Sunday, 12 June 2011
The Black Book
SALOME. Aubrey Beardsley illustration for Oscar Wilde's 1896 play.
By the Winter of 1917 the British Army had lost more than a quarter of a million men in a few months of hell in the shell-ravaged quagmire of Passchendaele. On 10 February, 1918 a small ad appeared in the Sunday Times, announcing two private performances of Oscar Wilde's Salome at the Prince of Wales Theatre, starring the dancer Maud Allan.
One might be hard put to make a connection between these events other than on a surrealist canvas. But the conspiracy theorists could; and though Wilde's depiction of bloody sadism from lust might resonate strangely with the slaughter for greed in Flanders, that wasn't the connection made, or wanted. If the war wasn't going well, someone must be blamed.
The politicians could blame the generals. The generals blamed the politicians. But people like Arnold White, Marie Corelli, Pemberton Billing MP, Hamilton Beamish and Harold Spencer concocted a much more ingenious theory. There was a Hidden Hand at work undermining Britain. It was the Jews. Them and the urnings. The urnings?
Pemberton Billing had set up a paper called The Imperialist with financial help, it is said, from Beaverbrook. When the wily Canadian press lord joined Lloyd George's government and his right-wing Tory allies felt cheated, The Imperialist became The Vigilante, and carried on campaigning; Beaverbrook joined its foes.
Arnold White was an antisemite, who had campaigned against Jewish immigration (albeit not averse to taking Jewish money to explore other places for Jews to settle — as far from these shores as possible).
Now he was concerned about prominent Jews in government circles. But an article by him in the right-wing English Review at the end of 1917, reproduced in The Vigilante, raised another danger. Entitled "Efficiency and Vice", it claimed that most German men were homosexuals. As evidence, White cited a book by Otto Weininger extolling love between men, and the campaign to repeal Clause 175 of the German Penal Code which made sexual acts between men an offence. "How does all this German garbage, which I am forced to quote, affect the course of the war?" asked White, as well he might. Not that he was in any-real doubt. Not only were the German troops raping women, as every English newspaper reader knew, but they were out to spread homosexuality among Englishmen, to undermine national efficiency.
But if homosexuality so sapped a nation's spirit, how come all those homosexuals — urnings was the German expression White borrowed to show his erudition — hadn't already weakened Germany itself? Don't get logical now; we have entered the strange realm of conspiracy theory! "The English conception of their national life is that the home is the unit of the nation...," White explained, "but if the conception of home life is replaced by the Kultur of the urnings, the spirit of the Anglo-Saxon world wilts and perishes..."
If the 70-year-old White's fear of wilting wasn't enough, he went on to warn of "the systematic seduction of young British soldiers by the German urnings and their agents..." and "a great cancer, made in Germany" eating at the heart of civilisation. "Every father and mother in the British Empire should know" that legalisation of homosexuality was one of the aims of the German Empire, to restore Sodom and Gomorrah, and "infect clean nations with the Hunnish erotomania".
"When the blond beast is an urning, he commands the urnings in other lands. They are moles. They burrow. They plot. They are hardest at work when they are most silent. Britain is only safe when her statesmen are family men..."
White made one serious mistake. He suggested that even the Kaiser's family and the other great German houses were "tainted with the inherent vices of the Huns...". Moutbatten (Battenburg) had been treated as a suspect alien; Margot Asquith might be whispered about as an alleged lesbian; but attributing a tainted inheritance to the relatives of the British Royal Family was going too far.
The Black Book
On 26 January 1918, however, The Imperialist had carried another sensational tale: "The First 47,000", written by Captain Harold Spencer, which began: "There exists in the cabinet noire of a certain German prince a book compiled by the Secret Service from the reports of German agents who have infested this
country for the past 20 years, agents so vile and spreading debauchery of such a lasciviousness as only German minds could conceive and German bodies execute."
This "Black Book", he claimed, contained instructions for "the propagation of evils which all decent men thought had perished in Sodom and Lesbia". But the book also listed, according to Spencer, "the names of 47,000 English men and women... Privy Councillors, youths of the chorus, wives of Cabinet Ministers.
dancing girls, even Cabinet Ministers themselves, while diplomats, poets, bankers, editors, newspaper proprietors and members of His Majesty's household follow each other with no order of precedence..."
This veritable London phone book, however, also contained details "of the unnatural defloration of children who were drawn to the parks by the summer evening concerts..." German bands, perhaps? And if the worthy readers of The Imperialist weren't already salivating, there was more: "Wives of men in supreme positions were entangled. In lesbian ecstasy the most sacred secrets of State were betrayed." One can just imagine it, that insistent throaty whisper at the height of passion: "Cynthia, about the secret clauses of the Sykes-Picot agreement concerning the Dardanelles..."
Well, perhaps romantic novelist Marie Corelli could swallow it, being an antisemite and devotee of conspiracy theory. On 10 February, seeing the advertisement for Maud Allan's performance, Miss Corelli promptly clipped it and sent it to the office of The Vigilante, as Pemberton Billing's paper had just been re-named. She enclosed a note:
Dear Mr Billing,
I think it would be well to secure a list of subscribers to this new "upholding" of the Wilde "cult" among the 47,000.
Yours sincerely Marie Corelli.
PS Why "private"performances?
The reason they were private was simple, as Corelli should have known. The Lord Chamberlain had banned public performances of Salome.
Captain Spencer was first to see Marie Corelli's billet doux, and although The Vigilante was about to go to press, he felt inspired to include the following little item:
'The Cult of the Clitoris
To be a member of Maud Allan's private performances in Oscar Wilde's Salome one had only to apply to a Miss Valetta, of 9 Duke Street, Adelphi, WC. If Scotland Yard were to seize the list of these members, I have no doubt they would secure the names of several thousand of the first 47,000'.
Encouraged by her producer, Jack Grein, Maud Allan decided to sue Pemberton Billing for "obscene libel", treating his headline as an allegation of lesbianism. The trial, which opened on 29 May 1918, must rank as one of the most bizarre in British legal history, with strange witnesses for the defence, attempts to drag in the names of the famous, and the most jumbled pseudo-expertise on "sexual perversions" interspersed with readings of Wilde's purple prose, like "thy mouth like the vermilion that the Moabites find".
Curiously, as David Rose discovered ( "Secrets of a Closed Society". Guardian Weekend, January 7, 1989), there is still a file in the Public Record Office at Kew listed as "The Black Book mentioned in the criminal libel action against Mr.Pemberton Billing MP". It's in "HO (the Home Office) 144/364780, 1918. And it is "closed for 100 years".
Pemberton Billing's mode of defence ws to step up his attack, making little distinction between Maud Allan and the character she portrayed on stage, and imputing lesbianism, sadism and necrophilia, as well as reminding the court that Salome was under age! He argued that unless Maud Allan had a medical education the fact that she understood the word "clitoris" was itself proof of her immorality! And he was allowed to bring up the little known, and irrelevant, fact that a brother of Maud Allan had been hanged for murder in Canada, declaring that this showed a hereditary evil in her family.
Turning his attack to the play's producer, Jack Grein (who, besides being a foreigner and a Jew, was a protege of the now hated Beaverbrook), Billing now brought up the "Black Book" and the famous 47,000. He called as witness a Mrs Eileen Villiers-Stuart, who claimed to have been shown the Book by two officers, now unfortunately killed in action in Palestine. But that wasn't all. She had seen some of the names in it. "Is Mrs Asquith's name in the book?" (The former prime minister's wife had aleady been mentioned for having invited Maud Allan to tea at Downing Street before the war.) Both Mr and Mrs Asquith were listed, claimed Mrs Villiers-Stuart. "And Lord Haldane?" Him too. And, to put the final cherry on the cake, the witness was able to testify that Mr Justice Darling, who was hearing the case, was in the "Black Book" too!
A former mistress of Neil Primrose, government Chief Whip and son of Lord Roseberry, who was one of the officers killed in Palestine, Villiers-Stuart implied both that he had let the "Black Book" get back to Germany, and that he had been killed for what he knew. Nothing if not patriotic, she had since married first one, then another, soldier, and was later to face charges of bigamy. At the time of the trial, she was claiming to have been employed as a secret agent to discredit Pemberton Billing, but to have switched to his side.
Captain Harold Spencer, who claimed to have seen the"Black Book" while on special service in Albania, said he had been warned by senior officers in military intelligence that to publicise it "would undermine the whole fabric of the government". He had come to fear that "the Germans had such a grip on our affairs
that nothing could be done". But then, through meeting Henry Hamilton Beamish at a meeting of the National Party he had been introduced to Pemberton Billing.
Besides giving details of German plots and naming some names, the author of "The First 47,000" was able to enlighten the court on such matters as sadism, and the meaning of "orgasm", explaining also that he had obtained the word "clitoris" from his village doctor. What Captain Spencer was less forthcoming
about was his own medical discharge from the forces on grounds of "delusional insanity".
A Dr Cooke, Tuberculosis Officer for Lambeth, was brought in as an authority on Kraft-Ebbing and sexuality to testify that, in his belief, Jack Grein must be a sadist and a "sodomist"; that anyone connected with Oscar Wilde's play must have "a perverted mind"; and that the phrase, "The Cult of the Clitoris", was legitimate as a heading.
While judge and jury were struggling to swallow, if not digest, all this erudite information, a character from an earlier case was brought in for a touch of class — none other than Lord Alfred Douglas, once Oscar Wilde's friend "Bosie", now ready to call Wilde "the greatest force for evil that has appeared in Europe during the last 350 years ... the agent of the devil in every possible way".
Regretting his part in translating Salome, "a most pernicious and abominable piece of work", he agreed that it could only appeal to perverts — and Germans. "Bosie" was cheered from the public gallery when the case ended — with Pemberton Billing's acquittal and a homily from Justice Darling against Wilde's play and Maud Allan's immodest costume on stage.
This trial, in which the editor of The Vigilante was able to turn the plaintiffs into the accused, and make the court a platform for his campaign demagogy and fanaticism, puts on show the ignorant bigotry and political corruption of its period. But more than that: the evidence suggests that Maud Allan was targeted so viciously simply because she had innocently strayed on to the battlefield of a dirty political war. There was indeed a "Hidden Hand": that of a powerful right-wing faction among the ruling class, backing, using and protecting the fanatical Pemberton Billing and his crew. '
Jingoism and bigotry
In March 1914, just months before world war broke out, the British government had faced revolt. The Ulster Unionists armed against Home Rule, the British Army officers staged their "Mutiny at the Curragh" (telling the King they would refuse orders to march against Ulster), and the mighty in the land gathered at country houses to cheer right-wing rebellion. At Westminster the prime minister was shouted down, Margot Asquith commented that she had "never known the Tories so vile". The ever-patriotic Daily Express said the PM deserved "neither respect nor a hearing".
The government backed down.
The war brought no respite from internal conflict. In 1916, the Right hoped Asquith's fall would bring the Ulster Unionist, Carson, and imperialist, Lord Milner, into office. Disappointed, they had turned on Lloyd George and Beaverbrook. Now, in 1918, with rumours that the Hague negotiations on prisoners of war might lead to peace moves, it was the military and the extreme Right who backed Pemberton Billing, crusading against "traitors".
Mixing patriotic hysteria with sexual anxiety, jingoism and bigotry, moral panic and paranoia, Pemberton Billing and his associates stirred a potent and poisonous brew. But it was not their only weapon. Hatred of the "alien" and, specifically, the Jew, was a persistent theme with them.
On 23 March 1918 as a German counteroffensive drove the British back in Flanders, The Vigilante "explained" that the Germans and "the Ashkenazim" had"complete control of the White Slave Traffic", and blamed Jewish-controlled prostitutes for deliberately spreading disease among the British troops.
Earlier, an article thought to be by H H Beamish had suggested that Beaverbrook's family name, Aitken, might be "derived from an original name of Isaacs. If this is true, he belongs to the same tribe as our Lord Chief Justice..."
As for another paper saying that the writing was on the wall for Germany because revolution loomed, Beamish warned: "The real writing on the wall is in German but the characters are Hebrew and the deceptive whole is known to the world as Yiddish, the camouflaged tongue of the Bolsheviks."
The last issue of The Vigilante appeared on 9 February 1919. A few months later, Henry Hamilton Beamish founded the Britons society, which was joined by Lord Sydenham of Coombe and others including Victor Marsden. Morning Post correspondent and translator of the notorious Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The "Britons" became publishers of the Protocols and Beamish became a strong Nazi sympathiser in later years.
Between 1920 and 1923 Lord Alfred Douglas and Captain Harold Spencer ran a weekly called Plain English. Their pet theory was that Jews had contrived the death of Lord Kitchener when his ship went down in 1916, and had also profited in some way from the Battle of Jutland, with the help of Winston Churchill. It all seems so long ago and far away, and yet... And yet in 1988, seventy years after Pemberton Billing presented homosexualitv as a conspiracy, the Conservative government inserted a clause in its Local Government Act outlawing the "promotion" of lesbianism and homosexualitv. In the autumn of that year, Choice, published by the Dowager Lady Birdwood, featured Victor Marsden's version of the infamous Protocol as a genuine document.
And, as though to prove that nobody learns anything from history, a Jew, Sir Alfred Sherman, consorts with the French fascist leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who thought the gas chambers "a mere detail", then writes in the Jewish Chronicle (23 December 1988) attacking left-wingers, not least fellow Jews, for "the promotion of unnatural vice"; blames "disaffected ethnic minorities who abuse our tolerance" and "sexual perverts" of being alike part of a conspiracy to overturn "ordered society".
From his defence of "order" to conspiracy theory, from his espousal of "Christian values" to indignation against disaffected minorities; what a pity a mere detail of ancestry must inhibit the next logical step of endorsing some edition of the Protocols. And how the Pemberton Billings and Beamishes must be laughing, somewhere in hell.
Sex Scandals by Keeler and Meadley (Xanadu, 1985)
Salome's Last Veil by Michael Kettle (Granada, 1977). This gives a full acount of the trial and background.
British Fascism edited by Lunn and Thurlow (Groom Helm, 1980). Particularly important is the chapter by Gisela C Lebselter on Beamish.
Fascism in Britain by Richard Thurlow (Basil Blackwell, 1987).
(this article first appeared in Jewish Socialist no.16, Spring 1989)