Most books about British traitors feature those who spied for Russia before and during the Cold War, making it easy to forget that we also spawned a few who worked for the Germans in the second world war. This book concerns four of them: John Amery, wastrel son of a Conservative cabinet minister; William Joyce, the Irish-American Nazi propagandist better known as Lord Haw-Haw; Harold Cole, soldier and petty criminal who sent 150 or more Resistance members to their deaths; and Eric Pleasants, a circus strong-man who disavowed national loyalties while donning German uniform.
Their motives were mixed but, treachery apart, they had one thing in common: an insistence on their own rightness and thus their entitlement to whatever they wanted at the expense of all others. ‘Sorry, old man, it’s just the luck of the war, you know,’ Cole said to a Frenchman as he betrayed him to torture and death.
Cole was an unprincipled, naturally treacherous and criminal self-seeker who betrayed anyone and anything whenever it suited him. Amery and Joyce were ideological enthusiasts for fascism which, Josh Ireland reminds us, was widely popular in sections of British society during the 1920s and 1930s. Although always a minority sport, Oswald Moseley’s Blackshirts had their own automobile club, holiday camps, weddings and even their own brand of cigarettes. Moseley, a former Labour minister and an accomplished orator, drew thousands to his meetings, preaching a populist socialist message in which he railed against housing conditions and called for ‘the conscious control and direction of human resources for human needs’. If that sounds familiar, it’s also worth noting that many on the Left were initially attracted by his call for action against weak and complacent governments allegedly in hock to the wealthy few.