In response to:
Hons and Huns from the May 12, 1977 issue
To the Editors:
I have great respect for Lord Annan, but he should not be allowed to get away with loose accusations…. He writes: “But as Mr. David Pryce-Jones pointed out in his review in these pages, Robert Skidelsky’s biography of Mosley suppresses the fact that Mosley openly congratulated Streicher and that his fascists went in for Jew-baiting in London…” [NYR, May 12]. May I make a number of comments?
- Mosley did not congratulate Streicher about anything. This is a distorted version of an occasion in 1935 when Streicher sent Mosley a telegram congratulating him on having recognized a Jewish question, and Mosley wrote back saying “The forces of Jewish corruption must be conquered in all countries before the future of Europe can be made secure in justice and peace.”
- I did not “suppress” this exchange. To suppress suggests an intention to keep secret. This could hardly have been my intention as the Streicher-Mosley exchange had already appeared in Robert Benewick’s book on British Fascism, and in at least three books before that.
- I did not omit it, with much else, when suddenly asked by my English publisher to cut my manuscript by a third in three weeks. This was probably a mistake. I should make it clear, though, that by leaving it out I did not suppress or omit anything pertinent to Mosley’s attitude to the Jews. What he wrote to Streicher was exactly what he was saying on the public platform at the time, which is reproduced on pp. 389-390 of my book, with a reference to the issue of Blackshirt (May 17, 1935) which mentions the letter to Streicher. What the message to Streicher does illustrate is Mosley’s insensitivity to what was happening to the Jews in Germany, though this point is brought out by alternative quotations.
Perhaps I may make a more general point about writing history. I tried to use the space allowed me by my publisher to introduce new material, rather than to repeat what had been said by others. Lord Annan might have given me credit for reproducing a hitherto unknown exchange of letters between Mosley and Harold Nicolson in 1932 showing that Mosley was thinking of starting the fascist movement with an anti-Semitic plank that year; a correspondence which destroys Mosley’s defence that he was “forced” for the first time to raise the “subject of the Jews” in 1934. I also identify Mosley—again for the first time—as the actual author of an unsigned attack on Jews in Blackshirt on November 4, 1933. These are new and central facts in the development of the BUF’s anti-Semitism. Had I omitted them, I could certainly have been accused of “suppression.” The stock message to Streicher is completely trivial by comparison.
No one who has read chapter 21 of my book can suppose that I suppressed the fact that Mosley’s followers went in for Jewbaiting in London. What I did was to provide an interpretation of events in East London, based partly on hitherto unpublished police reports, which puts many matters in a new light. In particular, I stressed the interactive character of the East End disturbances. The only historian who has subjected my analysis to extended scrutiny agrees with it (Colin Holmes, in Bulletin of the Society for the Study of Labour History, Spring 1976, pp. 26-33).
The best cure for Lord Annan’s misconceptions is to read my book. However, if he has to rely on a guided tour, may I recommend guides with a somewhat higher standing in the field than Mr. David Pryce-Jones? A.J.P. Taylor wrote “He [Skidelsky] is ruthless over the Fascist period, bringing out to the full the violence and anti-semitism” (Observer, April 5, 1975). Lord Blake wrote “Mr. Skidelsky describes [anti-Semitism] as ‘the greatest blemish on his [Mosley’s] whole career.’ That ought to satisfy the critics, but I fear it will not, for Mr. Skidelsky does attempt to explain it, and there are some quarters which will not forgive even an explanation of a phenomenon they rightly detest” (Sunday Times, April 6, 1975). As my biography of Mosley has been the subject of slanted comment on two occasions in your journal, perhaps your readers will forgive me for concluding with Lord Blake’s final sentence: “Mr. Skidelsky has written a superb book and made a major contribution to the history of our times.”
Noel Annan replies:
I too respect Mr. Skidelsky and I would not want to imply for one moment that he was guilty of improper suppression of the facts. Indeed since he explains that he was asked by his publisher to cut his manuscript by a third in three weeks, the reason for the omission is plain. I gladly agree with him that the best remedy is to read his book which is very well worth reading.