Britain’s Fascism Lesson for America: Silent Ones Are More Dangerous Than Loud Ones
Anti-Semitic blackshirts made a lot of noise in London before World War II. The real agents of Hitler in England weren’t in the streets—they were higher up.
On a searingly hot summer’s day in 1935 the Nazis staged one of their set-piece rallies near the city of Hesselberg. On the platform with members of the Nazi party leadership one figure stood out—unfamiliar but striking and resembling the ideal of Aryan womanhood from a Wagner opera. She was over 6 feet tall, blond, and wearing a black shirt.
Directly behind her was the most virulent anti-Semite in the Nazi party, Julius Streicher. The blonde was a close friend of Streicher’s and, more than that, an exhibit that he was proud to promote because she was no Rhinemaiden. Her name was Unity Mitford and the black shirt indicated her allegiance to the British Union of Fascists.
Streicher published a newspaper, Der Sturmer (The Stormer), long the platform for his views, including the medieval legend that Jews killed Christian children to use their blood to make matzoh. After the rally the paper sent a reporter to interview Mitford and she delivered:
“If only England were inspired enough to have someone of your Fuhrer’s greatness, then everyone would fall into line and even the English would have to come to recognize that this system would not mean the denial of personal freedom. For years I have belonged to the Mosley movement.”
Reporter: “The Mosley movement was originally not anti-Semitic. How did the change happen?”
“The Jews in England were not so visibly a danger as in Germany. But Mosley very soon recognized that the Jewish danger may well work its evil way from country to country, but fundamentally it poses a danger to all the peoples of the world. The Mosley movement grows steadily. There can be no looking back until we have swept the whole nation with us.”
Mosley was Sir Oswald Mosley, leader of the BUF. He was also the lover and soon-to-be husband of one of Unity’s sisters, Diana Mitford. As Unity said, Mosley had finally outed his inner anti-Semite. Two months before the Hesselberg rally he told a BUF gathering in Britain: “For the first time I openly and publicly challenge the Jewish interests of this country commanding commerce, commanding the Press, commanding the cinema, dominating the City of London, killing industry with sweat shops.”
Mosley was one of the most mesmerizing orators in British politics. Many of his contemporaries thought that had he not embraced fascism he could well have ended up leading one of the main parties and becoming prime minister. At one point he was a Cabinet member in a Labour Party government, and a progressive socialist thinker. But there was something dark in him that led people not to trust him—together with a reputation as a serial womanizer with the predatory eye of a lounge lizard.
Fascism gave Mosley a sudden notoriety that brought out the narcissist in him. He went everywhere with a phalanx of black-shirted thugs wearing a party decal colored like Nazi armbands but in place of a swastika there was a lightning bolt as though summoning the wrath of gods. He relished the adoration of the crowds attracted to his rallies and began to think he could,—as Unity Mitford had hoped—like Hitler, sweep up the whole nation in his cause.
But he never achieved anything remotely approaching that level of national support. His own class (his aristocratic roots reached back centuries), including the many who thought that Britain and Germany were not natural enemies and that it would be in the nation’s best interest to avoid war, thought that Mosley’s ersatz militarism was vulgar and self-defeating.
Surprisingly 70 to 80 percent of Mosley’s popular support in the capital came from the most densely working-class districts of East London, particularly in the boroughs that included the docks. This was also where the Communist and Labour Parties were traditionally strong. One communist was shocked when he went to observe a Mosley march: “The fascist band moved off, and behind them about 50 thugs in blackshirt uniform. Then came the people. About 1,500 men, women (some with babies in their arms) and youngsters marched behind Mosley’s banner.”
East London also had high concentrations of Jewish families, many of them ultra-orthodox. They were largely the second generation of the original Jewish immigrants who had fled Russian and east European pogroms in the early 20th century who had since moved on from poorer boroughs.
Mosley carefully cultivated among his followers a view of Jews that suggested a kind of ominously calibrated tolerance. It was summed up by one of his East London gauleiters: “We believe that the Jew has his place in the country if he is prepared to be honest and patriotic… and work for the benefit of the country and not for the benefit of the big Jew. It’s the big Jew that causes all the trouble. As Oswald Mosley said, we’ve got nothing against the small Jew. Nothing against the Jew who wants to be a patriot and wants to respect loyalty over religion.”
Above all, Mosley understood the need to provide a simple and recognizable human adversary to explain to gullible people why their lives were not progressing (much of Britain was in the worst grip of the Great Depression). In the “big Jew” he proposed the condensed version of the power system, “the Jewish interests,” that he had detailed in his first open attack on Jews. The Nazis had long before similarly defined The Other.
People who lacked a sureness of their own identity and place were suckers for Mosley’s offer of a new collective identity. One supporter recalled, years later: “It meant everything to me. A sort of goal we wanted to reach. It just became our existence really. Those were the happiest days of my life. We had a spirit of comradeship that we very seldom get.”
It was not to last. It all came to a head on Sunday, Oct. 4, 1936, in what became known as the Cable Street Riot. The day began with the same kind of choreography and many of the same elements that exploded in Charlottesville last weekend. Mosley announced that he would hold a rally that would march from the Tower of London to Cable Street, a major artery that cut through a swathe of working class East London, lined with shops and tenement houses.
Anti-fascist resistance to the rally was mobilized by local offices of the Communist Party. The Labour Party advised its members to stay away. They thought that their presence would guarantee that more fascists would turn up. The anti-fascists prepared barricades to prevent the blackshirts from entering Cable Street.
As the huge number of resisters became obvious—one count had as many as 20,000 anti-fascists in the streets—the police took a step that was not taken at Charlottesville: Police persuaded Mosley and his 3,000 or so supporters that they were dangerously outnumbered and they should go home.
Six thousand cops then went forward to clear the barricades and mayhem followed. Pitched battles between anti-fascists and police raged all along Cable Street. Instead of a bloody encounter between the extreme right and the extreme left it became a bloody encounter between authority and anti-fascists—leaving the police themselves uncomfortably looking like fascists.
In the end, though, it was Mosley who lost. Effective at the beginning of 1937 a law prohibited the wearing of military and quasi military uniforms at public rallies. The blackshirts were henceforth seen only at Mosley’s indoor events. Exactly a year after the Cable Street Riot Mosley married Unity Mitford’s sister Diana in a ceremony at the Berlin home of Hitler’s master of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels. Hitler was the guest of honor.
Unity Mitford became a Hitler groupie, seeing him on at least 140 occasions. Watching this infatuation, one of her sisters, Nancy Mitford, said Unity was basically, “Bone headed and stone hearted.” She was certainly an exhibitionist with a serious deficiency of empathy. In September 1939, after Britain declared war with Germany, she attempted suicide, shooting herself. Hitler visited her in the hospital in Munich, paid her medical bills, and then arranged for her to be sent home, via Switzerland. She was an invalid for the rest of her life, and died in 1948.
Mosley’s British fascists were never of much use to Hitler. They were the noise of British fascism and, because of that, far too overt to be of use in the prolonged and sophisticated Nazi effort to undermine the British will to resist Germany.
Hitler knew he had many more useful friends in high places who did not want war. There was a web of appeasers and crypto-fascists throughout the aristocracy and among upper class politicians. The Duke of Windsor, an open supporter of Hitler, was sufficiently delusional and vain to believe that he would be acceptable to both the British and Hitler as the monarch of a “neutral” Britain while Hitler gobbled up the rest of civilization.
In May 1940 when, very much against the odds, Winston Churchill became prime minister and the British forces were being saved in the extraordinary evacuation from the beaches of Dunkirk, Oswald Mosley and his wife were arrested and interned for the duration of the war in a small house in the grounds of a London women’s prison. It was a warning to all British fascists, proto, crypto, and all other shades, that their vile beliefs were no longer tolerable.
And there lies the lesson of Mosley and the British Union of Fascists. Appallingly, Der Sturmer has resurfaced here in the form of The Daily Stormer. Those you see and hear in the streets and at night with their torches and obscene chants are indeed vile—but they are not the really dangerous ones. The dangerous ones are the quiet ones. They signal consent by remaining silent, apparently at no cost to their consciences.
Some such are those who shelter behind that most pernicious of weasel words, “pragmatism.” They include a Republican leadership unable to admit that what has changed is not the nature of bigotry and hatred in this country but that the president of the United States has revealed himself as a willing accomplice.
Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan shamefully cling to the pragmatism of enduring this increasingly offensive presidency solely because Trump is—supposedly—still the enabler of their programs. They make the obligatory noises about white supremacists and racial hatred but carefully avoid calling out Trump himself. This is one of those moments in history when people get only one chance to display their moral anchorage. Both men have failed that test. That stain will be with them for the rest of their careers.
Meanwhile, Trump, incontinent with his own peculiar stream of bile, showed his true beliefs in every spasm of his body language and in his bulging veins and eyes. His form of bigotry appeared earlier as birtherism and is now, full-throated, devoted to voter suppression and racially based immigration restrictions and enforcement.
And behind Trump and the morally bankrupt Republican leadership are the industrial interests like the Koch brothers who want all environmental restraints on fossil fuels destroyed—just as in Nazi Germany the Krupp, Volkswagen, and I.G. Farben (later Bayer) industries saw the vast profits to be made in Hitler’s war and rode with the devil all the way.