Historical lessons from the original anti-fascists — including my father: Michael Coren
While peaceful protest is usually preferable, there are times when more muscular resistance is inevitable
For an article that is essentially about my late father, it might seem slightly odd to begin with a blunt political statement. But here goes. There is no moral equivalency between the new alt-right and the anti-fascist movement, and to think and write otherwise is naïve and callow.
It's an idea based not on experience and understanding of extreme ideology, but on a suburban optimism. Plagues on both houses apply to pointless tribal conflicts, not fundamental disputes as to the future path of humanity. Of course there are gratuitously violent elements within the broad coalition known as Antifa, but the essence of the movement is resistance to what is by its very nature violent in thought, creed and deed.
Thus to Phil Coren. My dad was from Hackney in North London, rough then and rough now. He was in the boxing club by the time he was 10 years old, and when in the Royal Air Force (RAF) 10 years later, was welterweight champion of Bomber Command. He later fought against and knew Ron and Reggie Kray, who would become infamous as the gangsters who dominated the London underworld. In other words, Ginger Phil was what was known back then as "a hard nut."
To me he was just dad. Kind, hard-working, fair-minded, loving. In fact, he was like that to most people and didn't look for conflict or concern himself with politics. But when he came out of the services at the end of the war he was surprised to find that Nazism was still alive in London.
The German death camps were known about and most people were horrified at the idea of anti-Semitism, but to the fascist right, the Blackshirts, the war had just been an inconvenient hiatus. They were on the march again, attacking the Jewish community in east London, holding well-attended rallies, painting "PJ" or "Perish Judah" on walls, chanting "Not enough Jews died in Belsen" and singing the Horst Wessel song.
The Jewish establishment called for calm, the mainstream parties recommended indifference and the police said they would take care of any trouble. But for the poor and the urban, that was neither possible nor helpful. So a group of young Jewish men who had just left the armed forces formed an anti-fascist collective called the 43 Group.
The main activists were former paratroopers, guardsmen and commandos. There were several winners of the highest military medals among them, including one Victoria Cross. Eventually numbering several hundred, they had non-Jewish allies who infiltrated the various fascist groups and supplied vital information.
The Battle of Cable Street
This was not middle-class politics. In the 1930s, the British Union of Fascists had thrown Jewish children through windows, called for pogroms and terrified innocent people. That had culminated in 1936 in what became known as the Battle of Cable Street, where working-class Jews, Communists, friends from the local Irish Catholic community and dock-workers from the union movement stood against a large Blackshirt march and won the day. That finally forced the government to take action.
Men who had taken on German Nazis in battle were not prepared to allow diluted, English versions to dominate the streets in 1946. The policy was one of direct action. Fights would be started at the edge of crowds and then small teams or "wedges" would charge the stage and bring it down. Once it collapsed, the police were obliged to intervene and end the meeting.
- Anti-fascist handbook explores long history of opposition movement
- Quebec's Antifa movement on rise in response to growth of far-right groups
At one point, a team from the 43 Group entered the headquarters of the most extreme of the fascist organizations pretending to be from the security services and there to make sure the building was safe from attack. Once inside they beat up the leader of the movement and stole his files – proving links to a number of people in relatively senior public positions and outlining various future meetings.
'After the Holocaust there were no rules'
Heads were smashed. Razors, knuckle-dusters, sharpened belt-buckles and clubs were used by both sides. It was nasty and crude. And effective. As one member said, "After the Holocaust there were no rules." More than two-thirds of planned Nazi activity was either prevented or stopped shortly after it had begun, and by 1950 the brief resurgence of British fascism had dribbled into a collection of basement-dwellers and fringe eccentrics.
My father hardly ever spoke about all this, any more than he did about his time in the RAF. His passion was Tottenham Hotspur, and it was that and not memories of fighting that he wanted to pass on to his son.
As for the 43 Group and its opposition to the racist right: there is context to consider, but in the final analysis, while peaceful protest is almost always the ethical and constructive way, there are times when a slightly more muscular resistance is inevitable. I, for one, refuse to make blanket condemnations, and I've got a feeling that Phil Coren would agree with me.