British Fascist Antisemitism and Jewish Responses, 1932-40
London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015
Hardcover. x + 262 p. ISBN 978-1472510570. £58.50
Reviewed by David Renton
Garden Court Chambers, London
A surprisingly large number of books have been devoted to the eight-year history of the British Union of Fascists (BUF); a party which stood in a number of elections but never had more than one councillor elected (Charles Bentinck Budd in Worthing), a street-fighting force whose peak membership never surpassed a short-lived boom of 40-50,000 prior to the infamous Olympia rally in June 1934. By way of comparison, individual membership of the Labour Party increased during the 1930s from around a quarter to half a million; membership of the Conservatives, first calculated in 1945, was then around 1,000,000. Studies of interwar British fascism appear at the rate of round one book every two years; broadly the same frequency as the interwar Liberal Party, with its 158 MPs in 1923 and still 59 MPs six years later.
In the popular imagination, Mosley deserves interest because he is the epitome of a recurring type, the unpatriotic aristocrat, a person who has all the benefits of a privileged upbringing but then disowns the obligations of both class and nation. His son Nicholas derived from that judgment the title of his memoir, Beyond the Pale. And yet there are so many others of that class who have rebelled with greater determination, such as Esmond Romilly, who attempted to organise the prodigal children of the 1930s public schools into a rejectionist Children’s Crusade; or the Cambridge Spy Kim Philby who died in Moscow with a 1972 Wisden in his flat.
Tilles’ painstakingly-researched addition to this field principally addresses two important questions: first, whether anti-Semitism was incidental or essential to the political rhetoric of the BUF; and second whether the conventional account of Jewish anti-fascist political organising is right to portray it as fatally divided between two incompatible strategies of street militancy and private lobbying.
An important negative presence in the first half of the book is Lord Skidelsky, the biographer of Keynes and recent advocate of a needs- rather than growth-based approach to economics. Before he was either of these, in 1975, Skidelsky published a biography of Mosley which is based heavily on interviews with the ageing fascist. Tilles accuses Skidelsky, at various points in his narrative, of a credulous acceptance of fascist sources. The key point made originally by Mosley and repeated by Skidelsky is that the BUF had never been anti-Semitic, in contrast to Hitler’s Nazis, but had adopted anti-Semitism only in response to an anti-fascist campaign by Britain’s Jews.
Tilles responds with a careful, textual and quantitative analysis of the main fascist publications, showing that from the start they contained a very large number of anti-Semitic articles (c.10% of all articles in the BUF press from the party’s inception). There was then a more or less continuous rise until winter 1936-1937 (by when anti-Semitic articles provided about a half of all content), and then a slower decline to around a third of all content at the outbreak of the war. I have described the pattern as if it was a simple inverted V with a rise and then a fall but, in fact, Tilles breaks the coverage into five main phases, showing that it reflects the ascendancy of different individuals and political approaches within the BUF.
At the BUF’s first public meeting in October 1932, Tilles shows, Mosley described his critics as “class warriors from Jerusalem”, and accused Jews of financing Communism, positions which he had pre-empted even prior to the meeting with a statement accusing the Jews of being unpatriotic for participating in international financial transactions and for being Communists. Right from the party’s inception, BUF publications were expected to reproduce the argument that Jews were involved in shadowy, conspiratorial activities and should be combatted.
Now the Mosley of 1932 would tend to sweeten the pill, as it were, by saying that if only Jews were to give up on these unpleasant activities, his party would stop being racist to them. And it is true that the Mosley of 1936 ceased to offer even this potential redemption. But to accept that the earlier BUF was somehow untainted by anti-Semitism makes sense only if you place yourself within the conspiratorial mindset that holds that the BUF’s public equation of Jews and Communists was a mere factual statement unworthy of criticism and that the BUF only slipped into racism when its language became even more strident. For this reason, Tilles is correct to take issue with the argument that BUF anti-Semitism was caused by its opponents. Rather, the racism was there from the start.
In the second half of his book, Tilles to some extent endorses the common narrative of Jewish anti-fascist campaigning, which is that a range of Jewish defence bodies played divergent roles, the official communal leadership body, the Board of Deputies was unable to impose a single strategy on grass-roots opinion, and that there was a sharp divide between those looking (essentially) to combat the BUF on the streets and those (such as the Board) who opposed mass mobilisations and emphasised rather the private pressuring of politicians and senior police officers. His response is to argue that this impression is true only to the end of 1936, after which time there was a convergence between the two main bodies of Jewish opinion, the Board of Deputies and the Jewish People’s Council Against Fascism and Anti-Semitism, the two finding a mid-point between their previous approaches.
This part of Tilles’ story is again – broadly – compelling; although there are a number of contextual points which might perhaps be made. One is that the organisational divergence was greatest at the moment when the largest number of East End Jews feared direct attack by the BUF, that is, in the latter stages of the two years or so after the BUF had suffered a first set-back at Olympia, and was subsequently readjusting on what became, in effect, its “Cable Street” approach (i.e. the reorganisation of the party as a more or less single-issue campaign against East London’s Jews). And again in the six months or so after Cable Street, during which time the BUF attempted to undo its defeat on the streets by appealing, with still greater vigour, to a non-Jewish East End audience to whom it could present “the Jews” as opponents of free speech. This second East End campaign lasted until the BUF failed to achieve any breakthrough in London County Council elections in spring 1937, after which the party was reorganised, and the main architects of the policy were forced out. Tilles is cautious about seeing Cable Street in the romantic terms of the 1970s and 1980s when it was often portrayed as an unequivocal victory, and makes no direct effort to join up the themes of the first and second halves of his books.
But the convergence of the JPC and the Board of Deputies makes much more sense within the context I have just set out – namely that street conflict was becoming less urgent or necessary (even for its advocates) at a time when the BUF was readjusting its focus to some extent away from the East End, and therefore the fault line between the two approaches seemed much less divisive. The tension of course would reassert itself periodically, albeit with different organisational expressions, during the subsequent revivals of East End racism in the 1940s and beyond.
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