Masquerade: Treason, The Holocaust, and an Irish Imposter

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Masquerade: Treason, The Holocaust, and an Irish Impostor, by Mark M. Hull and Vera Moynes, is a recent publication from the University of Oklahoma Press.  I am a book reviewer for that university and am, therefore, a literary Sooner.  As might be expected, that press is responsible for the publication of numerous books on Native Americans and the American West.  But UOP is also the publisher of a great series of military works under its Campaigns and Commanders series.

And in an age that is hesitant or unsure about classical studies, UOP continues to publish scholarly studies on Homer, Virgil, and the other ancient authors whose writings once constituted the basic core of academic education. Those books are part of the Oklahoma Series on Classical Culture.

Masquerade is not part of a series and is classified as world history and biography.  While I was reading it, I tried to shelf it alongside studies of World War II.  The book is about a woman named Phyllis Ursula James, who went by the names Nora O’Mara, Róisín Ní Mhéara, and Rosaleen James.  Her role in World War II, although treasonous, was minor.  Her role in Irish affairs after the war was a bit more prominent, but I suspect she is not well known in Eire.

There were Englishmen and women before and during World War II who looked favorably on Hitler, the Nazis, and the Third Reich.  The novel and movie The Remains of the Day by Nobel Prize winning author Kazuo Ishiguro is about that subject.  The best known among the treasonous was William Joyce, known as “Lord Haw-Haw,” and the American Mildred Gillars, best known as “Axis Sally.”  (“Lord Haw-Haw” was hanged for his treason after the war, while Gillars served time in prison.)  In contrast, Rosaleen James was never actually accused of her actions to aid the Nazis.

With a thousand plus figures from World War II, ranging from key political and military leaders to lowly privates and civilians, of what importance is this woman?  She did opt to live the war years in Germany.  She did defend and support the Nazis.  She continued throughout her life to blaming Churchill, the Allies, the bombing campaigns, and all opponents to the Third Reich for the defeat of what she viewed as the more virtuous power in the war.   She faked Irish heritage and was consumed with avenging Irish wrongs at the hands of the English.  She did try her hand at broadcasting during her years in Germany during the war.  She attempted to help with efforts to recruit Irish to the Nazi cause or to use Ireland as a source of intelligence for the Abwehr (the German intelligence department).

But in many ways, she could be discarded as a subject of interest and relegated to the category of a kook.  But two historians found her life worth studying and investigating.  This book is an investigative history.  Her story is not found in the standard works and resources for World War II.  Dr.  Mark Hull’s previous book is titled Irish Secrets: German Espionage in Wartime Ireland, 1939-1945.  Vera Moynes is a historian with the National Archives of Ireland.  They are, therefore, well equipped to deal with this case.

The book is fascinating in several ways:

First, it is a testimony to a really difficult and troubled life.  Rosaleen James was an abandoned child.  But she did not have a Dickinsean experience.  Quite the contrary, for she was basically adopted and raised by Lord Hamilton and his wife. I say “basically adopted” because Rosaleen’s connection and status with Lord Hamilton was not good. Lady Hamilton claimed Rosaleen as her adopted child, but Lord H didn’t.

In time, Rosaleen would have two children but would not be married.  Her relationships were a bit murky.  She never knew her biological parents, and this was the basis for her claiming Irish descent.  Growing up with aristocratic benefactors put her in good society, but she was not a good person.  The Hamilton’s, by the way, were Hitler sympathizers before the war.

Second, Rosaleen translated several works from Gaelic into German, and she wrote newspaper columns and a couple of books.  She was a gifted person, for the Gaelic language is not an easy climb.  Her autobiographical works concealed as well as revealed parts of her life and the persona she created.

Third, she was an unabashed defender and apologist for the Third Reich and the German people.  She loathed the English, especially Winston Churchill. Her main criticisms of Germans was cases where the German government performed acts of contrition for the Nazi crimes.  She contended that the deaths found in the Bergen-Belson concentration camp were largely exaggerated in terms of numbers, due mainly to an outbreak of typhus, and were made worse by Allied bombings.  The primary evidences of the Holocaust never seemed to have lessened her insistence that the whole thing was an Allied deception.

Fourth, while this book is listed as history and biography, I would mentally place it in another file.  I think it fits better under psychological and mental disorders and under pastoral studies.  I don’t have the background to evaluate why people like Rosaleen James function like she did.  But I have been around the block a few times in dealing with people as a Christian pastor.

While we are all prone to shade, twist, or conceal the truth (part of our sinful nature), some people are prone to live lies.  While it is easy to see why one tells a lie to get out of an immediate situation, living a life of lies is puzzling.  Rosaleen lived a life of twisting what she knew about her background, lying about people she knew and personal experiences, and lying about her Irishness.  She so embraced her connections to Ireland (not a bad thing in and of itself) that she concocted stories of visits there that never occurred and about historical connections.

The authors of the book tried to meet with her as they were doing research on her life.  Her son conveyed the message to them that ill health prevented such a meeting.  Rosaleen died in 2013.  But her family also refused to share any personal insights or interpretations of her life.

This story is a dark tragedy. Rosaleen James actually achieved some minor fame and notice in her life.  There are those who think of her as heroic.  But while she achieved little in her early efforts to become an actress, she played a life-long role that was a fiction.

I received this book as a review copy and am not bound to review it favorably. But I did enjoy this obscure story and think the two historians did a fine job of putting the pieces together in the mystery of this woman’s life.