Why do traitors do it? A new book reveals the thinking behind wartime betrayal

This startlingly vivid book about the British men who ended up working for Hitler is haunted by an uncomfortable question
June 21, 2017
Traitors: A True Story of Blood, Betrayal and Deceit by Josh Ireland (John Murray, £20)

Why do traitors do it? This startlingly vivid book about the British men who ended up working for Hitler, is haunted by that uncomfortable question. Men such as William Joyce, for example, a hard-drinking, Irish-born fascist who possessed a frenzied hatred of Jews and of the British society that, as he saw it, had overlooked his greatness. Having fallen out with Oswald Mosley, Joyce went to Germany to be near the National Socialism he so admired. He was noticed by Goering, who put him to work on the radio, and Joyce’s propaganda broadcasts earned him the name “Lord Haw Haw.” He became one of the most hated men in Britain, as his often semi-drunk voice leered out of the radio, boasting of German victories. Joyce was a true believer, a hysterical narcissist and the most famous of the traitors covered here.

The motivation of the others is more ambiguous and disturbing, particularly that of Harold Cole. A Hackney-born habitual criminal who liked to pass himself off as a toff, Cole worked with the French Resistance, helping Allied pilots to escape to Britain. But when captured by the Gestapo he turned, and became one of the most damaging double agents of the war, condemning hundreds to death. It is Cole’s amorality that makes him so disturbing—treachery is a role he simply accepts. These were British-born men captured by a foreign ideology that urged the killing of their own people and the destruction of British society. As such, it is unmistakably a book of our times.