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.

The Mosley Shuffle

I’ve recently been rereading Robert Skidelsky’s 1975 biography of Oswald Mosley.  Robert Skidelsky* tells a tale the ancient Greeks would have recognized as tragedy in the strictest sense of the term, the story of a man of the rarest gifts brought shockingly low by his own insatiable vanity.  To think that a man as talented and as dashing as Mosley should have welcomed Adolf Hitler as the guest of honor at his wedding and should almost single-handedly have conjured up a significant anti-Semitic movement in England is to realize that a man whose capacities are such that he might have become a very great historical figure may in the end make of himself an absolute jackass.

What brought me back to the story of Mosley was a video that I saw on YouTube several weeks ago.  It is Mosley’s November 1967 appearance on the David Frost Programme.  In Mosley’s time, and indeed until quite recently, the ability to see hecklers off was an essential part of success in British political oratory.  Mosley was apparently quite good at this from the beginning of his political career in the early 1920’s.  After giving over 200 speeches a year throughout the 1930’s, encountering hecklers on the vast majority of those occasions, he was as good at handling hecklers as anyone could be.  It was to Mosley’s advantage, then, that the audience was quite hostile to him (well, what audience wouldn’t have been, by that time?)  It was an even greater advantage that the lead heckler, Solly Kaye, had been a frequent antagonist of Mosley’s in the 1930’s, so that Mosley knew exactly what to expect from him.  After the showdown between Kaye and Mosley in the first half of the program, one rather has the uneasy feeling that Mosley is going to come out a clear winner.  Frost appears to have felt that way, as he resorts to a rather frantic attempt to remind people that the amiable fellow sitting across from him is after all Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists and one of the undoubted villains of the century.

In that interview, embedded below, Mosley executes what I think of as “the Mosley Shuffle.” At the 27 minute mark, Frost asks Mosley whether he thinks Hitler, if he had survived the war, ought to have been tried for and convicted of war crimes.  Mosley says yes, that the killing of defenseless prisoners is a crime under any system of laws and so the murder of massive numbers of Jews in concentration camps should have brought Hitler and his top men into court.  At the 28 minute mark, he throws in a curious aside about that particular mass murder: “while I don’t think nearly so many were killed as were supposed to be killed, that doesn’t matter- that doesn’t matter- because any crime, the killing of any defenseless prisoner, is a crime and everybody must detest it.”  At the 33 minute mark, he acknowledges that 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust, then immediately blames Jews collectively for starting World War Two (“They made the greatest mistake they ever made when they produced that war,”) without which the Holocaust would not have been possible.

I call it the Mosley Shuffle because it does seem like a dance.  A step forward (the mass murders of Jews in the Nazi concentration camps were a crime that should have been punished,) a step backward (“I don’t think nearly so many were killed as were supposed to be killed,”) a step to the left (“that doesn’t matter- that doesn’t matter.”)  A step forward (it was 6 million after all,) a step backward (world Jewry was to blame for the war,) a step to the right (all of those Jews would still be alive and included within Mosley’s “Europe a Nation” project if Britain and France had listened to Mosley and taken a pro-German line in the 30’s.)  Considering Mosley’s association with Hitler, it’s difficult not to think of this:

I think I understand why Mosley would perform this unbecoming rhetorical box-step.  He was still trying to revive his political career in 1967; in the previous year’s general election, he and two colleagues from his Union Movement stood for parliament, receiving an average of 3.7% of the vote.  Mosley takes great pains in the last minutes of the program to ensure Frost repeats that figure correctly, then tells Frost that it is almost exactly double what the Nazi Party received in the German elections five years before Hitler came to power.  That prompts Frost to ask if Mosley still expects someday to come to power, and the program ends before Mosley can finish his answer.

Given his background, any revival of Mosley’s political prospects would have had to begin on the far right, with him consolidating their support, then expanding from that base to reach into the mainstream in a time of crisis.  By the late 60’s, many activists on the far right busied themselves with Holocaust denial, so if Mosley were to reemerge as their leader he had to leave some space in his platform for that noxious pastime.  On the other hand, people in general resent insults, and Holocaust denial is an aggressive insult to the intelligence of the average or even the quite substantially below-average voter.   So it must have been difficult to imagine a movement that allowed itself to be widely identified with Holocaust denial could expand beyond the fringes under any circumstances.   Therefore, Mosley could hope to reconnect with the mainstream only if he kept the denialists at arm’s length.

Yesterday I stumbled upon some writings by a spiritual heir of Mosley’s, a man named David Cole.  Mr Cole writes for Taki’s Magazine, an always-lively, rarely lovely far right publication.  Taki’s is quite undiscriminating in one sense; anyone who can write amusingly is likely to be accepted as a contributor, no matter how scandalous his or her background may be.  Mr Cole is a spectacular example of this; in 2013, after 15 years of working in Hollywood making Holocaust-related documentaries and promoting pro-Israel groups under the name “David Stein,” he was dramatically unmasked as a man who spent several years ending in the mid-1990s promoting a theory that the Holocaust ended in 1943, killing 4 million rather than 6 million Jews, none of them in gas chambers at Auschwitz.  Mr Cole gives two reasons for his retirement from the field of Holocaust minimization.  First, the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing made him think twice about the sort of people whose support he was attracting.  And second, the Jewish Defense League offered a $25,000 bounty for his assassination.  When “David Stein” was exposed as David Cole, Mr Cole said that he still believed the stuff he’d peddled back in the 90’s.

Mr Cole’s article for Taki’s is a very amusing piece making fun of the media for hailing every re-editing and re-release of Holocaust-related footage as “a never before seen film.”  Mr Cole says that it was precisely this habit that made it possible for “David Stein” to establish himself in Hollywood as a Holocaust documentarian when he cleaned up some public domain footage of the Nuremberg trials and stamped his copyright on the result.  When Mr Cole describes his ability to get in on this racket, one remembers the old joke, “There’s no business like Shoah business…”

On his blog, Counter-Contempt, Mr Cole gives some examples that suggest the kind of thing he put out in the pre-“David Stein” era.  I was particularly intrigued by a post titled “My Unintentionally Negative Impact on Holocaust Revisionism,” he attacks one denialist after another, ridiculing their arguments and slamming their personalities, declaring that only an idiot could doubt that the Nazis murdered 4 million Jews.  Now 6 million, that he won’t accept.  His final paragraph is “Not everything in life has clearly defined, easily identifiable sides. This does. Revisionist or denier. Pick a side.”

The list of “revisionists” Mr Cole presents is “David Irving,** Mark Weber, and your humble author.”  This seems to be a complete census of the breed, at least of its living representatives as Mr Cole recognizes them.  The various “deniers” Mr Cole describes in this piece he summarizes (evidently with no more than simple justice) as “one man totally uninterested in history, another who forms his opinions based on who accepts or turns down his dinner invitations, another who is a self-described delusional psychotic, and finally a man capable of making the most sweeping statement possible while never bothering to read up on one of the most vital episodes of the period.”  Directed to “pick a side” between these alternatives, I feel like the would-be immigrant to the USA who was asked “Do you advocate the overthrow of the US government by violence or by subversion?”  He thought about it for a moment, then answered “By subversion.”

If we can identify the motive behind Mosley’s box-step, what motivates Mr Cole to perform his wild tarantella?  He doesn’t seem to have any master plan that will culminate in the building of a political force, as Mosley did.  Mr Cole seems to be in search of a small-time racket, the equivalent of running a three-card Monte game on a street corner.

Mr Cole seems to trade on the fact that he is Jewish by ethnicity, as this screen cap from his 1994 appearance on the Phil Donahue show would indicate:

Jewish Holocaust denier seems like a small niche, but I doubt there is much competition to fill it.

The passive-aggressive approach of at once conceding, indeed forcefully arguing, that the Nazis murdered millions of Jews, then making rather less impressive arguments to depress the number of millions significantly below the generally accepted figure, may fit the idea that Mr Cole aspires to be a two-bit operator.  While a highly ambitious figure like Mosley took care not to alienate any of the people he needed to achieve his [evil!] plan, Mr Cole seems to go out of his way to alienate as many people as he can.  He is clearly an intelligent fellow, so presumably this means that his plan does not require the support of any particular person or any particular constituency.  A three-card Monte dealer can get by with any two or three confederates to act as lookout and to lure marks in by pretending to be gamblers winning at the game, but a bigger time scam artist needs particular people and a large number of them.

Perhaps that in turn explains why an intelligent man with Mr Cole’s apparent talent for self-promotion wants to become the equivalent of a three-card Monte dealer.  He wants the independence they have.  At a moment’s notice, the three-card Monte dealer can disappear into the night and set up again in a different location.  That Mr Cole dropped out of sight and reinvented himself under an alias, playing another con game built around the same topic that underpinned his original dodge, sounds like something that a man would do who would rather be highly independent than have a broad scope of action.

*Usually on this blog I refer to living people by courtesy titles or professional honorifics, but I find the British aristocracy so preposterous an anachronism that I cannot bring myself to call Robert Skidelsky “Lord Skidelsky.”  Nor would I refer to Oswald Mosley by his title as “Sir Oswald Mosley, 6th Baronet of Ancoats.”  Since Robert Skidelsky does have that title, though, I don’t think I can call him “Mr Skidelsky” or “Professor Skidelsky.”  That’s why I’m stuck with his full name.

**To the extent that Mr Cole associates with Mr Irving, he is a bit more than just a spiritual heir of Oswald Mosley.  In 1961, as a student at University College London, Mr Irving seconded Oswald Mosley in a public debate about immigration.  So Mr Cole appears to have an acquaintance in common with Mosley.