By Robert J Davies
DURING the last week the Rural Conservative Movement has been engulfed in a Twitter firestorm the like of which we have never seen before – or wish to see again.
For a small pressure group like ours, any publicity is usually good publicity, but not when you find yourself at the mercy of a baying mob who twist your beliefs into something dreadful and unrecognisable. We have been traduced as some sort of covert fascist organisation which to us as true, gentle, patriotic conservatives, is deeply offensive and hurtful. It culminated in one of Britain’s comedy greats, Stephen Fry, jumping on the bandwagon and condemning us without knowing a thing about us. It was desperately saddening and unjust. Coincidentally I am currently reading his latest excellent book Mythos: The Greek Myths Retold, although it’s hard to carry on with it now.
Of course, one should never take things too personally in politics – especially these days, living as we do in a polarised society where civilised debate is hard to come by. Snowflakery is best left to the Left, frankly. And it is the Left who provide the ideological buttress for the vicious, almost murderous Twitter trolls who bully folk like us safe in the knowledge that we’re not nearly nasty enough to bully back. Small wonder that freedom of speech, so long taken for granted in this country, is now a fragile concept.
For those who don’t know, this is how the firestorm took hold. It began last Thursday when the Duke of Edinburgh suffered a car accident while driving near the Sandringham estate. We tweeted about it, expressing thanks to God that Prince Philip was uninjured and also concern that the police felt the need to breathalyse him even though no alcohol could be smelled on his breath. The tweet went viral. Why, I’m still not sure, but it did. Was I the only person in the world to offer such an opinion? It seemed like it.
Let’s not re-examine the merits or otherwise of my sentiments on this subject. Suffice to say that our five minutes of fame led to several more minutes, hours, days in fact, of infamy. Because it came to the attention of mischief-makers among our ideological foes on the Left that a picture used on our Twitter account and website had been painted by a German artist active during the Third Reich, Wolfgang Willrich.
The picture itself, called Heimkehr (Homecoming) is delightful. A young woman cradles a baby on the edge of a field of waving golden wheat. There’s nothing remotely wrong with it. Also, I liked the title Homecoming, and the idea of Europe as a whole, coming home; getting back to what really matters and who we really are. However it was to be judged, not on its artistic merits, but on the world view of its creator – a word view I admittedly didn’t know enough about.
Willrich’s talent had won him a place in the prestigious College of Art in Berlin in 1915, then subsequently, after war duties interrupted his studies, he attended the acclaimed Dresden Academy of Art. There he rejected the – at the time – fashionable abstract and surreal styles in favour of a more realistic style, particularly in the field of portraiture at which he excelled. Unfortunately (and hindsight is a wonderful thing) he allowed himself to be reeled in by the Nazis, who put his talents to work for their own propaganda purposes.
I hadn’t researched this chap properly but subconsciously no doubt, didn’t feel the need to. I just liked the painting. I’m a sucker for idyllic rural art and no fan of modern, abstract pieces. Had I known more, I would have realised that his enthusiasm for supporting the Nazi cause was genuine and not merely borne out of necessity. Alarm bells would (and should) have rung and persuaded me that using a painting by him, however innocent, could be turned against me and the Movement.
How enthusiastic was Willrich for the National Socialist cause? We’ll never know for sure. It’s worth bearing in mind that many people bent with the wind during 1930s Germany. They had to. The churches well and truly buckled under, save, I believe, for Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Also, let’s not forget that between the wars, many people – in the days before the concentration camps became factories of mass murder – were seduced by National Socialism, not least here in Britain. The Welsh and Scottish Nationalists; the proprietors of the Daily Mail; the Duke of Windsor, to name but a few, were particularly enamoured. As for the Labour Party, they were determined to the last not to pick a fight with Hitler, viewing it as an imperial war. Meanwhile, a huge number of Brits and Americans from all walks of life, would travel to Germany for holidays. By 1937, the number of American visitors was nearly half a million a year. (Dirk Voss: American Tourists in Nazi Germany, 1933-1939).
As for Willrich, he painted his way through to the end of the Second World War doing commissions of mainly military artwork. Following Germany’s surrender, he was briefly placed under arrest before being let go, cleared of any crimes. He died a couple of years later. What would have been his view had he kept going for longer into the post-war era? Like many prominent figures, subsequently armed with knowledge of the Nazis’ shocking crimes, laid bare following their defeat, doubtless he would have been appalled and ashamed at the true nature of the regime he had hitherto lent his support and talent.
Yet the outrage – real or synthetic – which followed the revelation that we had used a piece by this artist with a dubious past begs the question, what should one be judging here? The merits of the art itself or the mindset of the person responsible? For instance, should we no longer admire the work of Caravaggio or ever put it on display, out of disgust for the fact that he committed murder, knocking out numerous pieces while on the run?
Is the classic novel Tarka the Otter to be proscribed because Henry Williamson sympathised with certain fascist ideals? D H Lawrence was also suspected too, of holding far-right, proto-fascistic views at one stage, though he seemed to backtrack later. And he appeared to have a very lukewarm opinion of democracy. (Probably how we Brexiteers will feel if Yvette Cooper and Dominic Grieve manage to dash the dreams of millions).
Back to us: those of you who don’t already know, can guess what happened. Our use of that controversial picture was exploited by hard-left agitators to cause us maximum damage, their efforts made countless times more potent by Mr Fry’s retweet to his 12 million followers. The thread apparently unmasking us as Third Reich sympathisers quickly spread round the world and back – despite our speedy removal of the artwork in question. Our account and website were deluged with hatred and abuse.
Here’s a thought: Does it make you fascist, just because a thousand people tell you that you are? Are we any different seven days on from what we were a week ago? Have we become the bogeymen our enemies claim, the better to howl us down? No. We remain who we are – kind, decent, conservative-minded people who love their country, faith, rural heritage, families, neighbourhoods and above all, the traditions and values passed down from one generation to the next. Are we really the type of people who want to see national flags flying from every lamppost and goose-stepping soldiers marching through every town centre? Hardly.
A number of our critics are themselves good, decent, intelligent people and they have rightly pulled us up on our naivety and lack of foresight over the above. Let’s not bracket them with the rest or claim that we got nothing wrong. But as for the foul-mouthed mob – the ones who shout “fascist” the loudest and longest, and many other vile insults besides – they truly are themselves the fascists of the modern era. The Silent Majority must not allow itself to be gagged by them, nor intimidated into giving up on our great country. We owe it to future generations of Britons to ensure that thuggery and intolerance do not triumph.
Robert J Davies is the founder of the Rural Conservative Movement, a writer and former newspaper journalist