The Traitors: A True Story Of Blood, Betrayal And Deceit by Josh Ireland

The Blurb On The Back:

September 1939.  For years now Britain has been rudderless, divided and grievously unequal. Successive governments have floundered as they struggled to cope with economic misery at home and machinations abroad.  Many of the country’s citizens are seduced by fascism; others are simply left alienated by leaders who seem unwilling or unable to take the decisive action that is so desperately needed.

When war breaks out the imperilled nation achieves the unity and purpose that has eluded it for more than a decade.  It is a time of heroism and sacrifice, in which many thousands of soldiers and civilians give their lives.  But some Britons choose a different path, renegades who will fight for the Third Reich until its gruesome collapse in 1945. The Traitors tells the stories of four such men: the chaotic, tragic John Amery; the idealistic but hate-filled William Joyce; the cynical, murderous conman Harold Cole; and Eric Pleasants, an iron-willed pacifist and bodybuilder who wants no part in this war.

Drawing on recently declassified MI6 files, as well as diaries, letters and memoirs, The Traitors is a book about disordered lives in turbulent times; idealism twisted out of shape; of torn consciences and abandoned loyalties; of murder, deceit, temptation and loss.  It shows how a man might come to desert his country’s cause, and the tragic consequences that treachery brings in its wake.   

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

Josh Ireland’s engaging but ultimately superficial look at the lives of the notorious World War II traitors William Joyce, John Amery, Harold Cole and Eric Pleasants never quite hits its aim of showing how or why each man decided to desert Britain for Germany as the scope is too broad to really focus on each man’s main drivers but it’s nevertheless an interesting read with frightening parallels to modern times.

The book jumps between each of the four subjects, showcasing specific periods of their life before and during the War and setting out how each of them ended up either working for or assisting the Nazi war effort. Of the 4 men, I had only previously heard of William Joyce (the notorious Lord Haw-Haw whose broadcasts to Britain during the war were heard by millions) and it was interesting to see Ireland draw out the similarities and contrasts between the different men and what they did.

Because there is more information on Joyce and Amery, they are the ones who emerge in fullest form on the page – both anti-semites, both committed to Nazi ideology and both convinced that they were due influence and deference in the world and destined for some kind of greatness. Ireland does a good job of setting out how pathetic and self-defeating each man really was – Joyce with his rages and petty feuds and Amery with his delusional sense of grandeur and fragile entitlement (his childhood was particularly shocking).  Their broadcast contributions are interesting with Joyce having the greater influence but Ireland noting how this was tied in part to the initial German successes and how Joyce dared to say things that the establishment BBC would not.  I wished that there had been a little more insight on their respective partners who are relegated very much to supporting roles, with little to say other than how ghastly both men were – each is relegated to a short sentence in terms of their post-War fortunes.

Harold Cole and Eric Pleasants are another interesting contrast – each completely selfish and self-motivated, each a coward when it suited them.  Cole, for me, was the more evil of the two – careless and craven he not only surrendered details of his networks when caught by the Gestapo but then worked with them to sabotage others – an estimated 130 people died from his actions.  Ireland hints that someone in MI6 was protecting him but, frustratingly, this never gets drawn out in the book and for someone who managed to bluster and weasel his way out of awful situations, it’s a shock to suddenly be presented with his final discovery and sordid death. Pleasants dressed himself up as a pacifist and Ireland clearly draws on his memoirs to flesh out his life and it seems he joined the Nazis as a way of escaping the drudgery of prison but there’s precious little self-reflection on Pleasants’s part and I was never really sure that I understood him from what Ireland presents on the page – certainly I was left wondering whether Pleasants thought that the 7 years he spent in a Russian gulag were appropriate punishment for his transgressions.  I would have also liked to have known what happened to his wife – Ireland mentions that Pleasants was never able to track her down but it would have been interesting for Ireland to have tried given that more records are now available – again, it’s a case of the women being side players and pushed to one side.

Ultimately, because this was a new subject to me, I found this an engaging read and was interested by much of what Ireland has to say, but I suspect that those already familiar with the lives of these men will not find enough here to warrant a thorough read.  In part it’s because the lives of each man was so complicated that there simply isn’t room enough to go into depth on each man’s activities and by trying to focus on all 4 of them, Ireland is inevitably compelled to look at the main events only.

Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

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