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October 1934: The British Union of Fascists celebrated the launch of their first branch in London’s East End. Oswald Mosley, writing in The Blackshirt could barely contain his excitement.
“Thursday October 4 … The Blackshirts marched in procession from Bow Branch premises … into Stepney Green, where a large crowd … had gathered which later increased to well over 1,500. The Blackshirts had a very noisy reception as the larger part of the audience were aliens who resented British people holding a meeting in what they considered to be their own territory … October 4 will go down in Blackshirt history as a memorable day.”
But October 4 became our memorable day. Two years later, it fell on a Sunday. By then the British Union of Fascists (BUF) had four well-organised branches in the East End, with Shoreditch, Bethnal Green and Limehouse augmenting its Bow branch.
Together they formed a horseshoe around the 60,000 strong, beleaguered Jewish community of Whitechapel, which bore the brunt of sickening verbal abuse from BUF street orators and physical violence from those they incited. Half the BUF national membership was in those four East End branches.
Two major parliamentary debates on anti-semitic terror in the East End took place in 1936. MPs detailed the wave of attacks on their Jewish constituents, but the only response Tory Home Secretary John Simon could muster was to call for “all sides” to behave reasonably. Pathetic, though perhaps better than the sniggering of Tory backbenchers in the House in 1934 after violence erupted at a 15,000-strong fascist rally at Olympia in June that year.
The rally audience included 150 MPs looking for political inspiration, while some Tory House of Lords members turned up in black shirts. The violence at Olympia was one way. Eighty anti-fascists needed medical treatment, yet Tory MPs parroted the BUF line that anti-fascists had attacked Mosley’s thugs.
William Greene, Conservative MP for Worcester asked in the House: “Is it not a fact that 90 per cent of those accused of attacking fascists rejoice in fine old British names such as Ziff, Kerstein and Minsky?”
Frederick MacQuisten, Conservative MP for Argyll, enquired: “Were some of them called Feigenbaum, Goldstein and Rigotsky and other good old Highland names?”
Fellow Tory MP Captain Archibald Ramsey frequently railed against what he called the “Jewish imperium in Imperio (empire within an empire),” claiming that the correct term for “anti-semite” was “Jew-wise.”
On October 4 1936, Mosley planned to show that his movement could dominate any streets they wished. Beyond the Jewish enclave Mosley supporters set up four platforms where their triumphant leader would make successive speeches after his invasion. The following week Mosley was due in Berlin for his second marriage, this time in the home of Goebbels, the nazi propaganda minister, with Hitler an invited guest.
Mosley relished the prospect of boasting to the Fuhrer how he had invaded fearful Jewish streets.
He didn’t get to first base. The anti-fascist majority of Eastenders turned up in force to repel the Blackshirts. They blockaded Gardiners Corner at Aldgate, built barricades in Cable Street and engaged in hand-to-hand combat at Tower Hill where Mosley’s troops assembled and police were more thinly deployed. The fascists had tried hard to mobilise Irish Catholics against the Jews, but on the day, dockers and railway workers came from the Irish end of Cable Street to assist Jews building barricades at their end.
The front ranks of those blockading Gardiner’s Corner endured savage beatings from the mounted police but held firm. In Cable Street, police eventually dislodged the first barricade — an overturned truck — and ran through to check it was safe for the fascists. They were halted at a second barricade where they endured resistance on the ground and an aerial barrage of kitchen implements and slops including the contents of chamber pots thrown by women in the flats above Cable Street’s shops.
The police had to retreat. People came from beyond the East End to support local anti-fascists. The Independent Labour Party published a pamphlet, 300,000 workers say no to Mosley. They and the Communist Party, could take most credit for the mobilisation, but the Labour League of Youth, which was at odds with Labour Party elders, and local grassroots movement the Jewish People’s Council against Fascism and Anti-semitism (JPC) played a huge part too.
It was the JPC that attracted nearly 100,000 signatures from Jews and non-Jews that week on a petition demanding that the Home Secretary ban Mosley’s invasion. Local people’s desire to be free from fear was counterposed to Mosley’s “right” to invade an immigrant area, threaten, abuse and intimidate its population, in the name of his free speech and movement.
The Tory government privileged Mosley’s rights and sent 7,000 police, including every mounted policeman in London to uphold those “rights.”
The JPC produced a further leaflet, addressed to “Citizens of London,” declaring: “This march must not take place.”
If the government refused to ban it, then the people would, through force of numbers, which they did. Eighty-four demonstrators were arrested, 79 of them anti-fascists, of whom 13 were women. Many were fined. Charlie Goodman and Jackie Shukman served custodial sentences but then went to Spain to join the International Brigades fighting Franco’s forces after being released.
Facing overwhelming resistance, Mosley was eventually ordered by the police to turn round, march his troops in the opposite direction and disperse.
He condemned the government for surrendering “to Red violence and Jewish corruption.” The Blackshirt newspaper said “Jewry had humiliated Britain for a few short hours.” The BUF swore revenge and promised to rid the country of the ”unclean influence of alien contamination.”
But they were not the only people who were humiliated that day. Leaders of mainstream political parties who told people to stay indoors and let the fascists pass were shamed for their cowardice.
Apart from the fascists, though, none suffered greater humiliation than the arrogant, right-wing “leaders” of the Jewish community. From the relative comfort of the West End, the Board of Deputies sent messages to be read out in synagogues the day before the fascist invasion, instructing the East End’s working class Jews to stay off the streets.
Their echo chamber, the Jewish Chronicle, published an “URGENT WARNING” advising Jews to “KEEP AWAY” from the Blackshirt march. Those who “become involved in any possible disorders”, it said, “will be actively helping anti-semitism and Jew-baiting.”
Middle-class leaders of Jewish youth clubs put on extra football matches that Sunday to divert Jewish youth from the counter-protest, but the young people preferred to tackle fascists that day instead of each other.
When the Board and the Jewish Chronicle finally roused themselves in the weeks following the people’s victory over the fascists, they directed most of their energy to attempting to undermine the Jewish People’s Council which had played such a crucial role in mobilising Jews and allying with non-Jews to defeat their opponents. As recent political interventions have shown, the “advice” offered to the Jewish community from its self-defined “leaders” has not improved in the decades since.
Current Board of Deputies president Marie Van der Zyl displayed either political ignorance or amnesia when she told an Israeli news channel recently that the Conservative Party has “always been friends of the Jewish community.”
Meanwhile, anti-fascists must face up to the renewed threat to minorities, not just here but elsewhere in Europe and America.
We still have much to learn from those who united in resistance and built an anti-fascist majority in their communities in 1936.
David Rosenberg is author of Battle for the East End, Five Leaves Publications 2011; and Rebel Footprints, Pluto Press 2015.
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