Britain First: The British Union of Fascists’ Peace Campaign, 1932-1940

May 6, 2020   /  

Student: Cormac Kelly
Major: History
Minor: Political Science
Advisors: Greg Shaya

Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists was Britain’s largest fascist party. A wide body of scholarship has thoroughly examined their economic vision, anti-Semitism, and political violence. However, throughout their existence from 1932 to 1940, the British Union of Fascists campaigned against their country’s involvement in European conflicts. Existing scholarship has ignored or minimized the importance of the BUF’s peace campaign. This thesis will draw upon existing literature on British fascism and the interwar peace movement as well as original analysis of primary sources from the British Union of Fascists and Britain’s leading peace organization, the League of Nations Union, to argue the centrality of the BUF’s peace campaign and place it within the interwar peace movement. The BUF peace campaign was an unchanging core component of BUF doctrine. Their rise, fall, resurgence, and demise can be understood by examining the popularity of their peace platform. Believing fascist regimes were the guarantors of world peace, the BUF evangelized imperial isolationism. This proved to be a fatal miscalculation which impelled the government to intern and ban the BUF. Examining the BUF’s peace campaign challenges the existing consensus about what drove the BUF and reinterprets the history of the party.

*This presentation is only available to College of Wooster students, faculty, and staff.

View Cormac’s PowerPoint presentation.

Cormac will be online to field comments on May 8:
2-4pm EDT (PST 11am-1pm, Africa/Europe: evening)

30 thoughts on “Britain First: The British Union of Fascists’ Peace Campaign, 1932-1940”

  1. Cormac,

    Absolutely fascinating! You talk about Mosley’s time in Parliament. How many seats did the BUF have at any given time before finally being ousted? Aside from their attempts at a peace movement, what legislative priorities did they have and were any of them successful in their attempts to get legislation passed?

    1. Oswald Mosley was a member of Parliament before founding the BUF. With the exception of one member who won a seat on a city council in 1938, no BUF member won a single election. Part of this was because there was only one general election during their entire eight year existence, in 1935, and after 1934 they put less emphasis on contesting or winning elections. In the 1935 election, Mosley urged his followers not to vote with the uninspiring quote “Fascism next time.” The basis of Mosley’s political vision was the concept of “autarky” in which Britain only traded with its imperial holdings. Mosley believed this was ideal because it would make Britain immune to the fluctuations of the global market, reinvigorate British industry, and reduce the possibility of a war over resources.

  2. Excellent work! Your presentation tells a fascinating story about British fascism and interwar Britain. It is a worthy summary of a your remarkable I.S., which brings together deep research in the historiography with a mastery (I don’t use that word lightly) of the primary sources and a strong argument. It was a pleasure to watch this project unfold across this year. Congratulations!

    1. Thank you Professor Shaya. Your advice throughout the process, particularly on my writing, was indispensable. Thank you for holding me to the highest standard. I am humbled by your praise.

  3. Nicely done, Cormac. I’m so glad that you explored the BUF through primary sources. I learned so much about them through this presentation, and can only imagine how rich your IS must have been. Congratulations!

    I wonder whether you see any parallels between the BUF during this time and the recent or current right wing movements in Britain.

    1. Mosley and some his followers unsuccessfully tried to revive fascism in post-war Britain. A former member, A.K. Chesterton, was more successful since he founded the National Front.

      The most interesting parallel was the how the BUF portrayed itself as a defender of free speech in Britain. In 1933 and 1934, many British universities hosted BUF speakers. Campus protestors practiced very similar tactics of deplatforming through heckling, protests, and pressuring school administrations. The BUF portrayed hecklers as enemies of free speech. The rhetoric was very similar to right wing speakers in the US and UK today.

      In researching this IS I looked around for video footage of BUF rallies and was disturbed to find that Mosley has something of a following online. His followers maintain an office near Covent Garden, London and publish his most famous works. Yet more troubling were the multiple YouTube tribute videos which use audio from some of his post-1945 speeches.

  4. Great presentation! I am wondering if you know what happened to Oswald Mosley after he was released from prison?

    1. Mosley was released from prison in 1943 and held under house arrest until the end of the war in 1945. Urged by former BUF members, he founded the Union Movement in 1948. Mosley had become convinced in prison that Europe needed to be united under a common market and ruled by a single government so as to sustain itself without being economically dominated by the US and to defend itself from the USSR. Theoretically, the aim of the Union Movement was to advocate that position. In reality, they were one of the most vociferous anti-immigrant groups in early post-war Britain. However, other neo-fascist groups became more popular since they advocated British nationalism instead of Mosley’s pan-European nationalism. The Union Movement was never electorally successful and Mosley retired from politics in 1966. However, he was convinced until shortly before his death in 1980 that Britain would undergo a crisis and would call upon him to save them. He published a wildly revisionist memoir in 1968 the last chapter of which reads like a political manifesto. Mosley refused to believe that he had ceased being a viable politician long ago.

  5. You brought the interwar period to life. I can’t believe that the BUF infiltrated the British peace movement. At first glance it appears to be an odd marriage.

    Can you tell more about the fragmentation of the peace movement?

    1. The leading British peace organization for most of the interwar era was the League of Nations Union. However, their internationalism was severely tested beginning in late 1935 when Mussolini invaded Ethiopia and went largely unpunished. The League of Nations Union began arguing more passionately for collective security which meant they believed in “just war.” As a result of the poor perception of the League and recognition that the LNU would endorse war in specific circumstances, LNU membership nosedived from 1936 onwards. A pacifist organization, the Peace Pledge Union, was founded in 1936 and gathered more support in no small part because of their dynamic leader, the Anglican minister Dick Sheppard. The tension between pacifism, internationalism, and increasing hostility to fascism, meant that the peace movement was noticeably divided in the run up to WWII.

  6. I’m so sorry that I can’t access the power point presentation because this certainly is a fascinating and valuable topic. So glad to learn that you relied extensively on primary source material. Congratulations on a job well done!

    1. Thank you. I intend to turn my IS into an academic article and thus wanted to limit its accessibility. It was an honor to receive Copeland Funding to examine the papers of Oswald Mosley and the University of Birmingham and the papers of the League of Nations Union at the British Library of Political and Economic Science last summer. It was a fascinating two weeks and added the depth I wanted for my IS.

  7. Hello Cormac!

    Congratulations!

    I honestly hadn’t really heard about fascism in Britain before learning about your IS. How much of an impact do you think Britain’s role in WWII had on making their own fascist movement much less well-known?

    1. For a country which fought fascism, the existence of a homegrown fascist party was certainly not something that they wanted to examine. This lead to the broad consensus, which is clearly present in British popular memory if not academic scholarship, that the British people were immune to fascism and thus the BUF was a Italian or Nazi transplant. This attitude was encapsulated by the the British academic Noel Annan who passingly commented, “as for the little local outburst in England of this disease, it was no more than a nuisance.” Just because the BUF had little electoral impact does not mean that it should be ignored. The party garnered a lot of press attention from 1933 until the twin disasters of the Olympia rally and the fall out from Hitler’s June 30 purge in 1934. What goes unmentioned in histories of interwar Britain is that the BUF actually rose in size the closer Britain got to war rather than fell apart. Part of this was because Mosley presented himself as the only leader who willing to negotiate a peaceful end to the war.

  8. The Mitford sisters were a strange lot. I loved your noting how Unity Mitford shot herself because she was distraught that Britain was at war with Germany. Followed by Hitler visiting her three times in her Munich hospital. Do you know why the BUF sent these well-heeled sisters attended the 1933 Nuremberg rally? It’s also pretty sensational that Diana and Mosely chose to be married in 1936 in Nuremburg. Were they that obsessed with the Furher to marry there?

    1. The Mitford sisters were not officially sent by the BUF to attend the 1933 Nuremberg Rally. They went out of curiosity and were, by Diana Mitford’s account, enraptured by the spectacle. Unity Mitford moved to Germany and after meeting Hitler in 1935 began a friendship with him. Diana became friends with Magda Goebbels after she stayed at their home during the 1936 Munich Olympics. Both women admired Hitler because they believed he had rebuilt and revitalized Germany. They were also personally drawn to him. Diana commented that he inspirited sympathy because he always seemed to have the cares of the world upon him. This admiration was lifelong. Asked in an interview in the 1990s how she would react to seeing Hitler now, she responded “I should have to be pleased, and ask him how it had been in Hell, or Heaven, or wherever he’d been.”

  9. In your I.S. you share that Hitler and Moussolini were financing the British fascists. Besides Spain, what other fascists groups in Britain and in other European countries were they bankrolling? And where did the Irish align with the British fascists?

    1. Aside from payments to the BUF, which was the only British fascist party he sent money to, I don’t know if Mussolini financed other fascist groups. One of the reasons Hitler’s ten thousand pound donation in 1936 is so remarkable is because he rarely financed foreign fascist parties. Some Irishmen living in Britain joined the BUF because they remembered Mosley’s condemnation of the Black and Tans while he was an MP in Parliament. Yet there was little direct connection between the Irish and the BUF. Ireland did have a short lived fascist party, Eoin O’Duffy’s Blueshirts, which accomplished very little.

  10. Excellent work! I never knew that there was a British Fascist party until a couple of years ago by watching some people play “Hearts of Iron 4” (a grand strategy WWII game) on YouTube. It’s also really interesting to see how the party was connected to Fascist parties in Europe. Well done on your I.S.! How did you ever get interested in this topic? Admittedly, I was expecting an I.S. that had something do do with Ireland but I was pleasantly surprised by your choice.

    1. I found out about Mosley and the BUF two years ago. While trawling through the YouTube, I came across this 1975 interview of Mosley. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HNhF28fzN9I

      I never knew there were fascists in Britain yet was struck both by how unrepentant he was and by how he used both his experience in the First World War and anti-Semitism to explain why he opposed war with Hitler. The fact that he evangelized a isolationism from 1932 onwards and that this fact was either minimized or disregarded by scholarship, convinced me to undertake this IS.

  11. Hi Cormac – You know that I can’t resist poking you with this one more time, if the BUF viewed itself as a “peace party” then how does your own personal definitional understanding of “peace” influence your interpretation?

    1. An excellent question. The “peace” which the BUF stood for is very much negative peace. I examined the BUF’s isolationism, its origins, and how it evolved from their founding 1932 to their dissolution in 1940. However, along with that isolationism they argued for rearmament to defend the empire. While they viewed themselves as a peace party because of their non-interventionism, they do not fit the definition I constructed for Peace Studies because they were militaristic, advocated the deportation of minorities (particularly Jews), and openly said they would imprison political opposition if they got power, thus hardly being an example of positive peace. A better example of positive peace was the wholistic pacifism of the Peace Pledge Union, which I examined in my IS but didn’t have time to talk about in the presentation.

  12. Cormac,

    This was really interesting and I learned a lot. I think that you really brought to life a very hidden aspect of interwar Britain. The details and artifacts that you used really heightened your presentation.

    How do modern political movements learn from the failures of the BUF?

    1. The press coverage of the BUF in 1933 and 1934 shows that they had a chance to make political inroads. However, after the Olympia rally and Hitler’s purge in 1934, they maintained that fascism stood for world peace. In continuing to defend this position they were woefully out of touch and opened themselves up to the charge of treason. Their defense of Hitler and embrace of anti-Semitism lost them the support of Lord Rothermere and those in the political establishment who had seen Mosley as a promising leader. The BUF is an amazing example of how ideology blinds people to reality.

  13. Your study of Oswald Mosley is fascinating. He and his spouse, Diana, of the famed Mitford family — well, they were resolute Nazis until the end. Blech!

    Ironic that Diana Mitford Mosley’s great nephew (grandson of Jessica Mitford, who was diametrically opposed to her sister politically) is James Forman, Jr., professor of law at Yale and author of “Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America,” published in 2017 and a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction.

    Mazel tov that you won a Copeland award to examine primary documents to complete your thesis.

    Best wishes on publishing this paper.

    1. Thank you Richard. While Oswald and Diana Mosley admired Hitler, Nazism and British fascism are two different ideologies. Both share some similar strands, yet the BUF and the Nazi Party were unique to their national contexts.

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