“After Auschwitz, there were no laws.” –– Vidal Sassoon
Yes, that Vidal Sassoon. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
In all the discussion about the pros and cons of anti-fascist violence, one successful and violent campaign against fascism (other than World War II of course) was that conducted by the 43 Group of post-war Britain. Importantly, there are lessons to be learned from this four year long anti-fascist campaign.
In 1946, the British government released Oswald Mosley from custody. Before the war, Mosley led the British Union of Fascists, which after his release, renamed themselves and began recruiting, as well as targeting the Jewish community. At the same time, the British government did not take Jewish concerns very seriously. Enter the 43 Group (boldface mine):
After arriving at his parents’ East London home after six years of service as a merchant seaman, during which he had been twice torpedoed, Mr Beckman sensed an unease. His father told him: “The Blackshirts are back, the fascists are back.”
Against a backdrop of smashed windows and anti-Jewish graffiti, Oswald Mosley and his supporters had re-named themselves the “British League of Ex-Servicemen and Women”. By early 1946, they were once more holding outdoor meetings and seeking to regain the pre-war momentum of Mosley’s British Union of Fascists.
While the language had changed – instead of railing against Jews, the Mosleyites used the euphemism “aliens” – it was clear that the intent to spread the poison of anti-semitism by targeting London’s Jewish communities had not. The windows of the Jewish religious school in Dalston were smashed and Jewish shops were daubed with the letters “PJ” – “Perish Judah”. Jews were taunted in the streets “Not enough Jews were burned in Belsen” and the Horst Wessel song was openly sung after pubs closed.
Mr Beckman said: “At that time one could be sickened by newsreel documentaries showing bulldozers in concentration camps shovelling mounds of bodies into limepits, and then later encountering fascist speaker saying things like, ‘Hitler was right, but not enough Jews were gassed’.”
He added: “We wanted revenge – the Holocaust was in our minds. We decided we had to out-fascist the fascists.”
What followed over the next four years was a brutal, often vicious and now long-forgotten confrontation which, its participants argue, stopped a nascent British fascism dead in its tracks while others looked away by using the only method Mosley and his supporters understood – sustained, focused and overwhelming violence…
Mr Beckman, who died earlier this year aged 94, recalled: “They were told that the intention was to create an organisation that would be devoted to launching an all-out assault on Mosley and his fascists until they were utterly destroyed. They were told it would be a no quarter, no holding back, disciplined para-military operation. Those present were offered the option of ducking out with no hard feelings. Not a single one left the room.”
A total of 43 Jewish ex-services personnel attended the meeting and so the 43 Group was born with the unvarnished intent of, quite literally, beating British anti-semitic activists into submission. Among these soldiers, sailors and airmen would be a teenage former British Army private who was serving an apprenticeship as a hairdresser and went by the name of Vidal Sassoon…
Having watched the Nazis rise from a small fringe party to become the authors of the Holocaust and after encountering official indifference (James Chuter Ede, the Home Secretary in Labour’s post-war reforming government, conspicuously failed to order a crackdown), here were individuals who took the view that fire had to be fought with fire. As Sassoon later put it from his Hollywood mansion: “After Auschwitz, there were no laws.”
Where Mosleyites turned up to bait and persecute Jewish tailors in Hackney or Dalston, they found themselves confronted by former Commandos and Royal Marines well versed in mortal combat…
Now 85, Mr Konopinsky said: “Call them fascists, call them Nazis, they only seemed to understand one thing – to hurt you or to be hurt. And we believed in hurting them first before they hurt us. I still believe that.”
The result was a succession of pitched battles during fascist gatherings where the 43 Group and their opponents gave no quarter. Knuckledusters, knives, steel-toed boots and sharpened belt buckles were wielded on both sides with devastating effect. One former veteran said he was told: “We’re not here to kill. We’re here to maim.”
…But what set the 43 Group apart was not just its embrace of violence but also its extraordinary level of organisation.
By 1947 it had 1,000 members across Britain, including a group of non-Jews who penetrated fascist groups and delivered back intelligence on where meetings and marches were taking place.
The group set up quick-reaction “commando” cells of ex-servicemen who were transported to Mosleyite gatherings by friendly London black taxi drivers. The men then used a twin-pronged attack to carve their way to the platform of a meeting and assault the speaker, forcing police to intervene.
Its actions included stake outs of Jewish cemeteries to catch anti-semites engaged in the desecration of graves and raids on the homes of fascists who were warned to cease their activities or face grim consequences.
…with British fascism broken in the face of the ferocity of its onslaught, the group decided to disband in 1950. Mr Beckman said: “In 1946, there were only two countries in Europe that allowed fascist parties – us and Franco’s Spain. Why did the authorities allow Mosley to go unchecked? Somebody had to do it, so we did.”
- When the state refuses to enforce a monopoly on violence, para-militaries will act. This is true on a very small scale (e.g., Charlottesville, where the police didn’t establish order, versus Boston where they did) and larger scales (e.g., the 43 Group).
- There is one critical difference between 1946 and 2017. These assaults were not just protection and intimidation, they were essentially ‘denial-of-service attacks.’ Meetings and rallies were where the fascists attracted followers and organized–obviously, there was no online community. Disrupting these meetings hamstrung their ability to recruit and radicalize. Today, fascists can organize and radicalize online, so meetings and rallies are less important. Images of violence can be transmitted instantaneously and can be misinterpreted–or interpreted differently by different groups, meaning violence can backfire.
- These were very serious men. Many were combat veterans, including a Battle of Britain ace and a VC recipient. The stakes were existential: two-thirds of European Jewry had been exterminated, and there was no state of Israel in 1946 (and were a state to be recognized, there were no guarantees it wouldn’t be overrun and crushed immediately). The only two sizeable and free Jewish populations left in 1946 were in the U.S. and the UK. This was literally a fight for survival.
The 43 Group was very disciplined. They were not ‘trying to send a message’ or represent…something. Their goal was to beat fascism into submission–and they realized they were criminals in the eyes of the law for doing so. They gathered intelligence and typically would use a two-wave assault strategy: one group would charge and draw in supporters, followed by a second group assaulting the fascist speakers directly. These were not disorganized chuckleheads looking for a brawl, but a highly disciplined para-military, with extensive combat experience. Many of them had killed people. Yet they were disciplined enough to not kill, even though a fair number wanted to avenge murdered relatives.
Back in the day, many moons ago, I knew anti-fascists (well before Twitter abbreviated everything). They meant well, and in the underground music scene, which was self-policed (see point #1), occasionally were helpful. But a fair number of them were just looking for a fight more than anything else. When I see news reports of a man being attacked with a knife (and he wasn’t even a Nazi), it’s doubtful they have the discipline to conduct any sort of campaign successfully.
- While the British government did little to stop the post-war fascists, the fascists were not a Labour government paramilitary. The government had a desire to prevent disorder, but it was not invested in the fascists per se. That gave the 43 Group room to operate. It is unclear if neo-Nazis should be viewed as a Trumpist para-military. If they are, violent action against today’s fascists would be perceived as a direct assault on the government itself.
So what does this mean? One key thing is that, unlike the post-war situation, the government is (often) willing to enforce its monopoly on violence against fascists; violent action would therefore be viewed as undermining legitimate state authority and could backfire. Violent action could also spiral out of control, especially without leadership and training that has combat experience–rigorous discipline is essential, so violence isn’t used when it isn’t needed. It wouldn’t disrupt recruitment activity (online chicanery against fascists is a different matter). That said, self-defense, which was the role antifa activists wound up playing in Charlottesville, is appropriate when warranted.
Just some history.