They Were Willing to Do Unpleasant Things to Unpleasant People

In the years after the defeat of Nazism, Britain's fascist movement alarmingly began to rebuild. But a group of young British Jews sprung into action to beat the fascists off the streets.

Excerpt from the cover of We Fight Fascists: The 43 Group and Their Forgotten Battle for Post-War Britain. Courtesy Verso Books

Few periods of Britain’s recent past have evaded demystification more successfully than the immediate postwar era. When discussing the five years before 1950, most people of practically every political persuasion are content with a common perception of those years — a Britain that was plucky and optimistic, poor but on the up, austere but reforming itself to suit a newer, more humane age, and acutely aware of its moral responsibilities after having been the force that stopped the slaughter of European Jewry.

The reality was somewhat different. In high society, figures like the Bloomsbury Set luminary Elizabeth Bowen still felt comfortable espousing traditional Judeo-Bolshevik conspiracy theories, warning a lover that a Labour vote was a vote “to be ruled by Jews and Welshmen.” The severe national fuel shortages that took place under the Labour government’s watch found a popular scapegoat in Manny Shinwell, the most prominent Jewish Labour politician of the day, and rising anger over the deaths of British soldiers in the British Mandate of Palestine led to vicious anti-Jewish riots in major cities in 1947.

From Under the Rock

While the Allied armies may have put a stop to the Holocaust, war-scarred Britain was a long way away from learning the lessons, and the conditions for a new fascism to grow were ripe. Yet the Home Office — even under a government led by Clement Attlee, a man who had a battalion of the International Brigades named in his honor — seemed more concerned about the rights of fascists than of threatened communities.

No action was taken to curb the activities of those who would have governed a Nazi-occupied Britain; in 1946, the pro-Labour Reynolds News bitterly complained that Britain was “the only country in Europe outside of Spain or Portugal where one may preach undiluted fascism with full police protection.”

James Chuter Ede, the home secretary, believed that fascists should be left to “the sense of humour of the British people.” But this flippancy wasn’t at all humorous to a British Jewish community whose mood, Jules Konopinski told us, was “very, very delicate.”

Born into a Jewish family in Wroclaw, then the German territory of Breslau, Konopinski and his mother fled to England in 1939 without his father, who was detained by the Nazis in late 1938 (but subsequently escaped). He lost nine aunts and uncles in the Holocaust, and a surviving uncle had arrived in London to live with the family. “My family here suddenly realized they had lost people. When they found out how they lost them, they became even worse.”

Fascist rally featuring Oswald Mosley in Ridley Road, 1947.

While thousands of people mourned loved ones or attempted to trace them in refugee camps across the continent, unrepentant fascists like Victor Burgess set about whipping up a “war on Jews” to “free this country from their grip.” Threatening a London campaign of “turning out the aliens” and “giving their houses back to the British ex-servicemen,” Burgess’s printing press churned out inflammatory literature by far-right militants like John Marston Gaster, whose ideas wouldn’t have been out of place in Der Sturmer:

The Jew is an inferior being — if a Jew walks on the same pavement, knock him into the gutter where he belongs . . . The Jew will contaminate you — if a Jew is on the same bus or train with you, throw him off . . . The Jew owns too much — boycott their shops; if you work in a shop yourself, don’t serve a Jew.

After being shamed for their Nazism during the war, the fascists who had been interned saw their chance to crawl out from under the rock. Jewish servicemen coming back from fighting Hitler were returning to Jewish neighborhoods increasingly under threat from violent fascist gangs. Meetings calling for the resumption of the Holocaust were becoming commonplace in Jewish communal heartlands like Ridley Road in Dalston, and everyone knew that the often antisemitic local police officers couldn’t be trusted to resolve the problem.

Out of this need for action, the 43 Group was established in early 1946. And despite the organization disbanded for nearly seven decades, it has taken until Daniel Sonabend’s We Fight Fascists: The 43 Group and Their Forgotten Battle for Post-War Britain for a comprehensive account of the group’s activities to emerge.

Operating on a “3Ds system” — discuss, decide, do it — the 43 Group’s aims were straightforward: to stop the dissemination of fascist propaganda through no-platforming fascist organizations, and to campaign for a blanket ban on them. Its founders included war heroes like the decorated Arnhem veteran Gerry Flamberg, Alec Carson of the revered Pathfinder Squadrons, and Tommy Gould, who held a 150-pound unexploded Nazi bomb on his chest for nearly an hour in a desperate attempt to remove it from his torpedoed submarine (and was awarded the Victoria Cross for his efforts).

Through some incredibly successful attempts at breaking up fascist rallies, the group’s profile steadily rose, and volunteers flooded in to be of assistance to the core membership. Daniel Sonabend’s own introduction to the 43 Group reflects this; after having heard about the group through a friend, he took the opportunity of driving his grandfather to Friday night dinner at his parent’s house to ask him if he remembered those days.

“It’s worth a shot, I thought,” he told us, “so I asked him. He said, ‘heard of the 43 Group? I was in it!’” It turned out that as a teenager, his grandfather John would spy on outdoor fascist meetings for the group, yet never so much as mentioned his involvement to his grandson or his wider family.

Perpetual Bruised Faces

Sonabend’s grandfather was one of the many young people who, having not been old enough to fight fascism overseas, committed themselves to stopping it where they lived.

43 Group volunteer Jimmy Cotter undercover as security at a fascist rally.

While serving his time as a handbag designer’s apprentice, Jules Konopinski was a regular on anti-fascist protests, and he soon became a core member of the 43 Group. Now a warm and humorous ninety-year-old retiree, Jules spent his teenage years with what became known as the “commando crowd” of the group — young, working-class Jews who, in his words, “didn’t have to worry about our clothes being torn.”

Remembering the “perpetual bruised faces,” Jules joked about how alongside breaking apart fascist platforms, 43 Group members would turn up at railway stations to ensure fascists coming into London for rallies wouldn’t be making their destination.

“They would be persuaded in a gentle manner — ahh, I’m not talking to the police . . . They would be persuaded in a very physical manner to go home, and if they came again, they’d get a bigger hiding.” To Jules, it was simple: “If you dissuade their supporters, then one dissuades others. It snowballs, and in the end, they suffer from lack of support and they wouldn’t go and march.”

From gaining a reputation for sticking to their guns, the group grew over a few years into a reliable network of several thousand people. Scores of rallies by Jeffrey Hamm’s British League of Ex-Servicemen and Women and Sir Oswald Mosley’s Union Movement were disrupted, countless fascist platforms were turned over, and the group gathered serious amounts of information on various fascist grouplets and organizations.

A complex intelligence operation headed by Murray Podro led to numerous embedded spies in fascist ranks, with one spy going so far high up the fascist hierarchy that he became Mosley’s bodyguard. Podro could later boast that at the height of the group’s operations, “if Mosley scratched his nose, I would know an hour later.”

Luck Rather Than Judgment

Unusually for nonacademic works focusing on anti-fascism, We Fight Fascists is rare for communicating the depth of emotions inherent in any anti-fascist movement. Unlike Morris Beckman’s book about the organization — a wonderful memoir, but saturated with a certain triumphalism that many 43 Group veterans took issue with — Sonabend masterfully conjures the risks, the moments of defeat and demoralization, and the minutiae of anti-fascist politics, where the tedious tasks of patient organizing and long-term intelligence gathering is as valuable as the flashes of direct confrontation.

Indeed, Sonabend said that the dozen or so group members he interviewed for the book were insistent on stressing the mundanity of so much of their work: for every successful action against the fascists, there was “a lot of standing on the street corner for hours and hours on end with a newspaper watching a fascist house.”

43 Group newspaper “On Guard” in September 1947.

With that being said, the book brims with exciting stories of these battles, particularly as the harried fascists dropped all pretenses of respectability and rose to meet the determination of anti-fascists with serious brutality. “People always ask a question: How come nobody got killed?” Konopinski said. “Well, it was luck rather than judgment.”

In this period, Jules broke every knuckle he had. He had been viciously beaten up by local police, and his comrade Jackie Myerovitch was badly stabbed by a Maltese gangster working for Mosley. After an incident where the same gangsters attacked anti-fascists with potatoes embedded with razor blades, he began carrying a lightbulb around with him (“It was the dearest thing you could have — like a little exploding bomb”), but he admitted that his favorite defensive weapon was his umbrella: “The end was the sharp point. If one of those things stuck in someone’s ear, or up someone’s arse, it would have been painful, but it would have been a perfectly lawful thing [to have].”

Despite these levels of intensity, it became clearer and clearer that the 43 Group were successfully breaking the will of British fascism, and turnout on fascist demonstrations and rallies were decreasing considerably. On June 4, 1950, the leadership felt comfortable enough to dissolve the organization, although this was a move that Jules Konopinski and many of his younger comrades strongly opposed as being short-sighted.

It would not take long to prove that they were right — within a few years, Mosley had already chosen London’s black community as a new prime target, while in 1962, the neo-Nazi activist Colin Jordan felt comfortable enough to hold a rally in Trafalgar Square beneath an eighty-five-foot-long, eight-foot-high banner reading “FREE BRITAIN FROM JEWISH CONTROL.” This prompted the creation of the 62 Group, which intended to carry on the job of their predecessors.

Smattered with stories of heroic war veterans, communist militants, ardent Zionists, and gangsters, We Fight Fascists serves as a collective biography for a certain piece of London that has long vanished. For the first time, the lives and deeds of anti-fascists whose names have been discussed.

This includes people like Lennie Rolnick, an active Communist who fostered greater connections between the group and the wider labor movement; Ivor Arbiter, an enthusiastic teenager who achieved later fame as the designer of the seminal “T” logo on Ringo Starr’s bass drum; and Harry Bidney, an openly gay man who would go on to become a renowned Soho club owner (“There’s a man who deserves a Victoria Cross for his anti-fascist work,” Konopinski told us. “What a guy.”)

The book also serves as a strong argument for self-defense as an effective tool for anti-fascists: as Sonabend tells us, the enemies of fascism tend to be “things which, to us, give life its rich colour,” and that “there is a need for us who want a civil, more compassionate society to recognise that sometimes violence is the only way to get that.” Alternatively, Jules Konopinski’s remarks at a recent event for the book are less florid but equally as appropriate: “They can say what they want, and I can punch them in the face.”

In an entertaining, fascinating, and touching way, We Fight Fascists has properly salvaged the history of those who, in an era more ominous than many care to admit, were willing to do unpleasant things to unpleasant people. In the coming years, we may not be able to afford to forget the lessons of the 43 Group.