In both popular consciousness and memory by far the most dramatic and defining feature of Britain’s Fascist movement of the 1930s was the series of deliberately provocative marches which the BUF attempted to mount through the heart of Britain’s largest Jewish community in London’s East End. The image of Mosley in his black shirt, accompanied by ranks of paramilitary storm troops with marching bands, and a virulent anti Semitic invective which, for historians and political analysts’ of the immediate post war period, placed him in direct affinity with the fascist dictators of Europe, a potential Quisling, and directly associated to the horrors of Hitler’s Holocaust.
Since the late 1970s many historians have followed a narrative which was set by Skidelsky and also by Mosley himself; which argued that Mosley’s original conception of Fascism was not racist at all but modelled on the example set by Mussolini’s Italy and was thus free of Anti Semitism, and that Mosley had Anti Semitism enforced upon him in response to, according to Mosley and Skidelsky, the organised hostility of the Jews themselves towards Mosley and the BUF. Fascist anti Semitism was therefore made inevitable as a defensive measure. Historians with far less sympathy with Mosley than Skidelsky, have also continued to respect the Mosley/ Skidelsky narrative; Lebzelter agrees with Mosley’s old comrade John Strachey that “his (Mosley’s) Jew Hatred was 100% insincere”(1) and that Mosley became a prisoner of the logic of the ideology that he adopted(2). Mandle argued that Anti Semitism became essential for Mosley, as an explanation of, and excuse for, his own ineptitude: By no means could Mosley made mistakes, there was always someone else to blame; in 1930 the timorous and ignorance of the Labour leadership, in 1932 the ‘old gang’ at the heart of the British political system. By 1934, with Fascism’s forward march faltering after Olympia and Rothermere’s enthusiasm rapidly cooling he could not admit that he had “misjudged the possibilities of fascism in England and had bungled his campaign. Rather than blame himself, he acted in his customary fashion by conflating a minor opponent into a major cause of failure.”(3). Even Dorril, who provides much evidence for the presence of anti Semitism in the New Party and early BUF, suggests that Mosley increased his anti Semitism to pander for Nazi support(4)
Whether it was a result of the weight of Jewish antipathy towards the BUF, or the need to reinvigorate a faltering movement, or as a sop to attract funding from Nazi Germany all these explanations share a common failing, in that they relieve Mosley from being the instigator of his actions and instead make him passively reacting to circumstances beyond his control.
This essay will attempt to challenge the use of this narrative, which in accepting a chronology dictated by Mosley, has the effect, even when used by historians hostile to Mosley and ascribing motivations which he would not accept, of relieving Mosley of full responsibility for his actions.
Mosley’s adoption of fascism in 1931 made him a late comer to the ideology: By 1931 Fascism was a mature creature, it’s character was well defined both ideologically; in the writings of Sorel and Malaparte, and Hitler and Spengler, and practically; in the Corporate State of Mussolini, which had been in power for a decade, and in Germany, where Hitler’s National Socialists were the largest party in the Reichstag and controlled large swathes of local and regional government, and where Hitler was preparing to challenge Hindenburg for Reichspräsident. Fascist movements were growing in influence throughout Europe, and Anti Semitism was a common platform for all of them. Even Italian fascism, so often cited as an exception (most commonly with a note about the membership of the Fascisti of the chief Rabbi of Rome) was a deeply racist ideology, with, as Giorgio Fabre has shown, a distinctly Anti Semitic wing(5) (among which was Mussolini) .
Historians have tended to accept Mosley’s assertion that he gained most inspiration from the practical application of the Italian experiment, however during the months leading up to the formation of the British Union of Fascists Mosley and his confidents spent as much among the Hitlerites as they did as guests of Il Duce.
Mosley late adoption of fascism meant of course that he was not even the first to adopt Fascism in Britain; the earlier incarnations of British Fascism, the British Fascists and especially the Imperial Fascist League, were intensely anti Semitic.
Given the international character of fascism and how Fascism had been presented domestically, in Britain in 1932, for someone to declare themselves a Fascist was to unavoidably be associated with a political anti Semitism,
Mosley did nothing to prevent or discourage Anti Semitism within the NUPA, nor the BUF, on the 27th April 1932 he chaired a meeting at its HQ where Arnold Leese was invited to speak on ‘The blindness of British Politics under the Jewish Money power’. Nor did he impede the recruitment of open anti Semites into the NUPA nor the new union; From its formation ,the New Party had attracted significant recruits from both the BF and the IFL who provided the fledgling Fascists with a continuity of a fascism which placed the Jewish Question at the heart of its politics. When Mosley formed the BUF he approached the other fascist group inviting them to absorb themselves into the Union without qualification, Mosley is happy to accept into his, allegedly non anti Semitic, Union of Fascists the pathological Jew haters of the Imperial Fascist League.
Mosley’s BUF was therefore imbued with Anti Semitism as a fundamental part of its ideology from its foundation. The decision not to openly declare the BUF so, was a political one, derived from the necessity of courting, and maintaining the support of those, like Rothermere, who were willing to support Fascist methods, but would baulk at a nakedly anti Semitic BUF.
In this period the reports and articles in Action point designed to create a case for the adoption of an openly anti Jewish position- in publishing the Jewish names of those arrested protesting against fascist meetings, whilst repeatedly asserting that the BUF has no interest in attacking the Jews, they sought to present the Fascists as victims rather than perpetrators of violence, and thus to justify an aggressive anti Semitic polity once Mosley considered the time right.
This also explained Mosley’s “Rational Anti Semitism”, and his rejection of the strident Jew hatred of Arnold Leese, Mosley adopted the historic empiricism of the British Politician to anti Semitism: He was no blind accepter of foreign ideology, it was his own experience that informed his attitude toward Jews; no matter that Mosley’s version of anti Semitism included every facet of the modern anti Jewish conspiracy theory, Jewish financiers controlling governments and media in concert with Jewish communists, he did so whilst still claiming that he did not oppose Jews as Jews but instead for their actions and was therefore not an anti Semite.
From our vantage point as historians we look back at Mosley’s relationship with anti Semitism through the prism of the Nazis and the Holocaust and it is inevitable that we see it as being a movement which is derived from the political/ Volkische Right. However anti Semitism was a hatred that was not peculiar to the political right and neither was it a German import. It was in fact a common feature within English socialism(6) and especially amongst the Fabian and ILP intellectuals with whom Mosley had mixed with whilst a member of the Independent Labour Party.
Many, especially middle and upper class, individuals were attracted to socialism as a remedy to the damage that they saw modern industrial capitalism was doing to Society and Nation. They considered socialism to be a moral renewing crusade, in which under the enlightened leadership of the socialist intelligencia both the worker and the boss would benefit through working together for the good of society and nation.
Rejecting the rhetoric of class war at the heart of Marxism as being divisive and destructive, they sought to find an opposition to capitalism which would mean the reinvigoration of the nation without the risk of the class war and revolution. And by finding a common cause with the good, patriotic and socially concerned capitalist boss the crimes of capitalism become not the impersonal and uncontrollable results of an anarchic economic system but instead a conspiracy of evil men, bad bosses, with an international rather than a national loyalty. Jews, as the personification of, non productive, financial capitalism, were considered the natural enemy of socialism. The young Fabian, Beatrice Potter, wrote;"The love of profit distinct from other forms of money earning" is "the strongest impelling motive of the Jewish race" and that working class Jews, "Have neither the desire nor the capacity for labour combination".(7)
The SDF leaderships opposition to the Boer war was based upon it’s belief that that conflict was instigated by “Jew financial cliques and their hangers- on"(8) and supported by a “Jew-jingo press”(9)
One of the foremost theoreticians of Imperialism in the British socialist movement was John Hobson, whose major work was to form the basis for Lenin’s Imperialism: the highest stage of Capitalism who also blamed Jewish finance capital for the Boer war “leaving their economic fangs in the carcasses of their prey. They fastened on the Rand … as they are prepared to fasten upon any other spot on the globe”(10)
Within the left was a conviction of the immense power of Jewish money power Justice, the paper of the SDF claimed that "Jew moneylenders now control every Foreign Office in Europe"(11) that the press and the government were pawns of Jewish power: "Our leading statesmen do not care to offend the great banking houses or money kings"(12)
Long before the distribution of the Tsarist forgery of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion the British Left had in place all the essential features of modern anti- Semitic conspiracy theory.
Alongside such anti capitalist anti Semitism was the embracing by the left of the necessity of eugenics, Of the need to regenerate the human stock which Industrial capitalism had enfeebled. The arrival of many hundreds of thousands of east European Jewish refugees in the last years of the 19th century were an immediate threat to the maintenance of a sturdy race. Blatchford’s Clarion could declare that Jewish immigrants were: "a poison injected into the national veins", they were the "unsavoury children of the ghetto", their numbers were "appalling" and their attitudes "unclean"(13) while Bruce Glasier of the I.L.P. argued in Labour Leader that: "Neither the principle of the brotherhood of man nor the principle of social equality implies that brother nations or brother men may crowd upon us in such numbers as to abuse our hospitality, overturn our institutions or violate our customs.(14)
At the heart of anti Capitalist anti Semitism was the link between Jews and usury. In the medieval world Jews were both persecuted and valued; The early Catholic church had deemed usury, the charging of interest for lending money, a sin and banned Christians from doing it, Jews, free from such injunctions, became highly prized by the nobility, who were increasingly in need of converting their landed wealth into cash. The Jews were prevented by statute from most professions in order to ensure that they maintained their role as financiers. So valuable were the Jews that they were declared the personal property of the King, who heavily taxed the incomes that they gained through loan interest from the nobility:
“The system was one of Grandiose simplicity. The Jews despoiled the lords and the king fleeced the Jews. But in order to fleece them it was necessary to keep them there. That is why the king protected the Jews and encouraged their ventures with all the means in the royal power.
But while the King, in his capacity as representative of the state, was interested in protecting the Jews, we must not forget that he was, at the same time, a great lord and consequently one of their great debtors”(15)
Jews lived in constant threat that the servicing of the loans forced from them would become too onerous and their royal patrons decided to do away with them, pocket their wealth, and destroy their ledgers, which happened in England in 1290.
The rising cost for the nobility of the later Middle ages of maintaining a courtly presence resulted in ever greater need for cash which led to the increasing practise of nobles of pawning their tax revenues; thus was the image of the avaricious and greedy Jew added to the demonology of the ordinary peasant and burgher of the medieval world, who previously had only known the Jew as the ‘Killers of Christ’. The greater distance from the land of the aristocracy, increasingly absent from their domains attending court in the Capital, transferred popular discontent off the shoulders of the nobility and onto those representatives of power whom the peasant might actually come into contact and conflict with, the Tax collector, the Jew.
It is an impossible task to truly assess what spurred Mosley to adopt anti Semitism without attempting the type of cod psychology that a historian should try to avoid, however, it isn‘t pushing the psychobabble too far to see that someone with as clear and firm a sense of his destiny to lead as Mosley could only have been thwarted by a most dastardly and powerful conspiracy; what is clear is that Mosley did so far earlier than the present, generally accepted, chronology has accepted was the case. It is also appears clear that Mosley was sincere in his adoption of anti Semitism, and remained an anti Semite until his death(16). Mosley adopted anti Semitism when he took on Fascism, and then found that the Jew hatred that the BUF espoused gained them a constituency in the East End. It was not an attempt to shore up or enlarge the following of a movement that had run out of steam, but an essential core of the ideology which he had chosen to follow.
Fascism found in the Jew an enemy that was both easily to defeat in the detail and also never truly defeatable, the conspiracy theory was infinitely adaptable, and did not even need the presence of actual Jews to maintain it.
1.Strachey, J. Cited by Lebzelter, G. Political Anti Semitism in England 1918-1939 Oxford 1978 p.104
2. Ibid. p.104
3. Mandle, W.F. Anti Semitism and the British union of Fascists Michigan 1968 p. 34
4 Dorril, S. Blackshirt: Sir Oswald Mosley and British Fascism London 2007 p. 341
5. Fabre, G. Mussolini and the Jews on the Eve of the March on Rome in Zimmerman, J. D. (Ed.) Jews in Italy Under Fascist and Nazi Rule 1922-45 Cambridge 2005 pp.55-70
6. Cohen, S. That’s funny you don’t look anti Semitic: an anti racist analysis of left anti Semitism. London 1984 online version at http://www.engageonline.org.uk/ressources/funny/contents.html last accessed on 15/03/10
7. Potter, B. cited in Cohen. 1984.
8. Crick, M. the history of the social democratic federation Edinburgh 1994 p.159
9. Crick 1994 p.159
10. Hirschfield, C. The Anglo-Boer War and the Issue of Jewish Culpability in Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 15, No. 4 (Oct., 1980), pp. 619-631
11. Cohen 1984
12. Ben Tillett quoted in Cohen 1984.
13. Cohen 1984
14. Cohen 1984
15. Leon, Abram, The Jewish Question: A Marxist Interpretation New York 1986 p. 157.
16. Dorril p.642
Cohen, S. That’s funny you don’t look anti Semitic: an anti racist analysis of left anti Semitism. London 1984 online version at http://www.engageonline.org.uk/ressources/funny/contents.html last accessed on 15/03/10
Crick, M. the history of the social democratic federation Edinburgh 1994
Dorril, S. Blackshirt: Sir Oswald Mosley and British Fascism London 2007
Holmes, C. Anti- Semitism in British society 1876-1939 London 1979
Hirschfield, C. The Anglo-Boer War and the Issue of Jewish Culpability in Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 15, No. 4 (Oct., 1980), pp. 619-631
Lebzelter, G. Political Anti Semitism in England 1918-1939 Oxford 1978
Leon, Abram, The Jewish Question: A Marxist Interpretation New York
Linehan, Thomas, P. British Fascism 1918-39: Parties ideology and culture Manchester 2000
Mandle, W.F. Anti Semitism and the British union of Fascists Michigan 1968
Zimmerman, J. D. (Ed.) Jews in Italy Under Fascist and Nazi Rule 1922-45 Cambridge 2005