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Wodehouse, the reviled 'traitor'
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The Times 23 August 2004

Wodehouse, the reviled 'traitor'

AFTER P. G. WODEHOUSE'S INFAMOUS WARTIME BROADCASTS FROM BERLIN, THE BRITISH GOVERNMENT ENGINEERED A MEDIA CHMPAIGN AGAINST THE WRITER, SAYS ROBERT McCRUM IN AN EXTRACT FROM HIS NEW BIOGRAPHY

In the highly charged atmosphere of wartime Britain, the idea that such a popular and famous Englishman as P. G. Wodehouse should be broadcasting on Nazi radio caused an immediate outcry. The press assumption that Wodehouse had bought his freedom was first expressed in the Daily Mirror headline, "The price is?". In the same edition, William Connor devoted his Cassandra column to accusing Wodehouse of "browsing and sluicing" with the Nazis in Berlin's biggest and best hotel. Connor went on to contrast this with the "great acres of London, Coventry, Liverpool and other cities flattened by his Hunnish hosts".

As the press campaign gathered momentum, official Britain began to react to the news from Berlin. Anthony Eden accused Wodehouse of having "lent his services to the Nazi war propaganda machine" and Quintin Hogg (Lord Hailsham) compared Wodehouse to the infamous Nazi propagandist Lord Haw-Haw. A Government-led campaign against Wodehouse was about to become exceedingly ugly.

On July 4, Duff Cooper, in his role as Minister of Information, entertained a number of well-known journalists to a lunch at the Savoy. Among them was William Connor. The upshot was that Duff Cooper asked Connor to write a "postscript" to a BBC evening news bulletin. He undertook to hand the script, uncensored, to the BBC. When the Director of Talks, appalled by what he had read, argued strongly against broadcasting it, the minister simply ordered him to do as he was told. And so, at nine o'clock on the evening of July 15, after a regular news bulletin, Cassandra made the broadcast that launched the penultimate phase of the Wodehouse affair.

"I have come to tell you tonight," Connor began, "of the story of a rich man trying to make his last and greatest sale -that of his own country." Warming to his theme, Connor cast Wodehouse as the craven pawn of the devilish cripple, Josef Goebbels. He concluded with a rhetorical flourish: "Fifty thousand of our countrymen are enslaved in Germany. How many of them are in the Adlon Hotel tonight? Barbed wire is their pillow. They endure -but they do not give in. They suffer -but they do not sell out. Thejails of Germany are crammed with men who have chosen without demur. But they have something that Wodehouse can never regain. Something that 30 pieces of silver could never buy."

As the BBC had feared, the public reaction was swift and vehement. Protests came in from all over the country.

Emboldened by the public reaction, the Chairman of the BBC Governors threatened to write a letter to The Times setting out the governors' position. In response, Duff Cooper drafted his own letter to The Times in which he made it plain that his "was the sole responsibility for the broadcast" but that "occasions may arise in time of war when plain speaking is more desirable than good taste".

Wodehouse made only one attempt to set the record straight. In a retrospective preamble to the script of his fourth broadcast, he said: "The press and public of England seem to have jumped to the conclusion that I have been in some way bribed or intimidated into making these broadcasts. This is not the case." This belated and ineffectual self-justification was as ill-conceived as every other aspect of his conduct during these unhappy weeks, and completely failed to address the substance of the case against him.

July 1941 was the worst month of Wodehouse's life, and the disgrace would never leave him. But while he rarely betrayed his feelings about the broadcasts, there is no doubt he was badly wounded. Wodehouse's subsequent actions also provide a clue to his distress. Wodehouse wanted to go home to explain himself and protest his innocence: on three separate occasions he formally requested permission to leave. First, he proposed travelling overland to Palestine and then back to London, but the Ministry of Propaganda saw to it that the request was turned down.

Next, he tried and failed to get authorisation for a return to England via Lisbon, a neutral port. Finally, he asked to go to Sweden, where he was always popular, but in vain. The Nazis were determined to hang on to him. Wodehouse's response was predictable: he buried himself in work.

Towards the end of the war, Wodehouse was in Paris, where he had to live with the unresolved accusations of treason for which, as he knew only too well, the sentence was the death penalty. The Nazi occupation was disintegrating and there were often violent street battles between warring factions, exacerbated by the settling of scores with the dying Vichy regime. Whatever Wodehouse's sangfroid, the atmosphere in Paris was vengeful, hysterical and frightening, exacerbated by the bitter cold and severe food shortages.

When the Americans liberated Paris on August 25. Wodehouse knew what he had to do.

In a mood of resigned fatalism, he asked an American colonel to inform the British authorities of his whereabouts. On September 5, Major Cussen of MI5 flew to Paris to question him about his wartime behaviour.

Wodehouse managed to turn a potentially dangerous encounter into a personal vindication. He was painfully frank and his account soon convinced his interrogator of his fundamental innocence. But while Cussen exonerated Wodehouse, his analysis was no whitewash. He observed that Wodehouse was "very susceptible to any form of flattery" and that "by lending his voice and personality to the German broadcasting station, Wodehouse did an act which was likely to assist the enemy".

Despite these negative comments, Cussen concluded that "a jury would find difficulty in convicting him of an intention to assist the enemy".

For Wodehouse the Cussen report had two important deficiencies. First, it contained no examination of German documents (now lost) or German witnesses (now dead). Second, although the Director of Public Prosecutions appended a note to the file saying that "there is not sufficient evidence to justify a prosecution of this man", its findings were never revealed to Wodehouse and could not be made public until 1980, five years after Wodehouse's death. The cruellest feature of Wodehouse's long old age was that he never knew, definitively, that his case was closed.

Copyright Michel Kuzmenko (gmk), The Russian Wodehouse Society © 1996-2008. Established 04/04/1996.