Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Review of Traitors by Josh Ireland (John Murray, 2017)

During the Second World War a number of British subjects betrayed their country by working for the Germans (a number of others do the same for Russia). In Traitors, Josh Ireland provides mini-biographies of four men who worked for the Nazis, providing a nuanced account of their actions, reasoning and fate.

William Joyce, a fascist in Britain before the war, broadcasts as Lord Haw-Haw. John Amery is the wayward son of one of Churchill’s cabinet members, who sets up a scheme to try and recruit prisoners of war to fight on the German side against the Russians. Harold Cole is a conman and thief who finds himself left behind in France after Dunkirk and sets up escape lines only to betray all its members to the Gestapo, who he subsequently serves. Eric Pleasants starts the war as a pacifist, who is captured in Jersey and spends time as a prisoner of war before he’s recruited to join a British unit of the SS. Joyce and Amery are ideologues who maintain that they are patriots who wish to see Britain join Germany to fight the Bolsheviks. Cole is an opportunist petty criminal who’ll do anything to save his own skin. Pleasants does not believe in nationalism and principally looks after himself. While they each can self-justify their actions, the British authorities, press and public take a different view, and all of them pay a heavy price for their actions.

Ireland’s account is well researched, yet he doesn’t get bogged down in minutia, keeping the tale moving. Unusually for a historical account, Ireland tells the four men’s stories in the present tense. Along with an engaging voice, this works to give the material some immediacy and verve. It would have been nice to reflect a bit more in the conclusion about the nature of treachery in concept versus the messy lived reality, but overall an interesting, thought-provoking read.

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