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The P.G. WODEHOUSE FATAL ERROR DURING THE WAR .// VIDEO: P.G.Wodehouse after his Berlin broadcast: BBC4 Wodehouse in Exile


PG Wodehouse

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Confronted with evil, Wodehouse made a ghastly error


Robert McCrum

The latest revelations about PG Wodehouse only serve to point up his naivety, not any dark intent on his part


Sun 28 Aug 2011 00.04 BSTFirst published on Sun 28 Aug 2011 00.04 BST



PG Wodehouse is a writer of genius whose plots teem with brilliant comic vicissitudes. Privately, he was also a lifelong connoisseur of the snakes and ladders of everyday life. "Isn't it the damnedest thing," he wrote to a friend in 1945, "how Fate lurks to sock you with the stuffed eel skin?"


The latest MI5 release of restricted files about wartime "renegades" has proved a big week for stuffed eel skins. It must be one of Fate's cruellest jokes that the creator of Bertie Wooster, Jeeves and Lord Emsworth should be so mixed up in the toxic afterlife of the Third Reich. As he might have put it himself, Wodehouse and the Second World War now seem as hopelessly scrambled together as ham and eggs or Fortnum & Mason.


Once again, the new "Wodehouse files" (actually just a few pages of dodgy Berlin gossip) provide an opportunity to hash over the "infamous" Nazi broadcasts and some long discredited accusations of "treachery" and "collaboration". Among the many ironies from this latest episode is the fact that MI5 itself concluded, after a thorough interrogation of Wodehouse in 1944, that he was innocent, though this secret verdict was never vouchsafed to the writer in his lifetime, another cruel twist in the tale.


Wodehouse confessed that he suffered "a great deal of mental pain" from Berlin. To his countless fans around the world, Wodehouse's wartime disgrace is a continuing source of anguish. The author of some of the most sublime comic novels and stories in the English language, they say, long ago paid a terrible price for something that he always conceded was "a loony thing to do". Why, they wonder, will this story not go away?


It's a fair question. When I published my biography, Wodehouse: A Life in 2004, I examined the record of Wodehouse's war in excruciating detail. I concluded, with MI5, that he had behaved stupidly and that, yes, some of his decisions were questionable. But there were no grounds for prosecution. None. This conclusion was widely accepted and generally recognised to be right and just. Yet here we are in 2011 reading headlines such as "Wodehouse's Nazi contacts" and "Nazi collaborator".


It's 70 years since Wodehouse made his broadcasts. Today, these five talks seem frivolous, inconsequential and not even very funny, the kind of amiable light humour you might expect to find on a 1940s wireless programme. The impassioned debate about their meaning seems as remote as the controversies of medieval theology, arguments that generate more heat than light and which, on closer examination, seem deeply insubstantial.


But there it is: Wodehouse has become shackled to the Third Reich like Prometheus to his rock. Periodically, he gets eviscerated by the vultures of the commentariat, even while a fair-minded consideration of his behaviour does not come close to carrying a charge of "treachery". Nazi Germany is always good copy, but I now believe that there is something archetypal about this story that transcends its historical carapace. This, surely, is the only explanation for its extraordinary persistence.


At the point, in 1941, at which Wodehouse was released from internment as an "enemy alien", he had already written most of the books for which he is remembered – Very Good, Jeeves, Heavy Weather, The Code of the Woosters and Uncle Fred in the Springtime – and been celebrated across the English-speaking world for his genius in a way known to few writers of the 20th century.


It was his success that placed him in France in 1940 (a villa in Le Touquet) and it was his fame that attracted the Nazis' attention, exposing him to a historic test for which he was ill-suited. It is another cruel irony of Wodehouse's story that the thing with which he was blessed – his inimitable lightness of spirit and self-protective flippancy – that betrayed him. His instinct to look for the joke in a bad situation was typical of his class and his generation. What he did not understand was that his fateful collision with the 20th century had put him in circumstances that were beyond a joke.


The Wodehouse saga has many tantalising dimensions – what serious propaganda advantage did the Nazis hope to extract from England's most celebrated writer?; why did Wodehouse agree to use Nazi radio? – but at its heart there lies the simplest, most existential, question of all: how, confronted with a terrible challenge from history, should a human being respond? Indeed, who among us, faced with an unthinkable evil such as Nazism, and a dreadful moral choice, could be certain of their response before the eye of eternity ?


The broadcasts throw up a lot of questions: why did the Nazis release Wodehouse from camp, on the eve of Operation Barbarossa (the invasion of the USSR)? Did he make a deal? Why did he not flee at once to the safety of a neutral state such as Switzerland?


Behind these unanswered challenges from the historical record lurks a tragic dilemma, one that would have taxed the resilience of any artist, let alone one so temperamentally averse to confronting the serious questions of existence.


What Wodehouse was obliged to address, in Germany in 1941, at terrible personal cost, was a moment of reckoning unique in English literature, a simple question: what is the proper stance for an artist faced with overwhelming moral evil? How should the innocent individual conduct himself in his response to totalitarian tyranny? Is calculated levity an appropriate riposte?


Wodehouse's answer – his broadcasts – was a dreadful error of judgment and he always conceded a "ghastly mistake". It enraged Britain at war. It continues to disappoint and perplex us now and probably always will. Looking on the bright side, as Wodehouse was temperamentally inclined to do, this latest reappearance of Fate's stuffed eel skin will remind another generation about his oeuvre, approximately 100 of the funniest books ever written in the English language. Second World War: internment and broadcasts





MAY 25

At the start of the Second World War Wodehouse and his wife remained at their Le Touquet house, where, during the Phoney War, he worked on Joy in the Morning. With the advance of the Germans, the nearby Royal Air Force base withdrew; Wodehouse was offered the sole spare seat in one of the fighter aircraft, but he turned down the opportunity as it would have meant leaving behind Ethel and their dog. On 21 May 1940, with German troops advancing through northern France, the Wodehouses decided to drive to Portugal and fly from there to the US. Two miles from home their car broke down, so they returned and borrowed a car from a neighbour; with the routes blocked with refugees, they returned home again.


The Germans occupied Le Touquet on 22 May 1940 and Wodehouse had to report to the authorities daily. After two months of occupation the Germans interned all male enemy nationals under 60, and Wodehouse was sent to a former prison in Loos, a suburb of Lille, on 21 July; Ethel remained in Le Touquet. The internees were placed four to a cell, each of which had been designed for one man. One bed was available per cell, which was made available to the eldest man—not Wodehouse, who slept on the granite floor. The prisoners were not kept long in Loos before they were transported in cattle trucks to a former barracks in Liège, Belgium, which was run as a prison by the SS. After a week the men were transferred to Huy in Liège, where they were incarcerated in the local citadel. They remained there until September 1940, when they were transported to Tost in Upper Silesia (then Germany, now Toszek in Poland).


Wodehouse's family and friends had not had any news of his location after the fall of France, but an article from an Associated Press reporter who had visited Tost in December 1940 led to pressure on the German authorities to release the novelist. This included a petition from influential people in the US; Senator W. Warren Barbour presented it to the German ambassador. Although his captors refused to release him, Wodehouse was provided with a typewriter and, to pass the time, he wrote Money in the Bank. Throughout his time in Tost, he sent postcards to his US literary agent asking for $5 to be sent to various people in Canada, mentioning his name. These were the families of Canadian prisoners of war, and the news from Wodehouse was the first indication that their sons were alive and well. Wodehouse risked severe punishment for the communication, but managed to evade the German censor.


I never was interested in politics. I'm quite unable to work up any kind of belligerent feeling. Just as I'm about to feel belligerent about some country I meet a decent sort of chap. We go out together and lose any fighting thoughts or feelings.

— Wodehouse, in his Berlin broadcasts.

On 21 June 1941, while he was in the middle of playing a game of cricket, Wodehouse received a visit from two members of the Gestapo. He was given ten minutes to pack his things before he was taken to the Hotel Adlon, a top luxury hotel in Berlin. He stayed there at his own expense; royalties from the German editions of his books had been put into a special frozen bank account at the outset of the war, and Wodehouse was permitted to draw upon this money he had earned while staying in Berlin.He was thus released from internment a few months before his sixtieth birthday—the age at which civilian internees were released by the Nazis. Shortly afterwards Wodehouse was, in the words of Phelps, "cleverly trapped" into making five broadcasts to the US via German radio, with the Berlin-based correspondent of the Columbia Broadcasting System. The broadcasts—aired on 28 June, 9, 23 and 30 July and 6 August—were titled How to be an Internee Without Previous Training, and comprised humorous anecdotes about Wodehouse's experiences as a prisoner, including some gentle mocking of his captors. The German propaganda ministry arranged for the recordings to be broadcast to Britain in August. The day after Wodehouse recorded his final programme, Ethel joined him in Berlin, having sold most of her jewellery to pay for the journey.


Aftermath: reactions and investigation

The reaction in Britain to Wodehouse's broadcasts was hostile, and he was "reviled ... as a traitor, collaborator, Nazi propagandist, and a coward", although, Phelps observes, many of those who decried his actions had not heard the content of the programmes. A front-page article in The Daily Mirror stated that Wodehouse "lived luxuriously because Britain laughed with him, but when the laughter was out of his country's heart, ... [he] was not ready to share her suffering. He hadn't the guts ... even to stick it out in the internment camp." In the House of Commons Anthony Eden, the Foreign Secretary, regretted Wodehouse's actions. Several libraries removed Wodehouse novels from their shelves.


On 15 July the journalist William Connor, under his pen name Cassandra, broadcast a postscript to the news programme railing against Wodehouse. According to The Times, the broadcast "provoked a storm of complaint ... from listeners all over the country". Wodehouse's biographer, Joseph Connolly, thinks the broadcast "inaccurate, spiteful and slanderous"; Phelps calls it "probably the most vituperative attack on an individual ever heard on British radio". The broadcast was made at the direct instruction of Duff Cooper, the Minister of Information, who overruled strong protests made by the BBC against the decision to air the programme. Numerous letters appeared in the British press, both supporting and criticising Wodehouse. The letters page of The Daily Telegraph became a focus for censuring Wodehouse, including one from Wodehouse's friend, A. A. Milne; a reply from their fellow author Compton Mackenzie in defence of Wodehouse was not published because the editor claimed a lack of space. Most of those defending Wodehouse against accusations of disloyalty, including Sax Rohmer, Dorothy L. Sayers and Gilbert Frankau, conceded that he had acted stupidly. Some members of the public wrote to the newspapers to say that the full facts were not yet known and a fair judgment could not be made until they were. The management of the BBC, who considered Wodehouse's actions no worse than "ill advised", pointed out to Cooper that there was no evidence at that point whether Wodehouse had acted voluntarily or under compulsion.


When Wodehouse heard of the furore the broadcasts had caused, he contacted the Foreign Office—through the Swiss embassy in Berlin—to explain his actions, and attempted to return home via neutral countries, but the German authorities refused to let him leave. In Performing Flea, a 1953 collection of letters, Wodehouse wrote, "Of course I ought to have had the sense to see that it was a loony thing to do to use the German radio for even the most harmless stuff, but I didn't. I suppose prison life saps the intellect". The reaction in America was mixed: the left-leaning publication PM accused Wodehouse of "play[ing] Jeeves to the Nazis", but the Department of War used the interviews as an ideal representation of anti-Nazi propaganda.


The broadcasts, in point of fact, are neither anti- nor pro-German, but just Wodehousian. He is a man singularly ill-fitted to live in a time of ideological conflict, having no feelings of hatred about anyone, and no very strong views about anything. ... I never heard him speak bitterly about anyone—not even about old friends who turned against him in distress. Such temperament does not make for good citizenship in the second half of the Twentieth Century.

— Malcolm Muggeridge, discussing Wodehouse's wartime broadcasts from Germany.

The Wodehouses remained in Germany until September 1943, when, because of the Allied bombings, they were allowed to move back to Paris. They were living there when the city was liberated on 25 August 1944; Wodehouse reported to the American authorities the following day, asking them to inform the British of his whereabouts. He was subsequently visited by Malcolm Muggeridge, recently arrived in Paris as an intelligence officer with MI6. The young officer quickly came to like Wodehouse and considered the question of treasonable behaviour as "ludicrous"; he summed up the writer as "ill-fitted to live in an age of ideological conflict". On 9 September Wodehouse was visited by an MI5 officer and former barrister, Major Edward Cussen, who formally investigated him, a process that stretched over four days. On 28 September Cussen filed his report, which states that in regard to the broadcasts, Wodehouse's behaviour "has been unwise", but advised against further action. On 23 November Theobald Matthew, the Director of Public Prosecutions, decided there was no evidence to justify prosecuting Wodehouse.


In November 1944 Duff Cooper was appointed British ambassador to France and was provided accommodation at the Hôtel Le Bristol, where the Wodehouses were living. Cooper complained to the French authorities, and the couple were moved to a different hotel. They were subsequently arrested by French police and placed under preventive detention, despite no charges being presented. When Muggeridge tracked them down later, he managed to get Ethel released straight away and, four days later, ensured that the French authorities declared Wodehouse unwell and put him in a nearby hospital, which was more comfortable than where they had been detained. While in this hospital, Wodehouse worked on his novel Uncle Dynamite.


While still detained by the French, Wodehouse was again mentioned in questions in the House of Commons in December 1944 when MPs wondered if the French authorities could repatriate him to stand trial. Eden stated that the "matter has been gone into, and, according to the advice given, there are no grounds upon which we could take action". Two months later, Orwell wrote the essay "In Defence of P.G. Wodehouse", where he stated that "it is important to realise that the events of 1941 do not convict Wodehouse of anything worse than stupidity". Orwell's rationale was that Wodehouse's "moral outlook has remained that of a public-school boy, and according to the public-school code, treachery in time of war is the most unforgivable of all the sins", which was compounded by his "complete lack—so far as one can judge from his printed works—of political awareness".


On 15 January 1945 the French authorities released Wodehouse, but they did not inform him, until June 1946, that he would not face any official charges and was free to leave the country.


1 comment:

City History Project said...

Storm in a teacup, really. A compound of (understandable) wartime hysteria and dodgy journalists.