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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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Delight, Dismay and Disbelief: Reactions to the Death of Hitler, 75 Years Ago

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It is 75 years since Adolf Hitler committed suicide in his Berlin bunker. His death continues to generate considerable public interest thanks to both continuing forensic discoveries about his biological remains, and the persistence of outlandish tales of his postwar survival. While no serious historian believes in the latter, it is worth considering how confused reporting of Hitler’s fate in spring 1945 created a climate ripe for the flourishing of such legends.

The first formal declaration of Hitler’s death came late on the evening of 1 May 1945 via a radio broadcast by Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz. Sombre music and drum rolls gave way to the momentous announcement: ‘our Führer, Adolf Hitler, has fallen. In the deepest sorrow and respect, the German people bow’. It was, proclaimed Dönitz, a ‘hero’s death’, Hitler falling in battle while fighting valiantly against the ‘Bolshevik storm’.

‘Hitler Dead’ screamed countless international headlines the next day. The bold, dramatic and matter-of-fact statement left little room for ambiguity. Hitler had met his end, National Socialism was vanquished and the Second World War was effectively over. The Daily Herald printed a caricature of a burning Nazi emblem under the slogan ‘WAStika’. The cover of Time magazine simply struck Hitler’s face out with a large red cross.

The media’s response to Hitler’s passing was predominantly one of intense relief. ‘The whole building cheered’, recalled Karl Lehmann, a member of the BBC Monitoring unit. Numerous editorials depicted it as a moment of universal liberation – ‘a terrible scourge and force of evil has been removed’, declared the Lancashire Daily Post.[1] The sense of catharsis continued into the VE Day celebrations a few days later when the burning of Hitler’s effigy typically formed the high point of the UK’s festivities.

In the midst of this jubilation, however, there was widespread uncertainty about the precise cause of death. Dönitz’s talk of Hitler ‘falling’ in battle filled the first wave of international news reports, but many of the accompanying editorials urged caution about accepting this at face value. There was suspicion that either the Nazis were exaggerating the circumstances of his demise to foster a ‘Hitler legend’, or that they were peddling an entirely false narrative to distract from his retreat from the scene. Questioned on the matter during a White House press conference, President Harry S. Truman insisted that he had it ‘on the best authority possible’ that Hitler was, indeed, dead – but conceded there were no details yet as to how he died.

The press were right to question the death-in-battle scenario invented in the Dönitz broadcast. Stationed in Flensburg, over 270 miles away from the death scene, the Admiral was reliant upon information fed to him by colleagues in Führerbunker, namely Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels and Head of the Party Chancellery Martin Bormann. The pair had already delayed sending definitive news of Hitler’s passing, prompting Dönitz to misdate the fatal moment to the afternoon of 1 May, rather than the 30 April. They also neglected to supply details of what, exactly, had occurred, leaving Dönitz to fill in the gaps for himself. As it transpired, he was not the only person speculating on Hitler’s fate.

United States made propaganda forgery of Nazi German stamp. Portrait of Hitler made into skull; instead of “German Reich” the stamp reads “Lost Reich”. Produced by Operation Cornflakes, U.S. Office of Strategic Services, circa 1942, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Futsches-Reich-Briefmarke-UK.jpg [accessed 29 April 2020]

The Western Allies, anxious to puncture martyrdom myths before they could take hold, swiftly countered Dönitz’s heroic imagery by reviving rumours of Hitler’s previously failing health. The Soviets, meanwhile, denounced reports of Hitler’s death as a ‘fascist trick’ to conceal his escape from Berlin. Even when reports of a Hitler suicide emerged from 3 May, debate continued as to whether the Nazi leader had shot himself or taken cyanide – poison being perceived by the Soviets as a particularly cowardly (and thus eminently appropriate) way out for Hitler.

What, though, did the general public make of all this? Within hours of the Dönitz broadcast, the New York Times and the social research organisation Mass Observation were gauging reactions across Manhattan and London respectively. At first, the news appeared anticlimactic; people who had longed for this moment felt disoriented, numb or empty now it was finally upon them. As the implications sunk in, Hitler’s death raised optimism that the war might finally be over, but dashed hopes that the public would see him brought to justice. ‘Too bad he’s dead’, mused one young New Yorker, ‘he should have been tortured’.[2]

The overwhelming reaction to news of Hitler’s demise, though, was one of disbelief. Some sceptics perceived the whole affair as a Nazi ruse, with Hitler just waiting to ‘pop out again when we aren’t looking’. Others foreshadowed modern-day accusations of ‘fake news’, directing their cynicism towards the contradictory explanations printed in the Allied press for Hitler’s demise. Mistrust of Nazi propaganda was also, understandably, common with one Londoner reflecting, ‘I don’t believe he died fighting. They just said that to make it seem more – you know – the way he’d have wanted people to think he died… I think personally he’s been out of the way for a long time now.’[3]

Ultimately, the competing versions of Hitler’s death ensured that the timing and cause of his demise became quite fluid within the public imagination. This, together with initial Soviet refusals to disclose the recovery of an identifiable corpse outside the bunker, created a vacuum in which all manner of rumours could take root. By contrast, the death of Benito Mussolini was commonly regarded with satisfaction because the deliberate display of his body rendered it an indisputable fact. It was only in 2000 that images of Hitler’s jaw (alongside a fragment of skull erroneously attributed to him) were publicly exhibited in Moscow, demonstrating how documenting the truth about his fate has proved a protracted process, and explaining why the Nazi leader has managed to remain so ‘alive’ in public discussion for all these years.

Caroline Sharples is Senior Lecturer in Modern European History at the University of Roehampton.  Her research focuses on memories of National Socialism, representations of the Holocaust and perpetrator commemoration. She is currently writing a cultural history of the death of Adolf Hitler. You can find her on Twitter @carol1ne_louise.

Cover image: Adolf Hitler, prior to 1945.

[1] Lancashire Daily Post, ‘Hitler’s Exit’ (2 May 1945), p.2.

[2] New York Times, ‘City Takes Report of Death in Stride’ (2 May 1945), p.9.

[3] Mass Observation Archive, University of Sussex, Topic Collection 49/1/1: ‘Hitler Indirects’, Hampstead, 2 May 1945.

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Anne Frank Revisited

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It is more than seventy years since the first publication of the first Dutch version of Anne Frank’s diary appeared in print. It was followed by both English and American editions in 1952 and subsequently translated into more than 60 languages to become perhaps the most iconic text to emanate from the Holocaust period.

The writings of a young girl, albeit in extreme circumstances, trying to make sense of growing up and writing about her hopes and fears, struck a chord with successive generations of young people across the globe. Sales figures bear witness to its popularity as a text, but that also made it a target for Holocaust deniers – undermine the veracity of the text and you undermine the veracity of the Holocaust itself. One of the deniers’ arguments was that there were different versions of the diary and they could not have been written by the same person.

In response, the custodians of the diary, the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation published what they described as the ‘critical’ edition in 1989 where they placed the various versions side by side, to show how they had been edited and changed by Anne herself. The book also contained chapters about the Frank family and the circumstances of their betrayal.

An unwieldy tome and not really designed for the mass market, it inevitably did nothing to convince hard-line deniers, and was itself subsequently undermined by the admission that there were a number of diary pages that had been withheld from previous publications because Otto Frank had deemed them too critical of Anne’s mother, Edith.

Twenty five years on and with the copyrights on the various versions of the diary coming closer to expiry, albeit staunchly defended by the lawyers of the Fondation Anne Frank in Basle, funds were found to mount a comprehensive re-evaluation of the diary. Martin van Gelderen (Lichenberg Kolleg) and Raphael Gross (Fritz Bauer Institut) led a team of scholars and translators who have gone back to the original manuscript diary to produce a new version. Their work has uncovered innumerable flaws in the earlier transcriptions.

For example, a fresh look at the manuscript shows that Anne often made errors and used German rather than Dutch grammatical constructions in her writing. This is especially ironic given the sometimes cruel jibes she made about her mother’s lack of competence in the language. Such errors seem to have been elided out in earlier versions.

A close reading of the diary also betrays Anne’s reliance for her writing style on the various Dutch authors she read as a child, not least the novels of Dutch children’s author Cissy van Marxveldt. Moreover, the sections that she was rewriting in 1944 show how her style changed as she got older and was influenced by other authors she read while in the Achterhuis. This on its own will force a literary reappraisal of the diary and provide a much more nuanced view of her writings.

This new set of publications will undoubtedly change the scholarly landscape surrounding Anne Frank’s legacy, not least in encouraging comparison with another recently discovered contemporary diary of Carry Ulreich, a teenage Jewish girl who survived the occupation in hiding in Rotterdam. That said, Anne Frank the symbol shows no sign of losing its status. Within the last six months alone, there have been at least two major controversies.

The first involved a Deutsche Bahn plan to name one of its new ICE trains after Anne Frank. While the idea sparked a great deal of debate, it was mediated by the Fondation’s insistence on a contextual explanation in the train itself. Far more extreme and deliberately provocative was distribution by neo-fascist fans of SS Lazio football club of stickers showing Anne Frank wearing a shirt of their arch rivals AS Roma. Such was the public outcry that the Italian football federation ordered a reading from the diary at all Serie A matches the following week – something that rather backfired when it led to further ugly scenes elsewhere.

Although an updated and more accurate version of the diary will undoubtedly be of benefit to academic and scholars, will it put an end to the use and misuse of Anne Frank as a symbol? Somehow I doubt it.

The Dagboek van Anne Frank will be published in Dutch by Prometheus in 2018 and in English and German translations by Cambridge University Press and Fischer Verlag respectively in 2019. Carry Ulreich‘s Nachts droom ik van vrede. Oorlogsdagboek 1941-1945 was published by Uitgeverij Mozaïek in 2016.

Professor Bob Moore is Professor of 20th Century European History at The University of Sheffield. His research is centred on the Second World War and Holocaust in Western Europe. He is currently a vitisting fellow at the Lichtenberg-Kolleg in Goettingen and Distinguished Research Fellow at the Institut fuer Zeitgeschichte, Munich.

This blog is part of a series of posts for National Holocaust Memorial Day – they will appear here as they are posted.

Image: Anne Frank, 1940 [Via WikiCommons]

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Transatlantic Fascism before Trump

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On 29 November 2017, Donald Trump retweeted a video shared on Twitter by one of the leaders of Britain First, purporting to show a ‘Muslim migrant’ beating up a ‘Dutch boy’. This was later reported to be fake news, with the perpetrator from the video being born and raised in the Netherlands. Founded in 2011, Britain First is a far-right group with a big presence on social media, where it posts a slew of memes ranging from the fairly innocuous to the crudely racist. Britain First has an estimated membership of around 1,000.

The move shocked and confused commentators on both sides of the Atlantic. Why was Donald Trump, current President of the United States, retweeting the leader of a British far-right group whose presence beyond social media is tiny? While the answer to this question will likely be debated for some time to come (or at least until Trump tweets something else) this process of far-right ideological exchange has a long history.

During the inter-war period, British racial nationalists published and disseminated books and periodicals from various locations across the world, including the United States. The Britons, an anti-Semitic organisation founded by Henry Hamilton Beamish in 1919, spent much of its time and effort on maintaining these transnational exchanges.[1]

The Britons kept their audience in touch with racists across the pond. In 1923, an advertisement in their newspaper informed readers that Henry Ford’s anti-Semitic newspaper, Dearborn Independent, was available to purchase from their headquarters.[2] The same issue also carried an enthusiastic article on the Ku Klux Klan. The Britons applauded the Klan’s white supremacist views and their campaign against ‘the Jew Menace’.[3]

Arnold Leese, a disciple of Beamish and The Britons, later founded one of the most extreme of Britain’s fascist groups, the Imperial Fascist League (IFL). Like Beamish, Leese clearly believed in the importance of cultivating international links and ideological exchanges. The IFL’s newspaper, The Fascist, as well as Leese’s own ideology carries traces of these international influences.

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Madison Grant, around 1913.

On numerous occasions The Fascist carried recommendations for the works of American white supremacist writers Madison Grant and Lothrop Stoddard.[4] In their best-selling books, Grant and Stoddard advocated the formation of a racial aristocracy against democracy and especially against Bolshevism, which Stoddard racialised as the ideology of ‘The Under-Man’ (a term later borrowed by the Nazis, who were fans of both authors) bent on ‘racial… war’.[5]

Leese’s ‘Racial’ or ‘Nordic Fascism’ combined Grant and Stoddard’s Nordicism with the work of Nazi racial scientist Hans F. K. Günther. For Leese, the goal of fascism was the establishment of a racial aristocracy to defend against what he believed were Jewish attempts to undermine white supremacy.[6] His constant attempts to racialise Bolshevism were borrowed more or less wholesale from Stoddard.[7]

The IFL had a tiny membership and almost no immediate impact on mainstream British politics. They had an initial estimated membership of 150 and their paper had a circulation of 3,000 per issue. Despite this, through his efforts circulating the writings of obscure racists, Leese preserved a strain of white supremacist ideology that went on to nurture a new generation of British fascists after the Second World War.

During this time, the British radical right was confronted not only with the end of Empire but also the arrival in Britain of Commonwealth citizens from the West Indies. They referred to these new black Britons as the ‘Negro Menace’.[8] The Britons Publishing Society (BPS), which had developed out of The Britons, advised readers of its Free Britain journal to ‘take warning’ from ‘American authors like Stoddard and Madison Grant’.[9]

This has been a brief historical review of the transnational links possessed by the British radical right. There is a worrying difference, however, between these historical examples and Trump’s retweeting. The exchanges mentioned above were taking place between marginal fascists on the radical right and not between a far-right group and the current President of the United States.

Liam J. Liburd is in the second year of his PhD studies with the University of Sheffield. His thesis is entitled “Constructions of Race, Gender and Empire on the British Fascist and Radical Right, 1920s to 1960s”. His research focuses on the relationship between the British Radical Right, including British fascism, and the British Empire. He has broader interests in gender and cultural historical approaches to British political history in the twentieth century.You can find Liam on Twitter @LiamJLiburd.

Image: Madison Grant, around 1913 [Via WikiCommons].

[1] For a comprehensive history of The Britons and their transnational influence see: Nick Toczek, Haters, Baiters and Would-Be Dictators.

[2] ‘The Ford Pamphlets’, The Hidden Hand, 12, 3 (January, 1923), p. 2.

[3] ‘Ku Klux Klan’, The Hidden Hand, 12, 3 (January, 1923), pp. 2-3.

[4] ‘Books Which Fascists Should Read’, The Fascist, 1, 7 (September 1929), p. 3; ‘Obituary’, The Fascist, 101 (October, 1937), p. 2; Gyron, ‘The Chemistry of Progress’, The Fascist, 104 (January, 1938), p. 4.

[5] Lothrop Stoddard, The Rising Tide of Colour Against White World Supremacy (London, 1923), p. 220.

[6] ‘Leadership’, The Fascist, 56 (January, 1934), p. 2.

[7] Arnold Leese, ‘Communism and Race’, The Fascist, 29 (October 1931), p. 3.

[8] H. T. Mills, ‘Spurious Conservatism – 4’, Free Britain, 49 (5 March, 1950), p. 2.

[9] ‘Malaya, India, Nigeria and Tottenham Court Road’, Free Britain, 36 (4 December, 1949), p. 2.

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