David Melding reviews the debate linking Wales and fascism.
For constitutional parties, political extremism and the condonation of violence is democracy’s version of the sin against the Holy Ghost. To accuse opponents of such behaviour is to shout anathema and make political dialogue with the accused impossible. Occasionally but only faintly, both Labour and the Conservatives have been portrayed as prone to extremist tendencies. But the charge that Plaid Cymru during its first two decades of existence flirted with fascism – or worse- is altogether more serious. In a fascinating and important book, Richard Wyn Jones examines this capital charge and sifts through the evidence of several, on the face of it, credible witnesses. Space is also given to a lesser but still damaging accusation that while not fascist, Plaid held fast to a policy of neutrality long after the implacable wickedness of the Nazi regime was apparent to all that had eyes to see.
This week on Click on Wales
For decades Plaid Cymru have stood accused of sympathising with Fascism during the 1930s. The publication of Richard Wyn Jones’s book on ‘Welsh Nationalism and the Accusation of Fascism’ in English earlier this year challenged the charges against Plaid.
Throughout this week Click on Wales we have been examining this debate with a series of essays culminating in a free event tonight.
Fascists! Fascists? Plaid Cymru and the charges of extremism will take place this evening in Conference room 24 at Ty Hywel, National Assembly for Wales.
Limited places are still available. Please visit our Eventbrite page to book.
Was Plaid fascist? Let’s look first at the accusers. Thomas Jones, the brains behind Lloyd George’s premiership, engaged in perhaps the most wounding vituperation in 1942 when he accused Plaid of ’a new, narrow and intolerant dogma, and the vision of a new Promised Land of Fascism’. He went on, ‘it will offer everything to everybody provided sooner or later they will speak Welsh. This is all part of the Hitlerian technique’. Yet according to Richard Wyn Jones the most damaging attack came from the much respected Revd. Gwilym Davies, again in 1942. The far from ecumenical Revd. Davies castigated Plaid as ‘The Fascists Party in Wales’ and said under its leadership Wales would become ‘independent, totalitarian, fascist and papist’. Coming to the attack from a different direction, Professor W.J. Gruffydd asked during his bitter by-election battle with Saunders Lewis in 1942-3 “If ever Hitler should come to Wales, who among the people of Wales will be chosen by him as his treacherous governors to oversee the government of the country in line with the totalitarian principle?” Gruffydd was quick to answer his own question: Plaid Cymru.
The immediate post war period saw a further round of accusations against Plaid Cymru. Jim Griffiths was reported by the Western Mail during the 1950 general election campaign to have equated Plaid Cymru and Nazi ideology. As late as 1998 this sort of innuendo was repeated by Kim Howells when he said “I’m never very sure that nationalism has got anything to do with socialism. I keep putting the words together and coming up with Hitler”.
It does not take Richard Wyn Jones long to demonstrate that these charges were unsupported by direct evidence. Indeed there was more than a hint of calumny about most of the accusations. Some of this can be put down to campaign histrionics – in the 1930s it was quite common for ‘fascist’ to be used as a rather generic insult and this proclivity lingered after the war. Churchill absurdly accused Atlee’s brand of socialism as likely to lead to a Gestapo state. However, as is ably shown, a deep-seated anti-catholism was at play in Wales (Plaid’s leader during this period, Saunders Lewis, was a Roman Catholic convert) together with distain for nationalism as a then minority political culture. W.J. Gruffydd’s vitriol against papists had none of the murderous menace of Nazi propaganda against the Jews, but its hysterical and paranoid tone cannot be denied: “until recently, almost every British ambassador to the most important European states was a member of the Roman Catholic church. In short, British diplomacy – and to a slightly lesser degree, American diplomacy – has fallen into the clutches of the Papists”. In Wales Nonconformity had an orange glow.
In truth the accusers were so reliant on contemporary prejudice that they cared little for evidence. After all, even if Plaid did not say it, did they not think it? Richard Wyn Jones in the most powerful section of his book examines the sinews of fascism and asks if they ever had an organic influence on Plaid Cymru and nationalist thought? Whatever else characterises fascism, it is not known for its polite and inconspicuous nature. Had Plaid advocated fascism then explicit evidence of this would surely not be hard to find. In the 1930s in particular, fascism was on the march, democracy on the back foot. Some nationalist parties in continental Europe did climb on this bandwagon, but there is no evidence against Plaid for using fascist techniques to break the political consensus of the day.
There is evidence to suggest that some prominent members of Plaid had sympathy with aspects of policies being promoted by fascist or authoritarian leaders. Ambrose Bebb described Mussolini in 1935 as a man who carried ‘the cross of his nation raised high’. Saunders Lewis wrote an essay in 1934 calling for legislation prohibiting the accumulation of property and wealth in the hands of a few capitalists – legislation strong enough to worry ‘even the Jews of Bangor’. Quite how far Lewis’ anti-Semitism extended beyond the all too common prejudices of the day is not explored.
Richard Wyn Jones sets these disturbing lapses in a wider context, ‘there are few significant figures in interwar British politics who did not, at one time or another, make some statement or other with regards Fascism or Fascists that we would now consider to be naïve, ill-advised, or downright idiotic’. And we should not overlook the unambiguous nature of statements against fascism. Here is Saunders Lewis, again in 1934, as reported by the Western Mail:
It was probable that there would be a successful Fascist movement in Britain which would be vigorously opposed to Welsh Nationalism. In the Fascist’s Totalitarian State freedom for Wales would be an impossibility.
Plaid’s call for a more localised state was hardly the stuff of fascist state-worship. Nor was another central tenet of Plaid’s programme – pacifism – ever likely to find favour in an ideology of blood and steel, the whip and secret policeman. To distort Hume somewhat, a big charge needs big evidence. As Richard Wyn Jones demonstrates with clarity, humour and some justified anger, the charge that Plaid was fascist is one of the shameful calumnies of our times.
But another charge lies before us. A lesser charge, to be sure, but still a serious one. Was Plaid reckless in holding fast to a policy of neutrality long after the enormous evil of the Nazi regime was apparent to all not blinded by the trope that there was moral equivalence between British and Nazi imperialism? Richard Wyn Jones presents the evidence here as objectively as he demonstrates the lack of evidence for Plaid’s sympathy with fascism. This is Saunders Lewis in January 1943:
Our wish to be dispassionate, and to assess world leaders at a time of war dispassionately and calmly, has been misinterpreted. We are roundly condemned for not losing perspective. We are called ‘barbarians’ for not being suitably frenzied. We are branded ‘Quislings’ because we are Welsh, because we are not foolish hotheads who have been stirred up by English propaganda’.
A little earlier, Lewis had stated the case even more coldly and abstractly, “We believe that the government of Hitler is flawed but that the government of Churchill is also flawed, and that it is impossible for the government of man not to be flawed”. While it is true, as Richard Wyn Jones points out, that this analysis was rooted in Plaid’s general pacifism and the very particular experiences of people like Lewis in the Great War, the terrors of the 1940s rendered such sophistry obtuse. Lewis remained enthralled by the war poets’ rejection of militarism in the 1930s, summed up by Robert Graves in ‘Goodbye to All That’ published in 1929. Most political leaders, in Britain and much of Europe, had moved on by 1939 let alone 1943. This was a serious failure on Lewis’ part, although in treating World War Two as a re-run of World War One he initially reflected a more common mood than we might realise today. Only after the Americans entered the war in December 1941 was Britain overwhelmingly committed to a fight to the death against Nazi Germany.
That fight to the death was encapsulated in the Allies demand for unconditional surrender announced at the Casablanca conference. In rejecting this war aim Lewis attracted yet more criticism. However, his condemnation of indiscriminate aerial bombing reads more sympathetically today and some respected scholars have argued that the war in Europe might have been shortened had conditional surrender been open to the growing anti-Hitler movement in Germany. A great proportion of the death and carnage in Europe occurred in the last 12 months of the war, so those who argued for a negotiated peace certainly had a case even if one doubts its practicability.
Richard Wyn Jones’ magnificent counter-blast against those who have heaped opprobrium on Plaid Cymru has the pungency, pace and excitement of an 18th century pamphlet. Burke and Dr Price would recognise its power. It will not be the final word, but it is likely to remain the most authoritative for a long time to come. This is a key contribution to Welsh political thought because:
After more than sixty years of repetition, the alleged ‘extremism’ of Plaid Cymru before and during the Second World War is now regarded by many in Wales as a self-evident truth. Indeed, my own anecdotal experience would suggest that a great many, if not the majority, of current Plaid Cymru members actually believe it.
Well, not anymore I suspect. The accusation that someone or a particular party is fascist should not be diluted by casual use. It must be reserved for that truly heinous sin against the spirit of democracy.
Key to understanding the thought of Saunders Lewis is his yearning for a return to a Christendom based on agrarian values. He rejected what he saw as the commercial fury of the modern world which corroded traditional cultures and deflected man from his ultimate purpose to love and serve God. In this context he said some ugly things about the Jews. Tim Williams considers Lewis’ outlook exotic, and one that failed to resonate with his contempories and has left Lewis a marginalised figure today in terms of practical politics. Many would agree, although the more inquisitive would also acknowledge that that darling of the Enlightenment, Thomas Jefferson, held similar views although for him love of God was replaced by the balance and glory of Nature.
Yet fascism did not yearn for Christendom; it was profoundly futuristic in its love of machines and technology; it revered not God but man-as-warrior and women-as-child-bearer; and it used traditional structures only when they furthered an ideology of national supremacy. Williams’ response is to throw the fascist net much wider to catch several French authoritarian and conservative thinkers that Lewis admired. This seems to me a strange way to proceed when we are perfectly able to compare Lewis’ core political beliefs to those of fascism and find little that is similar.
Rob Stradling is astute in pointing out that Lewis shared many of the attitudes of leading Irish politicians in the 1930s and 1940s, particularly in welcoming Franco’s victory in Spain and in adopting a policy of neutrality during World War II. As Stradling puts it, this ‘was a fearful era’ as Europe was shaping up for a fight to the death between communism and fascism, and one in which few traditional values were thought likely to survive. Some of the statements of de Valera and Lewis do read as reactionary because of their yearning for a more Christian and less modernistic age. To quote Stradling on Lewis ‘His ideal state was not a theocracy, but rather one derived from the medieval (Thomist) conception of secular civic virtue, in the established constitutional environment of Christian democracy’. It is telling, as Stradling notes, that neither Plaid nor Lewis had sympathy for Mosleyism, unlike initially some figures from the left.
Tim Williams acknowledges the influence that Catholicism had on Lewis’ thought. He then goes on to discuss the prevalence of anti-Catholicism in Wales in a manner that demonstrates rather than analyses the phenomenon. He writes splenetically: ‘Welsh radicalism, whether nonconformist or secular, from the beginning, consistently opposed the papacy not because of bigotry but because ideologically it was not on the side of human freedom and progress’. It was also ‘complicit with Fascism’ according to Williams. Thus is reduced the oldest and most enduring belief system in Europe! One notes with particular sadness that Williams rejects Catholism as not only anti-Welsh but also anti-human in standing against the flourishing of the individual. No wonder he plays scant regard to Lewis’ sincere religiosity when assessing the extent of his sympathy with fascism. Sadly the Catholic Church all too often failed to live up to its mission during the Second World War. It compromised with the dictators in the 1930s and was, with some heroic exceptions, tardy and inadequate in its defence of Jews. Michael Burleigh has eloquently summarised this ambivalence when writing about the Vatican’s concordant with Nazi Germany – ‘It was a treaty both with a totalitarian state and against a totalitarian ideology.’ Some clerics did bravely speak out and statements of clear Christian purpose troubled even Hitler as he realised the influence they had on congregations. The Cardinal- Archbishop of Münster, Clemens August Graf von Galen, famously preached on 3 August 1941 at the height of Nazi power
Woe to mankind, woe to our German nation if God’s Holy Commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ which God proclaimed on Mount Sinai amidst thunder and lightning, which God our Creator inscribed in the conscience of mankind from the very beginning, is not only broken, but if this transgression is actually tolerated and permitted to go unpunished.
This opposition slowed the pace of the Nazi euthanasia programme and is undoubtedly an example of Christian witness that Lewis would have admired.
Welsh historiography has been somewhat silent about the evidence. Stradling comments on the lack of attention the question of Plaid’s alleged complicity with fascism has received in major historical works. Generally speaking an objective examination of this controversy has been overshadowed in historical literature by the miners participation in the Spanish Civil War, the activity of the BUF in Wales, and then the 1943 by-election between Lewis and WJ Gruffyd. This is significant, for the whole question ‘was Plaid Fascist?’ would surely have attracted wider attention if the accusation had a plausible empirical basis. After all Lewis, and even more so Plaid, has had a seminal influence on British political thought through the rediscovery of Britain as a Union of nations. Williams argues that Richard Wyn Jones’ book is an attempt ‘to re-present Lewis as merely a romantic conservative deserving of rehabilitation in a political context where a post devolution Welsh Labour Party needs potential coalition allies to form a government’. Of course there has already been a Lab-Plaid coalition in the One Wales government (2007-11). Would Labour really have co-operated with Plaid if it thought it had a fascist heritage? And if scholars really suspected that a party of government had embedded fascist proclivities, would this not receive attention? Again silence implies a lack of evidence.
Where Williams does hit the mark with righteous anger is on the question of Lewis’ anti-Semitism. This is an area that justifies much more scholarly attention and Williams is right to chide nationalists for their silence. That Lewis made some ugly remarks about Jews cannot be denied. He certainly did not rise above the all too common prejudice of his day. Whether this amounted to more, such as sustained hostility designed to menace Jews and Jewish interests, remains unexamined. Williams clearly thinks that Lewis was an ideologically committed anti-Semite and he presents as evidence Lewis’ play Brad (Treason) written in 1958. As Williams writes ‘The Jews are not mentioned in a play about evil, the economic crisis of the 20s and 30s, war, civilisation and Hitler. Lewis’ silence surely speaks more eloquently of his anti-Semitic discourse and bad faith than a library of attempted exculpatory essays by academics’. The play amounts to an ‘extraordinary whitewashing of the Wehrmacht’.
Modern scholarship has abundantly demonstrated that the Wehrmacht was deeply implicated in the Holocaust. However, Lewis was reflecting a view held by many scholars in the 1950s that there was a greater gap between the actions of the Wehrmacht and institutions of the Nazi party such as the SS. So when Lewis has Colonel Hofacker say that the German generals ‘must keep the hands of the army in France clean’ and not trample the Geneva Convention, this is not wilfully incongruous. The play is a dramatic examination of the moral choices some German officers in France might have been considering when contemplating whether or not to join the conspiracy to assassinate Hitler and end the Nazi regime. That said, the crucial exchange in act II does not read well today as Hofacker tries to persuade Field Marshall Kluge to act and renounce his oath of loyalty to Hitler with dire warnings that otherwise ‘the Cossack and the Mongol’ will camp in Berlin, and Europe will be divided. Nevertheless, while Brad may not be his best play, its central message is that individuals are moral agents who must act at critical moments and cannot hide behind abstractions like inviolable oaths.
There is a deep antipathy for Lewis throughout Williams’ essay which makes the piece unbalanced however pungent and lively it is to read. In my judgement the line ‘for any political force to be able to marginalise an opponent usually requires a plausible basis in empiricism’ is simply a cover for lack of evidence. Stradling is fair in his general assessment of Plaid’s record during these appalling and fearful times. He is also right in calling Welsh scholarship to account for its lack of interest in the controversy. Lewis was a maladroit politician but a political thinker of the first rank and the lack of an extensive assessment of his work is a debilitating gap in British political scholarship. How long must we wait for a serious and extensive treatment of Lewis in English? Or is his mixture of Catholicism, conservatism and nationalism just too vaulted for our flattened post-modern times?