Anti-fascist militants have played an important role in protecting community and democracy. Daniel Sonabend's We Fight Fascists brings light to that battle against fascism in post-war Britain.
We Fight Fascists The 43 Group and Their Forgotten Battle for Post-war Britain
On 15 November 1947, England's leading Nazi, the wealthy aristocrat Oswald Mosley, stood in the wings of Farringdon Street Memorial Hall in London, preparing his long-awaited political comeback. Over a thousand carefully screened British Nazis, fascists ,and fellow travellers prepared to greet him.
But so did hundreds of well-coordinated anti-fascist 'commandos'.
The event was intended to be a staged demonstration of fascism's enduring popularity in England, despite the recent defeat of Nazi Germany by Allied forces. Mosley had led a fascist movement in England before the war. With the support of wealthy aristocrats and corporate leaders, along with hordes of angry, out-of-work Britons, the movement appeared to build momentum in the years preceding the war. At its height in the 1930s, Mosley's British Union of Fascists (which changed its name a few times) had around 50,000 members and succeeded in electing some municipal councillors. Mosley, along with some of his followers, were former British MPs.
But Hitler's invasion of western Europe and declaration of war with the United Kingdom, coupled with the refusal of Prime Minister Winston Churchill's government to concede to British elites who called for surrender, changed everything. Mosley and his fascist movement were a clear threat to a country now officially at war with fascist foes. Their rights were suspended under wartime public safety measures and Mosley among others were imprisoned for much of the war.
Toward the war's end the suspensions were lifted. Mosley and his fascist colleagues were released, and immediately set to work rebuilding fascism in England. They weren't alone: several independently anti-Semitic and pro-fascist organizations -- from elite intellectual groups at universities like Oxford to street gangs in the working-class districts of large cities -- sprang up as soon as restrictions on organized fascism were lifted. Sometimes vying with each other for supremacy, sometimes simply out to wreak their bigoted anger on Jews and others less powerful than themselves, their presence came as a shock to many Britons – and especially Jews – who thought the defeat of the Axis powers would deal a death blow to fascism.
In the face of resurgent anti-Semitic fascism, its foes were unsure how to respond. The British government itself resisted calls to outlaw fascist organizing, arguing in response that existing laws were sufficient to deal with fascist violence and that restoration of post-war civic liberties like freedom of speech and assembly was more important. Key Jewish organizations dithered, worried that deploying too aggressive a stance in response to the fascists might backfire and stir up more anti-Semitism, especially given the controversial militancy of Jewish paramilitaries that were becoming increasingly violent in their efforts to establish the future state of Israel in the Middle East.
But while elites and organizations dithered, returning Jewish soldiers who had fought in the war effort were less willing to let fascism grow unchecked. To them, the hesitation of Jewish organizations to confront fascism in a militant way was a repeat of the pre-war failure to act which had allowed the Nazis and other fascist groups to seize power.
The most successful militant anti-fascist group to organize in the wake of this new threat was the 43 Group. It was led by several highly decorated British Jewish soldiers, but also encompassed younger Jews who had not fought in the war as well as some non-Jewish friends and allies. Women played a key role as well, both in intelligence and administrative work but also in street-fighting itself. A 43 Group leader recalled of one marketplace brawl a "good old anti-fascist woman on top of the platform with a large bar in her hands smacking down anyone who came at her."
The former servicemen organized this nascent militia like an army, with regional divisions and local units. They not only took on fascists in the streets – heckling and sometimes physically attacking fascist meetings – but had a well-organized intelligence network, spying on the houses and activities of well-known fascists so as to know when and where fascist organizing was taking place. They infiltrated fascist organizations in order to gather information. It was these undercover operatives who played a key role in the 43 Group's response to Mosley's vaunted return to politics on 15 November 1947.
The location of the fascist event was a tightly kept secret, as Mosley was determined his appearance go off without a hitch and serve as a demonstration of public appetite for fascism. Technically, the event was a book launch. The recent publication of Mosley's manifesto had not been easy; the union-controlled publishers, printers, and binders had refused to have anything to do with it. In the end the fascists were forced, with some difficulty, to purchase and operate their own printing press. Fascist attendees were carefully selected and told to show up at a variety of mustering points around the city, from which they would be transported to the secret location. All this was to prevent the 43 Group from learning the location of the event.
The 43 Group had alerted its volunteers to be ready on the date of the event, and that night hundreds of anti-fascist volunteers gathered in small groups around telephones. The Group's headquarters had banks of telephonists ready to alert volunteers to the location once they got it. It came down to two volunteers – Doris Kaye and her non-Jewish, but vehemently anti-fascist boyfriend James Cotter – who months prior had infiltrated a fascist book club and established a cover as a reliable fascist supporter.
Cotter showed up at one of the mustering points – still in the dark about the actual location – and in a tightly monitored phone call with Doris, who pretended to be late as the result of a shopping spree, was grudgingly given permission to give out the location. Doris herself was being closely watched by her fascist 'colleagues', but managed to slip the location on a note to another 43 Group operative, who pretended to be a lost pedestrian on the street and asked her for directions.
Once they had the location, the phone banks sprang into action and squads of volunteers all over the city made for the Memorial Hall. They had to carefully coordinate their arrival; too few too soon and they'd alert and be overpowered by the fascist thugs gathered to protect the Hall against just such an eventuality. But the 43 Group was used to these types of tactics, and clandestinely mustered their forces in a well-coordinated meet-up. Supportive taxi drivers lent their services in transporting several units.
Police were in attendance too, at the request of the fascists. As the 43 Group volunteers mustered, its leaders asked the police to shut down the fascist meeting; they refused. The anti-fascists organized into well-practiced street-fighting formations and charged the police line. Within moments, as Mosley and his leading henchmen cowered behind the stage, the battle was joined by fascists from within the Hall.
The battle was short but fierce. Several of the 43 Group leaders had been arrested in previous attacks on fascist meetings, and only released on condition of no further breaches of the peace. The anti-fascists had to keep a special eye on these men, as their re-arrest by police could lead to serious consequences; whenever police officers seized one of these men the 43'ers would join together to tackle the officers and ensure the escape of their fellow combatant.
Police had extra forces on standby in preparation for just such an attack and were eventually able to regain control of the Hall. Mosley returned to the stage and finished his appearance. But the 43 Group had made its point – that fascism would not be allowed to return unchallenged – and demonstrated the sharp coordination of their movement at the same time.
This incident is but one of the many operations and battles led by the 43 Group, whose story is documented in the well-researched, riveting chronicle We Fight Fascists, a new history of the little-studied group by Daniel Sonabend (whose grandfather played a minor role in the movement).
Lessons for Today's Anti-Fascists
The book reveals several important characteristics of the 43 Group as a model for anti-fascist organizing.
First, the group took pains to enforce a 'no politics' rule. Its membership spanned the political gamut, from staunch communists to middle-of-the-road liberals and rich capitalists. The sole criterion for membership was a dedication to opposing fascism. Group leaders ensured political discussions and arguments never went too far in partisan directions; their sole role as an organization was to confront and disrupt fascist organizing.
Anti-fascism was historically linked with communism, as communists were among the only organized political movements that had fought against the rise of fascism before the war. Communist organizations played a key role in supporting the 43 Group, often sending their own volunteers into the streets to provide backup when the 43 Group attacked fascist meetings. But the Group itself worked hard to ensure it appealed to anti-fascists of all political stripes. This both helped to refute efforts by fascist-leaning newspapers, politicians, and police officers to paint the Group as a communist front, as well as ensure a broad volunteer base. The presence of upper-class volunteers helped the group gather intelligence on the activity of fascist elites, for instance. Anti-fascist business owners and wealthier supporters provided essential funds and material support to the Group as well.
The Group's avoidance of partisan politics also meant it was not inherently antithetical to the police as an institution, unlike some Communists and far left political groups. Members of 43 recognized that the police and justice system were riddled with racism and anti-Semitism, and that it was futile to expect those institutions to take the lead in confronting fascism and the far right. Yet they were willing to cooperate if and when state institutions showed a willingness to confront fascism. They made it clear that they would be happy to stand aside if the police were willing to shut down fascist events and protect individuals from far right violence. But in the all-too-regular event the police were unwilling to confront the fascists, the 43 Group would not hesitate to do it for them.
The Group also undertook a broad base of operations: not just street-fighting, although that was important, but also intelligence-gathering and it even started its own newspaper. It deployed a diversity of tactics. Sometimes it ambushed and beat up fascist thugs; it even raided the houses of some fascist organizers.
But the Group had some strengths that distinguish it from more contemporary Antifa-style activism. For one, its leaders and many of its members were charismatic, highly decorated ex-soldiers. Not only did this provide them with the critical combat skills for street-fighting and a high level of discipline in organizing, but it also helped counter stereotypes and generate public sympathy and popularity. Some judges and police were hesitant to deploy harsh measures against decorated national war heroes. But certainly not all – anti-Semitism was still rife through the judiciary and police, as Sonabend's account reveals.
The Appeal of Fascism
The growth of the post-war fascist movement also offers important lessons. While the movement comprised ideological fascists and intellectual elites (the post-war fascist resurgence, like its pre-war counterpart, was funded by plenty of erstwhile 'respectable' corporate leaders and particularly British aristocrats), its base was a lot more diverse. Many of its supporters were simply bored or unemployed young people, who joined up for something interesting to do. Some of its members were violent bullies, who didn't really care who their foes were but relished the opportunity to roam in gangs and intimidate and beat up the weaker members of their communities.
Today's fascist and right-wing movements too are no doubt comprised of a similar diversity of members. This is especially evident in the United States, where fascist events – from gun rallies to anti-abortion protests – are surely bulked up by bored, alienated individuals who simply relish the opportunity for a sense of camaraderie and throwing their weight around.
As one of the former fascists cited in Sonabend's book, who later looked back on his involvement with the fascists as "daft", recalls: "I was a married man with a family growing up, and I didn't want to get mixed up with crooked people. But I wanted to get out of myself. There was that urge of excitement – I couldn't sit at home all the time and so I used to go down there."
Sonabend also cites Rebecca West, a noted anti-fascist journalist, who interviewed locals in some of the battleground neighbourhoods to see why they thought young people got involved with the fascists. One of her interviewees offered an insightful glimpse into the ennui that helped fill fascist ranks:
According to this perspective, it was the loss of the sense of camaraderie and community spirit which characterized the war years that drove some people to seek that sense of belonging with the fascists.
This is one of the reasons the 43 Group launched violent attacks on such gatherings – they wanted to send a message that participation in fascist events would come with a painful price, and thus deter excitement-seeking borderline fascists whose interest and devotion to 'the cause' did not extend to getting their heads bashed in.
Such tactics of deterrence sometimes worked on these casual supporters. As one 43'er recalled: "If you say to people, look you are going to get a bloody nose or a punch in the face if you bother to go, then they won't go, and their numbers start to dwindle. You don't have to have fights with these people, you just made them scared about what would happen to them if they went." This tactic, he notes, was especially helpful in deterring middle-class fascists.
The Changing Face of Fascism
What happened to the 43 Group? Active for a few years, its original members (who included, famously, the well-known hairdresser Vidal Sassoon) eventually began to drift away. Some were drawn to help build the new state of Israel. Others settled down in the UK, building families and careers outside the movement. The sort of intense volunteerism required by the core activists and leadership in order to sustain the movement must surely have been exhausting.
As the original members – many of them war veterans – began drifting away, they were replaced by a younger generation. The newer generation of activists were often even more militant than the founders, and willing to endorse more serious levels of violence. (The founders established strict boundaries: no knives, bombs, or other potentially deadly weapons.) This distressed some of the more liberal individuals and groups that had supported the 43 Group, and they in turn increased pressure on the group to fold itself into other, less militant Jewish defense associations. Without the discipline and organizational savvy of the previous generation of former ex-soldiers, the newer organizers struggled to hold the group together.
The face of the foe began changing, as well. Anti-semitism never disappeared, but many fascists became less interested in fighting Jews and turned their attention instead to the new waves of immigrants from the British colonies, especially those from the Caribbean and Africa. The next few decades would see fascist street violence target these groups in particular.
Mosley, after his short-lived attempt at a comeback, largely gave up on UK politics and became more interested in building a pan-European fascist presence. Perhaps affected by his prison experience, he appeared to dither on how openly racist and fascist to present himself as, and wound up alienating many of his supporters, who yearned for the unabashed racist calls to arms of the pre-war period. The British government also served a role as intermittent irritant to his movement. The government refused to ban or otherwise take direct action against the fascists, but in the interest of maintaining the peace it intermittently banned public marches and rallies on a general basis, often at carefully selected junctures designed to undermine fascist momentum. Every little bit helped, no doubt.
The 43 Group officially disbanded in 1950. Formally active for only four years, it accomplished a tremendous amount during that vital period when England, still smarting from the ravages of war, showed itself highly vulnerable to the vile lure of fascism.
A Legacy for Today's Anti-Fascists
Despite its muted presence in the annals of mainstream British history, the 43 Group left a powerful and lingering legacy, which Sonabend charts in his final chapters. Generations of Jewish and working-class youth grew up familiar with this legacy, and drew on its example when it came time for their own generation's struggle with racist thugs and white nationalists. In 1962 the '62 Group' came together, drawing direct inspiration from their precursors (several of whom were invited to join, but demurred), and took the battle to a renewed push by Mosley (who, like fascism itself, simply refused to die) to kickstart a domestic fascist front. They fought fascists in the streets and shared intelligence with other European anti-fascist networks well into the 1970s.
Veterans of the 62 Group, in turn, later played a role in establishing the Community Security Trust, which was founded in 1994 with the aim of monitoring and confronting anti-Semitism and the far right. It continues that important work today.
All of these groups, of course, found their activities generated a certain degree of controversy from those who questioned their militant, direct action approach to protecting their communities and confronting fascism and the far right.
Yet Sonabend's account demonstrates that anti-fascist militants, and the 43 Group in particular, played a key role at a vital juncture in British history, in the effort to confront and contain fascism in a way that western Jews, governments and anti-fascists had failed to do in the years leading to the Second World War. The historical circumstances were different from those today in some respects, but the broad lesson from this history is clear: militant anti-fascism works. Sonabend reflects on this important lesson in his conclusion, noting that one of today's challenges lies in discerning the difference between fascists and those with whom we simply disagree. So long as those with whom we disagree are willing to accept plurality and difference, he says, and their politics will not lead to victimisation and persecution of anyone, then we ought to learn to get along, however difficult this may be.
But just as important is knowing when to draw the line: we ought not to extend our tolerance to fascists. Fascism cannot be reasoned with, he warns, and just as one could not appease Hitler, "anyone who thinks you can debate someone who will happily watch you choke to death breathing Zyklon B is a fool."
"Fascism is a politics of violence," Sonabend writes. "It rejects the norms of civilised democracy and wishes to return to a state of nature, where might is right. The 43 Group realised that to defeat the fascists you had to beat them at their own game and hit them twice as hard as they hit you, and doing so was a moral imperative.
"For anyone who baulks at the idea of turning to violence to preserve democracy, the 43 Group's story is essential. When those who had seen fascism unleashed on the world discovered a seed of a resurgence, they knew that a modicum of violence now (recall the journey down to Brighton with the Lipman brothers: 'We're not here to kill. We're here to maim!') is far preferable to destruction and desolation later."
A lesson for our times, indeed. Sonabend's book is a riveting, engaging example of narrative history that's hard to put down. Most of all, it's packed with important lessons for the present.
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