The Postwar Revival of British Fascism

Attacks by Zionist paramilitaries in Mandatory Palestine in 1946-7 provided an opening for a campaign of antisemitism

The Postwar Revival of British Fascism
The former leader of the British Union of Fascists, Oswald Mosley, addresses a crowd in London in 1948. (© Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

In a cramped and poor suburb of east London, a crowd of over 1,000 people gathered to hear a fascist orator declaim his views, including the usual antisemitic invective. On the fringes, a group of Jews and communists were waiting for the perfect moment to leap into action and disrupt the open-air meeting, hiding crude weapons such as coshes and even tightly rolled-up newspapers to deliver a drubbing to the fascists in the crowd. Here and there, members of the Metropolitan Police kept an eye on proceedings. Some of them, though by no means a majority, were even sympathetic to the message the fascists were spreading. The scene was reminiscent of many meetings of the 1930s, when fascist clashes with Jewish, socialist, trade unionist, communist and other opponents were common in London.

But this was not the 1930s. It was August 1947. Adolf Hitler had been dead for two years, the horrors of the Holocaust were slowly being recognized, and years of wartime propaganda, hardship and loss meant that to nearly every British person, fascism was a hated ideology that had darkened their lives, bombed their homes and killed friends and loved ones.

After years of war against a fascist enemy in Europe which had affected every man, woman and child in the country, why were crowds willing to gather en masse in east London to listen to what fascists had to say? The answer is tied to events over 2,000 miles away in the British Mandate for Palestine. As violence rages today in Israel and the Palestinian Territories, we are once again seeing war in the Middle East polarizing communities and contributing to dangerous discourse. The events of 1946-1947 in Britain provide an earlier example of how public concerns about distant conflicts can fuel social divisions at home, and be weaponized by groups seeking to push their own divisive and hateful agendas.

Under British rule since 1917, by the 1940s Palestine had become a liability, with frequent clashes between Zionist Jews, now arriving in large numbers, Palestinian Arabs and British forces. By 1944, the main sources of violence were two small but very active Jewish militant groups, the Irgun and Lehi, who sought to evict the British from Palestine by force and declare a Jewish state. These organizations wrought havoc across Palestine, targeting British personnel in the country and blowing up railway lines, communications infrastructure and buildings. Most famously, the Irgun blew up the southern wing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem on July 22, 1946, killing 91 people. The Lehi, meanwhile, even threatened to bring carnage to Britain by sending (ultimately defective) letter bombs to important political figures living in London.

After the trials and tribulations of years of war, amid the efforts to rebuild a devastated country, the grim news coming out of Palestine was hardly welcome. Britain, a victorious power, had suffered enough: The fact that British Tommies were dying in a country thousands of miles away, where Britain seemed to have no real interests, was too much for many people to stomach. Yet it was impossible to avoid. Nearly every day, news stories would appear in all the major newspapers about the latest shooting, bombing or atrocity. Radio bulletins and newsreels shown before films also graphically depicted the chaos unfolding in Palestine.

It certainly didn’t help that few people understood what these Jewish paramilitary groups wanted and why they were willing to use violence to achieve their aims. Many people hadn’t even heard of Zionism. Mass Observation, a social research project that probed the opinions of the U.K. populace on a wide array of issues, found in 1947 that 1 in 3 people had either never heard of the term “Zionism” or had the wrong idea as to what it meant. Incorrect guesses show a not insignificant number of people thought it was related to Christian Science, the British Israelites or even the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Among those who had heard of the term, there was still only a vague understanding of what the movement was, with answers varying from the crass (“Yes — lot of Jew boys”) to the muddled (“A sort of Mecca for Jews. On a par with Pakistan, something of a pipe dream”). Even more disturbingly, many people did not differentiate between Jewish militants in Palestine and British Jewry, often tying them together. According to Mass Observation, 1 in 5 people believed that British Jews supported the actions of the Irgun and Lehi.

Without a clear understanding of the two groups’ aims, and greeted with near-daily reports of casualties and violence in Palestine, many people became increasingly angry — and hateful. Mass Observation estimated, from polling in 1946 and 1947, that nearly half of the population held views that were to some extent antisemitic. Respondents gave numerous different reasons for their dislike of Jews, including ancient tropes, from their appearance to their supposed behind-the-scenes control of power. The latter conspiracy was so ubiquitous that the document’s author noted that “from different reports, one would gather that London, Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Brighton, and indeed all large towns, are mainly run by Jews.” Yet a new factor affecting people’s feelings was also cropping up in reports — the violence in Palestine.

This violence was the subject of a considerable amount of public discussion, casual conversation and private thought in the immediate postwar period, as contemporary diaries show. A young typist in Cheshire noted that after a bombing at a Jerusalem railway station the previous day, conversation in her office turned to Palestine, recording several particularly angry remarks. One of her colleagues went so far as to suggest that for every British subject murdered in Palestine, 10 Jews should be shot, concluding her argument with the phrase, “Hitler knew what he was doing.” Another young woman, Maggie Joy Blunt, recorded how the conversation during her lunch break became lively when someone mentioned the problem of Palestine, degenerating into antisemitic comments. Meanwhile, Mr. B. Charles, an antiques dealer in Edinburgh, offered his solution to the Palestine issue in his diary: “We should drop six atomic bombs on six cities in Palestine and wipe out as many Jews as possible.” Ironically, in the next paragraph he noted that he was reading Emery Reves’ “The Anatomy of Peace.”

British fascists looked on with glee. Their main vehicle for spreading fascist ideas in this period was the British League of Ex-Servicemen and Women. The group was led by Jeffrey Hamm, who had himself sat out much of the war after being detained under Defense Regulation 18b, which aimed to keep potential traitors and fifth columnists behind bars. Hamm had been a disciple of the aristocrat, former Labour member of Parliament and fascist demagogue Oswald Mosley before the war. As leader of the British Union of Fascists from 1932, Mosley spent the entirety of the war imprisoned and then under house arrest. Since Mosley’s activities and involvement in politics after 1945 were closely monitored, he gave his blessing to Hamm to prepare the ground for his eventual comeback by spreading the fascist message using the league as his vehicle.

Palestine thus offered Hamm an excellent opportunity. Here was a chance to relaunch the movement. Events in Palestine gave fascists’ antisemitic tirades direction, and these words now resonated with increasing numbers of the British public. Many of those in the crowd who gathered to hear Hamm speak in this period would not have identified themselves as fascists, but they were nevertheless supportive of what he had to say, much of it explicitly antisemitic in nature. If he had not been able to capitalize so successfully on the issue of Palestine, it is likely that Hamm would have emigrated from Britain, returning to the Falklands where, before the war, he had been teaching. Militant attacks in Palestine kept him active, gave his antisemitism an “acceptable” gloss and allowed him to whip up hatred. Indeed, the League often claimed that their outdoor meetings were not strictly fascist gatherings, but “were designed as protests against terrorism in Palestine.”

Given the rising antisemitism and widespread ignorance about Zionism, fascists were easily able to conflate Zionist paramilitary attacks with Judaism in their speeches, meaning British Jews came to be seen as complicit in violence in Palestine. Bertrand Duke Pile, a key member of Hamm’s League, informed a cheering crowd that “the Jews have no right to Palestine and the Jews have no right to the power which they hold in this country of ours.” Denouncing Zionism as a way to introduce a wider domestic antisemitic stance was common to many speakers at fascist events and rallies. Fascists hid their ideology and ideological antisemitism behind the rhetorical facade of preaching against paramilitary violence in Palestine. One of the league’s speakers called for retribution against “the Jews” for the death of British soldiers in Palestine. This was, he told his audience, hardly an antisemitic expression. “Is it antisemitism to denounce the murderers of your own flesh and blood in Palestine?” he asked his audience. Many audience members, fascist or not, may well have felt the speaker had a point.

On July 30, 1947, the bodies of two British soldiers, Clifford Martin and Mervyn Paice, were found hanging in a eucalyptus grove in Netanya, Palestine. They had been kidnapped over two weeks earlier by the Irgun and despite frantic efforts being made to find them by British forces and the Haganah — the mainstream Jewish paramilitary group and the proto-army of the nascent Jewish state — they had remained hidden away. Their killing was a retaliation by the Irgun for the British execution of several of their own members who had been involved in attacks. More gruesomely, the ground under Martin and Paice was booby-trapped with a mine so that when the bodies were cut down further chaos unfolded.

On Aug. 1, The Daily Express published a picture of the two bodies hanging limply from a eucalyptus tree on their front page under the headline, “HANGED BRITONS: Picture that will shock the world.” The image was captured by Jim Pringle, an Irish-born photographer from The Associated Press. He had been part of a group of photographers who had been accompanying a search party looking for the bodies of the two sergeants when they came across the grisly spectacle. The police, clearly panicked, commandeered the group’s cameras to avoid any horrific images reaching the press, but after angry protests from the photographers, the administration agreed to return the cameras and to develop the film they had shot, removing any particularly gruesome pictures before returning the developed photos to their rightful owners. Pringle’s photographs turned out to be completely unexposed. He had switched his film at the last minute before his camera had been confiscated and the exposed film was already on its way to London. Pringle received an official reprimand from the mandate authorities. His employers, on the other hand, gave him a bonus.

Pringle’s photo promptly made numerous appearances at fascist meetings, often attached to the speaker’s platform. In at least one meeting, several British soldiers on leave from serving in Palestine attended Hamm’s speech, giving further legitimacy to his remarks. And with soldiers and policemen in Palestine showing increasing signs of overt antisemitism as a result of their experiences, the director of public prosecutions warned that the fascists might receive a steady stream of new recruits. MI5, the U.K. domestic security service, noted with some alarm that “as a general rule, the crowd is now sympathetic and even spontaneously enthusiastic.” Opposition, it was noted in the same Home Office Bulletin of 1947, “is only met when there is an organized group of Jews or Communists in the audience.”

The major opposition came from the 43 Group, formed by the British-Jewish ex-paratrooper Gerry Flamberg and his friends in September 1946 to fight the fascists using the only language they felt fascists understood — violence. The group disrupted fascist meetings for two purposes: to get them shut down by the police for disorder, and to discourage attendance in the future by doling out beatings with fists and blunt instruments. By the summer of 1947, the group had around 500 active members who took part in such activities. Among these was a young hairdresser by the name of Vidal Sassoon, who would often turn up armed with his hairdressing scissors.

The 43 Group had considerable success with these actions, but public anger was spreading faster than they could counter the hate that accompanied it. The deaths of Martin and Paice had touched a nerve with the populace. On Aug. 1, 1947, the beginning of the bank holiday weekend and two days after the deaths of the sergeants, anti-Jewish rioting began in Liverpool. The violence lasted for five days. Across the country, the scene was repeated: London, Manchester, Hull, Brighton and Glasgow all saw widespread violence. Isolated instances were also recorded in Plymouth, Birmingham, Cardiff, Swansea, Newcastle and Davenport. Elsewhere, antisemitic graffiti and threatening phone calls to Jewish places of worship stood in for physical violence. Jewish-owned shops had their windows smashed, Jewish homes were targeted, an attempt was made to burn down Liverpool Crown Street Synagogue while a wooden synagogue in Glasgow was set alight. In a handful of cases, individuals were personally intimidated or assaulted. A Jewish man was threatened with a pistol in Northampton and an empty mine was placed in a Jewish-owned tailor shop in Davenport.

As violence spilled into the streets, British fascists looked on with glee, occasionally taking an active part in the riots, but overall their involvement was negligible — most of the rioters were not in any way active in fascist movements. Indeed, at a league speech shortly after the riots, the fascist activist Harold Robinson stated that the unrest was “very comforting to me because it means we have far more supporters than we thought.”

However, British fascists soon learned that antisemitic violence in an area did not mean they had support in that locale. When Hamm and Pile — the league’s self-proclaimed “expert on Palestine” — traveled up to Liverpool to help the local fascist leader Joseph Morrissey, they had high hopes. Liverpool had seen some of the worst rioting and the leadership of the league naturally assumed that the city would be sympathetic to their message. Yet when Hamm arranged a meeting and began to speak, he was attacked, and the rostrum he had been talking from was smashed by his audience. In the brawl, Pile found himself knocked down while an old lady stood over him, beating him with part of the splintered rostrum. Hamm decided the trip was not likely to be successful and immediately scarpered back to London. Yet fascist rhetoric certainly helped foment the conditions that allowed for the riots, even if their ideology was rejected by much of the population.

In November 1947, Mosley launched the Union Movement party in an attempt to turn the anti-Jewish sentiment Hamm had been able to mine into political success. By the end of 1947, the British government had made the decision to abandon the Mandate for Palestine and hand the matter to the newly formed United Nations. By May 1948, the last British soldiers and personnel were leaving the country for good. British fascists had lost one of their favorite talking points, and soon the crowds began to dwindle. The 1949 municipal elections led to an electoral drubbing for Mosley’s new party. Its eight candidates polled only 1,993 out of a total of 4,097,841 votes.

By March 1949, British fascists were considered to be so little risk to national security that MI5 ceased its monitoring of them. They quickly descended into infighting, and schisms soon developed. In 1951, Mosley left Britain for Ireland, where he focused (unsuccessfully) on spreading his new pan-European fascist ideology. Hamm followed him, eventually becoming Mosley’s secretary — a role in which he served for 25 years. The end of British rule in Palestine had spelled the end of the British fascist revival — never again would Mosley or his adherents be able to exert such influence on British society or receive such support for their speeches. While they had held the public’s attention, they had nurtured and fed British anger at events in Palestine and fueled a rise in antisemitism. Yet while Hamm and the League had instrumentalized hate, they had been unable to win the public over to their ideology. In an age of division, partisanship and the reemergence of chauvinistic populist politics, this ultimate failure to mobilize hatred offers a ray of light.

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