The 43 Group: an interview and evaluation

The 43 Group: an interview and evaluation

Some information about the 43 Group and its impact.

In the immediate aftermath of World War II Mosley and the British Union of Fascists members were released from prison as the threat of a pro Nazi fifth column subsided. Unfortunately the defeat of their patrons Mussolini and Hitler, and the revelations of the Concentration camp system and the Holocaust didn't lead to much repenting.

Mosley and a core group of Fascists became active again in the East End hoping to rebuild their movement. Understandably this attempted resurrection was bitterly opposed by the Jewish community. The main source of opposition was the 43 Group, its backbone was Jewish ex servicemen but the group did include civilian men and women and some non Jewish members.

Here is an interview with a member of the group followed by a discussion with Professor Nigel Copsey of Teesside University about the post war resurgence of Fascism and the effectiveness of the 43 Group.

Link https://youtu.be/tbwwSf6Ay_w

Transcript

Max Pierson Program Editor:

We begin on the streets of London in the years after the end of the Second World War, Britain and the Allies had spent six long years and an enormous amount of blood and treasure in the defeat of Fascism in Europe. The horrors of the Nazi concentration camps, and the extermination camps were fresh in the memory and yet even in this environment a strand of British Fascism re-emerged as a political movement in the late 1940s.

But this time with the experience of what Europe had just been through these British fascists were confronted by a group of predominantly Jewish ex-servicemen and volunteers. Alex Last has been speaking to one of them.

Jules Konopinski:

Anti-Semitism was vitriolic, people standing on a platform shouting out the same abuse you heard before the war. The only way to beat them was go to them before they came for us, and so we did. We didn’t look away, we didn’t bow we went for them.

Alex Last:

Jules Konopinski was born into a Jewish family in Breslau a town in Germany in 1930. Persecuted by the Nazis his family managed to escape Germany just before the Second World War began. They made it to Britain and settled in the East End of London, a relatively deprived area which since the late 19th century had become home to a large Jewish immigrant community. But there was a lot of anti-Semitism there too, as Jules discovered when he went to school.

Jules Konopinski:

School was in Bethnal Green, the whole area was a hotbed of anti-Semitism. Racial abuse, verbal abuse in fact in order to get to school a friend of mine we had to go into Victoria park which was next to the school and we used to take on all comers, back-to-back and fight the world.

Alex Last:

In the 1930s British fascist movement led by Sir Oswald Mosely had grown in popularity, they styled themselves on the Nazis and the Italian Fascists, and called themselves Blackshirts because of their uniform. They claimed to have tens of thousands of members, they had prominent aristocratic support and they were even praised in the popular newspapers the Daily Mail and the Daily Mirror, by the right wing press baron Viscount Rothermere. They would hold rallies and marches, often targeting East London.

[Audio from Balckshirt rally, the group are singing while their leader gives a speech]

Let who dare follow us in this hour, that is the power of the mighty mood of Britain. And I claim that in the ranks of our Blackshirt legions march for mighty God!

Alex Last:

During the Second World War Mosley and hundreds of his Fascist supporters were finally detained, but as the war came to an end they were released and unrepentant Fascist groups re-emerged holding rallies in London and around the country.

Jules Konopinski:

From then on openly in the streets you had public meetings shouting out the same antagonism and the same falseness from before the war. And now even worse, they’d say 2the gas chambers weren’t enough, we didn’t kill enough.” And all my family had been wiped out, it was very disturbing. And I for one I could not stand by, I would not allow this thing to happen, no way.

So with other people we got together, and decided that if the authorities would do nothing then we must do it ourselves.

Alex Last:

So British Jewish ex-servicemen got together to form an organisation known as the 43 Group, to expose the Fascist threat and battled them on the streets. There are various stories about the origins of the name, among them that 43 people were present at the first meeting. But the group included former commandos, paratroopers, airmen and naval personnel, decorated war heroes. As well as civilian volunteers, men and women and it had non-Jewish members too.

Jules Konopinski was one of the young tough East End lads who joined up.

Jules Konopinski:

I was a strong young lad, didn’t know any fear and never gave ground. There was no membership card but the actual members at one time reached well over a thousand in London.

Alex Last:

And there was training too, for the recruits.

Jules Konopinski:

There were boxing gymnasiums, private trainers, karate trainers, don’t forget the people who came out of the army were highly trained, they trained us how to defend ourselves. And also how to hurt, I know it’s a sad reflection now, but we felt it was something that had to be done.

Alex Last:

The 43 Group would try to gain intelligence on where the Fascist meetings were taking place. To do this some even went undercover inside the Fascist movement.

Jules Konopinski:

We had three aims, One is to gain information, Two is to expose them and Three we had to counter their publications. Because they were selling their newspapers on street corners.

Alex Last:

The 43 Group would organise themselves to disrupt Fascist meetings, overturn the speakers platform, disperse their followers, and if that meant punch ups -which it usually did- that was fine too.

Jules Konopinski:

We knew where they were going to be and we were there waiting for them. In order to dissuade them from coming again they were sometimes physically molested and told don’t come back. Sometimes there was a rush forward to turn the platform over. Eventually they, they brought along their strong arm people, that led to fighting.

Alex Last:

Did you get into many scrapes yourself?

Jules Konopinski:

Yes, very much so, I ended up at the Old Bailey in 1948 on a charge of Affray and conspiracy, of which I was found not guilty. I’m not ashamed to say that I received many a good hiding myself it wasn’t all one sided because these people were highly trained as well.

Alex Last:

In post war Britain fascists seized upon events in British controlled Palestine, where Zionist seeking the creation of a Jewish state carried out deadly attacks on British security forces.

Jules Konopinski:

A lot of people were hurt on both sides but it caused a great deal of stress over here. Because now the people who didn’t like us had a reason, “you killed our sergeant, you killed our soldiers, you’ve done this.”

Alex Last:

Jules himself sneaked out of the country to fight for newly established Israel, he then came back to London to battle the fascists on the streets again.

[Newscaster report]

London’s black Sunday begins as Mosley’s Union movement rallies in Ridley road Dalston. Holding in check angry crowds four hundred police handle a tough job with restraint but firmly, arresting thirty-four.

Jules Konopinski:

There was demonstrations, there was public riots on the streets. The three or four thousand police that were on duty, -police horses- it became a daily routine for problems.

Alex Last:

Did you see Mosley yourself in person?

Jules Konopinski:

I’ve seen him speaking, I would say, I mean he was a most charismatic person. He always stood with his hands on his hips, and I must say that as far as I can see he’s never mentioned the word Jew, he was a very clever orator. “The aliens” that was his expression, these aliens, these aliens. Obviously the aliens he was addressing was us.

Alex Last:

The impact of the 43 Group can be debated, not everyone in the Jewish community agreed with its tactics. But it would become more sophisticated and certainly the physical threat of the 43 Group worried the Fascist leaders and their followers. It was demonstrated most clearly in the town of Brighton, where the local police decided to give the Fascist marchers only token police protection.

Jules Konopinski:

Mosley decided to march in Brighton and took down a very hard contingent, the police superintendent sent out three policemen and one on a bicycle. And when Mosely protested about it he said that that is the legal requirements. And he decided to march, they hadn’t gotten very far when the world descended upon them.

There was fighting going on all over Brighton, it was a bad day for them, they had a very bad day.

Alex Last:

As the years went by Mosley and his friends failed to establish themselves as a political force, the numbers at their meetings dwindled, and as the threat diminished in 1952 the 43 Group was persuaded to disband, though it would become a model for future Anti-Fascist groups when Mosley rallied again a decade later, this time targeting Caribbean immigrants. As for Jules Konopinski, he went on to start a family and run a successful retail business. He has no regrets on his decision to take up the battle on the streets of London.

Jules Konopinski:

None of us wanted notoriety, none of us did it for gain, we all had a lot to lose. I think that what we did had to be done, if we hadn’t done it things could have been a lot worse, history might have changed.

Max Pierson:

The Anti-Fascist veteran Jules Konopinski speaking to Alex Last. So how was it possible that British fascists immediately reappear after a war against the Nazis, and still apparently be taken seriously by some? I’m joined now by Nigel Copsey of Teesside University who is a historian and specialist in Fascism and Anti-fascism in Britain.

It does almost beggar belief that the Fascists sort of taken hold in even a small way in Britain, how so?

Nigel Copsey:

Well the interesting thing here is that the British fascists never really went away. During the war over 8oo of the leading fascist activists were interred and during this period of internment they continued to follow their pre-war leader Sir Oswald Mosely with absolute, utter devotion. So, they kept the sacred flame alive, so internment was like a kind of martyrdom you know, so whereby on release fascists felt purified, they felt reborn. So, it’s kind of paradoxical but many felt that they’d not lost the war but won it.

So many interred fascists in Britain -internment served to reinvigorate them- intensified their ideological faith, it became a badge of honour. So, for British fascists despite everything fascism hadn’t died in 1945. It may have for the rest of us you know it may well have been or absolutely was discredited and disgraced. But for them the idea was still alive and it could be revived.

Max Pierson:

So in a sense the fact that they were interred acts almost as a as an incubator for the ideals, even though as you say the rest of the world saw the horrors of what emerged from Nazi Germany?

Nigel Copsey:

That’s right that’s exactly right yeah.

Max Pierson:

What did they want though? I mean clearly they had seen fascism defeated in Europe, what did the British fascists after the second world war think that they were going to get?

Nigel Copsey:

Well the fascists were motivated by different things, I mean for some it gave vent to their anti-Semitic prejudices and in many cases, you know this was a real deep pathological hatred of Jews. Others saw in fascism the possibility of saving the British Empire from decline, and then you had Mosley himself. Mosley attempted to distance himself from his pre-war fascism, so he made repeated pledges to democracy, developed a new program that was called “Europe a nation” so he called for Europeans to unite under a common government, a common market but the problem for him was that his supporters and let’s be you know let’s be honest here there were not that many of them, a few thousand at most, they harked back to the Britain first fascism of the 30s, and found the shift in Mosley’s thinking very difficult to stomach.

Max Pierson:

But, but the anti-Semitism remains sort of at the heart of the er ideology if you like of the fascists and how was that complicated by events after the second world war in the Middle East with the move to establish the Jewish state Israel?

Nigel Copsey:

Well what, I mean what fuelled the anti-Semitic agitation of the Mosleyite’s in erm in 1947 I think, were certainly you had the events in Palestine where two British soldiers had been murdered by Zionists. Which provided a spark really, for popular anti-Semitic rioting in various places in Manchester, in Liverpool in Glasgow as well in the July of 47.

But the fascist agitation itself, I mean there’s no real evidence to suggest that the fascists themselves were behind this rioting. Their agitation was directed towards East London towards places like Ridley Road in Dalston, and yeah so I mean that I think that what we need to bear in mind that yes the anti-Semitism was certainly fuelled by events in the Middle East but that anti-Semitism was a long standing phenomenon in Britain.

Max Pierson:

And we heard from Jules Konopinski and about the 43 Group just now, and how effective were they, was it the fact that Jews and their fellows were prepared to stand up to the post-war fascists in Britain, was that what stopped fascism in post-war Britain from taking further hold?

Nigel Copsey:

Well I think, I think its important to er put it into its historical context I mean given the widespread hostility that ordinary – the most by far the majority- people felt in this country after the war, you know absolute disgust towards fascism. That even without militant Anti-fascism you know British fascism would have struggled to attract any wider public support.

That said I think you know the 43 Group was undoubtedly effective in being able to physically confront and attack and I think did ultimately kill off the fascist movement which had emerged following the second world war. But we also have to bear in mind that the reality is that the 43 Group was only ever partially effective because they also had another aim, and that aim was to impose a ban on Fascism. And they wanted the Labour government -the post war Labour government- to impose a ban and to make incitement to racial hatred illegal.

And they were singularly unsuccessful in those efforts, I mean the government felt that there was no real reason to amend the law, they could deal with the situation the fascists really didn’t pose that much of a threat so the Labour government just didn’t stray from its position. And it refused to introduce legislation to suppress fascism. So, the pictures a bit mixed, depends on how you measure its effectiveness.

I think in terms of in terms of the war of attrition on the streets they’d certainly worn down the fascists by early 49. But on the other hand, in terms of bringing about government action against fascism, I think they were largely unsuccessful in that respect.

Max Pierson:

And we have to remember of course that the far-right ideology, is an ideology that doesn’t go away. It re-emerges in various forms and in various parts of Europe.

Nigel Copsey:

That’s right, I mean if you if you look at the far-right today, today’s far-right has become far more sophisticated and it’s softened its extremism. You know the Swastika and leather boots have been traded for suits, you know er very few openly talk about the Jews, the new target is Islam. Fewer still talk about white racial superiority.

But I think that the old ideas are still there, they still remain firmly embedded within the Far-right psyche. I mean the best analogy is that of Seaside Rock, now listeners may or may not be familiar with the hard stick shaped confectionary that we Brits eat at seaside resorts but within this Seaside Rock there are brightly coloured that run through it, as well as the name of the resort where the rock is sold, and the playwright David Edgar once remarked that “anti-Semitic Jewish conspiracy theory, runs through British fascism like Blackpool runs through Seaside Rock.” And he wasn’t wrong and so for all the differences, for all their difference Britain’s fascists still have much in common with those fascists of yesteryear, that were out agitating in the streets of just after Second World War.

Max Pierson:

Professor Nigel Copsey of Teesside University many thanks.

Comments

RobberBurns88
Oct 26 2017 09:37

Something missing?

Reddebrek
Oct 26 2017 13:06

No the interview is a video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tbwwSf6Ay_w