Thursday 26 January 2012

Oswald Mosley and Holocaust Memorial Day

In the many different ways, people will be looking at the Holocaust, I don't suppose too many will look at the strange story of Oswald Mosley. And yet, I can think of half a reason why perhaps he'd be worth including. The events of what has come to be called the Holocaust are of course focused on what the Nazis thought and did. (For my own clarity of mind, I tend to use some other words than 'Holocaust' because it's not always clear enough for my liking whether people are talking about some or all victims of Nazism. So, if the conversation is specifically about Jewish victims, I prefer the phrase 'the attempted genocide of the Jews'. Of course, the Nazis targeted many types of people (as they saw them), some specifically for genocide, some for extermination on the basis of their state of mind, some for extreme confinement, some for slave labour and so on. I feel much more comfortable if we remember all these victims by being precise about who they were, what the Nazis intended to do with them, what they actually did to them and, if possible, to figure out why.

A good part of Holocaust Memorial Day has come to be about the conversations with young people - education, in other words. But what do you say about it all? How? And why?

This isn't going to be a summary of HMD materials for schools - far from it. I'd just like to raise the question of whether there's any reason or usefulness in thinking about what Oswald Mosley wanted to do, actually did and how or why he didn't succeed.

In a recent book, 'Battle for the East End, Jewish responses to fascism in the 1930s' by David Rosenberg (Five  Leaves), you get a clear picture of how Mosley's fascism evolved. Put much more crudely than DR puts it, there's a clear road from the authoritarian, anti-democratic model full of praise for strong, young, clean, vigorous, healthy men to a specifically racist party with most of that racism directed towards Jews. This is a reminder that fascist parties and fascist regimes don't necessarily target and scapegoat a specific group. Their function and purpose is wider than that - it's about the nature of how to run a government, an economy and a society: an authoritarian capitalism, with extreme limitations on freedom and human rights. Mosley figured that simply banging on about that wasn't going to get him to become Britain's generalissimo. So, he adopted the Hitler method (not the version tried by Mussolini, his first love); in other words, Mosley changed tack. He thought, by going for the Jews he was on to a winner.

David Rosenberg's argument is that one of the reasons (neither he nor I would say that it's the only reason) why it wasn't a success was an organisation called the Jewish People's Council Against Fascism and Anti-semitism. This grassroots, umbrella organisation, capable of drawing in tens of thousands of people including allies and sympathisers from outside the specifically Jewish groups, put at its heart a humanistic defence of people against persecution and for 'harmony'.  

Now, this story of a fascist who found racism and a targeted minority who found self-defence seems to me to be a particularly interesting and relevant story to tell.

That said, I should declare my interest! Several interests. My parents were 17 years old when Mosley tried to march through the area where they lived, London's East End. They were also Mosley's specific targets in the day-to-say thuggery that his follows went in for on the streets. They were also very active in one of the most powerful bits of community action that undermined Mosley - the big rent strikes. Mosley tried to recruit  non-Jewish tenants of the East End to his British Union of Fascists by saying that they were being swindled and cheated by Jewish landlords. By organising tenants' action (the Stepney Tenants' Defence League) in which thousands of Jews and non-Jews took part together, it completely wrecked Mosley's efforts to describe all Jews as racketeering landlords, and the rest of the whole anti-semitic bundle to do with Jews only owing allegiance to each other and/or being part of some conspiracy to achieve ends only of benefit to Jews.

Yes, at one level all a far cry from the terrible mass slaughter of the genocides and persecutions of the Nazi era. At another level, though, a keyhole into what fascists and racists try to do, and what we can do to oppose them.