A new film about England’s avowed anti-Semites stirs a champion of European tolerance, liberalism, and civilization
Venice, with its grandiloquent manner and grandiose style, has for almost half a millennium provided refuge to a certain kind of English dreamer who would not countenance the drab and gray shores of England. The list of illustrious and dissolute English expatriates, honing their art in this most gloriously decaying of cities, stretches from luminaries like Byron, Ruskin, Housman, and Browning to minor eccentrics such as the Alpinist and literary gadfly Horatio Brown, or the novelist, madman, and mystic Frederick Rolfe, aka “Baron Corvo,” who went completely native and became a gondolier. I went there to visit the latest exemplar in this oddball tradition of exiles, the British travel writer and historian Robin Saikia—author of The Red Book: The Membership List of The Right Club–1939, which provides startling and unsettling insight into upper-class English anti-Semitism during Hitler’s rise to power.
The Red Book is a primary source for this year’s documentary release Churchill and the Fascist Plot (now available in some regions for viewing online), by Peter Nicholson, one of England’s best-known documentary filmmakers. A charming made-for-TV thriller, its nostalgic confection of newsreels of marching armies, jagged shots of men in trench coats passing folders in dark alleys, and women whispering malignant secrets over cups of tea in south Kensington is interspersed with interviews of the three or four historians who have done the most to bring the story to light. Though its primary focus is the espionage caper and the colorful back story of the intrigues, its far more disquieting revelation is that the isolationist tendency and inclination toward appeasement was more deeply rooted in the middle and upper strata of British society than our a posteriori victorious and self-congratulatory selves might like to admit. My visit to the dandy Saikia in Venice revealed a dark world of reactionary intrigue, along with its inverse potential of a capacity for redemption through humane reflection.
Arriving at a discreet minor palazzo on a small canal behind Campo Santa Margherita, the historical nucleus of Venice’s bohemian life for the last century, I found Saikia in his idyllic garden, smoking and sipping champagne in the twilight, surrounded by a cluster of white Siamese cats. Half Indian and half English, the tweedy Saikia has an imposing patrician nose that peeks out from below his expansive Caesar dome of a forehead, and his jet-black shoulder-length hair belies the fact that he has just turned 50. His upper-crust English-weirdo résumé of eccentric affectations is unimpeachable. During his post-colonial childhood in Zambia, his mother kept a pet lion named Alexander that slept in his bed. He has flown around the world teaching “Received Pronunciation” to professional elites in the Arab world, the post-Soviet sphere, and Far East Asia. He admits that he has had the opportunity to “polish the pronunciation of the occasional Russian oligarch” with his patented method of teaching English elocution, and that he holds the distinction of being the only British writer to receive royalties from the sale of a cocktail he invented: the “Death in Venice” (strawberry aquavit, Ciroc vodka, vermouth), which is served at Winston Churchill’s favorite watering hole, the bar of the Excelsior on the Venice Lido.
Indeed, the balmy and pleasure-seeking Lido is his spiritual home, and Saikia is the author of its sole English-language literary history, The Venice Lido. The book includes a perceptive chapter on the history of the Jews in Venice, to me the first clue in his identification with the tribe, and a vivid description of what might be Europe’s most remarkable Jewish cemetery. There is also an amusing anecdote about the Jewish pastry chef who successfully sabotaged a ceremonial lunch given by Mussolini for Hitler on the lido by spiking the coffee with salt. John Julius Norwich, the English-speaking world’s premier historian of Venice, is an avowed fan of the book, and when pressed Saikia admitted to me that on occasion he and Lord Norwich “drink bubbly and discuss matters Venetian.”
Still, the carefully cultivated appearance of the frivolous run-of-the-mill English dilettante-dandy is misleading. Saikia is as (mysteriously) proud as any Englishman to have graduated from the oldest and most academically rigorous English schools, including Winchester College, followed by Oxford. And yet despite his provenance, he is manifestly ill at ease with the establishment he was born into and considers himself an outsider. The product of an interracial marriage, Saikia vividly recalls the social opprobrium his parents encountered from many quarters of British and Indian society when they married in the late 1950s. His father, the scion of a very grand Assamese tea-planting dynasty, escaped India’s repressive social proscriptions to make his way, only to run up against England’s own special brand of prejudice. The family soon decamped again for newly independent Zambia, and Saikia led a peripatetic childhood bouncing between his English prep school, the African bush, and the Indian plantation, which made him, in his own words, “an honorary Jew.” In all three places he encountered and observed at first hand what he terms the “the corrupting and degrading consequences of racial prejudice and political corruption,” which in turn became the source of his interest in debunking racist and anti-Semitic secret societies in England.
The Right Club was one such secret society, part of a constellation of reactionary right-wing social clubs that existed in England prior to the beginning of World War II. A “patriotic society” whose upper- and middle-class members would gather for dinners and rousing discussions of the “Jewish problem,” it was founded by a well-connected Scottish aristocrat and parliamentary nonentity named Capt. Archibald Henry Maule Ramsay, who served as conservative MP for Peebles and South Midlothian. Scandalized by the anticlericism of the Republican and Anarchist Left, he began making radical speeches during the Spanish Civil War calling for the formation of a united Christian front. He proceeded to gather around himself a pestilent group of reactionaries, many of them luminaries of British anti-Semitic thought like the Irish-American William Joyce (later known as Lord Haw-Haw), Anthony Ludovici, A.K. Chesterson (who was no less opinionated and no less anti-Semitic than his famous writer cousin, G.K. Chesterton, but lacking genius and wit), and Arnold Spencer Leese, a veterinarian who combined his fascist politicking with a fanatical opposition to kosher meat slaughtering and titled his autobiography Out of Step: Events in the Two Lives of an Anti-Jewish Camel Doctor. Ludovici was a former assistant to Rodin, a specialist on Nietzsche, and an ideological eugenicist with links to the rural British right wing who wrote chilling volumes such as Jews, and the Jews in England; The Quest of Human Quality: How To Rear Leaders; and In Defense of Aristocracy: A Text Book for Tories.
Though the club officially disbanded with the onset of the war, and the members at the highest level of British society melted away, a dedicated nucleus of activist members soon began to hold secret meetings with powerful (and now infamous) pro-Nazi figures in Britain—including Adm. Barry Domville and British fascist leader Oswald Mosley—with the express objective of achieving a negotiated peace with Nazi Germany. Ramsey inscribed the names of each new club member in a thick and totemic leather-bound ledger, the eponymous Red Book.
One of the last members to join the Right Club was an American named Tyler Kent. A 29-year-old cipher clerk at the American Embassy in London, Kent was introduced to Ramsay and the club by Anna Wolkoff, a staunchly anti-Semitic White Russian and the daughter of an Imperial Russian navy admiral who had been reduced to running a genteel establishment in South Kensington, the “Russian Tea Rooms.” The Wolkoffs, according to Saikia, “had fallen on hard times and were an embittered pair”: Their tea rooms soon became a gathering place for “disaffected émigrés like themselves and the exiled Russian Prince Yuri Galizine, along with pro-Nazi Britains” who shared their fanatical hatred for Jews and Bolsheviks. Wolkoff led the aristocratic women in the group in nightly outings plastering anti-Semitic posters on back-alley walls in London.
After the outbreak of war Ramsay gave Kent the Red Book for safe-keeping, thinking that his flat would be the best hiding place for this radioactively compromising document, since Kent held diplomatic immunity as a member of the American legation. Kent, meanwhile, was pilfering copies of top-secret private telegrams between Churchill and Roosevelt, which were being passed by way of embassy back channels. These telegrams, emblematic tokens of the “special relationship,” contained Churchill’s open, frank, and urgent beseeching of Roosevelt for American assistance in the war. As the correspondence was being conducted extra-constitutionally in both the United States and in Britain, they constituted political dynamite on both sides of the Atlantic.
Ramsay’s involvement with Kent was a concern of paramount importance to British security authorities since Ramsay, as a member of Parliament, enjoyed parliamentary privilege: If Kent handed over his stolen documents to Ramsay, it would have been impossible to prevent their publication, which may very well have sabotaged Britain’s war initiative and set in motion the complete takeover of Europe by the Third Reich.
Sir Maxwell Knight, the head of MI5 and an eccentric and a remarkable character in his own right—he went on to become a naturalist with 34 books to his name, as well as serving as the model for Agent M in the James Bond novels—had built his career infiltrating the fetid underground of Britain’s myriad right-wing circles. Knight had been keeping Kent and the other Right Wing Club members under surveillance for some time. As their plans crossed the Rubicon from noxious stupidity into the realm of existential threat to the British empire, he masterminded a sting operation in which Kent and his accomplice Wolkoff were duped into accepting—and agreeing to pass along—a letter to Berlin supporting the propaganda efforts of the traitorous broadcaster William Joyce.
On May 20, 1940, Kent’s flat was raided and he was arrested; the Red Book’s fastening was forced open. U.S. Ambassador Joseph Kennedy, himself a Nazi sympathizer in the 1930s, was brought to the apartment to observe British Intelligence break open the book’s lock and catalog its contents and personally waived Kent’s right to diplomatic immunity. Kent and Wolkoff were imprisoned for seven and 10 years respectively. The British Cabinet decided to extend the invocation of “Defense Regulation 18B,” the anti-terrorism laws of their day, and the precursor of our own, which enabled Churchill to imprison or intern anyone suspected of Nazi sympathies for the duration of the war.
Capt. Ramsay was also interned for several years, until September 1944 when, in a “breathtaking act of chutzpah” (Saikia’s words yet again), the first thing he did upon his release—the war was not yet over—was to resume his seat in Parliament. He then called for a motion to reinstate the 1275 Statute of Jewry, a pernicious piece of medieval anti-Semitic legislation first introduced during the reign of Edward I that, among other things, required Jews to wear a yellow badge and that also outlawed usury. Ramsay died an unapologetic fascist.
For several years the actual Red Book has resided in the Wiener Library for the Study of the Holocaust and Genocide in London. The first time its totemic contents are to be made public, readers will discover that the new edition includes Ramsey’s list of Right Club members published in facsimile, with notes on every peer, diplomat, member of the armed forces, and parliamentarian who joined the club. I inquired of Saikia his view of the fraught issue of posthumously dishonoring the descendants of the Right Club members, some of whom are from families still prominent at the highest levels of British society. He replied, with a wry smile, that
“This isn’t just a musty corner of English history,” Saikia elaborated. “And in a way, the Wolkoff-Kent spy story is a secondary issue. What is of great importance is that the principal demons of the Right Club—Arnold Leese, A.K. Chesterson, and Anthony Ludovici for example—are the ideological forefathers of today’s far right in Britain. Leese and Chestertson were in different ways founding fathers of the National Front and the BNP [British National Party]. The racial ‘solutions’ proposed by Ludovici and the idea that English blood should not be contaminated by foreign immigrants still have currency today. There is a message here, I think, for all extremists whether they be Christian, Muslim, or Jewish, for whichever people of whichever book.”
The one redemptive story unearthed by Saikia is to be found in the postwar evolution of the only Right Club member to have reneged on his racist past.
The great insight that Saikia has drawn from his research is that the intellectual frameworks of exclusion and hatred developed by nativists in reaction to successive waves of Jewish immigrants in the early 20th century are now being applied to the Romanian construction worker and the Polish nanny. “While it is true,” he told me, “that there are new ‘enemies’—in England it’s the Muslims, Afro-Caribbeans, Eastern Europeans—anti-Semitism remains deeply ingrained at all levels of British society. Though British Jews are for the most part successful (though not always rich) and hard working, and at the top levels, prominent and influential in current affairs, they are still discussed behind closed doors as being parasitical usurpers of the national heritage. No amount of legislation can remove such deeply ingrained prejudices, which is why avowedly xenophobic organizations such as the NBP get such dangerously high levels of votes.”
“There is hope however”—he finished with a flourish. “The voice of the extremist is always the loudest; we moderates and liberals need to turn up the volume.” Thus, having made a compelling and stirring argument for the virtues of tolerance, liberalism, and civilization, he proceeded to open another bottle of champagne.