There’s much to be recommended in this account about the legendary, postwar, anti-fascist 43 Group, containing as it does terrific exploits and anecdotes from Group veterans that encapsulate masterful resistance to fascism.
Leaning on participant Morris Beckman’s classic book, The 43 Group, Sonabend illuminates the petty bourgeois nature of fascist organisation and the twin practice of its electoral and street operations. He also chronicles various fascist formations that grew in 1946, capturing internal tensions within the extreme right and the nature of wannabe Führers.
Sonabend relates Beckman’s words: “Fascists were marching, singing: ‘Well done Hitler, we’ll finish off the Jews’.” Young, mainly Jewish ex-servicemen and women, frustrated by the “do nothing” attitude of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, decided to act.
The Group’s motto was “discuss, decide, do it”. As now, the state’s dictum of facilitating free speech for fascists emboldened the return of little Hitler, Oswald Mosley, who predicted that his comeback would see him proclaimed as a leader-in-waiting. Sonabend well describes Mosley’s pompousness and the frustration of Group members towards mainstream figures who were unwilling to curb fascism.
Group stalwarts were deeply proud of their critical role in undermining Mosley. Where others had told them to turn the other cheek, or tried to buy them off, they systematically thwarted a fascist revival.
Vivid are the descriptions of east London clashes where no quarter was given by either side. It was often two steps forward, one step back for the Group, but they never stopped.
Operating on many levels, from “liberating” fascist propaganda to spies inside Mosley’s HQ, Group leaders came to realise the damage they were inflicting. By 1949, it was clear the Blackshirts were losing heavily. Their numbers, meetings and organisation were in steep decline.
In April 1949 at Highbury Corner, north London, Group members routed a Mosley rally. Mosley vacated the scene and “Blackshirts surrendered, many ran away”.
The Group’s ferocious and precise campaigns had broken the back of a possible fascist realignment. As Sonabend says, the Group made a “real and lasting change to the Jewish community and wider society”.
Sonabend rightly calls for united front tactics in tackling the far right. His research and interviews with ex-members is valuable. But despite his respect for Beckman, something grates in the line, “most Group veterans thought Beckman’s book tosh”. Similar remarks, such as “dim-witted veterans” also seem out of place.
Despite criticisms, however, Sonabend’s book powerfully evokes Group members and their great deeds. Much of the black humour, danger and intensity of those days springs off the page. They will always inspire us.