of professional and personal disappointments and setbacks in the 1920s added even more ingredients to the political stew he was busy creating. And something else was present.
I refer to his narcissism. From an early age Joyce constantly displayed an insufferable sense of self-worth. He soon became convinced he was destined for greatness. Such qualities guaranteed that his later political career was “increasingly, remorselessly driven by self-love, self-reference, self-absorption, self-idealisation and self–aggrandisement”. As a result, his politics displayed an authoritarian ruthlessness which made him exceedingly dangerous.
Joyce’s narcissism does not make him a singular figure in recent history. His contemporary, Oswald Mosley, displayed similar distinguishing signs as recent biographies have begun, if as yet only dimly and imperfectly, to recognise. And today? By late 2015 many American commentators, including medical practitioners, had concluded that Donald Trump exhibited all the recognised signs and symptoms of being a clinical narcissist. Such individuals—should Tony Blair also be included?— possess a Manichean view of the world, dividing it into good versus bad, without any hint of greyness and, at the same time, believe they have a special insight and capacity to read the political runes of their day.
Perhaps the most egregious example of Joyce’s staggering power of self-belief appears in his scribbled late wartime diary where he wrote that if he had been present at Hitler’s right hand by 1941 he would have guided Germany to victory. Had that happened Joyce hoped and believed that Hitler, whom he saw as a greater god, would then have cleansed Britain’s stables, torn down the rotting edifice of a Jew-infested state. Joyce would then finally come into his own as a major strutting figure in a conquered Britain.
‘Twas not to be. His life ended on a bitterly cold morning in January 1946 with him swinging from the end of a rope in Wandsworth prison. But even when facing execution he remained defiant. He retracted nothing. He apologised for nothing. He continued to believe his chosen political path was the right one. And that, as the dust of the War settled, he would be fully vindicated by history.
Colin Holmes is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Sheffield. His book, Searching for Lord Haw-Haw: The Political Lives of William Joyce (Routledge, 2016) is available now in hardback, paperback and e-book versions.
Image: The Capture of William Joyce, Germany, 1945 [via Wikicommons].