This is a timely book. It reminds us of a particularly shameful moment in our modern history, when fascism, despite having just been defeated in a war in which millions lost their lives, once more became a force in British politics. Anti-Semitism was at the heart of the fascist revival in postwar Britain. Loathing for the Jews, a minority sentiment that cut across all classes in Britain, was apparently unsatiated by the horrors of Dachau and Belsen, even though these were known to anyone who picked up a newspaper or watched a cinema newsreel.
During the war, British fascism had been muted as a result of aggressive internment, beginning in May 1940. Sir Oswald Mosley, Jeffrey Hamm, Arnold Leese, John Beckett and numerous other fascist leaders were interned for two or three years and forced under threat of repeated imprisonment to keep their noses clean as long as hostilities lasted. The far right was temporarily quelled but it never repented. Once the war ended, a host of small organisations sought to keep the Nazi flame alive. One group, the British League of Ex-Servicemen and Women, led by Hamm, began from May 1946 to hold public gatherings at Whitestone Pond on Hampstead Heath. One of their Sunday morning meetings was observed by four Jewish ex-servicemen: Gerry Flamberg, twenty-four, a former clothing worker, amateur boxer and paratrooper who had been wounded and captured at Arnhem; Len Sherman, twenty-seven, a blond and blue-eyed ex-Welsh Guardsman, also in the rag trade, as well as being a martial arts enthusiast and champion wrestler in his spare time; Morris Beckman, twenty-five, a radio operator in the merchant navy who was twice torpedoed and would later become a clothing manufacturer; and Alec Carson, twenty-two, who had been in the RAF, serving as a Mosquito pilot at the end of the war. They planned and executed a surprise attack on a British League meeting at Whitestone Pond, throwing Hamm off his platform and beating him up.
These four would be the nucleus of what soon became the 43 Group (the origin of the name is disputed), which grew within a couple of years into an organisation of antifascists some five hundred strong. Not all members were Jewish or had served in the war; indeed, as time wore on, members too young to have fought in the war became an increasingly important component (among them was Vidal Sassoon, later a celebrated hairdresser and originator of the Sixties bob cut). The hallmark of the 43 Group was violence. British fascism itself had always combined propaganda with physical force, random or targeted beatings being a part of its strategy to win control of the streets. Likewise, antifascists before the war, especially some in the Communist Party, had never been shy of a fistfight. Now, in the postwar 1940s, violence was at the core of the 43 Group’s response to the fascist revival.
There was an understandable element of vengeance here for the Nazi atrocities, which the fascists either coolly celebrated or sought to deny (Holocaust denial was already part of Mosley’s message when he again sought to lead the British fascist movement from November 1947). Witnessing Nazi salutes on the streets of London, hearing the ‘Horst Wessel Lied’ sung in English, seeing swastikas and ‘PJ’ (‘Perish Judah’) chalked on synagogue walls and the fronts of Jewish-owned shops: these were all intolerable provocations for those who had lost family members in the death camps or had fought Nazism at home or in the services over six long years. The reaction was furious. The battle was waged week after week on the streets of east London (Ridley Road, Dalston, being the most frequent flashpoint) and elsewhere. It was fought with knuckledusters, iron bars, razor blades and lead-filled coshes. The antifascists’ explicit intentions were not to kill but to maim. Even so, it is astonishing that no lives were lost. The 43 Group’s tactics were disavowed by the official leadership of Anglo-Jewry. But its young foot soldiers were supported financially by many Jewish businesses, sportsmen, musicians, entertainers and lawyers, who believed that postwar fascism posed a threat to all Jews and were determined that it should not go unanswered.
Daniel Sonabend deserves credit for resurrecting this story. It will be new to many, even though it is not quite true, as the book’s subtitle claims, that it is ‘forgotten’. Morris Beckman chronicled the 43 Group’s achievements in a well-received memoir first published in 1993 and reissued since. Sonabend claims that Beckman overegged aspects of the story and his own part in it, and he may well be right. Certainly, Sonabend’s efforts to set the record straight, using oral history to capture the memories of the last few survivors and utilising secret service files on the major players and events, mean that we are unlikely ever to get a better account of these dramatic times. The book’s faults – too many typographical errors and a lamentable absence of photographs – are to be laid more at Verso’s door than the author’s.
In an epilogue, Sonabend points to the rise of fascism today, with Jews a target once again. But I would make a different observation. Mosley’s working-class supporters in Bethnal Green and Hoxton taunted Jews with references to gas chambers and lampshades. Mosley himself was more circumspect, railing against ‘international financiers’, ‘American bankers’ and the new state of Israel, but everyone knew what he meant. Today Mosley’s spittle sticks not just to modern fascism but also to the face of the British Labour Party.