When the chips are down and freedom is on the line, there is always a motley, unimpressive collection of the weak who see their opportunity to shine by antagonism. Moments of historic importance are clear for everyone to see. And when you haven’t got much to offer, what better way to be significant than to grandstand with the enemy to draw attention to yourself? At least history will remember you.

In September 1939, the British were surprised to find a very English-sounding voice on their radio sets. “Germany calling, Germany calling,” it implored. The dissatisfied New York-born William Joyce, an enthusiastic leader in the British Union of Fascists, hadfled to Germany at the beginning of the war. 

No doubt initially fearful, he soon found out that German radio was all too willing to have him on the air. He settled down into spewing nonsense about Allied aircraft and shipping losses and cooking up bogus attempts from the Allies to sue for peace. In fact, anything that would demoralize Allied civilians and soldiers was fair game. As he endeared himself to the Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, the unrooted and drifting Joyce finally found his calling in life.

The British found the whole spectacle entertainingly ridiculous and after one such propagandist was described as “Lord Haw-Haw” by the Daily Express on account of the upper-class drawl, the epithet was stuck to all western-educated propagandists fielded by the Nazis. Eventually, as Joyce became the most prominent, it was he who was permanently honored with the name.

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Joyce might have escaped being hung for treason had he not lied to get a British passport, therefore placing himself within the sphere of the British legal system. One sunny day in May 1945, whilst collecting firewood, an insignificant conversation with some intelligence soldiers resulted in his voice being recognized; he washanded over to the British forces at Flensburg and eventually transferred to Wandsworth prison. 


The British always try to keep their sense of humor but have very little time for traitors. Joyce was hanged on Jan. 3, 1946, aged 39. His case was nothing exceptional. Thirty-three others like him were charged with treason after the war.

It is not surprising that propagandists who jump ship appear when conflict brews. Their motives are as varied as much as they are usually tiresome. 

They might genuinely believe in what the other side is doing. Joyce was unrepentant and declared at the scaffold: “I am proud to die for my ideals and I am sorry for the sons of Britain who have died without knowing why.”

But many of them are people with a dissatisfaction or grievance against their country. It could be a sense of rejection. It’s not unlikely that this applied to Joyce. He was brought up in an Irish family with intense internal religious conflicts. Following military service, he became a teacher after being rejected from the Foreign Office, despite having a first-class degree in English. 


Joyce joined the British Union of Fascists and quickly established a reputation as an eloquent and powerful speaker, and a personally violent individual. He was thrown out of the Union by Oswald Mosley himself. He was angry and he had axes to grind. 

His particular historical circumstances are interesting but reflect a more general personality type in the traitor-propagandist. This is a person who wants notoriety and fame. As they can’t get it by operating within society’s usual channels, what better way than to take up the flag of those who antagonize? In peaceful times, this might manifest as joining a political party or group that lies at the edge of society – the British Union of Fascists in the 1930s being one such example.

But excitement intensifies when the world itself becomes the stage on which frictions are expressed. Now such a personality has a global theatre in which to act. In the case of Joyce, it probably seemed a logical step to leave the Britain that had so frustrated his aspirations (even those close to him threw him out of the brethren of fascists) and head over to Germany where greater disturbances were brewing. 


The complications don’t end there. There is nothing particularly egregious about stirring up some trouble and controversy. Free societies need it. But one must be very careful not to develop a genius complex – the idea that because you are regarded as a reprobate, this is proof that you are on to something, that you are an outcast because you stand for a cause that others simply don’t have the insight and depth of character to understand. 

Joyce’s parting comment as he headed for the noose that the “sons of Britain” did not understand for what they gave their lives, shows that he was swirling in a world of delusional grandeur right until the end.

The Capture of William Joyce, Germany, 1945. Wikipedia

Often the propagandist, like Joyce, is a person who feels bitterness with their own achievements, and it can be as simple as the fact that they are just not that good at their job. The needy dictatorship that will grasp at any opportunity for validation is an easy way to assuage this sense of frustrated recognition and to feel the warm affirmation and adulation that is sought.

Tools of propaganda

I do not know what to make of the current crop of Western propagandists who have taken sides against Ukraine. Tucker Carlson. What to make of him? If we listen to Elon Musk, we are to believe that he is a “major American journalist.” I’d like to hear what America’s other major journalists make of this judgement. However, I don’t need to have views on his journalistic qualities to have an opinion on his general conduct.


Europe is absolutely right to threaten a travel ban and sanctions. The less perceptive will ask why he is criticized while other journalists have interviewed Putin before him. But needless to say, the situation is different now than what it was before the full-scale invasion. He has made himself a propaganda tool in a period of great crisis.

We are two years into a major war of aggression against Ukraine with cities razed and countless innocent Ukrainians killed. Need I go on? Journalists who go to Russia to swim in deference and wallow in the spotlight of notoriety are the heirs of Joyce. Their motives lack honor and decency, but the personality and reasons that give rise to this behavior are nothing surprising and new. 

The most shabby and sad part of it all is that like Joyce, those to whom they run do not even respect them. Joyce was cast off into the dregs of the Reich as soon as collapse loomed. Carlson’s claims were already being corrected and questioned by the Kremlin before he had even started. Even Putin saw fit to make fun of his alleged rejection by the CIA. “We should thank God they didn't let you in,” Putin mocked. Useful idiots are regarded as such by both sides. That they never grasp.


But they are not entirely without value. What they can do for all of us is to provide a useful barometer about others. Those who coalesce around them tell us everything we need to know about their own judgement and willingness to stand on the right side of good sense and honor. 

Charles Cockell is Professor of Astrobiology at the University of Edinburgh.

The views expressed are the author’s and not necessarily of Kyiv Post.


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