(Published in The Independent, Sept. 17 1999; also see the rebuttal by Francis Wheen in The Guardian.)
P. G. WODEHOUSE, the creator of Jeeves and Wooster, was secretly in the pay of Nazi Germany during the Second World War, MI5 files released today reveal. The previously classified documents disclose that Wodehouse would have been put on trial for treachery had he ever returned to Britain after the war.
Wodehouse, who made a series of controversial if jokey radio broadcasts from Berlin in 1941, later excused himself as being naive rather than a collaborator. However, the documents dispel the widely held notion of Wodehouse as vain but harmless. His MI5 file reveals a more sinister character, with extreme right-wing views and even Nazi sympathies, who had also secretly worked for a Berlin film company that produced propaganda.
Wodehouse never set foot in Britain after the war, although this did not prevent him from being knighted shortly before his death in 1975, becoming Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse.
At the outbreak of war in 1939, Wodehouse and his American wife, Ethel, were living in Le Touquet in northern France. They later maintained that they had been unable to flee the advancing German army because their car had broken down. Wodehouse was released from German internment in 1941 and made five broadcasts on German radio, which resulted in the author's vilification in Britain.
He was asked to make the broadcasts to the United States by German friends he had known before the war in Hollywood. The programmes were regarded as a propaganda coup for the Nazis because they could inspire a sympathetic view of Hitler's regime in America. The author implied that he expected Germany to be triumphant by saying that he thought he would live under the German Reich for many years, if not for ever. When he became aware of the adverse reaction in Britain, Wodehouse wrote to the Foreign Office, apologising for his "inexcusable blunder". But according to evidence gathered in the MI5 files, he spent the next couple of years of the war living comfortably in a fourth floor suite at the Hotel Adlon in Berlin, probably at the Nazi regime's expense.
Eventually Wodehouse returned to Paris to live at the Hotel Bristol. Although he claimed it was because his wife was upset by the Allied air raids in Germany, it now seems that it was to conduct propaganda work at the behest of the Nazis. A fellow resident at the hotel was the Briton John Amery, who was later hanged for his treasonable support for the Nazis. According to the file, Amery nominated Wodehouse to German intelligence as a potential collaborator.
Wodehouse sought to maintain an air of naivity when MI5 sent Major Edward Cussen to interrogate him in 1944 after the Allies recaptured Paris. He agreed to the broadcasts, he maintained, to show his American readers that he was keeping his spirits up in difficult circumstances. He denied receiving financial support from the Germans. Cussen concluded that there was no evidence of treason but that the author may be guilty of rendering assistance to the enemy. On the strength of his report, the Director of Public Prosecutions, Theobald Mathew, concluded: "Whatever view you take of the antics of this vain and silly man, I am satisfied, on the present material, there is no evidence upon which a prosecution would be justified."
After the war, MI5 learnt that Wodehouse had been on the Nazi payroll. Evidence was found that during 1944 he received, through his wife, a series of payments that appeared to be equivalent to a salary of pounds 150 a month, a not inconsiderable sum at the time.
The MI5 file also contain documents recovered from the German embassy in Paris, which refer to his work for the "language section" and on films, noting the propaganda value of his efforts. Mrs Wodehouse was sent about pounds 1,500 from Berlin and Wodehouse admitted that he had sold the rights to a novel he wrote during internment, called How to Make Money, to a German company.
After the war, the Wodehouse case was re-evaluated. In December, 1946, an MI5 officer reviewed the case with the DPP. In a memo, he recorded: "The Director said that he now takes the view that, if Wodehouse ever comes to this country, he should be prosecuted. In view of the observations by Lord Justice Tucker that the motive which prompted the broadcast was immaterial, he thought that the authorities should now bring Wodehouse to trial and leave the jury to decide the question of his guilt or innocence."
Wodehouse, who became an American citizen, died in the United States in 1975, aged 93.