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Butler was born in the Victorian country town of Benalla, although he lived most of his life near Melbourne. In the 1930s he became a follower of the British economist C. H. Douglas and his Social Credit theories. From 1938 Butler wrote for the Australian Social Credit newspaper New Times.
Butler served in the Australian Army during World War II. According to one of his obituarists: "He served as a gun sergeant for twenty months without leave in the Torres Straits, taught troops as an instructor at Canungra Jungle Training School for six months, transferred to the Officers Training School at Seymour, Victoria and was honourably discharged at the end of the Pacific phase of the war."
By this time his political activities were under surveillance by the security authorities, as is shown by documents in the Australian Archives. In July 1940 the Victorian publicity censor, Crayton Burns (father of Creighton Burns, a later editor of The Age), wrote: "I have taken steps to warn the provincial and country press that the activities of this gentleman and his assistants are being closely watched by the authorities. There is no doubt that the general trend of their propaganda is damaging to the financial side of the war effort."
In December 1941, the Commonwealth's chief publicity censor, E.G. Bonney, banned a series of Butler's New Times articles, one of which described Soviet Russia as "a Jewish slave state ... controlled by international Jewish financiers in New York."
In 1945 the Attorney-General, Dr H.V. Evatt, began an inquiry into Butler's activities. He told Parliament: "In the opinion of the Director-General of Security, Butler has written articles constituting an attempt to create adverse public reaction to war loan campaigns and to the war effort generally." Butler was not charged.
In 1946 Butler published The International Jew, in which he claimed that Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt and John Curtin were covert communists, that the Russian Revolution was a Jewish plot and that the Nazi Holocaust was a myth. Butler's eulogist Nigel Jackson described this book as "an essay built around an analysis of the controversial Protocols of the Elders of Zion. In it Butler challenged the Jewish role in international finance and its connections with communism. Of all Butler's publications, this was perhaps the one which roused the greatest fury." This was hardly surprising in the wake of the Nazi Holocaust, particularly since the Protocols were well known in 1947 to be a forgery.
Butler founded the South Australian League of Rights in 1946, centered on the anti-bank nationalisation campaign, and subsequent state branches before the Australian League of Rights was established in 1960. Butler served as its National Director until his retirement in 1992. Although Butler ran for the Australian House of Representatives (as an independent) in 1951, the League was not intended to be a political party. Rather it was a lobby group and "grass roots" organisation, promoting Butler's mix of anti-communist, social credit, monarchist and pro-British ideas.
Besides the New Times, the League's many publications included the weekly On Target and the monthly Intelligence Survey. In 1949 Butler began contributing articles on national and international affairs to the Melbourne morning newspaper The Argus, then a conservative paper, but when it was revealed that the articles were based on a League of Rights study course, the series was cancelled.
In the 1960s, the League garnered much unfavorable publicity when it was revealed that members were also participating in the Liberal and Country Parties. Country Party, a mainstream conservative rural party (now the National Party of Australia). A close associate of Butler's, Arthur Chresby, was elected to Federal Parliament in Queensland as a Liberal. This tactic achieved some success elsewhere, particularly in areas where small farmers were under economic pressure, such as Gippsland, the Riverina, the Darling Downs, the Yorke Peninsula and the Western Australian wheatbelt. The League pamphlet They Want Your Land alleged that "international financiers" were trying to force Australian farmers off their land by manipulating commodity prices. Successive Country Party and National Party leaders warned against League infiltration and League-controlled branches were occasionally disaffiliated. Queensland Nationals Senator Ron Boswell was particularly outspoken in attacking League infiltration of the Queensland Nationals.
A Liberal federal MP, James Killen, was identified as a League supporter in the 1960s, and travelled to Europe with Butler in 1962, but later severed his connections with the League. In the 1960s and 1970s, Butler devoted much time to promoting the anti-communist philosophy of white minority regimes in Southern Africa. He travelled on multiple occasions to Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and South Africa, then governed under apartheid. Butler also served as a Far East correspondent for American Opinion, magazine of the John Birch Society.
In July 1972 Butler achieved some public attention when he debated Max Teichmann, senior lecturer in politics at Monash University, on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's Monday Conference program. Teichmann confronted Butler with his many explicit anti-Semitic statements from the 1930s and '40s and challenged him to disavow them, a challenge which Butler evaded. The program highlighted the issue of League infiltration of the Country Party in the period before the December 1972 federal election, at which the long-serving conservative government was defeated.
Other League fronts included the Institute of Economic Democracy and Ladies in Line Against Communism (LILAC). In the 1990s the League lost its position as the leading extreme right political organisation in Australia. Butler complained that Pauline Hanson and her One Nation Party had stolen his policies. It also lost support to the Citizens Electoral Council, which had been a League front, but which was taken over by followers of the American politician Lyndon LaRouche, and developed a much higher public profile than the League itself.
Butler lived most of his life in rural Victoria, in his later years on a farm at Panton Hill, where his home was used as a meeting place for League and other extreme right activists. In the 1950s he was a member of the Eltham Shire Council for some years and served a Shire President. He retired as League Director in 1992, handing control of the organisation to David Thompson, but remained politically active until shortly before his death. In 1999 he chaired an address by the Holocaust denier David Irving.
Butler died in Victoria.
- Nigel Jackson, Lion for Freedom
- All these quotations are from David Greason, Australia-Israel Review, 24 April 1997 (available online here)
- K.D. Gott (1965), Voices of Hate. A Study of the Australian League of Rights and its Director, Eric D. Butler, Dissent Publishing Association, Melbourne, page 18
- The Rhodesian Inspiration. Melbourne: Australian League of Rights, Volume 1 Issue 30 April 1976.
- Essay on League from Electronic Journal of Australian and New Zealand History, 1997.
- Australian League of Rights (This website contains a complete online archive of On Target since 1965.)
- Fascist fruitcake held surprising political sway, The Australian, 13 June 2006
- Lion for Freedom (eulogy by Nigel Jackson at the Adelaide Institute website)