43-group-graphic.jpg

Podcast miniseries about the 43 Group of mostly Jewish ex-servicemen and women who battled Oswald Mosley’s fascists in Britain’s streets after World War II.
We speak with Daniel Sonabend, author of We Fight Fascists: The 43 Group and Their Forgotten Battle for Post-War Britain, as well as Jules Konopinski, who was a member of the group.

Our podcast is brought to you by our patreon supporters. Our supporters fund our work, and in return get exclusive early access to podcast episodes, bonus episodes, free and discounted merchandise and other content. Join us or find out more at patreon.com/workingclasshistory

  • Part 1: The background of antisemitism and fascism in Britain, and the formation of the group

E35: The 43 Group, part 1 Working Class History

  • Part 1 bonus: Bonus episode about the early life of Jules Konopinski and how his family escaped the Holocaust (exclusive for patrons)
  • Part 2: How the group operated, women and LGBT+ people in the group

E36: The 43 Group, part 2 Working Class History

  • Part 3: How the police and the Jewish community reacted, and lessons for today

E37: The 43 Group, part 3 Working Class History

  • Part 3 bonus: The 62 Group and the renewed fight against Mosley in the 1960s (exclusive for patrons)

More information

For more information about the 43 group, check out Daniel’s excellent book: We Fight Fascists, available in our online store.
Proceeds help fund our work – and you can get a 20% discount on it by becoming a WCH patron.

Flamberg & Wimborne after their acquittal and release
Gerry Flamberg (front left) and Jonny Wimborne (front right) standing outside the court house after the acquittal on an attempted murder charge. The smiling man between them is Len Rolnick who ran the Communist cell within the Group. Courtesy Daniel Sonabend.
43-group-meeting.jpg
A 43 Group meeting. Courtesy Morris Beckman.
Young-Jules.jpg
A young Jules Konopinski. Courtesy Jules Konopinski and Daniel Sonabend.

More

We also have anti-fascist merchandise like buttons, stickers, t-shirts and hats available here in our online store. Proceeds help fund our work.

Sources and links

Corrections

We always endeavour to be as accurate as possible, but we are only human so occasionally we err. In part 1, Daniel Sonabend refers to the liberation of Bergen-Belsen in 1944, it should have been 1945. And the journalist who made the famous broadcast from the camp was actually Richard Dimbleby.

Acknowledgements

As always, huge thanks to our patreon supporters who make this podcast possible.
Our theme tune is Bella Ciao, thanks for permission to use it from Dischi del Sole. You can purchase it here. Or stream it here.

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Transcript

Part 1

John:

In the wake of World War Two, Jewish ex-servicemen and women who served with the British Army came back after witnessing the horrors of the concentration camps in Auschwitz and elsewhere. They returned to see fascists, like the ones they fought, organising openly on street corners in their home towns and cities and so some of them decided to continue their fight against fascism and hatred by any means necessary. This is Working Class History.

[Intro music]

John:

Hi everyone and belated Happy New Year. I’m sorry it’s been a while since our last episode but we’ve been extremely busy working on numerous episodes behind the scenes, including this one, and finishing a book which should be coming out later this year. Now we don’t normally do this but today, we’d just like to start this episode off with a brief appeal. A number of our core team took time off from their day jobs in 2019 to spend more time working on WCH. Spending this amount of time moving forwards is only going to be possible if we get more support from our listeners on Patreon. With 1,000 patrons, we’ll be able to continue investing the same amount of time as we did in 2019. Short of that, episodes may be a bit less regular and so if you can, please consider supporting us from as little as $2 a month. Patrons get access to exclusive content and benefits, like early access to podcast episodes, bonus episodes and more. So check that out at patreon.com/workingclasshistory link in the show notes.

With that out of the way, let’s get started. Today’s episode is the first in a new miniseries about the 43 Group of mostly Jewish ex-servicemen and women after World War Two. After fighting genocidal fascists in Europe, they came back and fought genocidal fascists at home. We’re very happy to be speaking with Daniel Sonabend, who has spent six years researching the group and whose book We Fight Fascists: The 43 Group and Their Forgotten Battle for Post-war Britain is out now. It is a fantastic read and we definitely recommend getting a copy. You can get it from our online store at shop.workingclasshistory.com and from the link in the show notes.

To understand the story of the 43 Group, the best place to start, we think, is with understanding the situation of fascism in Britain at the time. The story of fascism in Britain through most of the 20th century is very much associated with the story of one man, the fascist aristocrat, hereditary Sir and 6th Baronet, Oswald Mosley.

Daniel:

Oswald Mosley was a British politician who was a member of the Conservative Party before switching benches to the Labour Party before, in 1932, setting up first a new party which advocated for radical economic policies following the Wall Street crash in 1929. In 1932, he struggled to find success with his new party and so during a trip in the summer to Italy and Germany, where he saw the successes that Mussolini and Hitler were having with fascism, he decided to import European style fascism to England. In 1932, towards the end of the year, Oswald Mosley set up the British Union of Fascists. Mosley was an aristocrat who had cut a dashing, swashbuckling figure. He had a fine moustache, swept-back hair and had a very strong sexual magnetism to him. So he was a perfect sort of figure to stand at the top of a fascist party which cultivated the cult of the leader and the latent homoerotic desires often found within fascist parties. He was the ‘great hero’ who would save Britain from economic decline and from the control of the old parties, the old mob, from the controls of the international bankers and from the threat of the communists. At first, Mosley was not hugely into the antisemitic wing of the party. Antisemitism was certainly a plank of the British Union of Fascists from the get-go but it wasn’t necessarily something that Mosley was keen on leaning into. For the first couple of years from 1932 to 1934, when the British Union of Fascists was at its most successful, they achieved very substantially high membership numbers which were put on show for the first time in a series of meetings in the summer of 1934 at the Albert Hall and at Kensington Olympia where tens of thousands of people were dressed in the black shirts of the British Union of Fascists. Their nickname ‘the Blackshirts’ came from their uniform. They came to salute Mosley in a meeting that was very much styled on the Nuremberg rallies and the fascist meetings in Italy and Germany. However, at one of these meetings at Kensington Olympia, there was a considerable anti-fascist presence and there was anti-fascist heckling throughout. The particularly violent ways that Mosley’s stewards dealt with these protestors received quite a lot of coverage in the British press and as a result of bloody images of these beaten-up protestors, the British Union of Fascists lost a large number of members very quickly. They even lost the support of Viscount Rothermere and the Daily Mail who had, at one point a few months earlier, declared ‘Hurray for the Blackshirts!’ Previously, in these early years, Mosley found membership from right across the British class system; from working-class support, middle-class support and found quite a large amount of support amongst the aristocracy and the upper classes. Whilst that spread of support continued throughout the existence of the British Union of Fascists, the numbers declined. To respond to this decline in numbers, Mosley decided to take the advice of two of his lieutenants, William Joyce, who would later become infamous as Lord Haw-Haw, and Neil Francis Hawkins, his Director of Policy. They pushed Mosley towards becoming more antisemitic and to embrace that part of the fascist philosophy and, in particular, to start focusing his efforts on the East End of London where there was both a very large Jewish community and a large non-Jewish community. The fascists always felt that when there was both Jews and non-Jews mixing in large numbers, that was a recipe for antisemitism and surely, any gentile community living very near a Jewish community would be inclined towards hating their neighbours. From 1934 to 1937, the fascists very much focused their efforts on antisemitism and the East End of London. The most famous moment, of course, was the Battle of Cable Street in 1936 where Mosley tried to march his Blackshirts through the East End but was met by a coalition of Jews, socialists, Irish dockworkers and other East End locals who came together to blockade the streets and to stop Mosley’s men passing. There were actually very few clashes between anti-fascists and the fascists that day. Most of the violence was between anti-fascists and the police but it was still seen as a significant victory against fascism. The East End was famously covered that night with the words ‘They did not pass’.

John:

In addition to Cable Street, there were battles all up and down Britain against Mosley and his Blackshirts in the 1930s. We plan on releasing a separate podcast about that in future. This is a very general, brief overview of the background of fascist organising in the U.K. at the time.

Daniel:

The Battle of Cable Street is often seen as a major victory for anti-fascists and it is but it was in no way a real defeat of fascism because following the Battle of Cable Street, antisemitic violence only got worse in the year that followed. This is very much the environment that the young, Jewish men and women, who would go on to form the 43 Group, were growing up in. They were, at this time, mostly teenagers or children of 10, 11 or 12 years old and they were prime targets for these roaming hoards of fascist thugs who were just going around wanting to beat up anybody who looked Jewish. This became a very tough crucible in which they had to grow up and in order to survive, they had to be tough and they had to know how to fight. Many of them became boxers, or wrestlers, or martial artists because this was a really tough environment. They were encountering antisemitism from their first days at school but with the arrival of the fascists and the Blackshirts into the East End of London really ramped up the antisemitism and it became a very tough environment for young Jews growing up in the area.

John:

One of these young, Jewish people was Jules Konopinski, who we’re going to hear a lot more from later on in the episode. As the 1930s drew on and tensions between Britain and Germany increased, British fascists changed tack.

Daniel:

As war seemed more and more likely with Germany, Oswald Mosley decided to drop the word ‘fascist’ from the name of his organisation and become the British Union, who were ‘primarily interested in advocating for peace with Germany and for ensuring that Britain was not driven to war with its natural allies and its cousins’. So as war grew closer and closer and then in the early days of the war from September 1939 until May 1940, the British Union sold itself as a peace movement, primarily inclined with ensuring that Britain did not go to war and formed a strong relationship with Germany. As a result of this, the British Union held peace rallies and they lobbied and advocated against war and against perceived warmongers like Winston Churchill. There were many within the British Intelligence establishment who saw that the fascists could, when war broke out, pose a serious fifth column threat, both by undermining the morale of the British people and if there was to be a German invasion, they believed the fascists might try and sabotage British defences or find other ways to help the Germans. At the start of the war, in September 1939, Defence Regulation 18b was passed. This allowed the government to intern without trial anyone they deemed to pose a real and significant fifth column threat within the country. At first, this was no more than a dozen people who were deemed to pose this level of significant threat and very few people were rounded up. However, there was an incident called the Kent-Wolkoff Affair in which an American cypher clerk called Tyler Kent who met a Russian émigré called Anna Wolkoff via an organisation called The Right Club, which was a deeply antisemitic, fascist organisation run by a Conservative MP called Captain Ramsay. Most of its members were people in the high echelons of British power and the British aristocracy. They plotted to take these cyphers from diplomatic communications from Roosevelt to Churchill and pass them on to Lord Haw-Haw in Germany with the hope that in doing so, these would stop the Americans entering the war if they were made public. Fortunately, the British Intelligence Services at MI5 had infiltrated The Right Club and knew of the plans. This gave them the evidence they needed to show that fascists in Britain posed a serious fifth column threat. As a result, on 23rd May 1940, Winston Churchill authorised the expansion of Defence Regulation 18b.

John:

Oswald Mosley was then interned and his British Union was officially banned at the end of the month.

Daniel:

By the end of 1940, over a thousand fascists had been interned and were being held without trial in camps around the country. The largest was on the Isle of Man but there was also a camp on Ascot Racecourse, an abandoned circus training facility was turned into a camp and there were various other camps dotted around the country where British fascists were held together without trial. It was deemed that, in what appeared to be a highly likely threat of German invasion throughout 1940, were the Germans to be successful, the fascists would find ways of helping or assisting them.

John:

On a related note, it wasn’t just British fascists who got interned. Thousands of Germans, Italians and Austrians were interned as well, particularly shamefully including thousands of Jewish refugees from Austria and Germany. This was despite the fact that the Jewish refugees were designated as Category C, meaning that the government considered they posed no threat whatsoever. In one internment camp on the Isle of Man, over 80% of the internees were Jewish refugees. Many of these refugees were, in turn, deported to Canada or Australia; some of them on ships which were sunk by German U-boats and others were robbed of their possessions by British military guards. Upon their arrival in Canada, over 2,000 Jewish refugees were interned once again in labour camps but that’s a whole other sorry story.

Daniel:

The British government did not intern the fascists to reeducate them. They were interned purely as a security measure and the vast majority of the fascists were held with each other which meant that fascists only had fascists for company. They could sit around and while away their days stoking the flames of their own zealous politics and all agreeing very much with each other that clearly the source of their predicament, the reason why they were behind bars and why the country was at war with their natural allies was obviously the fault of the Jews. Who else could be at fault here other than the Jews? They believed the Jews quite clearly controlled the old parties, they controlled Winston Churchill and all of his Cabinet. As the fascists were held longer and longer in internment camps, their hatred of the Jews and their commitment to their own political cause only grew.

John:

As the war went on and the threat of Nazi invasion diminished, the government felt that domestic fascists were less of a threat and they began to release lower-risk internees.

Daniel:

From its peak of over 1,000 fascists interned, by the end of 1940, those numbers began to decline. Mosley himself was released in November 1943 as there was a fear that another winter held in Holloway Prison, where he was being held with his wife, would kill him and Churchill had no desire to make a martyr of Mosley. Towards the end of the war, in 1944/45, only the most dangerous fascists were being interned and the vast majority had been let out. During the war years, fascist organising was obviously prohibited and whilst there were some attempts to create organisations which could emerge after the war, most of these fell through mostly due to infighting amongst the fascists. Mosley himself, after he was released, was confined to his country estate and he wasn’t allowed to have any communications with his followers. He wasn’t allowed to engage in any political activities and so his followers and his former senior lieutenants were all second-guessing what they thought he might want them to do. The only organisation that had success was one called the 18b Detainees Aid Fund. Basically, this was set up supposedly to give support to those families where a member of the family was being interned but really acted as a network to keep all the fascists connected during the war years. In November 1944, a new fascist organisation, that nobody had ever heard of, reared its head. It was called the British League of Ex-Servicemen and it announced itself to the world in two weekends in November 1944. Two former foot soldiers in the British Union of Fascists, a man called Jeffrey Hamm and a man called Victor Burgess, erected a platform at Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park and began to advocate for politics and policies that nobody had heard since the fascists had been interned in 1940.

John:

It’s probably worth mentioning here that while it was called the British League of Ex-servicemen and Women, Hamm and Burgess weren’t exactly war heroes.  Burgess served in the Middlesex Regiment for eight months until he was interned for refusing to wear his uniform. Hamm enlisted after being interned but was identified as a disruptive influence in the army and kicked out.

Daniel:

They were met first with shock that such people were advocating for these policies and then on the first week after a few minutes of Hamm talking, the crowd got together and pushed him off the platform. The following week, Victor Burgess was on the platform for only a few seconds when a communist contingent, who were very much ready and waiting, immediately came and smashed him off the platform. This organisation, the British League of Ex-Servicemen, was not, in fact, originally a fascist organisation. It was founded by a man called James Taylor, who had fallen out with the British Legion in Birmingham and so created this organisation to advocate for the pensions of veterans and ex-servicemen. Burgess had proposed to Hamm that they set up a London branch and use it to, as they said, ‘bring Mosley’s name back to the streets’. Although these first speeches were met with a violent response, this did not deter these two young fascists and Hamm, in particular, in the spring and summer of 1945, began taking a small platform to various street corners around West London and address passers-by. Sometimes, he would get a small crowd and sometimes, they would be interested in what he was saying. Other times, he met with heckling or Jewish residents who would castigate him for his politics and sometimes, he found himself addressing empty street corners. However, towards the end of 1945, Hamm began to get a decent-sized following. The membership of his organisation grew and he attracted a group of former East East BUF thugs who very much became his foot soldiers. He even attracted a few more middle-class members who he would have round for meetings at his flat in Notting Hill. He was also very much able to take control of the League and eventually, the following year, pushed Burgess out completely and Burgess would go on to form his own organisation called the Union of British Freedom. In the winter of 1945, Hamm became an increasingly common presence, first in West London and then he moved towards Bethnal Green and began holding meetings in the fascists’ old stomping grounds in East London. Two other things, in December 1945, showed that the fascists in Britain were not as dead as people would have liked and that antisemitic prejudice was still very much a feature of British life. The first of these was a Christmas party held at the Royal Hotel in London in December 1945. Over a thousand fascists and followers of Oswald Mosley and former 18b Detainees came together at a Christmas party to salute Mosley. When Mosley appeared on the stage, he was welcomed with Sieg Heils and other Nazi salutes. He was hailed ‘Hail Mosley!’ and there were plenty of antisemitic cries, chants and cheers. This party got quite significant coverage in the British press and showed the people that the fascists were very much still present. There might have only been a small number of them but their political zealotry had not died down. Far from it, they still held very strongly to their beliefs no matter what had happened to their political cousins in Europe. The second incident in December 1945 was called the Hampstead Anti-Alien Petition where, in the middle-class, leafy North London suburb in Hampstead, two middle-class women set up a petition calling for the removal of refugees from houses which should be given to returning ex-servicemen. The text of the petition had no antisemitic content but the campaign that surrounded it was deeply antisemitic. People were harassed in shops to sign the petition and being told that they had to ‘get rid of the filthy Jews’. Some of the letters in the local paper were deeply antisemitic. As a result of this campaign, Jeffrey Hamm became involved in the petition and also began holding meetings at Whitestone Pond in Hampstead. By the end of the year, it was clear that whilst many in Britain would have liked to have thought that antisemitism was dying away, it was still very much a presence in British political life.

John:

Today, many people are often surprised to hear about how widespread antisemitism was after World War Two because the general narrative we’re told about the war is almost that it was a conflict to stop the horrors of the Holocaust and to protect Jewish people but this is not even close to being true.

Daniel:

We have this belief today that the Holocaust and the German’s crimes against the Jews were a major motivation in Britain and the Allies going to war with Germany and that, in doing so, the Allies very much took the position of being on the side of oppressed minorities and the downtrodden human life. This was in no way the case. The British went to war to check German expansionism and German imperialism. The Holocaust and what the Germans were doing to the Jews never, in any way, played a role in the propaganda in the British encouraging the war effort. It wasn’t even until the liberation of Bergen-Belsun in 1945 that the British, for the first time, really began to come to terms and begin to understand, or reckon with, or have any form of understanding of the horrors of the Holocaust and what was being done in the concentration camps. On the day of liberation, Richard Dimbleby went into Bergen-Belsun and did a recording for the BBC of what he saw and that was really the first time when the British public had an understanding of what had happened to the Jews of Europe. As a consequence of that understanding, there was a widespread expression of sympathy for the Jews of Europe and towards the end of the war and the post-war years, there was a short wave of philosemitism and, as I said, an expression of sympathy.

John:

Even with news from the camps themselves coming out, particularly near the end of the war, general understanding of the Holocaust wasn’t even that widespread until lots more people started researching and writing about it in the 1960s. During the war and just afterwards, there were a number of specific factors which exacerbated antisemitic sentiment in Britain. One was an untrue assumption that British Jews had avoided serving in the military. Whereas, in fact, a disproportionately large number of Jewish people served in the British Army; around 60,000 during World War Two and that’s not including tens of thousands of others who served in the armies of British dominions like Canada or Palestine. Palestine was another big issue after World War Two. We go into the history of this in a lot more detail in our podcast episode 17 and 18. Basically, Palestine had been British territory since the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War One and Britain had also promised, in 1917, to set up a Jewish homeland in the area but, of course, they never got around to actually doing it. After World War Two ended, huge numbers of Jewish refugees fled to Palestine. British authorities tried to stop them and ended up interning many Jewish refugees in camps on the island of Cyprus. British authorities also bombed some Jewish refugee ships claiming the attacks were by a fake Arab terrorist group. The site of Holocaust survivors being interned in camps once more, this time by the British, helped set public opinion against British policy in Palestine. In the end, large numbers of Jewish refugees did end up settling there. Britain’s failure to set up the Jewish homeland they promised, combined with everything else, served to provoke a growth in Jewish support for Zionist paramilitary organisations in the area, like the Irgun, who had been carrying out a violent struggle for an ethnically Jewish state in the area since the 1930s. Irgun and similar groups carried out numerous attacks against British installations and forces and this provoked a significant antisemitic backlash against Jewish people in Britain. The whole situation is remarkably similar to our recent predicament in which western foreign policy in the Middle East provokes a reaction from people who happen to be from one religious group which then, in turn, provokes racist sentiment and discrimination against that whole religious group in the West. The final major contributor was antisemitic stereotyping around black marketeers.

Daniel:

Antisemitism was still very prevalent in Britain during the war years. During the times of rationing, one of the villains of the war was the black marketeer. There was a very quick association that was created between the black marketeer and the Jew. The vast majority of cases of black marketeering, which were put on trial and reported in the press, were of Jews, even though Jews were in no way the majority of people who were tried for black marketeering. The Ministry of Food, only at the last moment, stopped a film about black marketeering which included the Jewish black marketeer. Antisemitic rumours and libels continued throughout the war years but this was also a period when antisemitic assumptions were, for the first time, beginning to be checked or beginning to be challenged. First, as a result of the evacuations of Jewish children, where they were sent to towns and villages across the country, this was the first time that many people had met a Jew. Whilst there might have been initial questions asking to see the kids’ horns, this was a first encounter for many people with Jews. Similarly, many people in the armed services were meeting Jews for the first time. This was the first time when the British public was coming face-to-face and encountering Jews outside of the major urban areas in which Jews lived. However, although you have the start of that process of British people meeting Jews for the first time, antisemitic biases and prejudices prevailed and were still very much present in the post-war years when rationing was continuing. The stereotype of the spiv and the black marketeer continued to be associated with the Jews.

John:

For listeners outside the U.K. and probably for younger listeners in the U.K., a spiv is basically a dodgy wheeler-dealer type and often associated with the black market. Probably the most famous cultural example of a spiv is of Private Walker, the guy with the pencil moustache in the BBC sitcom Dad’s Army. Jules Konopinski was a Polish, Jewish refugee from Austria who managed to escape from the Nazis and was living in East London. You can hear more about his early life and how his family managed to escape to Britain in the bonus episode for our Patreon supporters. Dan and I visited his flat in North London where he spoke about how living with anti-immigrant and antisemitic sentiment was just part of everyday life.

Jules:

Unfortunately, when I went to school there in Forest Gate, which was a school which was based next to the old West Ham football club ground, the public were very apathetic seeing a boy coming to a school wearing velvet suits and little, short, white socks with strange Eton-type collared shirts which was a European style of clothing. From the day I arrived at school, I was involved to protect myself, look after my clothes, my physical being and I had to learn to struggle to survive. In other words, I was a child of ten or I had a mind of ten and although it doesn’t matter how old you are, if you’ve got people coming after you who are older than you, it was a daily battlefield at school. After not many months, the headmaster of the school saw my predicament and that I was being a bit unruly because I wouldn’t conform. He said to my mother, ‘We’ve got an application to a public school, [30:31 – unclear].’ In those days, it was at the same level as City of London, [s.l. Haver Street – 30:08], [s.l. Devanant – 30:09] and [s.l. Grocers – 30:11] which were public schools founded and supported by the City institutions.

John:

Just a quick note here for American listeners. In the U.K., a public school is an elite private school.

Jules:

I passed the scholarship and I had a free education. My neighbour in the class next to me was Harold Pinter and the famous [30:37 – unclear] was my neighbour in school but I can’t remember his name. Harold Pinter sat next to me for about three years until eventually, his own school, [s.l. Grocers – 30:50] reopened and he went there. Every day, going to school in Bethnal Green was an ordeal. There again, I had to walk through an area which, pre-war and during the war, was very, very fascist orientated. In fact, there was one block of flats in Russia Lane where there were hardly any men available as most of them were in prison or in detention. Walking through there, you had stones, bricks and bottles thrown at you and it was a daily routine to such a degree that in order to get school and get some education without being bothered, myself and another friend (who looked like me) used to walk into Victoria Park (which was where the school was, next to London Chest Hospital). They had dug craters at the beginning of the war to stop German gliders or planes from landing. We used to climb into one of these pits, take off our coats and say, ‘Come on boys. Let’s do it now. At least we can go back to school then when the bells goes and get some education.’

John:

So Jules and his Jewish friend would fight it out in Victoria Park, then put back on their blazers and go to class.

Jules:

Being Jewish, coming from a persecuted background, we saw it in Germany and you could feel the antipathy. We saw Hitler. We were taught to look away and turn your back. This was not my personal belief. My parents came from a religious background. My mother was the eldest of seven or eight children and her mother died when my mother was ten years old, so she looked after all those kids. In those days, kids came every year and since we found out where they were all buried, there were four more kids that we didn’t even know about because the father had remarried. I came from a family with a hard background and although they made their way in life, it was always there. This is one of the reasons why it prepared us for the problem. I was in school and I went to a youth club in Hackney called Hackney Boys’ Club which was on my way from school to home. I spent a lot of time at the youth club which was part of your upbringing in those days. It’s the thing which is missing today for young people to do the normal things that young people do and not pretend to be old people. You take a child today of 15, 16, 17 or 18 and tell them to play table tennis, they would think you’re mad. This was something that we really enjoyed because we had competitions. This was our life and we were brought up as children when we were children but I really had to be an adult. My mother cried day and night for the loss of her family because news was coming through about the atrocities happening in Europe which, unfortunately, the government refused to accept or acknowledge. News came all the time because Jewish soldiers came through from the Polish Army [34:40 – unclear] Czechoslovakian and French soldiers bringing news. Although the world didn’t acknowledge it, there were those of us who knew what was happening and the destruction of the Jewish race was underway. So in a way, we were highly motivated.

John:

After the war ended, the situation didn’t get any better.

Jules:

My father worked in Bethnal Green and so I had to work in that area and every day was an ordeal. If your windows weren’t broken, your walls were painted up with ‘Perish Judah’ or ‘Down with the Jews’ and people were standing on a street corner shouting out ‘Not enough were gassed’ but the police did nothing. If anyone even went to investigate as to what was going on, they were either forced to leave or if they asked too many questions of the police, they were arrested by the police for any excuse. It appeared, to me anyway, that the Labour
Government of the day under Attlee with the Home Secretary, Chuter Ede, the Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin and a total mixture of left and ring-wing of the Labour Party politicians were not interested in the problem. I think they thought the fascists had lost all their interest and their fervour in the war, having lost it. They weren’t supporting a victorious [36:45 – unclear]. Before the war, they were looking at someone who was going to be famous and after the war, having had their idols beaten, maybe the Home Secretary thought that they weren’t going to worry about this anymore and it was nothing. They allowed it to grow and fester. If you read a book by a very, very young and very famous author, in the first 50 pages, he gives you a very detailed account of how all these organisations slowly, [37:20 – unclear] and carefully got together, separated, mixed and very cleverly spread with their tentacles interlaced with one ideal which was to form an extremely right-wing administration in this country. At that time, the idea was to do it through their leader, Oswald Mosley, their pre-war leader.

John:

The book Jules is referring to here, if you hadn’t guessed, is Daniel’s and as Jules says, it goes into a lot more detail into exactly how the fascists regrouped after the war.

Jules:

We were a nation of people who were suffering post-war and there was not one family that I knew that hadn’t lost somebody in the war. Losing somebody in battle heroically is bad enough but when you hear that you’ve lost 50 members of your family in the slaughter in the camps, it took a lot of digesting. However, the British public didn’t appreciate it and it didn’t mean anything to them.

John:

The situation had got so bad that some Jewish people had begun deciding to do something about it.

Jules:

In those days, long before the 43 Group were even formed, some of us were actively countering their demonstrations and doing what we could. We tried to get recruits to join us. Now comes a period when the soldiers were being demobbed. You had soldiers who had done either five years in Europe, six years in the Far East and many others had been prisoners of war under the Japanese or Germany. They came back to their homes in Hackney, in Bethnal Green, in Forest Gate, in the East End, in Stamford Hill, in Dalston, in Highbury, in Tottenham and elsewhere. They suddenly found this thing going on but for most of them, it didn’t worry them because they weren’t in a Jewish area. If they went back to Hackney or Stamford Hill and your parents said, ‘Be careful when you go out because there are people down there beating up Jews,’ or ‘I’ve got to whitewash and paint my walls because I’ve got all these daubings on the walls and broken windows,’ they said, ‘What the hell is going on? We’ve done our time and we’ve served the war. We’ve been prisoners of war and we’ve been wounded. We’ve gained our medals and got our VCs, [40:10 – unclear] medals and DFCs. What the hell is going on?’ They approached the Jewish organisations who buried their heads in the sand because they were more interested, in my opinion, in getting their knighthoods. I don’t know what they were interested in. You couldn’t make them out. In one way, they were Jews, they were philanthropic and they did a job that they thought was good but as regards to what was considered the most important thing of preventing this reemergence and this scourge, they weren’t doing their job.

Daniel:

From 1945 onwards and the armed services began to demobilise the vast majority of the armed forces, many of the Jewish soldiers, who were coming home for the first time after the war, began to notice that fascists like Jeffrey Hamm were holding street meetings, they were publishing journals and putting up leaflets and flyers. They were even putting up antisemitic graffiti in Jewish areas. At the start of 1946, an organisation called the Northwest Task Group attacked a couple of synagogues in North London and also began targeting members of the Jewish community in North London and putting up very antisemitic graffiti. The returning Jewish ex-servicemen were absolutely appalled that such things were being allowed to happen. They were appalled that the government was going to let it happen. The government held a committee into the return of fascism at the start of 1946 and had concluded that fascism, in its current form, posed no threat and that existing legislation was more than sufficient for dealing with the fascists if they ever stepped too far out of line and that became government policy for the next couple of years. For the government, it was much more important, in the post-war years, that democratic norms and the pillars upon which British democracy was founded, in particular free speech, that these were returned to and that these were reestablished. It was more important for them that the fascists had free speech and all their political freedoms returned to them than it was to protect minority populations and the Jewish population. Following that, the police also did nothing to stop the fascists and fascist activities and, in fact, the fascists could appeal to the police under the 1936 Public Order Act, which had been passed following Cable Street, to protect fascist meetings. So in the post-war years, the fascist speakers were being protected by both their own stewards and by cordons of police at larger meetings. The Jewish ex-servicemen then turned to their own community leaders. The Jewish community is led by an organisation called the Board of Deputies of British Jews. The Jewish ex-servicemen turned to them to see if they would do anything about it but the Board of Deputies is a very establishment organisation which is more concerned with protecting the standing of the Jewish community and the reputation of the Jewish community than it is with necessarily, or at least in those days, protecting the lives, the safety and the wellbeing of the Jewish community. At least, that was very much the impression of the Jewish ex-servicemen. In fact, the Board of Deputies were willing to do things to combat fascism. They put on lecture series and they put out pamphlets but they also lobbied the government and they had quite an effective spy network which had infiltrated the fascists. The organisation that the Jewish ex-servicemen hoped would really take a stand against the fascists was an organisation called the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen or AJEX. AJEX was the association meant to represent them and many of the ex-servicemen wanted it to take a stand against the fascists. AJEX was connected to the Board of Deputies and so could not break the law in any way because the Board of Deputies would not allow that but what they were prepared to do was put on platforms and speakers next to fascist speakers and try to engage them in debate or just take their audiences. For many of the returning Jewish ex-servicemen, this was crazy. The notion that you were going to try to deal with a fascist by putting up a platform and debating with them in some way and trying to win over their crowds was crazy. They’d just come back from Europe and seen the destruction of fascism. They had seen these were not people who wanted to engage in reasoned debate. These were people who wanted to see you die in gas chambers. The notion that you were going to stand on a platform was, as they would say in Yiddish, meshugana. There was only one way to deal with fascists and they’d been shown that in the war. You go and you fight fascists and you have to kill them because that’s what they do to you. Coming back and seeing the fascists on the streets, for these ex-servicemen, the war had not ended. These were the same people. The notion that the government, the police and the Board of Deputies weren’t seeing that was shocking. It was appalling and, as a result, the Jewish ex-servicemen responded with horror and responded with anger. They were outraged and so they decided that they had to take matters into their own hands.

John:

A chance encounter between a group of Jewish ex-servicemen and a group of fascists gave them the inspiration they needed to put their feelings into action.

Daniel:

This is the official story, as told by a man named Morris Beckman, who was one of the founding members of the 43 Group. In May 1946, he and three other ex-servicemen named Gerry Flamberg, a former paratrooper who won a military medal at Arnhem after taking out a German tank single-handedly after being shot in the shoulder, Len Sherman, who was a martial arts expert and Alec Carson, who was a pilot, were driving from Maccabi House (a Jewish sports club in North London) to Jack Straw’s Castle (a pub at Whitestone Pond in Hampstead). As they were driving past, they chanced upon a meeting at Whitestone Pond of Hamm and his League of ex-servicemen. They got out of the car and with Flamberg at the head of them, they took out the four stewards that were guarding Hamm and Flamberg smashed Hamm off his platform and beat him up. There are different versions of the story about how many people were there and whether it was planned or not. There is debate over it but that is Beckman’s version of the story. That attack was seen as the template for effective anti-fascist action in Britain in the post-war years. Over the summer of 1946, a small band of mostly Jewish ex-servicemen – there were a few women, a couple of non-Jews and a couple of people who weren’t ex-servicemen – began turning up to fascist meetings, heckling, barracking and starting fights. At the same time, they were discussing and playing with the idea of breaking away from AJEX and setting up their own anti-fascist ex-servicemen’s association. In September 1946, at a meeting at Maccabi House, the 43 Group was formed and named after, as one story goes, the 43 founding members in the room.

[Outro music]

John:

That’s it for Part 1. In Part 2, we’re going to be hearing more about the 43 Group and their activities from Dan and Jules. We’ll be learning about women, LGBTQ people and the involvement of people of colour in the group and we’ll talk through some of their violent clashes with the fascists. Our Patreon supporters can listen to that now and all other parts of this miniseries, so if you can, please consider supporting us at patreon.com/workingclasshistory with a link in the show notes. For everyone else, Part 2 will be out next week. Relevant levels of our Patreon supporters can also listen to our first 43 Group bonus episode where we hear more from Jules about his early life and how his family escaped from the Nazis. Link to that in the show notes as well. Again, we highly recommend getting a copy of Daniel’s excellent book, We Fight Fascists. You can get it at shop.workingclasshistory.com and there’s a link to that in the show notes too. If you enjoy our podcast, please share it with your friends, colleagues, family or anyone and give us a five-star review on Apple Podcasts or your favourite podcast app. As always, huge thanks to our Patreon supporters who make this podcast possible. Thanks also for Dischi de Sole for our theme tune, Italian partisan song, Bella Ciao. We recently found out that there was a Yiddish version of this song from the early 20th century but we couldn’t get the rights to it for this episode. We will put a link to it in the show notes. Cheers for listening and catch you next time.

Part 2

[Intro music]

John:

Hi and welcome back to Part 2 of our podcast miniseries about the 43 Group of Jewish ex-servicemen and women who took their fight against fascism from the battlefields of World War Two back to the streets of London and cities around Britain. If you haven’t heard Part 1 yet, we recommend going back and listening to that first.

[Intro music]

John:

Where we left off last time, after a successful street fight against a group of fascist speakers, 43 people met in London, mostly Jewish and mostly ex-servicemen and women, and they set up a formal organisation to fight the reemerging fascist movement by any means necessary. Daniel Sonabend, author of We Fight Fascists: the 43 Group and Their Forgotten Battle for Post-war Britain explains more about the group and their strategy.

Daniel:

The 43 Group’s aims and objectives, as given in one of their early pamphlets, were as follows:

1.         To advocate the immediate passing of legislation to make fascist and antisemitic organisations illegal

2.         To combat actively all fascist and antisemitic organisations by a) opposing their activities and b) publicly exposing them

3.         To awaken and unite all sections of the public against the menace of fascism

4.         To develop an organisation capable of communal defence

5.         To work and cooperate with all the other bodies combatting fascism and antisemitism

Basically, for the 43 Group, the idea was to defeat the fascists at all costs, no matter the method. The most important thing was to knock the fascists off the streets; if possible, to get the government to ban them outright, although that was never going to happen, but certainly to smash the fascists off the streets and get them to crawl back into the holes they came from; to let it be known, and this was why it was very important for the 43 Group to identify as Jewish, that the Jewish community was not going to take antisemitic provocation lying down. These were Jewish men and some women who had fought for their country. They had grown up in tough environments and they’d dealt with antisemitism from the moment they entered the school gates. They had dealt with Mosley’s East End campaign. These were tough Jews. These were not Jews that were going to lay down and take the beating anymore. They were revolting against the stereotype of a weak, Jewish tailor and moneylender. These were boxers, and wrestlers and martial artists. These were fighters. These were people who were a new generation of what it was to be Jewish, these were not easy targets and they were determined to show that. However, in very much leaning into the Jewish identity of the 43 Group, the organisation realised that although it needed to identify as Jewish, it could not be exclusive in any way. Membership was open to all, whether you were a man or woman. No matter what your religion, all were welcome. No matter what your race or your creed, all were welcome. No matter what your politics, all were welcome. As long as you were against fascism, you were welcome which meant that the 43 Group contained within it conservatives, liberals, socialists and communists. It contained Zionists and anti-Zionists and it was welcome to all. As long as you were aware and appalled by the existence of fascism and believed it needed to be defeated, you were welcome within the 43 Group. Because it was a Jewish organisation with a membership with very diverging politics, one of its chairmen, a man called Geoffrey Bernard, imposed a rule which basically declared that nobody was allowed to discuss politics because if you have a bunch of Jews arguing about politics, you’re not going to have a functioning organisation. The 43 Group said, ‘No political discussion is allowed. Everybody is welcome. Please don’t argue about politics. We’re all on the same side. We’re all against fascism.’ Similarly, the group was very willing and open to working with any organisation that was opposed to fascism which meant it had an informal alliance with the communists, the Communist Party and other communist organisations working in Britain. Especially in the summer of 1947, the communists were very much fighting against fascism and the 43 Group very much saw them as allies. However, the 43 Group was also constantly being identified as communist themselves by the police and by the press and this was something they were to dispute and to make clear that they were not communists and they frequently stated in their publications ‘We are not affiliated with any political organisation and we do not take money from any political organisation. We are our own beast. We are anti-fascists and anti-fascism is for everybody. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you believe in.’

John:

This new attitude of militancy appealed to lots of young, Jewish people, like hairdresser’s apprentice Vidal Sassoon and his friend Jules Konopinski who was, at that time, a teenage refugee from the Holocaust, living and working in London’s working-class East End. The East End was a key area which was targeted by fascist organising.

Jules:

I, for one, thought it was about time. Having been a child living in Germany and then even in Poland, I had the idea that I wasn’t going to turn my bad or not look people in the eye. I felt that I wasn’t going to give up or back down. When confronted, I stand up or, more importantly, when it looks like I might be confronted, I’ll step in first because if I get in first, I may get a good hiding but at least I’ve done the right thing of giving someone else a good hiding as well. Other people, I suppose, had the same idea and we decided that if we couldn’t get the authorities to do it legally, if the police wouldn’t act and our Jewish organisations that we depended upon wouldn’t give the okay for us to do anything, then we would have to become vigilantes. It was never known as a vigilante organisation and it wasn’t set up for that reason. It was started off to counter their verbalism, their public meetings, their book clubs and their document distribution. That’s how it started but then it quickly snowballed, just like everything else. We ended up as an organisation of people of all ages, religions, creeds and all colours and we decided that the time had come to take the battle to the enemy and not wait to be attacked.

John:

Here, Dan explains some of the basic ways the group operated.

Daniel:

The 43 Group was primarily a street-based organisation. The majority of its activity included turning out at fascist street meetings all around London and at first, at least, heckling, barracking and making sure that the speaker could not get their message across. In the summer of 1947, the group came to realise that this was not necessarily the most effective approach and really leaning into the physical violence that they had been exploring and thinking about from the outset was very much needed. On 1st June 1947, the 43 Group attacked two meetings on the Sunday night, one in Tottenham and one at Ridley Road in Dalston. These two attacks began a summer of quite considerable violent clashes between the 43 Group and Hamm’s British League in East London and, to a slightly lesser extent, Burgess’ Union of British Freedom in West London. One of the 43 Group’s most effective tactics was what was called ‘the flying wedge’ where some of its larger members came together in like an arrowhead rugby scrum and they’d charge through the crowd. They’d pass easily through the crowd, smash through any cordons of stewards or policemen and smash the speaker off their platform. In those days, the police were obliged, under the Public Order Act, to close any meetings if a disturbance of the peace was caused and a very clear disturbance of the peace was the fascists being smashed off their platform. So this was seen as the most effective way of ending a fascist meeting as quickly as possible. It wasn’t the group’s only approach, they never had a one-size fits all approach and they were always experimenting with different tactics. Sometimes, they’d start fights in the crowd with fascists and sometimes, they’d start fights in the crowd with each other to just cause a disruption. Sometimes, they would let off fireworks, or flares, or other things to cause chaos in the crowds. At first, the fascist crowds didn’t really exceed more than a few hundred in some of its most popular spots but around Ridley Road, Dalston in East London, in August and September 1947, crowds began to get into the thousands and peaking maybe around 10,000. This was originally kicked off when an anti-fascist journalist called Frederic Mullally challenged Hamm in the pages of the Sunday Pictorial, which was the forerunner to the Sunday Mirror. Basically, he said, ‘I’m coming down to Ridley Road, Hamm, to take your platform. You dish it out. Let’s see if you can take it.’ As a result of that column, thousands of people came down to watch would ensue and that kicked off ten weeks of violence in which many different organisations were present. On the fascist side, there was the League but on the anti-fascist side, there were various trade unions, communist organisations, the National Council for Civil Liberties and, of course, the 43 Group who were, far and away, the most violent of the anti-fascist protestors. For ten Sundays in a row, there were these huge clashes which turned into riots every Sunday at Ridley Road in Dalston. This was the epicentre of the conflict but fights were happening all over the city. The fights were primarily in London but there were conflicts elsewhere. On a given day, a group of the 43 Group’s most effective members might go to three or four fascist meetings in a day to turn over their platforms and cause as much chaos as possible. The 43 Group was not just a street-fighting organisation. It also had a newspaper called On Guard and although it was published by the 43 Group, it did not present itself as a 43 Group paper. Instead, it presented itself as very much an anti-fascist paper and it reported on fascist activities in the U.K., around Europe and the world. It also dealt with all issues to do with racism, prejudice and reported on lynchings in America and apartheid in South Africa. This very much exemplified the 43 Group’s philosophy that the fight against fascism was a fight against prejudice and that was a fight for all minorities and anyone who might be targeted. They frequently had Black writers writing about the struggle of Black people in Britain and other writers as well who were writing about the struggles of their people. It very much wasn’t just talking about the Jewish struggle. There was an understanding that the struggle against fascism was a communal struggle. As well as On Guard, the 43 Group had a very effective surveillance and intelligence section. They would send members to spy on fascists by standing outside a fascist’s house, or following a fascist car, or tailing a high-ranking fascist to find out what they were up to. They tried to find out who was meeting who and what was going on but also either non-Jews or Jewish people who didn’t look Jewish, very successfully infiltrated into fascist organisations. They were able to extract information and either publish it in On Guard or pass on to the government some very interesting and very sensitive information about what the fascists were up to and were able to publish and spoil many of the fascists’ plans because of the effectiveness of their spies and their intelligence organisation.

John:

The 43 Group was careful and took various precautions before taking any action which are all pretty much still relevant today.

Jules:

It was done in a very clever way. You have to have information to act, you have to have people to act on the information you get and you have to have the backroom people who can disseminate the information and also have the legal representation available. Nobody ever went out without somebody knowing where they were. Nobody ever went out without a lawyer being briefed in advance or a doctor being available. Should that person need representation, even before they arrived at the police station under arrest, somebody was warned to go and see them. We were all taught to say nothing and keep quiet. Nobody carried weapons. Who am I to talk? [Laughter]. We weren’t to do anything which would bring what we were doing into disrepute because we weren’t disreputable. We had maybe a few disreputable members but all in all, we had a line-up of honourable, decent people who weren’t in it for the honours, the fame and this is the important thing. We weren’t in it for notoriety, believe you me. We weren’t in it forever. We didn’t want to become MPs and we didn’t want to become members of the Board of Deputies. All we wanted was to be able to lead a quiet life. Remember, all these people that worked in the 43 Group and ran it didn’t start their domestic life for maybe three or four years until the war ended. They went into the army in 1939 and the 43 Group disbanded in 1951, so they had virtually 11 years of loss of domesticity. They didn’t see their family while they were abroad in the army and they certainly didn’t have much time to see their families when they were in. Unfortunately, when it first began, it was a full-time job. It wasn’t a job because ‘job’ entails being paid. It was a full-time occupation and we were available 24 hours a day to support each other.

John:

Because police protected all of the fascist meetings, the 43 Group had to contend with them as well and switch up their tactics.

Jules:

We realised there was only one way to stop the speaker and the pattern, from the very beginning, was to get them off the platform. In those days, the platform was a ladder or a wooden stand, so that was successful because it wasn’t hard to overturn those. You had to organise a way of getting a wedge of people through and then one person went forward to pick up the platform and started the confrontation. It then grew when the police became accustomed to our system and they formed these single-armed link-ups and the only way to get through was to break the link, so two of us were doing this. Unfortunately, because of the way the police operated, the violence that we wanted to inflict on the fascists, or vice versa, had to go through the police. The police were on the receiving end and so half the charges against us were for threatening and assaulting the police. It wasn’t meant to be that way but it was the only way to get through. You couldn’t get through at all without breaking the door down, so you were charged with breaking the door. Of course, then the police became more clever and they used double rows and linked arms which meant we couldn’t get through. Today, they’ve got the clever idea of using the kettling system whereby they break up a crowd into sections and just contain you in one corner. Thank god they didn’t do it then. It was tried by them in Dalston on a few occasions when they had maybe 4,000 police on duty but they didn’t quite get them altogether. When they got them together, the whole thing was still moving. They tried to keep people in John Campbell Road and some in Sandringham Road to stop them from getting together because they knew that once they got together, violence would break out. In their own way, the police were causing more trouble by the methods they used. In order to get through the police, it was organised that you formed a block of people, like in Roman days, who moved as a block inside the crowd. Whenever they needed to go through, they would attack from different angles in order to break through. We trained with [18:59 – unclear] Gym in Earlham Street, one of the boxing promoters of the day. The [19:05 – unclear] let us use the gymnasium off Seven Dials where we practised unarmed combat and practised means of getting through a crowd. When I went through, I always went through backwards because if you go forwards, you put your face in danger. When you want to go through police and go through backwards, he’s not quite sure which way you’re going and your excuse, if you’re pulled, is, ‘I was being pushed from the other side [laughter]. Where was I, Sir? I had my back to you. Would I want to go that way if I was facing that way?’ [Laughter] We had people there who had military training and we also had support from non-Jewish people who were good anti-Nazis and who had fought the war hard, like Wingate who supported us.

John:

While the 43 Group may have technically had rules against using weapons, this wasn’t really workable all the time, especially as their opponents observed no such niceties.

Jules:

They carried weapons. They all had the leather belts with ‘SS’ on them which they would wrap around their hands and use them. They used coshes, steel-capped boots and knuckledusters. Put it this way, if there was a big row and a battle ensued and I mean a battle… I can remember one battle in Balls Pond Road which went on for quite a while and it was unattended by the police. They must have been [21:18 – unclear]. They were battles and they lasted a long time. People were physically hurt but nobody got killed by luck. Had somebody got killed, I’m sure if it had been one of ours, the come back would have been equally as heavy and vice versa.

John:

According to Vidal Sassoon, who later became a world-famous hairdresser, his weapon of choice was a pair of scissors which he would have had a very good excuse for carrying. Jules told me that when 43 Group members got arrested, they had a particular strategy for getting rid of their weapons upon arrival at the police station.

Jules:

When we used to come into the police station, we used to signal to each other ‘1, 2, 3’ and then scatter and throw everything we had, like knives, a gun or a knuckleduster. We would throw them around and they couldn’t prove anything.

John:

Despite the sometimes pretty extreme violence on both sides, there were some unwritten rules of the conflict which have pretty much persisted to this day in the fight between fascists and anti-fascists in Britain.

Jules:

There was a code of ethics, even in those days. They weren’t out to kill us and I’ll still say this. If they had wanted to kill us, they could have gone out and caught simple, Jewish people and killed them. They could have caught me where I lived and killed me. I was never hiding and it was known where I was. I always lived in a quiet place where they could have got me because I wasn’t hiding. We had a golden rule: you do not touch anybody on their own doorstep and you do not touch their family. When they did attack one of our members one day, we went to their heavy in Wilmot Street where he lived. He was a porter, who carted the dead people around at London Hospital. He was a very heavy and violent man, even before the war. I think it was Len Sherman and Geoff Bernard who knocked on his door, went inside and shouted, ‘You shouldn’t have done that. You shouldn’t have taken a man and beaten him up on his doorstep.’ In order to reinforce their threats, they emptied the coal from the fireplace [24:00 – unclear], placed him upon it and said, ‘Don’t do it again.’ They never ever attacked us privately. So there was some sort of rule of war, otherwise, people would have got killed but it didn’t happen. After the war, they were there to enhance their political belief and if they had wanted to kill people, they could have done it privately and quietly. Thank god for that.

John:

Of course, it wasn’t just out of the goodness of their hearts that the fascists weren’t out murdering people. It would have been extremely costly for them, both in terms of public opinion, possible revenge attacks and legal repercussions. Throughout the lifespan of the 43 Group, its women members always played a vital role in the organisation. However, as Dan explains, the male leadership of the group, while progressive for that time, still had stereotypical and sexist views on women and what their role was.

Daniel:

The group had a decent number of female members. They were certainly in a minority but it was probably a fairly sizeable minority. The group saw the best way for female members to get involved was as secretaries. This was not seen as a putdown in any way. At its headquarters, the group had a secretarial pool which was very much seen as the nerve centre of the group. It was pivotal for mobilising the membership, for making sure that people were where they needed to be and for really being the nerve centre and the organisational hub of the group. They saw that this was the best way for women to contribute to the group’s effective operation. Of course, many women didn’t necessarily agree that just being a secretary was all they could do and a couple of the secretaries often went down to Ridley Road to get involved in the fighting. There were a few female members who were as notorious fighters as the men were and often, five times as violent. Particularly infamous was a woman called Julie [s.l. Sloggan – 26:29] and it was once said to me that, at first, they thought they had to protect her from the fascists and then they realised they had to protect the fascists from her. As well as street fighting and secretarial positions, women were often used for surveillance operations and to keep watch on a house or a fascist, they’d normally send a male member and a female member to spy together. Some of the group’s most effective spies were women and also the paper On Guard was a great way for women to get involved. Some of its most vitriolic writers were women, in particular, a woman called Judith Michaels. The 43 Group seems to be existing in an interesting, proto-feminist moment when it wants to make sure that women have great roles and great responsibility. Of course, many of these women had served in the ATS, or the Wrens, or as other female auxiliaries in the army and wanted to obviously play a similar role in the 43 Group. However, there was still this assumption that the place for women was not on the battlefield because they probably just didn’t want the women to get hurt. As I said, many women disagreed with that and often found themselves in the middle of the fighting and often fighting with fascist women.

John:

At the time, homophobia in Britain was extremely widespread and homosexuality was criminalised. Most famously, computer scientist Alan Turing, who played a key role in helping the Allies win the war, was chemically castrated in 1952 and driven to suicide after a conviction for having a same-sex relationship. So most LGBTQ people were very much in the closet. However, at least one member of the 43 Group was openly gay.

Daniel:

One of the group’s most interesting and effective members was a man called Harold Bidney. Harold Bidney was a warrant officer in Burma. He was a short, little man who was probably no more than 5 ft 3 or 5 ft 4 and was, at least amongst his friends, openly homosexual. He was the head of the East End section. The 43 Group was divided into sections based upon areas and the East End section was the most notoriously violent. It was full of these young, tough lads, many of whom had missed out on the fighting and they really wanted to get their teeth into the fascists and Harold Bidney ran that section. He was also one of the 43 Group’s most effective intelligence operatives. I met another one of the heads of intelligence who said, ‘I don’t know how he did it. I don’t know how he got information out of the fascists but he just seemed to have a way of walking into a place and just coming out knowing things. They just talked to him for some reason.’ There was a sense that maybe because he was gay and had a very good sense of… he was a low-life. He was a spiv. He was a wheeler-dealer. He famously sold nylons, bought from American soldiers, at the back of a pub. He probably just knew a lot of things about a lot of people and was very good at extracting information from them. He turns up in the arrest record more than possibly anybody else. The fascists hated him so much. There was one time when Bidney heckled a fascist in a meeting and the fascist said, ‘If there’s anybody here who could arrest that Jew, Bidney!’ There’s another time when there was a fight on a train between the 43 Group and the fascists and the fascists had no idea who was involved in the fight, so they just said Bidney was there but he was somewhere completely different. Any chance they tried to get him, they would. He sort of pops up everywhere and I think he’s just a wonderfully mad character who is also so… I don’t know if he was necessarily brave but sort of brazen in who he was. Being quite openly homosexual, in a time when nobody was, made him a very interesting character.

John:

While Dan is not aware of any people of colour who were official members of the 43 Group, Black British people and others were involved in its newspaper On Guard.

Daniel:

It did have, writing for On Guard, a Dr. Joseph Mitchell who was the head of the League of Coloured People. When the African American actress, Hilda Simms, was not allowed to stay in a London hotel, the 43 Group covered that in On Guard and they also featured an article with Paul Robeson, the African American singer and civil rights activist. I don’t know whether there were Black members but the group was very much interested in the Black struggle.

John:

The class background of 43 Group members was mixed but the biggest section were working-class people from London’s East End.

Daniel:

A large majority of its members were coming from the East End of London and who were mostly Polish and Russian Jews. Also, these were mostly working-class Jews and quite socialist Jews. There was a strong socialist and communist contingent within the group but they also had pretty of members from Central London and West London who were more middle-class and they had some fairly wealthy members as well. I think if there was a way for these Jews to identify themselves, it was as the generation of fighting Jews. They would identify themselves very strongly with the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the Haganah and the [s.l. Yeshiva – 32:03] and the Jews fighting in Palestine. They would very much see themselves as a new generation of Jews who would stand up and fight or a generation of Jews who knew what happened with the Holocaust and what happens when you don’t fight. You don’t just carry on anymore. I think that was the way they wanted to identify themselves, as the new type of Jew.

John:

The Haganah that Dan referenced then was another Jewish paramilitary group in Palestine which the Irgun, which we mentioned in the last episode, split from and which later formed the core of the Israeli military known as the Israeli Defence Force or IDF. Numerous members of the 43 Group, including Jules and Vidal Sassoon, driven by anger that the British Government was turning away boats full of Holocaust survivors, also travelled to Palestine in 1948 to fight. We talk more about that and the impact it had on the Palestinians, who already lived there, in our episode 17 and 18. That’s all we have time for today. Our next episode is the final part of this miniseries where we talk about some of the characters who were involved in the group. We also learn more about how the Jewish community reacted to it, the attitudes of the police and we look at some of the legal cases which came up for the 43 Group members. Finally, we assess the legacy of the group and look at lessons we can apply today. Our Patreon supporters can listen to that now and for everyone else, it will be out next week. Relevant levels of our patrons can also get two additional bonus episodes. In the bonus episode attached to Part 1, we learn more about Jules’ early life and his escape from Nazi-occupied Europe. In the bonus episode attached to Part 3, we learn about the renewed fight against Oswald Mosley in the 1960s by people including Jules and other veterans of the 43 Group. You too can support us on Patreon at patreon.com/workingclasshistory. Link in the show notes. Patrons get other benefits as well, like discounted books and merch. So, for example, our patrons can get 10% off Daniel’s book about the 43 Group. Links to that in the show notes as well. If you can’t spare the cash, that’s completely fine. Please just give us a five-star review on Apple Podcasts or your favourite podcast app and tell your friends about us. To everyone who supports us already, thank you so much for enabling us to spend time making this podcast. It really means a lot. Thanks also to Dischi del Sole for our theme tune. Links to buy and stream that in the show notes as well. Cheers, and catch you next time.

[Outro music]

Part 3

[Intro music]

John:

Hello and welcome back to the concluding part of our miniseries on the 43 Group of British Jewish ex-servicemen and women who fought Oswald Mosley’s fascists in the streets after World War Two. If you haven’t heard Parts 1 and 2 yet, I would go back and listen to those first.

[Intro music]

John:

My parents were born in East London during the war and they’ve both told me about just the absolute devastation and poverty that they grew up around. It’s worth bearing in mind that bombing by the Nazis damaged or destroyed over a million homes in the city. Jules Konopinski was there too, as were many others who formed the backbone of the 43 Group which included some of the East End underworld, like the Goldberg brothers.

Jules:

In every society, you have people of different characters. You probably cannot imagine what it was like from 1939 to 1950 in the East End of London. You had poverty. The place was bombed to pieces and nothing was standing. You don’t know how people managed to live in a first-floor room of a house where the whole ground floor was crumbling. The Goldbergs came from a very poor family in the East End. The main trade in those days was the cabinet making trade and the rag trade and they were both pressers. They didn’t press the suits but they opened the seams up. I don’t know if you know but when you do a seam, you have to open it up, fold it flat and use the hand iron. When you’re using a hand iron like that all the time, you become strong and your arm becomes physically strong. They were strong guys and they were poverty-stricken. They had also lost a brother years earlier and they lived in Brady Street. They had been on the receiving end of Oswald Mosley’s pre-war nonsense, so they were vicious people. They loved to hurt and when they went to do something, they hurt. So if you wanted to really physically hurt somebody, you’d send these to do a certain job. You wouldn’t send a powder puff man in who would hit them on the jaw and then walk away. They hurt people. Once they got going, they never stopped. I know for a fact that, in those days, the Kray brothers and the gangsters of the East End were just coming up as kids and were the same age but they wanted nothing to do with the Golberg twins, even when they got more famous. The only way they could have contained them would have been to send in half a dozen or more of their own heavies but the Goldbergs wouldn’t have given in. They would have got killed. They were wonderful people. There were other people like them in the East End as well.

John:

Another central figure in the group was Gerry Flamberg who was involved in the very first confrontation with fascist Jeffrey Hamm which preceded the founding of the group.

Jules:

Gerry Flamberg was one of three brothers who lived in King Edward Road in a poor family. He became famous in the [s.l. airborne – 04:06] and he was wounded in a battle at Arnhem. You’ve seen the film A Bridge Too Far. Even though he was injured, he managed to knock out a tank single-handedly for which he was awarded a military medal. He was captured and became a prisoner-of-war but even while he was a prisoner-of-war in one of the heavy stalags, he formed the Brunswick Boys’ Club amongst the prisoners. He was somebody who was a prisoner-of-war and thinking of the future for the youth of the country, so he was a good man.

John:

People who have studied the history of the British Union of Fascists in the 1930s will know that when local residents, workers, Jewish people and anti-fascists tried to confront the fascists up and down the country and prevent them from marching through often Jewish working-class areas, it was the police whose job it was to protect the fascists and fight their way through local people to facilitate the fascist marches. After World War Two, history repeated itself as Daniel Sonabend, author of We Fight Fascists: The 43 Group and Their Forgotten Battle for Post-war Britain, explains.

Daniel:

One group of people who, unsurprisingly, did not respond well to the 43 Group were the police. Many group members were arrested normally at street meetings and far more group members and Jews would be arrested than fascists. Many of these group members received beatings from the police. The Head of G Division, which was the division that was in charge of Dalson where most of the violence took place, was a man called Charles [s.l. Sathawait – 05:44]. One 43 Group member said to me, ‘He would have done very well at Belsen.’ Many of the group thought that he had very strong fascist sympathies and on several occasions, he beat up Jewish people in prison cells. Vidal Sassoon, at that time, was an apprentice hairdresser who would restyle the world, received beatings from the police which were often accompanied with deeply horrible, antisemitic invective. There was a clear prejudice, in the group size at least, from the police who they saw as being in sympathy with the fascists. They didn’t think this covered all police and they thought that often, police who had ex-service ribbons on their uniforms tended to be more sympathetic. Some might hear from a policeman, ‘Give them one from me.’ If they mentioned their service record, a policeman might release them. The 43 Group were willing to work with the police and they often handed over information, especially to Special Branch. One of the founding members, a guy called Len Sherman, often trained with the police because he was a martial arts expert and he sparred with them. There was no antipathy towards the police from the group but there was very much the sense that the police favoured the fascists. In part, this might have been down to antisemitic prejudices or the police continually confusing the 43 Group with the communists. They all looked the same. Most of them were Jews from East London and so they didn’t look too different from each other. The police just thought they were annoying communist agitators. Because of the Public Order Act, the police were often guarding the fascist platforms which meant that in order for the group to get to the fascists, they had to get through the police. That naturally put them on opposing sides which very much antagonised the police to them. It was clear that there was prejudice and one of the North London magistrates, when sentencing some group members, at one point, encouraged the police next time to bring the fascist speakers because if they were going there into Jewish areas to agitate, then they were clearly as responsible for the violence as those people who were attacking them.

John:

Special Branch, which Dan just mentioned, was the political police force which was focused on things like national security. They were first set up in Britain to fight Irish republicans. As an example of police attitudes, Jules explains what happened to him one day when police caught him as the 43 Group tried to shut down an indoor fascist meeting which the police were protecting.

Jules:

On Kensington Church Street, you had a war memorial on the corner and an alleyway and in the back was the police station. They took me in there. I didn’t say anything. At that time, they mostly had Maltese gangsters and my main intention was to go over and hurt him and I went forward the police horses virtually dropped on me. I remember all the guys trying to pull me out and they managed to get me out but not completely. There I was among the police horses and the police took me out. They took me into the alleyway and gave me a good hiding in there but never showed a mark. They held my arms and my feet down and just bashed my belly. I went next door to my friend, Percy Jacobs, who was one of the West End Central crowd who lived in Paramount Court. They all came out of that area. His mother had a ladies’ lingerie shop there. I was in a bit of a state and the next day, I ended up at a West London police court.

John:

This incident took place during a short time window when the fascists hired a group of Maltese gangsters to help protect them. Dan talks about this in more detail in his book. Of course, at the same time all this was going on, in areas where the fascists were organised enough, as in the 1930s, they would also attack workers’ or left-wing meetings. Strangely enough, the police never deemed any workers’ meetings as worthy of protection.

Daniel:

The police often claimed that they were just merely doing their duty to protect free speech when they were protecting the fascists but there were no known incidents of the police protecting communist meetings or the police protecting 43 Group meetings when the group started to hold their own meetings. One incident in December 1948 really shows the discrepancy between the protection the police gave to the fascists and the police gave to the communists. Often, if Mosley was holding a big meeting, he would tell the police and the police would put a cordon outside to make sure that no anti-fascist protestors got into the building. However, in the winter of 1948, at a meeting at Stoke Newington Town Hall, Hewlett Johnson, who was called ‘The Red Dean of Canterbury’ (a very left-wing churchman), addressed a communist meeting. I believe protection was requested and not only was no attempt made by the police to stop a fascist trying to invade the hall and then throwing Molotov cocktails at the hall, but it was also left for the 43 Group to defend the hall by themselves with their communist allies. When the police came, they rounded up the same number of 43 Group members as they did fascists. They might have said that they were just protecting the fascists because they were protecting their right to free speech but they offered none of the same protection to the communists.

John:

Another factor which contributed to the general antipathy of the police to the 43 Group, and Jewish people in general, was the fact that many of the local ones in London had been stationed in Palestine.

Jules:

Of course, then came the other strange thing when Britain eventually left Palestine to its own accord. Policemen came back to England, who I must admit had been under a lot of pressure in Palestine and they’d been under pressure from the regular Jewish population, the Irgun and all the different parties who wanted self-determination. They’d been under pressure and physical pressure and when they came back, the Home Secretary or somebody at the Home Office, decided to place them in and around G Division. G Division was the name governing that area of Tottenham, Dalston and the East End, the Jewish area. Suddenly, you had a reinforcement and so the right-wing parties, at that demonstration, were reinforced by the British police with their natural antipathy towards Jews. Things went from bad to worse until eventually, the riots got so bad that something had to be done and so the government stepped and did something.

John:

The action Jules is referring to here is that on a few occasions, clashes taking place between fascists and anti-fascists in Dalston, East London, escalated to such an extent that public meetings were banned for months at a time. As the notoriety of the 43 Group grew, it elicited a range of reactions from the Jewish community.

Daniel:

The reaction of the Jewish community to the 43 Group was decidedly mixed. The group did have some support, including from some very wealthy backers who were able to financially support it throughout its existence. Plenty of the families of many of the members were very supportive of what their children were doing, even if they were slightly worried about them getting arrested and getting injured, etc. However, there was a lot of opposition to the 43 Group, especially from older members of the community or people who didn’t approve of what they were doing. Particularly strong opposition came from the Board of Deputies who hated the 43 Group. They hated the 43 Group probably more than the fascists did. The Board of Deputies had a committee called the Jewish Defence Committee which was responsible for combatting fascism and dealing with antisemitism. That was led by a man called Louis [s.l. Heidelman – 14:35] and in the pages of the Jewish Chronicle throughout the existence of the 43 Group, [s.l. Heidelman – 14:40] and the group’s chairman, Jeffrey Bernard, frequently sparred, insulted each other and argued. There was a real antipathy from the Board of Deputies and from [s.l. Heidelman – 14:50] who really just wanted the 43 Group to go away and to behave themselves. They frequently tried to get the 43 Group to merge back with AJEX, or to close down, or just reform as just a sports group but throughout the group’s existence, they were trying to do everything in their power to make the group go away.

John:

As a teenager, Jules’ parents were very worried about him and they didn’t want him getting mixed up in street fights.

Jules:

I inflicted great harm and aggravation to my parents. It’s in the book about an incident which was so true and that in the middle of a bloody riot, my mother turned up and grabbed hold of Jeffrey Bernard, the organiser, and if she’d had an umbrella in her hand, she might have hit with the umbrella. She said, ‘What are you doing to my son? Why are you getting him into trouble all the time?’ His answer was, ‘Madam, I couldn’t stop your son and I couldn’t influence him in any way. He’s got a mind of his own.’ That was me.

John:

Over time, the 43 Group grew considerably and expanded to cover other areas where there were both Jewish communities as well as fascists trying to organise.

Daniel:

It’s estimated that at its peak, which was probably around the spring and summer of 1948, the 43 Group had around 2,000 members of which probably only a few hundred were really active and were really turning out to meetings but it was a large membership organisation and had ways of giving work to people who were more casual members. It was always primarily a London-based organisation but it had regional branches in other cities. Some of these regional branches were pre-existing organisations that affiliated with the 43 Group. For instance, in Manchester, there was the Manchester Union of Jewish Ex-Servicemen which affiliated with the group. There was another organisation in Newcastle which changed its name to the 43 Group and other 43 Group regional branches were present around the country. In the spring and summer of 1948, a new fascist organisation emerged called the Union Movement. This was set up by Oswald Mosley who had returned to politics at the end of ’47. What he’d done with the Union Movement was he’d taken all these small fascist organisations that had been dotted around the country from the end of the war, including the League, the Union of British Freedom and several other organisations like that, along with the 54 Mosleyite book clubs which had been servicing the needs of fascist members. He brought them all together as the Union Movement which became the first nationwide fascist organisation since after the war and since the BUF. In the spring and summer of 1948, they took Union Movement meetings around the country and there was normally an anti-fascist presence there. Either the 43 Group sent members, or they had affiliated organisations, or locals turned up to oppose the fascists in areas around the country.

John:

As is always the case with anti-fascist organising, a crucial part of the work is legal support.

Daniel:

One of the ways that many members could contribute, who didn’t want to fight, was through helping to fundraise for the group. The group put on lots of different social events and they sent people around knocking on doors asking for money. Fundraising was a massively important part of the group. One of the reasons for that was because the group’s actions incurred both medical costs for anybody who got injured and legal costs. The group covered all costs always. It covered the cost of lawyers and it covered the cost if there was a fine or a penalty of some sort imposed by the courts. The group would always cover that. The group had some very, very fine lawyers to represent its members who were arrested and appeared in court, including two Labour politicians who were also practising barristers, a man called John Platts-Mills and another man called D. N. Pritt. There was one incident which shows the lengths that the group was willing to go to. Two of their members, its founder and co-chairman, Gerry Flamberg, and another member called Jonny Wimborne, who was one of its intelligence heads, were tried for the attempted murder of a fascist called John Preen. The 43 Group hired a man called David Maxwell Fyfe, who was a former Attorney General, who’d go on to become Home Secretary. He’d just returned from prosecuting Nazis in Nuremberg and was one of the most well-known lawyers at the time and the 43 Group got him to represent them at the first magistrates’ court hearing. I was talking to the brother of the group’s lead solicitor who was in the room on that day and he said he couldn’t believe the shock of the magistrate’s face that this most famous lawyer was in his small magistrates’ court. The group really took the defence of its members seriously. At an event I was doing a couple of weeks ago, one of the sons of one of the members was there and he stood up and said, ‘My dad always said you could divide the 43 Group into two halves. There were those who got themselves into trouble and there were those who got them out of trouble.’ There were those who fought and those who represented them but the group always paid the bills and it always covered the legal and medical costs. I don’t know to what extent they could offer support while people were in prison. I think the longest someone was sent to prison for was a month. I don’t know but I’m sure whatever ways they could look after them and cover their costs, they absolutely would. They saw that as absolutely pivotal. The group saw itself as a brotherhood. It was a membership organisation which really took care of its own. They believed no man should be left behind and that you’re always there for each other. You stand up for each other and you look after each other and that was absolutely pivotal to its organising.

John:

In Dan’s book, there’s an aspect to the attempted murder case, which I think is a great little anecdote, which is that most people in the 43 Group in London were members of a private members’ club. On nights when they planned on engaging in some mischief, they would often sign into the club, leave through the back door, do whatever it was they were going to do and then sneak back into the club with their signatures on the door as alibis. They even used the fact that they hadn’t signed into the club to generate false alibis as part of their potential defence. Jules once had need of legal support from the group after he was arrested in Dalston.

Jules:

You tried to avoid arrest by being clever. As I said, if the police are pushing that way, have your back to them and then you’re never actually physically pushing them. You are backwards but you’re not actually seen to be doing so. The police had to have some sort of witness statement if they wanted to charge us with something serious. I was arrested on a minor thing at meeting at John Campbell Road which is a street opposite Ridley Road. It was a place where, if they couldn’t get the main square, they’d go there. It was a simple thing. It was a very small, little fracas and seven people were arrested that day. We appeared the next day at North London Magistrates’ Court on a civil charge of insulting behaviour. It was nothing. They then said, ‘Come down back to the charge room,’ and they charged us with threatening behaviour. In fact, you’ve found the paperwork. After three weeks, they charged us with affray. That would have been a five-year prison sentence and it didn’t need a lot of proving because that’s a charge that the police could prove very easily. It was only a couple of years ago that our friend found, in the archives, the actual police report and the letters written and signed by the policeman in charge, who happened to be Chief Superintendent [s.l. Sathawait – 23:18]. He was a known antisemite who took great pleasure in putting us first. We could never prove anything until we saw the actual wording. He didn’t say, ‘Trouble started and the public moved forward toward the platform.’ He said, ‘The Jews moved forward.’ The Jews did that and the Jews did this. He added, ‘We had them arrested,’ and pointing out this one, that one and that one. He pinpointed those he wanted. He actually wrote saying that he would like these people specifically prosecuted. He wrote to the DPP in those days. The chief of police in the area was very much against us.

John:

The police report about the incident where Jules was arrested does indeed talk about ‘the Jews’ and Jules was arrested with seven other people. Three of the group allegedly were found in possession of offensive weapons, including electric light-bulbs, razor blades, a large horseshoe and an iron bar covered in rubber. A leather-encased, steel truncheon was also apparently found at the scene. Jules had a razor blade in a holder on him as well which Jules said he needed for his work in the leather trade. He also had a light-bulb which he said that he found and thought might come in useful. The police report does, at least, concede that Jules ‘possibly meant to convey that the electric light-bulb might be useful for domestic or other legitimate purposes’ but goes on to say that they were aware that bulbs had been thrown at similar meetings. The report does go on to say that ‘the light-bulb, in this case, was of the screw-in pattern, not at all in general use’, as in the U.K. at the time, most light-bulbs had bayonet tops. Jules ended up getting into quite an amusing altercation with the antisemitic police chief in the courtroom.

Jules:

As I said to you, [S.l. Sathawaite – 25:20] had long been an antisemite and at the Old Bailey, in giving evidence, he was arrogant and he was lying. I hated the bastard and as he was in court showing his arrogance, as I walked past him, I pretended to be hit by him and went down on the floor and said, ‘Don’t hit me!’ The judge reprimanded the chief superintendent and said, ‘You can’t do that in my court.’

John:

In the end, after a four-day trial, Jules was acquitted, although most of his co-defendants were convicted of unlawful assembly or assaulting police and fined between £5 and £20 each which translates to about £70 to £300  in today’s money. Members of the 43 Group would generally try and avoid arrest. However, on one occasion, when Gerry Flamberg and some others got picked up by police, they insisted on being charged to try to take advantage of their decorated veteran status for publicity.

Jules:

Some of us got arrested purposely sometimes to bring it into the open air. When all the decorated people, war heroes and my own wife’s cousin [26:48 – unclear] at the DFC were arrested in the police station, the copper in charge said, ‘I can’t take you into the police station.’ They laughed. There were all these decorated people and they said, ‘You can go home,’ but they said, ‘No, we’re not going home. We demand that you charge us and we want our day in court.’ They got it. Of course, the next day, the papers were splashed with ‘Decorated war heroes…’ and that was the first time that the British public took all this seriously. Before this, they looked upon it as hooligans and political parties. This was really considered a serious event because people got themselves arrested. They got off but they wanted their time in court and they wanted to tell their story… and they did.

John:

While some liberal commentators often claim that taking direct action against fascists discredits anti-fascism or somehow pushes more people to support or become fascists, the actual events in the late 1940s, as in the 1930s, shows the exact opposite effect.

Daniel:

One of Mosley’s hopes was that, at some point in the 1940s, there was going to be a major economic crash and he was not wrong to predict this. Although it didn’t happen, the conditions were very much there. He believed that, in such a time, the British public would desire strong, responsible leadership and that they would turn to him as somebody who could provide that. He had this very strong desire that fascism in the post-war years would appear respectable. For the 43 Group, continuing to attack the fascists and associate fascist meetings with street violence, it reminded the British public that the fascists were no better than hooligans and streetfighters and that they could not be trusted as leaders in any way and Mosley was not to be trusted. Mosley was nothing more than a leader of thugs. So this was very effective in ensuring that when the fascists were in the press, they would be associated with violence and hooliganism. This really frustrated Mosley’s desires to want to form a respectable organisation. In the autumn of 1948, you see him telling his followers that they shouldn’t attack the Jews as much anymore. They’d always use coded language and talk about international bankers and communists. He tells them to dial that back and dial back their attacks on Churchill, who was another one of their big enemies. This actually really infuriated much of the core membership who really just wanted to lean into their prejudices and their hatred. So at the start of 1949, he went back on all of that and they began to lean into their Nazism and they started saluting each other and wearing black shirts again or singing an English version of the Nazi anthem, Horst-Wessel-Lied. This really showed they had no hope of attracting anybody outside the fascist circle or anyone who was not a rabid fascist and they just wanted to dress up how they wanted to dress up and salute each other. That showed that they had completely given up the public relations battle.

John:

In addition to helping swing public opinion against the fascists, the 43 Group were able to cause significant disruption to fascist organising and caused them to shed members and activists.

Daniel:

It is, without a doubt, the case that had the 43 Group not been there, the fascists would have had a much easier time of it. While the fascists might never have been successful in the post-war years and maybe the time was probably not right for them, although you could argue the case either way, they could have very much had an easier ride. What the 43 Group did was by constantly turning up to their meetings and by starting fights, they were communicating to all of those fascists, who were more casual members or who might have got up to beat up a Jew but didn’t fancy it going the other way, it deterred them from turning up to meetings. It made sure that only the most zealous members were turning up. The 43 Group frustrated fascist activities in lots of different ways, many of which weren’t as obvious. They were always conscious that the fascists were trying to book meeting halls under different names which hid the fact they were fascists. So whenever the group discovered that they were doing so, they would often contact the venues and the venues would then often cancel, especially if the 43 Group told them what sort of violence could happen if they didn’t cancel. The group’s spies were often passing information which allowed the 43 Group to hinder fascist activities. The 43 Group really made sure that the fascists were having a rough time of it and frequently, where the fascists held a meeting which wasn’t disrupted by the 43 Group, they would boast about how the 43 Group hadn’t managed to find them this time. This really showed that in a game of cat and mouse, they were the mice and they were on the run. The 43 Group really put the fascists on the back foot and made it much more difficult. When fascists then started leaving Mosley and leaving his organisations, which really began in 1948, many of them began to work for the 43 Group. They stood on their platforms and talked about the lies that the fascists would tell. This showed that they respected the work the 43 Group had done to frustrate the fascists and they were the best people to work with if they also wanted to get their own back on Mosley.

John:

By the end of the 1940s, the financial crisis that Mosley predicted hadn’t come to pass and all of the fascist organisations were essentially moribund. The members of the 43 Group were exhausted and were under escalating pressure from the Jewish communal leadership to merge into the Board of Deputies’ Association for Jewish Ex-Servicemen, AJEX.

Daniel:

The group disbands in June 1950. It does so mostly because it sees its job as being done. Mosley had come back in ’48 and after several major defeats, which really checked his progress, his Union Movement stumbled along through the end of ’48 and ’49. A couple more big meetings were held but progress was checked and numbers of the Union Movement began to seriously diminish. Many of the founding members of the 43 Group had left by this point but towards the end of 1949, the fascists just weren’t really a threat anymore. Yes, there were some very nasty incidents. For example, in spring 1949, two Jewish boys were just beaten up on the street by fascists. They were still posing a small threat to the community but from a political point of view, that threat was gone. When they were holding street meetings, nobody was really turning up. The 43 Group’s membership was predominantly much younger than it had been and most of the members hadn’t fought. It had this new wave of younger members who were just looking for a fight and the 43 Group didn’t really have anything to direct these young energies at. It was almost becoming a bit of a powder keg and starting to turn on AJEX a bit more. As a result, I think the group realised that it had to disband in 1950. Originally, it wanted to merge back in with AJEX and with what was called the Official Defence Structure. It wanted to merge back in and wanted to change the way AJEX confronted fascism, so it became more active and mirrored the group but it quickly realised that wasn’t going to happen. In June 1950, at a meeting in Holborn in Central London, the group votes to disband unilaterally.

John:

After years of hard and dangerous work, many 43 Group members were relieved just to be able to return to normal life with at least some reassurance that the official Jewish organisations would pick up their fight when necessary.

Jules:

We disbanded because the Jewish authorities said, ‘Leave it to us.’ All the members were so pleased to go home.

John:

This didn’t really happen, as we discuss in today’s bonus episode for our Patreon supporters but for the time being the fascist threat had subsided. Big fascist meetings had ended, there was no sizeable, functioning fascist organisation anymore and Oswald Mosley himself became depressed and disheartened with the possibilities of British fascism and so moved abroad. He started getting much more into the idea of pan-European nationalism. This was quite offputting to many British fascists who liked to think that, as Brits, they were uniquely brilliant and didn’t particularly like foreigners of any race. From his six years of studying the history of the 43 Group, Dan thinks that there are a lot of lessons which can be learned from their experiences which, sadly, are just as relevant today.

Daniel:

There are two major lessons we can take from the 43 Group and this is what I argue at the end of my book. The first is about knowing who the 43 Group were and understanding what they did in that context. These were people who had seen what fascism does when it goes unchecked. They had seen the concentration camps and they had seen the war-torn battlefields of Europe, so when they returned to their homes and saw the seeds of fascism on the streets, they knew that it was better to have a bit of violence now. To have a few fights, to beat a few people up and to potentially get yourself beaten up or get thrown into prison is a better option than it is to let fascism grow unchecked and let it get to the stage that the only way you can deal with it is with tanks. It is better to sacrifice your own moral standings against violence, which can be narcissistic, and understand that it’s better that you do something to stop this and leave behind those moral compunctions which say, ‘Oh no, I don’t believe in violence. Oh no, I think we should talk to people and reason with people,’ because fascism doesn’t talk or reason. It’s not interested in that. It’s a philosophy of violence and it only understands violence. The 43 Group understood that and they understood that the only way to combat fascism is with the language it understands and it’s better to do that on the streets with your fists and potentially, with a bit of a lead piping or a knuckleduster than it is to do it with guns. Another lesson I think that particularly minority communities can take from this story is that the 43 Group really gave its Jewish membership a sense of pride, in the sense that you’re standing up as Jews and saying, ‘We’re not going to take this lying down. You see us as victims but we’re not victims and we can stand up and fight.’ I’ve had the privilege of interviewing around a dozen ex-members over the past few years with a few who are still around and they really talk with pride about what they did. So much of their identity, as Jewish people, is based around the fact that they stood up and they fought for who they are. I think standing up for one’s community when one is being attacked and standing up for those in your community who cannot stand up for themselves is a lesson that many can take from this. However, I think the most important lesson is to do with knowing who is on your side and who is not on your side. The 43 Group said, ‘If you’re against fascists, you’re with us and that’s the only thing that matters because the fascists don’t want any form of difference. They will kill us all. If we disagree with them or we’re not who they want us to be, they’ll kill us. That’s all of us, no matter whether we’re liberals, socialists, Trotskyists or Leninists. Whoever it is, they will kill us and therefore, we have to stand together and that means we have to know the difference between a fascist and someone we just disagree with.’ Calling a conservative a fascist means that you’re forcing away the most important allies you have in the battle against fascism. The 43 Group said, ‘If you’re against fascism, you’re with us and no matter anything else. That’s the only thing that matters.’ It means that you’re standing up for democracy. It means you’re standing up for people’s rights; the right for people to be who they want to be, be who they are and be proud of that and not have to hide that. That is the most important thing. To come together as anti-fascists to stand up for each other and to know who the enemy is is more important than anything else.

John:

It can get quite frustrating to see how many people on the left do rush to call things that they don’t like ‘fascist’ and it can be quite counterproductive. I can’t count the number of times people have commented on our social media posts about Oswald Mosley, say, or the German Nazi party and make comparisons to people like Boris Johnson. Of course, Boris Johnson is racist, homophobic, sexist, elitist, anti-working class and all the rest of it but he is not a fascist who is going to put us all in death camps. This can be a real disservice to anti-fascism because if you take that idea to its logical conclusion, then it means that trying to attack and shut down meetings of your local Conservative Party is a good idea. We would hope people would realise that’s actually a very bad idea and would be quite counterproductive. Whereas, anything which can disrupt the organisation and growth of an organised fascist movement is worth supporting. That also lends credence to the idea which is becoming worryingly prominent these days that anti-fascists are really people who want to use violence to suppress anyone who disagrees with them, including run-of-the-mill conservatives because this is simply not the case and the historical record on it is very clear. In every instance, militant anti-fascists in Britain and elsewhere have just taken proportionate, violent direct action against fascists, against Mosley in the 1930s and ’40s, again in the 1960s which we’ll discuss in today’s bonus episode and later on, when a new generation of anti-fascists took on the National Front in the 1970s and the British National Party in the ’80s and ’90s. They didn’t then go on to start shutting down Tory Party meetings or stopping free speech or anything like that. Once the fascist threat subsided, so did the anti-fascist organising. At the same time, the historical evidence is equally clear that fascism can’t be stopped by polite debate alone and if it’s not stopped while fascist groups are small, then the 20th century has shown very clearly what kind of violence, genocide and mass murder inevitably results if fascism takes hold in a society. As we mentioned earlier, when Oswald Mosley attempted yet another come back in the 1950s and ’60s, despite their promises to the contrary, the official Jewish organisations once again failed to take any serious action to combat them. So Jules and other veterans of the 43 Group set up a new group, the 1962 Committee and often known as the 62 Group, to take the fight to the fascists once more. We’ve got a bonus episode about this for our Patreon supporters. If you don’t support us yet, it’s very easy. Just go to patreon.com/workingclasshistory. There, you can sign up and get exclusive access to bonus episodes and other content. Link to it in the show notes. The more supporters we have, the more regularly we will be able to release episodes and the more time we’ll be able to spend working on WCH. Also, just a reminder that you can get Daniel’s book, We Fight Fascists, where you can learn lots more about the 43 Group, in our online store. Link in the show notes as well, with a discount for our patrons. Huge thanks to all of our existing supporters who make this podcast possible. We could not do it without you. Thanks to Dischi del Sole for permission to use our theme tune. Links to buy it and stream it in the show notes. Thank you for listening and catch you next time.

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