In the TV series SS-GB key figures from the British ruling class take part in the resistance against Nazi occupation. But, as Chris Bambery argues, this would have been an unlikely scenario
Are you watching the BBC’s SS-GB, their adaptation of Len Deighton’s 1978 thriller about a Nazi-occupied Britain? For me it falls down in that it is too clean, the novel portrays a grubby London with the mass of Brits living hand to mouth and lacking everyday essentials.
Many on the left seem to have been incensed at a scene showing a poster of Marx alongside two Third Reich flags. They are there to mark a Russian visit to take Marx’s remains from Highgate Cemetery back to Moscow. But people are forgetting the August 1939 Hitler-Stalin Pact which, aside from partitioning Poland and Eastern Europe between themselves, allowed Hitler to fight a one-front war in the West in May-June 1940 and gave him vital raw materials with which to conduct that campaign. So convinced was Stalin of Hitler’s good will he refused to believe reports of a German invasion in June 1941 until the panzers were deep in Russian territory.
When Hitler’s foreign minister, Ribbentrop, visited Moscow to sign the pact the Russians had to decorate his route with Swastika flags being used for a film!
In SS-GB there is, within a year of London and southern Europe being occupied, a flourishing resistance. In reality, in Occupied Europe, it was not until 1943-1944 that large-scale resistance got going. In the novel and TV series, the resistance includes key figures in the ruling class. But how likely was that and how would the British ruling class have reacted to a Nazi conquest and occupation?
Richard Griffiths has written two books previous to this one, What Did You Do During The War: The Last Throes of the British Pro-Nazi Right, 1940-1945. In Fellow Travellers of the Right: British Enthusiasts for Nazi Germany, 1933-1939 he looks at those in the British upper class who championed not just appeasing Hitler, a majority of the British ruling class did that pre-1939, but were open in support of him. Griffiths stopped at September 1939 because he believed when the book was published all of this would have come to a halt with Britain at war with the Third Reich.
To his amazement, it did not and that resulted in Patriotism Perverted: Captain Ramsay, the Right Club and English Anti-Semitism, 1939-40. Ramsay was a Tory MP who wanted to rid his party of Jews and was implicated in a spy ring passing secrets to the Nazis. Ramsay was interned in May 1940 as Germany began to overrun France. Again faced with a possible German invasion Griffiths brought his study to an end, convinced everyone must have rallied round the flag. But they did not, and thus this book.
When examining the inter-war period and the rise of fascism it is common to hear claims that Britain was immune from this because of native good sense or the deep roots parliamentary democracy had. Of course, one reason why Britain did not go down the road of Germany and Italy as that it was still a great power then, with huge financial and imperial assets. So its economy was badly affected by the Great Depression of the 1930s but not to the same extent as Germany. The British elite were never driven into a corner when they felt they needed brown or black shirted thugs because the state could no longer cope.
But that does not mean fascism was alien to Britain or that there were many in the upper classes who admired Mussolini and Hitler.
This book is a study of how that rag-tag bag of pre-war British fascists and Hitler lovers reacted to the Second World War, particularly when Britain seemed to face a German invasion in the summer of 1940.
It might have seemed natural that they might have rallied to king and country in September 1940, when Britain went to war with Nazi Germany, and certainly in June 1940, when a German invasion seemed a real threat. After all, they had all been loud in proclaiming their patriotism. But they didn’t.
The first chapter deals with Sir Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists and the man earmarked by Hitler to become the puppet ruler of Britain if it fell to his army. Mosley always claimed he instructed his followers to obey the law, join up and fight. Indeed he made it clear he would not take part and while advising those fascists already in the armed forces to obey the law and serve, the BUF also advised its members not yet conscripted to contest their call up as conscientious objectors. Freed from his wartime detention, prematurely ended in 1943, Mosley omitted any mention of this.
In reality, Mosley held the war was “a quarrel of Jewish finance” in which Britain should take no part and held to it as Hitler conquered Western Europe. The BUF had grown to some 20,000 members by September 1939, when Britain went to war, on the back of a well-publicised campaign for peace, which was stridently anti-Semitic, blaming the Jews for pitting Aryan brothers against each other.
It was hardly surprising that in May 1940 its members, beginning with Mosley, were interned, especially as the BUF had continued its activities, including attacking Jews in East London. Over 1000 of them were detained, regarded as a potential Fifth Column if the Wehrmacht ever landed in Britain.
BUF members in Bristol had been entertaining themselves by cutting telephone lines and other acts of sabotage. The BUF organiser in Kensington was sentenced to three years in jail for putting up stickers advertising German propaganda radio stations. Meanwhile many BUF members and Hitler fans infiltrated pacifist groups opposed to war in the course of 1939.
Mosley had been co-ordinating his activities with other Nazi lovers in his efforts bring an end to the war. These included Ramsay and Right Club members. Ramsay was a veteran of the First World War and Conservative MP for Peebles and South Midlothian. He had been putting down questions in parliament asking how many Jewish members of the armed forces had been killed or wounded.
In May 1940 MI5 raided the flat of a cypher clerk at the US embassy Tyler Kent who had been handing over secret correspondence between the British and US governments to a White Russian, pro-Nazi, Anna Wolkoff. Both were Right Club members. Wolkoff got copies to Berlin via the Italian Embassy, something MI5 soon discovered. Meanwhile, Kent had shown the documents to Ramsay. He, in turn, gave Kent the Right Club’s membership list, believing because the American had diplomatic immunity they would be in safe hands.
In fact, the Americans waived that immunity and in a dawn raid on Kent’s flat found a treasure trove of documents, the key to the cypher room at the embassy and the membership of the Right Club.
Wolkoff and Kent were tried and jailed. Ramsay was interned – but continued to put down questions in parliament over the number of Jews serving in the military. He was released in 1945 as newsreels showed the horrors of the Belsen concentration camp, undaunted he went straight to Westminster to table a motion calling for the re-introduction of King Edward 1’s statute banning Jews from England!
The membership list shows considerable ruling class Britain entering into an alliance with Hitler – the promise was Hitler could have the continent and Britain the Empire. It included Lord Carnegie, later Earl of Southesk, 5th Duke of Wellington, the 12th Earl of Galloway, 19th Baron Sempill, 2nd Baron Redesdale (father of the three Mitford sisters, one of whom was married to Mosley and another, Unity, living in Germany where she was a confidante of Hitler), and Lord Ronald Graham (son of Duke of Montrose, who’d succeed to that title, moving to Rhodesia where he was a doyen of the racist Ian Smith government).
Aside from Ramsay, MPs who were members of the Right Club included Col Charles Kerr (National Liberal who had backed the United Christian Front, a body uniting Catholics and Protestants in opposition to the Red Menace in Spain); Sir Peter Agnew (Tory); Sir Ernest Bennett (Tory); John Stourton (Tory); Lord Colum Crichton-Stuart (Tory); Sir Harold Mitchell (Tory); Sir Thomas Hunter (Tory, who had campaigned against allowing Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany into Britain); Sir Samuel Chapman (Tory); Sir James Edmondson (Tory); Mrs Mavis Tate (Tory); and John McKie (Tory, who after Kristallnacht made a speech blaming the Jews for bringing this persecution on their heads).
Another member was A K Chesterton, a founder of the National Front in the 1960s, who in 1939 argued lamp posts were “the only way to deal with the Jew”.
Yet another aristocratic member was Lord Lymington, the future Earl of Portsmouth, who had been a Tory MP in the early 1930s before joining the English Mistery, a right-wing group which championed a return to the land, the recreation of a feudal society with a stronger monarchy. Griffiths reveals the future Tory cabinet minister Rab Butler was a fellow member of English Mistery. Butler was while at the Foreign Office an enthusiast for appeasing Hitler and in the early summer of 1940 manoeuvred to get a negotiated peace with the Third Reich.
Lymington meanwhile became an enthusiast for Nazi Germany and increasingly anti-Semitic, joining the Right Club and an array of far-right groups. In 1939 he helped found the British People’s Party which opposed war with Germany and usury (a code for hating Jews). It was headed up by Lord Tavistock, who would shortly inherit the title the Duke of Buccleuch. The party’s secretary was John Beckett who had broken with Mosley because he was not hard enough on the Jews.
Beckett was detained in May 1940. All that happened to Buccleuch was he was asked by the King to resign his post as Lord Steward. After the detention of Lymington drew back but as the threat of invasion receded he re-emerged meeting with other rightists who opposed the war. Buccleuch would revive the British Peoples Party and resume working with John Beckett.
In July 1940 the Negotiated Peace Group sent a letter to Churchill signed by the Duke of Buccleuch, still Chamberlain to King George V1, Lords Noel-Buxton, Darnely, Holden and Farringdon plus Tory MPs Sir Lambert Ward and Sir Ernest Bennett and Labour MP Richard Stokes. Churchill warned them talk of a negotiated peace was dangerous at that time.
The Group was set up by the Stokes, who had been a member of the antisemitic Militant Christian Patriots, the Council for a Christian Settlement in Europe, and the Kinship in Husbandry group. After war broke out he published What is Happening in Europe? In which he claimed Hitler had been forced into war by his enemies and the Third Reich should be allocated Czech and Polish territory. He saw German domination as the key force in blocking the Soviet Union and approached former prime minister, Lloyd George, about him leading a campaign for a negotiated peace.
Lloyd George was the man favoured by Mosley and Buccleuch to lead a government which would make peace with Hitler. Hitler had met him and hoped to use him if he occupied Britain, though he clearly saw Mosley as being the key player in his plans.
While all this was going on during that Spitfire Summer Churchill had to fight from a minority position within the Tory Party against those like his Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, and his deputy Butler, who were not just proposing opening peace talk but were trying to open up communications with Berlin through various channels. Churchill was able to eventually win by relying on Labour, part of his coalition government, and by opening up a public campaign in the press against surrender.
As I argue in my The Second World War: A Marxist History, this wasn’t because Churchill was an anti-fascist or a democrat it was because his priority was defending the British Empire and that he realised Hitler, having occupied Europe, must eventually turn on Britain.
If, and it’s a very big if, the Nazis had landed in Southern England in 1940 what resistance would they have met. SS-GB is predicated on the RAF losing the Battle of Britain, when that was always unlikely and the Royal Navy allowing a seaborne crossing.
There were some impressive defence lines thrown up but the British army, after its evacuation from France, lacked tanks and heavy weapons.
In that situation, the argument from the left needed to be that we can’t trust the ruling class and the high command because in France they had preferred surrender to Hitler. The population needed to be raised and armed en masse, starting with the trade unions, to fight Hitler. Popular militias, in other words.
What is interesting is that in all the books and films in which the Nazis have conquered Britain, and in the case of The Man in the High Castle the USA, in alliance with Japan, the war is still going on. The Third Reich was a society based on permanent war and conquest (and genocide) but occupation always breeds resistance, and it did in World War II.
Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.
More articles from this author
- The sectarian roots of Orange rule
- Armoured cars and tanks and guns: the real story of the Irish troubles
- Bye bye Richard Leonard: the decline of Scottish Labour continues
- Ready to die for Ireland one way or another: the rebel Countess
- The International Brigades: Fascism, Freedom and the Spanish Civil War - book review
- First They Took Rome: How the Populist Right Conquered Italy - book review
- Radical Scotland and The Fight for Scottish Democracy - book review