Fs and Bs

Nicholas Hiley

  • Renegades: Hitler’s Englishmen by Adrian Weale
    Weidenfeld, 230 pp, £18.99, May 1994, ISBN 0 297 81488 5
  • In from the Cold: National Security and Parliamentary Democracy by Laurence Lustgarten and Ian Leigh
    Oxford, 554 pp, £22.50, July 1994, ISBN 0 19 825234 X

On 24 September 1940, shortly after 9 p.m., those British radio listeners who had tuned their sets to 213 metres on the medium wave (a little higher than the frequency of the BBC Home Service) were in for a shock. ‘Have you ever seen Beaverbrook?’ asked one of the announcers, referring to the current Minister for Aircraft Production. ‘Well, we often have in meeting halls, and what we could never understand was, why he was on the platform instead of swinging from one chandelier to another ... He’s a miserable little coward and the best way of dealing with a bloody fucker like him is to get hold of him personally and give him a good beating which he won’t forget.’ This attack on Lord Beaverbrook, which must have sent a frisson of delighted horror through its listeners, was something of a milestone in broadcasting history, for it was the first time that the word ‘fuck’ had been transmitted to a British radio audience.

There was something else peculiar about this programme. Even a casual listener could tell that the station, which announced itself as Workers’ Challenge, did not belong to the BBC, although it claimed to be broadcasting from within the British Isles. As most of its regular listeners knew, Workers’ Challenge was a German propaganda station, whose programmes were produced by the Büro Concordia, part of the Foreign Service of the Nazi broadcasting organisation, the Reichsrundfunk. As Andrew Weale describes in his Renegades: Hitler’s Englishmen, Workers’ Challenge was the responsibility of Büro S, and at the time of this historic broadcast the announcers were Sergeant MacDonald and Guardsman William Humphrey Griffiths of the British Army, both recruited from German prisoner-of-war camps. While broadcasting for Büro S, they lived in an apartment in Berlin, wore civilian clothes, were provided with supplies of tobacco and alcohol and, if they liked, were escorted once a week to a nearby brothel.

The announcers of Büro S thus lived quite different lives from their counterparts at the BBC, but then the programmes they broadcast were also quite different. The attraction of Workers’ Challenge lay not only in the fact that its announcers spoke in working-class regional accents, but also that they swore constantly. According to their characteristic style, the ‘bloody government’ was soon going to lose ‘the bloody war’, at which point ‘Churchill and his buggers will clear off.’ For listeners raised on the sedate broadcasts of the Home Service, whose announcers wore evening dress and were required to speak what was called ‘educated English’, this was a distinct novelty. As one BBC listeners’ report admitted, Workers’ Challenge had built up a significant audience, for ‘people switch on to hear the swear words.’ ‘Old ladies in Eastbourne and Torquay are listening to it avidly,’ admitted another official, ‘because it is using the foulest language ever. They enjoy counting the Fs and Bs.’

Andrew Weale makes an oblique reference to the broadcast of 24 September 1940, but it deserves a more central place in the history of treason. As the Nazis realised, the new communications technology worked in their favour by obliterating national boundaries and blending regional populations into mass audiences. The Workers’ Challenge station was just one part of the larger Nazi broadcasting service, which as early as 1935 had also begun experimenting with high-definition television, the programmes being jointly controlled by State Radio and the Propaganda Ministry. This television service had been limited to Berlin, but it included newsreels, short documentaries, extracts from feature films and a programme called Mirror of the Day that was filmed in the streets using a mobile camera unit. The programmes were not intended for private viewing: although Hitler and Goebbels had their own television sets, no more than two hundred domestic receivers were ever sold. Instead, Berliners were provided with 11 public viewing rooms in which they could watch the broadcasts, as well as a special ‘telecinema’.

By 1936, Berliners were enjoying a change of programme every night, and the television coverage of the Berlin Olympic Games was seen by an estimated 150,000 people. By 1939, there were plans for a truly domestic television service, and the jolly compère of the Berlin Vaudeville Show, with his evening dress and Nazi Party badge, was already cracking jokes about concentration camps. These broadcasts continued after the outbreak of war, and in 1940 the Nazis also began constructing a television station in occupied Paris, to broadcast news and entertainment from the Eiffel Tower. The main audience consisted of wounded German soldiers recovering in Parisian hospitals, but the transmitter was so powerful that the programmes were also picked up across the Channel, where British intelligence officers watched them at Beachy Head. The prospect of British families sitting down to an evening of Nazi television, with its test card of the Eiffel Tower and the words ‘Fernsehsender Paris’, was not entirely fanciful, for the British service was designed to be watched at home, and by the outbreak of war there were 20,000 domestic sets in the London region. In 1940, it was only distance that prevented Londoners from tuning their sets to receive the Nazi broadcasts, just as they tuned their radios to Workers’ Challenge.

The BBC suspended its television broadcasting on the outbreak of war in 1939, but the Nazis showed themselves more committed to a public service, and continued their transmissions without a break. The Berlin broadcasts did not end until the transmitter was bombed in 1943, while broadcasting from Paris continued until the liberation of the city in 1944. The Nazi television service was far more advanced than most people realise, and its existence evokes some chilling possibilities. In 1940, William Joyce became notorious for his English-language propaganda broadcasts from the radio transmitter at Zeesen, building up a sizeable British audience and gaining the nickname ‘Lord Haw-Haw’. The fact that he did not also appear in Nazi television programmes broadcast from the Paris transmitter, wearing the black uniform of the British Union of Fascists and speaking directly to a London audience, was simply an accident of history. If such programmes had been provided, there is no doubt that the British would have watched.

Andrew Weale’s book prompts some very interesting questions about patriotism and loyalty, but they do not relate to the few ‘renegades’ who stand at the centre of his drama. As he explains, by the end of World War Two, some two hundred British citizens were under investigation for having assisted Nazi Germany, largely through their involvement in propaganda broadcasting from 1939 onwards, but also for their part in the formation in 1942 of the British Free Corps, the only Waffen-SS unit composed entirely of British subjects. Even Weale admits that none of the British subjects involved can be said to have made a significant contribution to the German war effort. Technical problems meant that the average radio listener had difficulty in receiving the German propaganda broadcasts, and although the British Free Corps reached its peak strength early in 1945, it was still a disorganised group of just 27 men. Weale acknowledges that ‘if anything they represented a net drain on German resources.’

The most interesting questions raised by his book relate to that particular disloyalty which Weale calls ‘treason’. This is a difficult term to use in a modern context, and he admits that the traditional concept of ‘high treason’ is far too broad ‘to deal with the complex motives of those who betray their country’. Yet it is hard to find a suitable alternative, and despite the appearance of the word ‘renegade’ in his title, Weale continues to employ ‘treason’ and ‘traitor’ in the text; he even produces a refinement of them by claiming that although William Joyce may not have committed ‘high treason’, he was nevertheless guilty of what can be called ‘moral treason’. The most significant question of all, however, is whether it is still possible to use terms such as ‘patriotism’ and ‘treason’ in the old sense when the populations of Western countries have been fragmented into household units by communications technology that has no use for national boundaries.

Over the last hundred years, the British public has been strongly committed to its mass media, sometimes at the expense of its idea of nationality. On the eve of World War Two, John Reith believed passionately in radio broadcasting as an extension of national culture, but was outmanoeuvred by the audience’s delight in ‘knob-twiddling’. By 1935, there were 7.4 million radio licences in the United Kingdom, but not all radios were tuned to the BBC. Every Sunday evening some 3.2 million people listened instead to the commercial broadcasts from Radio Luxembourg, while a further 2.2 million tuned in to Poste Parisien and 1.6 million to Radio Normandy. There was a similar blurring of national boundaries in the cinema, where by 1938 some 18.9 million tickets were being sold each week. When Mass-Observation examined cinema attendance in Bolton that year, it found that almost two out of three cinemagoers preferred American films to domestic productions. ‘They make the characters so real and lifelike,’ explained one regular, ‘and the absence of the “Oxford accent” brings them more on working people’s level.’

The same uncertainty continued in wartime, despite the rediscovery of patriotism by the British intelligentsia. Cecil Day Lewis, Graham Greene and George Orwell all undertook patriotic work for the BBC or for the Ministry of Information, and led the new celebration of British culture. As E.M. Forster declared in 1940, it now appeared that this culture was ‘genuinely national’. ‘Our culture,’ he said, ‘springs naturally from our way of looking at things: the English countryside, the English sense of humour, the English love of fair play.’ William Shakespeare, Thomas Hardy and Edward Elgar were brought forth to prove that the roots of British character lay deep in the countryside, and were still healthy despite the enervating effects of urban life. Yet to anyone who took the trouble to look dispassionately it was clear that the nourishment came from further afield. ‘If any hundred British troops are invited to choose their own records,’ admitted one senior BBC executive in 1944, ‘90 per cent of the choice will be of American stuff.’

The British public’s passion for the mass media extends indiscriminately to the images of nationality which they contain. That is why any theory based on a single idea of nationality, even so complex an argument as that presented by Laurence Lustgarten and Ian Leigh in In from the Cold, is bound to fail. They take nationality for granted, and deny the possibility of loyalty to a free market in ideas. ‘The market’s purported virtue is precisely its impersonality,’ they write: ‘it is inconceivable that people could feel allegiance to the market as they have to nations.’ But is it any easier to feel loyalty to the abstract idea of a nation, which is seldom encountered, than to the abstract idea of the market, which is encountered every day? In 1945, despite six years of nationalistic imagery, the British cinema audience still retained its passion for American films and American stars. Indeed, the mass media were so successful in blurring the boundaries between nationalities that some patriotic cinemagoers became rather confused. ‘Everybody likes American films,’ conceded one 25-year-old, ‘but with me ... I feel an unreasoned, impassioned loyalty such as one is usually supposed to have for the land of one’s birth.’

Lustgarten and Leigh build a complex argument on weak foundations. Their image of the state is derived from the individual, and its integrity is constructed from those individual rights which they term ‘the integrity of the person’. On closer inspection it is clear that they mean the integrity of the household, for their imagery is strangely domestic. ‘Imagine being unable to draw the curtain in your bedroom,’ they declare, in one of the few passages of real emotion in the book, ‘so that others can see you naked at any time of their choosing ... The fear and revulsion this image evokes has little to do with the beauty or otherwise of one’s body, but everything to do with one’s sense of self. If I have no control over what is known about me, I am seriously diminished as a person both in my own eyes and in those which are capable of intruding upon me.’ As one gets further into the book it becomes clear that, for the authors, the right of the state to protect its secrets is simply the householder’s right to protect his nakedness. Yet if the state is essentially composed of discrete households, where does the concept of nationality come in?

When the state draws its own curtains, the concept of nationality may well disappear. We can see this by referring back to the case of William Joyce, who fled to Germany from Britain on the eve of war in 1939. According to Joyce, he was not caught by the police because an MI5 officer gave him 24 hours’ notice of his impending arrest. This is entirely plausible, for although Joyce was under constant surveillance at this period, the MI5 officer in charge of his case was Maxwell Knight, who just happened to be the former Deputy Chief of Staff and Head of Intelligence for the British Fascisti. Knight assured the head of MI5, Vernon Kell, that Joyce was essentially harmless, and Kell, who had himself recruited Knight from the ranks of the Fascisti, naturally agreed. ‘I should not think anything could occur to shake his basic patriotism,’ he wrote of Joyce: ‘His code of personal honour is probably peculiar, but very rigid.’ When Knight was sent to arrest Joyce it cannot have surprised anyone in MI5 that he had already left for Germany.

Finding patriotism or even nationality in a culture of households is a considerable problem. This was especially clear after 1939, when wartime surveys showed that most of the people who searched the dial for Workers’ Challenge or Lord Haw-Haw had learned about them from reading British newspapers. ‘I’ve just read about it in the Standard,’ replied one member of the public when asked about Workers’ Challenge: ‘I should like to hear it.’ In 1940, even the Radio Times carried advertisements for radio sets that would permit the listener to ‘get the news direct from the capitals of Europe ... Rome, Paris, Berlin, Moscow and the rest’. These advertisements included the times and frequencies of the English-language broadcasts from the Nazi stations in both Zeesen and Hamburg, in case the purchaser wasn’t sure how to tune in to Lord Haw-Haw. The British public accepted this as part of its freedom to listen. In 1945, when Rebecca West reported the trials of the British traitors for the New Yorker, she found to her surprise that the public had little hatred for men like Joyce and could not see why their punishment had to be so severe. Joyce’s trial and appeal lasted three months, and, as the recent release of papers at the PRO has proved, it generated hundreds of letters, telegrams and petitions from members of the public, pleading with the King, the Prime Minister and Home Secretary to spare his life. ‘Can you reprieve Joyce?’ one telegram asked. ‘He did no harm. He amused a great number of people.’

It is a hundred years since the British abandoned that public culture of the congregation, the meeting hall and the street, on which the old ideas of patriotism and communal loyalty were based. The 20th century has seen the fragmentation of that community, but it has not produced a language for expressing the new pattern of loyalties which this has created. Seen in this light, the trial and execution of William Joyce was a final bizarre attempt to reassert the dominance of nationality over the new mass media. Joyce was in fact an American citizen, who only renounced that citizenship on taking German nationality in 1940, and when this was proved in court the first two counts of treason had to be dropped. He was convicted on the third accusation, which was that during the first few months of broadcasting he had possessed a fraudulently obtained British passport, and thus, until it expired, would have received the protection of the Crown had he asked for it. His voice might have travelled across national boundaries, but he possessed a piece of paper that demanded his loyalty to one country – and that country executed him for having it.