In October 1936 Sir Oswald Mosley attempted to lead the British Union of Fascists (BUF) along Cable Street into a London East End community and take control of the streets and enflame not only the local community, but also the country against Jewish people.
Oswald was following a tactic that had worked in Germany and his ‘Black Shirts’ were intent on demonising a section of the population for the greater glory of mimicking the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany.
That day some 2,000 fascists dressed in black (after the Italian fascist style) had great hopes of uniting all against targeted sections of society. But these hopes were dashed when approximately 20,000 (or 250,000 in total as stated at the Cable Street mural) people blocked their way and despite the efforts of 6,000 police to allow the march to continue, Mosley and the rest had to abandon their intent.
For many the ‘Battle of Cable Street’ was a pivotal moment because much of the wind that had developed in Mosley’s and the BUF’s sails up to then was taken away by the solidarity shown by people as they stood up for others. This made it clear that Mosley’s fascist movement did not have the broad support that he had claimed. A similar confrontation at Stockton-on-Tees, three years before and further resistance to the fascists after Cable Street underlined that many were not with the BUF.
Mosley had believed that the tide was with him and he had drawn support from many in Britain’s ruling circles to varying degrees. Support for fascism (in one form or other) had come from members of the government, parliament, the aristocracy (incl. Royals) and national newspapers such as the Daily Mail who championed Adolf Hitler. Needless to say people outside of these exalted circles were also attracted by the BUF and the endorsements given to the party by certain members of the ‘establishment’ gave the BUF a veneer of respectability.
The background to this was of course the start of the Spanish Civil War in the same year, which would see the establishment of General Franco’s decades long dictatorship, the coming to power of Benito Mussolini in Italy in 1922 and Adolf Hitler taking control of Germany in 1933. Hitler quickly set to work putting into place what became the ‘final solution’ after years of demonising the ‘Untermenschen’. His grip on power strengthened by the holding of referendums. He also ordered the re-militarisation of the Saarland in 1936. (A prelude to Austria’s absorption into the Reich in 1938, then the annexation of Czechoslovakia and the invasion Poland in 1939). Many thought it better to appease Hitler and fascism.
‘Kristallnacht’ came in 1938 when Jews were targeted in a night of violence and mass arrests led by the Nazi Party in Germany.
At the outbreak of World War Two in 1939, Mosley was interned for its duration. The return of leading anti-Nazi Winston Churchill from political exile did much to end appeasement and the open championing of the Germany Nazi state from fellow travellers in Britain. Those in government who had wished to accommodate Hitler backed down, and like the protesters at Cable Street the Government led by Churchill was prepared to draw a line and resist the fascists.
Pictures include the western entrance to Cable Street looking east, which now has a Cycling Superhighway running its length, a plaque marks the event above an estate agent at Dock St and the ‘Battle of Cable Street’ mural painted on the wall of St George’s Town Hall. The mural is not situated at the front line rather the barricade was further west at Christian Street toward Mint Street (with the Tower of London beyond) and it was at this point where anti-fascists and Police confronted each other as the latter attempted to clear the road to allow the ‘Black Shirts’ to march.
Please also see South London Murals