Wodehouse and the War

A friend once asked me:
> Was Wodehouse accused of Nazi sympathies?

Now you've done it: you got me started!

Many people in the UK (there I go, generalising again!), when PGW is mentioned, say something like "Wodehouse? Wasn't he a traitor or something? Lord Haw-Haw?"

When hostilities broke out, Wodehouse was living in Le Touquet in France. When the Germans finally got to that part of France, they arrested Wodehouse and sent him to various internment camps. All male citizens of the UK received this treatment, and they were released at the age of 60. One official in the German government was a fan of PGW's, so he arranged to have him released a couple of months before his 60th birthday. They wouldn't allow him to leave Germany, though, so he (and Ethel) stayed at the Adlon Hotel in Berlin. They had to pay, and since PGW wasn't getting his royalty cheques, Ethel had to sell her jewellery.

At this time, the US was not yet at war with Germany; so the German official suggested to PGW that he make a few broadcasts to his American fans on German radio. Wodehouse thought it would be a good way to let his fans know he was alright, and he made five broadcasts. These could in no way be construed as propaganda; they were merely a sort of memoir of his time in the internments camps and even poked some fun at the Germans. (I've heard that the CIA used them as an example of subtle anti-Nazi work.) They were not meant for the UK; indeed, it was late at night in England when they were broadcast so it's highly unlikely anyone there actually heard them.

There appears to be little doubt that the Germans knew exactly what they were doing; their plan was that by releasing Wodehouse, they would appease the Americans (in particular, a senator named Barbour) and convince them to not enter the war; to "flatter American public opinion generally that American wishes were taken seriously by the German government" (Sproat). It certainly was poor judgement for PGW to speak on German radio, but the speeches themselves were completely innocent of any propaganda.

Someone in the British War Office got incensed that PGW was apparently "offering aid and comfort" to the enemy. They got a columnist called "Cassandra" (William Connor) to attack PGW, and wanted the BBC to carry it. The BBC didn't want to get involved in what they saw as a personal attack but were later ordered to by Duff Cooper, who at the time was, I believe, the Minister of Information. Cassandra and Duff Cooper knew that the speeches were completely innocuous (they were told so by the governors of the BBC, which had monitored the first two of the broadcasts) so they didn't publicise them; instead they resorted to innuendo and implied that PGW was "like" Lord Haw-Haw. And that the Germans put him up at the swank Adlon Hotel to repay him.

Another thing that most people remember is the interview Wodehouse gave to Harry Flannery of CBS on June 26, 1941. The remarks in question are:
1. "... I'm living here at the Adlon -- have a suite on the third floor, a very nice one, too -- and I come and go as I please..."
2. Q. Do you mind being a prisoner-of-war in this fashion, Mr Wodehouse?
A. Not a bit. As long as I have a typewriter and plenty of paper and a room to work in, I'm fine.
3. "... I'm wondering whether the kind of people and the kind of England I write about, will live after the war -- whether England wins or not, I mean...
4. Q. Anything you'd like to say, Mr Wodehouse, about the United States?
A. Yes, I'd like to be back there again. You see, I've always thought of the United States as sort of my country -- lived there almost all the time since 1909 -- and I long to get back there once more.

In fact, Flannery was violently anti-Nazi, despised Wodehouse and had already made up his mind that he was a collaborator and traitor who had bought his freedom by agreeing to broadcast on German radio; and he wrote the script of the whole interview himself, including PGW's answers. (E.g.: PGW had lived at Le Touquet since 1934 except for twelve months in Hollywood.) So much for journalistic ethics!

(It is worth pointing out that Wodehouse's fame and wealth made him an ideal target for sensation seekers like Flannery. It made no difference to them that the Wodehouses lost all their belongings, their villa, cars etc. and the very fact that he was interned and suffered terrible hardship, including the death of his mother and daughter.)

Well, soon everyone started jumping on the bandwagon; notable among them was A. A. Milne. Milne and PGW used to be friends, so when he (Milne) condemned PGW it must have been that much worse *. Some authors, like George Orwell, did defend him, on the grounds that he had merely been stupid and na´ve rather than malevolent. At any rate, Wodehouse never returned to England. What was worse, the Ministry of War claimed the Official Secrets Act and hinted that there was indeed something damning in the file on PGW but refused to release it. That was the reason that it took so long for PGW's knighthood - it took till 1975 before his wellwishers (led by, among others, Malcolm Muggeridge) convinced the government that PGW was not a traitor. (I think it was around 1980 that an MP, Iain Sproat, finally got the MI5 dossier opened and it was like Al Capone's vault - nothing there.) He was in poor health by the time he was awarded the knighthood, and couldn't travel to England to receive the honour (the Queen Mother asked if she couldn't go to New York to knight him!); he died a couple of months later.

As for how Wodehouse felt about the Nazis, he was not a political man, but I think it is telling that one of the foremost villains in the canon, Roderick Spode, is modelled after Oswald Moseley, the fascist. He got back at Duff Cooper too - once when Gussie Fink-Nottle is copped (for wading in the Trafalgar Square fountain looking for newts -- after being "encouraged" to do so by Catsmeat Pirbright), he gives his name as "Alfred Duff Cooper".

Many years after all this, PGW met Cassandra Wilson and they got along famously. When someone (I forget who) was writing a strong piece on the villainy, PGW begged him to go easy on Cassandra because "he is a good sort of chap, and he loves cats."

For more information, read Wodehouse At War by Iain Sproat, Ticknor & Fields pub. ISBN 0 89919 098 7 (1981).

Other people's opinions
- Rebuttal to this opinion
- Orwell's In Defence of P. G. Wodehouse

Post-scriptum Sept. 1999: The furor has broken out anew, with some British tabloids (The Independent) charging that "new" documents from MI5 revealed that Wodehouse was paid "considerable" sums of money for his broadcasts. Never mind the fact that Major Cussen of MI5 who investigated the Wodehouses shortly after the war exonerated him completely, and that the money was something in the nature of US$1000; and that it was nothing more or less than some American royalties that had been paid to him via the German authorities. Francis Wheen, writing in The Guardian on Sept. 22, 1999, covers all these facts much better than I could.

The Broadcasts

  1. 28 June, 1941
  2. 9 July, 1941
  3. 23 July, 1941
  4. 30 July, 1941
  5. 6 August, 1941

All opinions, errors and omissions are, of course, my own; please let me know about them. The errors and omissions, I mean!

* About Milne, he later said: `My personal animosity against a writer never affects my opinion of what he writes. Nobody could be more anxious than myself, for instance, that Alan Alexander Milne should trip over a loose bootlace and break his bloody neck, yet I re-read his early stuff at regular intervals with all the old enjoyment.' And, of course, there are the ``Timothy Bobbin'' stories -- Rodney Has A Relapse etc.