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Senate House Library

Call of Duty: William Rose and Psychoanalysis at War


For VE Day, we’re looking at the incredible contribution of William Rose (1894-1961), Scholar of German at the University of London, translator of exiled writers, soldier at Dunkirk, and Enigma cryptanalyst at Bletchley Park whose contribution to the Second World War was vital.  

Psychoanalysis and the War Effort 

William Rose was one of the most versatile intelligence officers who brought his skills as a translator and his knowledge of psychoanalysis to Bletchley Park and the London Cage. As a scholar, editor, translator and a vigorous proponent of a new approach to German studies, Rose believed that the connection between literature and life should never be forgotten and so he pioneered the introduction of the psychoanalytical approach to the study of German literature. 

The nature of Rose’s work as an intelligence officer was secret until many years after the war. According to official historians of British Intelligence, the intelligence produced at Bletchley shortened the war by two to four years, and without it, the outcome of the war would have been uncertain. In Helen Fry's book, The Walls have Ears, which explores intelligence operations that allowed the Allies to gain access to some of Hitler’s most closely guarded secrets; Fry reveals that William Rose was part of the clandestine unit at the Tower of London, performing secret bugging operations, and other more controversial activities, from its very inception in 1939.  

Apart from this security service contribution to shortening the war, Rose was also actively involved in the Dunkirk evacuation. The letter from the Austrian Bohemian novelist Franz Werfel (1890–1945) refers to his heroism during the Miracle of Dunkirk.

This letter is exemplary for the warmth of the general correspondence between Rose and authors whose works he translated. Here, Werfel thanks Rose for his kind letter and refers to Rose’s part of the Dunkirk Evacuation which he considers as more heroic than his and Alma Mahler’s escape from the Nazis on foot over the Pyrenees "our experiences in the same time were less heroically but dangerous enough”. Werfel then goes on to ask Rose to translate his forthcoming novel and is (on verso) apologetic about his English language skills “Excuse please my terrible [e]nglish writing!”. His amazement over the tremendous success of the “The Song of Bernadette” despite its clumsy and stiff translation is palpable, as is the strength of his belief in Rose’s outstanding talent as a translator.

Letter from Franz Werfel to William Rose  Manuscript  Beverly Hills 1942  WRO.5. WER

Translation and Intelligence: the intersection of cypher and culture

The papers we hold at Senate House Library concern Rose's research and studies but also reveal details about the relationship between Rose the translator and exiled writers. Separated through language from their foundational texts, a number of prolific exiled writers turned to Rose for advice, translation, and practical help. As one of the key actors in the scholarly rescue of German writers in the 1930s and 1940s, and due to his intimate knowledge of the German academic landscape and his deep engagement with German literature and psychoanalysis, Rose was uniquely placed to respond efficiently.  In this reciprocal relationship, writers approached Rose to render their work into English and in turn they inspired his writings and his lectures on translation and psychoanalysis.

The correspondence with Robert Neumann, Franz Werfel, Else Lasker-Schüler, Alfred Kerr, Stefan Zweig and many others provides an insight into the process of the writers’ re-invention that the experience of migration and exile enforced on them. Rose’s correspondents required assistance with translations of their speeches, novels and poems and their letters also highlight the anguish of their predicament in exile. 

Letter from Else Lasker Schüler Typescript with mss additions, Zurich 1939. Ref: WRO 5/Las

By 1940, approximately 280,000 Jews had left Germany and another 117,000 had fled Austria and of these, nearly 13,000 Jewish male and female refugees served in the British armed forces. The exiled writers possessed skills as native speakers of German and first-hand knowledge of the enemy. Even though scholars like Rose had a nuanced understanding of the psyche of the German people, what was lacking was an affinity with dialects, with particular forms of language that were peculiar to specific regions or social groups. Whilst it is hard to prove, it is likely that the insights gained from his literary correspondents was used to inform his intelligence work to achieve better results. At any rate, he certainly used his insight into the psychological aspect of translation to better understand the German psyche. 

The benefits of using linguists for intelligence work are described by Peter Calvacoressi, who worked with William Rose in Hut 3 at Bletchley Park; he said that the mix of military and non-military working together on a common problem was where culture and cypher intersected, as the one was a point of entry into the other. 

Enigma Machine at Bletchley Park

William Rose the scholar who stayed away from the limelight

Rose was a generous facilitator who provided leverage that allowed exile writers to retain their position in the limelight, in spite of their geographic and linguistic upheaval, but he preferred to remain inconspicuous, which is unsurprising, given the nature of his wartime work. While the entire extent of his contribution to wartime intelligence will probably never be known, we do know that his contribution to the war effort saved the lives of many exiles, of the soldiers he was in charge of during his distinguished military career and his intelligence work hastened the end of the war.

Andrea Meyer Ludowisy, Academic  Librarian – European Art and Culture