On 30th January 1933, as is well known, Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. Then, following the suspension of the Reichstag about a month later after a fire at the very same building and the death of President Hindenburg, in August 1934, Hitler became Fuhrer, and it became clear to the world that Germany had responded to the Wall Street Crash and subsequent depression by becoming a Nazi or fascist state. Given that, as we saw in Part VII of this series, that same Depression had a terrible effect upon the Northeast, it is worth asking how close did Britain come to going fascist in the 1930’s and how did people in our region respond to fascism in the same decade?
As to the first question there was a fascist party developed in imitation of the Italian fascists and the Nazis in Germany. It began life as the originally named New Party in 1930, formed by Oswald Mosley. Mosley was a man who had been all over the place in his political career already by that time. He had first been elected as an M.P. just after the First World War, as a Conservative M.P., when still in his early twenties. In 1922, he crossed the floor and became first a Labour M.P. and then a representative for the Independent Labour Party.
Mosley rose quickly through the ranks as Labour progressed during the 1920’s becoming Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in Ramsay Macdonald’s government advising on how best to deal with the problem of rising unemployment. It was then in 1930 as the storm broke after the Wall Street Crash that Mosley issued his Mosley manifesto, which merged a Nationalist protectionist agenda with proto-Keynesian ideas about using government spending to help alleviate the mass unemployment of the time. Seeing this idea rejected by a Labour government that retreated to the economic orthodoxies of cuts, Mosley resigned and formed the New Party.
The New Party
During 1931 the New Party became increasingly influenced by the Italian fascists under Mussolini and after visiting the Italian leader the following year, Mosley’s conversion to fascism was confirmed.
Despite achieving 16% of the vote at a by-election in Ashton-under-Lyne in early 1931, the New Party failed to make any other electoral breakthroughs and was wound up by Mosley.
However, Mosley did retain its youth wing, which he would use as the basis for a new party he launched on 1st October 1932, the British Union of Fascists.
The British Union of Fascists (BUF)
Soon the British Union of Fascists or BUF was growing, and it was clear that Mosley saw the Northeast as fertile recruiting ground, with its high unemployment and deep poverty. Indeed, the BUF saw Newcastle as what they described as a ‘Storm Centre’. Perhaps you must be a fascist to fully understand what was meant by the term ‘storm centre’, but I think that we can guess that it meant that the Fascists would have a real go at trying to gain support in our region. That they indeed did do, but apart from a few exceptions, things didn’t turn out like Mosley and the BUF had expected – or desired.
The BUF had a real go at the Northeast; you certainly couldn’t fault then for effort. However, they absolutely failed to win the support they thought would be easy to find. They were chased out of Benwell in Newcastle, when they tried to hold a public meeting, suffering the indignity of children throwing soil and mud at them. In North Shields, it was the same story, as famously told by Northeast writer Tom Hadaway:
“When they arrived at Harbour View, the heavies cordoned their speak in the centre, until the local heavies ringed them again to keep off the crowd. Unfortunately for them the Unemployed Workers Union had its meeting rooms on the corner of Harbour View, and they soon assembled a vigorously hostile crowd of dockside people. Shouts, jeers, pushing and shoving, couldn’t hear a word from the speaker and the general inference was that they should bugger off back to where they came from or else. There was a kind of charge, and the platform was overwhelmed, the banners got kicked around the square and the Blackshirts fled in little groups back to the station. I wondered what happened to the drum.”
The Blackshirts also tried to storm a left-wing bookshop on Westgate Road in Newcastle but were stopped by a huge crowd, who gathered around the statue of Joseph Cowen at near the bottom of the street, while attempts to hold a large rally on Newcastle’s Town Moor were similarly stopped. It was soon clear that Newcastle would not be a Storm Centre after all and it was the same story in Stockton, where 2 000 local people came out to oppose the Blackshirts, South Shields and other places across the region.
Indeed, the Northeast proved to be such infertile ground for the BUF that Inspector Crawley, who had been the chief of Newcastle police since 1925 had, stated that Mosley was largely to blame for any trouble caused, and that an open meeting, “invites disturbers”, especially, “in the case of a novel, perhaps foreign brand of politics”. Crawley further claimed that Mosley’s style of clothing, and manner were, “definitely provocative to North country types, including a large number of unemployed in this distressed area.” It can be reasonably argued that the British Union of Fascists always had a hard time in the region, because of the culture of welcoming others which originated from the Liberal and Labour cultures working people had been educated in. This point is backed up by what Crawley wrote to Sir Vernon Kell, on 9th June 1934, that “despite the inspired optimism of the Fascists to Newcastle, it would be difficult for the Police to conceive of an area where Fascism is more at variance with the trend of thought of the general public.”
The BUF did make some progress in other parts of the country, until a large rally took place in London at the indoor venue at Olympia in 1934. This was seen as the great opportunity for the BUF to showcase their divisive policies, as remedies for the high unemployment and the poverty in the country at the time. By this time, the Daily Mail were strong supporters of the BUF and there were several Tory MPs sitting on the front row as the rally began.
What happened next, saw the BUF showing their true colours. The speakers began to be heckled by a small number of anti-fascist protesters, who were violently ejected by stewards, showing the country just what the BUF were about and just how large a role violence played in their politics. It was so bad that even the Daily Mail withdrew its support from the BUF, and the party went into terminal decline. So, the rest of the country began catching up with how we already thought in the Northeast!
The M.P. for Jarrow at the time, Ellen Wilkinson, is best known for the involvement in the Jarrow Crusade of 1936, but she was also involved in several other campaigns, including anti-fascism. Ellen despised fascism, with its authoritarian structures, without socialism or trade unions and argued that such a system, “led logically ……. to the total denial of human rights, the extermination of liberal ideas and the persecution of all who held them”. What did Ellen do to oppose fascism?
Firstly, in the late 1920’s, Ellen was able to foresee the dangers of Hitler before many others through her links with the German underground. Ellen articulated these fears at the NUDAW conference in a speech in 1932, just months before Hitler came to power. In the speech, referring to the street violence of the Nazis, she said that in her recent visit to Germany she had seen men, whose eyes had been smashed with steel whips. Men just like those who were the delegates in front of her. Ellen also raised funds and helped the British Relief Committee for the Relief of Victims of German fascism with propaganda to let people know what was happening to those who dared to show dissent in Nazi Germany and to help them in practical ways. Ellen won support for the work of the committee, by addressing many gatherings across the country to win support for the work.
Ellen also helped refugees from fascism, who came to our shores. Ellen argued with both trade unionists, concerned about jobs in the dark days of the 1930’s and those in the House of Commons who did not or would not see the plight of anti-fascists in Germany as their affair. Ellen’s support for German and Spanish anti-fascists led to her, so determined was Ellen in her work on behalf of Germand and Spanish anti-fascists that’s he became known as the ‘Pocket Pasionaria; in tribute to the original ‘La Pasionaria’, Dolores Ibarurri, the Spanish Republican leader and Basque woman.
One of Ellen’s triumphs in this area was that she was able to persuade Sir Samuel Hoare, a generally unsupportive Home Secretary, to allow into Britain Communist members of the Reichstag who had evaded capture in the crackdown following the Reichstag fire in February 1933.
Ellen Wilkinson also helped fight fascism in Spain and in 1937 she phoned the Sunday Sun from a besieged Madrid:
“’From where I’m speaking, it’s deafening,’ she shouted. ‘There goes another one. Shelling has been continuous all day…. Another shell has fallen – it was very close this time. In the street where we are staying, several houses have been blown up in the last two or three days. This is going to make all our people at home feel terribly nervous. Do please tell them not to worry too much. We are keeping in shelter as much as possible and taking every care of ourselves.”
The very worst of what fascism imposed on humanity in the 1930’s and 1940; happened with the Holocaust and in places like the Belsen Bergen concentration camp. The camp was liberated by the British Army on 15th April 1945 and three days later a local regiment arrived to begin the Relief of Belsen, aiming to help the poor inmates to be in a position to leave the hellhole and try and get on with their lives.
The Durham Light Infantry (DLI)
It was the Durham Light Infantry who helped the inmates of Belsen, and in particular 113 L.A.A. REGIMENT R.A. (D.L.I.) T.A. The situation at Belsen Concentration Camp between 13 April and 21 May 1945 was dire when the Durham Light Infantry reached it, on 18th April.
There was a large concentration camp there with a tank training centre nearby. There was also a prisoner of war camp with 800 Russian prisoners and a military hospital.
When the DLI arrived they had to deal with a deadly outbreak of typhus, the same outbreak that had claimed Anne Frank a month earlier. The danger of disease was so great that it was agreed that there should be a truce in the interests of both the British troops involved and the internees, to prevent the spread of disease.
The DLI at Belsen
The DLI had a very difficult and stressful job at Belsen. The former inmates, innocent men, women, and children, imprisoned by the Nazis for racial reasons, were starving to death, when the men from County Durham arrived and they desperately need food. So, it was that a particularly poignant tragedy took place as the soldiers did what was the natural thing to do and shared some of their food. So unused to decent food were the inmates that tragically some of them dies and a rice-based diet had to be introduced, with the help of medical students over from Britain. This diet was based on the Bengal Famine diet recently used in the Indian sub-continent. Another major job of the soldiers was to burn down the huts and do anything they could to prevent the spread of typhus, while risking catching it themselves.
Among the DLI at Belsen was a large group of soldiers from Hartlepool and one of those went by the name of Wilf Lavin. I have had the pleasure of meeting Wilf’ s son Frank, who still lives in Hartlepool, on several occasions. Frank is understandably very proud of his father and the great humanitarian role he played in 1945. When I visited Frank in 2021, he still had the newspaper story from the Hartlepool Mail from 25th January 1995, marking Wilf’s death. The story noted that Wilf, “was never able to forget what he saw there – and pleaded that those war crimes should be remembered so that they would never be repeated”.
One last interesting story also helps to emphasise the way that people from the Northeast made a significant contribution to the fight against fascism concerned the notorious traitor William Joyce, otherwise known as Lord Haw-Haw. After spending much of the war in Berlin, telling well-crafted lies on behalf of Goebbels’ propaganda department. When Nazi Germany fell to pieces in 1945 in ignominious defeat, Joyce tried to escape the armies converging from east and west who were looking for leading members of the Nazi regime such as Joyce. However, Lord Haw-Haw was not to be successful in his escape as he was spotted by a hawk-eyed Newcastle soldier by the name of Jimmy Evans. Right to the end in the first battle against fascism, people from our region played leading roles.
The evidence is clear
There was a fascist threat, which was a huge threat to human civilisation. Yet it was totally rejected by the vast majority of people in the Northeast.
We simply don’t do fascism here in the Northeast and long may that happy tradition continue.
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