The sight of the British Union of Fascist flag hanging on Trafalgar Square recently might be well written off by the “better set” as so many daft yobs. This is what we might call the dungeons and dragons school of fascism, which sees the phenomenon as a fount of irrational or occult deviance far even from the conservative mainstream.
But forgotten by contemporary onlookers is the sordid history of fascism in and among the elite of British society at the centre of public life – one dirty little secret among many over the centuries. Behind the distraction of quirky twee disaffection that has too often sanitised aristocracy is the disturbing reality that leading lords were captivated by fascism, and realised that it served their interests quite nicely.
This history of British “aristo-fascism” contrasts with a national story that invests so much of its self-esteem and self-image in being the opponent and conquerer of Nazism. Many of those who consciously cultivate this culture of deference are, in fact, themselves implicated in the sordid past of Britain’s fascist apologism. This is particularly the case for the royalty and the lords, both of whom have much to answer for even as some of them, such as Prince Charles himself, appropriate Holocaust memory.
Britain’s fascist past is intimately entangled with royals and peers who developed and even institutionalised intensely specific variations on fascist irredentism, occultism and antisemitism. Before we proceed, an overview sketch of iconic British figures who have lost nothing in the way of name recognition is imperative. While an outside onlooker might wish that the following historical summary is well known to all, historical amnesia is, unfortunately, a deft power maintenance strategy.
The Queen’s husband, Prince Philip, had four sisters who were ensconced in Nazi Germany, some serving as conduits of the Nazi party to German aristocracy. For example, Cecile was a Nazi Party member, Sophie named her son after Hitler and Margarita’s husband was German army commander. In fact, when Cecile was killed in a 1937 air crash, Prince Philip attended the funeral and was photographed alongside uniformed Nazi soldiers.
The young and popular Edward the VIII also had notable predilections toward fascism. While on the throne, he maintained a silence during the street battles of 1936 when fascists terrorised immigrants and Jews in multiple British cities. He ordered Britain to stand down during the Rhineland crisis, even threatening the prime minister with dismissal. A demilitarised Rhineland was meant to be the allied buffer of protection against a Second World War as part of the Versailles settlement. Inaction by Europe’s leading military power meant that from that point onward, any attack on Hitler would require a full-scale war.
After abdicating, Edward made an official visit Nazi Germany where he repeatedly performed the Nazi salute, a fact he tried to cover up in later interviews. On that trip he inspected a Krupp munitions factory and an elite training school for the SS. He was received personally by Hitler where an adjutant recorded that he told Hitler “we are derived from the same race with the blood of the huns flowing in our veins.” Whether the former king may even have passed along military secrets to Nazi Germany critical to the swift conquest of France best belongs left to conspiracy theorists.
However, he does appear in the Marburg Files – Nazi war records of disputed veracity. In these documents, the Duke of Windsor, as he was known, is cast as an advisor to the Nazi high command during the war itself. “The Duke believes with certainty,” one damning passage alleges, “that continued heavy bombing will make England ready for peace.” What is certainly true is that the Duke’s efforts to convince prominent Americans to take up neutrality during his banishment as Governor to the Bahamas is amply documented.
At the same time, British prince Charles Edward, the youngest grandson of Queen Victoria and first cousin to George V had become Hitler’s first major aristocratic supporter in Germany. Edward had been the last reigning Duke of of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha – but had grown increasingly fearful of losing his position and fortune in the wake of the 1917 Russian Revolution. Sure enough, the following year, the 1918 German Revolution had forced his abdication – and sent him on a hardline right-wing trajectory.
His town of Coburg, the ancestral seat of the Hannoverian/Saxe Coburg/Windsor dynasty, became the first municipality in Germany with a Nazi mayor. Charles Edward himself both joined the Nazis and the Brownshirts, or SA, rising to the rank of Obergruppenführer in the latter.
In fact, on one of a series of missions for Hitler in Britain, Edward attended the funeral of King George V, his first cousin, in the uniform of a Stormtrooper, and helped to organise the Anglo-German Friendship Society. Hitler then appointed him figurehead of the German Red Cross during the period when it was implicated in the T4 euthanasia programme – the mass murder of over 200,000 physically and mentally disabled adults, children and infants.
National Socialism as an ethos and a worldview would be unimaginable without the ideological cradle of the Wagner circle in Bayreuth. It merits a reminder that the two figures most critical in the link to Hitler and Nazism were British, with family ties to Germany and aristocracy.
The most infamous race “theorist” and propagator of Aryanism of the fin-de-siecle period was Houston Stewart Chamberlain, who was born in Hampshire. He married a daughter of the composer and later heralded Hitler as Germany’s saviour. The most active Nazi collaborator in the Wagner family, a party member to whom it is rumoured Hitler once proposed, Winifred, was born in Hastings.
In many ways the discourse of eugenics was founded by Francis Galton, whose institute at University College London housed instruments for racial measuring used by Germans in the Herero and Nama Genocide in Namibia of 1904-‘05. His protégé, Karl Pearson, holder of the first chair in Eugenics anywhere in the world (again, at UCL), adopted “Aryan” terminology, actively opposed Jewish immigration and believed that any outlay to improve “inferior races” was squandered.
A more familiar homegrown fascist nowadays is Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists, a sixth Baronet whose family could trace its aristocratic roots all the way back to Ernald de Mosley of Bushbury in the 12th century. Mosley’s first wedding – a lavish affair with Lady Cynthia Curzon in 1920 – was attended by the King and Queen in a sign of just how well connected the young aristocrat and his family were.
Mosley’s second wife, meanwhile, Lady Diana Mitford, was the daughter of a Baron and passionate fascist. Diana and her sister Unity Valkyrie formed part of the British delegation at the Nuremberg rally of 1933. Unity, described as “more Nazi than the Nazis,” joined Hitler on the Hofburg balcony during the Anschluss. It is said that she discussed her redecoration plans for a Munich apartment given to her by Hitler while the Jewish owners sat inside and cried.
The elective affinity between fascism and aristocracy goes a level deeper than these eye-catching cases. If aristocracy has a core, it is the preservation and perpetuation of an elite lineage, which is ultimately about purity of the blood. Even today, for instance, adoptees into aristocratic families in the UK are ineligible to inherit titles or properties – a fact which is not widely known.
Long before the advent of more modern race theory pseudo-sciences, this outlook of the English aristocracy provided the fount for the plantation system and racial segregation practiced from Ireland to the Caribbean and the America South. Earlier aristocracy would model control of heredity and the policing of mixing that eugenicists and fascists would later seek to impose upon entire national populations. Fascism, in short, broadened the practices and ideas of aristocracy, and attempted to develop them for a new century.
By the First World War the British aristocracy owned up to four-fifths of all the land in the UK – something which could be traced back to land enclosures from the 13th century onward which had helped to deepen aristocratic power in British society. More recently, these elites had tenaciously resisted all manner of self-determination and democracy, from extension of the franchise to the working class in England to home rule for Ireland. Today it is estimated that one-third of the great estates held by the National Trust as ‘historic homes’ are linked to colonialism and the slave trade – with some using forced labour on their premises, notably Churchill’s Chartwell estate.
Yet the rise of industrial tycoons as a rival power base, and a Great War that devastated their ranks, pushed the aristocracy into survival mode. One strategy pursued – and now romanticised and bathed in nostalgia – was that of marrying a rich American, as dramatised in Downton Abbey. Another strategy, which has somehow been the source of less nostalgia, was political radicalisation – a panoply of restorationist and conservative revolutionary ideologies to restore and retain their leadership over land and country. “Aristo-fascism” is not to be conflated with pro-appeasement policies, but rather stands for the willingness to forego and oppose fundamental postulates of the democratic state in favour of some authoritarian alternative.
Fascism itself, of course, has long proved difficult to pin down as an ideology. Templates for conservatives prove inadequate and insufficient for this phenomenon which finds traction for its “revolutionary” conservatism precisely by appropriating elements of progressive ideologies. Though there is an embarrassment of aristocratic fascists to choose from when re-examining this history (from those who attended Hitler’s birthday parties to others who actually guided German bomber planes from their estates in England) the following figures have been selected with an eye towards grasping the range of fascist ideas homegrown in the UK.
The most familiar is undoubtedly Viscount Rothemere, Harold Harmsworth, in many respects the pioneer of the kind of propagandistic boulevard press that continues to cripple enlightened discourse to this day.
Founder of the Daily Mail and Daily Mirror (as well as several other publications) he typifies a view of fascism as a wave of the future and foundation for a new order to replace parliamentary democracy and self-determination. Enthusiastic about Hitler (whom he met several times) until 1939 and supporter of Mussolini (who he called the “greatest figure of the age”) Rothemere started his public career in the early 1920s with an opposition to the extension of the franchise to those dependent on the poor law.
“The fact,” he wrote, “is that quite a large number of people now possess the vote who ought never to have been given it.” Equally opposed to female suffrage, headlines in his outlets included “stop the flapper vote folly.” His notoriety today in this regard revolves largely around his full-throated support for the British Union of Fascists in 1934 (“Hurrah for the Blackshirts”). But his call for a revision of the Treaty of Trianon on behalf of Hungary is especially glaring, as it speaks to a desire to upend the Versailles settlement that enshrined the self-determination principle for formerly oppressed nationalities.
Viscount Lymington by contrast well stands in for a variant of fascism as a backward looking romantic ideology, a neo-feudalism privileging the medieval era. Such an outlook fused pseudo-scientific ideas of degeneracy, (he once said, “in every great city there is a scum of sub-human people willing to take any chance of a breakdown in law and order”) with a fetish of farming, fertility and the soil. He co-founded an organisation considered the most English of all fascisms, English Mistery, in 1930 followed by a newspaper, New Pioneer, in 1938.
New Pioneer was more radical in its reaction than anything published under Rothemere or Mosley – and Lymington would go on to be an active fascist throughout the Second World War, collaborating with Lord Haw-Haw (William Joyce) and joining the British People’s Party in 1943. He would later decamp to Kenya (along with many arch-reactionary aristocrats in the “white highlands”) to pursue a feudal lifestyle. Lymington found liberal democracy contemptible and was active in the defence of princely and imperial rule in India, as well as in the defence of Edward VIII in 1936 and ultra-royalist kingship.
English Mistery was an organisation which espoused Gothic imagery, and embraced selective breeding of eugenics as well as organic farming. It shared significantly with Nazis ideas of blood and soil – Blut und Boden – and included the following in its creed: “I have hope that through the regeneration of that stock and of its soil… I hate the system of democracy.”
Our final example speaks to perhaps the most virulent strain of British fascism that made common cause with essential war aims of Nazi Germany, namely Archibald Ramsay and the “Judeo-Bolshevist” conspiracy. This conspiracy theory fused Russophobia, reactionary politics and racial antisemitism to construct a demonic Other which could be blamed for social ills from wars to exploitative financial practices and the spread of Communism. An absurdity, by any stretch of the imagination, and yet with the re-emergence of “cultural Marxist” conspiracy theories one that seems quite explicable in the 21st century.
Archibald Ramsay was a Scottish aristocrat (his father was the Earl of Dalhousie) and Tory (an MP for the Unionist Party). Throughout the 1920s and ‘30s, he became one of Britain’s most virulent antisemites and fascists – eventually being imprisoned during the Second World War. But before this, he was permitted a long career on the country’s mainstream political right. His parody song Land of Dope and Jewry was allegedly written in the House of Commons Library.
Ramsay founded an organisation known as the Right Club in May of 1939, just weeks after he had made a speech to the far-right Nordic League in London casting Neville Chamberlain as a puppet of Jewish interests. The Right Club saw the Conservative Party in general this way, and its logo was an eagle killing a snake with the initials P.J. for “Perish Judah.” Its members included the aforementioned Lymington and Haw-Haw as well as other aristocrats from Lord Redesdale to the Second Duke of Westminster.
Ramsay and his family were particularly responsible for popularising the conspiracy in Britain that Jews were driving revolutions across the world in the name of Communism. In January of 1939, his wife Ismay Ramsay made a speech at Arbroath Business Club alleging that an “international group of Jews… were behind world revolution in every single country” and endorsing Hitler’s campaign against the Jews in Germany. Archibald Ramsay himself would allege that the war was engineered by the Jews in a plot for world control, precisely the same rhetoric and logic employed by Hitler as he manoeuvred his way into a Second World War.
There is hardly a major British institution that was left untouched by fascism, from the Bank of England to the Daily Mail to the House of Commons. Just as today there is hardly any other country that has so revelled in the glamorisation and persistence of feudal structures and their pursuit of mastery and luxury. If there is a story to be told about Britain and fascism, let it be this: while the people of Britain stood up to the Nazis, the British ruling class were in many cases enthusiastic collaborators – and found justification for being so in their own aristocratic roots and worldviews.