BOOK REVIEW News Weekly
, August 6, 2011
TREASON OF THE HEART:
From Thomas Paine To Kim Philby
by David Pryce-Jones
(New York: Encounter Books)
Hardcover: 224 pages
Reviewed by Bill James
It is fairly common knowledge that there were a number of British admirers of Hitler before and during World War II.
Most people have heard of Sir Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists; William Joyce, the “Lord Haw-Haw” who broadcast for the Reich; and the Duke of Windsor, formerly King Edward VIII.
However, hundreds of lesser-known Nazi sympathisers from Britain worked in Germany during the war, and a few dozen POWs were induced to join a British Free Corps, as auxiliaries in the SS.
The word “traitor” is an accurate description of such characters, even if they did not all actually take up arms against their own country.
A similarly straightforward accusation of treachery can be directed against British supporters of the 20th century’s other major and equally repulsive tyranny, communism, in its Stalinist, Maoist and other manifestations.
The list of celebrities in this category is much longer, and ranges from writers Arthur Ransome, H.G. Wells, Walter Duranty, George Bernard Shaw. J.B. Priestley and Kingsley Martin, to clerics such as the “Red Dean” Hewlett Johnson, to historians such as E.J. Hobsbawm and Christopher Hill, and finally the spies Kim Philby, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean.
Pro-fascists and pro-communists are the culminating, and most unambiguous specimens on the list of those whom David Pryce-Jones sums up as “British people who took up foreign causes … intellectuals deluded about the effect of what they are doing”.
The preceding groups and individuals whom he describes, however, beginning in the late 18th century with supporters of the American and French Revolutions, are not so easily categorisable, condemnable or dismissable.
It is impossible, in fact, to read most of the book without recurrent mutterings of, “Yes, but …”.
Take the American War of Independence, for example, with which Pryce-Jones’s account opens.
Tom Paine might have had questionable motives for backing the American rebels, but their cause itself would now be generally regarded as unexceptionable (despite the sympathy which we might feel for Doctor Johnson’s complaint, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?”)
Likewise, given the conditions in France under the Ancien Régime, it is hardly surprising that some British observers regarded the radical changes made under the Revolution and Napoleon (1789-1815) as less than wholly deplorable, despite the extremists and excesses which accompanied them.
Something similar could be said of nearly all the subsequent causes which are described here, such as the campaigns for Greek, Polish, Hungarian, Italian, Irish and Indian independence.
Then there are the uprisings of the subjugated nationalities — Serbians, Bosnians, Armenians — against the Ottoman Empire.
Arabs, who while Muslim, are ethnically different from Turks, also fought for independence from Constantinople/Istanbul.
Mention of Arabs raises the issue of anti-Semitism, which in turn raises the topic of the battle of the Jews to create and defend Israel.
In the cases of all the foregoing, examples of bad faith, duplicity, stupidity, cruelty and inconsistency, on the part of both the oppressed groups and the oppressing powers, can be (and are) cited.
Similarly varied and complex are the traits and actions of the British who supported these causes, and also the British who (officially or otherwise) opposed them.
In both categories there are examples of blindness, prejudice, and degrees of eccentricity which range from the merely obtuse to the seemingly psychotic.
Just a few representative names — Lord Byron, Richard Burton, T.E. Lawrence, Orde Wingate — give some indication of the strong and colourful characters who populate this narrative.
And always remember: there were and are freaks and weirdos in the ranks of the most laudable of causes, such as the opposition to Mao, Hitler, Stalin et al.
Being “normal” and well-adjusted is not a qualification for being right!
To summarise, Pryce-Jones mounts a substantial, indeed unanswerable, case when he condemns Nazi and communist traitors to Britain; but many of his other so-called traitors were participating, with or without official British government approval, in causes which we can at least understand, and with which we can in many cases keenly sympathise.
But don’t take my word for it.
Buy Treason Of The Heart and immerse yourself in Pryce-Jones’s take on the history of the last two-and-a-half centuries.
Whether or not you always agree with him, you will be enthralled and captivated by the detailed, exotic cast and scenarios which he presents for our delectation.
Bill James is a Melbourne writer.