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At Large
by Michael Coren

December of this year marks a literary centenary of a special kind. One hundred years ago, Henry Williamson was born in London. He wrote dozens of much admired novels, including the hugely successful Tarka the Otter, an anthropomorphic masterpiece later made into a movie, a book that celebrated the nobility and purity of the animal world. The work became required reading, a central inspiration, for the animal rights movement in Europe, and gave Williamson a major political and literary standing in the Britain of the 1920s. The book was lauded by critics and won the Hawthornden Prize.

Surrounded by a loyal cadre of other animal welfare activists, Williamson began to enlarge on his political activities, embracing the early ecological movement and establishing a socialistic commune in rural Devon. He campaigned for the ethical treatment of animals, for an end to vivisection, and for capitalism to be radically transformed until it took account of the needs of the environment. He also worked to preserve peace in the 1930s, arguing that "a bayonet was simply a weapon with a worker on each end," and that it was the multinationals rather than the people who wanted bloodshed.

His writing won him still more admirers. His novel Salar the Salmon, another volume about the apparently pristine and uncorrupted nature of animals, was a best-seller. The famous naturalist and author Gerald Durrell suggested that Williamson should be knighted, and the Labour Party placed his books on a recommended reading list for comrades beginning a literary education.

But no knighthood came and Henry Williamson has gradually been expunged from the syllabuses and removed from the libraries. Why? Because as well as-or arguably because of-his belief in animal liberation and ecology, he embraced Nazism. He joined Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists; he said of Hitler that "he has the truest eyes I have ever seen in a man's face"; and he opined that the blood-link between Britain and Germany made war an absurdity. "I salute across the Rhine the great man whose symbol is the happy child," he wrote in 1938. He was interned as a traitor by the British government during the war, and worked on a farm to produce food for the home front.

Williamson revised some of his political opinions after the war and acknowledged the horror of the death camps. He remained brilliant, defiant, and half-mad until his death in 1977, and when liberal journalists visited with the intention of shaming him, he invariably gave them an intellectual pounding. He wrote a fifteen-volume history of his times, The Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight, seen through the eyes of his hero Philip. In it a Hitlerian figure appears as "a phoenix from the chaos of the battlefield, a messiah."

Two issues that emanate from the life of Henry Williamson demand explanation. First, the apparent contradiction between his activism on behalf of animal rights and the environment and his ardent fascism. This should not surprise us. Nazism was permeated with notions of the glory of animals because of the ideology's obsession with the survival of the fittest, natural evolution, and the corrupting influences of the city, the civilized, and the modern. The British Nazi Party and its Canadian branch were founded by a vet who was appalled at kosher animal slaughter rituals; Hitler wept in public when his dog died; and North European and North American fascism was and is strongly committed to the preservation of the environment. Indeed, fascism was ecology-minded long before socialism, which argued for generations that constant industrial development and exploitation of the environment were essential for the well-being and long-term employment of the proletariat.

Second, we have to ask if Henry Williamson was treated fairly when he was ostracized from the lecture circuit and his books eliminated from the libraries and the universities. His political views were repugnant, grotesquely facile, and supportive of mass murder and international crime. But other writers held such ideas and they were raised to the highest levels by their governments and the media. I refer to those men and women who wrote books and broadcast propaganda in favour of Joseph Stalin. I mean, of course, the likes of George Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, Lillian Hellman, Dashiel Hammett, and Norman Bethune, who either knew of or were unwilling to listen to evidence that the Soviets murdered tens of millions of people, incarcerated twice as many, and conquered and brutally dominated several independent countries. Unlike Williamson, most of these men and women saw very little need to apologize. They had no need. Fashion was on their side.

Michael Coren's latest biography, Conan Doyle, is being published this month by Stoddart.


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