Wanting to avoid the German propaganda mistakes of World War I, the Nazi leadership hired an English voice to reach the English on the radio. After initial great successes, the shot backfired.
England between September 1939 and April 1940: every evening at 9:15 p.m., millions of Britons turned on their radios and listened to the nasal voice over the ether. She sneered at the English government, praised Nazi Germany and the “Führer” Adolf Hitler, and wanted to persuade the British to stop the war against the Third Reich. Many listeners were enthusiastic about the radio show that was offered to them in the evening.
The speaker radioed over from Germany – on behalf of the German Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels. He was known by the name “Lord Haw-Haw”. This man was a real star on the island, with six million people tuning in to his show every night on a regular basis and another 18 million listening to it irregularly. Overall, Lord Haw-Haw’s coverage rivaled that of state-owned BBC.
Who was behind the nickname Lord Haw Haw remained a mystery for the first few months. In the very first days after the Wehrmacht marched into Poland on September 1, 1939, it was a German named Wolf Mittler, a well-known radio announcer in Germany. But a short time later someone else took on the task of agitating night after night against the British government and the allegedly incompetent democracy: William Joyce.
Joseph Goebbels seemed to have landed a big coup with him. Because Joyce was a well-known man in England. Born in New York in 1906 to an Irish Catholic father and an American Anglican mother, he moved to Ireland with his parents when he was three years old. After the Irish Republic was founded in 1919, the family moved to London. William’s parents feared attempts on her life because they opposed Ireland’s separation from England.
Son William discovered his interest in politics at an early age. First he joined the Conservative Party but later switched to the British Union of Fascists (BUF) party led by the charismatic Oswald Mosley. An event that had a decisive impact on William Joyce in both senses of the word gave the impetus for this step. He was attacked with a razor at a Conservative event. What remained was a long scar on his face and his hatred of Jews and communists, because Joyce believed the perpetrator was a “Jewish communist”.
Joyce rose to prominence in the BUF, rising to become Mosley’s second-in-command. But because Mosley was a fascist but did not want to bring anti-Semitism, which was unpopular in England, to the fore, Joyce fell out with him. In 1937 there was a rupture and Joyce founded a new, radically anti-Semitic fascist party, which never went beyond the status of a splinter group.
At the end of August 1939, a few days before Hitler’s attack on Poland, he moved to Germany, where he applied for a position as a radio announcer in the Ministry of Propaganda and was quickly spotted by Goebbels because of his great rhetorical skills. From now on he broadcast the program “Germany Calling” every evening from the studio in Stuttgart to England, which was soon called “Jairmany Calling” everywhere because of Joyce’s nasal pronunciation.
His popularity grew very quickly, for Joyce was gifted with an outstanding oratory, an ability for irony and biting exaggeration. And he hit exactly the tone that many Britons liked. Although their own country was at war with Germany, many were amused by the sarcastic criticism he leveled at British politicians. This was especially true of the working class, which was very receptive to anti-democratic propaganda commissioned by the Nazis.
The Daily Express radio critic wrote in an article: ‘One gentleman I would like to meet regularly moans from Zeesen (where the German foreign broadcasts were broadcast from at the time). He speaks English in a haw-haw manner and his forte is gentlemanly indignation.” Polls show its growing popularity, as also noted by the US polling agency Mass Observation’s Weekly Intelligence Service. A report in late March 1940 stated: “Lord Haw-Haw and his popularity are outstanding in this propaganda and economic war.”
58 percent of the listeners tuned in to his show because they found it so funny. She was also heard outside of England. A Canadian listener wrote to BBC’s London Calling program in late November: “Any time we’re lacking entertainment we turn to this comedian. We often wonder if he knows the laughter he causes.” A large percentage also tuned in to have a say as the shows became the topic of the day.
The English government became increasingly displeased with the activities of Lord Haw-Haw and recognized that there could well be a danger to the cohesion of the country, however absurd much of what Joyce said might be. After a while, she tried to counter him with a fact check that was broadcast by the BBC immediately after the show. With little success, because Joyce programs were simply much more amusing than the BBC’s bone-dry reports.
By the spring of 1940, Joyce had become the island’s most popular radio host. A watchmaker ran an ad that read, “Don’t risk missing out on Haw-Haw. Get a watch that always shows the right time.” Radio manufacturer Philips included details of Lord Haw-Haw’s broadcasts in its advertisements. And from December 1939 to July 1940 there was a Lord Haw-Haw show at London’s Holborn Empire and two comedians brought out the song “Lord Haw-Haw the Humbug of Hamburg”.
No wonder the German Minister of Propaganda was enthusiastic. Joseph Goebbels was determined to avoid the mistakes made by the imperial government during World War I, when the field of propaganda was largely left to the British. Now Goebbels seemed to be on the right track. Hitler honored Lord Haw-Haw with high medals for his services to the Third Reich.
But it was also Hitler’s policy that put an abrupt end to its popularity, when in April and May 1940 he attacked Norway, the Benelux countries and France and the Luftwaffe flew attacks on English cities. Until then, the war had been a “sit war” for the British, with both sides largely keeping quiet. But now it was becoming a bitter, everyday, and deadly reality.
Lord Haw-Haw changed his rhetoric. He became increasingly aggressive and lost the sense of humor that had made him so popular. His aim now was to scare the British by claiming that they had no chance against Nazi Germany and that they should stop the war and instead join forces with the Third Reich to fight Bolshevism. That didn’t go over well at all. The new tone enraged many Britons, and audiences rapidly declined and were soon negligible. Lord Haw-Haw lost all influence over his countrymen.
Nevertheless, he continued to broadcast undeterred, until 1943 from Stuttgart, then from Berlin and in the last weeks of the war from Hamburg. Its last broadcast aired on April 30, 1945. In it he audibly asked in a drunken state: “Now I ask you seriously: Can Britain survive? I am deeply convinced that it cannot do this without Germany’s help.” He concluded by saying: “Long live Germany! Heil Hitler and farewell.” What Joyce didn’t know at this point: On that day, a few hours before the broadcast, Hitler had committed suicide in his “Führerbunker” under the Berlin Reich Chancellery. A week later Germany surrendered.
Joyce fled to Schleswig-Holstein under a different name, but was discovered and arrested by British soldiers at the end of May. He was tried in London on charges of treason, sentenced to death and executed on June 3, 1946.
There was criticism of this verdict, because during the court hearing it turned out that Joyce was not an English citizen, as he himself had claimed, but an American citizen. As such, he could not really be convicted of high treason in England. However, he had obtained a British passport for a while using false information and that was enough for the court to justify the conviction.
A pretty flimsy justification. As the well-known British historian Alan J.P. Taylor: “In the end, Joyce was executed for making false statements to the passport authorities, an offense that usually costs a mere two pounds in fines.”
His English wife, who had also carried out Nazi propaganda from Germany as “Lady Haw-Haw”, fared better. She escaped with her life and was deported to Germany in 1947. English journalist Nigel Farndale, who has published a book about the two, came to the curious conclusion: “So the American husband was hanged as an Englishman and his equally guilty English wife was released as a German.”