Punching Postwar Nazis

Daniel Sonabend discusses the lost history and legacy of the 43 Group—a post-World War II association of British Jewish antifascist fighters.

Mari Cohen
January 21, 2020
Excerpt from the cover of We Fight Fascists: The 43 Group and Their Forgotten Battle for Post-war Britain. Courtesy of Verso Books.

In We Fight Fascists: The 43 Group and Their Forgotten Battle for Post-war Britain, Daniel Sonabend takes a deep dive into the little-known history of a group of Jewish antifascist fighters that coalesced in Britain right after World War II in response to an enduring domestic fascist movement. The organization was dubbed the 43 Group, and its members—many of them ex-servicemen who had witnessed the horrors of fascism abroad—were dissatisfied with the passivity that the British government and Jewish establishment groups displayed in handling fascism at home. The 43 Group took a more confrontational approach. They clashed physically and publicly with fascist groups in London, often preventing fascists from holding public meetings, and trying to shut down or take over their attempts to speak in public fora.

Drawing from interviews with living 43 Group members, newspaper records, and other archival materials, Sonabend describes the group’s origins in 1946 London and the organizational structure its leaders developed, which consisted of several hyperlocal chapters and an undercover intelligence operation. Much of the book consists of retellings of the adrenaline-fueled battles on the streets; Sonabend delights in these madcap tales of the 43 Group’s violent confrontations with their fascist opponents and the ways the members managed to elude the (sometimes-fascist-sympathizing) police. Sonabend interweaves these exploits with compelling character sketches of some of the group’s members. For context, he also provides a comprehensive account of the political world in which the 43 Group organized, one where British fascists managed to capitalize on local antisemitic sensibilities even after the British public learned to see fascism as the enemy during the war.

I spoke with Sonabend about the book and the lessons it offers for organizing against fascism today. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.  

Mari Cohen: Even in the UK, most people haven’t heard much about the 43 Group. Why do you think this history isn’t more widely known?

Daniel Sonabend: A few reasons. One is that the members of the 43 Group saw it as a continuation of their own wartime experience—they were soldiers in the war and then they came back, and fascism was still on the streets. After the group disbanded in 1950, its members went on and tried to live normal lives. And just as they didn’t talk about the war, they didn’t really talk about their experiences in the 43 Group. It was only later that one or two of them started telling their stories.

The British Jewish establishment, for their part, was hardly going to champion the group’s story. They’d rather it was confined to the past. The 43 Group went against what the establishment believed was the best way of dealing with fascists. They engaged in active resistance and violent opposition, whereas mainstream Jewish bodies like the Board of Deputies didn’t want to rock the boat or risk bringing the community into disrepute.

The story of the 43 Group also goes against the way the British thought of themselves after the Second World War. There’s this notion of: the blitz starts, we’re all coming together to defeat fascism. It becomes a sort of national myth. So the idea that there were British fascists—and British antisemitism—after the Second World War is really challenging to the British national story. 

MC: Do you think the mainstream British Jewish community’s approach to fighting fascism has changed since the time of the 43 Group? 

DS: There have been changes in terms of the way the establishment responds. Now we have the CST—the Community Security Trust—and they do communal defense. You often see them outside synagogues and Jewish events. In the 1940s, the Jewish establishment was against the Jewish community defending itself in any form. The CST actually came from the 43 Group’s successor organization, the 62 Group. So there is now very much a sense that there’s nothing wrong with the Jewish community standing up to defend itself.

In terms of violent resistance against the far right, it’s “two Jews, three opinions,” so it’d be hard to quantify. I don’t think there would be quite the same level of horror now as there was in the ’40s. But I also couldn’t say that there’s bloodlust in the Jewish community for the far right—that whenever they’re on the streets, the Jews are on the streets. That’s not the case. 

MC: One thing that’s unusual about the 43 Group is the fact that they were this big tent movement: There was a rule that you couldn’t bring in politics besides antifascism. Some American Jewish groups coming together right now are trying to do a similar thing, like IfNotNow forming a big tent anti-occupation movement, or local Jewish anti-racism organizations keeping the focus on domestic progressive politics only. How did the “no politics” rule shape the 43 Group? 

DS: For me, the “no politics” rule is one of the most interesting things about the group, especially because it stands in contrast with most antifascist activism today. Most militant antifascism is of the left. This was something else: the pragmatic antifascism of the majority. The 43 Group’s philosophy was: “Before we can take the public space to argue with each other, we have to make sure there is no space for those people who would kill us.” 

There’s a quote in the book from a column in the 43 Group’s newspaper, On Guard, that says, “Are you a Protestant, Catholic, a Mohammedian, or a Jew? Do you believe in democracy, the Atlantic Charter, freedom of speech, the United Nations, the rights of man? Do you belong to a trade union? Is your skin black or brown instead of white? If so the fascist hates your guts.” The group wanted non-Jewish members, too. They did feel that they needed to appear to be a Jewish group, to show that you can’t target the Jewish community, but they also didn’t want to be exclusionary. They wanted to say, “We’re standing up for ourselves, but if we’re fighting prejudice and racism, we’re fighting for one and all. And just as we would hope that black people or brown people will stand up and fight for us, we will fight for all of them.” That’s why the 43 Group understood their fight as related to opposition to racism, to Jim Crow and lynchings in America, to apartheid in South Africa [all issues they wrote about in On Guard]. There was a real sense of solidarity, that to defeat the fascists, everybody has to stand for each other.

So, by saying, we’re antifascist, anti-prejudice, anti-racist, and if you get on board with all of that, you’re in, no matter what else you think—that means you can have economic conservatives as well as communists, Zionists as well as anti-Zionists, operating in the same group and working well together. And they did.

MC: It seems like it would be really hard in the context of today’s politics to make that work in the same way, given that the question of where anti-prejudice ends and other specific politics begin can be blurry. 

DS: Yeah. I think what made the group special is that the majority fought in the war. Going to Europe and seeing the concentration camps and seeing the structure of fascism—that impresses on you that this is existential. And fighting alongside people from all different backgrounds shows you that you can get along and work together—someone could have a completely different politics from you and be your brother, your comrade.

Today, there is perhaps too strong an investment in the idea that your politics have to be completely in sync for you to have solidarity with somebody, that small differences are as vital as big differences. For the modern left to do what the 43 Group was able to do would be asking a lot. It would require an almost complete psychological shift. 

MC: Perhaps that’s because in this moment right after the war—when fascism had been a particular movement on the world stage—is a very different moment from now, when people use the word fascism in different ways.

DS: That’s true. But even then, in the late 1940s, it wasn’t as if fascism always announced itself as such. The British fascists were able to draw crowds of a few thousand—sometimes up to 10,000 people—because people would listen to fascist policies, and wouldn’t identify them as such, because the speakers weren’t identifying as fascists. 

MC: I was struck by that part because it’s very similar to how the white nationalists in the US have tried to frame themselves as respectable.

DS: That’s what the fascists were doing in Britain. They weren’t saying, “These are some of the Nazi policies we saw in Europe. We want to bring them here.” They were saying, “You can’t get a loan for your shop because the banks are being controlled by certain people, and it doesn’t make sense. This is Britain, shouldn’t British people to be able to have access to British finances? Why should the New York bankers”—by which they meant Jews—“have a say?” or, “Shouldn’t you own your own property? Why should the communists”—Jews—“take it from you?” It was all presented as very sensible and clear-sighted. But it’s exactly the same racist policies and racist ideas.

The 43 Group members Gerry Flamberg, foreground left, and Jonny Wimborne, foreground right, moments after being acquitted for the attempted murder of fascist John Preen in London, late 1940s. Courtesy of the Lambert Family Archive.

MC: Part of what makes the 43 Group so striking is that, given a lot of the stereotypes about diaspora Jews, the image of Jews as defensive fighters is unusual. It doesn’t come out much in our culture.

DS: The members of the 43 Group embodied a type of Jew that emerged from a particular moment and place—the East End of London in the 1920s and ’30s. These are people who grew up in very poor areas, basically in ghettos, and who dealt with antisemitism from the moment they walked into the school gates for the first time. And when the British Union of Fascists began their antisemitic campaign in the East End in 1934, that raised the tensions. So these were Jews who had to fight from day one. They became boxers, wrestlers, martial artists. And then they went into the armed services, which only added to this militaristic skill set. 

I don’t really know why this is a type of Jew we so often forget. Jewish people have survived for thousands of years. Sometimes that’s because they knew when to get out, and sometimes it’s because they knew when to stand up and fight. 

MC: In your afterword, you talk a little bit about the lessons that you took from the book for people looking to fight fascism today.

DS: The first I alluded to before: Don’t get caught up in minute political differences; you have to be able to distinguish between who’s on your side in the battle against fascism and who isn’t. 

But the main point I’m making in the afterword is this: Though I don’t want to advocate violence, I’ve done a history on this to learn the lessons of the past from these Jewish ex-servicemen who saw the destruction of Nazism, and then saw fascism return to the streets at home. They realized that a bit of violence now—forcing the fascists to back off and crawl back into their holes—is so much more preferable to living under fascism that it’s a no-brainer. 

Violence in moderation is a moral imperative. If your position is, “Oh no, I will never commit an act of violence,” but the people you’re fighting against have absolutely no compunction using violence against your community, then your moralistic stance will just allow them to steamroll you. What the position of the 43 Group says is: “We care about our families, we care about our communities, and that means we will risk prison, we will risk injury. Because the people we’re dealing with only understand violence, and we have to show them that they will not beat us.”

Mari Cohen is associate editor at Jewish Currents.