Treason is a Matter of Timing


“Treason is a matter of timing”, Talleyrand is supposed to have said. A remark which perhaps goes down better in some countries than others, though really it has universal application. I suppose that it has two basic elements: treason; timing.

We all think that we know what “treason” means, but in fact there have been various definitions throughout the world and throughout history. We hear, in Robin Hood films and the comments columns of newspapers, the term “high treason”, for example, but outside the ranks of (some) lawyers, linguists and historians, the “high” seems just hyperbole to most people. The meaning, to most, can be said to be “caviar to the general”, above their heads.

In Germany and other Germanophone countries, there were traditionally two types of treason, Landesverrat [“Country Treason”] and the more serious Hochverrat [“High Treason”].

In fact, in the past, the main difference between the two, from the point of view of the captured perpetrator, was that he would be put to death in a somewhat less unpleasant manner for “Landesverrat“! Cold comfort, perhaps.

High Treason was doing such acts as to take over the State, or place the State under the rulership of another state; the lesser kind of treason would be to do acts such as helping the enemies of the State, giving secret information to those enemies, fighting on their side etc.

I suppose that one could, cynically, add the word “attempt” before the above “to take over the State”, inasmuch as a successful attempt to take over a state is not regarded as “treason” by the successful new rulers, and so the State itself, but as merely an incident of history. Only unsuccessful (“high”) traitors are punished; the successful ones punish others…

Other countries have other definitions of treason.

The British law of treason is entirely statutory and has been so since the Treason Act 1351 (25 Edw. 3 St. 5 c. 2). The Act is written in Norman French, but is more commonly cited in its English translation.

The Treason Act 1351 has since been amended several times, and currently provides for four categories of treasonable offences, namely:

  • “when a man doth compass or imagine the death of our lord the King, or of our lady his Queen or of their eldest son and heir”;
  • “if a man do violate the King’s companion, or the King’s eldest daughter unmarried, or the wife of the King’s eldest son and heir”;[28][29]
  • “if a man do levy war against our lord the King in his realm, or be adherent to the King’s enemies in his realm, giving to them aid and comfort in the realm, or elsewhere”; and
  • “if a man slea the chancellor, treasurer, or the King’s justices of the one bench or the other, justices in eyre, or justices of assise, and all other justices assigned to hear and determine, being in their places, doing their offices”.

Another Act, the Treason Act 1702 (1 Anne stat. 2 c. 21), provides for a fifth category of treason, namely:

  • “if any person or persons … shall endeavour to deprive or hinder any person who shall be the next in succession to the crown … from succeeding after the decease of her Majesty (whom God long preserve) to the imperial crown of this realm and the dominions and territories thereunto belonging”.


These “heads of treason” are now largely of historical interest, and the acts commonly charged via other laws, but it will be recalled that, after the 1994 book, Princess in Love, by the Jewess Anna Pasternak, about the affair between Princess Diana and the (by then, ex-) Guards officer James Hewitt, was published, an enterprising reporter from the Sun “newspaper” tried to make a citizen’s arrest of Hewitt for treason, for “violating the wife of the King’s eldest son and heir”! That would have made for an interesting incident, but Hewitt kept his front door firmly shut.

Treason. Were the officers involved in the 20 July 1944 plot to kill Hitler “traitors”? Hitler thought so! German law (as it was in 1944) also said yes. In fact, I am not convinced that German law as it now is would acquit the plotters (though I concede that my knowledge of German law is at best fragmentary). I blogged once or twice about those events:

These matters have been discussed more in Germany and France than they have in the UK. Nuances of loyalty have been tested more on the European mainland. The events around the Reich and the Second World War led to shades of meaning not always understood in the UK. In France during WW2, there was a spectrum of loyalties ranging from monarchist (!) and extreme conservative, through Gaullist and moderate conservative, to social democrat, to socialist, to Communist (pro-Stalin) and Trotskyist. Not all were hostile to Vichy and/or Germany. To give just one example, Francois Mitterand was supposedly both a “resistantand part of the Vichy government, peripherally.

Some Frenchmen were not only pro-Vichy but pro-National Socialist. A relative few, perhaps 11,000, volunteered for SS Charlemagne:

Honourable pro-German Frenchmen such as Christian de la Maziere were not, in their own eyes, “traitors”, any more than were, in their own eyes, German officers such as von Stauffenberg.

Of course, the masses like simplicity. In the UK, they were told that Mosley was a traitor (though of course never tried as such), and I suppose that a number of simple people still believe what they have heard based on that wartime propaganda.

Take another case: “George Blake” (born Behar, a half-Jew). Traitor? Many would say so, on the basis that he was in British service and even had a British passport:

Blake himself would say not a traitor, his allegiance being to the Communist ideal.

These nuances seem rather un-British, but they would not perplex the spymasters of the 16th Century, such as Walsingham, used as he and his opponents were to ideological allegiance crossing national or state lines; in that era, allegiance based, usually, on religion.

What about timing? Well, of course, sometimes timing, as Talleyrand expresses, is what makes treason, treason. The officers who plotted against Hitler and survived became acceptable in postwar West Germany.

Timing is important in so many things. I was rereading a book I had not seen for about 25 years, In the Gunsight of the KGB. A quite compelling story of how a professor of Marxism-Leninism, Ushakov, was arrested for anti-Soviet agitation (being a dissident), released by administrative error, then fled to avoid re-arrest and certain long imprisonment. The half of the book that deals with his flight and then escape across the heavily-guarded Soviet-Turkish border is a good read; the rest, which deals with his views about Sovietism and upcoming events, is rather poor.

Timing is especially instructive here: Ushakov fled in 1984, if memory serves. Now, today, we know that had he avoided arrest in some lawful way, he would have been able to travel freely in about 7 years. Had he been imprisoned, he would have been released by the late 1980s if not before. He, however, did not know that!

How could he have guessed that the whole Soviet system (which he still fears in his book, regarding it as almost all-powerful and able to hoodwink the West easily: the Golitsyn syndrome) would crash to nothing after 1989, the State itself being dissolved by 1991?

In fact, Ushakov was unlucky also in that his book came out in August 1989, only a couple of months before the collapse of the Berlin Wall, followed by that of socialism across Eastern and Central Europe and then in the Soviet Union itself. Ushakov’s book was therefore obsolescent by the time it hit the bookshelves (though the adventurous first half is still, even today, of interest). Ushakov therefore fell into obscurity, whereas he might well otherwise have followed, in a minor way, in the footsteps of more famous dissidents, escapees and defectors, such as Bukovsky.

We all stand within the bounds of time and space. At present, our world seems almost immutable, but beware the hubris of thinking that our Western society will continue forever (“The End of History” fallacy). In fact, I should say that there is every chance that the world we know will not be around in its present form for much longer.

Forget treason. Concentrate on timing.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s