What would-be cyberbullies did in the 1930s

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William Joyce “was a tiny little creature and, though not very ugly, was exhaustively so.” 

Lately I happened upon a copy of Rebecca West’s 1945 book The Meaning of Treason. Most of the book is about William Joyce, a British fascist rabble-rouser of the 1930s, who became famous during the Second World War when his propaganda broadcasts from Germany earned him the moniker “Lord Haw Haw” and led him to death on the gallows at Wandsworth Prison shortly after the war’s end.

The book is largely composed of reprinted articles that West wrote for The New Yorker while covering Joyce’s trial; this has its unfortunate results, as the book is weighed down both by the repetition of elements that are reintroduced for readers who had missed a previous week’s issue and by lengthy arguments about points that have not retained their interest over the decades. Still, there are marvelous bits; for example, when she describes seeing Joyce for the first time in a courtroom: “The strong electrical light was merciless to William Joyce, whose appearance was a surprise to all of us who had not seen him before. His voice had suggested a large and flashy handsomeness. But he was a tiny little creature and, though not very ugly, was exhaustively so.”  (Page 4, Rebecca West, The Meaning of Treason, Viking Press, 1945, 1948 [4th Printing])

The core of the book is contained in two long paragraphs towards the middle. I will quote those in their entirety, since they reflect not only on what William Joyce did between leaving Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists in 1937 and defecting to Germany in 1939, but also on what a great many people who are more like him than they would perhaps care to admit spend their free time doing today:

Joyce, working alone, worked frantically. He spoke to every society that would let him inside its doors, in the warmer weather he had an open-air meeting every day, and sometimes several in one day. It was as if he were trying to leave an impression on the public mind that could be counted upon to endure; and indeed he partially succeeded in this aim. An enormous number of people in the low-income groups heard him speak, some during the years when he was with Mosley, and even more during the period when he was his own master. Many people in the higher-income groups had also their contact with Joyce, but they did not know it. Anybody who was advertised as a speaker at a meeting appealing for funds or humane treatment for refugees from Nazi persecution would receive by every post, for many days before the meeting, threatening messages, couched always in the same words, and those words always so vague that the writers of them could not have been touched by the law. They were apt to come by the last post, and the returning householder, switching on the light, would see them piled up on the hall table, splinters from a mass of stupidity that might not, after all, be finite and destructible, but infinite and coterminous with life. Their postmarks showed that they came from Manchester, Bristol, Bournemouth, Bethnal Green, Glasgow, Colchester. All over the country there were those who wished that the stranger, being hungry, should not be fed, being naked should not be clothed. Goats and monkeys, as Othello said, goats and monkeys; and the still house would seem like a frail and besieged fortress.

This device was the invention of William Joyce. The people who heard him in the streets sometimes saw this alliance with crime displayed. A number of his meetings were provocative of the violence he loved; he was twice tried for assault at London police courts during the year preceding the outbreak of the war, though each time the wind that sat in so favorable a quarter for Fascists blew him out with an acquittal. But at many others of his meetings he used all his powers, his harsh, sneering, cajoling, denatured, desperate voice, his quick and twisting humor, his ability to hammer a point home on a crowd’s mind, to persuade the men and women he saw before him of the advantages of dictatorship, the dangers of Jewish competition and high finance, the inefficiency of democracy, the greatness and goodness of Hitler, and his own seriousness. His audiences were not much interested in his arguments and were shrewd enough in their judgement of him. Many remembered him seven years afterwards. Only a very few said, “I liked him.” Most said, “He has the most peculiar views, but he really was an extraordinary chap,” or some such words. “Extraordinary” was what they called him, nearly all of them. This impression might not have served Joyce so ill had the days brought forth what he expected. If the Germans had brought him with them when they invaded England and had made him their spokesman, many Londoners might have listened to him with some confidence because he was a familiar element in a scene that conquest would have made terrifying in its unfamiliarity; and they might have felt awe, and perhaps, still more, confidence, because there was something of the wizard in the little creature.

(Pages 98-100)

What a marvelous way of expressing the effect of being a target of a campaign of harassment: “splinters from a mass of stupidity that might not, after all, be finite and destructible, but infinite and coterminous with life… and the still house would seem like a frail and besieged fortress.” And what effort and organizational ability it must have taken William Joyce and his fellows to inflict this on people in the days before the Internet. West’s description of the menacing letters “piled up on the hall table” suggests that the target of the threat has servants who bring her mail in for her, as the variety of postmarks indicate that Joyce had associates in his “National Socialist League” who helped him produce and distribute the letters. Nowadays, of course, Twitter has taken over all that work, acting as mailroom staff both among those issuing and those receiving threats.

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