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Is Britain Finally Confronting Its Fascist Past?

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English fascist leader Oswald Mosley addresses a large crowd in Dalston, London in 1948
English fascist leader Oswald Mosley addresses a large crowd in Dalston, London in 1948Credit: Keystone / Hulton Archive / Gett
Nicole-Lampert
Nicole Lampert

Britain has a complicated relationship with its fascist past, in that it barely acknowledges it. 

It’s a source of national pride that the country was, at one point, the only unoccupied nation fighting the Nazis.

Meanwhile, homegrown fascists like the aristocratic former MP Oswald Mosley, who wanted to parade with his small antisemitic army known as Blackshirts around the East End in 1936 were, according to legend, roundly beaten back by Jews who lived there, fellow working class neighbors, Irish dockers and socialists at the famous Battle of Cable Street.

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And that is just about all we learn about our fascist past. 

But Ridley Road, a new television series airing on the BBC, and due to appear on PBS Masterpiece in America later this year, has led to many eyes being opened about an even less well remembered period: Britain’s postwar antisemitic fascist past,  and how the authorities failed to confront it. 

Loosely based on a true story, it reveals that even as London was getting into its swing in the early 1960s, fascists were spouting Jew hatred in the middle of Trafalgar Square. And the police did nothing to stop it. 

The series focuses on the 62 Group, a secret collective of Jewish anti-fascists. Until now, not even most British Jews had heard of them, let alone known that the work they started continues to keep the nation’s 300,000-strong Jewish community safe.

These were Jews who not only fought with their fists but infiltrated the fascist high command; utilizing both brain and brawns to stop the fascists openly spouting their Jew hatred and inciting violence as the people who should have kept them safe failed to do so. 

The group was born from the 43 Group who had started fighting fascists at home in the immediate postwar period. Astonishingly, Jewish servicemen returned from defeating the Nazis to find fascists on the streets, blaming Britain’s ills and even the war itself on the Jews. For ten years, the 43 Group adopted a warlike attitude to pushing the far right out of the public square; if the police refused to do it, they would. 

When things quietened down, the Jewish organizations, such as the Board of Deputies, the community's umbrella representative body, who had never approved of the Group’s 'hooligan' behavior, promised to keep an eye on things. But they wouldn't – or couldn't. 

Jules Konopinski, whose family had narrowly escaped Germany and the Holocaust, joined the 43 Group as a teenager. He was driving to his work as a handbag designer in June 1962 when he saw a rally being set up in Trafalgar Square. There was a giant banner which read: "Free Britain from Jewish Control."

'Free Britain from Jewish Control': 1962 Trafalgar Square rally organized by Colin Jordan's National Socialist Movement, subtitled: 'The meeting the Jews want banned. Come and hear what the Jews fear'Credit: Community Security Trust archive

The rally was the launch event of a new fascist group, the National Socialist Movement, led by a Cambridge-educated teacher called Colin Jordan. 

His supporters had already been behind arson attacks on synagogues but very little was known about them. Jordan, who was deemed too Nazi even for many on the far right, was one of several fascists to tap into  fears about immigration as Britain opened its doors to immigrant labor from the Caribbean, India and Pakistan to reconstruct its postwar economy. 

But his primary target was the Jews whom he and his followers credited with nefarious plans of aiding immigration to replace the ‘white man,’ a conspiracy theory which has found a new lease of life on today's far right, in the form of the 'great replacement' theory.

That evening, Jules convened a meeting of what was to become the 62 Group. Their first plan – after authorities told them the rally was legal – was to break it up.

"Once we started looking into this group, we were stunned to find out they even had a big headquarters," he says when we meet at his North London home. "We wanted to stop them being underground and to make sure the press was there; and so were we, in huge numbers." 

This rally became a battle between anti fascists and the neo-Nazis; the astonishing real footage is interspersed into the BBC TV drama. And it went on for hours. This was to be just the first in a set of skirmishes for the 62 Group. 

Colin Jordan, leader of Britain's National Socialist movement, raises his arm in a Nazi-style salute after marrying Francoise Dior, Christian Dior's niece, in Coventry, England in 1963Credit: AP Photo

Some of the action was purely physical. Barrie Milner, a tough East End kid who’d honed his fighting skills at school where he was called a "dirty Yid," was known as "the head-butter," which made for the occasional interesting conversation when he returned to work as a hairdresser bearing scars and bruises after an evening of fighting. 

Barrie, 79, who now lives in Herzliya, Israel, speaks to me over the phone about his days in the 62: "We’d seen what the Nazis had done. We knew how low fascism could go, so we had to go low too. Someone had to stop these people from attacking us. We didn’t want to be bullied anymore." 

Other work was about infiltrating, getting information and making sure the British public knew what was going on.

Gerry Gable, 84, founded the anti-fascist magazine Searchlight during his time with the 62 Group, which is still published. Regarded as one of the most prominent anti-extremists in the country, and a long-term independent advisor to the Metropolitan Police on race hate crime, he was originally one of the group’s intelligence officers which often meant supervising some dangerous and illegal work. 

"One evening we learned that Jordan was away and we hired a thief to try and break into his office," he recalls as we chat over the phone.

"The thief couldn’t get in so we had to try another way. One of our guys was brilliant at climbing so he climbed over three roofs and managed to get in through the window of Jordan’s office. He bought three bags full of stuff records out with him." 

Michael Whine, now the UK government’s independent member of the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance, was one of the few middle-class members of the group. He was in a Jewish youth movement which was targeted by fascists – young children were beaten up at the end of meetings – so the elders asked the 62 Group to teach them self-defense. 

Michael ended up staying, helping out with surveillance and the occasional fisticuffs. "At that time, Jewish people couldn’t look to either the law or the police for proper protection," he tells me. "My experience is that the police were very unsympathetic, even though everyone knew what happened in the Holocaust and how far fascists would go to pursue us."

While the fascists were rarely arrested, many members of the 62 Group ended up in court; their fines were always paid by the group. 

Much of the action happened around Hackney's Ridley Road, an area which housed many working-class Jews. The Road itself housed a market and stage area where the fascists would often go to shout their hatred and the 62 Group would go to break up their meetings by grabbing the stage first or heckling the speakers. 

American Nazi Party leader George Lincoln Rockwell, funder of Colin Jordan, pickets a building with antisemitic placards in Dallas in 1966Credit: AP Photo/Fred Kaufman

Altogether, Jordan’s group, which was backed by American Nazi Party founding father George Lincoln Rockwell, was behind more than 30 arson attacks on Jewish premises, including a yeshiva which ended up with a 15-year-old boy dying when he jumped out of a window to escape the burning building. 

The TV series is based on a book by Jo Bloom who discovered by chance the story of the 62 Group at a funeral. Turning it into a TV series became a passion project for creator Sarah Solemani and producer Nicola Schindler, who are both Jewish. It took them six years to get the funding to make it, and as they got ever closer it could not have seemed more pertinent. 

First, many of the fascist cries were about "Taking Back" Britain were reminiscent of the Brexit rhetoric of "Take Back Control." While in America, under Trump, the far Right were emboldened enough to march through the streets chanting "Jews will not replace us" – parroting the same tropes as Jordan. 

In the UK there was also growing antisemitism from the left in the Corbyn-led Labour Party with members and even elected officials, repeating some of the same conspiracy theories about Jewish control as the fascists. Among the stars of the show is actress Tracy Ann Oberman, who became a prominent voice against Labour antisemitism. 

Members of the National Socialist Movement, a white nationalist political group involved in the infamous 2017 Charlottesville rally, give Nazi salutes in Georgia, U.S, April 21, 2018Credit: GO NAKAMURA/ REUTERS

"It is sadly tragic that over the time this show took to make it, it became more and more relevant and not in a comfortable way," says Sarah. "I want the work to be entertaining and also a good watch but also to have some sort of contribution to the conversations that we are having now. I think there may be for us as Brits a difficult element where we have to put a mirror up to ourselves. That can be painful. 

"But that also feeds into the point we are in with our culture, whatever our color, to look inside at our own hearts and think about the way we behave.

"I’ve written all my characters with empathy; even the Nazis. They were unpacking the problems of that time which were very similar to the problems we have now. I didn’t want them to be monstrous automated Nazis – I wanted to get behind the psyche and look at how people could be convinced by bad ideas."

The 62 Group’s work never completely ended, although the law did gradually catch up. In 1965, the Race Relations Act was passed outlawing discrimination on the grounds of "color, race or ethnic or national origins" and in 1986, racist incitement was criminalized in the Public Order Act. 

Searchlight and Gerry Gable continue to monitor fascist activity and cultivate sources in far-right organizations.

A protester holds a Yellow Star reading "Not Vaccinated = Jew" at a demonstration in Milan against the mandatory 'green pass' policy of Italy's governmentCredit: MIGUEL MEDINA - AFP

At present, they are also investigating the threat of the extreme end of the anti-vaccination movement which, by 'repurposing' yellow stars, has already flirted with Holocaust revisionism. Anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists use vile antisemitic memes to spread Covid misinformation online.

Meanwhile, several of the members of the group formed the Community Security Trust (CST) which even today protects the Jewish community, working closely with the police, training up the security guards outside every synagogue and Jewish school, as well as offering measures such as self defense training and CCTV. 

"The introduction of legislation meant fascists could be prosecuted," says Michael, who was one of the CST’s founders. "And to a large extent, we beat the fascists off the street. But, of course, threats are still there. From the 1970s the threat didn’t just come from the fascists but from the far Left and people who sympathized with the Palestinian cause. And there are also plenty of lone wolves. 

"Jewish school children have been killed in France, while people have been murdered in synagogues in America. The large fascist groups may now be shadows of their former selves, but the threat has simply mutated."

Nicole Lampert is a London-based journalist who has written for the Daily Mail, The Spectator, The Independent and The Sun. Twitter: @nicolelampert

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