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Defending democracy? The protests against Werner Krauss in West Berlin, 1950

Proteste gegen Werner Krauss

In December 1950, chaotic scenes at a theatre in West Berlin made headlines in Germany and abroad. While Werner Krauss  an actor who had featured in Jud Süβ, the Third Reich’s most infamous antisemitic film – performed in Henrik Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman, students and Jewish residents demonstrated against his presence. For three days, protesters clashed with police officers outside and repeatedly disrupted the play’s performances inside the Theater am Kurfürstendamm, eventually securing its early cancellation.

The demonstrations against Werner Krauss, which took place seventy years ago this month, have been largely forgotten. Yet they raised central questions for early West German society, which, following the transfer of power from Allied occupation, now had to manage its own affairs. What constituted acceptable protest, and when did acts of dissent undermine the new democratic order? Should those who had been complicit in Nazi propaganda have any place in public life? And what responsibilities did Germans have towards Jews living in the country, after the atrocities of the Holocaust?

Krauss had risen to prominence before the Third Reich, starring notably in the 1920 silent movie The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. While many actors left Germany after the Nazis’ seizure of power, Krauss stayed. He went on to play four different characters in Jud Süβ, a film commissioned by propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels and viewed by 20 million Germans between its release in 1940 and 1943.[1]

Jud Süβ, which depicted the eighteenth-century Jewish court advisor Joseph Süβ Oppenheimer as a corrupt, depraved conspirator, aimed to justify the exclusion of Jews from German society. Although Krauss claimed during his post-war denazification trials that Goebbels had coerced him into taking part in the film, the final verdict in 1948 declared that Krauss had been a ‘follower’ (Mitläufer) of the Nazi regime.[2]

The judgement nevertheless allowed Krauss to resume his acting career, and, after moving to Austria, Krauss returned to German theatre stages in 1950 for the Vienna Burgtheater’s touring production of John Gabriel Borkman.[3]

The play was initially performed in several West German cities without incident. West Berlin, however, was different. The city was still a transit station for large numbers of Eastern European Jewish refugees, most of whom were awaiting emigration to Palestine. These refugees had already taken to the streets in 1949, in response to antisemitic tendencies in the newly-released British film Oliver Twist.[4]

Opposition to Krauss’s arrival also came from German-Jewish community leaders and West Berlin’s two universities, where students planned a demonstration for the play’s evening premiere. On December 8, more than five thousand students, Jewish refugees, and other protesters gathered outside the theatre, with chants and placards demanding that Werner Krauss ‘go home’.[5]

Numerous protesters attempted to penetrate the police line guarding the theatre. The police used batons and water cannons to push back the crowd, while some demonstrators hurled stones. A handful of officers and civilians were taken to hospital, and the Chicago Daily Tribune reported that ‘dozens more were mauled and bruised’.[6]

Inside the theatre, demonstrators who held tickets for the play disrupted the first act. As they were ejected from the building, the performance was initially called off. The support for Werner Krauss among other theatregoers, however, was evident when the play eventually resumed. As Krauss appeared for the second act, he was greeted with loud applause.[7]  

Disturbances continued for the next two days, however, with Jewish leaders and Berlin’s students insisting that protests would not stop until the run was cancelled. After Krauss expressed his aversion to the thought that he would be the cause of further violence, the Burgtheater called off its remaining performances.[8]

The protests provoked outraged reactions among West Berliners. Letters to Ernst Reuter, the city’s mayor, expressed various anti-Jewish sentiments. Since Reuter had declared that the time had come to forgive Krauss, several of the letters condemned Jews’ alleged inherent vengefulness – a long-standing antisemitic conception – with one citizen claiming that ‘Jews cannot forgive’.[9]

Not only did these letters make little or no mention of the Holocaust: their sweeping assertions also ignored other viewpoints among Berlin’s protesting Jews. Some demonstrators, who saw Krauss’s apparent lack of contrition as the main problem, outlined circumstances under which they would accept his return to public life. Gerhard Löwenthal, a Jewish student, later recalled telling mayor Reuter that the demonstrations would stop at once if Krauss apologised on stage for his involvement in Jud Süβ.[10]

A poster for Jud Süß, 1940. Source: Österreichische Nationalbibliothek.

The question of what constituted ‘democratic’ and ‘undemocratic’ action was another recurring theme in the debates, with individuals on both sides claiming to defend the new political order. For Löwenthal, a departure from the Nazi past was a precondition for the success of West German democracy. Yet, as one newspaper acknowledged, theatregoers considered that they had ‘democratically’ expressed their wish to forgive Krauss.[11]

The protesters’ disruptive actions were labelled by opponents as a recourse to Nazi-era ‘SA methods’ which undermined the rule of law.[12] Sympathisers, however, contended that the real threat to democracy lay in police violence and the re-emergence of overt antisemitism. The Volksblatt remarked that, while officers’ batons struck Jewish victims of the Nazis, those at the theatre who shouted ‘Jews out!’ had gone unpunished.[13]

Werner Krauss did not perform again in Berlin until 1953: when he returned, the protests were not renewed. The following year, he was awarded West Germany’s Order of Merit. Krauss’ return to respectability before his death in 1959 could be taken as an example of what some historians have described as a ‘failure to address the issues raised by the Nazi period’. Such scholars argue that a continuation of authoritarian values and a desire for political and economic stability resulted in an indifference among most West Germans, lasting until the 1960s, to questions of ‘democratisation’.[14]

The backlash against Krauss in 1950, however, reveals fierce debates at an early stage about the requirements for democratic renewal. While some Germans considered it necessary to draw a line under the past, others demanded that those who had worked with the Nazis apologise for their actions, or be barred from public life. Attitudes to protest also diverged: whereas demonstrators considered themselves to be carrying out a democratic duty, opponents saw them as violent troublemakers infringing other citizens’ freedoms. 

Such discussions continued into 1951 and 1952, as further demonstrations accompanied the screening of new films by Veit Harlan, the director of Jud Süβ. As these events, too, approach their seventieth anniversaries, it is time to reconsider the supposedly sleepy, ‘consensus-based’ early years of West Germany’s existence.

Rory Hanna is a PhD student at the University of Sheffield. His doctoral research project focuses on student protest and activism in West Germany between 1949 and 1967.

Cover image: protesters against Werner Krauss, demonstrating with placards and torches in front of the Theater am Kurfürstendamm in West Berlin, 10 December 1950. Photographer: Associated Press. Source: Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, http://www.bildarchivaustria.at/Preview/353430.jpg


[1] Susan Tegel, ‘Review Essay: Jud Süss’, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television 25:1 (2005), p. 156; Eric Rentschler, The Ministry of Illusion. Nazi Cinema and its Afterlife (Cambridge, Mass.: 2007), p. 154.

[2] Wolff A. Greinert, Werner Krauss. Schauspieler in seiner Zeit, 1884 bis 1959 (Vienna, 2009), pp. 273, 303.

[3] Ibid., p. 313.

[4] ‘Tumulte gegen den Film “Oliver Twist”’, Der Sozialdemokrat, 21 February 1949, p. 3.

[5] Landesarchiv Berlin (hereafter LAB) B Rep. 020, Nr. 7861, ‘Polizei-Inspektion Charlottenburg, den 9.12.1950, Betr.: Demonstrationen anlässlich des Gastspiels des Burgtheater-Ensemble mit Werner Krauss im „Theater am Kurfuerstendamm“, p. 1; ‘Tumulte am Kurfürstendamm‘, Telegraf, 9 December 1950, p. 1.

[6] ‘Das Schuldkonto des Herrn Krauss’, Volksblatt, 9 December 1950, p. 1; ‘Jews in Berlin Fight Police in Row Over Actor’, Chicago Daily Tribune, 9 December 1950, p. 7. 

[7] ‘Berliners Storm a Theatre’, Manchester Guardian, 9 December 1950, p. 5.

[8] ‘Ein Erfolg der Jüdischen Gemeinde’, Kurier, 12 December 1950, p. 2; ‘Das Ende des Krauss-Gastspiels’, Telegraf, 13 December 1950, p. 1.

[9] ‘Vergeben können’, Der Abend, 8 December 1950, p. 2; LAB B Rep 002, Nr. 3428, anonymous letter from ‘ein Lichterfelder Einwohner’, 13 December 1950. On the history of antisemitic conceptions of Jewish ‘retributive justice’, see Trond Berg Eriksen et al, Judenhass: Die Geschichte des Antisemitismus von der Antike bis zur Gegenwart (Göttingen, 2019), p. 117.

[10] Gerhard Löwenthal, Ich bin geblieben. Erinnerungen (Munich, 1987), pp. 202-203.

[11] Ibid., p. 203; ‘Die Unruhen am Kurfürstendamm’, Tagesspiegel, 9 December 1950, p. 2.

[12] LAB B Rep 002, Nr. 3428, letter from Adolf Vollmer to Friedrich Luft (editor of Die Neue Zeitung‘s Feuilleton section), 12 December 1950.

[13] ‘Problematisches Gastrecht’, Volksblatt, 11 December 1950, p. 2.

[14] Nick Thomas, Protest Movements in 1960s West Germany. A Social History of Dissent and Democracy (Oxford, 2003), p. 13; Moritz Scheibe, ‘Auf der Suche nach der demokratischen Gesellschaft’, in Ulrich Herbert (ed.), Wandlungsprozesse in Westdeutschland. Belastung, Integration, Liberalisierung, 1945-1980 (Göttingen, 2002), pp. 245-247.

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Donald Trump and Masculinity as Motivator

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In October 2016, Donald Trump created an unprecedentedly hostile-feeling presidential debate by following his opponent, Hilary Clinton, around the stage, looming over her and scowling as she spoke.  For many women watching the debate, the image of a large, unqualified candidate hovering behind an accomplished stateswoman as she attempted to speak knowledgeably to her audience was a familiar intimidation tactic. Using his height, imposing posture, scowling visage, and bravado, Trump projected aggressive power, playing on assumptions and biases about gender. Earlier, Trump had also attacked the masculinity of Bernie Sanders, Clinton’s competitor in the race for the Democratic nomination. Trump claimed that Bernie was weak for allowing protestors to interrupt his speaking engagements, specifically when he let two women speak in front of him at his own rally.

As a historian of Jewish masculinity, watching the candidates announce in 2015 I did not think I would have any particular professional insight into the 2016 election or the following four years of Trump’s presidency. I was not expecting the combination of absurd obstreperousness and flagrant antisemitism of Donald Trump and his supporters, which made me feel I was living in a stress dream trapped inside my own historical manuscript. Trump demonstrates, in the image he projects to the public, the most heavy-handed displays of white masculinity imaginable. In addition, his attacks on his opponents are pointedly gendered, implying weakness and femininity in contrast to his own projected virility and bravado. And this approach appeals to his support base, consisting of both men and women, who cringe at new and more expansive views of gender and its role in American society.

Throughout Trump’s political rise, I was researching a book on Jewish masculinity in America in the twentieth century.  One of my core arguments is that Jews have attempted to acculturate in American society by changing the perceived image of Jewish men to better embody the American masculine ideals cultivated over the previous centuries. Despite these efforts, differences in perception of levels of manliness lingered. The most notable change in these perceptions has been growing since the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, as Jewish Americans embrace (and at times, revel in) the reflected manliness of Jewish military victories in the Middle East. This is particularly the case of American Jews coming of age during or born after the Six Day War in 1967.  Bernie Sanders, however, embodies the more classic, continuing perceived difference in masculinity which has been maintained between Jewish and white American men throughout the twentieth century. A New York Jew, Sanders participated with many other young Jews in the Civil Rights movements of the 1960s, and considers his Judaism a link to a past of oppression, far more than a path to Zionism and Israeli strength. Sanders, as a child of the Holocaust survivor generation (though his father left Poland before Hitler invaded) identifies with a Jewish past that feels connected to a long history of oppression and recognizes the need to support other oppressed peoples. 

By contrast, younger generations of American Jews, like Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, identify more with the international image of Israeli strength and self-protection than with the history of oppression which defined earlier generations. As a staunch defender of Israel, Trump himself courts Evangelical Christians, helping to cement Israeli-American relations while damaging Arab-American relations in the process, as well as, according to the Evangelicals, assisting to usher in the End of Days.[1]  He praises Israel for its toughness, its defense, and its aggression.  Trump himself is not anyone’s definition of the American masculine ideal.  He is out of shape, non-athletic, avoided military service, and lacks dignity, humility, and generosity—necessary components of most iterations of ideal American manhood.  And yet he is praised by supporters, largely white working-class men, which is the demographic segment of society perhaps most outspoken about what a man should be.  According to a feature from the American Psychiatric Association, white, middle-class masculine ideology is “built on a set of gender norms that endorses features such as toughness, dominance, self-reliance, heterosexual behaviors, restriction of emotional expression and the avoidance of traditionally feminine attitudes and behaviors.”  Admittedly, Trump indeed exhibits some of these behaviors, but he does so to their unmanly extreme.  His dominance becomes bullying, his self-reliance becomes isolationist, and his overt heterosexuality makes him an aggressive sexual predator. Why his support base of white men, confident and proud in their definition of masculinity, do not find his heavy-handed donning of their ideals (like a sort of white-heterosexual-drag) insulting is one of the most mysterious aspects of his support.

Playing to his base, who do, in fact, revel in his manifested hyper-masculinity, Trump attacks his adversaries one by one, giving them childish nicknames like a schoolyard bully.  He has dubbed opponents “Wild” Bill Clinton, “Cheatin’ Obama,” “Sleepy Joe” Biden, Elizabeth “Pocahontas” Warren, “little” Adam Schiff, “mini” Michael Bloomberg, “cryin’” Chuck Shumer, and “little” Jeff Zucker.  The last four, all diminutive/emasculating titles, are used to refer to Jews.  These nicknames jump out at me, as part of a continuing tradition of emasculating Jewish men.  It is only when Trump is speaking directly to groups of Jews that he abandons the attack on their manhood, though he certainly isn’t flattering.  In fact, when he is speaking about Israel, or to American Jews who support Israel, he assumes the hypermasculinity associated with the Jewish state. Trump told a room full of American Zionists in Hollywood, for example, that he knew Jews in business, and that they were “brutal killers, not nice people at all.”

Trump’s insults aside, it is worth recognizing that his rhetoric is not merely sexist or chauvinist, that his disrespect for women is not the core of his sexist language. Rather, he is on a constant mission to prove his masculinity, his vitality, his rigor, his strength, and even his physical manhood. If we take it for granted that one of Trump’s largest motivations for his unprepared statements and insults is his desperate need to prove his masculinity, his actions make fractionally more sense, even if they are still shocking and inscrutable. His rhetoric also serves as a reminder to those of us who follow such things, that in spite of his support for Israel and praise of Israeli hyper-masculine identity and politics, the kneejerk return to emasculating language when insulting or rebuffing a Jewish male opponent is ever-present.

Miriam Eve Mora is a historian of American Immigration and Ethnicity, Jewish America, Gender, the Holocaust, and Genocide. You can find her on Twitter @MiriamEveMora

Cover image: Donald Trump speaking with supporters at a campaign rally at the Phoenix Convention Center in Phoenix, Arizona. Photo by Gage Skidmore (29 October 2016)
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Donald_Trump_(30354612000).jpg


[1] For more on the Evangelical connection, see Till Kingdom Come, a new documentary by Maya Zinshtein. https://www.docnyc.net/film/til-kingdom-come/?fbclid=IwAR0L-Q5d5qsZX04m-WZHBabzagkBrw_P4rRjcQu3Dt4SAGMheYwsIToAyR4

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It Happened Here: The Annihilation of the Jews of the Amsterdam Rivierenbuurt, 1940-1945

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To this day, the Dutch have been unable to achieve closure concerning how the Germans were able to kill, with such relative ease, between seventy and eighty per cent of the country’s 140,500 Jews during their Second World War Occupation of the Netherlands. This proportion was by far the highest in western Europe. Many varied and complex subsidiary questions involving perpetrators, victims, bystanders and survivors still remain unexplored. Moreover, very little published research, if any, in the historiography of the persecution, has so far investigated how the urban design of a particular local neighbourhood might perhaps have contributed to theannihilation of its Jews.  

Much attention has rightly focussed on the more than sixty per cent of the country’s Jews who lived in Amsterdam, However, inherent elements of the built environment, capable of analysis by the application of interdisciplinary approaches, have been largely disregarded as potentially significant factors in this field that might otherwise contribute to the wider debate. 

A pertinent example of such an area is the Rivierenbuurt (Rivers District), a tranquil suburb a few kilometres to the south of the historic centre of Amsterdam, erected in the 1920s and 1930s and occupying only 140 hectares, a negligible 0.003 per cent of the landmass of the entire Netherlands. 

A walk through the Rivierenbuurt in 2020 barely discloses connections with its tragic past. This is unexpected, when it is understood that 13,000 individuals, out of its Jewish population of 17,000, were removed by the Germans and murdered in the death camps of eastern Europe. While Jews from many other parts of Amsterdam, and elsewhere in the country, also lost their lives in this way, the Rivierenbuurt stands out because its Jewish population represented one in nine (19.5 per cent) of the Dutch Jews. 

Certainly, the Germans were well aware of the Rivierenbuurt’s disproportionately large Jewish population from the outset of the Occupation. This awareness took on a greater relevance after February 1941, when a ghettowas imposed in the Jodenhoek (‘Jewish Corner’), the traditional centre of Jewish settlement of Amsterdam. While this ghetto had been based on the principles of eastern European paradigms, it proved to be untenable because the Germans could not seal in its Jewish population, due to the high proportion of non-Jews living there who needed to continue to interact with the rest of the city.

Thus, by the middle of 1941, the Germans alighted upon an alternative approach that could help achieve their aim by harnessing existing local conditions as they pertained specifically to Amsterdam. Henceforth, three discrete Jodenwijken (‘Jewish Districts’), took the place of the ghetto, of which the Rivierenbuurt was by far the largest.

The Germans called this model of containment a ‘lockeres Ghetto’ (slack ghetto), an unenclosed district that allowed resident non-Jews, and Jews, to continue to live alongside each other. In consequence, the physical barriers of the ghetto were rendered superfluous, thereby allowing the Rivierenbuurt to remain open and accessible. Instead, the activities and movements of Jews were controlled by means of an extraordinarily wide range of persecutory measures, of which personal registration, restricted employment, travel permits and the wearing of the ‘Jewish Star’ for identification purposes were but a few.

If the Germans did not explicitly recognize the advantages of the spatial conditions that already existed in the Rivierenbuurt before the mass deportations of the Jews began in July 1942, they soon exploited their benefits. Able to round up their Jewish victims in efficient operations with minimal resources, they could send them rapidly to local assembly points and for onward transportation to almost certain death in the extermination camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau and Sobibór. This was achieved, in the first instance, by being able to deploy police during razzias (raids for rounding up Jews) along the grand avenues of the Rivierenbuurt, the design of which was clearly derived from authoritarian precedents, as seen in Paris, St. Petersburg or Imperial Rome (see photo below). Secondly, the boundaries of the Rivierenbuurt delineated by the River Amstel and canals were capable of being cut off from the surrounding city by raising the bridges, as occurred, for example, without warning, in a major dawn razzia on 20 June 1943. Thirdly, the regimented grid-like planning of the secondary side streets created a net during razzias, the mesh of which could be enlarged or reduced in size as required to isolate specific localities where Jews lived. 

Rooseveltlaan [south end], Rivierenbuurt
Source: David Kann, 16 September 2016

In other circumstances, inherent flaws in the progressive architectural design would also have been taken for granted by their designers and residents, yet were capable of disclosing further opportunities for the Germans. This came about because four and five storey residential blocks with long frontages, designed for sustaining intensive housing densities, extended from one street corner to another. Each of these contained tightly packed clusters of spacious apartments in which large numbers of people were billeted when the Germans forced Jews from all parts of the country to move to the Rivierenbuurt, which, in effect, rendered it a large detention camp in all but name, pending their future deportation to the camps. Furthermore, awkward and narrow, steep staircases, accessed by open, communal entrance archways, led from the street to upper floors without alternative escape routes. Panicked Jews were trapped and could not escape being caught (see photo below).

Access staircase at Roerstraat 15 and 17, Rivierenbuurt
Source: David Kann, 26 October 2007

The buildings, streets and waterways of the Rivierenbuurt might have appeared well-ordered and beneficial for the well-being of their residents in peacetime. However, despite the local death rate being similar to the rest of the country, it is evident that the existing built environment of the district could be readily subverted by the Germans for more efficient means of conducting their persecution of its Jews. In the end, when theRivierenbuurt was finally liberated on the last day of the war in Europe on 8 May 1945, almost no Jews survived, apart from the very few that had managed to hide.

David Kann is a PhD researcher in the History Department at the University of Sheffield, focussing on Het Joodsche Weekblad (The Jewish Weekly) as an instrument of persecution in the Nazi Occupied Netherlands. David is a retired architect by profession and in 2017 completed a Master’s by Research thesis at Royal Holloway College, University of London 

Cover Image: Anne Frank memorial at Merwedeplein: the Rivierenbuurt’s most famous resident lived at no. 37 (on right) until she and her family went into hiding in the centre of the city.  Source: David Kann, 15 September 2016

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Fascism Fictionalised: Inter-war British Fascism in Popular Culture, 1932 to Present

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Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists (BUF)[1] never won an election or parliamentary seat and, from its foundation in 1932 to its proscription in 1940, struggled to break into the political mainstream. Though in the mid-1930s it had around 50,000 members and enjoyed the support of Daily Mail proprietor Lord Rothermere, it remained a vocal but politically isolated organisation. And yet, over the last few years, the stage and the small screen have played host to a series of new depictions of interwar British fascism. What lies behind the renewed interest in this abhorrent political failure? And, moreover, what does the return to British fascism’s past say about the present?

In answering these questions, it’s necessary to first look back over the history of depictions of British fascism on the page, stage and screen. The earliest fictional depictions of British fascism occurred in interwar literature. In the work of a number of liberal and left-leaning novelists, characters based on Mosley and his followers appeared as figures of fun or dire warnings of the shape of things to come. Classic comic depictions include Nancy Mitford’s Wigs on the Green (1935) and P.G. Wodehouse’s The Code of the Woosters (1938). Alongside these, Naomi Mitchison’s We Have Been Warned (1935), Margaret Storm Jameson’s In the Second Year (1936), and H. G. Wells’ The Holy Terror (1939) took the threat of fascism more seriously. However, these authors were less concerned with Mosleyite fascism as an immediate threat and more concerned with visions of a British fascist dystopia or Wellsian utopia situated in the near future.

The war changed the way fascism was depicted. It was reimagined solely as an exterior threat, perhaps aided domestically by traitorous collaborators, as in the 1942 Ealing Studios’ film Went the Day Well? This depiction of fascism as an invading foreign force continued in post-war alternate history films and novels such as It Happened Here (1964), Guy Walters’ The Leader (2003), and C. J. Sansom’s Dominion (2012). Works in this genre are conservative in their anti-fascism. They dismissed fascism on the basis of its un-Britishness, characterising it largely as a German import (or, rather, imposition).

The more recent depictions of Mosleyite fascism differ from earlier examples in the sense that they regard fascism as an urgent and indigenous threat rather than a foreign import or a subject for dystopian or utopian speculation. In BBC’s 2018 adaptation of Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders and the most recent series of Peaky Blinders (now available via Netflix), fascism appears as a danger on Britain’s streets.

The recent adaptation of The ABC Murders diverges from Christie’s 1936 novel. In this version, we find an older Hercule Poirot, a faded relic of murder mystery parties, haunted by memories of his experiences as a Belgian refugee during the First World War. As he investigates a series of grisly murders, Poirot wanders through a rain-swept and racist Britain, increasingly becoming a hostile environment for foreigners. As if to underline this point, on almost every street corner, Poirot passes posters bearing the BUF’s flash-and-circle insignia.

While actual BUF members never make an appearance in The ABC Murders, Peaky Blinders depicts an alternate history of the movement’s formation. The fifth series begins with the protagonist, Thomas Shelby, newly installed as the Labour MP for Birmingham South – the constituency neighbouring Mosley’s. In an attempt to undermine Mosley (played brilliantly by Sam Claflin), Shelby becomes his right-hand man.

The series’ creators have moved events around a little. They erase Mosley’s pre-fascist New Party entirely, depicting his jump straight from Labour minister to British fascist three years early in late 1929 immediately after the Wall Street Crash. These liberties are easy to forgive as Claflin and the series’ writers capture Mosley’s personality and ideas with chilling accuracy. The series takes place in a turbulent Britain, wracked by gang warfare and economic unrest. Mosley appears here as a populist, complaining about ‘false news’ and promising to put ‘Britain first’. In the series’ finale, with the backing of Winston Churchill and in cooperation with a gang of Jewish bakers, Shelby mounts an assassination attempt on Mosley.[2]

In addition to these, Brigid Larmour’s recently announced touring production of The Merchant of Venice plans to shift the setting of Shakespeare’s most problematic play from Renaissance Venice to the inter-war East End of London. Due to begin touring in September 2020, this version is set to sympathetically reimagine Shylock – long considered an antisemitic stereotype – as a Jewish shopkeeper and war widow. Set in the weeks leading up to the 1936 Battle of Cable Street, the play’s original protagonists are to be recast as wealthy Mosleyites.

These modern depictions are darkly introspective. Their creators manipulate the historical record and over-inflate the popularity of the BUF. But in doing so, they are really inviting audiences to ruminate on the state of present-day, post-Brexit Britain. In looking to examples of political authoritarianism, anti-immigrant xenophobia and racism (especially in the contemporary context of rising antisemitism) from Britain’s past, they are attempting to think through the present.

However, in an eagerness to make historical analogies, we might miss the specifics of the present. In Britain and throughout the world, the radical right in 2020 does not resemble the radical right of the mid-1930s. Fascists were not, as the creators of The ABC Murders imagined, present on every street corner in inter-war Britain. While this is still not the case in terms of their physical presence, radical right ideas and rhetoric are being mainstreamed now as never before. Through their journalistic fellow travellers and social media, the modern radical right have achieved a reach that far surpasses Lord Rothermere’s brief endorsement of Oswald Mosely in the mid-1930s. Recent fictional depictions of British fascism suggest we are reliving the 1930s; in fact, we are living through something altogether different and potentially worse.

Liam Liburd currently works as a Teaching Associate in Modern International History at the University of Sheffield. He completed his PhD entitled “The Eternal Imperialists: Empire, Race and Gender on the British Radical Right, 1918-1968” in February 2020. His broader research interests are in British political and cultural history, and the history and afterlives of the British Empire. You can find him on Twitter @DocLiburd

Cover image: Oswald Mosley and Diana Mitford, 1936. https://www.flickr.com/photos/150300783@N07/35638188926 [accessed 4 May 2020].

[1] The BUF was renamed the British Union of Fascists and National Socialists or just ‘British Union’/BU in 1936.

[2] Churchill’s appearance in the fifth series of Peaky Blinders as some kind of parliamentary anti-fascist waging a secret war against Mosley is perhaps the show’s most disappointing misstep. Before his time as the grand anti-appeaser, the real-life Churchill was an aristocratic apologist for Mussolini.   

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Pierre Mendès France and the politics of milk

School milk – header image

The philosopher Roland Barthes believed that wine was a ‘totemic drink’ in France. In Mythologies (1957), he claimed that ‘wine is seen by the French as something that belongs to them, as much as their three hundred and sixty types of cheese’. Indeed, Barthes considered wine so integral to French culture that he thought anyone who spurned it would never truly be accepted by society.

Barthes’ last claim may seem hyperbolic, but it reflects the prevalent mood in mid-century France. Although wine and other alcoholic drinks had long been associated with Gallic culture, it was not until the state began subsidising vineyards and distilleries during the Depression that alcohol developed a hold on society itself. Subsidisation kept the alcohol industry secure and profitable during economic uncertainty and by the 1950s it employed one fifth of French workers. With so many lives linked to its production (and a government keen to promote consumption to cover subsidy costs) alcohol rapidly became a vital component of French society.

However, alcohol’s inflated socio-cultural importance made it hard for governments to end subsidisation. This became problematic in the early 1950s when supply (despite the best efforts of French drinkers) overtook demand, resulting in an annual unsold excess of 37 million gallons. The government thus faced a dilemma: although the alcohol industry was a huge drain on state finances, it had become so deeply embedded in society that withdrawing support would incur a backlash.

To Prime Minister Pierre Mendès France (in office June 1954 – February 1955), continuing to subsidise the bloated alcohol industry was ‘economic madness’. Not only were alcohol production subsidies a waste of money, he argued, but the state’s alcohol consumption drive was cultivating an endemic lethargy among workers. To save money and create a healthy, productive workforce, Mendès France proposed a radical strategy to break the bond between French society and alcohol. At the heart of this plan lay the drink Barthes called the ‘anti-wine’: milk.

Mendès France began by pushing beet sugar producers to sell their crop to sugar refineries, rather than alcohol distilleries. To guarantee a market for beet farmers, the prime minister decreed that schoolchildren, soldiers and labourers would be provided with state-funded sugared milk. Mendès France even led the milk-drinking crusade himself, sipping it in front of cameras at formal events.

Although he expected resistance from a country so wedded to alcohol, Mendès France could not have predicted the violence of the response. The prime minister’s plan invoked the wrath of what writer Michel Dion calls la France profonde, or ‘Deep France’ – rural provinces both politically and psychologically removed from the metropolitan centre. In Deep France, the milk campaign was seen as an attack on traditional French culture by an out-of-touch urban elite.

Protests were widespread and often tinged with antisemitism. To rural conservatives, Mendès France’s Sephardic heritage made him culturally foreign and his hostility towards the French alcohol industry was thus interpreted as an assault on France itself. As populist leader Pierre Poujade exclaimed:

If you had a single drop of Gallic blood in your veins, you would never … let yourself to be served a glass of milk at an international summit! That would be a slap in the face, M. Mendès, for all Frenchmen – and not just the drunk ones!

Poujade was not alone in questioning Mendès France’s Frenchness. The extreme right, which already considered Mendès France a traitor for ending colonial rule in Indochina, saw the milk campaign as another Jewish plot to undermine French national prestige. To future Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, Mendès France’s actions were so opposed to the cultural values of France that they made him feel a ‘patriotic, almost physical repulsion’ towards the PM.

The vitriol directed at Mendès France demonstrates the cultural symbolism attached to ‘totemic’ objects. To provincials, alcohol was an integral part of daily life and any perceived threat to it (especially from a cultural ‘foreigner’) had to be resisted. To the state, it was financially and culturally harmful and needed to be removed from society. Mendès France’s programme exposed these differing cultural mindsets of province and centre, triggering a conflict between them.

The reaction to Mendès France’s milk campaign may seem absurd today, but it cannot be dismissed as anecdotal. ‘Totemic’ objects feature throughout modern cultural conflicts in France, particularly in those concerning Islam and French society. In 2010, a group of Parisians organised a sausage and aperitif-based street party in protest against the perceived ‘Islamification’ of their district, while in 2015 several small-town schools stopped serving an alternative to pork at lunchtime, thereby forcing Muslim students to conform to French cultural standards.

Although these acts targeted Muslims, they nonetheless represent a certain division between traditionalist province and progressive centre that was exposed by Mendès France. To French conservatives, Islamic immigration is a ‘problem’ caused by the state’s liberal immigration policy. Echoing Poujade and Le Pen, they argue that an out-of-touch government is fuelling the destruction of society by granting citizenship to those who have no assimilated into French culture. The response is symbolic protest: the performative consumption of ‘totemic’ items to reassert the cultural and political power of traditional France.

These cases (among countless others) show that the province-centre divide in France is far from healed. Whenever it feels threatened by external power, conservative society will always react with symbolic protest. This phenomenon is not limited to France. In the UK, much of the Euroscepticism that contributed to Brexit was based on symbolic politics. Tabloids in particular generated a highly symbolised narrative of illegitimate ‘Brussels bureaucrats’ trying to inflict ‘foreign’ laws on British society (who can forget the great myth of the EU wanting to ban curved bananas?).

Cultural conflict between province and centre is a universal problem that appears to be growing increasingly frequent. Politicians must therefore tread carefully when dealing with matters of provincial tradition. Failure to do so may quickly lead to protest and, as Mendès France discovered, a widespread belief in the total illegitimacy of the state.

Sam Young is an MA Modern History student at the University of Sheffield, where he is writing a dissertation on the 1965 French presidential election. He has a BA Joint Hons. in French & History from the University of Nottingham and is beginning a PhD in Franco-Belgian urban history at Cardiff University this October. Find him on Twitter @Samyoung102

Further reading

Barthes, Roland, Mythologies (Paris, 1957)

Bohling, Joseph, ‘The Mendès France Milk Regime: Alcoholism as a Problem of Agricultural Subsidies, 1954–1955’, French Politics, Culture & Society 32.3 (2014), pp. 97-120

De Taar, Francis, The French Radical Party: from Herriot to Mendès-France (London, 1961)

Dion, Michel, La France profonde (Paris, 1988)

 Howard, Sarah, ‘Selling wine to the French: official attempts to increase French wine consumption, 1931-1936’, Food & Foodways 12.4 (2004), pp. 197-224

Joxe, Pierre, ‘Pourquoi Mendès France ?’, Après-demain 17.1 (2011), pp. 46-48

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French fascists against Jewish women (1930s-1940s)

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Image: A female section of the PPF marching through the streets of Paris on 8 August 1943

This is an extract from a paper given by Antoine Godet at the Gender and Antisemitism workshop at the University of Sheffield which was held on June 18, 2019. It dealt with the representation of Jewish women, French or not, by French fascist men, through their texts and drawings in the 30s and the 40s, and the antisemitism of French fascist women. For this blog, Antoine focuses only on the misogynistic antisemitism of French fascist men. They belonged to movements such as the Parti Populaire Français (PPF), the Francisme or the Milice, and were journalists and drawers in the fascist press (Je suis partout, L’Émancipation Nationale, Au Pilori, etc.)

In their writings and iconography, French fascists say little about Jewish women. They prefer to denounce Jewish men, or rather “Jews” in general. Nevertheless, for the Fascists the “Jew” then is devoid of manhood and embodies the counter-model of their nationalist ideal manly man. Above all, the Jewish people in general are feminised and, at the end of the 30s, the racist ethnologist George Montandon, who was later a PPF activist, spoke of the “ethnie putain“, “the whore ethnic group”. According to him, this “scientific name” is justified by the “lust” of the “Jewish ethnic group” and “the fact that this community, instead of serving a country, puts itself, like a streetwalker, at the service of all countries” [1]. For French fascists, this global Jewish femininity weakens and soils the French race, to the point of speaking of France enjuivée (“Jewified France”).

George Montandon, How to recognize a Jew – with ten photographs, Paris, Nouvelle Éditions Françaises, 1940.

In fact, especially from the late 30s onwards, French fascists warn against the danger of interbreeding between Jews and non-Jews, an idea directly inspired by Nazism. For example, in 1938 in the pamphlet L’Emprise juive (The Jews hold), Marcel Bucard, the leader of the Francisme, expresses this fear of racial mixing by taking the example of “Jacob”, who prostitutes his daughter “Esther-Isabelle” with a count, in order to invade high society and voluntarily soil the French race. Bucard concludes that, in a hundred years’ time, “all the countesses and marquises will have eyes in the shape of coffee beans, and the hooked nose of the Rebecca from the rue des Rosiers“, a Jewish street in Paris. In May 1941, Doriot, the leader of the PPF, says it again: “A Jew has no right to marry a French woman. Let him marry with Rachel!”[2].

A drawing from Une histoire vraie, 1941

Moreover, from the 30s onwards, French antisemites tend to abandon the stereotype and the fantasy of the late 19th and early 20th centuries of the Belle Juive, to represent these women as hags with hooked noses and frizzy hair, which have now lost all their seduction capacities; or as insolent members of the bourgeoisie covered with jewels. In October 1938, in an article entitled “Jewish Fauna” published in Je suis partout, the writer and journalist Lucien Rebatet attacks “the thick Jewesses with pearls and furs, who try to imitate the charming and voluptuous walk of Christian women and are nothing more than a caricature of obscenity”[3].

Vidi, L’Union Française, 21 November 1942

 


Ralph Soupault, Le Petit Parisien, 19 December 1941

From 1940, this kind of physical description of Jewish women can be found mainly in the drawings of the collaborationist press representing the “Jewish Republic”. A Republic which, for them, continues to be embodied in “Jewified Vichy” and does not want to die once for all. By contrast, France, or rather the “National Revolution”, is personified by a nice woman, usually a blonde one, who delays aligning with other fascist countries in Europe. However, the myth of the Belle Juive has not totally disappeared and George Montandon, obsessed with the “Jewish nose”, recommends in 1938 and after to “disfigure nice Jewish women by cutting off their nasal ends, because there is nothing uglier than removing the tip of their nose”[4].

‘To save France… we need new blood – I’m the blood-donor’ Hubert, Au Pilori, 21 January 1943

 

Raph Soupault, Je suis partout, 20 December 1941

Finally, morally and psychologically, the Jewish woman is also the one who embodies or inspires feminine intellectualism and feminism. She is in particular the dangerously modern and left-wing woman, like Cécile Brunschvicg or Louise Weiss, the black beast of Je suis partout[5]. The Jewish woman is also an artist, and often a “greedy artist”, who relies on her fellows to succeed, like the actress Rachel according to the same newspaper. Under the Occupation, she necessarily belongs to the Zazous, this carefree youth vomited by the Nazi collaborationists. At last, under the pen of the collaborationists, the generic Jewish woman is called Sarah, Dalila, Rebecca or Rachel. For example, the writer Céline nicknamed England “Lady Sara Marmelade” to imply that this country is controlled by Jews. In the same line, Sara Roosevelt, the American president’s mother, is suspicious for the collaborationists because of her first name. Once again, she embodies this idea that the United States, and the Allies in general, are controlled by the Jews and devoid of manhood[6].

‘Military purposes: For a swinging France in a zazou Europe…’ Ralph Soupault, Je suis partout, 6 June 1942

Antoine Godet has a PhD in Contemporary History at Angers University, France. His thesis (2017) dealt with “The political and social symbolism of fascist and fascistic movements in France and Great-Britain in the 1930s through the comparative study of the Parti Populaire Français and the British Union of Fascists”. His research themes focus on Fascism, Nazism, extreme right, representations, political symbolism, rites, liturgy, identities, communities.

Related Stories: The Gender and Antisemitism Series

Challenging Heterosexist Readings Of Women’s Holocaust Testimonies by Roseanna Ramsden


[1]
George Montandon, “Détermination psychologique de l’ethnie judaïque : “l’ethnie putain”, La Difesa della Razza, 5 November 1939, p. 18-23 ; “Les Juifs démasqués par un savant ethnologue”, La France au travail, 2 July 1940.

[2] Marcel Bucard, L’Emprise juive, Paris, C.D.F., 1938, p. 69, 86, 87 ; Jacques Doriot, Réalités, Paris, Les Éditions de France, 1942, p. 114.

[3] Lucien Rebatet, “Que devient la Roumanie ?”, Je suis partout, 28 October 1938, p. 8.

[4] George Montandon, “L’Ethnie juive devant la science”, Cahiers du Centre d’examen des tendances nouvelles, n° 1, September 1938, p. 22 ; Revivre – Le Cahier jaune. Le grand magazine illustré de la race, 5 April 1943.

[5] For example “La dame aux gants verts”, Je suis partout, 2 May 1936, p. 8.

[6] For example, Je suis partout, 23 May 1942

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