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The Second Oswald

Oswald Mosley

by Robert Skidelsky
Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 578 pp., $15.00

It is time that the case for Mosley was made by the historian,” writes Mr. Skidelsky. He notes with asperity that none of the other recent writers on British fascism has “that indispensable quality of sympathy with the movement.” That will not be charged against him. This book is another step in a process, which has been gradually getting under way, of claiming that fascism was not so bad as it looks; that communists and their sympathizers have always been manipulating condemnations of fascism to their benefit; and finally that fascist leaders, give or take a few warts, have something “tragic” or “heroic” about them.

Sir Oswald Mosley fits all these claims. British fascism was largely an expression of his personality. Its style was his style. The figures are uncertain, but only about 100,000 people are thought to have passed on to the membership rolls of his British Union of Fascists. Though recruits seem to have come from all classes, variously disaffected, they were Mosleyites, temperamentally obedient to their Leader. Such defections or splits as occurred were rarely the result of disputes over policy, but took place because the movement lacked the necessary funds with which to expand. Mosley had no colleagues with first-rate talents to contribute to the movement, or possibly to disturb it and challenge him. Neil Francis-Hawkins, his deputy, and Alexander Raven Thomson, his resident social philosopher, were non-entities.

Born to command, Mosley cut a very different figure from such men; he had inherited a title and a fortune from estates in and around Manchester, as well as in Staffordshire. He grew up as a gentleman and sportsman, his early training including boxing matches with the servants. Physical fitness naturally found its place in his credo. True, he had little formal education, but even that proved an advantage, according to Mr. Skidelsky, for it enabled him to approach “the problems of his time with a mind uncluttered by what to him seemed obsolete intellectual luggage.” After gallant service in the First World War, Mosley was returned to Parliament in 1918 as a Conservative, the youngest member of the House of Commons. His aura as “the coming man” was enhanced by good looks, and later he was able to present himself with the flair of a matinée idol, his blackshirt uniform setting off his perpetually drawn white face with its twist of a moustache. By the time he married Lady Cynthia, the daughter of Lord Curzon, once Viceroy of India and Foreign Secretary, he apparently had the conventional world at his feet.

The careless rapture with which he threw all this away tantalizes British commentators, and to a lesser extent the public. So mediocre have our national politicians been in adjusting to painful twentieth-century realities that any potential remedy, or lost leader, has a morbid fascination. The tempter calls. If a man of ability stakes everything on himself and loses, is perhaps the fault not his but the country’s, for affording no suitable outlet? Romantic images abound, of Mosley as the prime minister who got away, a fallen angel like Lucifer, a Mephistopheles.

What this boils down to is that by 1924, with what Mr. Skidelsky calls “a passion for achievement,” Mosley had crossed over from the Tory to the Labour Party; he soon joined the left-wing faction known as the Independent Labour Party, but broke away to form his very own New Party; by the autumn of 1932, he was the leader of the British Union of Fascists. Here was an appeal to the country over the head of Parliament. The democratic system as it existed had offered him every possible approach to politics, but it had denied him absolute power, and that was not to be borne. His final assertion of privilege was to reject the system itself. Many a notable career of the period, for instance Bernard Shaw’s, was built upon mockery of the democracy which had allowed that career to develop in the first place. Mosley shared something of that same Shavian frivolous irresponsibility. It is a spectacle to watch a man exploiting his position in order to destroy it.

In Mr. Skidelsky’s opinion, British politics were a closed shop of dummies and incompetents confounded by the star in their midst. Mosley had experienced the madness of the Great War, he could not wait to reshape the land to be fit for its heroes; he knew Keynes, and saw salvation in public works. The Labour government of which Mosley became a member in 1929, writes Mr. Skidelsky, had leaders “whose conceptions were completely inappropriate to the conditions of their time and in whom the character and determination which might at least partly have bridged the gap had been eroded by the belated achievement of respectability.” This supposes that character must wholly change, and respectability be jettisoned, to meet new conditions.

Mr. Skidelsky argues that Mosley was acting both as an idealist and a realist when he changed his character and turned to fascism. But Mosley’s diagnosis of the Depression and his cure for it were exaggerated and, moreover, self-serving since he was helping to generate a crisis out of which he stood to win. Personal ambition had distorted his interpretation of events. There was nothing impartial about it. Here was an unstable personality perpetuating instability, a playboy with the bright craze from the Continent. The comradeship of the trenches which was supposed to be the inspiration for this new society was merely the lowest common denominator of every fascist movement.

Mosley made no secret of his debt to Mussolini and Hitler, whom he visited on various occasions in their capitols. Not only did he borrow their organizing methods and imitate their public styles as far as was practicable, but Italian money subsidized his movement (see Renzo de Felice, Mussolini Il Duce, for details over and above those furnished by Mr. Skidelsky). As early as January 1933, a newspaper profile noted, “Where Mosley is so like Hitler is in his sense of the dramatic. There is an extraordinary sense of drama about a Mosley meeting, a sense that great things are about to happen.” By April 1935, after his second visit to Mussolini, Mosley was writing that “fascism was the greatest creed that Western civilization has ever given the world…destined to become the universal movement of the Twentieth Century.” Up to the war, the propaganda of the BUF insisted upon this fascist universality, in which it was one branch among many. Muffling this position, Mr. Skidelsky writes,

British fascism was bound to be identified with continental fascism. Left-wingers interpreted Mosley in the light of what had already happened in Germany and Italy. Transnational passions were thus inevitably concentrated on national movements. In calling himself a fascist, in adopting the black shirt, Mosley was deliberately identifying himself with a movement which, rightly or wrongly, was regarded with peculiar abhorrence by all left-wing organizations.

Since its collapse, the BUF’s part in the world order of fascism has been minimized by its former adherents. If Mosley really was a nationalist eccentrically masquerading as a fascist, and being abhorred by left-wing organizations for his pains, then what of his endorsement of every international fascist aim? With its debt to Mussolini, the BUF obviously welcomed the Italian conquest of Abyssinia. The Japanese wished to expand into Manchuria, into northern China—the BUF approved. The Germans entered the Rhineland—the BUF approved once again. To Mosley, the Anschluss was simply the return of another ten million Germans to their homeland. Czechs and Poles had it coming to them for standing in the path of Germany’s expansion. Hitler demanded the restitution of former German colonies? Then Mosley put himself out to approve this demand in an interview with a German newspaper in 1936.

Mr. Skidelsky glosses over these facts and their implications. He does not mention that every year from 1933 onward a BUF delegation attended the Nazi party rally at Nuremberg. BUF members had the chance to identify with Nazi Germany, and they did so—some of them, such as the propagandists E. D. Randall and William Joyce, going to live there to work for the cause. In September 1935 a congress of affiliated foreign Nazis was held at Erlangen under the sponsorship of Julius Streicher, and the BUF was represented. In his autobiography My Life (1968), Mosley still was proposing that Hitler could have been rescued from himself right up to the very end. “If he had gone a little sooner, leaving his idea and his fame inviolate, he might have been among those who, in the German proverb, must succumb in life in order to achieve an immortality in the minds and hearts of men.” But sentiments like that are hardly mentioned by Mr. Skidelsky.

Hitler did not value Mosley reciprocally, doubting him to be a leader of masses (“Kein Volkstribune” is the description of him quoted in General Engel’s diary Heeresadjutant bei Hitler), but when the subject of England cropped up during the war, as recorded in Hitler’s Table Talk, Mosley and his imprisoned followers were mentioned as another secret weapon, another agency, waiting to be properly used.

Mosley’s policy of Anglo-German rapprochement, Mr. Skidelsky believes, offered “the best hope of peace.” In practice, the policy ran parallel to Chamberlain’s until after Munich, but it had one further aspect, namely to encourage Hitler to feel free to pursue lebensraum in Eastern Europe. England was to have stood by in the wings, rearming, in case her turn was next, once fascism and bolshevism had resolved their struggle between them.

Would this struggle have left fewer dead in Central and Eastern Europe than were actually killed in the war? What if the Soviet Union had won in the dogged end, occupying Germany on its own? If Hitler had enveloped and colonized up to the Urals as planned, England and France would have had to seek whatever reconciliation was available with a Thousand Year Reich by then all too well founded. Or else they would have had to face up to self-defense in even more isolated conditions than in 1940. British appeasement would likely have been carried to its logical end by an alliance with Hitler, and who can guess whether Mosley would have taken the role of Churchill or that of Reichs-commissioner? Anyone who under the shadow of imminent war tries to gather together a peace party ought to be sure of some support, but Mosley failed even in this, because by then he was seen as the instrument of surrender to Nazism. Mr. Skidelsky is huffy about the way Mosley was interned in 1940, but at the time there was no protest, so unpopular had he become.

Had Mr. Skidelsky been able to present a thesis that Mosley had tapped some spontaneous populist upsurge—and not been making a power-hungry response to the success of fascism in Germany and Italy—he would have been on firmer ground when dealing with home affairs. For it was on the streets that the Mosleyites made their impact. Mosley himself was a speaker able to arouse his audiences, hammering hard at the line that only a revolution could transform the nation’s moribund and oppressive politics. This vested interest in England’s decay went much deeper than rhetoric, and hardly suited a movement supposedly reviving national glory. Mosley felt that “the good old British fist” was a more effective means of impressing those who were there to be impressed by marches and demonstrations—as though in extension of the boxing matches of his childhood.

In the absence of intellectual argument, anti-Semitism was a low-grade recruiting tactic, but handy for defining and mobilizing sides. Violence was bound to follow. Mosley, writes Mr. Skidelsky, “created an anti-Semitic superstructure on the base of a genuine, but limited, set of issues. His intellectual and moral carelessness in so doing constitutes the greatest blemish on his whole career. I believe he later came deeply to regret it. But it is the most difficult of all his offences to forgive—and by some will never be forgiven.” This, the book’s most exhaustive judgment, is misleading on several counts.

The German historian Dietrich Aigner, in his study Das Ringen um England, considers that “when Mosley in 1934 turned to anti-semitism without a racial stamp, this happened more under the influence of the German example than under German propaganda.” Anti-Semitism, in short, had been a thoroughly paying proposition in Germany, and Mosley thought it might prove so in England. He was mistaken, as it turned out, to bait the working classes with anti-Semitism, but nobody could have been sure of that at the time. It was one thing to theorize about international Jewish finance, but something else to specialize, as he did, in parading through Jewish districts in the East End of London. Never mind the moral example which was set, the BUF’s anti-Semitism unexpectedly warned potential right-wing support away from the movement. For early in his fascist campaigning Mosley had bid for conservative backing, and with Lord Rothermere and his newspapers briefly behind him, he did seem poised for some sort of success. To borrow from Hilaire Belloc, “the press was squared, the middle class was quite prepared.” Some Conservatives were trying to portray the BUF as their youthful and militant arm. The anti-Semitism of the BUF brought this initiative to a halt, for it showed all too frighteningly that here was another fascist movement sailing under full Hitlerite colors.

Mosley does not say that he attacked Jews because of “a genuine, but limited, set of issues,” but because of “the persistent attempt of many Jewish interests to provoke the world disaster of another war between Britain and Germany, not this time in any British quarrel, but purely in a Jewish quarrel.” It might have been better if Nazism had been met by just such a Jewish quarrel, but there was no such thing. Anyhow it is specious to propose that cracking the heads of Jewish artisans or small shopkeepers is actually the pursuit of international politics. Jews tried to get out of harm’s way, by and large they hoped not to fight but to hide; and the unwillingness of almost every government to ameliorate the lot of prewar Jewish refugees heartened Hitler into believing that he had tacit world approval for his anti-Semitic policies. When Mr. Skidelsky speaks of British Jewry as “a formidable political lobby” against the Nazis, what examples can he give? The British evasions at the Evian Conference on Jewish refugees from Nazism? The 1939 White Paper limiting Jewish entry to Palestine? The internment, and even deportation, of Jews once war had started?

These formidable English Jews, writes Mr. Skidelsky, “must take a large share of the blame for what subsequently happened…. A Jewish malaise of this time was to be obsessed by fascism. If some Jews found it intellectually provoking they certainly went out of their way to be provoked. Fascist meetings drew them as a magnet. The very sight of a blackshirt in uniform was enough to make their blood boil.” Could it be that some among them had perceived clearly and correctly the unprecedented threat to their survival posed by fascism?

Mosley used to draw laughter from his crowds by reciting foreign-sounding names. The singing of the Horst Wessel Lied at these moments “was not perhaps auspicious,” in Mr. Skidelsky’s phrase; but at least, he writes, “these displays of speech-making and marching must have brightened the pattern of a dreary existence.” That they also caused rage and led to fights should not be surprising. Mr. Skidelsky has read through the police records of BUF meetings, and picked out of them the listings of Jews and communists, sometimes one and the same, who were arrested for violent behavior.

The police had infiltrated the communists and their front organizations, which included the National Council of Civil Liberties. Mr. Skidelsky takes these police reports at face value, as evidence that Jews were getting the beatings they deserved for keeping such low company. That the communists were grateful for the BUF challenge was well known: in a headline after the famous battle-scarred meeting in Olympia Hall in June 1934, the Daily Telegraph announced that 3,000 communists had been in the hall. But conspiracy was thought by some to wear another mask. For instance, Dr. J. J. Mallon, the secretary of the Council of Citizens in East London, which was a local association formed in self-defense against rowdyism, wrote to the newspapers on October 17, 1936:

the campaign against the Jews is only a means to an end. Its object is to induce the Jews to join the Communist organization, which for its part, is anxious to find recruits of whatever creed or nationality. A considerable growth of Communism in East London would enable the Fascist movement to begin to talk plausibly of a “Communist menace.”

Cet animal est méchant, il se défend quand on l’attaque. The BUF, not the Jews, had the program, and its provocations were violent. Jews and communists did not mount attacks on Mosleyite headquarters and branches, shops and homes. Should they have shut themselves up with their malaise indoors à la russe while the pogromists passed by outside? Mosley advanced the right to say what he liked, and if this was accompanied by blackshirt violence that infringed the rights of others, then that was too bad. Mosley actually claimed that “the blackshirt movement in the Thirties was the only guarantee of free speech in Britain.” Mr. Skidelsky ends up by endorsing this apologia of Mosley’s, differing only in the nuances of the adjectives he uses. Curiously, Mosley comments in lengthy footnotes of his own on several points of difference, for all the world like a master marking his prize pupil’s essay.

Fascists as upholders and claimants of democratic rights are not convincing, but the issue was not a local one of communist-exploited Jews denying Mosley free speech in legitimate electoral campaigning. In April 1935, at Leicester, Mosley stated more frankly than he had before a theme he had been publicizing for some three years. “For the first time I openly and publicly challenge the Jewish interests of this country…. These great interests are not intimidating and will not intimidate the Fascist movement of the modern age.”

Streicher himself was moved to congratulate Mosley, who in turn cabled to thank him for his valued advice, adding, “The power of Jewish corruption must be destroyed in all countries before peace and justice can be successfully achieved in Europe. Our struggle to this end is hard, but our victory is certain.” The text was released in the approving Nazi press on May 10.

Why is there no space in Mr. Skidelsky’s 578 pages for publishing this open exchange? Because it does not fit; because it makes nonsense of the rehabilitation of Mosley into a high-spirited Whig of original and distinctive voice. It is a statement of generalized anti-Semitism which places Mosley in the wider, “transnational” fascism of Degrelle, Mussert, Szalasi, Doriot. Such men took the chance of accommodating to what they perceived as the New Order. To obscure all such compromises seems the function of such books as this, and we may expect more like it.

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