History Today subscription

Antisemitism: the Socialism of Fools

The Labour Party’s recent entanglement with antisemitism came as a shock to many. At its root is the issue of nationalism. 

Illustration by Ben Jones.

There is much evidence that ‘the world has gone mad today’. One case is the British Labour Party’s problem with antisemitism. Social democratic and socialist parties of the Left are not supposed to have antisemites in their ranks. The Right is where antisemitism flourished traditionally. It was they who denied Jews access to the Establishment and saw them as part of a Judeo-Bolshevist conspiracy. Since the late 1940s, admittedly, the Soviets attacked Zionism and ‘bourgeois cosmopolitanism’. But Labour and other centre-left parties in the West acted as heirs to the liberal tradition of equality of citizens regardless of religion or ethnicity and became the parties for which most Jews voted. It is a topsy-turvy world if Labour is the party with an antisemitism problem.

Should we be surprised by recent displacements in the political spectrum concerning antisemitism, given the historical record? Has antisemitism been on the Left all along? There are many instances where people on the Left were antisemitic. It just depends what you mean by ‘the Left’. Georg von Schönerer was an antisemitic politician who later became one of Hitler’s political heroes. As a member in the Reichsrat, the parliament of the ‘Austrian’ half of the Habsburg Monarchy, he was seen as a man of ‘the Left’. This was partly because of the peculiarities of the multi-national Monarchy. When the parliament was established, the hegemonic German Liberals were seated on ‘the Left’ of the chamber, counter to the ‘Right’ of federalists, conservatives and Clericals. This meant progressive politicians representing minority nationalities, such as Czechs, were on ‘the Right’ of Austrian politics and antisemitic German nationalists on ‘the Left’.

Surrender in the American Civil War

One in every four soldiers surrendered at some point during the American Civil War. It was an honourable way of accepting defeat – provided it was done under the right circumstances.

Fort Sumter, 14 April 1861, under the Confederate flag.

Fort Sumter, 14 April 1861, under the Confederate flag.

Major Robert Anderson never expected to become the first hero of the American Civil War. On 19 April 1861, he stood on board the USS Baltic as it steamed into New York Harbor, escorted by a fleet of ships cheering their arrival. On board was the garrison of Fort Sumter, which Anderson had surrendered to Confederate forces a few days earlier. Since December 1860, when South Carolina seceded from the Union, Anderson’s small garrison had been in a state of crisis, with diminishing supplies and unclear guidance from Washington. Anderson had refused Confederate General Pierre G.T. Beauregard’s initial demand for surrender on 11 April, but after 34 hours of bombardment and with the fort on fire, Anderson raised the white flag. Having secured the fort, Confederate officials granted Anderson and his men safe passage.

During the voyage north, they had no idea what kind of reception they would receive when they arrived in New York. To their surprise, they ‘were received with unbounded enthusiasm’. To honour Anderson and his men, the city held an enormous rally in Union Square, an event which would have been appropriate for a victorious general. More than 100,000 New Yorkers (the New York Times reported it as ‘the entire population of the city’) flooded the park and the surrounding streets. Anderson was praised by a series of orators as a ‘gallant commander’, ‘the Hero of Fort Sumter’, who had survived ‘the smoke and flame’. Praise for Anderson was not restricted to the North. The Richmond Daily Examiner heaped ‘the highest honour and credit on the gallant Major in command and the noble band of heroes that so faithfully served under him’.  For his part, Robert Anderson seemed somewhat embarrassed by the whole affair. A career military man, he had never sought the spotlight.

Not the Puritan Messiah

Behaving: puritan worship in the time of Elizabeth I, lithograph from The Church of England: A History for the People, by H.D.M. Spence-Jones, 1910.

Elizabethan puritans had to spend a lot of time assuring people that they had no desire to overthrow the queen. Since Elizabeth I had faced repeated uprisings and conspiracies from Catholics, who opposed her religion from one end of the spiritual spectrum, many in positions of power feared such rebellion from the opposite end. Puritans, however, were campaigning for Church reform from a position of complete loyalty. In the eyes of the Lord Chief Justice, being a radical puritan meant being ‘a very rebel’, ready to ‘draw thy sword, and lift up thy hand against thy prince’. The puritan in question assured him, not unexpectedly: ‘Not so, my Lord, a true subject.’

It was, therefore, bad luck for the movement that in 1591, as its leaders languished in jail for their nonconformity, a puritan malt manufacturer from Northamptonshire said God had told him to overthrow the queen and become king of Europe.

Stephen Tomkins | Published 27 May 2019
More articles by Stephen Tomkins
Published in
Volume 69 Issue 6 June 2019

The Age of the Club

Peter Moore | Published 24 May 2019
In her magnificent group biography The Lunar Men (2002), Jenny Uglow calls the 18th century the age of the club. Clubs were everywhere. There were ‘clubs for singing, clubs for drinking, clubs for farting, clubs of poets and pudding-makers and politicians’. Few clubs were as illustrious as Uglow’s subject: the Lunar Society of Birmingham. Centred around the polymath Erasmus Darwin, the flamboyant industrialist Matthew Boulton and the pioneering potter Josiah Wedgwood, they were, as her subtitle neatly put it, ‘the friends who made the future’. For pre-eminence among clubs, the Lunar Society could be outranked by only one. That was...Read more »
More articles by Peter Moore

Inside the Medieval Brothel

What was life like for medieval prostitutes? A case in the German town of Nördlingen reveals a hellish world of exploitation and violence.

Abraham von Kiduna received by the host of a brothel, German woodcut, 1477.

In the winter of 1471, the municipal council of Nördlingen in southern Germany got word of a scandal in the town’s public brothel. It prompted a criminal investigation into the conduct of the brothel-keeper, Lienhart Fryermut, and his partner, Barbara Tarschenfeindin. After interrogating all 12 of the prostitutes working in the brothel at the time, the council learned that the brothel’s kitchen maid, a woman named Els von Eystett, had been forced into prostitution and as a result had become pregnant by one of her clients. When Barbara discovered this she had forced Els to swallow an abortifacient drink that she had mixed herself, with the result that Els miscarried a male foetus whom the other women reckoned to have been about 20 weeks old.

After forcing Els back to work only a few days later and swearing her to secrecy, things had returned to normal in the brothel for a couple of weeks. But it was not long until some of the prostitutes began to speak among themselves about what had happened. One, Barbel von Esslingen, had brought a pail of water into Els’ room as she lay in agony and had seen the child’s body laid out on a bench. After Barbara overheard her speaking about what she had seen, she sent Barbel away to work in the public brothel in nearby Ulm. But it was too late to stem gossip about the incident. Some regular clients had even begun to talk about what had happened, wondering aloud how it could be that Els, ‘who had been big, was now so small’.

Our Friend, the Fraud

Fergus Butler-Gallie | Published 22 May 2019
‘Romp’ is, alas, a word that has fallen out of popular usage. A shame, as there is no better description of the life of Robert Parkin Peters: a clergyman (albeit briefly), a would-be academic and one of the most brazen fraudsters of the 20th century. Peters’ life was inexorably tied up with that of Hugh Trevor-Roper – one of the sharpest minds of said century – after a meeting in the historian’s rooms at Oxford in the 1950s. The interwoven lives of these two men is the subject of Adam Sisman’s witty, impressive and captivatingly readable (I devoured it over...Read more »
More articles by Fergus Butler-Gallie

Travels Through Time #11 – Lucasta Miller, 1838

Letitia Landon.

Although Letitia Landon's name is scarcely known outside specialist circles today, in the 1820s she was a true celebrity in the fast-evolving publishing world of literary monthlies and quarterlies. She thrived due to the quality of her verse and the mystery surrounding her persona: who was the writer behind the acronym? When L.E.L.'s identity was revealed in 1824 it turned out that she was – in her mother's words – 'a girl addicted to writing poetry.'

In this episode of Travels Through Time, literary historian and journalist Lucasta Miller tells us about L.E.L.'s life and takes us back to 1838 to witness her sad end. It's a story that ranges from the churches of London to the old slaving posts of West Africa. As with the literary career that had gone before it, the manner of L.E.L's death is open to interpretation.


History Today | Published in
History Today | Published 21 May 2019
More articles by History Today
Published in

Stifled Screams

Joanna Paul | Published 16 May 2019
In spring 1589, Claude Rouveyrolle, a French woman living in the Protestant city of Nîmes, was violently attacked by two men. They had begun by shouting insults at her, before seizing her and cutting her dress from the bottom hem to her buttocks, calling her a whore. It was an attempted rape, with the implication that she deserved it for presumed sexual promiscuity. The men, however, did not succeed. Although Rouveyrolle claimed that neighbours interceded and halted the assailants, one of the would-be rapists suggested otherwise. He claimed that Rouveyrolle herself picked up a nearby stone and cracked him over...Read more »
More articles by Joanna Paul

For Argument’s Sake

After 800 years, a playful medieval poem still offers lessons in how not to debate. 

Not so wise: an owl is mobbed by smaller birds, from an English bestiary, 1230-40.

The coming of spring, for medieval poets, usually means the chance of something exciting happening. Once flowers, birdsong and sunshine tempt a poet to roam outdoors, spring may be the time for encounters with fairies, lovers and all kinds of marvellous adventures.

The 13th-century poem The Owl and the Nightingale begins in just such a way, with the poet in a pastoral valley full of blossom. Disturbing this peaceful setting are an owl and a nightingale, who are having a furious argument. The poem recounts a long debate between the two birds, as they attack each other from every possible angle: each bird criticises her opponent and defends herself, discussing everything from their physical appearance to the musicality of their song, their nesting habits and the effect they have on human beings. The nightingale accuses the owl of being ugly and lugubrious, while the owl attacks the nightingale for frivolity and immorality: nightingales tempt humans to thoughts of love, she says, rather than encouraging them to value the serious things in life.

At various points in their debate the two birds seem to represent different binary oppositions or alternative ways of viewing the world: summer and winter, optimism and pessimism, secular and religious life, the literature of entertainment and sober moral reflection. Each of the birds takes up a position on one side, defends her own view and gives no ground to her opponent. The birds quarrel fiercely for almost 1,800 lines of lively poetry, but they never come to any resolution; in the end they fly away, still bickering.

The Wild Hunt of Odin

A chaotic, menacing assembly of gods and trolls and restless souls.

Odin (Woden, or Wotan), the principal pre-Christian deity of the Germanic peoples and the Norse god of the wind and the dead, raises a sword in command of his Wild Hunt across the midwinter sky.  Among the other figures in the procession is Thor, son of Odin and the god of thunder, holding a hammer aloft, his cape billowing as he rides a chariot pulled by two goats.

Accompanied by Odin’s ravens, the menacing throng ‘sweep through forest and air in whole companies with a horrible din’, all in search of mortals who, having failed to find a hiding place from the celestial hunting party, are abducted as prey and taken to the underworld. The arrival of the Wild Hunt was thought to herald catastrophes, such as war, plague or famine, and presaged the death of anyone who witnessed it.

This painting, by the Norwegian artist Peter Nicolai Arbo, was painted in Paris in 1872, inspired by Asgaardreien, a work by Arbo’s fellow countryman, the Romantic poet Johan Sebastian Welhaven. The poem’s opening lines set the scene: ‘Through the nightly air stampedes a train of frothing black horses.’

The concept of the Wild Hunt of Odin was first named and recorded in German Mythologies, compiled by Jacob Grimm, one half of the German brothers celebrated for their collections of Teutonic folklore, and published in 1835.

Versions of the myth are found in many parts of Europe: the historian of early modern religion, Ronald Hutton, has argued that the legend of the Wild Hunt may have influenced medieval and early modern ideas about the witches’ sabbath. The Wild Hunt has been adopted in a benign way by the followers of the pagan religion of Wicca. The leader of their Wild Hunt, which takes place on Halloween, is believed to be Hecate, Greek goddess of the night, the moon and necromancy.