They shall not pass: Fighting fascism in 1930s Britain
"The Battle of Cable Street" - a mural in London's East End depicts another anti-Mosley demonstration from 1936. | Trades Union Congress

When I was growing up on a dairy farm near Sequim, Wash. back in the 1950s, my father would regale us with stories of his exploits as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University in the 1930s. Soon after he arrived in Oxford in 1936, the British Union of Fascists (BUF) announced that Sir Oswald Mosley, führer of the BUF, would come to speak at a rally in Oxford. He would be accompanied by more than 100 of his Blackshirt thugs.

My dad said that Oxford’s anti-fascist students, many of them members of the Communist Party of Great Britain, decided to give Mosley a “warm welcome.” Reinforced by a couple of hundred workers from the MG auto plant in Oxford, they packed the meeting hall the night Mosley arrived. The Blackshirts were lined up along walls of the meeting hall glowering menacingly at the Oxford students, MG workers, and others who crowded the hall.

Mosley began to speak, spewing out a torrent of racist, anti-Semitic hate, gushing his eternal love of Hitler and Mussolini and promising the crowd that fascism would purify Great Britain by eliminating Jews, Gypsies, Bolsheviks, and other non-Aryans.

The MG workers and the Oxford students began to heckle and boo.  The chief of the Blackshirt thugs took the microphone from Mosley and snarled, “The next person who disrupts this meeting will be expelled forthwith.”

The crowd fell silent.

Sir Oswald stepped back up to the microphone. The instant he opened his mouth, from the back of the hall, in a falsetto voice one of the students squeaked loudly, “Forthwith.”

The authors' parents in the mid-1960s. | Bob Coe
The authors’ parents in the mid-1960s. | Bob Coe

The Blackshirt thugs attempted to charge into the crowd to grab him. That was the signal. All the Oxford students and MG workers stood, picked up their folding chairs, folded them flat, and hurled them at the advancing Nazis.

“We mowed them down with those chairs,” my dad exclaimed, laughing till tears streamed down his cheeks.  The fascists beat a hasty retreat, Sir Oswald in his limousine, his goons in military-style army trucks.

But the anti-fascists had planned another surprise for the Nazi invaders. They had poured sugar in the gas tanks of all the BUF vehicles. A couple of miles outside Oxford, they all came to a halt, the engines gummed up.

My father was a brilliant student who won a “First” in a graduate program called “Modern Greats” at Oxford. He transferred to the Sorbonne in Paris in 1937 and was recruited to serve as a courier travelling into the south of France with cash, visas, and other documents to help volunteers with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade get across the Pyrenees into Spain to fight the Franco fascists.

He was a dedicated anti-fascist organizer in England and France back in the 1930s. My mom and dad remained staunch anti-fascists their entire life. It takes different tactics in the United States today to fight the neo-Nazis. I do not recommend that we hurl folded chairs at David Duke, the KKK, and other members of Donald Trump’s lynch mob. But we do need to give them a “warm welcome” and then drive them out of town!


CONTRIBUTOR

Tim Wheeler
Tim Wheeler

Tim Wheeler is a national political correspondent for the People's World and member of its editorial collective.

He has been a reporter and editor for the working-class press for 43 years. He lives with his wife Joyce in Baltimore, Md., and in Sequim, Wash.

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