Denis Pritt

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Denis Nowell Pritt
Bundesarchiv Bild 183-B0708-0014-010, Oberstes Gericht, Globke-Prozess, Pitt.jpg
Pritt acting as a foreign observer at the trial in absentia of Hans Globke, East Germany 1963
Member of Parliament
for Hammersmith North
In office
14 November 1935 – 23 February 1950
Preceded by Fielding Reginald West
Succeeded by Frank Tomney
Personal details
Born (1887-09-22)22 September 1887
Harlesden, Middlesex
Died 23 May 1972(1972-05-23) (aged 84)
Pamber Heath, Hampshire
Nationality British
Political party Labour (1918-1940)
Other political
Labour Independent Group
Alma mater University of London
Profession Barrister

Denis Nowell Pritt, QC (22 September 1887 – 23 May 1972) was a British barrister and Labour Party politician. Born in Harlesden, Middlesex, he was educated at Winchester College and University of London.

A member of the Labour Party from 1918, he was a defender of the Soviet Union. In 1932, as part of G. D. H. Cole's New Fabian Research Bureau's 'expert commission of enquiry', he visited the Soviet Union, and, according to Margaret Cole, "the eminent KC swallowed it all".[1] Pritt was expelled from the Labour Party in 1940 following his support of the Soviet invasion of Finland.

Pritt was characterised by George Orwell as "perhaps the most effective pro-Soviet publicist in this country".[2]

Early life[edit]

Denis Nowell Pritt was born 22 September 1887 in London, the son of a metal merchant.[3]

Pritt was educated at Winchester College, which he left after four years so as to relocate to Geneva in order to learn French, with a view to joining his father's company.[3] Following his time in Switzerland, Pritt moved again to expand his linguistic knowledge, working in a bank in A Coruña, Spain, and mastering his knowledge of Spanish.[3] Pritt also added German to his repertoire of languages in subsequent years.[3]

Pritt began to study law in 1909, obtaining a law degree from University of London in 1910.[3] He began his legal practice as a specialist in workmen's compensation cases.[3]

He married in July 1914, on the eve of World War I.[3] During the war he joined the postal censorship department in the British War Office.[3]

Following the war, Pritt returned to legal practice as a successful lawyer working in the field of commercial law.[3]

Political career[edit]

A Tory in his earliest years, Pritt moved steadily leftward politically, joining the Liberal Party in 1914 and the Labour Party in 1918.[3] Following a failed 1931 campaign for Parliament as a Labour candidate in Sunderland, Pritt was elected as a Labour Member of Parliament (MP) for Hammersmith North in 1935.[3] Pritt was made a member of the Labour Party's Executive Committee in 1936, remaining in that role for over a year.[3]

In 1936, he attended the first Moscow Show Trial, known as the Trial of the Sixteen. He wrote an account of this, The Zinoviev Trial, which largely supported Joseph Stalin and his first purge of the Communist Party.[4]

In 1940 he was expelled from the party for defending the Soviet invasion of Finland.[5] His book Must the War Spread? sympathized with the Soviets and led him to be greatly disliked by the Labour Party elite during and after the war.[6] After 1940 he sat as an Independent Labour member, and at the 1945 General Election was re-elected in Hammersmith North under that label gaining a 63% share of the vote against official Labour and Conservative candidates.[7] In 1949 he formed the Labour Independent Group with four other fellow travelers, including John Platts-Mills and Konni Zilliacus, who had also been expelled from the Labour Party for pro-Soviet sympathies. At the General Election of 1950, all the members of the Labour Independent Group lost their seats. By this time, Pritt's opposition to the Cold War and NATO had made him an "unpopular figure" in Britain.[4]

Pritt was awarded the 1954 International Stalin Peace Prize and in 1957 became an honorary citizen of Leipzig, which was then in East Germany. East Germany also awarded him the Gold Stern der Völkerfreundschaft (Star of People's Friendship) in October 1965.

Legal career[edit]

As a lawyer, Pritt successfully defended Ho Chi Minh in 1931–32 against a French request for his extradition from Hong Kong. In 1942, he initially defended Gordon Cummins. But due to a technicality, the trial was abandoned and restarted with a new jury and Pritt was replaced by another lawyer. Cummins, a member of the Royal Air Force was known in the press as the Blackout Ripper and was accused of murdering four women, mutilating their bodies and attempting to murder two others. The defence was unsuccessful, a subsequent appeal was dismissed and Cummins was hanged in June 1942.[8]

Pritt's most high-profile case, which he lost, was defending the Kapenguria Six, a group of Kenyan political figures accused in 1952 of Mau Mau links (Jomo Kenyatta, Bildad Kaggia, Kung’u Karumba, Fred Kubai, Paul Ngei and Achieng Oneko). In this case, Pritt worked with a team of Kenyan and other African, Indian and West Indian lawyers including Achhroo Kapila, Dudley Thompson Q.C. and F. R. S. De Souza.

Pritt played a significant role in the Fajar trial in May 1954 in Singapore. He was the lead counsel of the University Socialist Club with the assistance of Lee Kuan Yew as the junior counsel and helped the Club to win the case eventually.[9] From 1965 to 1966, he was Professor of Law at the University of Ghana.[4]

Death and legacy[edit]

Pritt died in 1972 at his home in Pamber Heath,in Hampshire.[4] Dennis Pritt Road in Nairobi, Kenya is named after him.

Pritt is one of those on Orwell's list, a list prepared by George Orwell for the Information Research Department in 1949, after the start of the Cold War. The list was officially published in 2003, but had circulated before then. It listed notable writers and others whom Orwell considered to be sympathetic to the Soviet Union. In the document, Orwell noted that Pritt was "almost certainly underground Communist", but also a "Good MP (i.e. locally). Very able and courageous".[10]


  1. ^ Contemporary letter to G. D. H. Cole cited in Kevin Morgan, The Webbs and Soviet Communism, London: Lawrence & Wishart, 2006, pg. 77
  2. ^ Kevin Morgan, "Pritt, Denis Nowell (1887–1972)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2007.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Colin Holmes, "Denis Nowell Pritt," in A. Thomas Lane (ed.), Biographical Dictionary of European Labor Leaders: Volume 2: M-Z. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1995; pp. 779-780.
  4. ^ a b c d "Denis Nowell Pritt". Spartacus Educational. Retrieved 28 August 2015. 
  5. ^ David Caute The Fellow Travellers: Intellectual Friends of Communism, New Haven, NJ & London: Yale University Press, 1988, p.236
  6. ^ Bill Jones, The Russia Complex: The British Labour Party and the Soviet Union (Manchester University Press, 1977), p. 42
  7. ^ "UK General Election results July 1945",
  8. ^ "Murder Appeal Dismissed". The Times (49258). London. 10 June 1942. p. 2. Retrieved 17 September 2013. 
  9. ^ Poh, Soo K (2010). The Fajar Generation: The University Socialist Club and the Politics of Postwar Malaya and Singapore. Petaling Jaya: SIRD. p. 121. ISBN 9789833782864. 
  10. ^ "Big Brother with a High Moral Sense" by Geoffrey Wheatcroft. The Independent, 28 June 1998]


  • Light on Moscow (1939)
  • Must the War Spread? (1940)
  • Federal Illusion (1940)
  • Choose your Future (1940)
  • The Fall of the French Republic (1940)
  • USSR Our Ally (1941)
  • India Our Ally? (1946)
  • Revolt in Europe (1947)
  • A New World Grows (1947)
  • Star-Spangled Shadow (1947)
  • The State Department and the Cold War (1948)
  • Spies and Informers in the Witness-box (1958)
  • Liberty in Chains (1962)
  • The Labour Government, 1945–1951 (1963)
  • Neo-Nazis, the Danger of War (1966)
  • Autobiography
    • From Right to Left (1965)
    • Brasshats and Bureaucrats (1966)
    • The Defence Accuses (1966)

External links[edit]

Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
Fielding West
Member of Parliament for Hammersmith North
Succeeded by
Frank Tomney