In May 1946, exactly a year after the end of the Second World War in Europe, four young Jewish ex-servicemen walked past an open-air meeting being addressed by Jeffrey Hamm, the fascist leader Oswald Mosley’s lieutenant, and were seized by a sudden urge to break it up. They upended the platform, put two stewards to flight, and left Hamm battered and bruised. Thus was born the 43 Group, which for the next four years developed an efficient organisation, a spy network, sources of regular finance and a fearsome reputation, before disbanding in 1950.
In 1992, one of its members, Morris Beckman, published an account of its history, but his book read a bit like Boy’s Own. We have waited until now for someone to take a cool look at the 43 Group, warts and all. Daniel Sonabend acknowledges his debt to Beckman’s book while reporting that “most of the Group veterans thought it was a load of tosh”. Sonabend combines academic rigour with an easy, readable style, all of which helps to throw into sharp relief the difficult questions the story raises.
At first sight one wants to say: it’s immediately after the war, Hitler has just been defeated, the horrors of the Holocaust are becoming clear – of course the Jewish community can and must protect itself in any way it can. Squeamishness about beating up fascists is self-indulgence.
And yet… well, what do you make of this? Two of the 43 Group’s toughest “Shtarkers” (heavies) knocked on Hamm’s front door one evening, and when it was opened, barged in, went to the room where Hamm was sitting, locked the door, and proceeded to beat him to a pulp in front of his heavily pregnant wife.
Is it just me? It could be, because (full disclosure) my father John Beckett was the leader at that time of the only far-right group that did not owe allegiance to Mosley; he is mentioned several times in Sonabend’s book and the 43 Group broke up some of his meetings. I know that my childhood home was under surveillance by the Board of Deputies of British Jews, and I remember my mother’s frightened face when she woke one morning to find that someone had painted “FASHIST GO HOME” on our garden wall.
Am I just imagining that it could have been my father at the end of that beating, in my childhood home? Perhaps. Other things about the 43 Group make me pause, though. Sometimes, it seems, exhausted by the battles in the street, 43 Group members and fascists sat in local cafés and there was humorous banter across the room, as though they were just two groups of young thugs who enjoyed a scrap. And there is a moment when both sides think about bringing in gangsters. The 43 Group arranged a meeting with a leading underworld figure, Jack “Spot” Comer, who brought along two very young but promising thugs called Ronnie and Reggie Kray. The meeting went well, but the 43 Group pulled back from the brink soon afterwards. They had got uncomfortably close to the brink though.
Sonabend is less sure-footed about the prequel, the fascists in the Thirties, and he makes one absolute howler. He writes that in 1938 Mosley “purged his most anti-Semitic lieutenants”. This is rubbish. Mosley slimmed his paid staff because he was no longer getting money from Mussolini, and he did not want people who argued with him. Decades later, after the Holocaust, Mosley found it convenient to claim he had purged anti-Semites.
Fascism in Britain was stifled in the late 1940s, and the 43 Group can claim some of the credit. They would say that being fastidious about methods is all very well when you are not a member of a community under attack, and I am not sure I have an answer.
Certainly, Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty could not afford to be fastidious. In Rome during the Second World War, helping Jews to escape, and always a few yards and a few seconds from capture by the occupying Germans if he stepped out of the Vatican precincts, he resorted to hiding in buses marked “not in service”. He bribed the drivers by promising to say Mass for them. It was inches away from the medieval practice of selling indulgences.
Monsignor O’Flaherty is one of the people celebrated in the Revd Butler-Gallie’s Priests de la Resistance!, which consists of 15 short, engaging essays about Christian churchmen and women who fought fascism during the Second World War, or, in two cases, racism in the US.
The reverend is a good writer with a light touch, and a natural storyteller. But there’s a subtext, and he is disarmingly honest about it in his introduction, in which he tries to locate Christianity firmly in the anti-fascist camp. This requires him to make light of Mussolini’s dalliance with the Catholic Church while in power, and linger instead on Il Duce’s anti-Catholic stance before he came to rule. The real spirit of Christianity, he says, is not with the popes who did deals with Hitler and Mussolini, but with the priests who fought the dictators.
But is it? The Catholic Church stood four-square behind Franco in the Spanish Civil War. It unerringly and enthusiastic-ally took the side of dictatorship against democracy. The Church hierarchy encouraged Franco to present himself as a Christian crusader holding back the forces of the Antichrist and communism.
The essential feature of fascism is the Leader (it always has an upper case L in Fascist circles), to whom you have to contract out your thinking. You don’t argue with the Leader, any more than you argue with the Pope. Fascism is as near as you get in politics to the Christian idea of revealed truth. Which is why, on 6 January 1956, the Catholic Herald’s front-page lead story was headlined “The People Fail France Again”. The story was that the Catholic-supported party had again been soundly defeated.
No one any longer claims that there is an a priori process that will lead you to God. At some stage, anyone who believes in God has to take someone else’s word for it, or believe they are in touch with God. And fascism also relies on taking someone else’s word for it.
But to hell (literally) with the subtext – Revd Butler-Gallie has some good tales to tell, and he tells them well. My favourite is that of Canon Félix Kir, perhaps because a kir – cassis with dry white wine – is one of my favourite drinks. Apparently it’s named after the flamboyant, bibulous clerical resistance hero who drank it in industrial quantities.
Canon Kir of Dijon spent the first 64 years of his life comfortably doing not a lot, eating and drinking of the best, and was renowned locally for saying to guests: “Je vous offre un blanc de cassis.” And there it might have rested, had Germany not conquered France in 1940.
For the next four years, Canon Kir managed, by guile and obstinacy, simultaneously to collaborate with the resistance, to sabotage German production in the town, to speak to the Germans as the town’s representative, to save many local Jews and their synagogue, and to survive an assassination attempt. And when Dijon was liberated, there, standing and waving regally from the first Allied tank to reach it, was the portly and slightly drunk figure of Canon Kir, who, until he died at 92 in 1968, was thenceforth regularly elected the town’s mayor.
Francis Beckett’s books include “Fascist in the Family” (Routledge)
This article appears in the 08 Jan 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Trump vs Iran