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Unique? A transnational context

The question that remains is whether the British fascist movement that emerged from the war years was unique when compared with other postwar European movements. In some senses it patently was, not least because of how remarkably intact it managed to remain. With the exception of Francoism in Spain, British fascism avoided the destruction wrought upon its ideological cousins in continental Europe. While the major European fascist movements in Italy and Germany were in many ways destroyed during the war, Britain’s tiny movement was cocooned away in internment camps, resulting in a continuity of organisation and structure that was unthinkable in occupied Europe. In addition, the very survival of Mosley into the postwar period and his continued political activity is also relatively unique. Bar Franco in Spain, all of the big names of European fascism, not least Hitler and Mussolini, had left the stage, in one way or another. Thus British fascism had not been decapitated like its European counterparts and entered the postwar period with a figurehead around which the remnants of the movement could gather. On the continent, those prominent fascist leaders that did survive were often preoccupied with their attempts to evade capture and prosecution. Though there were postwar Nazi organisations in West Germany and Austria, their impact was limited. Organisations such as Odessa, the clandestine network of former SS officers, specialised in little more than trying to help Nazis escape undetected rather than reform or organise. Thus, unlike Britain, the individuals engaged in the resurrection of fascist movements in Europe were by and large marginal figures, described by Paul Wilkinson as ‘middle-range officials and local party organisers’.109

This absence of the vast majority of the major interwar fascist leaders resulted in a newfound prominence and cachet on the international fascist scene for Oswald Mosley. The end of the war and the defeat of the Axis powers saw Mosley go from being a small fish in a big pond to a big fish in a small pond, as he became one of the most prominent European fascists after Franco. This enhanced his ability to promote and foster pan-European alliances as part of his ‘Europe a Nation’ ideology and no doubt helped Mosley launch his National Party of Europe, the high point of which was the Conference of Vienna in 1962, which saw representatives attend from dozens of fascist and Nazi groups including from the Deutsche Keichspartei, Jeune Europe and the Mouvement d’Action Civique. While the project failed in the long run it was ‘very much a Mosley affair’,110 and his status as one of the prominent surviving fascists helped bring this disparate group of fascists together, and even the MSI, which had a membership of almost 80,000, far larger than the UM, sent Giovanni Lanfree.

However, while the distinct experience of the war years and Mosley’s survival marks British fascism out, it would be wrong to categorise postwar British fascism as unique in all aspects. All postwar fascist movements were attempting to re-launch their often hated and discredited doctrines in a scarred and hostile environment. Britain had won the war and remained unoccupied with the result being that anti-fascism became part of the national identity beyond the way it did in Italy, Germany or Spain. However, fascists in all European countries faced very similar hurdles, namely the need to throw off the stench of criminality that was attached to a political ideology' indelibly linked to a destructive and traumatic war and the systematic mass murder of six million Jews. Some, as in the case of Britain and France, attempted to separate the ideology from the Holocaust through a process of malicious historical revisionism while others, such as in Italy, pointed to the difference between Italian and German fascism. The solutions sometimes varied from country to country, but the problem of attempting to relaunch a discredited political genus was uniform across Europe.

Furthermore, as with the British case, it was the experience of the various fascist movements during the war years that shaped the nature of their postwar incarnations. It is not just in Britain that one should look to the events of 1939-1945 to understand the birth and nature of the postwar movements. When discussing Italy, Andrea Mammone writes,

even if only a minor phenomenon, the analysis of clandestine fascism (along with the whole period 1943-46) is important for a more rounded understanding of the immediate postwar establishment of the foremost extreme right-wing party, the Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI).1

The effect of the war years on Italian fascists has several striking similarities to Britain:

For many “true” believers, however, fascism was far from dead. . . . They could not betray the Duce, they had to fight for his doctrine. In other words, fascists did not want to surrender to the new anti-fascist society. The desire for revenge was indeed very strong among war veterans and fascist believers.112

The belief that fascism never died and the notion of fighting on for the Leader, Mosley in Britain, Mussolini in Italy, rather than the doctrine, are commonalities, as is the emotion of revenge as a driver of postwar activism.

 
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