LONDON — Plans to honor P.G. Wodehouse with a memorial stone in Westminster Abbey have been attacked by campaigners who have described the renowned British author as “an odious anti-Semite.”
Wodehouse, who died in 1975, is most famous for his stories featuring the bumbling aristocrat Bertie Wooster and his butler Jeeves.
Last autumn, the Very Reverend John Hall, outgoing Dean of Westminster Abbey, announced plans to honor Wodehouse “for his contribution to 20th century English literature.”
Westminster Abbey — the imposing Gothic church in central London where Britain has crowned and buried its monarchs since 1066 — is home to Poet’s Corner. It commemorates many of the nation’s most revered and beloved playwrights, writers and poets — more than 100 men and women such as William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, and the Bronte sisters.
But the Abbey’s intention to now include Wodehouse among their number has drawn fire both because of his anti-Semitism and a series of controversial radio broadcasts he made from Berlin during World War II.
“P.G. Wodehouse was a literary genius who has long been considered to be amongst Britain’s greatest authors, but he was also an odious anti-Semite,” said Stephen Silverman, director of investigations and enforcement at the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism.
“Many have suggested that his assistance to Nazi Germany would have been enough to see him tried for treason after the Second World War, had he ever dared return to Britain. There is nothing wrong with admiring his works, but that is very different from admiring their author. It is not for the Church to forgive and forget his lifelong unrepentant hatred of Jews. This honour should be withdrawn,” he added.
Westminster Abbey has defended its decision. A spokesman said Wodehouse was being honored for his contribution to 20th century literature, telling the Daily Telegraph “the fact that Wodehouse was knighted in 1975 is significant in assessing the value of his work.”
In an article in The Forward, American writer Benjamin Ivry has detailed numerous examples of Wodehouse’s private anti-Semitism. In June 1931, after causing public controversy by suggesting he was overpaid and underworked in Hollywood, he wrote to a friend: “The trouble is, you see, all these Jews out here have been having a gorgeous time for years, fooling about with the shareholders’ money and giving all their relations fat jobs, and this gives the bankers an excuse for demanding a showdown.”
And, as the CAA has suggested, Wodehouse’s anti-Semitism was on show “long after the horrors of the Holocaust” were known.
In January 1949, he confided to a friend: “A curious thing about American books these days is that so many of them are Jewish propaganda. Notice in [Norman Mailer’s] ‘The Naked and the Dead’ how the only decent character is Goldstein. [Irwin Shaw’s] ‘The Young Lions’ is the same. It is a curious trend. The Jews have suddenly become terrifically vocal.”
Three years later, Wodehouse wrote of his feelings on seeing comedian Groucho Marx on TV: “One odd thing about television is the way it shows people up. I always used to think Groucho Marx screamingly funny. I saw him on television the other night, and he was just a middle-aged Jew with no geniality whatever, in fact repulsive.”
As Ivry has also suggested, some of his fellow Hollywood screenwriters detected during the 1930s that Wodehouse was an anti-Semite. His dislike of members of the Screen Writers Guild, one later noted, “was not just because of the union but was an anti-Semitic matter.”
But controversy also surrounds Wodehouse’s wartime activities. By 1940, the writer was living in Le Touquet in France in order to minimize his UK and American taxes. After two failed attempts to escape the German advance, Wodehouse was interned as an enemy national. He was held first at a former prison in a suburb of Lille, before being sent to a citadel in Belgium and then a camp at Tost in Upper Silesia.
On his release in June 1941, the Germans encouraged him to make five radio broadcasts which were sent to the US to reassure his American fans. The light-hearted programs about his internment caused consternation in the UK. He was attacked in parliament, banned from the BBC, and some libraries removed his books from their shelves.
The broadcasts were also not well-received in America, where one newspaper headlined a story about them, “Wodehouse plays Jeeves to Nazis.” Believing they had propaganda value, Josef Goebbels then ordered that they be broadcast to Britain.
Gyles Brandreth, a broadcaster and former Conservative MP, told the Daily Telegraph newspaper that while the broadcasts were not political, they were “undoubtedly damaging to the Allied cause” because Britain was at the time attempting to persuade the US to enter the war.
“Through naivety, P.G. Wodehouse undoubtedly gave comfort to the enemy during the darkest days of the war,” he said. “He broadcast gently amusing non-political talks from Berlin, giving the impression that he was fine, and by implication that if he was fine all was fine in Nazi Germany.”
Wodehouse and his wife remained in Germany until September 1943 when they were allowed to return to Paris.
After the liberation of France the following summer, Wodehouse was quizzed by the British intelligence agency MI5. Officers from the security services concluded that, while inadvisable, the broadcasts were not intended to aid the Nazis and the author should not be prosecuted.
MI5 papers released by the UK’s National Archives in 2011 revealed details of the interrogation.
“I thought that people, hearing the talks, would admire me for having kept cheerful under difficult conditions,” Wodehouse said in a statement, in which he also claimed that he was motivated by his gratitude for letters sent to him by his US fans.
He went on to tell MI5 he intended only to reflect the “flippant, cheerful attitude of all British prisoners. It was a point of honour with us not to whine.”
Wodehouse claimed to be “greatly shocked” when told by investigators that John Amery, a British fascist who made broadcasts during the war for the Nazis, had recommended him to the German secret services as “a person who might be useful as a propagandist.” Amery, the son and brother of Conservative government ministers, was executed for treason in 1945.
“I never had any intention of assisting the enemy and… I have suffered a great deal of mental pain as the result of my action,” Wodehouse’s statement concluded.
The papers also revealed that in 1946 British prosecutors appeared to rethink their decision not to bring charges against him. A memo of a 1946 meeting between an MI5 officer and the then director of public prosecutions, Sir Theobald Mathew, noted: “The director said that he now takes the view that, if Wodehouse ever comes to this country, he should be prosecuted.”
Wodehouse never returned to the UK and instead moved to America. In 1975, shortly before his death, the British government awarded Wodehouse a knighthood. That decision, Westminster Abbey said, was “significant in assessing the value of his work.”
Wodehouse is not without his defenders. The late Iain Sproat, a former Conservative minister and journalist, has argued that the notion that Wodehouse was a traitor, collaborator and Nazi propagandist is untrue.
Sproat, who campaigned tirelessly to clear Wodehouse’s name and wrote a book on the author’s war years, cited evidence from German Foreign Office official Werner Plack. Plack organized the making of the controversial broadcasts. He suggested that the Germans had tricked Wodehouse into recording them and that the author received no special favors from them and never made pro-Nazi or anti-British statements.
Nonetheless, Sproat conceded the value to the Nazis of Wodehouse’s words: “The German authorities had received strong pleas from influential American individuals and organizations to release Wodehouse, and the Germans believed that by acceding to these pleas they would show how sensitive Germany was to American opinion, and thus reinforce American neutrality in the war.”
Wodehouse later privately appeared to mock the anger caused by the programs. In an incomplete and unpublished memoir, details of which were revealed by The Times newspaper in 2016, he wrote: “The global howl that went up as a result of my indiscretion exceeded in volume and intensity anything I have ever experienced since that time in my boyhood when I broke the curate’s umbrella and my aunts started writing letters to one another about it.”
Although accepting the programs were a mistake, he argued: “I overlooked completely the dangerous possibility that a wave of pro-German sentiment might be created in the United States by such revelations on my part as that when in camp I read Shakespeare, that when internees ran out of tobacco they smoked tea, that the Kommandant at Huy had short legs and didn’t like walking up hills, and that there was an unpleasant smell in my cell at Loos prison.”
Friends advised Wodehouse against reopening the controversy surrounding his war years and the author completed only a few chapters. By seeking now to honor him, Westminster Abbey has ensured that the darkest chapter in Wodehouse’s life will once again face the scrutiny the author himself seemed so keen to avoid.
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