A new article in the journal Patterns of Prejudice, jointly penned by the historian Graham Macklin and Routledge social sciences books editor Craig Fowlie, has lifted the lid on the truly strange life and controversial career of Count Geoffrey Potocki de Montalk (1903-1997).
Potocki (pictured, aged 21) was a poet, a pagan and a sun worshipper, who also claimed to be the rightful King of Poland, Hungary and Bohemia, and Grand Duke of Lithuania, Silesia and the Ukraine. The article’s authors describe Potocki as a ‘quixotic and eccentric figure’, a man who hovered at the margins of the British literary scene during the interwar period, and had a range of friends and contacts, such as Aldous Huxley and Bryan Guinness.
However, using newly released Security Service (MI5) files at the National Archives, Kew, together with newly deposited material in the Searchlight archive at Northampton University, Macklin and Fowlie show how Potocki was also an enabler of fascist and extreme right activism, who provided a range of extremist groups and people with invaluable services as a printer of their literature, a service that spanned both the interwar and post-war periods.
Moreover, Potocki also established his own propaganda mouth-piece, The Right Review, which ran to seventeen issues between 1936 and 1949 (with two more issues in the 1970s), and was set up by Potocki as a riposte to the more famous Left Review of Victor Gollancz. As well as publishing literary content from a variety of authors, Potocki also used his own journal as a platform to pursue his personal political obsessions and disseminate a belief in the Divine Right of Kings; in addition, he displayed anti-Semitism and anti-communism, together with a growing admiration of Hitler and Nazism. The journal was also one of the few literary magazines in Britain to openly back General Franco and the Nationalists during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39.
Born in New Zealand in 1903, Potocki was the son of an architect and the grandson of a Polish professor. After an unhappy upbringing, he left for Britain in 1927 to try and make his mark as a poet. He led a bohemian life for about four years, and carved out some minor success with the publication of a number of his poems in magazines and newspapers.
In 1932, though, he came to wider attention when he was arrested, charged and convicted of obscenity for publishing some erotic verse. The case raised major issues about freedom of expression and a number of famous writers, such as H.G. Wells, W.B. Yeats and E.M. Forster, among others, contributed to a defence fund for Potocki. As Macklin and Fowlie note, extensive press comment on Potocki’s eccentric clothes and overall appearance may have been a factor in the harsh line taken against him by the Judge when Potocki was tried at the Old Bailey. Potocki also caused something of a sensation at the start of the trial when he refused to swear on the Bible because, he said, he worshipped Apollo, the Sun God. Instead, Potocki took the oath with a fascist-style Roman salute.
He was sentenced to six months in prison. After his release in 1932, Potocki was presented with a printing press by sympathetic literary supporters and he began to earn a regular small income from this. But life inside Wormwood Scrubs prison had appeared to leave Potocki a very embittered man, and possibly pushed him much further into his increasingly paranoid view of the world and sympathy for fringe politics. In fact, as Macklin and Fowlie demonstrate, for much of the rest of the 1930s, and even during the Second World War, Potocki printed material for a variety of extreme right activists and parties, including (in the late 1930s) the ‘Imperial Fascist League’ of Arnold Leese and the ‘National Socialist League’ of William Joyce (who later became the notorious wartime broadcaster ‘Lord Haw-Haw’). Potocki also had further brushes with the law, including more time in prison.
His printing service for fascists and anti-Semites was continued after the war ended, when Potocki lamented that Hitler had lost. Indeed, Potocki was still providing such services as late as the 1960s, when he helped Colin Jordan and his neo-Nazi ‘National Socialist Movement’.
Potocki’s racism was also combined with a view of himself as ‘regal’. Potocki thus used his magazine in the 1930s to develop and pursue an idea that came to dominate his life: a bizarre claim to the Polish throne. He even founded a ‘Polish Royalist Association’, designed to re-establish a ‘powerful Polish Kingdom’ under his own personal rule. His wife was deemed the ‘Queen’ of Poland and the pair, who in 1940 moved to Half Moon Cottage at Little Bookham in Surrey, even set up a ‘Court’, with various Royal ceremonies and activities designed to bolster Potocki’s claim to be the rightful ruler of Poland. This was supplemented with an additional claim to the throne of Hungary.
All in all, Macklin and Fowlie’s new article reconstructs the life and career of a highly narcissistic and complex individual, but also one who became acquainted with and helped a broad range of racist and extreme rightwing figures in Britain. It is a fascinating, if unsettling, read.
The article, ‘The fascist who would be King: Count Geoffrey Potocki de Montalk’, was published online on 2nd April, 2019, in Patterns of Prejudice.
Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University