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History and Popular Culture

‘Always protest’? Drag Race, Pathé Newsreels, and Subversion in Mainstream Media

Manchester,,Uk,-,August,24,,2019:,Manchester,Pride,Parade,2019.

RuPaul’s Drag Race sells itself, and has been praised, as a subversive television series. RuPaul, eponymous creator of the drag contest gameshow, has stated ‘true drag will never be mainstream. Because true drag has to do with seeing that this world is an illusion’. British judge Graham Norton recently claimed ‘there’s something dangerous about drag still’. Echoing this, a contestant queen from the syndicated British Drag Race enthused that ‘Drag was always a protest, a political statement’. Drag Race, participants and producers alike insist, is inherently subversive because drag necessarily challenges the gender norms of ‘straight’ society.

Drag Race has also become a mass media phenomenon. A niche show in 2009, its 13th series premiered this year to 1.3 million viewers. Interviewed, like any self-respecting A-list celebrity, by the Muppets and toting both a Simpsons cameo and a star on the Hollywood walk of fame, RuPaul is arguably the most famous drag queen in the world. This begs the question, can drag retain a subversive edge in mainstream media?

To consider this, it is instructive to look at one of drag’s first brushes with mass media in Britain. It was during the interwar period that drag first appeared onscreen, chiefly through cinema newsreels. Newsreels – short non-fiction topical films summarising the week’s current events – were included in almost every cinema programme until the 1960s. To leaven the news, they frequently featured variety entertainment; offshoot newsreels such as Pathetone were evencomprised entirely of filmed music hall acts.

A well-established form of music hall repertory from the nineteenth century, drag soon found its way into the newsreel. Bert Errol amazed cinemagoers by changing into high drag before their eyes in 1922. West-End comedian Douglas Byng appeared in rudimentary drag singing innuendo-laden falsetto across the 1930s. A 1937 item covered a police pantomime, with multiple shots of officers putting on makeup and dresses. In 1939, six sailors dressed as fairies sang and pranced before King-Emperor George VI during a naval inspection.

This seems remarkable at a time when populist paper John Bull ran editorials attacking London’s queer men for transvestism, castigating them as the ‘painted boy menace’.[1] From the mid-1920s, men wearing women’s clothes and makeup became tantamount to being queer.[2] In the 1930s, it is estimated 40 percent of Britons went to the cinema once and 25 percent twice or more a week.[3] To make drag palatable for the mainstream, newsreels had to ensure conventional manliness remained unchallenged and any association with queerness was muted.

As such, newsreels usually placed drag in establishment settings. Byng was a fixture of London’s fashionable set, always filmed in high-end venues like the Paradise Club, laughing with elites more so than at them. Likewise, Errol’s wife helped him change into drag, making sure audiences knew he was a red-blooded heterosexual, wig and high heels notwithstanding. The police officers and sailors returned to their uniforms, drag but a brief interlude (the naval fairies lasted but twenty seconds onscreen) from their ‘manly’ public service. Ensconced in marriage, elite society, and ‘masculine’ professions, queens could not truly send up the establishment when they were often performing from the heart of it.

Moreover, newsreels always framed drag as comedy. Ian Green has argued comedy allows latitude for contentious topics. Yet, because comedy resolves in laughter, it curtails earnest critique.[4] David Sutton likewise concludes comedy as a genre is ‘the appropriate site for the inappropriate, the proper place for indecorum’.[5] Comedy is establishment-condoned critique, safely dissipated in laughter. All the above acts, awash with puns and gags, aimed to make cinemagoers laugh, not challenge their gendered assumptions. Far from a challenge to the status quo, then, interwar drag acts could only enter mainstream media as safe entertainment bereft of queer connotations.

This is not to say drag culture could not be subversive. For queer men to wear women’s clothes and attend drag balls was certainly a brave and subversive act in the interwar period, one that provoked the British establishment.[6] The interwar life of Quentin Crisp is representative of the defiant subversion that came from wearing cosmetics.

Yet, as Jacob Bloomfield has shown, drag onstage was not inherently controversial and remained a staple of popular theatre.[7] Similarly, filmed drag acts obviated controversy in order to appeal to the broadest possible audience. In fact, looking at newsreel drag items reveals a legacy of conservatism for drag acts in the mainstream.

The producers of Drag Race would like to make their show the heir to the counterculture of drag balls and gay bars. Yet, in many respects, itis the mainstream heir to newsreel variety acts. Like newsreels, Drag Race is foremost comic entertainment, more inclined to jokes than politics. What little gender discussion there is occurs in the fleeting moments between farcical gameshow skits. The only challenges presented are to the competing queens’ dignities.

Like Pathe’s producers, RuPaul has espoused a profoundly conservative view of ‘true’ drag. Through transphobic comments, he has stressed drag as the exclusive province of gay men. Thus, much as newsreels removed any ‘controversial’ association with queerness, so Drag Race has placed strict limits on what drag represents and who can perform it.  

A look at the history of drag in newsreels reveals that to project drag through mass media is not inherently subversive. Whether in Pathé or on BBC3, being produced as mainstream entertainment severely curtails any potential for real subversion of societal norms such as gender. Former drag performer Paul O’Grady, carping in 2017 about Drag Race, contended that his drag persona Lilly Savage ‘belonged in a pub, especially a gay bar, where you could rant and rave’.  Considering drag’s relationship with popular media, perhaps it is only in niche subcultures that subversion can truly flourish.

Conner Scott is a PhD student in the Department of History at the University of Sheffield. His research seeks to explore the role of British newsreels in everyday life, and how they (re)presented the cinemagoing public to itself on a weekly basis between c.1919-c.1939.


Cover image: Manchester Pride Parade 2019. A group of five drag queens representing BBC’s ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race UK’ on pink stage, Manchester, 24 August 2019. Used courtesy of Goncalo Telo for non-commercial, educational purposes. https://www.shutterstock.com/image-photo/manchester-uk-august-24-2019-pride-1489347011

[1] Matt Houlbrook, ‘“The man with the powder puff” in Interwar London’, The Historical Journal 50.1 (2007), pp. 147-49.

[2] I use the term queer as it was the most common self-identity of interwar men who had sexual and emotional relationships with other men and avoids the anachronism of gay. See Matt Houlbrook, Queer London: Perils and Pleasures in the Sexual Metropolis, 1918-1957 (London, 2005), p. xiii.

[3] Annette Kuhn, An Everyday Magic: Cinema and Cultural Memory (London, 2002), p. 2.

[4] Ian Green, ‘Ealing: In the Comedy Frame’ in James Curran and Vincent Porter (eds), British Cinema History (London, 1983), p. 296.

[5] David Sutton, A Chorus of Raspberries: British Film Comedy 1929-1939 (Exeter, 2000), p. 60.

[6] See Matt Houlbrook, ‘Lady Austin’s Camp Boys: Constituting the Queer Subject in 1930s London’, Gender and History 14.1 (2002), pp. 31-61; Houlbrook, Queer London.

[7] See Jacob Bloomfield, ‘Splinters: Cross-Dressing Ex-Servicemen on the Interwar Stage’, Twentieth Century British History 30.1 (2019), pp. 1-28.

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Girls’ Culture and the Girl’s Own Paper during the fin de siècle

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In an increasingly interconnected world, the mass media has impacted how many of us perceive ourselves. Growing up in the 2000s, aspects of my own identity have been shaped by my engagement with popular culture as a young girl. Reading magazines such as Girl Talk and Mizz, I developed a gender-based identity defined by popular representations of what it means to be a girl. 

Featuring fashion advice, celebrity gossip, and real-life stories of readers, girls’ magazines of the 21st century are loaded with gender assumptions that mark them as quite different from boys’ reading material. As a historian interested in gender issues, I am drawn to explore how understandings of gender roles have shaped ‘modern’ society and, in particular, how the media has defined gender-based identities in Britain.

It was in the final decades of the 19th century that girlhood began to be regarded as an important stage in life, one with its own distinct culture, located in between, but separated from both childhood and adulthood.[1] This point of view formed part of a reaction to popular anxieties about ‘modernity’ and its potential to create social and moral disorder, with gender considered a category through which this disorder could manifest itself. The image of the ‘New Woman’, associated with growing independence and new opportunities for women in the 1890s, challenged the accepted ideal that the primary responsibilities of women and girls were in the home. Importance was therefore placed on girlhood, a time during which young women were taught the acceptable boundaries of their gender.

Starting out as a penny weekly in 1880, the Girl’s Own Paper is just one example of the numerous periodicals of the fin de siècle which stressed gender dichotomies to its readers.[2] As the most popular and longest running periodical of its kind, the Girl’s Own is an important historical source for understanding how modern girls’ culture has evolved.

Containing nonfiction articles, stories, and a regular correspondence section, in its pages the Girl’s Own crafted its own vision of acceptable girlhood. Between 1880 and 1900, several articles in the paper expressed the need for girls to follow the traditional obligations of their sex. Readers were encouraged to live by traditional feminine values and were exposed to advertisements for household products, soaps, sewing materials, and other domestic necessities.[3]Stories also explicitly warned girls that to follow in the footsteps of the ‘New Woman’ would inevitably lead to unhappy spinsterhood.[4]

In an ever-growing market of gendered periodicals, however, the Girl’s Own also accepted the need to discuss more progressive ideas on girlhood in order to remain popular with readers. By the turn of the century, an increasing number of informative articles appeared on matters such as higher education and work opportunities. The justification given for such articles was that these were a response to the large number of girls requesting advice on ‘new departures, new training, and new careers’.[5]

Advertisements for leisure pursuits also allowed for a more ‘modern’ vision of girlhood to be represented. Products were marketed as being suitable for ‘lawn tennis, badminton, and croquet wear’, activities associated with modern representations of girlhood which distinguished fin de siècle girls from older generations.[6]

In 1890, however, readers were reminded to ‘enjoy your lawn tennis; but remember the obligations of your sex and your self respect’.[7] This phrasing summarises well the tone used in the Girl’s Own between 1880 and 1900, as traditional ideas on girlhood and femininity were renegotiated alongside the opportunities of modern life. The author cautioning readers to ‘remember [their] obligations’ demonstrated both tolerance for the new opportunities available to girls, such as new leisure pursuits like lawn tennis, and an awareness of the simultaneous opening-up of new educational and professional fields. Nevertheless, it was also stressed that these new opportunities should be enjoyed in moderation. An image of the ideal reader was thus created within the magazine which embodied the Christian, and traditionally feminine values of the magazine’s publisher but which also considered the demands of its readership. 

Many girls engaged in the correspondence of the magazine, and anticipated a reply from their ‘dear, faithful friend’, the editor.[8] This was yet another way in which the magazine acted as a tool with which its consumers formed understandings of their own lives and of the world around them. Experiences and understandings at such a fundamental life stage—girlhood—shaped the readers’ worldview on their way to adulthood. 

In today’s society, the mass media still acts as a vehicle with which individual identities are shaped and connected. More than a hundred years on, possibilities have increased exponentially, not only through the printed word but also because of the endless opportunities which the internet provides. The rise of social media is reflective of an increasingly globalised society, in which individuals can connect on deeper and more meaningful levels than earlier printed periodicals could provide. Yet, these older forms of communication remain important and relevant sources. They can teach us much about how our society has evolved, and how gender ideals which still exist today have been negotiated and understood in the past.

Laura Neilson is a recent graduate of the University of Sheffield, holding an MA in Modern History. She is particularly interested in gender history, and in making history accessible to the public.

Cover image: Masthead illustration for the Girl’s Own Paper in an 1886 edition. Source: Wikimedia Commons


[1] K. Moruzi, Constructing Girlhood through the periodical press, 1850-1918 (Ashgate, 2012), p.9; S. Mitchell, The New Girl: Girls’ Culture in England, 1880-1915 (Columbia University Press, 1995), pp.1-3.

[2] D. Gorham, The Victorian Girl and the Feminine Ideal (Routledge, 2013), p.18.

[3] “Multiple Classified Advertisements”, Girl’s Own Paper, 3rd September 1881, p.3.

[4] “Varieties”, Girl’s Own Paper, 6th October 1894.

[5] Lily Watson, “What is the London County Council doing for Girls?”, Girl’s Own Paper, 27th February 1897, p.4.

[6] “Multiple Display Advertisements”, Girl’s Own Paper, 3rd January 1880, p.4.

[7] S.F.A Caulfield, “Some Types of Girlhood; or, Our Juvenile Spinsters”, Girl’s Own Paper, 4th October 1890, p.5.

[8] “A Dip Into the Editor’s Correspondence”, Girl’s Own Paper, 16th June 1883, p.6.

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‘Fear or Fetish? The Fetishisation of Lesbians in Cold War America

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In the 1950s, American society saw a huge rise in anxieties regarding gender norms and sexuality. Homosexuals were demonized through the Lavender Scare – a moral panic focused on gay and lesbian US government employees – and ideas of the nuclear family were promoted in the fight against Communism. Yet, throughout this period, there was also an influx of highly erotic lesbian fiction and magazines aimed at heterosexual men with overtly sexualised lesbian themes. This sexualisation remains prevalent today and continues to have detrimental impacts upon the lives of lesbian woman,[1] and yet its origins have received little attention in historical debate.

When constructions of homosexuality have been looked at during this period, historians have tended to focus on the political sphere. David Johnson, for example, focuses much of his attention on how anxieties regarding sexuality permeated political culture and the lives of elites.[2] Therefore, little attention is given to popular culture and perceptions of the ‘ordinary’ American citizen. Focusing primarily on political culture also means that Johnson’s narrative mainly looks at how the Lavender Scare impacted wider cultural perceptions of homosexual men.

Consequently, the sexualisation of lesbians by heterosexual men and how this came to the fore with such force during this period has not received necessary attention.

At the end of the war and throughout the 1950s, American society took a conservative turn, with ideas of gender and ‘family’ becoming all the more important as a way to distinguish America from the Communist East. Women were particularly impacted by this growing interest in conformity. As Elaine Tyler May points out, the full-time housewife became synonymous with ideas of American freedom.[3] Anything that deviated from this ideal was therefore seen as a threat.

At the same time, ideas of homosexuality were changing and ‘the lesbian’ was fashioned as an immediate danger. Lesbianism began to be framed as a sickness, but crucially it was a sickness that could be cured – if only a man could show them a “good time”.

Simultaneously, we see the crisis of masculinity. At numerous occasions during this period, historian and social critic Arthur Schlesinger wrote on the issue, arguing that World War II had ushered in an uneasy sense of vulnerability and a loss of a clear sense of self for many men that continued throughout the 1950s. This sense of a decline in manhood’s mastery over others, combined with ideas that lesbians could be ‘regained’ by patriarchal concepts of heterosexuality, meant that ‘the lesbian’ was constructed as an opportunity for men to prove themselves. The post-war into the Cold War period therefore set up the perfect conditions within which the sexualisation of lesbians could flourish.

This resulted in an influx of pulp fiction and men’s magazines, through which these themes were reflected. Stories of lesbian orgies, threesomes and lesbian nymphomaniacs were extremely popular amongst heterosexual men during this period. Within these novels, lesbians are presented as deviants, yet deviants who are often regained by heterosexual, familial norms after experiencing life changing heterosexual sex.

Cover of The Third Sex by Artemis Smith (1963 Edition).

The message is therefore clear. If men show lesbians a good time by reasserting their masculinity, these women will once against fit within the Cold War ideals of conformity – everyone’s a winner.

Men’s magazines took a similar approach. Stories and images of two women looking for a man were extremely popular. What we can learn from 1950s and 1960s America is that sex sells, but lesbian sex sells better.

This had very real life consequences for lesbians, as men encroached on their space in the search of sexual encounters. Analysis of interviews and testimonies show that this repressive context led to a thriving underground lesbian movement and a vast number of lesbian bars being established. Heterosexual men often took advantage of these lesbian spaces, going there in search of lesbian women to have sex with –further demonstrating how they were constructed as an opportunity in the eyes of men.

Ultimately, the period between 1947 up until the stonewall riots of 1969 provided the ideal conditions within which the sexualisation of lesbians could and indeed did flourish. Sexualisation of lesbians is still widespread within our society today and lesbians continue to face challenges of not only being seen as a sexual fantasy but also having their sexuality presented as merely performative and something that can be “regained” by heterosexual masculinity

In numerous recent insight reports, PornHub revealed that ‘Lesbian’ was the most searched for and most viewed category across numerous American states, with 75 percent of the American audience being male. These statistics demonstrate that lesbianism continues to be framed within the male gaze. Sexualisation is not the same as acceptance and therefore it is important that we continue to address its roots in order to hold both society and ourselves accountable today.

Jamie Jenkins is a PhD student at Radboud University working on the Voices of the People  project. Her research investigates how the media constructed popular expectations of democracy in Great Britain between the end of the Second World War and the 1980s. She tweets @jenkinsleejamie


Cover image: Cover of Lesbian Love by Marlene Longman (1960).

[1] See Ofcom’s ‘Representation and Portrayal on BBC TV 2018’ report regarding the representation of lesbian women on television. https://www.ofcom.org.uk/tv-radio-and-on-demand/information-for-industry/bbc-operating-framework/representation-portrayal-bbc-tv/research-hub/lesbian-women

[2] David K. Johnson, The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in Federal Government (Chicago, 2004).

[3] Elaine Tyler May, Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era (New York, 1988).

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‘Illegitimate’ Cultures: from the Music Hall to the Rave

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At first glance, mid-Victorian entertainment culture and the current ‘illegal’ rave scene of Covid-Britain may appear wildly incomparable. But the early Victorian period, as illustrated by the cultural division between the ‘music hall’ and ‘legitimate theatre’ was pivotal in cementing the division between ‘illegitimate’ and ‘legitimate’ culture. Understanding the historical drivers behind these definitions of culture is crucial to disentangling contemporary ‘public health’ policy from the influence of ‘moral panic.’  Distinguishing between the two can reveal the broader influence of dominant class anxieties about cultures which appear to challenge economic or social ‘norms’, of which early music hall and rave culture are both examples. 

The summer of 2020 witnessed stark contradictions in public health messages and policies.  Whilst an inevitable wave of ‘illegal’ outdoor rave gatherings were condemned and supressed by police forces, simultaneously the public were being encouraged (and subsidised) to ‘eat out’ in restaurants, despite indoor spaces being widely deemed a greater danger for viral transmission. This speaks volumes about the push to maintain the ideology of ‘legitimate culture’, defined by its relationship to free market economics (to which restaurant culture is wedded) as being more important than the scientific realities of public health.  

The first organised and uniformed police force emerged in 1829, playing a key role in shaping ‘legitimate’ modes of culture in the newly expanding towns and cities of the Victorian era.  Arising from a middle-class fear of the expanding working classes, early policing was born out of a desire to impose discipline outside of the confines of the workplace upon sites of ‘unregulated’ leisure time –on the street or in the ale house. In the context of the Chartist movement of the 1830s, which saw mass demonstrations calling for wider enfranchisement, a fear of the ‘unruly crowd’ and its potential to challenge state power remained present throughout the century. 

The larger, more commercially minded ‘Music Hall’ venue emerged out of the smaller ale houses and singing saloons of the late 18th and early 19th century urban milieu. Often tied closely to the brewing industry, music halls were associated with drinking, smoking and less ‘respectable’ behaviour.  Their perceived lack of legitimacy, compared to ‘legitimate’ theatres, where smoking and drinking were forbidden, was solidified by the 1843 Theatres Act. This Act stipulated that only venues holding a Theatre License, appointed by the Lord Chamberlain, could legally perform plays or performances with a ‘strong narrative’. This distinction between the music hall and theatre reflected the increasing tendency from the Victorian era upon centralising state control over censorship. 

The Eat Out To Help Out scheme of the summer of 2020 encouraged and subsidised the public to gather in restaurants, despite indoor spaces being deemed dangerous for viral transmission. Source: https://unsplash.com/photos/8pc6VvR0gJs, Photographer: Nick Fewings

Associated with large gatherings in rural locations, a large part of the anxiety that the rave scene is associated with may stem from its physical dislocation from the regulation and surveillance of the urban space, a legacy that can be traced back to Victorian policing. It has been argued that the government night time economy policies of the 1990s, which sought to replace rave culture with tighter social controls, explicitly took aim at rave culture, driving it into commercial club spaces that could be regulated through licensing, rendering rave more visible and therefore subject to greater monitoring in the public sphere. 

Furthermore, unlike the Victorian music hall and ‘legitimate’ theatre, rave culture possesses neither a stake in broader social nor in economic capital, existing (largely) outside of the regulated entertainment industry. This helps to explain rave culture’s consistent suppression following its height during the late 1980s and early 1990s.  Passed in response to the infamous rave at Castle Morton in 1992, the 1994 ‘Criminal Justice and Public Order Act’ gave sweeping powers to stop unlicensed gatherings of more than a hundred people, with an emphasis on supressing events which played loud music with ‘repetitive beats’ – an extremely unsubtle reference to rave culture. 

A telling quote from a raver involved in the scene of the time mentions the class politics at play in suppressing particular cultures, as well as the relationship between ‘legitimate’ culture and free-market economics: ‘If it had been a big event, [which] had been staged [and] had cost thousands of pounds it would have been all right[..]But because it was poor people, with no money, doing something they haven’t been granted permission for, suddenly it was the crime of the century.’ 

Unlike rave culture, Music Hall would eventually become more accepted through its increasing ‘commercialisation’ during the later 19th century as a national entertainment industry. Conscious attempts were made to prove Music Hall’s legitimacy through self-censorship, curating more ‘respectable’ content, and deploying surveillance to regulate crowd behaviour, as demonstrated by numerous statements on theatre bill posters proclaiming police would be ‘in attendance.’ 

Whether we understand or support the rave scene or not, ‘rave culture is culture.’  It is possible to be both critical of the public health practices of rave events (as indeed even many within the scene have been), as well as considering it a culture in all its complexity (for what is culture without its contradictions and problematic aspects?) 

Taking leisure culture, including rave culture seriously, brings into question the role of the state, and how it has historically influenced and enforced cultural norms, through both legislation and use of police force.  In both the music hall and rave culture, state suspicion and regulation has stemmed from a mistrust of forms of mass leisure that have risen ‘from below’; rave culture’s continued suppression, however, is in part due to its explicit refusal to ‘commercialise’ and become ‘respectable’ in the way that music hall did. In light of a recent investigation into a raver in Bristol being mauled by a police dog, asking serious questions about whose culture is given ‘legitimacy’, and the public health implications for this in the physical realm, has never been more pertinent.  

Izzy Hadlum is currently a History Masters student at the University of Sheffield.  Her research deals with entertainment culture in Mid-Victorian Sheffield, with a focus on the dynamic between respectability and class across Music Hall and Theatre.   

Cover Image: ‘Rave culture is culture’. Source: https://unsplash.com/photos/EHWtxXpiDD0, photographer: Dima Pechurin

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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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Adolf Eichmann: Nazis in Popular Culture and the Trivialization of Historical Knowledge

Eichmann

As we mark the anniversary of the final ruling of the Eichmann trial on 15 December, it is counterintuitive that the personage of Adolf Eichmann grows in historical memory and public prominence with each passing year. In the past year, one can count one major Hollywood film, one large travelling museum exhibit and one role in a hit television series. It brings to mind Stanley Kubrick’s immortal words about Schindler’s List: ‘Think that’s about the Holocaust? That was about success, wasn’t it? The Holocaust is about 6 millions people who get killed. Schindler’s List is about 600 who don’t.’

The Holocaust saw the largest continental European power use all of its resources and approximately 250,000 of its own people (the estimate commonly cited for those directly involved in murder) to attempt to kill 11 million European Jews. It is not believed that Adolf Eichmann killed any single solitary individual himself. As a lieutenant colonel, his level of leadership in the Nazi hierarchy was distinctly second tier. Others, such as Gestapo Chief Heinrich Müller, who remains the only top Nazi never confirmed captured or dead, are largely forgotten. This strange turn of events could be read as an unintended consequence of the Eichmann trial itself, engineered by David Ben Gurion as the first public pedagogical exercise in global Holocaust education. Instead of the Eichmann case shining a light on the inner workings of genocide, the spotlight simply looped back on the man himself.

The recent Eichmann upsurge also makes sense for a contemporary moment when the repressed demons of fascism are returning worldwide. This illiberal wave coincides with both the passing of the last living generation that directly experienced the Second World War as well as the firm establishment of Nazi symbolism as a part of global popular culture. The proliferation of Nazi motifs in video games, fantasy, anime and internet memes are too widespread to begin to count. This does not signify a deepening of Holocaust education and awareness but rather a trivialization of historical knowledge and awareness.

Eichmann as a pop-culture meme makes a certain degree of sense as his story uniquely captures the ‘horror show’ and ‘fantastical’ aspects of the Holocaust. Forever linked to Hannah Arendt’s immortal phrase ‘banality of evil’, firmly embedded in pop philosophy, Eichmann illustrates what one might call the Hannibal Lecter school of genocidal psychopathology. By appearances respectable, even learned, Eichmann could almost seem like a petty bourgeois family man (as portrayed by Ben Kingsley in 2018’s Operation Finale) but for the frightful rage that neurotically flashes out.[1]

Seemingly analogous to the misread short-hand version of Arendt’s interpretation, observers have often failed to consider her work as part of a larger oeuvre.  When considered in tandem with her Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt meant that genocide was a product of modernity. Not that the murders were not murderous but rather that the atomization, differentiation and anxiety of modern social structures were factors within modern societies that could lead to genocide. The threat lies within a bourgeois European modernity which merely brought home to Europe, albeit in a more condensed and radicalized form with Nazism, what it had been doing under the guise of colonialism for decades elsewhere.

This image of Eichmann flatters bourgeois self-regard, and even perpetuates deceptive mechanisms used by the Nazis to such great effect during the war. The Nazis portrayed themselves as defending European civilization from barbaric half-Asiatic hordes. As George Mosse put it, theirs was a ‘bourgeois anti-bourgeois revolution’, a rescue operation for bourgeois normality, a task at which diffident liberals had proved themselves woefully ill-equipped. Who can oppose happy, healthy people, and a society cleansed of all disturbing elements?[2]

The second major recent depiction of Adolf Eichmann, in the Amazon series Man in the High Castle (based on the novel by Philip K. Dick) links to what could be called the ‘parallel universe’ theory of genocide etiology. The series involves a fictional premise that the Nazis obtained nuclear weapons which they then used to bomb the United States into submission.[3] Subsequently, they divide the Western Hemisphere along with their Japanese allies, leaving a small buffer zone in-between. Eichmann emerges as the chief planner of a massive invasion of the Japanese states via carpet-bombing to destroy all vital west-coast infrastructure.

The Eichmann here is robust with a Nazi-style high and tight haircut, and seems to have evolved into some futuristic Nazi warrior. The show’s depiction aligns with the main terms of the critique of Arendt put forth by Cesarini, Ezorsky and others. It is claimed that Arendt was duped by Eichmann’s self-minimization and that he was actually an impassioned mass murderer and not a bureaucrat whose perpetrator status was confined to clerical work. The cartoon-like Eichmann in the television series is even a military mastermind beset with fantasies of destruction on a continental scale. Hinted at here is the notion that the Nazis were some kind of alien supermen that mysteriously inhabited the bodies of a few million Austro-Germans and then disappeared into the ether in May 1945.[4] This transformational metamorphosis serves again to bolster self-confidence that the Nazis really came from some parallel universe. The common ground here is that both depictions take as their starting point the unprepossessing ‘everyman quality’ in Eichmann’s appearance.

The Holocaust as the uncanny at the heart of European civilization is mirrored in the uncanny of Eichmann who does indeed seem like one of any number of anonymous middle-aged office workers. There is an unspoken assumption of a certain kind of Eurocentricity behind the idea of what is normative and bourgeois. And indeed, one of the more persistent debates among historians is whether or not Nazism and the Holocaust emerged out of a deformation of a specific European process of modernization. For some this has even emerged as a disciplinary fault line between Holocaust and Genocide Studies.[5]

The ‘memification’ of Nazis in pop culture risks substituting historical understanding for the short-cuts of trivialization. A greater risk that hits closer to home among scholars is the profound, if subterranean survival of National Socialist narratives among a more learned and informed audience. To offer a couple of brief examples, though not as widespread as a generation ago, the terms Anschluss and Kristallnacht are still routinely deployed in pedagogical settings.[6] Both are products of a Nazi media-management and propaganda machine so subtle and devious that it persists after the original cover-up. The deception of the nomenclature here is so complete that no successive English language scholastic term has come to usurp its place in the vocabulary of the subject. Very similar issues persist with regard to the so-called ‘Euthanasia’ program.[7]

The canny use of aesthetics by the Nazis from their uniforms designed by Hugo Boss to the eye catching use of banners now seems tailor made for posterity and for co-option into popular culture. Their design strategies drew upon ideals of beauty that quickly found a direct road into the cerebral cortex. Baroque theatrics possessed a seductive power whose spell has not been fully broken. It is all the more incumbent to present new and compelling methods and means of conveying the traumatic horror perpetrated by these minions.

The Eichmann trial was the first major exercise in global Holocaust education. Especially when considering how wildly reception of these events varies around the world, it is imperative to keep the unique reality front and centre. Hitler was not just one of dozens of military strong men dictators but the author of death factories which meant graveyards in the air for millions as their bodies were cremated, the same air we all breathe on this small planet.

Yet there is still so much more to know. To provide an additional instance, how many people think of the role of nurses in the Third Reich, whose arms may have coddled a small child whose defects the nurse received monetary gain to report. Any number of nurses continued to hold such babies as lethal poison was injected into their tiny arms.

Let us not exchange the ‘indigestible gap’ in modern history that challenges comprehension and requires in-depth research for pop tokenism and cultural commodification, as embodied by the popular images of Eichmann.

Adam J. Sacks holds an MA and PhD in history from Brown University and an MS in education from the City College of the City University of New York. He is currently a Lecturer in the Faculty of History in the University of Hong Kong and is working on the development of Jewish Studies and Holocaust Studies curriculum for that institution.

[1] The film derives much of its momentum as a Cold War spy thriller narrative, which, like a recent exhibit that focuses on the Mossad angle, is more of a sensational conceit than a substantive new historical angle.

[2] It is well documented that Nazi Generals in particular, Franz Halder most famously, with the aid of their American handlers were quite adept at modifying Nazi propaganda into a carefully crafted post-war narrative that fit the Cold War like a glove. Nazis were just ‘pre-mature’ anti-communists.

[3] Historically, the Nazis were never even close to reaching criticality for chain reactions and had their heavy water depots in Norway destroyed by the Allies.

[4] This premise is wholeheartedly endorsed by Goldhagen’s ‘Hitler’s Willing Executioners’, in the sense that Goldhagen found post-war Germany magically cleansed of its historical eliminationist antisemitism.

[5] I was surprised when taking a poll among my students in Hong Kong, on the question of ‘how does one become a murderer?’ I asked whether they found themselves more convinced by Goldhagen’s emphasis on a culturally specific ideology of hatred or Browning’s more impersonal forces of social pressure, and they overwhelmingly chose the latter.

[6] Anschluss (in German literally meaning connections, whether social, electrical or telephonic) is used for the Nazi take-over of Austria and Kristallnacht (literally ‘crystal night’ as in fine glass, and incidentally also a part of the name of a very popular beer in Germany) refers to the ‘Night of Broken Glass’, a pogrom against the Jewish population carried out on 9-10 November 1938.

[7] The use of ‘euthanasia’ itself, which literally means ‘good death’ in the Greek, is particularly perverse. This is an instance where even the standard scholarly alternative ‘T4’ is itself directly borrows the Nazi’s deceptive code language used at the time.

Cover image: Adolf Eichmman during the trial, 1961.

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