Wodehouse: the truth of his years in Nazi Berlin
PG Wodehouse was a comic writer of genius - the creator of Bertie Wooster, Jeeves and Lord Emsworth, of feckless young men and fearsome maiden aunts. He was a master of hilarious scrapes that were somehow always resolved. But, more than a generation after his death, his reputation remains marred by conduct during the Second World War that exposed him to accusations that he collaborated with the Nazis.
There are two main charges against Wodehouse. The first is that he betrayed his country, broadcasting Nazi propaganda in exchange for his release from internment. (Wodehouse, who was living in Le Touquet when war broke out, had been detained by the Germans in May 1940.)
This claim has now been demolished by the release of all the relevant documents. They demonstrate that, while the humorist's behaviour was stupid, it was not treacherous.
The second accusation, which flowed from the press furore surrounding the unfortunate broadcasts, was that, not content with betraying his country in time of war, Wodehouse and his wife Ethel enjoyed a life of luxury in a Berlin hotel while his fellow countrymen suffered in the Blitz.
Wodehouse denied both charges. But while he could satisfactorily document the innocence of the broadcasts, no German witness emerged to substantiate his defence against the charge of easy living in the Adlon Hotel.
Now a German expatriate living near Gibraltar has come forward to tell a remarkable tale of life in wartime Berlin and of his unlikely friendship with the man he came to know as 'Plummie'.
Michael Vermehren, who was born in Lubeck in 1915, was the son of a prominent north German legal family, related to novelist Thomas Mann. His family were Anglophiles and he grew up reading English classics. Vermehren was educated at the London School of Economics, worked briefly for accountants Price Waterhouse and was familiar with the Wodehouse oeuvre - The Inimitable Jeeves, Uncle Fred in the Springtime and Leave It to Psmith.
When war broke out in 1939, Vermehren, a lifelong anti-Nazi later imprisoned for his opposition to the regime, was working for a press agency in Berlin as a translator. Last week he told The Observer that, towards the end of 1941, after Wodehouse had made the broadcasts, he received an unexpected call.
'A friend rang me and said, "Michael, we have a curious chap here. He must be quite a well-known author. He wants to get in touch with a German barrister. Would you know any?"
'I was flabbergasted, and I went straight over to the Adlon Hotel and asked the porter if I could talk to Mr Wodehouse in his room. He came down like a flash and we sat in the hall and I said, "What is your case ?" He said, "You know that I write books?" I said, "Yes I do. You can consider me a fan".'
Dressed in a tweed jacket and grey flannel trousers, Wodehouse complained that he was being attacked in England 'by that ghastly paper of Lord Beaverbrook, the Express' and that he wanted to sue for libel. Vermehren remembers him saying 'I need a lawyer I can talk to here, who can then plead for me in England'.
It was an impossible suggestion, and one that underlines the unreality of Wodehouse's private universe. Vermehren talked him out of this bizarre scheme. 'I said, "Mr Wodehouse, I know such lawyers, but do you think it's likely that they would get a special permit to cross the war zone and the frontiers and go to England and plead your case?" Wodehouse replied, "Do you think that would be difficult?" I said, "Actually, I think it would be completely impossible".'
After a discussion about the circumstances of the broadcasts, which repeated the justifications the writer would later submit to his MI5 interrogators, Wodehouse accepted Vermehren's advice and the matter was dropped. But they remained friends.
The picture that emerges from this account confirms the isolated life being led at the time by Wodehouse, who spoke little German. 'I don't think he had any contact whatsoever with anybody. When he came down you had the feeling he'd just left his desk, and when he went up again he would go back to his desk and continue writing.'
Although Germany was conducting a war on two fronts, before the Allied bombing raids started in earnest, life in Berlin had a weird normality. Restaurants and theatres remained open. By selling jewellery, Wodehouse and his wife, Ethel, were able to keep a suite at the Adlon and sustain a degree of normality, a remarkable feat in the circumstances.
Vermehren recalls: 'One night we were on the underground and the train stopped between stations [because of an air raid]. Mrs Wodehouse said in a loud voice, in English, "Now what is this ridiculous nonsense. Why must we stand here? Why can't they move on another few hundred metres and let us out ?"'
In 1943 Vermehren was arrested and imprisoned in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. When he was released, the Wodehouses had moved to Paris, and then, after the war, to the United States. He never saw or communicated with them again.