A forgotten fight against British post-WW2 fascism
In April 1946 the government sponsored ‘Committee on Fascism’ presented its report to the cabinet, advising that ‘an attempt to silence a political minority because its views are abhorrent to the majority would be a departure from tradition.’ And so Britain became one of the only post war countries to allow for the dissemination and publication of fascist propaganda. A decision that, when combined with the release of many fascists who had been arrested during World War Two, saw a rise in anti-Semitic and fascist rhetoric and actions that aimed to intimidate and provoke Jewish communities. Consequently counter to the popular narrative of triumph over fascism that has dominated the public consciousness of the years after World War Two, there was a resurgence of the opposite. With fourteen fascists groups, newspapers such as Britain Awake and The Patriot available on street corners as well as regular outdoor rallies. By 1946, the Mitford Tavern, a fascist haunt in Hackney, had become popular once again, as had the frequent appearance of their graffiti on the walls of North and East London.
For returning Jewish service men, who had risked their lives fighting Nazi forces in traumatic and appalling conditions, the fact fascism was being preached freely on the streets of London was beyond belief. Combined with an increased awareness of the Nazi genocide of European Jews, the anger and fear of British Jews rose. In February 1946, four of these Jewish ex-servicemen (Alec Carson, Gerry Flamberg, Len Sherman, and Morris Beckman) witnessed a rally organized by the British League of Ex-Servicemen and Women led by Jeffery Hamm. The four interrupted the meeting, toppling the makeshift stage and knocking Hamm over.
From this the 43 Group was formed, with its first meeting at Maccabi House and named after the 43 people who came to the original meeting, thirty-eight ex-servicemen and five women, and although the vast majority were Jewish, the group also included non-Jewish socialists. With two aims the group hoped to prevent fascist activities by physical force if necessary and to pressure Parliament into making racial incitement a criminal offence.
During the winter of 1946-7 the 43 Group transformed into a ‘fully functioning, multifaceted anti-fascist organization.’ With a decentralized and semi-autonomous structure of local branches. At its peak there were 6 sections: Central, North, North-West, West, East and South. Usually the size of the branch reflected the size of the Jewish population in that area, although group members were not limited to their area and many were active across the city. By April 1946 over 300 people had bolstered the Group’s ranks. The activities of each section included recruitment, monitoring local fascists and distributing literature. Group members also attended fascist meetings to heckle, observe and disrupt, using tightly-organised 43 Group units to form human ‘wedges’ at rallies. Using this tactic the 43 Group would break up over 10 meetings a week across London.
This bravery and perseverance from the 43 Group took its toll on their adversary and prevented them from meeting or growing without consequence. So that by 1952 the resurgence of fascism in London had largely faded out.
The courage shown by those 43 Group members in Hackney against fascist violence and hateful rhetoric is a powerful message, that in the face of hate a united community can come together to resist its potential power. An idea that is used today against the homophobia, racism and sexism that is still prevalent in our world. So whilst the 43 Group won a battle against fascism in the 1940s, there is still a war against hate that needs to be won.
For more information on The 43 Group I recommend Daniel Sonabend’s book, We Fight Fascists, The 43 Group and their forgotten battle for post-war Britain as well as this collection of resources and podcasts brought together by Working Class History. I would also like to highlight this project by Stuart Freedman, who recently photographed the last surviving members of the 43 Group.