Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Review of 'We Fight Fascists: The 43 Group and the Forgotten Battle for Post-war Britain' by Daniel Sonabend

After VE Day in May 1945 the British government lifted the Defence Regulations under which the country’s home-grown fascists had been interned as potential traitors. Some fascists, interned under Regulation 18B, had already been released on ‘compassionate’ grounds, and others had managed to avoid internment altogether; before the war was even over they began to organise, at first through fund-raising to support the wives and children of internees, and then with increasing boldness in more openly political organisations. By the end of December 1945 there were several openly fascist organisations in operation, arranging meetings in halls and on street corners, their captains jockeying for position as they waited for their once and future fuhrer, Oswald Mosley, to return and lead them.

In May 1946 four young Jewish ex-servicemen came upon a fascist platform at Whitestone Pond in Hampstead, chased off the speaker and the stewards, and then rushed to tell others at Maccabi House in West Hampstead what they’d just done. Thus was born the 43 Group, originally an organisation of Jewish ex-servicemen, but soon open to others who weren’t Jewish, or weren’t former servicemen. Women participated as equal members, though none seem to have been part of the group’s leadership. The Group’s aim was to fight fascism, politically and physically, in ways that more cautious and respectable Jewish organisations including the Jewish Defence Committee and the ‘official’ Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen (AJEX), found unacceptable. 

And fight they did, with their fists, with bricks and bottles and coshes, and with their own publication “On Guard”. Daniel Sonabend’s book, using material including interviews with former group members originally gathered for a documentary film that didn’t happen, tells their story in intricate and affectionate detail. It’s a more thorough treatment than the only other book about the Group, Morris Beckman’s “The 43 Group: Untold Story of Their Fight Against Fascism”, published in 1993 and much more a personal memoir.

Sonabend tells of the efforts to break up fascist marches and overturn street platforms, of vicious fights with fascist thugs acting as stewards and with policemen who were often in sympathy with the fascists, and in any case carried out their duty to protect fascist meetings on the orders of the Labour Home Secretary Chuter Ede. 

Much of the story was familiar to me, because my Dad was a 43 Group member. He had a collection of copies of “On Guard”, and several souvenir brochures from the fund-raising balls that the Group held. As a kid I’d grown up on tales of platforms overturned and street meetings broken up. I knew about the ‘elephant’ - the armoured lorry that formed a mobile speaker’s platform for the fascists - about the ‘aryan squad’ of blond, blue-eyed Jews that infiltrated Mosley’s movement, and about the wheezes the Group pulled, including the time they dressed up as police officers to abduct and beat up one of the fascists.

Like the members Sonabend interviews, for my Dad participation in the Group was the part of his life of which he was most proud. He’d not served in the forces - his father, who had volunteered in the ‘Great War’ and been gassed at Ypres in 1915, had moved heaven and earth to get his only child a job into a reserved occupation - and his involvement in the 43 Group had been his ‘war’. He talked often of the camaraderie and the excitement of participating in street fighting. When the ageing veterans of the Group began to hold reunions in the early 21st century he was excited to attend. He schlepped me along to one, and beamed with delight when his hero, the ex-paratrooper Gerry Flamberg, told me in his earshot that ‘your father was a real Shlugger’.

But I still found things to surprise me in Sonabend’s book; the extent to which, so soon after the end of the war, the resurgent fascists openly embraced Nazi iconography, slogans and imagery. The participation of actual German Nazis, including an SS man ostensibly in the UK for ‘deNazification’ who marched in the fascists’ drum band, alongside aristocratic fascist sympathizers. The occasional social personal contacts between the fascists and their Jewish enemies - though I’d had a hint of this when, some time during the 1980s, Mosley’s former chief lieutenant Jeffrey Hamm had actually phoned my Dad at his shop to suggest that they met for coffee and to reminisce over old times. The virulence of antisemitism in all strata of British society, including in the working class and within the Labour Party, catalysed by the sharpening conflict between British soldiers and Zionists in late-Mandate Palestine; I hadn’t known about the days of anti-Jewish riots, including smashing of Jewish shops and attempts to burn down synagogues, that followed the Irgun’s execution of two abducted British seargants in August 1947.

I was also - despite myself - shocked by the level of violence that characterized the fighting between the Group and its fascist enemies. I’d participated in anti-fascist demonstrations during the 1970s and 1980s, but I don’t recall seeing anything like the armoury that Sonabend reports - knuckle-dusters, coshes, knives, razors, potatoes studded with razor blades...perhaps men who had only recently used guns and grenades were just less fastidious about lesser weapons.

Sonabend is very good at chronicling the details of the battles against the fascists, from Ridley Road to Brighton and beyond. He’s also very good at describing the conflicts within the fascist parties and grouplets, the maneuvering between Mosley’s would-be deputies, the splits and the betrayals, and Mosley’s increasingly desperate attempt to find a post-Nazi future for his movement as a pro-European, anti-Communist force. I think this analysis actually makes it clear that, despite what the 43 Group thought at the time, there really wasn’t much scope for a fascist revival in Britain in the post-war period. Although there were some hard times in the immediate aftermath of the war and the cruel winter of 1946-7, the economic collapse that Mosley expected did not occur. Britain’s Conservatives did not see the need for a strongman to overthrow Atlee’s Labour government by force, and if they had they probably wouldn’t have turned to an obvious discredited has-been like Mosley.

Sonabend is also good on the politics of the Jewish community, including the tensions between the Jewish establishment and those who wanted to take a more assertive stand against the renaissant fascists. The lines were not always drawn where they might be expected; the Group had allies within AJEX, inside the Board of Deputies, and had support from rabbis of some provincial congregations. Most importantly, they also had support from Jewish-owned businesses large and small, which made donations both openly and secretly, to fund the organisation and the burgeoning legal defence costs.

He’s less good, I think, on the relations between the Group and the left. He does refer to the convergence of actions with the Communist Party, to overlapping membership in the cases of some individuals, and to the organisation of a Communist ‘cell’ within the Group. But he doesn’t give the politics of left wing anti-fascist organisations the same lavish detail that he devotes to the fascists themselves. So there’s no feeling for the twists and turns in Communist Party strategy in the fight against fascism. He’s aware of the extent to which the 43 Group members began to identify as Zionists, so that several of them (including Vidal Sassoon, who’s always been proud of his role in the Group) went to find in the emerging Israel Defence Forces; but he doesn’t seem to know that the period of his story takes place during the brief honeymoon between the USSR, the international Communist movement, and Zionism. This goes some way towards explaining how the Group could so often stand together with Communist fighters, and could actually take a consistent position against racism in America and South Africa in the pages of ‘On Guard’, while steadfastly maintaining that it was ‘non-political’. In his wrap-up of what Group members did next, he talks about those who went on to business and career success, but not those who remained involved in left-wing politics.

It’s mean to quibble too much about what’s not in the book, which already weighs in at some 370 pages. This is a thorough account of the 43 Group and its fight against resurgent fascism in Britain which will stand as the authoritative text for years to come. For me it was also thoroughly enjoyable, bringing back to life my Dad’s stories of his time as a shlugger.

1 comment:

Lynn F said...

Got this book for Mick for Christmas. Really moved to hear about your dad's role xxx