There has been much comment and anxiety expressed in the British media recently about the power of propaganda, and how religious extremists seek to ‘groom’ vulnerable teenagers via social media and glossy recruitment films on the internet.
While we should never underestimate the dangers and possible value of these techniques for such radical movements, a historical angle on all this can perhaps help put some of it into perspective. In fact, interestingly, the current debate is quite reminiscent of similar anxieties expressed during the Second World War.
In this month of September, seventy-six years ago, listeners who happened to be tuned into an English-language radio station broadcasting propaganda from Hamburg heard a distinctive and rather nasal-sounding voice saying ‘Jairmany calling, Jairmany calling’.
This heralded the first broadcast of William Joyce (1906-1946), a former British fascist who, sensing war was imminent – and fearing possible arrest by the British authorities – had quickly left by boat for Germany in late August 1939, accompanied by his equally pro-Nazi wife, Margaret.
When they reached Germany, the pair had offered their services to the National Socialist regime, and William Joyce was given a job as a broadcaster on Germany Calling, a propaganda programme on a radio station run by the ‘Reich Ministry of Enlightenment and Propaganda’. This Ministry was a key arm of the Hitler dictatorship, and was headed by Dr. Joseph Goebbels, a former journalist, and – from the mid-1920s onwards – a deeply-committed Nazi. Goebbels became so impressed with Joyce and his devotion to the National Socialist ‘message’ that he later commented that Joyce was ‘the best horse in my stable’.
In the same month of September 1939, a Daily Express journalist in this country coined the nickname ‘Lord Haw-Haw’ in order to describe all the broadcasters in English ‘of the haw-haw, dammit-get-out-of-my-way variety’. The top-hatted figure in the image below is from a British postcard issued in 1942. Ironically, Joyce really liked the term ‘Lord Haw-Haw’ and soon appropriated it for himself, and the nickname became very much associated with Joyce for the rest of the War.
So, who was William Joyce, AKA ‘Lord Haw-Haw’? Some of the details about his life have remained rather opaque, but he was born in 1906 in the USA, to an Irish family, who later moved back to Ireland. There is good evidence that Joyce worked as an informer for the British during the civil war in that country in 1920-21 and, perhaps fearing for his life because of his activities, Joyce moved to England in 1921. He briefly attended King’s College School in Wimbledon and, later in the 1920s, studied at Birkbeck College in central London, gaining a First-Class degree in English literature and, eventually, a doctorate.
Joyce also became involved in extreme rightwing politics, joining the early ‘British Fascisti’ (founded in 1923). The first British Fascists often acted as stewards at political meetings, determined to make sure that any Leftwing ‘troublemakers’ were swiftly deal with. In October 1924, while he was stewarding a meeting for a Conservative Party candidate for Lambeth North, Joyce was attacked and received a deep razor slash, which left a scar from his earlobe to the corner of his mouth. He later claimed that his attacker was a ‘Communist Jew’.
In the 1930s, Joyce became a member of Sir Oswald Mosley’s ‘British Union of Fascists’ (BUF), and developed a notorious reputation for rabble-rousing and highly anti-Semitic speeches. He also specialised in propaganda, and helped the BUF develop a pretty sophisticated and professional propaganda machine, with detailed literature, numerous posters and regular national speaking tours. Yet, in the end, the BUF made little political headway in British society in the interwar period.
Moreover, despite all the energy that the Nazi regime poured into its English-language propaganda during the War, most scholars on the subject agree that the impact of Joyce and other broadcasters on British morale during the conflict was very limited. Although some in the British government, quite understandably, were at times very concerned about these broadcasts, the evidence suggests that hardly anybody in Britain believed a word Joyce said. At the risk of stereotyping about aspects of the national character, one of the best weapons against the Nazis was, arguably, good old-fashioned British scepticism, combined with a sense of humour. The majority of people in this country appear to have tuned into the broadcasts by ‘Lord Haw-Haw’ more for entertainment value, as the BBC’s own broadcasting services at the time were viewed as rather dry and boring.
Joyce was tried for treason and executed in 1946. A number of studies have appeared about ‘Haw-Haw’ since the 1940s, but historians still have many questions about his life, his motivations and his precise impact on public opinion. A major new biography, Searching for Lord Haw-Haw, written by Professor Colin Holmes and due to be published by Routledge this October, will undoubtedly go a long way to answering some of these complex questions. Not only has Holmes spent well over ten years researching into every aspect of Lord Haw-Haw’s life and career, but his new book will also contain some fascinating discussion of the psychological dimensions to propaganda, why some individuals become traitors and ‘propagandists’, and how they often indulge in myth-making about their own lives. It will also explore the continuing reputation of William Joyce in wider memory and culture, a figure who appears to have become something of a reference point once again for contemporary commentators when they try to make sense of extremist propagandists today.
I must declare a personal interest here. Professor Holmes was an external examiner on my PhD! Nevertheless, I am very confident that his new study will be a major contribution to the topic of ‘treason’, and will also help us make much better sense of the actual role and impact of propaganda today.
Steve Woodbridge is Lecturer in History at Kingston University