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Body Fascism in Britain: Building the Blackshirt in the Inter-War Period


In recent years scholars have devoted a great deal of attention and theorisation to the body in history, looking both at bodies as metaphors and as sites of intervention. These studies have tended to focus on the analysis of bodies in a national context, acting for and acted upon by the state, and similarly the ever-expanding study of masculinity continues to try to define hegemonic masculinities. But what if we direct our gaze to marginal bodies, in this case Blackshirt bodies who act against the state, and a political movement that commits assault on the body politic? This article examines the centrality of the body and distinctive gender codes in the self-representation, the performance and practice, and the culture of Britain's failed fascist movement during the 1930s. The term ‘body fascism’ has taken on different and much diluted meaning in the present day, but in the British Union of Fascists’ construction of the Blackshirted body, in the movement's emphasis on the embodiment of their political religion through sport, physical fitness and public display of offensive and defensive violence, and in their distinctive and racialised bodily aesthetic illustrated in their visual and graphic art production we come to understand Britain's fascist movement as a product of modernity and as one potent expression of the convergence between populist politics and body fixation.

La recherche historique des années récentes a beaucoup examiné et théorisé le corps humain, qu'elle regarde à la fois comme métaphore et comme site d'intervention. De telles études ont porté surtout sur l'analyse du corps en contexte national, le corps qui agit pour l'état ou subit l'action de l'état, tandis que les études toujours proliférantes sur la ou les masculinité(s) s'efforcent de définir ce concept en termes hégémoniques. Que se passe-t-il, alors, si nous orientons notre regard sur le corps marginal, en ce cas sur le corps habillé d'une chemise noire qui agit contre l'état – sur un mouvement politique qui s'attaque au corps politique? Dans cet article nous examinons la centralité du corpos et la codification des genres dans l'auto-représentation, la performance, la pratique et la culture du mouvement fasciste britannique – mouvement échoué – de l'entre-deux-guerres. Aujourd'hui le terme «fascisme corporel» a pris un sens différent et très affaibli, mais c'est à travers la construction du corps en chemise noire par l'Union fasciste britannique (British Union of Fascists) – à travers son zèle pour l'incarnation d'une religion politique à travers le sport, la forme physique et la parade publique de la violence offensive et défensive, et aussi dans l'esthétique corporelle unique et racialisée qu'on retrouve partout dans leur production artistique visuelle et graphique – que nous arriverons à comprendre le mouvement fasciste britannique comme un produit de la modernité et une puissante expression de la convergence entre politique populiste et obsession du corps.

In den letzten Jahren haben sich Historikerinnen und Historiker verstärkt der Körpergeschichte gewidmet, etwa indem sie Körper als Metaphern lasen oder in ihnen Orte gesellschaftlicher und politischer Intervention sahen. Solche Studien haben sich vor allem auf die Erforschung von Körpern im Zusammenhang mit staatlicher Politik bemüht. Zugleich haben Studien zur Männergeschichte unser Verständnis von hegemonialer Maskulinität deutlich differenziert. Aber was geschieht, wenn wir unseren Blick auf Körper an den Rändern der Politik richten, wie zum Beispiel jene der britischen faschistischen Blackshirts, die sich gegen den Staat richteten und darauf zielten den politischen Körper als body politic anzugreifen? Dieser Artikel untersucht die Zentralität von Körperpolitik und die Bedeutung von Kategorien des Geschlechts in der Codierung, Selbstrepräsentation, Performanz und Praxis für die letztlich gescheiterte britische fascistische Bewegung während der 1930er Jahre. Heute hat der Terminus “Körperfaschismus” eine ganz andere Bedeutung erhalten, aber in der Konstruktion des fascistischen Körpers durch die British Union of Fascists, in der Betonung ihrer politischen Religion durch sportliche Ertüchtigung, physische Gesundheit und in Praxis von offensiver und defensiver Gewalt sowie in ihrer besonderen rassisch aufgeladenen Körperästhetik, wie sie sich in visuellen und graphischen Quellen zeigen lässt, lernen wir die britische faschistische Bewegung als Produkt der Moderne kennen, welches die Konvergenz zwischen populistischer Politik und Körperfixierung zum Ausdruck brachte.

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1 However, some articles use the term more precisely, and at least evoke the memory of fascism as an historical phenomenon. Polly Toynbee's interpretation of the Atlanta Olympics is headlined ‘Triumph of the Body Fascists’, Independent, 17 July 1996, and here there is an attempt to demonstrate that the search for physical perfection is an essentially fascist pursuit: ‘the Olympic idea is essentially fascist in inspiration and Leni Riefenstahl's film Olympia stands as the abiding Olympic image’. While it is the only anchoring of the term in an article largely about going to the gym and the pressure to workout continuously, Stephen Moss admits that ‘in my quest for physical and mental perfection, for manifest purpose, I am becoming intolerant of the messiness and inconsequentiality of life. This may be how fascism begins’. Stephen Moss, ‘Body Fascism: In his Continuing Battle for the Body Beautiful, Stephen Moss Develops a Disturbing Contempt for Weaklings’, The Guardian, 28 March 2000. The term is also used in a far more sinister way by disability activists and campaigners, recognising the long history of the persecution of those deemed ‘unfit’ or eugenically unviable, which reached its tragic climax under the Nazi regime in Germany.

2 Pronger, Brian, Body Fascism: Salvation in the Technology of Physical Fitness (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002).

3 Marvin, T. Prosono, ‘Fascism of the Skin: Symptoms of Alienation in the Body of Consumptive Capitalism’, Current Sociology, 52, 4 (2008), 635–56.

4 See the seminal texts, Laqueur, Thomas, The Making of the Modern Body (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990), and the theoretical cornerstone of body studies, Butler, Judith, Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex” (London: Routledge, 1993); for a comprehensive historiographical overview, see Harvey, Karen, ‘The Century of Sex? Gender, Bodies, and Sexuality in the Long Eighteenth Century’, Historical Journal, 45, 4 (2002), 899916; for a good synthesis, see Timm, Annette F. and Sanborn, Joshua A., Gender, Sex and the Shaping of Modern Europe (Oxford: Berg, 2007); for the groundbreaking study of the cultural significance of the war-ravaged male body after 1918, see Bourke, Joanna, Dismembering the Male: Men's Bodies, Britain and the Great War (London: Reaktion Press, 1996).

5 See Theweleit, Klaus, Male Fantasies: Women, Floods, Bodies, History (London: Polity Press, 1977).

6 Canning, Kathleen, ‘The Body as Method? Reflections on the Place of the Body in Gender History’, Gender and History, 11, 3 (1999), 499513.

7 For a comprehensive discussion of the political fate and legacy of British fascism, see Cronin, Mick, ed., The Failure of Fascism in Britain: The Far-right and the Fight for Political Recognition (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1996).

8 See Gottlieb, Julie and Linehan, Thomas, eds., The Culture of Fascism: Visions of the Far Right in Britain (London: I. B. Tauris, 2004). See also Kent, Susan Kingsley, Making Peace: The Reconstruction of Gender in Interwar Britain (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993), and Lawrence, Jon, ‘Forging a Peaceable Kingdom: War, Violence, and Fear of Brutalization in Post-First World War Britain’, Journal of Modern History, 75, 3 (2003), 557–89.

9 There is a rich literature on male trauma and shell shock during and after the First World War, its recognition of the category of gender leading to an even more vibrant dialogue and debate in recent years. See Meyer, Jessica, Men of War: Masculinity and the First World War in Britain (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009); Micale, Mark, Hysterical Men: The Hidden History of Male Nervous Illness (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008); and Roper, Michael, The Secret Battle: Emotional Survival in the Great War (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009). Kent, Susan Kinglsey, Aftershocks: Politics and Trauma in Britain, 1918–1931 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009) considers shell shock as pathology suffered by the nation as a whole in the first decade after the Great War, defining the parameters of politics during the 1920s.

10 Francis, Martin, ‘The Domestication of the Male? Recent Research on Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century British Masculinity’, Historical Journal, 45, 3 (2002), 637–52.

11 Roper, Michael, ‘Between Manliness and Masculinity: The “War Generation” and the Psychology of Fear in Britain, 1914–1950’, Journal of British Studies, 44, 2 (2005), 343–62.

12 Meyer, Men of War, 2.

13 ‘A Letter Sent to Mosley From a Man Who Found Hope in Fascism’, Blackshirt, no. 2, March 1933.

14 See Midgley, Clare, ed., Gender and Imperialism (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1998); Mangan, J. A. and Walvin, James, eds., Manliness and Morality: Middle-Class Masculinity in Britain and America, 1800–1940 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1987); McClintock, Anne, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest (New York and London: Routledge, 1995); and Levine, Philippa, Prostitution, Race and Politics: Policing Venereal Disease in the British Empire (New York and London: Routledge, 2003).

15 Zweiniger-Bargielowska, I., ‘Building a British Superman: Physical Culture in Interwar Britain’, Journal of Contemporary History, 4, 1 (2006), 595610.

16 See DeGrazia, Victoria, How Fascism Ruled Women: Italy 1922–1945 (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1992); Stephenson, Jill, Women in Nazi Germany (Harlow and New York: Longman, 2001); Koonz, Claudia, Mothers in the Fatherland: Women, the Family and Nazi Politics (London: Jonathan Cape, 1986); Stibbe, Matthew, Women in the Third Reich (London: Arnold, 2003); and Wilson, Perry, Peasant Women and Politics in Fascist Italy: The Massaie Rurali Section of the PNF (London: Routledge, 2002).

17 Quoted in Matthews, J. J., ‘“They had Such a Lot of Fun”: The Women's League of Health and Beauty between the Wars’, History Workshop Journal, 30, 1 (1990), 2154.

18 Rau, Petra, ‘The Fascist Body and the Imperial Crisis in 1930s British Writing’, Journal of European Studies, 39, 5 (2009), 535.

19 See Mosse, George, The Image of Man: The Creation of Modern Masculinity (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996); Mangan, J. A., ed., Superman Supreme: Fascist Body as Political Icon: Global Fascism (London: Frank Cass, 2000); Stone, Dan, Breeding Superman: Nietzsche, Race and Eugenics in Edwardian and Interwar Britain (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2002); and Griffin, Roger, Modernism and Fascism: The Sense of Beginning under Mussolini and Hitler (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).

20 Mangan, Superman Supreme, 1.

21 See Julie V. Gottlieb, ‘Britain's New Fascist Men: The Aestheticization of Brutality in British Fascist Propaganda’, in Gottlieb and Linehan, The Culture of Fascism, 83–99. See also Collins, Tony, ‘Return to Manhood: The Cult of Masculinity in the British Union of Fascists’, International Journal of the History of Sport, 16, 4 (1999), 145–62; Spurr, Michael, ‘“Living the Blackshirt Life”: Community and the British Union of Fascists, 1932–1940’, Contemporary European History, 12, 3 (2003), 305–22; Spurr, Michael, ‘“Playing for Fascism”; Sportsmanship, Anti-Semitism and the British Union of Fascists’, Patterns of Prejudice, 37, 4 (2003), 359–76.

22 See Gottlieb, Julie, Feminine Fascism: Women in Britain's Fascist Movement, 1923–1945 (London: I. B. Tauris, 2000); and Durham, Martin, Women and Fascism (London: Routledge, 1998).

23 Dudink, Stefan, Hagemann, Karen and Tosh, John, eds., ‘Editors' preface’, in Masculinities in Politics and War: Gendering Modern History (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2004), xiii.

24 ‘The Blackshirt: Sir Oswald Mosley denies it is a Provocative Uniform’, Manchester Guardian, 9 Nov. 1936.

25 ‘In these series of articles I have described a new system of British civilisation built by a new manhood. Let us see that in that new society the new manhood has its opportunity. In no country in the world to-day are the scales so weighted against the young man determined to make good; yet it is on such young men that the future must rest . . . Between Conservative privilege and Socialist levelling down they have crushed freedom of our working life. They have crushed freedom, too, out of private life in the grandmotherly legislation which treats the man like a child. Whether in work or play, the eternal grandmother at Westminster stands over the young men of Britain forbidding them to exert themselves in work or hurt themselves in leisure . . . It is time that we substitute a system of manhood for the interference of the universal grandmother. In hours of leisure we shall rely for the maintenance of the health and morality of the nation not on legislation but on the spiritual rebirth of a national renaissance . . .’ Quote from Sir Oswald Mosley, ‘More Freedom in Private Life’, Sunday Dispatch, 27 May 1934.

26 ‘A Fascist Holiday Camp’, Blackshirt, no. 4, 1 April 1933.

27 See, for instance, news of the establishment of a cycling club in Blackshirt, no. 55, 11–17 May 1934.

28 See ‘Tours to Fascist Countries’, Blackshirt, no. 4, 1 April 1933; ‘Student Tours’, Blackshirt, no. 8, 1 June 1933.

29 ‘Pagham Holiday Camp’, Blackshirt, no. 13, 4 June–1 July 1933.

30 Skidelsky, Robert, Oswald Mosley (London: MacMillan, 1981), 270.

31 Quoted in Skidelsky, Oswald Mosley, 271.

32 Houlbrook, Matt, ‘Soldier Heroes and Rent Boys: Homosex, Masculinities, and Britishness in the Brigade of Guards circa 1900–1960’, Journal of British Studies, 42, 3 (2003), 351–88.

35 A. K. Chesterton, ‘To the Intellectual’, Fascist Week, no. 9, 5–11 Jan. 1934.

36 Mosley, Oswald, My Life (London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1968).

37 See Gottlieb, Feminine Fascism; and James Vernon, ‘“For Some Queer Reason”: The Trials and Tribulations of Colonel Barker's Masquerade in Interwar Britain’, Signs, 26, 1 (2000), 37–62.

38 Blackshirt, no. 38, 12–18 Jan. 1934.

39 For more about BUF publicity and its use of the media and political technologies, see Gottlieb, Julie, ‘The Marketing of Megalomania: Celebrity, Consumption and the Development of Political Technology in the British Union of Fascists’, Journal of Contemporary History, 41, 1 (2006), 3555.

40 ‘Beaten to a Pulp: Now Destitute’, Daily Worker, 13 June 1934.

41 ‘Fascism: The Basic Idea’, Blackshirt, no. 6, 1 May 1933.

42 Arthur Marsden, ‘The Winged Hats’, Action, 21 Feb. 1936.

43 ‘Why Sir Oswald Mosley Cancelled a Meeting’, Sunday Dispatch, 24 June 1934.

44 The accounts of opposition activists and observers were gathered together in the lengthy pamphlet ‘Fascists at Olympia: A Record of Eye-Witnesses and Victims’, compiled by ‘Vindicator’ (London: Gollancz, 1934).

45 ‘Oswald Mosley's Circus’, Manchester Guardian, 8 June 1934.

47 See Pugh, Martin, ‘The British Union of Fascists and the Olympia Debate’, Historical Journal, 41, 2 (1998), 529–42; and Lawrence, Jon, ‘Fascist Violence and the Politics of Public Order in Inter-War Britain: The Olympia Debate Revisited’, Historical Research, 76, 192 (2003), 238–67.

48 ‘No White City for the Blackshirts’, Manchester Guardian, 14 July 1934.

49 ‘Blackshirts at Plymouth’, Manchester Guardian, 6 Oct. 1934.

50 ‘Blackshirts at Battersea’, Manchester Guardian, 2 Sept. 1935.

51 J. D. S. Alan, ‘Why Sir Oswald Mosley Cancelled a Meeting’, Sunday Dispatch, 24 June 1934.

52 G. S. Gueroult, ‘Apathy’, 1934, Mosley Papers, Nicholas Mosley Deposit, Box 8, University of Birmingham.

54 Blackshirt, no. 2, March 1933.

55 ‘“Mosley: Hero of a New Age”: Streicher Hails English Fascists’, quoted in the Jewish Chronicle, 22 Jan. 1937, 17.

56 Chesterton, A. K., Apotheosis of the Jew: From Ghetto to Park Lane (London: Abbey Supplies, n.d.).

57 E. G. Clarke, The British Union and the Jews [n.d.].

58 Chesterton, Apotheosis of the Jew.

59 Roper, ‘Between Manliness and Masculinity’.

60 Speaks also of ‘national rebirth’. See Blackshirt, no. 8, 1 June 1933.

61 Anne Cutmore, ‘The Pity of It: May Day in London’, Action, no. 12, 7 May 1936.

62 ‘Fascism revealed for all to see that it is not a normal political party seeking conviction for its policy, but a gang organization in which semi-criminal elements carry on illegal activities under cover of a political flag and a private uniform.’ ‘Shut Barracks: Forbid Uniforms, Say Workers’, Daily Worker, 13 Oct. 1935.

63 See Linehan, Thomas, British Fascism 1918–1939: Parties, Ideology and Culture (Manchester University Press: Manchester, 2000).

64 G. DeBurgh Wilmot, ‘Blackshirts are Warriors of the New Age’, Blackshirt, no. 59, 8 June 1934.

65 G. E. de Burgh Wilmot, ‘Fascism: Rights to Free Speech’, Yorkshire Post, 2 June 1934.

66 ‘The Fascist Army’, Manchester Guardian, 5 July 1934.

67 W. J. Leaper, ‘The Man and the Nation: Mosley Has the Greatest Virtue: Courage’, Blackshirt, no. 58, 1 June 1934.

68 ‘Sir Oswald Moseley on Fascism’, Manchester Guardian, 18 Oct. 1936.

69 ‘The Meaning of Fascism’, Granta, 6 June 1934.

70 A. Raven Thomson, The Coming of the Corporate State [n.d.].

71 ‘Wisdom from Greenwich’, The New Times, no.1, June 1932.

72 Sir Oswald Mosley, ‘Police Used to Protect Red Flag’, Blackshirt, no.3, 18 March 1933.

73 ‘Join the British Union of Fascists’ (recruitment flyer), Tracts on Fascism, British Library WP 5322.

74 Blackshirt, no. 3, 18 March 1933.

75 ‘The Blackshirts at Olympia: Savage Brutality’, Manchester Guardian, 12 June 1934.

76 Cullen, Stephen, ‘Political Violence: The Case of the British Union of Fascists’, Journal of Contemporary History, 28, 2 (1993), 245–67.

77 ‘Sir O. Mosley Gives Evidence’, Manchester Guardian, 14 Nov. 1934.

78 ‘Political Hooliganism’, Manchester Guardian, 12 Oct. 1937.

79 Blackshirt, no. 2, March 1933.

80 ‘Why I Left Mosley’, Jewish Chronicle, 10 June 1938.

81 Capt. R. Gordon-Canning M.C., Mind Britain's Business: British Union Foreign Policy [1939?].

82 Clarke, The British Union and the Jews.

83 Action, no. 100, 13 Jan. 1938.

84 For the persuasive argument that during the course of the First World War the basis for citizenship in Britain shifted from sex to patriotism, and that the conscientious objector was portrayed as arch anti-patriot, see Gullace, Nicolletta, “The Blood of Our Sons”: Men, Women, and the Renegotiation of British Citizenship During the Great War (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002). For a penetrative analysis of the gendered representations of the conscientious objector, see also Rose, Sonya O., Which People's War? National Identity and Citizenship in Wartime Britain, 1939–1945 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).

85 A. J. Cummings, ‘The Political Peep-Show’, News Chronicle, 13 June 1934.

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