Guilty Men: A Cautionary Tale
Outside Agitator (they/them)
- Jul 29, 2012
A CAUTIONARY TALE
Written in the final months of the Spanish War and hastily published by Victor Gollancz in January 1940, Guilty Men is a classic of British political literature that tore through the complacent attitude with which sections of the Commonwealth regarded the geopolitical situation in Europe after the fall of Hitler in September 1938. Written by young Popular Front members David Lewis, Michael Foot and Barbara Betts under the collective pseudonym “Cato”, the polemic argued the need for continued pressure on Germany and exposed the surface-level passing of its fascist regime. Guilty Men sent a warning that those who turned a blind eye to Germany after the overthrow of Hitler and the rise of the DNVP would be treated with contempt by future generations should Europe descend into war on the back of the Reich’s ambitions in Eastern Europe. In its concluding chapter, the book defends the necessity of anti-fascist unity amongst the socialist states of Europe – Britain, France and Russia – and calls for continued action in the fight against European fascism, “gone, but not defeated”.
The book was a phenomenon upon its initial publication and went through twelve editions in its first month. A thirteenth edition, slated for release in February 1940, was subject to editing by the Domestic Bureau and many of the more incendiary rhetorical passages – particularly those directed against particularly members of the Executive Council – were toned down. The identity of “Cato” was unknown for many years and the subject of much speculation; figures as diverse as George Orwell and Nye Bevan were suggested as being behind the book. The true authors used a pseudonym to avoid censure for the severity of their criticism of certain leading members of their own party, and of the government more broadly. Michael Foot had some fun with the game of concealed identities, writing a review of the book in Popular Front magazine Tribune (which he would later go on to edit) entitled “Who Is This Cato?”
Although censored, the ideas of Guilty Men had an undeniable effect upon the British people, shaping an attitude towards the German Reich that helped to set the stage for the Cold War between Left and Right in Europe. Hitting the shelves at a time when the Commonwealth was gearing up to fight wars against fascism in Asia and the Middle East, the book reminded policymakers that the danger was yet to pass far closer to home. Although it sometimes betrays the haste with which it was put together, and while many of its assertions have since been overtaken by hindsight, it remains hard to refute the important role “Cato” played in keeping the flame of anti-fascism burning on the home front after victory in Spain. The phrase re-entered the public consciousness in 1979 after the airing of an infamous episode of the CBC 1 discussion programme Talking Point, during the course of which it was used by Professor Roy Jenkins, incidentally himself a member of the Popular Front. Reproduced below are the preface and opening chapter, as they appeared in the original unedited edition.
* * *
On a spring day in 1793 crowd of angry men burst their way through the doors of the assembly room where the French Convention was in session. A discomforted figure addressed them from the rostrum. “What do the people desire?” he asked. “The Convention has only their welfare at heart.” The leader of the angry crowd replied. “The people haven’t come here to be given a lot of phrases. They demand a dozen guilty men.”
“The use of recriminating about the attitudes of today is to inspire courage and effectiveness in the action of tomorrow.” – Wal Hannington, former Chairman of the National Unemployed Workers Movement and third President of the Commonwealth, May 29 1931.
* * *
MEN OF PEACE
MEN OF PEACE
In the smoking room of the People’s Assembly, two old friends sat talking in agitated tones. They had each just come from the main debating chamber, where Chairman Mosley had appeared to give an address to the gathered members of the Assembly concerning the situation in the Sudetenland, that part of north-western Czechoslovakia home to a majority German-speaking population which so vexed the diplomats of Europe at the end of the last decade.
“We shall not back down in the face of Herr Hitler’s posturing!” the Chairman had thundered. "We shall meet his gambit and confront head-on his bullying of the Czechoslovakian people! United with our allies in France and Russia, we are ready to drive the scourge of fascism from this continent once and for all. To Hitler we say this: maintain your current path, and you will have war!”
One of the men turned to his friend and gave him a serious look. “When Mosley’s words reach Berlin, by God we will have war.” His friend replied. “War is exactly what Hitler is after. Today his appetite may fancy the Sudetenland, but tomorrow it will be all of Bohemia. He has put Germany on a course for the domination of all of Europe, and I’ll say he’s fool enough to think himself the man to win it.”
The first speaker nodded sagely. “One way or another, this will be a turning point for Europe. Either Hitler shall be deterred and the fascist tide will be turned by diplomacy, or he will persist and we will have a long and bloody war.”
Now these men were both colleagues of Mosley and had been in government for as long as he had been in power. They were men of action, and not in the habit of putting forward idle claims. The Rhineland Crisis of two years prior was still fresh in the memory, as was Stafford Cripps’ joint declaration with the Soviet Foreign Minister Maxim Litvinov that no further fascist expansion would be tolerated on continental Europe. In the smoking room, it was quite evident that the possibility of war was entirely real.
The German goose stepping across the Rhineland.
Across the hallway in a small meeting room, a group of Communist members of the assembly were equally busy talking away about Mosley’s speech. Ever since 1934, the Communists had distrusted Mosley and his supporters. They felt that he was too wedded to power and not enough wedded to the struggle of the working class. Yet as concerned his denunciation of Hitler they were in complete agreement. A lay preacher from Glasgow declared. “War with Hitler must come, as he is an implacable enemy of the Trade Unions. He has reduced the German workers to the level of helots.”
“What’s more,” a formidable women from Liverpool chimed in to agree, “he is determined to expand his slave state across Europe. He must be faced with his own weapons!”
“Quite right,” added a grave party man from the provinces. “Once he has done away with the countries of the East, why then it will only be a matter of time before he turns on Moscow!”
It was not just in London that the situation gave people cause for alarm. Up and down the country, people gathered to hold forth with their opinions on the coming war against the Commonwealth’s greatest enemy. At night, children went to bed scared stiff that Hitler the boogeyman would emerge from their cupboards and eat them all up. On one farm near Bristol, an effigy of the German Chancellor was spotted in a potato field scaring away the birds. Not since Churchill a decade before had the working people of Britain been given cause to so fear one man.
In Germany, too, Mosley’s words were heard with trepidation. At the highest levels of the army, men drawn from the old Prussian aristocracy feared that their Führer would lead them into an unwinnable war.
“We are not ready!” they protested. “If the British come to the defence of the Czechs, they will be joined by the Russians and the French. We must wait until we can handle this threat.”
But Hitler would not be talked down from his militant position, and the Junkers feared that their leader had gone quite mad with ambition. “He will drive us to ruin!” came the cry. “He will be the death of Germany!”
Hans-Jürgen Graf von Blumenthal
The date was September 30, 1938. German Army officer Count Hans-Jürgen von Blumenthal arrived at the Reichkanzlei with a group of soldiers opposed to the Nazi regime. They stormed the building and made towards Hitler’s office, killing the Führer’s SS guards and then the Führer himself.
Later that day, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, chief of the German military intelligence service, was hurriedly installed as Reichspräsident. As the plotters rushed to disarm the Nazi Party apparatus, fearing it could still be used to press ahead with the invasion of Czechoslovakia, Hermann Göring declared himself Hitler’s successor and launched a fightback. Göring was the commander of the Air Force and widely considered to be the second most powerful man in Germany after Hitler. He had no trouble taking over the Nazi regime.
While throughout October Germany descended into civil war between Nazi loyalists and the conservative opposition, in Britain the news of Hitler’s downfall was met with triumph. Mosley took to the tribune in the Assembly and addressed its attendant members.
“Emboldened by the fierce international opposition to his plans to invade Czechoslovakia and shatter the peace in Europe, the Germans have risen up against Hitler and his tyrannical regime. In Africa and in Palestine, the fight against fascism may yet go on. But in Europe, we have moved closer towards peace!”
Mosley had taken Hitler to the brink and come out on top. The Führer was dead, and in Britain the Chairman was enjoying his status as the greatest statesman of all times at the moment of his greatest triumph. Mosley was now the world’s premier man of peace.
Meanwhile in Germany, by the start of November the Nazi loyalists had given up all hope of victory. Göring made his escape and set off for Argentina. President Canaris invited the son of the old Kaiser to take up the vacant German throne, and on November 7, 1938 the Fourth Reich was proclaimed.
To those paying close attention, it was unclear just how much of a difference this shifting of players would make to the European stage. The new Kaiser Wilhelm III selected Hitler’s old State Secretary to be his first Chancellor. Baron Ernst von Weizsäcker was a pinnacle of the nationalist, conservative aristocratic class. He dissolved the Nazi Party and became the head of the revived German National People’s Party. Many members of the former government maintained their positions in power as the new DNVP regime stressed continuity. Chancellor von Weizsäcker and Chairman Mosley shared in Hitler a common enemy. Now that he was out of the picture, each was free to get on with his other business.
In Britain one seldom hears nowadays stories of German devilry. As one member of the Party of Action put it in a recent debate on foreign affairs, “Germany may be an enemy of the Commonwealth, but she is not an enemy of peace.” No notice is paid to the Junkers as they greedily eye Polish territories, or to the stories of old Jewish men being led out into the streets and forced to dance in their religious attire. Signor Mussolini, stubbornly keeping up with the prosecution of his colonial wars in the Middle East, is today’s “public enemy number one”.
Chairman Mosley, the great European force for peace.
The British national character, one is forced to conclude, remains fundamentally unchanged by revolution. While the members of the Assembly may shout till they are red in the face about the international solidarity between working men, their minds clearly entertain no such notions. We remain, as we always have been since the first strains of Liberal thought reached these islands centuries ago, unable to resist stories of great men with great powers, who command the forces of history like demigods. The story of history is simply their biography.
Thus men can sit in the Assembly and herald Chairman Mosley as a great force for peace in Europe without so much as a second thought for the millions who will remain oppressed by the new regime in power in Berlin. Mr Cripps at the International Bureau can content himself that no more British blood will be spilled on European soil over our obligations in Eastern Europe; all the more flesh and steel to pit against the Italians in the deserts of Egypt and Palestine!
We will become accommodated to a more gentlemanly way of conducting diplomacy, as we have become accustomed in the years after the Revolution to treating the Capitalist powers in good faith. The name Hitler will fade from the historical memory after a few years, and with it the notion of German evil. With its passing, the situation of those German people embattled against von Weizsäcker and the DNVP shall forever be obscured from view in the eyes of most onlookers.
This, then, is the story of a great crime of history, unfolding now in the present time. It is the story of a whole class of men falling under the spell of a deadening influence: the belief in the old Liberal piety that our enemies appear in mortal form. This is an account of the means by which we arrived here, at a moment when those in power see our opponents as mere people and not as the ideas these people carry.
This story is offered as a cautionary tale. It is hoped that in telling it some action may be taken to shake Britain out of its collective delusion, and that the people of the Commonwealth will again come to see their enemy not as any one man, but as the bastard allure of international fascism.