Hitler Wins Again: The Guardian Cartoon Controversy

Martin Rowson, British cartoonist. Photograph Source: Alexander Williams – CC BY-SA 4.0

It is 78 years since the Führer und Reichskanzler committed suicide. His brain may have been rendered into inert bits by a bullet, but his mentality lives on. His armies are defeated. We know that because there are no Waffen SS tanks firing shells at anyone. Hitler’s thoughts, on the other hand, are still a force to be reckoned with, as most recently demonstrated by the furore over a cartoon in The Guardian newspaper.

The cartoon by Martin Rowson shows Boris Johnson and Richard Sharp, the latter recently resigned as BBC chair for failing to disclose his role in facilitating an £800,000 loan guarantee for Boris Johnson, who as Prime Minister subsequently signed off Sharp’s appointment to the BBC. Par for the course really, but you’ve got to make sure these things don’t get discovered and this one was by The Sunday Times.

That was unfortunate for the BBC head. What was unfortunate for the cartoonist is that Sharp is Jewish and the cartoon has been condemned with outrage as antisemitic by everyone capable of being outraged and quoted in the media.

It is not the cartoon as a whole that is problematic but a small portion of it occupying approximately 3% of the whole. The accusations are that Sharp’s face is caricatured in a classic antisemitic way, and that the box carried by Sharp contains gold coins, as well as a puppet version of the current prime minister, Rishi Sunak, but worst of all a squid, which has previously been used as a symbol for the tentacles of a supposed Jewish conspiracy. The cartoonist and The Guardian’s editorial oversight certainly got it wrong, but why?

The newspaper was less than expansive in its explanation that the cartoon “did not meet our editorial standards” and promptly removed the its online presence. Presumably paper versions are still in circulation. The cartoonist’s problem was that he is a political cartoonist and not an antisemite, so that Mr Sharp’s “Jewishness never crossed my mind as I drew him.” Mr Sharp’s Jewishness would not have crossed my mind either, were it not highlighted by the outrage. The cartoon would have been about what it was always intended to be about, namely a political/financial scandal.

Rowson commented: “The cute squid and the little Rishi were no more than that, a cartoon squid and a short prime minister. It never occurred to me that some might see them as puppets of Sharp, this being another notorious antisemitic trope.” He has a point about his cute, pink squid (pink is certainly a cute colour). Nazi anti-Jewish conspiracy cartoons show a vile, monstrous, seething octopus. If Rowson is making an antisemitic gesture, he’s not doing it very well. A sophisticated interpretation of Rowson’s depiction might even see the symbol representing how ludicrous the tentacles accusation is, a send-up on it indeed, but nobody (not even Rowson) is advancing that view, though, on reflection, it seems a perfectly viable interpretation, far more appropriate than imagining a rubber toy squid is a symbol of world domination.

So why is the squid in the box? One clue is that the container is labelled “Goldman Sachs”, Sharp’s previous employer, introduced by Matt Taibbi in an article about the firm in the 9-23 July 2009 issue of Rolling Stone magazine: “The first thing you need to know about Goldman Sachs is that it’s everywhere. The world’s most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.”

That sounds to me somewhat more egregious than (and actually somewhat removed from) a small pink squid, but does not seem to have incurred any great outrage. Perhaps a picture is worth a thousand words, but then the Rolling Stone article is getting on for ten thousand words. Or perhaps times have changed in the intervening fourteen years, reason being less fashionable now than outrage.

Another explanation, though one I have not seen advanced, is that there is a slang usage of “squid” for “quid”, which means a pound of UK currency. The gold coins in the box have also been damned as another trope. Gold coins are the staple of piracy, Long John Silver, Yo Ho Ho and ill-gotten buried treasure. However, there are no gold coins. Rowson has pointed out that the yellow circles of the squid are polyped skin, but we shouldn’t let biological facts get in the way of a good outrage. The issue at stake, after all, is money. It would be interesting to hear how that should be represented.

Author David Rich said the cartoon “falls squarely into an antisemitic tradition of depicting Jews with outsized, grotesque features”. He should get out more. That is a cartoonist’s stock in trade to do to everybody, as evidenced particularly by Ralph Steadman and Gerald Scarfe, not to mention the TV animated puppet series Spitting Image.

The cartoon features symbols that are widely used without comment, but when used about someone Jewish they have different associations — or rather can have different associations and for many people this is their primary, indeed only, association. Were there a different context, the response could be more nuanced and explorative. In this context it is tunnel-visioned and no alternative is tolerated or even considered. Or, if it is, people are wisely keeping quiet.

With the history of antisemitism, this is understandable, though not necessarily commendable or helpful for society as a whole. Antisemitism has had (along with numerous other prejudices of course) a history centuries deep, but the monstrous shadow blotting out most other considerations is that of Nazism and the Holocaust.

Antisemitism infected Europe in the twelfth century, fuelled by the Christian fervour of the Crusades. In one notorious massacre on 11 March 1190, the entire 150 Jewish population of York died through suicide, fire or attacks by rioters, some of them seeing it as a way of cancelling their large financial loans from Jewish money lenders. But this is not usually in the forefront of people’s minds when considering antisemitism. That place is occupied by concentration camps and gas chambers.

There was antisemitism in Germany before Hitler: he capitalised on it. There was antisemitism generally in the Western World, but being excluded from a golf club or even political impairment, as in the case of Hore-Belisha, UK Secretary of State for War till 1940, hardly competes with the Third Reich. T.S. Eliot has also been accused of it, much to his later chagrin, for writing lines such as “the jew squats on the window sill, the owner” in his poem “Gerontion” (published in 1920).

But it is Hitler’s image, his thoughts and his deeds which occupy centre stage and form the scenery for the current cartoon controversy. Don’t take my word for it. I defer to Sajid Javid, former UK Home Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer, a man who must know what he’s talking about. He tweeted: “Today’s @guardian cartoon wouldn’t have looked out of place in a Nazi newspaper.”

Galvanised by this accusation, I revisited some Nazi graphics. I have to say Rowson falls lamentably short (as does Javid). A fundamental of Nazi depictions of Jews is a massive hook nose. Sharp is not shown with one. Ironically the depiction of Boris Johnson’s nose in the cartoon is much more suitable. They are the two protagonists in the scandal and the cartoon. It would be interesting to see what reaction, if any, there would have been had their depictions had been reversed, Sharp with money bags on top of a huge pile of excrement and Johnson clutching the squid in a box. I suspect the accusations of antisemitism would have been equally vehement.

I can provide a handy visual aid to differentiate between a Guardian cartoon and a Nazi one with the spot the difference competition below. Hint: the black and white image is the Nazified one with a Jewish banker hanging the German businessman from a 1931 edition (and the octopus from a 1936 edition) of Der Stürmer, the newspaper edited by Julius Streicher, an unrepentant Nazi hanged at Nuremberg in 1946, not, it may be noted, for his deeds but for his words. Martin Rowson in contrast has merely been hung out to dry.

Guardian cartoon.

Spot the difference competition.

There are and have been countless cases of antisemitism, but we know who the main man is, and it’s not T.S. Eliot. Hitler is dead but his presence is alive. The horrors he has perpetrated continue to haunt and distort our collective psyche. As Sajid Javid has demonstrated, the real reaction is not against the cartoon, but against events which long preceded it, although still within living memory, just as flashbacks occur with post traumatic stress disorder, or someone with Generalised Anxiety Disorder will be triggered into an overreaction by something in the present, possibly innocuous, but which evokes a past trauma. We will know Hitler has finally been defeated, when he can no longer evoke such reactions.

Someone for whom Hitler was not dominant was cartoonist Martin Rowson, if we take him at his word and I see no reason not to. I am even more inclined to believe him, as I almost fell into a similar trap in 2005 during a Stuckist demonstration at the Turner Prize outside Tate Britain, when we were highlighting the Tate’s purchase of its own trustee Chris Ofili’s work The Upper Room, an installation with 12 paintings of monkeys depicting Christ’s disciples at the Biblical Last Supper, headed by a painting of an elephant. (This depiction of Jews as monkeys seems to have flown under the radar.)

It was the most obvious and appropriate thing to me that we should stage the demo wearing monkey masks as a striking visual image and an obvious reference to the paintings. My colleague Edgeworth Johnstone was horrified, pointing out that Chris Ofili is black and the monkey trope was used by football fans as racist abuse. I knew nothing of football fans, nor of such usage elsewhere, but was vetoed by what I felt were quite inappropriate considerations. We wore elephant masks instead: elephants, so far, are safe. Perhaps Edgeworth should be employed as an editorial consultant by The Guardian.

Rowson has already been found guilty by the jury, but we might as well hear the case for the defence, partially stated above. It can be found in full on his website. The latest version, which I have just archived, is here: https://web.archive.org/web/20230502053536/https://www.martinrowson.com/ As he rightly points out the target of his attack is not Richard Sharp (who is the “stooge” with a walk-on part) but Boris Johnson and how, if anything, Sharp was the victim of Johnson’s “casual if all consuming sleaziness and selfishness”.

Rishi Sunak is in the box not as a puppet of the all-manipulating Jewish conspiracy, but simply because he worked for Sharp at Goldman Sachs. There is nothing for that matter to prove he is a puppet anyway, as opposed to a miniaturised model. Again, what suggestions are there for how the strong connection between the current PM and Sharp should be shown in cartoon form? This sort of depiction seems to me to be common practice for satirical cartoonists.

Now we read Rowson’s greatest mea culpa: “I like to produce complex cartoons, crammed with incidental detail, partly it allows layers of nuance to be added to the overall umage [sic], partly because it’s the English Cartooning Great Tradition, from Hogarth and Gillray, via Giles and Pont.” I’m sorry, Martin: we do not live in an age of nuance. We live in one of mindless knee jerk reactions, where the mob is looking for any excuse to scent blood in the cause, of course, of righteousness, as is the wont of mobs, regardless of how right they really are. Also, as is the wont of mobs, they need a victim and this time it’s you.

It doesn’t matter that Sharp’s “Jewishness never crossed my mind as I drew him as it’s wholly irrelevant to the story or his actions, and it played no conscious role in how I twisted his features according to the standard cartooning playbook.” Rowson is certainly correct that he let “slip in stupid ambiguities,” because you can guarantee that if any ambiguity is capable of being interpreted in the worst possible way, then it will be. As is required of such transgressors, he has castigated himself, profusely apologised and then apologised again for not apologising enough or in exactly the accepted formulation for such apologies.

By the way, I would like to make is clear that I am not evaluating the cartoon to either condone or condemn it. My interest is the current cultural context and background issues and values.

In case you want another example of Hitler’s insidious cultural triumph, you need only take the Swastika, used by many cultures for decades as a good luck or holy symbol, particularly in Hinduism and other Indian religions. When those traditions are seen as the true possessors of the swastika, that will be another indication that the Second World War has finally been won by the right people.

As an almost comic, but certainly ironic postscript, Boris Johnson has not missed the opportunity to capitalise on the controversy and exculpate himself by shooting the messenger with the claim: “Frankly, whoever commissioned and printed this has made a far worse mistake than Richard Sharp.” As Mandy Rice-Davis said about Lord Astor’s denials of wrongdoing during Stephen Ward’s trial over the Profumo affair: “Well, he would, wouldn’t he?”. Time for another cartoon?

Charles Thomson is co-founder of The Stuckists.