Homophobia in the First World War

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The Black Book trial of 1918 exposed the extent of anti-gay feeling in a British society at war. And, writes Noel Halifax, it gave us Noel Pemberton Billing, the Nigel Farage of his day.

On 29 May 1918 a libel trial began which engrossed the nation and became the high point of the short but dramatic political career of Noel Pemberton Billing MP. Now a forgotten name in history, at the time he was the figurehead of a nasty far-right movement which had all the same features as groups in Germany that were to give birth to the Nazi party — ultra-patriotic, anti-Semitic and awash with conspiracy theories. What distinguished the British version from the German one was its obsessive homophobia.

By the winter of 1917 the British army had lost a quarter of a million men in the battle of Passchendaele alone. Russia was out of the war and German troops from the east were now transferred to the west. Many in Britain no longer believed victory was around the corner. But who was to blame for this? The politicians blamed the generals; the military blamed the politicians. A group of far-right activists had a theory that for a time gained momentum and support: the ones to blame were the Jews and homosexuals.

Noel Pemberton Billing had launched a newspaper, The Imperialist, with backing from the press lord Beaverbrooke and some right wing Tory MPs. It later became The Vigilante. It was anti-Semitic and campaigned against Jewish immigration; it now added the conspiracy theory that highly-placed Jews were sabotaging the war. It further claimed that, as most Germans were homosexuals, the German High Command had a Black Book that listed the names of 47,000 homosexuals at the top of British society which it was using to blackmail and sabotage.

In short, the Jews and the gays were the enemy within and had been so for 20 years or more, in a great anti-British conspiracy spreading vile and corrupting sexual practices among the population.

They claimed the Black Book contained instructions for “the propagation of evils which all decent men thought had perished in Sodom and Lesbia…the names of 47,000 English men and women…including wives of Cabinet ministers, diplomats…bankers, editors, newspaper proprietors and members of his Majesty’s household…wives of men in supreme positions were entangled. In lesbian ecstasy the most sacred secrets of state were betrayed.”

It is hard today to believe that such stuff could have any effect other than laughter, but that is to forget how deep and entrenched homophobia was in Britain since the Wilde trials of the 1890s. Following Oscar Wilde’s conviction a wave of deep homophobia enveloped Britain. Though it was a common feature of all late 19th century western societies, homophobia was at its deepest in Britain.

It was in the British Empire that strict laws against the local tradition of boy wives (found in many African societies) were actively enforced. It was in the British Empire compared with the more lax French that to “civilise” the backward natives included campaigns to end any “sexual debauchery” that they were horrified to find everywhere. Those draconian laws and a strict adherence to the King James Bible as interpreted by the missionaries still plague many ex-colonies. The British Empire did not leave a tradition of tolerance and fair mindedness but one of homophobia and oppression. From the 1890s onwards even rich gays and lesbians could not be open in Britain or even live there — they fled in their thousands to France, Italy and Germany or to the sexually easy-going Muslim Middle East and North Africa. In this period Islam was renowned for its toleration of same sex practices, especially between men and boys. E M Forster found love in Egypt with a tram conductor in the 1920s. W H Auden and Christopher Isherwood went to Berlin in the 1930s because to them Berlin meant boys. Britain retained its reputation for intolerance of homosexuality and for sexual Puritan­ism right up till the 1960s and beyond.

A valid answer to the question as to where homophobia comes from could be Britain. It could be that one of the great gifts to the world that Britain left in its wake, along with football and cricket, is vile homophobic laws in Pakistan, Uganda, Zimbabwe and many other former colonies.

The group around Pemberton Billing campaigned for the expulsion of Jews from the government and the rounding-up of Germans and their descendants (the royal family became rather worried about this). Across the country shops and factories with German and Jewish names were attacked and many people changed their names during this period. The Imperialist claimed that a copy of the Black Book was at the Home Office, but that it would not publish it due to pressure from on high.

In 1916 Pemberton Billing stood as an independent in a by-election in Bethnal Green, east London. Though defeated he had campaigned with a heady mixture of anti-establishment posturing, anti-Semitism and ultra-nationalism. This found a response and he stood again shortly afterwards in Hertford and won. Once in parliament he campaigned for an air war and agitated around the Black Book and the Jewish/homosexual conspiracy. He became a national figure.

Pemberton Billing himself was a flamboyant figure, an early aviator and aeroplane designer and inventor, a lover of fast cars and independently wealthy. He was the Nigel Farage of his day. On 23 March 1918 the German offensive drove the Allies back, creating much unease in Britain. The Vigilante explained that “the Germans and the Ashkenazim [ie the Jews] had complete control of the white slave trade and Jewish-controlled prostitutes were deliberately spreading disease to British troops”, so weakening them.

At the same time a private performance of Oscar Wilde’s play Salome was planned in the Prince of Wales Theatre in London. It had never been performed in Britain before but had been in Paris and other more civilised places for a number of years. Britain’s strict censorship of the theatre (which lasted until 1968) meant the production needed a licence, even for a private invite-only performance. The granting of the licence was seen by the right as another indication of the Jewish/homosexual plot by traitors in the establishment to undermine British values and spread sexual decadence and unmanly weakness.

In an aside in an article on the Black Book conspiracy The Vigilante noted the performance, claiming it was part of “a cult of the clitoris” and that the 1,000 attending it were listed in the 47,000 in the Black Book. The American actress Maud Allen played the role of Salome and, in a rerun of Oscar Wilde’s first trial, she sued Pemberton Billing for libel for suggesting that she was a lesbian. The trial handed the right the perfect chance to present their racist conspiracy theories in an atmosphere of moral panic and war hysteria.

Pemberton Billing called a number of witnesses who claimed to have seen the Black Book and to know of the conspiracy and the disabling sexual depravity to be found in high society, orchestrated by Jews and homosexuals. The trial dominated the news for five days as Pemberton Billing included in his slurs Lady Asquith, wife of the Liberal Party leader, the Lord Chief Justice and many other members of the establishment who he claimed were Jews (some in fact were not), traitors and engaged in orgies and “worship of the clitoris”.

This was the first time that the clitoris had ever been mentioned outside of medical journals, so newspapers carried long articles explaining what it might be and what an orgasm was — as only lesbians or the most debauched could possibly know of such things. Dr Cook, tuberculosis officer for Lambeth, was called as an expert and stated that all involved with the production of Salome must have perverted minds, be sadists and sodomists, and that to call it a cult of the clitoris was legitimate.

Oscar Wilde’s ex-lover Lord Alfred Douglas — now a reformed homophobe — was called as a witness on the dangers of Oscar Wilde and all his works. To the cheers of the gallery Pemberton Billing won the case and was carried from the Old Bailey and through the streets to cheering patriotic crowds. It was his greatest triumph.

But then Germany exploded into revolution, the war was won and there was no need to seek scapegoats for Britain’s failure on the battlefield. Like a nightmare the moral panic evaporated in the joy of victory, though many involved in the campaigned reappeared later around Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists. Pemberton Billing himself retired from politics in 1921 due to ill health, reappearing during the Second World War to urge mass blanket bombing of Germany.

After the war it was found that there had been no Black Book. The only vaguely Black Book-like document was a list kept by the British authorities of German “perverts”, which it had hoped to use against them. This footnote in history exposes as myths the asserted British national character of tolerance and fair mindedness or that freedom-loving Britons are immune to extremist and fascist views. If Britain had lost the war it is not very hard to imagine a Nazi-like party growing from the movement around Pemberton Billing as it did from the Freikorps et al in Germany.