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Postwar denial and 'concentration camp fairy tales'

British fascism had been severely crippled during the war years with the proscription of the British Union and the detention without charge or trial of nearly 1,000 leading members of the movement under Defence Regulation 18B. However, despite mass public hostility and severe government pressure the movement survived and had begun to rebuild from 1943 onward. The immediate postwar years saw many of the major interwar players relaunch organisations under different names with varying levels of success. Undoubtedly the major hurdle facing the would-be revivers of radical right and antisemitic politics was the Holocaust.

Different leaders and activists had different reactions towards the news of the Nazis’ extermination programme that ranged from horror and condemnation through to denial and even celebration.

Oswald Mosleys reaction to the Holocaust has been something of a debated topic. Lord Skidelsky, the cross-bench peer and eminent historian of the economist Keynes, wrote an informative yet sympathetic biography of Mosley, possibly influenced by his close friendship with Mosley’s son. In a biography that clearly aimed to rehabilitate Oswald and bring him back from ‘beyond the pale’, Skidelsky significantly played down Mosley’s antisemitism. He argued that ‘Officially, the Jewish question no longer existed. Prewar policy proposals were dropped. Jews were even welcome to join Union Movement’66 and that as a result ‘antisemites sought other pastures’.67 However, an interview Mosley gave in 1947 completely contradicts Skidelsky s statement:

Would you have Jews in your new party? “No”

You would not have Jews as candidates? “Jews would not make suitable candidates for us”.

But your movement is open to all parties? “To all parties but not Jews”

So you would not have Jewish candidates? “No! They would not be suitable. You must leave us the liberty of choosing our candidates”.

Does that mean that you would get rid of the Jews out of this country? “Jews who have not been a long time in Britain would certainly have to go; that is, Jews who have not got their roots deep in the country, recent arrivals and such”.68

Furthermore, any serious exploration of Mosley’s reaction to Nazi atrocities against the Jews soon undoes any attempt at rehabilitation as it becomes clear that he was central to drawing up the blueprint of British Holocaust denial.

Mosley was quick to criticise the Nuremberg trials as ‘a zoo and a peep show for gloating joy of everything that is lowest in human or beast’.69 His defence of Nazi ‘atrocities’, usually written in speech marks, was multi-faceted. First, he defended the need for German concentration camps:

Men were short, food was short, disorder raged as all supply services broke down under incessant bombing. They held in prison or camps a considerable disaffected population, some German, but most alien, who were requiring guards and good food supplies.70

Second, while accepting the existence of some concentration camps, he denied the conscious mechanical extermination programme by suggesting the conditions in the camps ‘were largely produced by Allied bombing and consequent epidemics’.71 He stated definitively that ‘Buchenwald and Belsen are completely unproved’ and that ‘Pictorial evidence proves nothing at all. We have no impartial evidence’.72 As was to become the standard rebuttal of the denier, Mosley pointed to typhus outbreaks to explain the dead and diminish the responsibility of the Nazis: ‘If you have typhus outbreaks you are bound to have a situation where you have to use the gas ovens to get rid of the bodies. If we had been bombed here in prisons and concentration camps, there would have been a few of us going into the gas ovens’.73

Third, he blamed the Jews and the allies for any crimes that did take place: ‘Modern war is the end of morality. Those responsible for beginning war, are, also, responsible for ending morality’.74 Mosley had long denounced the war as a ‘Jew’s war’, and thus he blamed the Jews for their own deaths. His final refuge was to argue that if the Holocaust did happen then Hitler knew nothing about it.75 In short Mosley’s reaction to the Holocaust was to first deny the Nazis’ extermination programme and then to place the blame for any crimes that were committed at the feet of the Allies or the Jews themselves. While Mosley’s Union Movement newspaper talked of ‘concentration camp fairy tales’76 it is clear that equally fabulous are the parts of Skidelsky’s biography that attempt to whitewash Mosley’s postwar antisemitism. The arguments Mosley used to deny Nazi war crimes have been regurgitated ever since and form the bedrock of British Holocaust denial, which became a veritable cottage industry for Britain’s fascists.

Mosley’s Holocaust denial deeply affected his postwar thought and impressed itself upon his analysis of major postwar events such as the Cold War and influenced the nature of his grand postwar theory, ‘Europe a Nation’. In language that would become common in Britain as the Cold War progressed, Mosley argued that Europe was faced with ‘the external menace of a fundamentally opposed and very powerful State, which intends the destruction of the civilisation and cultural heritage of the West in favour of that International Communism’.77 It is important to note that unlike the truly fanatical conspiracy theorists Mosley did not see America as the second arm of the conspiracy.78 In fact he argued: ‘Apart from all tradition of spiritual and cultural communion, America and Europe have to work together for survival’.79 This is some distance from the New York/Moscow Axis (two puppets operated by the same master) rhetoric and the virulent anti-Americanism displayed by Chesterton, as discussed in the next chapter. However, it would be wrong to state that Mosley’s thinking had no links with conspiratorial antisemitism. His analysis of the Cold War as laid out in The Alternative was intrinsically linked to his Holocaust revisionism. It was, he argued, the fault of the ‘Jewish Problem’ that Western Europe failed to unite in the face of its impending destruction at the hands of the Soviet Union:

What are the other causes of European division which tend to prevent union and thus inhibit peace, security and an economic solution? The other factors of bitterness, psychological rather than tangible, appear to be rooted in those dark, atavistic memories of the European mind, which, in recent times, have found a partial and unilateral formulation under the general heading of “Atrocities”.80

Later in 1958 in Europe: Faith and Plan he went further:

Can a week go by . . . when he does not read, hear or see something which is well calculated to prevent or delay European Union?. . . But does not this curiosity itself derive largely from the atrocity propaganda which accompanied and followed the last war? . . . The atrocity business lies at the very root of European divisions.81

Mosley clearly placed the blame for the failure of Europe to unite in the face of international communism at the feet of those who, he felt, fabricated atrocity stories about the Jews. However, this was not the only conspiratorial element to his analysis of the Cold War as he hinted at a more traditional conspiratorial trope regarding the links between a Jewish conspiracy and communism. Also in Europe: Faith and Plan, he wrote:

The strong resistance of many great vested interests to all necessary changes [to unite Europe and defeat communism] often creates the suspicion of some collusion between the money power and communism. And in some cases, undoubtedly, the more international elements of the financial world have taken a gamble on communism.82

In a post-Holocaust age one often has to read between the lines when analysing the statements of fascists and the far right. In this case ‘the more international elements of the financial world’should read ‘Jews’. While Mosley coded his language, others in the Union Movement were more brazen. A 1949 article in the UM publication Union titled “Antisemitism”: A Jewish Invention stated that, ‘From corruption to Communism is but a step and again we find Jews in the forefront. This is an ideology that has increasingly interfered in the internal affairs of all nations. . . . Communism is Jewish’.83 It is clear that the Union Movement continued to equate communism with a Jewish conspiracy even after the Holocaust and while often more coded and insinuated than some of his predecessors and contemporaries, Mosley’s analysis of communism and the Cold War was no doubt also influenced by conspiratorial antisemitism and his Holocaust denial.

Unsurprisingly for a party built on coterie charisma and veneration of the leader, Mosley’s line was echoed by most of those who stayed with him in the postwar period. Interestingly there is evidence of cases where convinced fascists from the BU believed and were appalled by the news of atrocities on the continent. Charlie Watts, a leading Mosley activist talked of ‘vile Nazi atrocities’84, and another notable exception is John Charnley who had been District Leader of the British Union of Fascism in Hull. His Secret Service file states that,

it is known that Charnley at first discredited accounts of the ill treatment of prisoners in the camps mentioned and in order to be convinced that the incidents had actually happened, he visited a local cinema and viewed one of the newsreels showing victims of the outrages. . . . He is now satisfied that the ill-treatment did actually occur and is not a propaganda trick and, as stated above, he seems to have been badly shaken by what he saw.8

Charnley was not alone in his shock at the pictures coming from the camps. While he decided to remain part of the movement86 many others decided to withdraw from fascist and antisemitic politics as a result. Nellie Driver who had been a prewar BUF activist stated:

British Union started again as the Union Movement but with nothing like the membership and influence it once enjoyed. Maybe, the evil memories ofBelsen, Auswitz [sic| and Buchenwald, and the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto, not to mention the war itself, made people look askance at National Socialism, whether German, Italian or British.87

While some were ultimately shaken to their senses by the revelation of the logical conclusion of their prejudice and ideology, cases such as Charnley who accepted the Holocaust but remained active members of the far right are in the extreme minority. In fact writing in Charnley’s Security Service file P.M. Burke states that he had ‘come across only one other case of a British Fascist who believed the reports of the atrocities’.88 The common line was one of disbelief that claimed the images were British propaganda to justify the war. Typical ofBU members and in line with Mosley s position was one female BU supporter who had seen the newsreel three times and stated,

We are convinced that these camps were isolated camps for typhus and TB. cases. Out of the millions of prisoners the Germans took there would be thousands who might contract typhus and TB. And where was the Red Cross? Did’nt [sic] they know of these camps? [sic] and where are the pictures of children supposed to have been done to death there, and the instruments of torture? They can only produce one wooden mallet.89

For those who found it difficult to be so brazen in their denial in the face of such convincing and overwhelming evidence the relegation of Nazi crimes below those supposedly committed by the Allies and in particular the Soviets was the primary line of defence.90

While Oswald Mosley and his Union Movement were the largest immediate postwar group of fascists, they were by some stretch not the most fanatical or extreme. Well to the right of Mosley and his supporters were a group of revolutionary fascists whose antisemitism knew no bounds. Central to this extreme fascist milieu was Arnold Leese whose Holocaust denial took the opposite trajectory to that of Alexander Ratcliffe; he started oft' accepting that Jews had been murdered but blamed the Allies and only later shifted to outright denial. In line with the apologia offered by Oswald Mosley, Leese also pointed to Allied bombing as the primary cause of the emaciated victims found in the concentration camps. The very first edition of his postwar newsletter Gothic Ripples carried an article called, ‘Yes, but Who did it?’. While accepting that many died, it shifted blame away from the Nazis:

We do not blame the Allies for making full use of their air-force to damage the enemy; but the consequences of doing so are now seen (but apparently not recognised) in the starvation stories, fully illustrated for their Jewish propaganda value, advertised in our newspapers.”

He denounced the Nuremberg trials as a ‘purely Jewish and Masonic affair . . . it is an act of revenge taken against those who were chiefly authoritative in the German attempt to free their country from the twin-plagues, Jewry & Freemasonry’.92 In early 1946 he expanded upon the regular machinations outlined in Gothic Ripples on Nuremberg and Nazi atrocities in a self-published book entitled Jewish War of Survival. The primary premise was that World War II was orchestrated by a secret Jewish conspiracy that used the British Empire to smash Hitler as he had woken up to the threat of international Jewry - or as Leese put it, had become ‘Jew-wise’. A copy of the work was sent to and accepted by Herman Goering’s council at Nuremberg.93 While Leese continually questioned the evidence produced at the Nuremberg trials, declaring it ‘Belsen Bunkum’,94 he did not deny Nazi atrocities. Rather the book excuses the crimes and lays blame on the Jews themselves. As the Allied forces were puppets of the Jewish conspiracy, Leese does not differentiate between Allied actions and Jewish actions. He points to Samuel Untermeyer’s declaration of war against Germany by the Jewish people in 1933 as proof of a conscious Jewish war against the Nazis.95 Thus the Nazis’ extermination programme was simply legitimate retaliation for Allied attacks such as the aerial bombing campaign.96 As he put it, ‘The Germans began to take counter-measures against those within their reach whom they considered responsible’.97 In short Germany simply ‘fought & overcame its Jewish menace’.98 He thus asks, ‘Can the Jews blame other than themselves for all that has happened to them in Europe?’99

Throughout the immediate postwar period Leese’s views on Nazi atrocities developed as he added denial to the potent cocktail of his conspiracy-laden antisemitism. In 1953 in an article called ‘The Six Million Lie’he stated,

The fable of the slaughter of six million Jews by Hitler has never been tackled by Gothic Ripples because we take the view that we would have liked Hitler even better if the figure had been larger; we are so “obsessed with antisemitism” that we believe that as long as the destruction was done in a humane manner, it was to the advantage of everyone ... if it had been true.100

Here Leese manages to both deny the Holocaust and also call for the ‘humane’ liquidation of the Jewish race.

After his death Leese’s journal Gothic Ripples passed under the editorship of Anthony Gittens who continued the crusade against the truth. The 1958 frontpage article ‘Cooked in the Gas Ovens’ is a good example of another popular tactic used by deniers, namely what might be called ‘the numbers game’. This seeks to discredit the validity of the Holocaust and undermine the death of six million Jews by questioning the accuracy of the figures. The article quotes the World Jewish Congress, which claimed 12,000,000 Jews felt the effects of antisemitism in 1957, which it then claims is a drop of 3,749,000 since the official figures of 1946. This is then compared against the official figures of 16,140,000 Jews worldwide in 1938, thus supposedly making the net reduction during the war years just 391,000. As such the article claimed that the accepted figure of 6,000,000 Jews being exterminated must be false. As it coarsely put it, ‘we have a feeling it wasn’t the Jews who were being cooked in the gas ovens but it was the figures’.101 By playing fast and loose with both facts and figures Leese’s journal continued to deny the Holocaust after his death.

Among Leese’s fellow postwar revolutionary fascists, the celebration and defence of Nazi atrocities and the call for the ‘humane’ destruction of the world’s Jews as a necessity was not uncommon. One of Leese’s associates, Captain Ramsay, a former British Army Officer and the only serving British MP to be detained under Defence Regulation 18B during the war, was also a fanatical antisemite convinced of the Jewish world conspiracy. In 1946 while trying to convince Jeffery Hamm to abandon his loyalty to Mosley and instead follow the revolutionary line of Leese, Ramsay is reported to have argued that,

A state of mind must be brought about in which the public would abandon sentimentality and recognise that extermination of the Jews, lethally but humanely, was the one and only solution. He did not favour either cruelty or torture: Nazi methods, which had been distinguished by their humanity, were the correct ones.102

While in a minority, outlandish and disturbing opinions such as this were common among the group of revolutionary antisemites that sat on the very extreme fringe of Britain’s radical right.

 
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