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There has been much comment on the now infamous Berlin Broadcasts both at the time and subsequently. Before we go any further into the subject it would be wise to clear one thing up, once and for all.

PG Wodehouse has been cleared completely
of any impropriety

For those wishing to appraise themselves fully of all the facts then
Iain Sproat's excellent book Wodehouse at War is an essential work.
To give an overview here is Sproat's excellent article from the Times Literary Supplement.

Documents from the files of MI5, previously classified, were released last month by the Public Records Office. These documents included references to PG Wodehouse's activities during the Second World War, and to MI5's investigations into whether Wodehouse had been guilty of treachery, by working for the Germans. The release of MI5 files has provoked in the media over the past few weeks a ferocious storm of accusations against PG Wodehouse. In British newspapers ranging from the serious broadsheets to the tabloids, he has been branded - often without even the puny mitigation of the word "alleged" - a traitor, a spy, "a sinister character ... of extreme right wing views". Accused of being sympathetic to Hitler; of having been on the Nazi payroll "in a lucrative job for Hitler's propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels"; of having spent the war in "luxurious hotels" in Berlin and Paris, all expenses paid by the Nazis.

The key references were in papers taken from the files of the German Embassy in Paris, following the liberation of Paris in August 1944. They showed that Wodehouse had been paid, through the German Embassy in Paris, the following sums: 568,000 French francs in October 1943; and 100,000, 180,000, 60,000 and 60,000 French francs in May, June, July and August 1944. The files also showed enquiries as to whether Wodehouse might be entitled to receive Embassy rations of soap and cigarettes; and that the German military authorities had been requested by the Embassy to see that Wodehouse's villa at Le Touquet (where he had been living before the war) be kept in good order.

Let me put this new evidence in the wider context of Wodehouse's life from 1940 to 1944.

In July 1941, he gave five talks on Nazi radio, from Berlin. In this country and in the United States, he was denounced as a traitor, a coward, a collaborator and a Nazi sympathizer. A BBC broadcaster, that same month, poured upon him what was, perhaps, the most vituperative vilification of one man ever heard on the BBC. In Parliament, Anthony Eden, then Foreign Secretary, accused Wodehouse of having lent his services to the Nazi war propaganda machine", and Quintin Hogg, then a Conservative MP, compared him to "Lord Haw-Haw". The BBC banned all his works. Public libraries refused to buy any more of his books; indeed, Southport Public Library removed ninety of his books from their shelves, and destroyed them.

In fact, nobody who reads the text of those broadcasts today can fail to see that they are no more than light-hearted accounts of Wodehouse's capture and internment by the Nazis. They contain not one single word of pro-Nazi, or anti-British, sentiment. Indeed, they poked fun at the Germans, and made clear that morale among British internees was high. As Wodehouse himself said in a cable to the editor of the American magazine, the Saturday Evening Post (America had not yet joined the war), who had complained, after the first broadcast, that Wodehouse had been "callous about England": "Cannot understand what you meant about callousness. Mine simple flippant, cheerful attitude of all British prisoners; it was a point of honour with us not to whine." In fact, in a conversation which I had last year with the distinguished historian, Barrie Pitt, who had been a fellow internee of Wodehouse's, he told me the following: to help keep up morale at Tost, it was decided by the British internees to have a series of talks and concerts. The first of these talks, one Saturday morning, was given by Wodehouse. The text of his talk was pretty much the text of the five broadcasts. The talk was received by his fellow internees with much laughter and applause.

However, as described above, the broadcasts were received differently back in Britain, and in the US. What appear now to be absurd interpretations were placed upon Wodehouse's words: for example, as a mildly facetious way of describing how the Germans, arriving in Le Touquet, commandeered his bath, Wodehouse wrote: "There was scarcely an evening when two or three of them [German soldiers] did not drop in for a bath at my house, and a beaming party on the porch afterwards." Even George Orwell, in his essay, "In Defence of P. G. Wodehouse", ludicrously misinterpreted this as: "He [Wodehouse] was placed under house arrest .... German officers in the neighbourhood 'dropping in for a bath or a party.'" In a letter to his old schoolfriend, Bill Townend, Wodehouse wrote:

From Orwell's article, you would think I had invited the blighters to come and scour their damned bodies in my bathroom. What actually happened was that at the end of the second week of occupation, the house next door became full of German Labour Corps workers and they seemed to have got me muddled up with Tennyson's Sir Walter Vivian. The gentleman who 'all of a summer's day gave his broad lawns until the set of sun to the people.' I suppose to a man fond of German Labour Corps workers, and liking to hear them singing in the bath, the conditions would have been ideal, but they didn't suit me. I chafed, and a fat lot of good chafing did me. They came again next day and brought their friends.

Wodehouse protested his innocence in various interviews with newspapers and magazines. It did little good. As he also wrote in the letter to Townend already quoted:

You ask, Do I approve of your publishing this book [of correspondence between them] with all the stuff about German troubles? Certainly. But mark this, laddie, I don't suppose that anything you say, or anything I say, will make the slightest damn bit of difference. You need dynamite to dislodge an idea that has got itself firmly rooted in the public mind .... It [the general public's belief that Wodehouse was a traitor] is embedded in the world's folklore, and nothing will ever get it out.

Was Wodehouse innocent? What is the whole truth?

Wodehouse and his wife, Ethel, had lived in Le Touquet since 1934. The speed of the German advance, through northern France, in May 1940, took the Wodehouses - as it took the British High Command - by surprise. Wodehouse was captured and sent to an internment camp at Tost in Upper Silesia. In June 1941, he was released, and taken to Berlin. There he made five broadcasts on German radio. His wife soon joined him in Berlin. The Wodehouses lived in Germany under supervision for just over two years; in the Hotel Adlon in Berlin during the winters, and for the rest of the year with friends, in, respectively, Degenershausen in the Harz mountains, and in Lobnis in Upper Silesia. In September 1943, they were allowed to move to Paris, where they stayed under supervision at the Hotel Bristol. In August 1944, the Allies liberated Paris. In September, an investigation into Wodehouse's actions was carried out by Major E. J. P. Cussen of MI5, later a judge.

The main charges against Wodehouse, which Cussen specifically investigated, were as follows: that he made no attempt to escape the advancing German Army in May 1940; that he and his wife willingly entertained Germans in their hotels in Germany and France; that he was a Nazi sympathizer; that during his time in internment he was granted special privileges for collaborating with the Germans; that he was released from internment on condition that he broadcast Nazi propaganda from Berlin; that he did broadcast such Nazi propaganda; and that thereafter he lived a life of contemptible ease and luxury for the rest of the war, paid for by the Germans, as reward for his help in their war effort.

Cussen's first report, and, as it turned out, his only report on the truth or otherwise of these charges, was signed by him on September 28, 1944. The purpose of my giving this date is to make clear that the report was written after only a month's investigation; and, of course, it was written while the war was still raging, with all the chaotic difficulties which that meant. In that month, Cussen was able to find no proof of that guilt on any of the charges, and in the case of two of the charges - namely, that Wodehouse had not tried to escape the advancing German Army, and that the broadcasts were Nazi propaganda - Cussen found Wodehouse innocent.

Cussen continued his investigation after September 28; indeed, there are copies of important letters from Wodehouse to Cussen, dated as late as February 1946, included in the MI5 file released last month. By this time, Cussen was convinced of Wodehouse's innocence. I have been told this by independent witnesses who had discussed the case with Cussen. But Cussen, sadly, did not produce a report giving his final conclusions of Wodehouse's innocence. Nor was the one report he did produce, referred to above, released until 1980. This failure to make public his innocence was tragic for Wodehouse. Furthermore, Wodehouse suffered from the loss of another opportunity for his innocence to be publicly made clear. There is a passage in one of Wodehouse's letters to Cussen, in the file, dated November 2, 1945:

I had a letter from Ian Hay [the authorial pseudonym of Major-General John Hay Beith] in which he mentioned meeting Sir Donald [Somervell; Attorney-General] at the Beefsteak Club, and he said that Sir Donald, when my case came up, said that, while I had been indiscreet, no possible charge of disloyalty could be made against me.

Would it not be possible for some public statement to this effect to be made? As matters stand at present, very few people in America know what has happened, and the prevalent opinion seems to be that I did German propaganda on the radio, and am pro-Nazi. My friends naturally ridicule this opinion, and do all they can to counter it, but what is needed is an official statement .... I do think that, if Sir Donald Somervell's opinion is the accepted one, some notification of the fact should be given to the public.

It was a reasonable request. It was not granted. Justice was not served.

It is a melancholy reflection on Wodehouse's remark that the prevalent opinion in America, when the war ended, was that he was "Pro Nazi", as even some ten years later a literary critic reviewing his latest book, Nothing Serious, after using words of lavish praise, such as Wodehouse "is in midseason form ... Just what the doctor ordered ... sheerest delight", added these ludicrously false sentences: "Gone are the memories of the nightmare which was visited upon him [Wodehouse] in World War II, when his Nazi captors persuaded him to broadcast from his Upper Silesian prison appeals to his British countrymen to surrender to the madman of Berchtesgaden." Some thirty-five years after the war ended, I tracked down witnesses, British and German, one or other of whom had been with Wodehouse at every relevant moment of his tragic sequence of events. The collected testimony of these witnesses showed poor Wodehouse to have been well intentioned throughout, and wholly innocent of all the charges, although, at different moments in the wretched saga, mistaken, foolish and naive.

Of those witnesses, the most important was Werner Plack. Plack had been an actor in Hollywood when Wodehouse was writing film scripts there in 1936-7. The two men were slight acquaintances. In 1943, Plack was working in the German Foreign Office. Plack explained to me how Wodehouse was unwittingly manipulated into making the broadcasts. The plan was the brainchild of Dr Paul Schmidt, the head of the private office of Ribbentrop, the German Foreign Secretary. In his plan, Schmidt brought together several disparate elements: first, it was, in 1941, a key German Foreign Office policy objective to keep America out of the war. Second, the German Foreign Office was strongly conscious of their need for a policy success to increase their influence in Nazi circles - particularly vis--vis Goebbels's Ministry of Propaganda, which they regarded as uncouth and narrow-minded. Third, it was the custom of the Germans to release all interned civilian enemy aliens at the age of sixty. Fourth, a US Senator, Warren Barbour, had presented a well-publicized petition to the German Embassy in Washington, asking for Wodehouse's release.

Since Wodehouse would be sixty in October 1941, Schmidt felt that releasing him a few months early would be a relatively simple matter about which to get agreement from other German ministries; would please the Americans; show that Germans were capable of civilized behaviour; and thus help keep America out of the war, and show the German Foreign Office in a successful light. But Schmidt's plan hit a snag. Goebbels refused to agree to Wodehouse's release.

At this point, another character entered their plot. Confusingly, he was also called Paul Schmidt. He was director of the German Foreign Office's American department. He had been Hitler's English interpreter; he was an admirer of Wodehouse's novels, though he had never met him; and he had recently read an article which Wodehouse had written for the Saturday Evening Post, entitled "My War with Germany". Prompted by the thought that many British prisoners of war had been allowed to broadcast brief messages to their families, reassuring them they were alive, the second Schmidt suggested tacking on to the other Schmidt's original idea the possibility of a broadcast by Wodehouse to America - not to the UK - along the same light-hearted lines as the magazine article. This time Goebbels's Ministry agreed.

Wodehouse knew nothing of all this. All he knew was that, on June 21, 1941, he was released, wholly unexpectedly, and, without warning, taken to Berlin, where he was met by Plack. In Wodehouse's own words, there was another relevant thought: he had received many letters and even food parcels from American fans to whom he had not been allowed to reply (internees were allowed to write only to family members). He had much wished to do so, and this proposed broadcast would enable him to.

So the wretched cycle of events began.

Plack emphasized to me very strongly that the whole point of releasing Wodehouse, and persuading him to broadcast, was that he was not a Nazi sympathizer, that he was not a collaborator and that he was not a traitor. If Wodehouse had been any of these things, there would have been nothing surprising about the Nazis' releasing of him, nor of his broadcasting, and therefore nothing by way of good reaction from America.

Such were the German Foreign Office's intentions. Tragically for Wodehouse, after the broadcasts had been recorded, Goebbels's Propaganda Ministry changed its mind and decided - to the fury of the Foreign Office - that there was more mileage to be made out of portraying Wodehouse as a Nazi sympathizer, as a second Lord Haw-Haw. Goebbels's officials then began a campaign to persuade all neutral, foreign journalists in Berlin - notably American and Swedish ones - that this was the case. It was Goebbels's Ministry which rebroadcast the talks to the United Kingdom, without the knowledge of the German Foreign Office.

Plack was detailed by the Foreign Office to become Wodehouse's minder. This he did very willingly. Plack, and the second Schmidt, felt deeply guilty about the now widespread belief that Wodehouse was a traitor. It was indirectly Plack's, and Schmidt's, remorse that was responsible for the financial entries in the files of the German Embassy in Paris in 1944. Schmidt gave Plack three general instructions: first, that he was to see the Wodehouses regularly, just to make sure they got into no trouble, and to offer help or advice whenever it could be done without compromising Wodehouse; second, that Wodehouse should be encouraged to resume his writing, so that he could earn a living without ever having to take any money from the German Government; thirdly, that Plack was to ensure that Wodehouse never met any of the real traitors, like William Joyce (Lord Haw-Haw), or John Amery. All these instructions, Plack fulfilled.

Wodehouse never received any money from the German Government, Plack made clear to me, and provided for his wife and himself in Germany and, later, in France, from royalty payments from neutral countries; by borrowing from acquaintances, to be repaid after the war; by his wife selling her jewellery; by living free, on two occasions, in the house of a German friend, met in America (later shot for being involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler); by selling the film rights of his novel, Heavy Weather, to the Berliner Film Company, on condition that no propaganda use was made of this, and that the film was made after the war; and by selling a short story to a Paris newspaper.

Although the various sums of money listed in the files of the German Embassy in Paris seem to be new evidence, this is not the case. For example, the sum of 580,000 French francs given to Wodehouse by the Embassy in October 1943 is (allowing for exchange rates) the same sum of 29,000 German marks which appears in the account of his own money which Wodehouse wrote for Cussen in September 1944, as being all the money which the German currency regulations allowed him to take from Berlin to Paris in 1943. This sum was, in fact, only half the money the Wodehouses then had; the other half was given by them to Plack for safe-keeping. Ethel Wodehouse complained in September 1944, in her note to Cussen about the Wodehouse finances, that she often, while in Paris, asked Plack to give this money back, but that he had been slow in returning it. Actually, Plack's slowness may have been because returning the money would have been in breach of the currency regulations. I suspect from the whole tenor of my talks with Plack in 1980, when he told me with some relish of the wiles to which he resorted to help the Wodehouses, that the 100,000 francs described in Embassy files as "travelling expenses" in May 1944 were a small but no doubt useful part of the balance of the Wodehouses' Berlin money, slipped through the Embassy conduit as "travelling expenses". In fact, Plack did send 560,000 francs (the remaining half of the Berlin money) to the Wodehouses, through the Swiss Consulate in Paris, in September 1944, a few weeks after the German forces had been driven out of Paris. This is mentioned in Cussen's report.

The reference in the Embassy files, in October 1943, to a query as to whether the Wodehouses might be eligible to receive soap and cigarette rations through the Embassy was, as I am sure from my talks with Plack, a response to the instruction to Plack to look after the Wodehouses without compromising them.

Likewise, I am sure that Plack was responsible for the reference, in February 1944, to the request to German military authorities to ensure that Wodehouse's villa at Le Touquet, commandeered as accommodation for German troops, be kept in good order.

The final references to Wodehouse's finances are the payments of 180,000, 60,000 and 60,000 French francs in June, July and August 1944. These sums were suspected at first by MI5 of being payments for work done by him on behalf of the Nazis. However, after detailed investigation, MI5 rejected this conclusion. In fact, these sums correlate, as approximately as might seem reasonable in the chaos of that time, to the sum of 320,000 francs which Wodehouse had already listed, in his statement to Cussen, as having been received as royalties from his Spanish publisher, Jose Janes, sums which would have had to be paid through the German authorities.

The British Foreign Office and Ministry of Defence papers, contained in the MI5 file, show that by 1947 the British authorities had concluded that Wodehouse had no case to answer either over the broadcasts or the money, and, in the words of the Foreign Office, contained in the file:
"Mr Wodehouse made the celebrated broadcasts
in all innocence and without any evil intent."

© Iain Sproat & The TLS

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