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‘Wir kommen wieder’: the re-emergence of fascism 1945–1948
Six years of war and 70 million dead and displaced all failed to cause the death of fascism. As Lionel Rose put it in 1948:
fascists from Mosley down to the street-corner fuehrers, and fascist organisations from “The British Union of Fascists” to the more insidious but not less virulently anti-democratic and anti-Semitic “British Protestant League,” were neither converted by the lessons of war nor destroyed by the advent of victory.1
Fascism survived the war years in Britain and re-emerged into a hostile postwar world where the very mention of fascism stirred strong emotions. The war had touched everyone, and for thousands of families fascism was the hated ideology that murdered their son, their family or their friend, that bombed their home and darkened their lives. Similarly, one might presume that as the world learnt of the horrors of the Holocaust antisemitism would die out as people saw the results of this pernicious prejudice. Yet despite this there remained a dedicated few determined to resurrect fascism and antisemitism. Most had been prominent players from the prewar period, thereby showing the unbroken thread of British fascism through the war years and into the late 1940s, and despite the extremely hostile environment there was one glimmer of hope for them: The Palestine Crisis. Within months of the end of the war Britain saw anti-Jewish riots with Jewish shops being smashed and a synagogue burnt to the ground.
The re-emergence and the effect of Palestine
Along with the news of Nazi atrocities came victims seeking to make a new home in Britain. As the overwhelming majority of Britons accepted the veracity of Nazi atrocity reports one might presume that the reaction to those Jews seeking refuge in the UK would have been one of acceptance and sympathy. While some undoubtedly displayed such empathetic emotions in abundance, such a reaction was by no means universal. The Hampstead anti-alien petition of 1945 shows how a general anti-alien feeling prevalent in the immediate postwar period occasionally had deeply antisemitic undertones.2 Graham Macklin has challenged the perception that the years 1945 and 1946 represented a moment of respite for Jews before the fallout from the situation in Palestine once again worsened the situation. Following the war, partly bolstered by a genuine housing crisis resulting from the extensive German bombing of major British cities, a general antialien sentiment existed that called for refugees to return home so as to provide accommodation for returning ex-servicemen. In Hampstead, North London, this widespread feeling evolved into an organised movement and resulted in a petition of up to 3,000 signatures.’ However, as pointed out by G.R. Mitchell in his monthly reports to the Home Office, ‘The majority of Hampstead’s aliens are, in point of fact, Jewish, and for that reason the petition aroused great interest in fascist circles’.4 Right-wing and fascist groups such as Jeffrey Hamm’s League of Ex-Servicemen and Women, Mrs B.M. Young’s Women’s Guild of Empire and Sir Waldron Smithers, M.P.’s Fighting Fund for Freedom all offered their assistance to the petitioners.’ The petition is important for understanding that feelings towards Jews in Britain were by no means universally sympathetic and that some viewed them not as victims of Nazi barbarism deserving of help but rather as ‘parasitic interloper[s]’.6 While many people were conflicted, feeling a mixture of sympathy for camp survivors but revulsion at Jewish terrorism in Palestine, the events that followed in Palestine only served to worsen the situation for Jews in Britain.
Thanks to a mandate provided by the League of Nations, the Middle Eastern territory of Palestine came under the control of the British Empire from September 1923 until the formation of Israel in May 1948. Britain’s management of Jewish immigration to Palestine after the Holocaust angered many Zionists with some going as far as talking of the ‘fascist British Foreign Office’ and calling for the Jews of the world to realise that ‘the British Foreign Office has taken the place of Hitler as Jewish Enemy No.l’.7 The British withdrawal from Palestine in 1948 caused a significant wave of wider public antisemitism following the terrorist campaign orchestrated by the paramilitary Zionist organisations, Haganah, Irgun and Lehi. On 22 July 1946, the Irgun blew up the British military headquarters in the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, killing 91 and injuring 45? Winston Churchill articulated the mood of the war-weary British public by questioning the wisdom of remaining in Palestine and risking further British fatalities.9 The events of 1946 angered many, and the backlash against the British Jewish community soon started. In December an East London synagogue was broken into and sacred scrolls damaged as ‘a warning’ to Jewish terrorists. Someone called a newspaper claiming to be a representative of a group calling itself the National Guard and said, ‘Tonight the synagogue in Lea Bridge Road was destroyed by fire. This is a warning to the terrorists in Palestine that unless their policy against British troops ceases we, the
National Guard, shall meet terror with greater terror’.10 This arson attack was just a taste of what was to come the following year.
Despite the ever-growing signals that Britain’s Palestine policy was swiftly moving towards withdrawal, the dissidents in Palestine continued their reign of terror. On 29 July 1947, in what became known as ‘The Sergeants Affair’, the Irgun hanged two kidnapped British soldiers for ‘criminal anti-Hebrew activities’. Their bodies were driven to a eucalyptus grove south of Netanya where their garrotted corpses were left hanging above mines." The British media were whipped into a frenzy as typified by the Daily Express, which ran a full-page picture of the two hanging bodies under the title ‘Hanged Britons: Picture that will shock the world’. The possible ramifications for Anglo-Jewry were recognised immediately by the British Jewish community, which strongly condemned the murders.12
The emotive and intensely descriptive media coverage fuelled the public outrage that had been growing since the beginning of the Palestinian crisis. What followed shows the power of affronted nationalism. Just two years after the unspeakable tragedy of the Holocaust had shocked Britain, anti-Jewish riots broke out in major cities including Liverpool, Manchester, London and Glasgow. In some areas, the violence would not have been out of place in 1930s Germany. A wooden synagogue was burnt to the ground in Glasgow, and the Manchester Guardian reported that in Liverpool, ‘over a hundred windows belonging to Jewish owners were shattered’.13 It is clear that at least some of the rioters were active members of fascist organisations such as the Independent Nationalists (IN). Recounting a conversation with the Independent Nationalists leader G.F. Green, John Roy Carlson, an undercover anti-fascist from America, wrote:
“I’ve been busy,” he said. “I had to provide bail for some of our members who were arrested and fined”. He was referring to the epidemic of brickthrowing against Jewish shops, the rioting and the beating of Jews in a dozen English cities and towns. “I don’t want to see one brick thrown,” Green muttered between his missing teeth. “I want to see a million. But I’m against too much violence at this time. Bad tactics. We’re not strong enough. Things will get better for us as England goes down. The Jews are bringing on the crisis. When it comes, we’ll be in.”14
Green was not alone in his optimism. The riots excited British antisemites and gave them hope that all might not be lost. Enthused by the news of the riots the notorious antisemite Henry Beamish wrote: ‘These riots prove that at last some people are beginning to get annoyed’.15 Robert Gordon-Canning, another notorious Jew-hater wrote in a private letter, ‘I am surprised that a thousand Jews have not been hanged in London during the last forty-eight hours’.16 His solution to the problems in Palestine was nothing short of pogrom stating that, ‘If I were in Palestine, I’d give my men twenty-four hours to do with the Jews as they wished. Silly humanitarianism’.17
Around this time an American anti-fascist called Avendis Derounian went undercover in the UK and using the alias Charles Morey gained the trust of numerous prominent far-right activists. Later - this time using John Roy Carlson, another alias - he wrote of his experiences and recounted a dinner he attended with Gordon-Canning, Maule Ramsay and Admiral Domvile, all prominent British antisemites. His brief description of the evening reveals the frenzied and bloodthirsty feelings that the events in Palestine whipped up in fascist circles:
London was aflame over terroristic activities in Palestine and we were at no loss for conversation. Between mouthfuls, the Jew was our diet. Between the appetizer and soup, we minced him. Between the soup and entree we had him roasted, or hanging from Palestinian lamp-posts. Thereafter the Jew -dead, quartered, massacred - was with us till we left.18
Of course, while the events excited fascists, the rioting was not merely the actions of organised far-right groups but more worryingly was widespread. Ernest Bevin, the British Foreign Secretary, told the American Secretary of State that as a result of the Sergeants Affair, ‘anti-Jewish feeling in England now was greater than it had been in a hundred years’.19 Britain’s fascists, many of whom had only recently been released from wartime detention under Defence Regulation 18B, saw this as their opportunity to relaunch their political careers. Denis Plimmer, writing in the Neu> York Post in 1947, agreed, stating that, ‘British Fascists nowadays are relying chiefly on Palestine as a stimulant for antisemitism’.20 This was certainly the case with it being easy to find examples such as a street meetings on Gore Road in London in 1947 when a speaker bellowed from the platform that ‘Every Jewish man, women and child in Britain is aiding and abetting the Jewish thugs and murderers in Palestine’.21 The 43 Group, a militant Jewish anti-fascist organisation, fully understood the importance of the Palestinian crisis for the re-emergence of fascist organisations such as those linked to Oswald Mosley. Their newspaper On Guard noted that, ‘The Mosley clique are taking full advantage of the propaganda pouring out about Palestine. It is the greatest ammunition to our Jew-bating would-be Gauleiters’.22 And, ‘One thing at least is certain. British Fascists, no longer able to make blatant antisemitism their “platform” in this country, are turning longing eyes towards troubled Palestine’.23 As Stocker has shown, Mosley sought to capitalise on Zionist violence, ‘denouncing Jews as violent’ and via ‘continuous comparisons between the violent actions of Zionists and the crimes of Nazi Germany against Jews’.24
The British People’s Party, another prewar fascist party seeking revival in the immediate postwar period, also attempted to make hay out of the Palestinian crisis. A 1946 BPP publication argued that even after the Nuremberg trials,
the Jews are still not satisfied. Their search for new persecutors has even led them to brand their best friends, the kindly people of Britain, as Neo-Nazis, and to parade the streets of New York under a Union Jack upon which the swastika had been superimposed. Such events, together with the indiscriminate murder of innocent Britons in the King David’s Hotel and elsewhere, although they do not excuse the last wild frenzy of the Nazis, at least suggests that the Jews are not the easiest people in the world to accommodate.25
Unsurprisingly, the Jewish demonstrations in New York that the BPP speak of were also picked up by the American far right. The Cross and The Flag, the publication of the antisemitic America First group, stated, ‘The same people who were yelling, “Hate the Germans! Hate the Germans!” and now yelling, “Hate the British! Hate the British!” . . . merely because Britain is not fulfilling the demands of the Zionist Jews’.26 It seems that antisemites on both sides of the Atlantic saw value in using the Palestine situation. Some of the more extreme antisemites positively revelled in the situation. Victor Burgess, leader of the Union of British Freedom (a founding member of Mosley’s Union Movement) wrote a letter in which he asked, ‘Have you volunteered to join the Palestine Police yet, or do you prefer as I do that we slaughter Jews at home?’27 In another he stated, ‘I hope that you are slaughtering as many Jews as we seem to be doing in Palestine’.28
However, while the reaction of the BPP and Oswald Mosley’s followers were more extreme than the average, the July 1946 Mass-Observation report shows that such opinions could be found beyond the confines of the dyed-in-the-wool antisemites on Britain’s far right. The report showed how much of the sympathy brought about by the Holocaust was offset by the events in Palestine. One can find examples of this in the report such as: *|With regard to the explosion at the King David Hotel] I could not have loved a Jew before, now I think Hitler was more right than wrong in his idea of extermination’.29 However, far more common than the odd genocidal reaction was the general feeling that full assimilation was the answer to the ‘Jewish question’, and thus Jews were generally blamed for antisemitism. Even after the news of the extermination programme was accepted, the old trope ‘no smoke without fire’ was a common position.30
However, the events in Palestine were not the only driver of the re-emergence of British fascism. At a conference on antisemitism in Europe, at Seelisberg in 1947, Sidney Salomon of the Board of Deputies of British Jews explained that when accounting for the re-emergence,
one must remember that the old poison of nine years’ incessant Nazi propaganda has never been completely eradicated, that the early months of the “phoney” war made a number of people, some of whom were not inclined to fight, disillusioned and dispirited. Then comes the period when Great Britain stood alone. . . . Those Fascists who had not been interned carried on their whispering campaign.31
Thus, a plethora of factors came together to create a climate whereby just months after the news of the Holocaust had reached Britain, openly fascist and antisemitic politics were visible on Britain’s streets.
Quick to notice the re-emergence was Lord Vansittart who in 1946 told the House of Lords that the fascist movement was ‘beginning to come to life again’.32 His statement on the re-emergence of fascism in London mentioned Captain Ramsey, Arnold Leese, 18B Detainees, League of Ex-Service Men and Women, Radcliffe’s British Protestant League and The Victory Group, and his speech became international news with the New York Herald Tribune being among the foreign newspapers to report on it.33 Street activism became an increasingly common sight in the immediate postwar years, so much so that by 1947 it was reported that, ‘In London alone, not a night passes in which some Fascist speaker does not mount the platform at a street corner, display the Union Jack and launch into a violent anti-Semitic outburst’.34 Activity was not limited to London with perhaps the leading organisation outside the capital being the Sons of St George, which was based in Derby.3’ Writing several years later in 1949 Dudley Barker of the Daily Herald made a similar point when he described how:
On every night of the week except Thursdays, four years after the end of the war against Fascism, a Fascist meeting is held somewhere in London. There are also regular meetings in a few provincial centres, chiefly at Derby, Manchester and in South Coast towns around Brighton.36
It is clear that neither the Holocaust nor the years of war managed to extinguish the flame of British fascism and that as soon as it became possible to relaunch after the war the remaining activists seized their opportunity.
However, it is important not to overemphasise the scale of the fascist resurgence in the early postwar years. Sidney Salomon believed it was doubtful that the membership of all British fascist bodies combined exceeded 7,000, and most agreed that this number was not growing.37 Lionel Rose similarly estimated between 6,000 and 7,000, however, to this must be added a considerable number of people with fascist sympathies but who, if challenged, would hotly deny they could be so described.38 Rather than a growth in the number of fascists the immediate postwar years witnessed a growth in the activity of fascist organisations. However, by 1950 the activity of the far right, spurred on by Palestine, began to wane. In a letter sent in 1950 Salomon explained that,
as far as this country is concerned the fascist movement is on the way out. It consists of Mosley and a group of corner boys. The difference in the movement can be gauged from the fact that in 1937 the fascist movement was able to record 27,000 votes in the London Municipal Elections, while last year all that they were able to obtain was 1798!39
A confidential report on the 1950 elections sent to the American anti-fascist Aven-dis Derounian backed up Salomon’s point stating, ‘As far as fascist threats were concerned, it can also be said that they came to nothing. . . . Fascist literature was also conspicuous by its absence’.4" Thus, while British fascism re-emerged straight after the war and showed signs of growth, by 1950/51 it had begun to shrink back and retreat once more.41