“Mosley? Goodness — he was the most detested man in England! Still is!”
So said Joanna Heathcote, a Los Angeles businesswoman born and raised in Great Britain, during a recent dinner. When I mentioned Sir Oswald Mosley, best-known as the leader of his country’s Blackshirt (Fascist) movement, Joanna punctuated her reaction with raised eyebrows and an exclamation of “Oooh!”
Her response is probably typical of that of most Britons to the name of Mosley. What is striking is that it comes twenty-six years after Sir Oswald’s death and more than 60 years after Mosley last commanded headlines. The spellbinding orator who had commanded halls that held 10,000 or more and drawn hecklers who frequently turned his meetings into violent brouhahas was incarcerated along with hundreds of his followers in the British Union of Fascists as potential saboteurs when Britain went to war with Germany (“like what you chaps did to the Japanese,” as Joanna Heathcote put it).
Up to his death at age 84 in 1980, Mosley would insist he was never a German sympathizer or even that he was anti-Semitic. He had urged his followers, he claimed, to enter the service and fight for Britain if the island was attacked, but had also called for every means possible to avoid war with Germany over its dealings with other countries. He also insisted that he had only attacked Jews in the late 1930s after Jewish opponents began disrupting his meetings.
Was Mosley a potential German Hitler or a grossly misunderstood and maligned man? At a time when his life has dramatized in a recent British TV mini-series and several books have recently been written on his almost-as-controversial second wife Diana Mitford, Mosley is now exhaustively researched, examined, and judged in "Blackshirt," by Stephen Dorril. Finally finished after years of preparation — including from World War II documents only recently declassified — Blackshirt is inarguably the definitive biography of the man who — deservedly, concludes Dorril — remains even in death Britain’s most controversial figure.
What is stunning is how close Mosley came to becoming prime minister through legitimate electoral means. The young Mosley had had a lightning political career before growing contemptuous of the democratic system and turning to Fascism. The scion of wealthy landed gentry, Oswald “Tom” Mosley served with valor as an aviator in World War I, and was elected to Parliament as a Conservative at age 22. He later broke with his party over how to deal with the Great Depression, was re-elected as an independent, and then as a newly-minted Labour Party member (along with first wife Cimmie, who herself was elected to Parliament). A Cabinet Member in his early 30s under Labour’s Prime Minister Ramsey MacDonald, the magnetic Mosley was on just about everyone’s short list to be prime minister himself sooner rather than later.
But just as he had made such a quicksilver rise, Mosley grew impatient with the political system in short order. In part influenced by his friend, economist John Maynard Keynes, Mosley became a forceful and articulate advocate of a heavy-handed government role in the Depression-wracked economy that included Parliament delegating substantial authority to a much smaller, unelected group of leaders from government, business, and labor that (Mosley maintained) would take action faster. But the Labour Party’s conference voted down the “Mosley Manifesto,” prompting its author to quit the Cabinet and eventually the party itself.
With encouragement from such leading lights as authors H.G. Wells and Peter Cheyney, diarist Harold Nicholson, and playwright George Bernard Shaw, Mosley briefly tried to pursue his agenda through a movement known as (appropriately) the “New Party.” It fared miserably at the polls because, as author Dorril notes, “the two-party system is impervious to new ideas and parties.” Mosley then decided he “had finished with people who think” and opted for fascism. The British Union of Fascists (BUF) was born.
From Parliament to the Streets
“You must be mad,” Mosley former colleague in Parliament, Harold MacMillan, told him upon learning he had abandoned electoral politics for the street corner rallies and mass demonstrations that would characterize London’s version of Rome’s Fascists and Berlin’s Nazis. Actually, Mosley’s movement had some surprisingly respectable support when it was launched in the early 1930s; Lord Rothermere, influential publisher of the Daily Mail, was a financial backer of the Fascist cause and boosted it with banner editorials with titles such as “Hurray for the Blackshirts;” intellectuals such as Nicholson and Wells (who foresaw Fascist rule of Britain in his futuristic novel "The Shape of Things to Come") stayed with Mosley in his early Blackshirt phase.
Even, as the author notes, some Jews actually joined the Blackshirts and Mosley was more Mussolini than Hitler in that the British brand of Fascism — with all its calls for rearmament, a state-controlled economy, and diminished democracy — eschewed anti-Semitism. “No man will be persecuted because he’s a Jew,” Mosley initially vowed, and, in fact, some Jews were willing to risk Fascism in order to overcome unemployment at greater than 20% and the specter of a Communist revolution.
With careful documentation (much of it from government papers only recently declassified), Dorril carefully illustrates the pivotal reason for Mosley’s sharp turn to anti-Semitism: money. Although the British Union of Fascists always denied being bankrolled by foreign governments and Mosley used vast sums of his own inherited wealth to fund the BUF, Dorril presents rock-solid evidence that the movement received substantial funding — in fact, an estimated $8 million from 1933-36 — from the Mussolini regime in Rome. When Rome finally wrote off the possibility of Fascism coming to Britain, Hitler became Mosley’s new paymaster. Der Fuehrer met Mosley through the Englishman’s second wife Diana Mitford, a frequent visitor to Nuremberg rallies with her sister, a Hitler fanatic with the unusual name of Unity Mitford. The embrace of German money sparked Mosley to begin denouncing international Jewish finance and to lead marches of the Blackshirts through Jewish neighborhoods.
“He became an anti-Semite because he had to,” concludes Dorril.
Mosley’s mass rallies and marches inevitably attracted counter-demonstrators with knuckle dusters and turned violent. They were major features in headlines, newsreels, and radio broadcasts of the 1930’s. In 1935, the Blackshirts launched nationwide marches, leafleting campaigns, and petition drives imploring Britain not to condemn Italy for its invasion of Ethiopia. A year later, the BUF’s cause was support for King Edward VIII to remain on the throne and marry “the woman I love,” American divorcee Wallis Simpson.
But it was the last major project of the BUF — to keep Britain from going to war with Germany over Czechoslovakia in 1939 — that was Mosley’s downfall. In 1940, habeas corpus was suspended and suspected saboteurs were rounded up. Mosley was imprisoned in the storied Isle of Man prison with 345 of his followers in the BU.
Whether Mosley and the Blackshirts were a threat to their government and whether they deserved wartime incarceration is debated to this day. Overwhelming public opinion held that Mosley belonged in jail. Notwithstanding, the BUF leader had always said Britain should fight if attacked and never advocated a German conquest of his homeland. Some of his followers were arrested as they returned from defending their country at Dunkirk and one after completing a bombing mission over Germany.
George Bernard Shaw made a point when he said it was time to release Mosley “with apologies for having let him frighten us into scrapping the Habeas Corpus Act. … We have produced the ridiculous situation in which we may buy Hitler’s Mein Kampf in any bookstore in Britain, but not buy ten lines written by Mosley. The whole affair has become two silly for words.” For humanitarian reasons, because of phlebitis that could kill him, Mosley was released from prison in November of 1943 and remained under house arrest with his family until war’s end.
Churchill admitted that Mosley “has never been accused and never tried — a frightful thing to anyone concerned about English liberties” but agreed to his incarceration because “the country was in danger of destruction and we could run no risk, we had to do it. . .” Another reason for jailing Mosley as a possibly dangerous subversive was what revealed to authorities after the war by Roy Courlander, one of the “English Committee” [captured British soldiers who were former Fascists and now agreed to fight for Germany]: that Hitler had told the English Committee if Britain were defeated, the Duke of Windsor would be on the throne, with Mosley as acting prime minister in the much the same way as Nazi front man Vidkun Quisling was in Norway.
It is also during this period that we find many of the fascinating associations of Mosley: the Duke of Windsor, a close social friend and sympathizer who said, “Tom [Mosley] would have made a first-rate prime minister;” William Joyce, Mosley’s main rival in the Blackshirts who fled Britain on the eve of World War II and became notorious on radio calling for his country’s defeat as “Lord Haw-Haw” (and was hanged for treason); and Hitler’s former Number Two man, Rudolph Hess, who fled to Britain, was imprisoned in the Tower of London, and apparently had one meeting overseen by British intelligence with fellow wartime prisoner Mosley. The contents of this strange meeting between prisoners have never been revealed.
It is also interesting to note that, along with the BUF, there were numerous discussion groups and dinner clubs sympathetic to pre-war Fascism that attracted significant membership, quite a bit of it from the upper crusts of British society (Joseph Hepburn-Ruston and wife Baroness Ella von Heemstra, the parents of actress Audrey Hepburn, were Mosley enthusiasts). Groups with names such as the Link, Nordic League, and the Right Club that desired either friendship with Germany or Fascism itself were prominent and well-attended. It makes one realize that people did go out and take meetings and organizations seriously before television.
Politician-prisoners have undergone periods of study, reflection, and change before their release and return to the public arena. Certainly Nelson Mandela and Anwar Sadat emerged from prison more mellow and reflective than when they went in. Not so Mosley.
“I do not retract anything I have either said or stood for in the past,” Mosley told reporters after the war. Using his own wealth, he tried to revive the Blackshirt movement but with little success. He attracted much smaller crowds (and more violence from opponents), fared miserably in his later races for parliament, and increasingly found that increasingly thuggish supporters were more interested in turning back the growing tide of black immigrants from Africa to Britain than the intellectual fascism that Mosley embraced; “Europe A Nation”(in effect, what the European Union is now) and a Europe that is independent of U.S influence (what the EU is clearly aiming to be) became the premier causes championed by Mosley in his twilight years. Mosley’s cousin John Warburton might have been onto something when he said that “Mosley was interested in tomorrow. People aren’t visionaries.”
Before his death, Oswald Mosley was re-introduced to British audiences when the BBC finally lifted the ban on his appearance and he was interviewed by David Frost and others. In America, William F. Buckley, Jr. featured Mosley on “Firing Line” when the old Fascist’s 1968 autobiography was published. Interlocutors such as Frost and Buckley pierced his denial of anti-Semitism with films and quotes of his incendiary remarks. Before his death, Mosley met with Jewish Chronicle editor William Frankel and told him “the quarrel is over” and he had been wrong to single out Jews. But beyond that, he showed little remorse and Frankel felt Mosley “had no concept of the depth of Jewish emotions about the Holocaust.” Wife Diana went further, telling BBC audiences she admired Hitler very much, and questioned the Holocaust, saying: “I don’t really, I’m afraid, believe that six million people were killed.”
Any discussion of Mosley ends where it begins: that had he only stayed with what he called “the old parties” he might well have achieved power through democratic means. Had only he been more patient, former friend Harold MacMillan mused, he “might have been supreme. He struck too soon and fell forever. In politics, the essence of the game is timing.”
In the sense that Mosley was impatient and could not foresee this, he was both, as the Evening Standard characterized him when he abandoned electoral politics for fascism, an “astonishing politician” and “an astonishing failure.”