David Low was arguably the greatest newspaper cartoonist of the 20th century. From the 1920s until his death in 1963 his work appeared in London’s Evening Standard, and later the Guardian.
A new book, Low and the Dictators by Timothy Benson, tells the story of Low’s vendetta against fascist dictators Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini from the 1920s until the end of the Second World War.
Benson makes clear just how much Low got under their skin. Publications printing Low’s cartoons were banned in Italy and Germany.
Hitler was angry enough to regularly look at the cartoons and put pressure on the British government to get them stopped.
Though the Standard was owned by Lord Beaverbrook, who was sympathetic to the dictators at the time, Low’s contract allowed him to draw what he wanted – and he made use of it.
Amazingly, a government minister, Lord Halifax, visited Low in 1937 to ask him to tone down his work in the interests of peace. Low did this until Hitler occupied Austria a few months later.
Low explained why he annoyed authoritarians so much. He said, “No dictator is inconvenienced or even displeased by cartoons showing his terrible person stalking through blood and mud.
“That is the kind of idea about himself that a powerseeking world-beater would want to propagate.
Hitler is an ass
“What he does not want to get around is the idea that he is an ass, which is really damaging. I shall always remember Hitler as the sissy who whined to the British Foreign Office when I ran him for a while as a comic strip.”
Low’s peak came at a time when Britain’s rulers appeared complacent and absurd.
The menace of fascism and dictatorship was spreading across Europe and Britain’s rulers either admired the new regimes for their success in crushing Communism or hoped to appease them.
Much of Low’s work mocked the complacency of the rich. Eve of the Session from 1932 shows the rich at play while brokers wait at the door. However, in general, once Britain was seriously engaged in the Second World War, Low’s criticism of British rulers diminished.
His cartoons lost their critical edge. Low still remained something of a maverick figure during the war, however, hating complacent propaganda.
His cartoon exposing wartime antisemitism in Britain raised issues that others would have preferred not to have aired.
A current exhibition of his work at the Political Cartoon Gallery in London shows his earlier and later cartoons.
Many images from the post-war period are editorial cartoons from the Guardian. Most of these lack the power of his earlier work, frequently showing a liberal paternalism.
One, for example, decries people for their consumerist needs for fridges and ovens.
Low’s old anti-establishment attitude briefly reappeared in a 1958 drawing showing Western troops advancing towards Iraq.
One shouts “Where’s the war, bud?” A local Arab looks up, confused, asking “What war?”
Low had been a thorn in the establishments side as he criticised appeasement in the 1930s, but he was knighted in the 1950s, and his later cartoons are generally less confrontational.
In fact he commented that he felt he did his best cartoons for the Evening Standard when his left wing views were different from the owners and much of the readership.
To see his work at its best, get a copy of Low and the Dictators.
Socialist Worker readers can get Low and the Dictators for £15 (rather than £17.99). Go to the Political Cartoon Gallery or phone 020 7580 1114 before the end of May 2008 and say you read about it in Socialist Worker. The exhibition The Best of Low is at The Political Cartoon Gallery, Store Street, London WC1 until 15 June