Was John Buchan an anti-semite?

Posted by Tory Historian Wednesday, July 02, 2008 ,

This question has been exercising various people's minds ever since it has been decreed by the literary powers that be that Buchan is rather an inferior writer. There is no explanation why people still enjoy reading him and why his books keep being reprinted but that sort of thing does not bother the powers that be.

Tory Historian is a Buchan fan as has been explained before. Tory Historian is also a fan of Gertrude Himmelfarb's the redoubtable historian of political, social and liteary ideas. (She is also the sister of Milton Himmelfarb, wife of Irving Kristol and mother of William Kristol. What on earth did all these people have on their cornflakes? A remarkable family.)

The point is that Gertrude Himmelfarb has written a fascinating essay on John Buchan. Published in "Victorian Minds" in 1968 as "John Buchan - the Last Victorian", it was reprinted in 2006 in "The Moral Imagination" as "John Buchan: an Untimely Appreciation". It is an interesting and well-argued essay even if Tory Historian does not agree with everything in it.

Naturally enough, the question of anti-semitism comes up (just after the question of racism, a slightly more complex issue) and, on the whole, Professor Himmelfarb finds that though there is a certain amount of passive anti-semitism in the novels, as was common in those halcyon pre-Nazi days, Jews are not necessarily the villains and, anyway, there are various extenuating circumstances.

There were, in fact, Jewish rag dealers and pawnbrokers, Jewish Communists and financiers in England at the time, an England that was far more ethnically homogenous than it is now.
There were, as it happens, Jewish other things as well and there is no particular reason why Buchan should not put them into his novels or, occasionally make Jews into villains or describe people who dislike Jews. His novels are considerably less anti-semitic than those of the much-praised Dorothy L. Sayers.

Besides, as Professor Himmelfarb points out, Buchan publicly denounced Hitler's anti-semitism as early as 1934, publicly espoused Zionism and spoke of the "racial similarities of Scotsmen and Jews, with particular reference to their high regard for learning". No higher praise could have come from a man like Buchan.

The occasion on which he made those last comments was a ceremony on which his name was inscribed in the Golden Book of the Jewish National Fund. According to Professor Himmelfarb, "it is tempting to remark upon the irony of the fact" that this should have happened to "the fictional perpetrator of Jewish-capitalist-communist conspiracies".

Tory Historian was a little puzzled. Just which novel had those conspiracies? Not "Huntingtower" where the evil Bolshevik leader is a former tsarist officer. Not the books of the Great War where the villains are, obviously, Germans. Not in any of the Edward Leithen novels. Where then?
Yet it is disconcerting to find that the plot of one of his most successful novels, Thirty-Nine Steps (1915), centers [sic] upon an international conspiracy devised by Jewish anarchists and Jewish financiers led by a "little white-faced Jew in a bath-chair with an eye like a rattlesnake" who is avenging himslef for centuries of persecution.
Well, that's pretty shocking. Or would be if it were true. Sadly, that is not the plot of "The Thirty-Nine Steps". (It is possible that the American editions omit the definite article, so I shall not hold it against Professor Himmelfarb.)

That quotation from the first chapter is part of the rant delivered by the mysterious agent Scudder, who is promptly murdered in Hannay's flat, encouraging the latter to escape to Scotland. When Hannay eventually deciphers Scudder's notebook, he finds that most of what he had been told that first evening was bosh and subsequently, Sir Walter Bullivant, who appears to be head of whatever secret service there is around, explains that Scudder was a good agent but a little peculiar in his ways. In particular, he had a Jew fixation, something that Bullivant dismisses, while acknowledging that the man got his facts right.

The plot, as it happens revolves round a German spy-ring, eventually arrested with Hannay's help, though, as we find out in "Mr Standfast", the worst of the gang escapes to create many problems in that novel. No, he is not a Jew, either. His name is Graf von Schwabing and he is a real bad hat.

All of which goes to show that even renowned professors should check their facts before writing essays.


  1. Anonymous Says:
  2. Having only read Greenmantle and Pilgrim's Way, I am no expert.

    But it seems to me that Buchan was a "racist" in the sense that he believed that various groups of people had particular characteristics, in each case a mix of good and bad, or commendable and condemnable, ones.

    He would say that the Jews and the Scots both admired learning, recognizing that not each and every Scot or Jew admired learning, but that as a generality, it was a true statement.

    Many people do not like this kind of thinking these days. However, such generalizing, with appropriate caveats for individual cases, can be true and accurate, and only dogmatically PC people pretend otherwise.

    As Arnold Kling put, stereotypes are usually true.

  3. Anonymous Says:
  4. Earlier this year I read both The Thirty-Nine Steps and The Power-House. I enjoyed both of them. I detected no racism beyond what just about every author of those days was guilty of.

    As for him being an inferior writer I don't see that being the case. While certainly no H.G. Wells, the two stories I've read have been entertaining. There is a scene in The Power-House where the main character has a long discussion with the villain about civilization. It is an interesting, thought provoking exchange.... too bad the chance meeting between the two characters seemed a bit contrived.

  5. Anonymous Says:
  6. The quote you give from Prof Himmelfarb about the Jew who was behind the plot in The 39 Steps, I saw elsewhere, if I'm not mistaken, in an essay by Buchan on Jewish power in Germany. I remember (vaguely) this essay (was it an essay?) as a solid support of Hitler's theories at the time (1930s). I DO remember that the Jew's eye was not "like a rattlesnake" but "like a gimlet".

  7. Well, Anonymous, when you recall exactly what you read and where and provide a link, the rest of us can discuss it. Otherwise, it is meaningless.

  8. Anonymous Says:
  9. Prof Himmelfarb's quote about the Jew behind the 39 Steps plot is incorrect. It should be "with an eye like a gimlet". It forms part of an anti-semetic diatribe about Jewish power behind the scenes in Germany by Buchan which I remember reading, but can't recall in what context.

  10. Anonymous Says:
  11. Prof Himmelfarb's quote about the Jew behind the 39 Steps plot is incorrect. It should be "with an eye like a gimlet". It forms part of an anti-semetic diatribe about Jewish power behind the scenes in Germany by Buchan which I remember reading, but can't recall in what context.

  12. Anonymous, either provide the context and the exact quote or stop posting. To say that you vaguely remember somebody somewhere making anti-Semitic comments and you think it might be connected with Buchan but are not sure is a waste of everybody's time.

  13. Anonymous Says:
  14. What about The Three Hostages and the Jew with the dyed beard?

  15. Well, what about him? Are you saying it is anti-Semitic to have even a single Jewish villain? After all, the other villains in The Three Hostages, specifically the arch-villain Medina are most definitely not Jewish.

    Are you the same Anonymous who posted before?

  16. Anonymous Says:
  17. In 3 Hostages, read his description of "the Jewess" at the curiosity shop. No other villain (and she's very minor) gets a disgusting description. Also, though we could dismiss "whitest Jew since St Paul" as a character's comment, Hannay accepts it. As for racism, consider his description of the "nigger musicians" as looking like monkeys. Or the significance of Medina's round head. From what you say, in later years he re-examined his prejudices.

  18. First of all, Anonymous, get a name or go away. I can't be doing with cowards.

    For the last time I will reply. Obviously you are reading Three Hostages over and over and over and that must be a good thing.

    Medina is not Jewish despite his name. There is some Scandinavian background, which is carefully explained. Got that? Having various Jewish characters who are unpleasant does not mean the author is anti-Semitic. That is fatuous. I dare say Buchan was somewhat racist, thought that is not what this thread is about but, again, what a character says and another character agrees with is not what necessarily what an author thinks. Though you have clearly not read Prester John. Why don't you go on to that one now?

    And one last thing: GET A NAME. There will be no more replies to Anonymous. Get a name.

  19. Anonymous Says:
  20. Actually I wrote the most recent anonymous comment (about 3 Hostages) but none of the earlier ones. I only read the Three Hostages recently. No, Medina is not Jewish. And he is not a black African. But Hannay assumes that a round head, which he says is "like a Kaffir's" is a sign that Medina is not to be trusted. Not anti-Semitism but definitely racism. The Jewish character described in 3 Hs as "the Whitest Jew since St. Paul" is a positive character. The way Buchan has Hannay accept that description indicates that both Hannay and the person who said it think that the character is an exception. I do not however see that as anything more than the casual disdain of "the other" so common at the time. The comment about the Black musicians is more troubling. Not the word "nigger" but his seeing them as "monkeys." So is the fact that all the Jewish characters but one on 3 Hs are not only evil but downright disgusting. I just reread 39 Steps in which Buchan has Hannay see villains as not disgusting. In fact, in 3 Hostages Hannay ends up respecting Medina in spite of everything. Contrast this to how he sees Jews. However, Buchan was a man of his times. I think he and his novels should be compared to other people and novels of his time.

  21. Anonymous Says:
  22. The 'Jew' in question had "an eye like a rattlesnake" according to Scudder who had "gimlety eyes". Why is there no 'racism' mentioned in connection with Hannay's description of the "German business man". Buchan was a Zionist, I thought that was beyond question.

  23. Philip Says:
  24. In "The Dancing Floor" there is a significant character who is portrayed in a most positive light. The narrator, Leithen, clearly distinguishes between the financier Ertzberger who is kind, humane and possesses "solid good sense" and his wife who is described as "a determined social climber". Jewishness per se has nothing to do with the narrator's attitude to the character. All in all, there is litle evidence of a pattern of anti-semitism in the seven Buchan novels I have read.

  25. Unknown Says:
  26. Am reading Huntingtower - rattling yarn etc, but some references to Jews that are uncomfortable to the modern taste. One character thinks the Bolsheviks are doing good things, but they have too many Jews, etc.

    I think it's what novels of that generation are like, but then I'm a white hetero Anglo Saxon, so maybe would ask Jewish friends what their views are.

  27. Anonymous Says:
  28. We tend to forget just how prevalent and 'normal' racist ideas were until relatively recently. I have a travel guide to Hungary written in 1922 by a Reverend Birmingham - an Anglican priest - and he goes on about how disgusted (he is quite viserally affected!) he is by wealthy Jews flaunting their wealth in Budapest and he even recommends a Jewish conspiracy theory tome which we might like to read for ourselves! 'Quand Israel Est Roi' - Birmingham went on to become a prominent churchman in Kensington in west London. He would have lived long enough - one hopes - to witness the consequences of this way of thinking. But the fact is that eugenics and racial hierarchy theories and 'social hygiene' were perfectly respectable in the 1920's and 30's.
    Even in the 1960's in Sweden Down's Syndrome women were compulsorily sterilised, based on eugenic thinking.

  29. Augustus Says:
  30. Having just finished The Thirty-Nine steps, I'd like to comment on the statement that Buchan was anti-semitic. The statement about the Jews is made by the character Scudder, who puts the hero, Hannay, onto the conspiracy. Another character later says that Scudder is a good man but has his strange fixations, and one of these is going on about the Jews. This is not presented as the opinion of the author or of the hero. I'm staggered by how many people are prepared to discuss and condemn a man based on a single sentence in a book they can't remember.

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