So How Did Britain Avoid a Hitler?; 70 Years Ago This Week He Rose to Power as Fascism Swept Europe

Article excerpt


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. …