That’s the question we’re most often asked the moment we mention William Joyce. The facts can be baldly stated, just ask Wikipedia:
William Brooke Joyce (24 April 1906 – 3 January 1946), nicknamed Lord Haw-Haw, was an American-born Irish–British Fascist politician and Nazi propaganda broadcaster to the United Kingdom during World War II. He was convicted of one count of high treason in 1945. The Court of Appeal and the House of Lords upheld his conviction. He was hanged at Wandsworth Prison by Albert Pierrepoint.
But the facts of Joyce’s life -like those of any of our existences – are infinitely more complex than can be contained in a solitary paragraph. For one thing, although he was the last man to be hanged in this country for high treason, his love of Britain – or more specifically England “on the Lea” – was such that he had been marked out for assassination by the IRA as a mere teenager, had been rejected from the Foreign Office for being “too keen”, and when asked if he had any experience in combat when joining the German equivalent of the Home Front calmly announced “Yes – British army”.
Not your standard traitor.
In fact, some claimed -and still claim – he wasn’t a traitor at all. Having been born in New York, and thus an American citizen, it has been argued that he owed no allegiance to this country whatsoever and that his actions – though certainly morally questionable – were those of a man free to make the choices he made encumbered by notions of loyalty to Britain.
Not that the jury saw it that way. Nor the Court of Appeal. Nor the House of Lords
It is not for us to make apologies for Joyce. He was a fascist, a vicious anti-semite, an apologist for Hitler. He was also an intellectual, a gifted teacher and an electrifying orator who inspired loyalty from the most unlikely of quarters. In part, the story of William Joyce isn’t so much one of treachery as of the obverse side of that particular coin: loyalty.
It’s a story not only mired in the conflicts of the past but also steeped in the questions of today. In an age of radicalisation and of British teenagers joining jihadist organisations, the conundrum of Joyce has to be addressed – which is the greater loyalty: loyalty to family, to country, to religion, to an ideal, or simply loyalty to oneself?
And it’s a story we’re hoping to tell is slightly more detail than Wikipedia.