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Fascism And Anti Fascism In Great Britain History Essay

1. Introduction

When we talk about the fascist movement we normally think of Germany in the years from 1923 to 1945. A general misperception is that fascism was invented in Germany. However, this is not the case and fascism has existed for centuries all over the world.

This work will discuss the fascist and anti-fascist movements in Great Britain between World War I and World War II. It will show the involvements of certain powers on both sides and how they were represented in public. Furthermore I will look at the occurrences from October 1936, which is known as the ‘Battle of Cable Street’, and analyse what eyewitnesses have said about the events. My final point will deal with the impact these past events have had on the country as a whole and in what way the law has intervened to prevent such history to repeat itself.

2. Fascism in interwar Great Britain


“…a rightist political movement which governed Italy as a dictatorship during the period 1922 – 1943. The word is also used more generally to describe any movement advocating a dictatorship of the right. It is derived from the Latin word ‘fasces’, a bundle of rods used in ancient Rome as a symbol of authority.”

After WWI, Europe started to rebuild its countries and cities. England emerged as a winner of this major conflict and so it could change its economy from wartime- into peace economy rather quickly. Although England did not suffer from major destructions, it lost its leading role in the world economy to the United States, which led to a high rate of unemployment, economic stagnation and in the end to an economic crisis. The citizens watched this development with great concern.

a. The beginning and the early fascist movements in the 1920’s

Two major political forces existed in post-war Britain: The Liberals and the Conservative Party. After the stagnation of the economy and the rising discontent of the workers, a third party quickly established itself: The Labour Party. Although many people feared the socialistic ideas which were behind Labour, they achieved a minority government in 1924. They created a big stir amongst the political forces and another fourth party tried to establish itself within the workers: The Communists. Although their existence was short-lived and they remained insignificant and unsuccessful from a political point of view, their role was much more pronounced in respect of their influence on the anti-fascist movement. As mentioned above the economic situation in England was tense and the Labour Party became more powerful each day. The result was that Rotha Lintorn-Orman founded the first fascist party in 1923, the British Fascisti, to put up an opposition against the growing socialist forces. She was quoted:

“I saw the need for an organization of disinterested patriots, composed of all classes and all Christian creeds, who would be ready to serve their country in any emergency.”

Rotha Lintorn-Orman idolised Mussolini which explains the usage of the word fascisti which is the Italian word for fascist. She saw her party as a reserve troop for the Conservative Party which, in her opinion, underestimated the danger emanating from the socialists and Communists. Put frankly, she wanted her party to be the fighting wing of the conservatives. Their numbers grew rapidly and within a year they counted over 100000 members, many of them came from the right wing orientated part of the Conservative Party. Already in May 1924 they changed their name and organisation into a limited company with the anglicised name British Fascist Ltd. (BF).

Robert B. D. Blakeney was the first elected president of this ‘new’ company/party. He changed the structure into a hierarchy-based organisation, which had a senior level at the top, several sub branches like propaganda, transportation and an intelligence service. Furthermore he established a paramilitary section, which became the so called ‘shock troops’ in 1926. These troops were used as a security service at political events and speeches of the BF and its members. They were to restore calm and establish order by using lethal or brutal force where applicable.

Some historians state that the BF from its beginning in 1923 until 1926 had only little elements of fascistic ideologies in its manifesto, unlike the other huge fascist movements in Europe. They think that one reason was the lack of understanding that the founder and other leading individuals within the party had of fascism and the idea behind it. It is said that the BF was seen as a moderate party without any real party platform.

The turning point of the BF was the General Strike of 1926. For months they have predicted a Bolshevik Revolution and finally their prophecies became true. But in the end the strike was their downfall.

Like the BF, many right-wing orientated movements offered their help to the government by promising to keep working so that the economy remained stable. The government and their designated PM Baldwin accepted the offer but only under certain conditions: the party leaders had to remove the word ‘fascistic’ from their party name, dissolve their paramilitary branch and had to promise to serve the democracy. These requests led to a crisis within the party because some members agreed (Blakeney and five others from a more senior position) and others (like the founder Lintorn-Orman) did not agree to these terms and conditions. The disagreement culminated in a ballot where the supporters lost, split from the main party and founded the British Loyalists, a party which had no impact whatsoever.

The General Strike of 1926 finished rather quickly and life went back to normal. As mentioned above the BF predicted a Bolshevic Revolution, which they would have opted to fight for. The revolution failed to materialise and the party lost credibility and was deprived of the key elements of its ideology. The BF did not vanish completely but kept a low profile. It concentrated on its ‘fascistic roots’ and the ideology behind it and continued to stoke fears of bolshevism.

One individual which should be mentioned is Nesta Webster, a British historian who was a member of several right-wing groups including the British Fascists and the British Union of Fascists. She was not only anti-Bolshevistic but anti-Semitic as well. She wrote several books about the need of fascism in Britain and published articles in the anti-Semitic journal The Patriot. In her publications ‘she argued that Bolshevism was a Jewish plot to take over the world’ and expressed her courtesy towards Hitler in sayings like

“those of us in England who have been subjected for years to a real boycott, organized by Jews can hardly be expected to shed tears over the turning of the tables.” (April 1933 when the first wave of persecution started in Germany) or,

“she argued that Adolf Hitler had successfully halted the Jewish attempt to control the world.” (1938 in her book Germany and England)

Her support and admiration for Hitler ended abruptly, when the Hitler-Stalin Pact was signed in 1939. During and after the war Nesta Webster lost importance, as people saw and understood the cruelty to which fascism may lead. However, nowadays her works are still used and absorbed by organisations like the Ku Klux Klan and the John Birch Society.

Although of lesser importance, a further party amongst the first fascist parties in England that I should mention was the Imperial Fascist League (IFL) founded in 1928 by A. Leese. This party failed to reach a huge importance, as its members never exceeded more than a few hundred in numbers. It kept its party program simple: Anti-Semitism. The IFL was the party which was seen as the English NSDAP. Its members were by far more fanatical than all the other parties with fascistic roots, which can be seen in their demand for the ‘Final Solution of the Jewish Question’ by finding a way of killing them. Fortunately their ideology found no grounding within the English public and the ILF nearly vanished when a new party rose in 1932, the British Union of Fascists (BUF). Many members of the ILF changed to the BUF and only a few stayed on.

b. The British Union of Fascists (BUF) and its leader Oswalt Mosley

“The British Union of Fascists represented the mature form of the fascist phenomenon in British society, being the only organization with any pretension to significance in inter-war Britain.”

The foundation of the BUF, which counts as the most influential and important fascist party in England, was raised from a crises ridden Britain.

From 1929-1931 England was stuck in economic crises which had a deep impact on the government and the British society. It was Sir Oswalt Mosley who founded the BUF in October 1932 out of disappointment and outrage that the government at the time, who he was a part of as a Member of Parliament in his role of ‘Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster’, was not able to deal with the problems the country faced, such as mass unemployment. After meeting Mussolini and several Nazi-party leaders in person in the spring of 1931 he felt assured to create a new party and based its ideology on Italian and German fascism.

He was a ‘turncoat’, an opportunist who started his political career as a member of the Conservative Party in 1918. Later after a dispute with his party-members he became independent and sat in the outs. In 1924 Labour formed a minority government and Oswalt Mosley joined Labour in view of pursuing a political career within the party. Very interesting is the fact that he found himself drawn to and involved with the ultra left-wing of Labour. Mosley worked his way up within the hierarchy and hoped to get one of the important ministerial posts after the elections in 1929. Instead he received the above mentioned position of ‘Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster’, which was a big disappointment for him. He made submission after submission to the party where he proposed how to decrease the unemployment rate but his ideas were rejected as too radical. Finally he developed his own complete party-program, the so called ‘Mosley Memorandum’. It stated the following:

“The ‘Mosley Memorandum’ reiterated his suggestions for early retirement and a publicly-funded road-building scheme. In addition it recommended the setting up of a government-controlled industrial bank to channel money into work-creation schemes. … smaller inner cabinet …War Cabinet…PM and half a dozen ministers would posses’ almost military power to direct fight against unemployment.”

If you read between the lines, you can draw an analogy between his proposals and Nazi-Germany. His suggestions got heard and he found a few followers within Labour but not enough to impose the measures. So he split from the Labour Party and created his own party, the British Union of Fascists.

Mosley, like Hitler, wrote a book named “The Greater Britain” where he published his anti-Semitic, nationalistic and imperialistic views.

One key element of fascistic organisations is a paramilitary wing. Mosley founded the Fascist Defense Force which protected demonstrations, intimidated people with random violence and attacked and persecuted Communists and Jews or any other person who did not agree with the party’s ideology.

Mosley was most successful in recruiting new members in the East End of London. There the population mostly consisted of dock-workers and Jews. Due to the high rate of unemployment, many people of the working-class were unhappy and needed a ‘scapegoat’ like the Jews. Mosley used this to his advantage and organised many demonstrations and marches there. At their pinnacle, the BUF claimed to have had around 50,000 members.

After 1933, when Hitler came to power in Germany and the media reported the first assaults on Communists and Jews, the public became aware of the danger that might come from Mosley and the BUF. The first anti-fascist groups were organised in late 1934, which I will return to later. These groups only stimulated Mosley and his party members to express openly and freely their opinion about Jews and Communists, rather than lead the BUF and its members to refrain from their actions. They showed their anti-Semitism in militant street battles and the persecution of the Jewish population in the East End of London. In one of his speeches in 1934 in the Londoner Albert Hall Mosley expressed his hatred against the Jewish population to an extent that has never been heard of before. The hatred he showed on this day induced the public to reconsider their support for Mosley because one could see parallels to Hitler in Germany. These parallels did not only relate to the content of his speeches but also to Mosley’s gestures and appearance. The number of party members was declining from that day onwards.

Although the BUF was better organised, had a better worked out party program and ideology than other fascist parties, the influence of the BUF came to an end in the late 1930s.

One reason for their decline was the legendary Battle of Cable Street, which I will analyse in detail later on in this work. Another reason in my opinion was the ideology itself and the parallels people could draw between Hitler and Mosley. Already by the end of the 1930’s, it was clearly visible which way Germany was heading with its politics and that scared off supporters and the public.

I believe that we can summarise that the fascistic movement in England was born out of critical situations that the country found itself in (such as a poor economy and the General Strike after WWI and a world-wide economic crisis from 1929-1931), but the people have never been true believers of the concept of fascism which was meant to be, in Mosley’s view, the ‘cure’ of the country. None of the fascistic parties mentioned here have gained sufficient power to achieve a great impact, in a negative way, on England or its people, as none of them have existed for any long periods of time.

c. How do the fascists represent themselves?

“… the most effective way to win over potential supporters was to penetrate psychological rather than intellectual constitution via the medium of paramilitary marches, bands and fascistic symbolism.”

Any fascistic movement all over the world is acting in the same way when it comes to represent itself in public. They usually have a strong and charismatic leader, a sign or banner that shows power and some sort of uniform. Usually they have some journals and newspapers (middle and lower class) under their control, where they can publish their lampoons and propaganda campaigns. Furthermore their marches and demonstrations seem to be in an orderly nearly military manner.

– British Fascisti (Later British Fascist Ltd.)

This image shows Rotha Lintorn-Orman in a military uniform. During WWI she carried out her military service in the medical corps of the British Armed Forces. There are hardly any photos of her but if you find one, she always wears some kind of uniform.

As mentioned above at point a) the BF was not well organised. They called themselves fascisti due to their leader’s admiration for Mussolini.

In the Journal The Patriot, a right-wing magazine which does not exist anymore, she published propaganda and tried to attract new members with medium success only.

– The British Union of Fascists (BUF)

This image shows Oswalt Mosley in the uniform he created for his party. This was a pose he usually adopted while speaking to the crowd.

“Mosley was arguably the finest public speaker in British politics in the

Twentieth century. His theatrical approach, the atmospheric use of

Lighting and the huge audience were typical for his style.”

The members of the BUF and especially his Fascist Defense Force wore black-shirts and a black tie. One can see parallels to the SS, Hitler’s private army.

Not only in the appearance of Mosley and his ‘Blackshirts’ are we able to find parallels to Nazi-Germany. As you can see on the next image the Nazi-salute was used as well by Mosley and his party members. Furthermore the BUF had an anthem which resembled the German ‘Horst-Wessel-Lied’, the anthem of the NSDAP. The marked similarities could be found not only in its tune but also in the lyrics.

The party represented itself with a strong sign in public, a red flag which had a blue and white circle with a flash inside. The Fascist Defense Force had a brassard on their left arm in the same colours. Here as well one can see the inspiration and admiration of Nazi-Germany by Oswalt Mosley.

In addition to Mosley’s own publications he found support in several right-wing orientated journals and newspapers like Action, Blackshirts or The Facsist’ which was founded by the IFL and used the Swastika freely on their front-pages. By using the swastika they propagandised the following:

“Das Hakenkreuz ist das Symbol des nordisch-faschistischen Kampfes für den guten Glauben des weißen Mannes gegen die jüdische Verschmutzung seiner Zivilisation geworden. Es ist auch der Ausdruck seiner Entschlossenheit, die schlechten Einflüsse inmitten von uns auszurotten.”

All of them were small journals which do not exist anymore. But there is one newspaper which still exists and that supported Mosley not only by publishing articles about him but on a financial basis as well: The Daily Mail. The owner at the time was Lord Rothermere who was a friend of Mussolini and Hitler, which influenced his political point of view and therefore the one of his newspaper. In 1934 after one of the rallies of the BUF, he published a series of articles under the main heading “Hurrah for the Blackshirts”. In this article the advantages that fascism would bring to the country were praised and Mosley was seen as the perfect leader to relieve the country of its problems. Still today the Daily Mail has a very questionable reputation and at times publishes headlines like “Maternity units turn away British mums as immigrants’ baby boom costs NHS £350m.” which can potentially lead to increased xenophobic behaviour.

The majority of the publications that the BUF had were published on leaflets and sounded like this:

“Not so long ago East London was the home of British stock. The cabinet-maker, polisher and tailor were Englishmen. Today the Englishman in East London is the slave of the Jewish master.”

As one can see, Mosley and the BUF took Nazi-Germany as an example in how to represent themselves and their ideas. The parallels between the two fascist movements are clearly visible.

3. Anti-fascism in interwar Great Britain

It is actually quite difficult to find an academic definition of the term ‘anti-fascism’. I looked up several well-known encyclopedias but was unable to find one. According to Copsey, who is citing Renton, the definition depends on the point of view one takes. Renton defines anti-fascism restrictively to

“…activists, people who objected to the rise of fascism, who hated the doctrines of fascism and did something to stop their growth.”

Here he speaks of the people themselves who fight the fascism. Later on he augmented his definition to add the point that only a group of people is strong enough to fight fascism:

“Almost every anti-fascist shared the belief that fascism could not be beaten by individuals, but only by an anti-fascist group or campaign.”

Defining the word ‘anti-fascism’ seems to be very difficult but in my opinion Renton found an ideal definition.

Anti-fascism is a topic which was neglected by British historians. There only exist a handful of books about the history of anti-fascism. As Prof. Renton puts it:

“There is as yet no historical literature of anti-fascism. No historian has written at length about anti-fascism in Britain. The studies we have are partial; limited to particular campaigns or a set area…”

His criticism appeared in the year of 1996 and the situation has changed a little especially with the publication of Nigel Copsey’s book “Anti-Fascism in Britain”. But still it must be said that the fascist movement got reviewed more, than the forces that acted against it.

One can find certain references, party propaganda or leaflets but they were written by anti-fascists or former activists themselves and do not present an objective view on the events.

Many authors who write about the anti-fascism see it as a marginal phenomenon, which would not have been necessary in Britain. In their views, the fascists could have been opposed simply by letting the government deal with them and by the rather unfair British electoral system which does not allow for proportional representation.

Prof. Renton argues in his essay that the anti-fascistic movement was not at all useless and unnecessary and by no means a marginal phenomenon. Many people within the working-class got mobilised and interested in politics. There were marches of a 100,000 people against fascism in Hyde Park in London in 1934 or, to which I will turn to at a later stage, the Battle of Cable Street in 1936. The support continued into the war and grew even stronger, which was owed to the fear of a German invasion into England. When Mosley was about to get released from imprisonment more than 1,000,000 people signed a petition to prevent him being discharged.

a. The early beginnings

The anti-fascist movement in Britain came into being on the 7 of October 1923. This was the day on which, for the first time, Communists interrupted a meeting of the BF and it ended in a huge turmoil.

In early 1924 the Communists and other anti-fascists saw the need to interrupt and disturb marches and rallies of the fascists in a more organised way. As a reaction to the forming of a paramilitary wing within the BF, they formed an organisation called the People’s Defence Force (PDF) and later that year the National Union of Combating Fascismo (NCUF). The former said about itself that they are a:

“…non-aggressive, legalistic organization and even commended the police as a model to all its members. …independent but nevertheless aligned to the ‘workers movement’…’keep a watchful eye on the activities of the Fascisti…”

The latter orientated itself more on the anti-fascist movement in Italy which is demonstrated by the name National Union of Combating Fascismo. This organisation was created for two different reasons: On the one side they wanted to fight more militantly against the danger the fascists posed, and on the other side, they were socialists and not Communists and did not want to get involved with them. They announced that:

“…they would be ready to meet fascist outbreaks, and …pursue vigorous socialist propaganda.”

Many other little anti-fascist organisations were founded but the unity and constancy was missing. They fought within the anti-fascist movement for dominance and did not define common goals other than the fight against fascism. Some of them only existed on paper and had no impact whatsoever. One of the few groups which never strayed from the common goal was the CPGB.

b. The Communists and the Jews and their part within the anti-fascistic movement

– the Communists

The Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) played a decisive role in the fight against fascism in England. It was founded in 1920 but due to the non-proportional ‘first past the post’ electoral system in Britain it did not have a chance to enter the government and fought for the rights of the people on the streets and in Unions. The CPGB was seen by many people with distrust and suspicion because they feared a Bolshevik revolution like the one in Russia. The fascists stoked those fears with false allegations which helped them to raise their membership numbers.

Communists and Jews were prime targets for the physical and psychological violence coming from the fascist movement. They always feared to get persecuted by the paramilitary wings of the fascist parties. Due to the permanent fear of physical violence from the fascist side, the Communists ‘geared up’ and fought back with all means necessary to defend themselves. This behaviour raised criticism from the Labour Party, which however limited itself to speeches and argued that violence is not the solution. In other words, they were ‘all talk and no action’. In the mid 1930’s Labour prohibited its members from participating in marches against the fascists because it wanted a clear separation from the ‘violent’ Communists.

The Communists had a lot of members in East London, especially in the poor areas like Stepney. They were very active and supported the poor population by demonstrating about the decayed living conditions, high unemployment and in general for the discrimination of rights of the impoverished. Many different nationalities and cultures lived in this area and due to mass immigration from the European countries the number of the Jewish population increased to about 183,000. Many Jews started to support the CPGB and became members because they felt that this was the only organisation that took an interest in their issues.

– The Jewish community

The Jewish community was represented by an organisation called “Board of Deputies of British Jews (BoD)” which fought for the interests of the Jews. It was a conservative and cautious acting organisation that did not want any conflict with the British government or any other political group. By the time the first anti-Semite occurrences took place, they ignored the situation and proclaimed that,

“The Board of Deputies of British Jews appeared convinced that British traditions of Liberalism and tolerance will resist anti-semitism.”

They dismissed the first physical and verbal assaults on the members of the Jewish community as an act of misguided and misinformed individuals which should not be overrated.

But the terror towards the Jews continued and the next generation of immigrants and Jews did not want to accept the passive attitude of the BoD. Within the Jewish community a discussion broke out about how to deal with the new danger and how it could be fought against. The BoD continued to pursue their passive strategy in believing that the British government will take care of the situation and protect them. Many radical and leftist Jews did not trust this idea and joined the Communists or banded together into militant groups, like “The Jewish Peoples Council Against Fascism and Anti-Semitism (JPC)”. They hoped that now they were able to deal with the fascist ‘mob’ and bring back security into their boroughs.

The CPGB reacted to the growing numbers of Jewish members by creating a subsection which dealt solely with the participants from the Jewish community. Its leaflets and party programs were published in the Yiddish language to find more support within the Jewish Community. The Jewish community knew that alone they would not stand a chance against the fascist forces but in alliance with the Communists and other anti-fascist organisations they saw an opportunity to fight fascism with all means necessary.

c. How do the anti-fascists represent themselves?

Due to the lack of information about the anti-fascist movement it is rather difficult to decide if the representation is stereotypical or not.

Since January 1 of 1930 the Daily Worker is the ‘mouthpiece’ of the CPGB and is today known as the tabloid Morning Star which is still a left-wing newspaper. As you can see in the title the publishers used the hammer and reaping hook and made no secret of their viewpoint. This sign is used by the majority of communist organisations around the world to represent the working-class.

You can see the same symbol in the party flag as well. Another interesting detail is the use of bold printed letters like the ones used in the former Russian All-Union Communist party (from 1925), better known as Communist Party of Russia (from 1952).

In my opinion one of the biggest problems of the anti-fascist movement in Britain was that they did not represent themselves in a united manner, under one banner or organisation like the ANTIFA today. The movement was based on several organisations and democracy loving individuals. These little organisations published their own leaflets and journals but did not have a united mouthpiece for all of them together.

4. The Battle of Cable Street

Cable Street is situated in the East End of London and is the symbol of victory of the English anti-fascist movement and the Jewish community against anti-Semitism and fascism in London and England as a whole. This fierce street battle consisted of a fight between the fascists of the British Union of Fascists on the one side, against the Communists, leftists and Members of the Jewish Community on the other.

a. Historic overview

I would like to take the opportunity to give a brief overview about the events that took place on this day. On the 4 of October 1936, the fourth anniversary of the foundation of the BUF, Mosley and his Blackshirts organised a march through the East End of London, because not only the majority of his supporters lived there, it was also an open provocation aimed at the Jewish Community which is represented in large numbers there as well.

When the Jews, Communists and all the other people who called themselves anti-fascists found out about this march, they organised a countermarch to obstruct the passage with barricades. They wanted to show how powerful the movement against the fascists was and that they were not welcome in their community. “They shall not pass!” was shouted by the counterdemonstrators.

Mosley arrived with about 3,000 ‘Blackshirts’ and found himself face-to-face with around 150,000-300,000 (numbers vary a lot in the literature) anti-fascists. To keep order and to blaze a trail for the fascists, about 10,000 Police Constables (6000 on foot and 4000 on horseback) had arrived. They did not stand a chance against the massive anti-fascist force, so that Mosley and his ‘Blackshirts’ had to retreat as they could not march as planned. In the process many people were injured (around 150) and arrested but fortunately no one died.

The anti-fascist movement regards this event as a turning-point in the British fascist history and it is seen as the event that led to the decline of the BUF and finally their fall into the insignificances. Obviously, Mosley and his henchmen had a different view on the events of this day in October 1936.

The BUF and Mosley argued that the events were neither a spontaneous campaign nor the expression of the anti-fascistic position of the Londoners but instead a plot, which was planned for a long time by the Communists and Jews, to discredit the BUF in public. Some of them even denied their participation in the battle and dismissed that day as a fight between police and anti-fascist demonstrators.

For live-footage of the Battle itself and the circumstances around it, watch “The Battle of Cable Street, 1936”.

b. The battle and the media

In the 1930’s there existed five groups of newspaper publishers: Rothermere, Beaverbrook, Odhams, Berry and Cadbury. This led to the publishing of a large variety of newspapers, enabling the people to find a range of political views within the press. However, nowadays the world of the media is divided into only a few companies and therefore sometimes lacks objectivity and variety.

With regards to the events of October 1936, I was able to find some articles written one day after the Battle of Cable Street. I will give a short overview of the content and point of view of these articles.

– The Daily Worker: “Mosley did not pass. East London routs the fascists”