Clandestine fiction: John Steinbeck’s The Moon is Down

Document of the month: FO 898/523

Guy Woodward finds a miniature novel in the PWE papers

This tiny book appears in file 898/523 of the PWE collection in the National Archives, which bears the unpromising title ‘Various French Pamphlets’. It measures 10.5 x 6.5 cm. The cover and title page feature no reference to any author; the title, Nuit Sans Lune, translates directly as ‘Moonless Night’, but the text confirms that this is in fact a French edition of John Steinbeck’s 1942 novel, The Moon is Down.

As it happens The Moon is Down was written explicitly for the purposes of propaganda, by a novelist who served in several US government intelligence and information agencies between 1940-42.[1] As Donald Coers explains, in summer 1941 Steinbeck was attached to the Officer of Coordinator of Information (COI), and discussed with the organisation’s head, Colonel ‘Wild Bill’ Donovan, the possibility of writing a work of propaganda.[2] At the same time Steinbeck’s work at the COI brought him into contact with a range of refugees from recently invaded European nations, including France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark and Norway; their stories of underground resistance to Nazi rule impressed and intrigued him.[3]

The short novel Steinbeck wrote over 1941-42 is set in an unnamed coastal town of an unnamed northern European country, under occupation by a military force whose commitment to timekeeping and fidelity to a singular ‘Leader’ is unambiguously indicative of Nazi Germany. It shows how the invaders’ attempts to maintain a pretence of civility are doomed in the face of deteriorating relations with the townspeople, who begin to resist the occupation, first passively and then actively. Toward the end of the novel they begin to receive military assistance from Britain, as packages containing sticks of dynamite and chocolate are dropped by aeroplane.

The narrative is grim and often claustrophobic, but offers hope in its emphatic conviction that the occupation is doomed to failure, articulated in the potent paradoxical metaphor of flies ‘conquering’ the flypaper they have become stuck to. The prospect of Allied assistance, meanwhile, gestures optimistically towards a future shift in the progress of the war. The novel also offers several practical suggestions of how an occupation can be opposed passively, by working slowly and sabotaging machinery and equipment.

The novel was enormously popular on the home front; stage and screen adaptations appeared quickly on both sides of the Atlantic. In late spring 1942 Winston Churchill was so enthused by The Moon is Down that he passed on the novel to his Minister of Economic Warfare, requesting him to explore the possibility of mass producing small incendiary devices to be provided to resistance movements in occupied Europe.[4]

Some in the United States believed that Steinbeck had been too soft on the German occupiers, who appear prone to uncertainty and anxiety rather than unremittingly cruel and evil. As Coers explains however, The Moon is Down was extraordinarily popular in countries which had experienced Nazi invasion, and was read avidly during the war behind enemy lines – he describes how translations printed on ‘tissue-thin paper’ were smuggled from Sweden into Norway where they were circulated by the resistance.[5] In Denmark and the Netherlands underground presses printed thousands of copies; in these countries and in France sales of illegal editions helped fund resistance activities.[6]

The PWE seem to have become aware of the novel’s potent propaganda value soon after its publication in 1942, and the archive features several references to its production and distribution, suggesting that some of these activities were aided and directed by the Allied propaganda organisations. A secret PWE memorandum dated August 1942 discussing the coordination of broadcast and printed propaganda for Denmark mentions that The Moon is Down has been translated and is already in print.[7] Minutes of a meeting in January 1943 record a PWE discussion regarding the circulation of an Italian edition.[8] And a note dated February 1943 records a request by the Ministry of Information for sample copies of the PWE’s ‘French leaflet edition’ of the novel.[9]

It is not clear whether the copy pictured above is the ‘leaflet edition’ mentioned here. Its small size suggests that it may well have been intended for clandestine circulation, however; the absence of Steinbeck’s distinctive and Anglophone name on the cover or inside the novel, and the lack of any publisher’s name or illustrations further suggests that this was a book designed to pass unnoticed by hostile surveillance.

Steinbeck’s narrative also lent itself to clandestine circulation – the lack of any overt references to Germans, Nazis, Hitler, or to a specific location in the text meant that a curious Gestapo officer leafing through the text might well fail to detect the novel’s propagandist ambitions and political leanings. Were that officer to settle down to read the novel, however, it is possible they might find the fatalism of Steinbeck’s occupying commander Colonel Lanser and the defiance of Mayor Orden as he faces execution more than a little unsettling:

You see sir, nothing can change it. You will be destroyed and driven out […] The people don’t like to be conquered, sir, and so they will not be. Free men cannot start a war, but once it is started, they can fight on in defeat. Herd men, followers of a leader, cannot do that, and so it is always the herd men who win battles and the free men who win wars. You will find that is so, sir.[10]

Images by kind permission of The National Archives. 


[1] Donald V. Coers, ‘Afterword’ to John Steinbeck, The Moon is Down (London: Penguin Books, 2014), p. 113.

[2] Ibid., pp. 113-4.

[3] Ibid., p. 114.

[4] For more on Churchill, SOE, PWE and Operation Braddock see the invaluable resource

[5] Coers, ‘Afterword’, p. 120.

[6] Ibid., p. 125.

[7] FO 898/245.

[8] FO 898/168.

[9] FO 898/445.

[10] Steinbeck, The Moon is Down, p. 111.