Halting British Fascism

Against the Current, No. 78, January/February 1999

Gerd-Rainer Horn

In Excited Times: The People Against the Blackshirts by Nigel Todd (Whitley Bay: Bewick Press, 1995), 130 pages.

The Struggle For Hearts and Minds: Essays on the Second World War by Raymond Challinor (Whitley Bay: Bewick Press, 1995), 118 pages.

FEW DECADES IN European history were so openly political and polarized as the 1930s. It was a decade when extremes became the norm. Formerly mainstream liberal and/or conservative politics became increasingly marginalized as the decade progressed and, conversely, the radical left and right emerged as major players on the scene. Contrary to the last major previous wave of radicalization, 1917-1923, however, the forces of the radical right were clearly in ascendancy and won victory after victory over the increasingly defenseless forces of the left.

The January 1933 Nazi takeover of power in Germany merely reconfirmed this trend. If countries falling to some sort of right-wing dictatorship, fascist or otherwise, were to be shaded in black on a political map of Europe, continental Europe would have turned increasingly dark as the decade wore on.

It took awhile for the left to respond. Adolf Hitler’s legal coup turned out to be an important catalyst in the continental reconfiguration of left-wing strategies for social change. In the previous half dozen years, the two key bastions of working-class political strength, social democracy and communism, had probably expended as much energy on mutual attacks as on fighting the common enemy. By the spring and summer of 1934, under the impact of the German defeat, the tide suddenly began to change in the direction of an unprecedented working-class unity primarily motivated by the survival instincts of a badly battered left.

In the summer months of 1934, a rash of working-class united fronts were signed, sealed and implemented by the Italian and Austrian underground left and, more importantly, by openly operating left-wing forces in France, Spain, Belgium and the German Saargebiet. Depending on location and circumstance, these unity agreements were entered into by a combination of social democrats, communists, anarchists, dissident communists and independent left socialists. May/June 1934 to May/June 1935 was the year of militant, working-class, pro-socialist, united fronts.

Yet several crushing defeats soon began to tarnish the image of united fronts as harbingers of an antifascist, socialist future. Within less than one year of their genesis, the pressure was on once again to rethink socialist strategy.

With few notable exceptions, most forces of the working-class left soon became convinced of the necessity to broaden their antifascist alliance now to include also representatives of the liberal, bourgeois left. This broadening of the formerly exclusively working-class alliances, however, necessitated a blunting of their radical edge. Still, these newly-created popular fronts caught the imagination of the populace, and by early 1936 Spanish and French voters elected popular front governments.

Yet popular fronts proved to be no more capable than united fronts in stemming the tide of authoritarian regimes. Within a year of victory at the polls, the bubble had burst. The remaining time until World War II witnessed the progressive marginalization of the left, and the Nazi victories in the early years of World War II were merely the continuation of the earlier political offensives of the radical right by overtly military means.

This gloomy scenario applied to most continental European countries. The main exceptions to this rule were Scandinavia, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Czechoslovakia and Switzerland. Everywhere else political polarization prevailed and, more often than not, the radical right emerged victorious long before the outbreak of the Second World War. Yet how exceptional were these countries from Switzerland to Scandinavia that managed to escape the politics of radicalization during the 1930s? Did citizens of these states march to a different drummer?

Fascism and Antifascism

Nigel Todd’s In Excited Times is a useful reminder that there existed many parallels, indeed, between continental polarization and the political scene in at least one key industrial zone of northeastern England, the Tyne and the Wear. While one should be cautious about generalizing from the experience of the area around Newcastle upon Tyne, and whereas it is not always clear from Todd’s narrative what precise societal importance the various battles between fascists and antifascists had on Tyneside and Wearside, Todd’s study clearly suggests that there were more than mere echoes of continental politics reverberating in the streets of South Shields and Jarrow.

In his well-written study, Nigel Todd points out not only the existence of the British Union of Fascists (BUF) on Tyne and Wear, but more importantly he likewise draws attention to fascist sympathizers amongst the local business and political elite.

The Rotary Club in particular proved to be a respectable conduit for the exchange of ideologies across national frontiers. German Rotarians, heavily suffused with Hitlerite ideas, repeatedly visited northeastern England and, in September 1933 in Durham, their spokesperson “joined the [British] Blackshirts in returning Fascist salutes in the city’s streets.” (24) In return, at least one leading Newcastle manufacturer represented Tyne & Wear Rotarians on visits to Germany, signing lucrative business deals and praising the New Germany in press interviews shortly after his return.

Local consular offices of fascist states similarly served as vital communication links. While Todd is careful to point out that general pro-fascist sympathies amongst members of the regional elite rarely translated into concrete organizational gains for the BUF, the picture that emerges suggests more than latent sympathies for some form of authoritarian dictatorship by several key members of the Tyne & Wear elite.

Lord Londonderry

A case in point is provided by Lord Londonderry, “heir to much of the Durham coalfield” (29) and one-time Secretary of State for Air in the Mac Donald government in the early 1930s. At least several steps above Tyneside Rotarians in rank and station, Lord Londonderry was not content to hobnob with the lesser lights of the Nazi hierarchy.

In early 1936, he spent three weeks in Berlin, where he personally met Hitler, Gring and the future ambassador to London, Ribbentrop. Several months later Ribbentrop in turn visited the Londonderrys on their Irish estate. The Nazi diplomat once again returned “for three days in the autumn when they all had fun slaughtering 211 pheasants, a hare, eight rabbits, three woodcock and 28 ducks.” (31)

Lord Londonderry pursued similar aims as a member of the elite Anglo-German Fellowship, comprising many Tory MPs and representatives of such major British firms as Unilevers, Thomas Cook & Son and Vickers Armstrong. According to Todd, the Anglo-German Fellowship paralleled the work of local Rotarians but on a national scale, inviting prominent Nazis to address meetings in London.

In January 1938 the fellowship went as far as placing an ad in a Berlin daily, congratulating the Nazi elite on the fifth anniversary of the demise of German democracy. British Prime Minister Chamberlain, in Nigel Todd’s words, “rewarded Londonderry by making him Chief Commissioner of the Civil Air Guard, and inviting Lady Londonderry to advise on female recruitment to the Territorial Army.” (33)

Lord Londonderry, an unusually prominent sympathizer of the Nazi revolution, may stand for the relatively widespread phenomenon of elite individuals who provided the crucial link between traditional conservatives and advocates of “brown revolution.” Todd suggests no ties between Londonderry and the BUF and, indeed, most of Londonderry’s shady dealings happened long after the zenith of the BUF in early 1934.

Even at their high point the BUF counted no more than five hundred members on Tyne and the Wear, a respectable though hardly overwhelming number. Still, it could easily have constituted a strong nucleus for a more serious threat. Yet what broke the Tyneside BUF’s back were massive antifascist demonstrations on 13 and 14 May 1934.

The Turning Point

In an important but all-too-brief paragraph on the social history of the Tyne & Wear, Todd underscores the unusually high degree of tolerance for immigrants from foreign shores by native Tynesiders over several decades. Todd highlights that “the culture of the Tyne and the Wear . . . grated against the bigotry of Fascism” (12) and thus proved difficult terrain for the BUF. Perhaps as a consequence of this “relatively cosmopolitan outlook,” (12) an early instance of a functioning united front emerged briefly in Sunderland in the fall of 1933.

Todd is silent on the later fate of this Sunderland united front, composed of members of the left socialist Independent Labor Party, the Communist Party, the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement and local Labor Party representatives, but on 13 and 14 May 1934 the most successful regional antifascist rally of that decade occurred in neighboring Newcastle and Gateshead.

The BUF had planned several smaller meetings to culminate in an open-air appearance by Oswald Mosley. The 13 May Newcastle meeting was broken up by a large crowd of antifascist demonstrators.

One day later a crowd of more than 10,000 militant antifascists greeted the assembled members of the BUF in Gateshead, fighting broke out, and it was solely due to police protection that BUF members were able to escape back to their headquarters.

The BUF’s John Beckett described the counterdemonstrators as “the largest crowd that has ever assembled for a rally of this kind on Tyneside,” (58) and Todd suggests that from now on “anti-fascists had gained the upper hand” (69) on Tyne and Wear. The Tyneside BUF never recovered from this stunning defeat. Significantly, the rout of the Tyneside BUF was organized by the Anti-Fascist League, a viable united front including Labor Party members side-by-side with anarchosyndicalists and others.

Lessons of the BUF’s Defeat

The lesson of Tyneside antifascism, Todd implies, is the necessity of a viable and militant working-class united front. Wherever such a force existed, fascism was nipped in the bud. To support this argument, Todd briefly alludes to the October 1936 London Battle of Cable Street where between 50,000 antifascists and 7,000 Blackshirts fought. This battle, according to Todd, ended in the definitive rout of British fascism. But was politics in the 1930s really that easy?

Clearly, the forging of an effective antifascist force was necessary to put fascism in its place. But was it sufficient? Todd does not openly say so, but the implication is clearly that antifascists were successful wherever they acted like the fearless Tynesiders who stopped the BUF dead in their tracks in mid-May 1934.

Yet a casual glance across the Channel would have told Todd that continental socialists had not only forged solid working-class united fronts far exceeding the impact of any similar English formations but that they had also forged far more effective fighting forces, in some cases actual paramilitary detachments trained and led by former army officers, devoted to the socialist ideal. Yet those battalions lost out in the end, leading to that trail of victories for the radical right I described earlier.

To reduce the politics of fascism and antifascism to the strategy and tactics of street fighting is therefore ill-advised and historically inaccurate. This is, of course, in no way meant to diminish the courage and determination of those Tynesiders who in May 1934 did indeed turn the tide of battle in favor of democracy.

But that such battles could prove to be decisive was, in the end, solely due to the fact that fascism in Britain was, despite the Lord Londonderry, a marginal force. For reasons beyond the purview of this review, the British elite, apart from individual exceptions, never saw the need to consider seriously the antiparliamentary path.

Leaving aside Todd’s somewhat myopic elevation of the street fighting capability of antifascist forces as the magic wand to stave off fascism, his history of Tyneside working-class activism in the 1930s is a useful, though far too anecdotal, contribution to the emerging patchwork of local studies on the politics of the 1930s of which there are far too few—and not only in Britain.

Challinor’s Struggle

The same qualified recommendation cannot be conferred onto the second book reviewed, Raymond Challinor’s collected essays on the politics of World War II in Britain. Any piece of writing on the Second World War by someone hailing from the lively left socialist and dissident communist spectrum of British political opinion promises to be fruitful and enlightening.

And, indeed, Challinor’s Struggle for Hearts and Minds focuses precisely on those aspects of the Great Patriotic Antifascist War that tend to elude the attention of most historians and/or essayists writing on this subject. Thus, for instance, Challinor highlights the British government’s shameful mistreatment of Spanish Republican refugees in and after World War II.

Challinor also draws attention to the fact that the Polish state, when it was attacked by Hitler’s army, was likewise a “brutal dictatorship . . . oppressing national minorities and crushing working-class organizations,” (47) a necessary and truthful statement of particular relevance to a British readership, as this surprise attack caused Britain to declare war on Germany. Like Nigel Todd, Challinor also points his finger at the British business elite’s open support for Anglo-German cooperation at least up to the outbreak of World War II.

Yet for all his insights, Challinor’s volume, on the whole, stays far too general and abstract to be considered a serious contribution to the history of World War II. With few exceptions, Challinor draws on other authors for the specifics of his work.

More importantly, Challinor does not manage to place this information in a satisfactory and novel overall context. Whereas Todd draws on his own research, Challinor is rarely original. In any case, the presentation of his material in eleven separate articles, written at different times, would not have made this task very easy.

Golden Nuggets

There are, however, two exceptional chapters that deserve special recognition. In “Britain and the Blitz,” Raymond Challinor manages eloquently to present the uneven impact of Nazi air attacks on different social classes in the affected cities of Britain. On those rare occasions when bombs fell on “the leafy suburbs,” (61) the surviving victims were given first-class treatment by the authorities.

Working-class victims, by contrast, were frequently left to their own devices for significant periods of time. Challinor is particularly good at pointing out the degree of self-organization by working-class refugees in London Underground shelters. At one point they formed a coordinating council of shelter delegates in the poorer sections of the city on the Thames.

The second remarkable chapter consists of a brief account of the life and death of the British seaman, George Johnson Armstrong, a member of the Communist Party from Newcastle upon Tyne, the first British citizen to be hanged after being convicted of spying for the Nazis.

In a meticulous reconstruction of Armstrong’s final months before his arrest, Challinor not only casts grave doubts over the government’s official case, but suggests that the real reason for this execution may very well have been the government’s brutal attempt to nip in the bud the British merchant marine’s growing resentment of management’s mistreatment of them, unnecessarily exposing them to danger. When Challinor writes on the basis of his own experience, supplemented by original research, the texts are convincing and carry clout.

Apart from these “golden nuggets,” however, Challinor’s book is largely uninspiring and falls far short of constituting a serious reconsideration of the hidden history of World War II. This is most regrettable, as the literature on the Second World War is in general vastly inferior to the literature on the 1930s, though the latter too is fraught with countless misconceptions and political blunders. World War II was the bloody culmination of what Arno Mayer, in his Why Did the Heavens Not Darken?, termed the Second Thirty Years’ War. More than fifty years after its conclusion, the final and most destructive phase of this Second Thirty Years’ War remains as shrouded in mystery as ever before.

ATC 78, January-February 1999