The Persecution of PG Wodehouse

by Robert A. Hall, Jr.

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The noted Anglo-American humorist Pelham Grenville Wodehouse (1881-1975) led, up to 1940, a life which was professionally very active and successful, but devoid of striking or soul-shaking experiences.1 In that year, however, there occurred an event which changed the course of his life very drastically for the next six years, and cast a lasting, though gradually diminishing, shadow over the rest of his existence until his death on February 14, 1975. He and his wife were living semi-permanently at Le Touquet, in France. The town was captured by the Germans on May 22, 1940, and on July 21, he, with the other male aliens in Le Touquet, were sent off to internment-centers, first at Huy in Belgium and then at Tost in Upper Silesia. His internment lasted until June 21, 1941, on which date he was released (solely because he was almost sixty) and was sent to Berlin, where he was joined by his wife (who had been detained in France).

Up to this point, nothing untoward had happened except the detainment itself. Soon after arriving in Berlin, however, he undertook to write and record five talks describing his experiences as British Civilian Prisoner no. 796. The talks were intended to reassure his American friends that he was well, and to give a humorous description of his experience as an internee. They were made for broadcasting to the United States, with which Germany was, at the time, not at war. They were, nevertheless, also broadcast later (without Wodehouse's having been consulted) to England. Their actual content was simply a straightforward narrative, wholly unpolitical (as can be seen by reading their actual texts2). The German authorities must have been quite insensitive to Wodehouse's brand of humor, because the over-all effect of the talks was to show what fools his SS jailers and the other army-men were. We are told3 that the American army used the Wodehouse talks, later during the war, as prize examples of subtle anti-German propaganda.

In England, however, the fact of his having made the broadcasts aroused a storm of indignation, much of it whipped up artificially by the British Broadcasting Corporation and the newspapers. In the B.B.C.'s defense, it must be said that its directors at first objected, but were ordered by the Government to undertake the slander-campaign against Wodehouse.4 The British public was in a state of rage against Germany because of the pounding England had been taking from the air, and were all too ready to have a scapegoat on whom to vent their anger. As Jasen says:

Comparatively few people actually heard the talks, but the mere knowledge that they had been given on the German radio was enough to whip the British press into a frenzy of hate and vituperation. Without checking the facts and without giving the astonished public a hint of what Plum [i.e. Wodehouse] had said in his broadcasts, the papers reviled him and accused him ---placing him on a par with the arch-traitor known as Lord Haw-Haw.5

After the saturation-bombing of Berlin began in 1943, PG Wodehouse and his wife were permitted to move to Paris, where they remained until 1947. Two British officers, Major Malcolm Muggeridge and Major E.J P. Cussen, were sent to interview Wodehouse. Although both reported that there was no evidence that he had intentionally given any aid to the enemy, nevertheless, Wodehouse and his wife were subjected to a certain amount of harassment by both the British and the French authorities. Some of his English enemies (such as a certain Quintin Hogg, later Lord Hailsham) demanded that he brought back to England and tried for treason.6

Wodehouse and his wife left France in 1947 for the United States, where he remained for the rest of his life. Even after his arrival in America, he was harassed, this time by the United States Treasury, with preposterous claims for allegedly unpaid income-taxes, dating as far back as 1923. The case dragged out for over two and a half years, and was finally decided in his favor on three out of four counts.7

The accusations made against Wodehouse have, in the last forty years, all been refuted, although uninformed persons still repeat them on occasion, either with the general assertion that "somehow Wodehouse blotted his copy-book during the war," or with more specific, though completely unfounded, statements.8 The best way of dealing with these falsehoods is to enumerate them, one by one, together with the truth, in parallel columns. This I shall do in three sections, dealing with his aim in broadcasting his talks over the German radio, his personal character, and his actions.9

I. Wodehouse's Broadcasting

The Lies

1. Wodehouse broadcast for the Nazis. 2. He broadcast propaganda Nazi. 3. He was comparable to William Joyce ("Lord Haw-Haw"). 4. He was comparable to Charles A. Lindbergh, in aiding the enemies of democracy. 5. Wodehouse was a slacker, having fought in neither war.

The Truth

Wodehouse broadcast for himself, to send word of his experience to his friends in America.

He sent only information about his personal experiences, with absolutely no pro-German propaganda.

Joyce's aim was to persuade Britain to cease fighting Germany; Wodehouse made no reference to any such concerns.

Lindbergh's position was based on political and military considerations; Wodehouse was notoriously unpolitical. He had applied to enter the British navy in 1914 and had been rejected because of poor eyesight; in 1939, he was too old. II. Personal Character 1. Wodehouse was a rich idler and a playboy. 2. He was an income-tax dodger. 3. He expressed sympathy for Nazism. 4. He was anti-Jewish.

No professional writer ever worked harder than Wodehouse to earn his pay; his critics were confusing him with his characters, such as Bertie Wooster and the Drones Club.

He had been harassed during the 1930's by both the British and the American authorities, with claims which were later dismissed in large part11.

He was almost completely uninterested in politics, and in 1939 had satirized the British Fascist Sir Oswald Mosley in the character of Roderick Spode.12

He was in no wise anti- Jewish (or, for that matter, anti-any-group).13 III. His Actions 1. The Wodehouses lived in luxury, for free, at the Adlon in Berlin, as a reward for having made the broadcasts. 2. Wodehouse made false statements against Jews, Belgians, and French patriots.

The Adlon was the only place where they were allowed to live, and Wodehouse had to pay for their lodging and food, in part from his German royalties and in part from the sale of some of Mrs. Wodehouse's jewelry.14

He made no such statements; the allegations that he did so emanated from untrustworthy sources (especially the B.B.C.'s propagandists) and have been demonstrated to have been pure inventions.

The outcry against Wodehouse gradually died down, and was generally regarded as definitively ended when he was given a (much belated) knighthood in January, 1975, only a month before his death.15 The government's dossier on Wodehouse was still kept secret, however, until Iain Sproat finally persuaded the authorizes to make the documents available to him in 1980. Nothing was found in them to warrant the attack to which Wodehouse had been subjected both during and after the war.

Why, then, was he persecuted in this way? Primarily because, from various points of view, he was a "sitting duck," a very convenient target for governmental propaganda at a time when popular emotions were strongest and most irrational. Very few people in England had actually heard the Berlin broadcasts, and at the same time very many were ready to believe any propaganda, without verification, against anyone who was alleged to be traitorously aiding the Nazis. Being in Germany, Wodehouse did not know of the current emotional state of the British public, and, even if he had known, he was in no position to defend himself.

The same motive may well have been at work in the United States Treasury Department's post-war harassment of Wodehouse. As is well known,16 during and after Henry Morgenthau, Jr.'s tenure of the Secretaryship of the Treasury, that department was very extensively involved in determining American foreign policy, and was extensively staffed with fanatically anti-German personnel. The decision to press untenable claims against Wodehouse may have emanated from such elements in the Treasury, on the basis of his undeserved reputation for having "collaborated" with the Nazis.17 The validity of this hypothesis can, of course, not be determined until such information as is still extant in the Treasury files is made available to the public.

The basic moral of the "Wodehouse case" is, not that it is undesirable to refrain from "hating in the plural," but that persons with such an out-look should be more aware than he was of the readiness of others to yield to emotionally based mass-hatreds or to exploit them for political purposes. Persons of the Wodehouse type should also be cautious about engaging in activities which can be maliciously misinterpreted and used as pretexts for hostility and persecution.

1. There are good summaries of his life-history in several biographies, e.g. David A. Jasen, P.G. Wodehouse, A Portrait of a Master (New York Mason and Lipscomb, 1974; new, revised edition, New York: Continuum 1981); Benny Green: P.G. Wodehouse, A Literary Biography (London: Pavilion Books and New Yaw: The Rutledge Press, 1981); Frances Donaldson: P.G. Wodehouse, A Biography (London Weidenfeld and Nicolson, and New York Alfred Knopf, 1981).
2. Reproduced in their entirety in Iain Sproat: Wodehouse at War (London: Milner and New Haven [Conn.]: Ticknor and Fields, 1981), pp. 108-28.
3. Richard J. Voorhees: P.G. Wodehouse (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1966), p. 41, ascribing this information to Malcolm Muggeridge. The same story is told by R.B.D. French P.G. Wodehouse (London Oliver and Boyd, 1966; New York: Barnes and Noble, 1967), p. 116, but without mention of Muggeridge.
4. Cf. the accounts given in almost all biographies of Wodehouse, e.g. Jasen's (op. cit., pp. 181-82), or Lady Donaldson's (op. cit., pp. 218-21).
5. Op. cit., p. 180.
6. Cf. Jasen, op. cit., pp. 185-87; Lady Donaldson, op. cit., pp. 242-245.
7. He wrote to his friend William Townend (Performing Flea, letter of May 22, 1945): "They have now gone back to 1925 and claim that I made no return that year or in 1924. I have absolutely no means of proving that I did, but I must have done. I was in America both years and left for England, and you can't get on a boat at New York: unless you have paid your income tax."
8. In his Wodehouse at War, which is the best and the most detailed account of the entire Sooty mess, Iain Sproat states (p. 31) that a certain senior politician, whom he does not name, declared as late as 1980 "Oh, yes, I know all about the Wodehouse case. The man was an out-and-out traitor. He was anti-Churchill. He broadcast propaganda for the Nazis."
9. To save space, I have not given detailed footnote references for each item separately; they are all dealt with in detail in the sources mentioned in the preceding notes, especially the books by Jasen, Sproat, and Lady Donaldson.
10. As pointed out specifically by Wodehouse's friend Denis Mackail, whom Jasen (op. cit., p. 193) cites as having contrasted the accusation made by the journalist William Connor ("Cassandra") that Wodehouse was a "play-boy" with the fact that the latter was actually "the most industrious author I have ever known."
11. Lady Donaldson emphasizes this point by dedicating to it an entire chapter dealing with his troubles from 1932 to 1939, and entitling it "Income Tax" (Chapter 6, pp. 135-53).
12. In The Code of the Woosters (1939), Spode is a highly offensive, aggressive, over-bearing, gorilla-like character, the leader of the British "Black Short," a clear satire on Mussolini and Hitler.
13. Cf. my article "Was Wodehouse Anti-Jewish?" in my Papers on Wodehouse (Ithaca, N.Y.: Linguistica, 1985), with a definitely negative response to the question in the title. It is reported that when, after the war, Wodehouse was urged to declare that he hated the Nazis, he replied, "I don't hate in the plural." He was very much aware that there are too many individual differences among the members of any group to justify judging it es masse. As Edmund Burke said, in his Second Speech on Conciliation with America (1775), 'I do not know the method of drawing up an indictment against an whole people." Such attitudes axe not popular, however, at a time when mass-hatreds are being aroused and exploited by politicians during and after a war.
14. Mrs. Wodehouse was by no means popular at She Adlon, because of her flamboyant, irresponsible behavior (cf. Lady Donaldson's account of Ethel Wodehouse's actions, We 234-235).
15. He is reported to have said, concerning the knighthood, "I think it's sort of a graceful act on the part of the government-sort of their way of saying that's that."
16. For Morgenthau's role in taking the United States' foreign policy out of the hands of the State Debarment, and in establishing such agencies as the War Refugee Boaul, cf. John Morton Blun: Roosevelt and Morgenthau (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1970). pp; 520-33; or any biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt (e.g., most recently, Ted Morgan: F.D.R.: A Biography (New York: Simon and Schuster 1985), pp. 703-05).
17. Sproat (op. cit., pp. 104-05) ascribes the long delay in releasing the Home Office's dossier on Wodehouse to two factors: a desire to protect the name of some man who travelled with Wodehouse from Tost to Berlin, and an intent on the part of bureaucrats to cover up their own or their colleagues' errors for as long as possible. We may wonder whether, perhaps, a third factor may have been the efforts of anti-Germany elements in the British bureaucracy, similar to those in the United States Treasury, to keep Wodehouse's name blackened for as long as they could.

© Robert A. Hall / The Journal for Historical Review