So How Did Britain Avoid a Hitler?; 70 Years Ago This Week He Rose to Power as Fascism Swept Europe
Mckinstry, Leo, Daily Mail (London)
Byline: LEO MCKINSTRY
NO TYRANNY has ever been more brutal than that of Adolf Hitler. Long after he killed himself in his Berlin bunker in 1945, he remains the ultimate symbol of political evil, a monstrous figure whose ideology of genocide and conquest plunged mankind into our darkest period.
Even now, 70 years to the month after he came to power, he continues to cast his shadow over our lives. Tony Blair and George Bush invoke his example as a warning of the need to stand up to Saddam Hussein, another murderous, mustachioed despot.
At home, an open debate over the asylum system is frequently stifled by wild charges of 'fascism' and absurdly false analogies with the Jews fleeing persecution from 1930s Germany.
This enthusiasm for using the name of Hitler partly reflects our pride in defeating him. In 1940, Britain was the only country that stood between him and European domination, so we have a right to trumpet our heroic role in changing the course of history.
Yet, when looking at Hitler's rise in Germany, it is fascinating to ask: why did fascism never gain any ground in Britain in the early Thirties? This is a question that goes to the heart of our society and our national character.
It was on January 30, 1933, that Hitler took office as German Chancellor amid ecstatic scenes in Berlin. That night, tens of thousands of brown- shirted Nazi stormtroopers goose-stepped their way in triumph through the capital.
Ironically, this enemy of freedom had succeeded largely by democratic means, having made the Nazis the largest party in the German Parliament. But there could be no doubt over what he would do with power: create a one-party state, oppress the Jews, build up the military, and restore German might.
As a reflection of his future malevolence, Hitler relished the prospect that his barbarous methods would result in violent, global chaos. Just before he became Chancellor, he gave this apocalyptic prophecy: 'We may be destroyed, but if we are, we shall drag a world with us - a world in flames.' YET, though the Nazis may have been unique in the extent of their brutalities, they were hardly alone in Europe in establishing an extremist dictatorship. In Italy, the fascist leader Benito Mussolini reigned supreme after seizing power in October 1922. In Spain, Franco founded an ultra-nationalist regime after a bitter civil war against the Leftwing Republican forces.
Portugal, Hungary, Poland, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and Romania all fell under the control of authoritarian leaders.
But Britain never succumbed. Even in this blackest of decades, freedom and democracy survived. This was not universally predicted at the time.
As Hitler rose in Germany, many thought that parliamentary rule was also doomed here. Like the rest of Europe, Britain in the early Thirties was in the grip of a severe depression, with the spectre of mass unemployment haunting the land.
So deep was the economic turmoil, exacerbated by a run on the pound, that in 1931 the Labour Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald agreed to form a coalition government with the Conservatives and Liberals.
As normal party politics were suspended at Westminster in the face of the economic emergency, the whiff of revolution was in the air. Communists thought that the downfall of capitalism, long predicted by Karl Marx, had arrived.
On the Tory Right, there was despair that the social order was about to collapse.
The novelist Evelyn Waugh wrote: 'The seemingly- solid, patiently-built, gorgeouslyornamented structure of western life was to melt overnight like an ice- castle, leaving only a puddle of mud.' The mood of crisis was exploited by extremists who modelled their politics on those of Mussolini and Hitler.
The largest of these groups was the British Union of Fascists, led by the aristocratic former Labour MP Sir Oswald Mosley, a melodramatic, dashing, vain politician with a gift for oratory and a taste for violence. At its peak in 1934, Mosley's BUF had more than 40,000 members and had attracted support from all sections of society, from rich London hostesses to Yorkshire shopkeepers.
The BUF leadership slavishly copied the tactics of continental fascism.
Members were instructed to wear a blackshirt uniform; vast floodlit rallies were organised; and a policy of virulent anti-Semitism was adopted.
But, for all such antics, fascism always remained on the fringes of British political life throughout the Thirties. There were a number of reasons for its failure to take root here.
One was the strength of British democracy, which had far deeper foundations than in much of continental Europe. In Germany, for instance, the Weimar Republic, created in 1918 after the downfall of the autocratic Kaiser, proved too feeble an instrument to withstand the assault of Nazism.
Tainted by its association with defeat in World War I, and unable to handle economic catastrophe, the Weimar constitution, based on a sophisticated form of proportional representation, only encouraged the growth of extremism and the proliferation of small parties.
SIMILARLY, Italy had been almost ungovernable after the Great War until Mussolini seized power. In contrast, in Britain, where the sovereignty of Parliament had existed since the 17th century, the social order was woven into the fabric of the political system, with the unions represented by Labour and business by the Conservatives.
Despite mass unemployment, there was little revolutionary zeal in the working class. The leader of the British Communist Party of the Thirties, Harry Pollitt, complained that British workers 'care only for beer, tobacco and horse racing'.
This spirit of calm was reflected in two events of the inter-war period, which, in a more combustible climate, could have started a revolution.
One of them was the Invergordon Mutiny in Scotland in 1931, when naval ratings, in a protest over their harsh conditions, refused to obey orders from their officers. The revolt was soon defused by twin Government promises to look at their grievances and deal leniently with the mutineers.
Such mild action would have been unthinkable in any other European country - indeed, the Soviet Union, disappointed that the imperialist class was not living up to its cruel stereotype, expressed astonishment that there were 'no acts of violence, arrests or executions'.
The second was the General Strike of 1926, when mass industrial action - in support of the miners' pay claim - ended peacefully, thanks to the inherent caution of trade union leaders, who preferred negotiation to confrontation, and successful emergency planning by the Government which ensured the nation continued to function.
As King George V wrote in his diary: 'During the last nine days, there has been a strike in which four million people have been affected, not a shot has been fired and no one killed. It shows what a wonderful people we are.'
Economic conditions also thwarted fascism. Britain never had to go through the grotesque
inflation that once destroyed the German economy, when in November 1924, one dollar was worth 4,200,000,000,000 marks.
In fact, Britain recovered well from the financial crisis of 1931. Wages were by far the highest in Europe, almost three times those of Italy, while even at its 1931 peak of 2.5 million, British unemployment paled beside that of Germany, where 9 million were unofficially out of the work.
Prosperity was also boosted by the arrival of the consumer age, with the growing middle class enjoying cinemas, holidays, electrical goods, radios and cars.
As the historian A.J.P. Taylor put it: 'Most English people were enjoying a richer life than any had known in the history of the world.' The character of Britain's answer to Hitler, Sir Oswald Mosley, the leader of the Blackshirts, did not help. Hardworking, charismatic, ferociously bright, he was probably the greatest orator of his age. The provincial newspaper the Leeds Mercury once said that he could 'thrill a multitude by declaiming the explanatory notes of an income tax form'.
But he was also arrogant, cruel and impatient, distrusted by the working class because of his wealthy background - he was born into the Staffordshire gentry - and by the political class for his lack of judgment.
By 1932, he had changed his allegiance no less than five times. Starting as a Tory MP just after the war, he had switched to Labour, then Independent, then he had founded his own 'New Party' before creating the BUF. 'A spoilt poseur,' was the typical verdict against him.
MORE importantly, Mosley's Blackshirts seemed entirely alien to the spirit of Britain. There was a repugnance at the violence, the uniforms, the symbols, the rallies, the jackbooted militarism. After vicious scenes at a huge Blackshirt rally in Olympia in 1934, membership of the BUF plummeted.
Just as today, as the prospect of war with Iraq draws ever closer, there was a widespread antiwar feeling in Britain in the Thirties.
That brilliant judge of the English character, George Orwell, wrote in 1941 that: 'No politician could rise to power by promising the people conquests or military glory. No hymn of hate ever made any appeal to them. In England, all the boasting and flag-wagging is done by small minorities.'
Indeed, Mosley served to remind a sceptical British public of the strutting foreign dictators, not merely by his boasts that he modelled himself on Julius Caesar but also by his marriage, in 1936, to Hitler worshipper Diana Mitford.
Tellingly, their wedding in Berlin was hosted by Dr Josef Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda chief, with the F[cedilla]hrer in attendance.
Nor was there any sort of nationalist grievance that the fascists might exploit, unlike in Germany, where Hitler constantly lambasted the punitive Versailles Treaty which the Allies had imposed on the broken German people in 1919.
Free from invasion since 1066, victors in the Great War, Britain still proudly ruled a quarter of the globe in 1930. And anti-Semitism, the central creed of fascism at home and in Europe, carried little appeal in British politics - as early as 1867, Disraeli, born a Jew, was elected Prime Minister.
It is also a tribute to the traditional British sense of humour that fascism was always treated as more of a joke than a threat.
THE supreme English comic film actor, Charlie Chaplin, made Hitler a laughing stock in his 1940 film The Great Dictator. And P. G. Wodehouse invented a laughable British fascist leader, Sir Roderick Spode, to poke fun at the Blackshirts.
In one of his novels, Bertie Wooster told Spode, summing up the feelings of a nation towards Mosley: 'What the Voice of the People is saying: "Look at that frightful ass Spode, swanking about in footer rags. Did you ever in your puff see such a perfect perisher?" ' That contempt for extremism and demagogues has long been one of the abiding characteristics of our nation, helping to build our vibrant, multicultural society.
Now, in today's Britain, there are profound fears that the current debate over the number of asylum seekers entering the country could create the conditions for social discontent. Only this week, Home Secretary David Blunkett warned of a 'backlash'.
But it is entirely wrong to draw any parallel between current attitudes and the reception given in the Thirties to Jews fleeing Hitler. The majority of today's asylum seekers are economic migrants whereas in the Thirties, those refugees were genuinely escaping persecution.
In addition, the numbers arriving here were smaller. Britain took in about 70,000 Jews in the Thirties, but this is dwarfed by the present incursion of asylum seekers, not to mention the countless migrants who slip into the country unbeknown to any authorities.
Equally important, the Jews shared the traditional values of Western civilisation, unlike many of today's immigrants, among whom is a small minority who actually despise the West.
But the biggest difference with the Thirties is that today's Government has lost control of our borders and we no longer have any control over immigration. In these circumstances, there is a danger that British tolerance will be stretched to breaking point and the fabric of a cohesive society will break down, allowing extremism to flourish.
The good news is that unlike the Thirties, wealth in Britain is much more evenly distributed, unemployment is negligible, there is a hugely benevolent welfare state (some would say too benevolent) and a healthy, if sometimes fraught, acceptance of a multicultural society.
Not that there is any room for complacency.
As this week's victory for the BNP in a council election shows, the stifling of debate over the asylum issue, and governmental inability to get hold of this growing problem, is the surest way to promote the spread of extremism - something which is utterly inimical to every British tradition.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: So How Did Britain Avoid a Hitler?; 70 Years Ago This Week He Rose to Power as Fascism Swept Europe. Contributors: Mckinstry, Leo - Author. Newspaper title: Daily Mail (London). Publication date: January 25, 2003. Page number: Not available. © 2007 Daily Mail. COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group.
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