HST3069/3070: Fascism and Anti-Fascism in Britain, 1923-1945

40 credits (semesters 1 and 2)

Module Leader: Dr Julie Gottlieb



A pass in at least two history modules at level two.


Module Summary

Through seminars, this module examines three inter-related issues in order to assess the impact of fascism on Britain between the wars: the rise of British fascist organisations themselves; organised forms of British resistance to domestic and international fascism; and the British political, intellectual and diplomatic elites' responses to Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. Making full use of one of the best archives for this purpose in the country held here in the Special Collections of the University Library, first we examine the political organization, the ideas and the culture of 'native' British fascism from its inception in 1923 to the Second World War. Second, we will then move on to exploring active and ideological responses and resistance to British fascist and racist organisations by a loose coalition of Communists, Socialists, Liberals and even Conservatives, as well as the resistance mounted by those religious and ethnic groups most affected by fascist racial provocation and violence. By so doing, we will be concerned to measure the distance between the political centre and the peripheries. Third, we will consider how contemporary interpretations of fascism, and formal and more informal relations with the European dictatorships, contributed to the National Government's policy of appeasement on the one hand, and, on the other hand, to the greater definition of what was quintessentially "British" about Britain's war aims with the outbreak of World War Two. In assessing the significance and impact of fascism in Britain, we will ask some of the following questions: why was Britain almost alone in Europe in resisting authoritarian government during the 1930s? Why have historians been so fascinated by the British Union of Fascists (BUF) in particular, a movement that only recruited up to 50,000 members at its height? What documentary evidence is available from the study of British fascism and anti-fascism, and how has the expansion of the archival evidence (from public records to personal testimonies, from personal accounts to more systematic archiving of miscellaneous material) shifted perceptions of British extremist politics? How has the narrative of the failure of British fascism been written and revised from the perspectives of either social, oral, gender or cultural history? Was British anti-fascism merely 'reactive' — a range of political forces mobilized to meet the Mosleyite challenge — or was it equally ideologically motivated? Considering the ultimate success of anti-fascism, how can we account for the disorganized nature of Britain´s anti-fascism movement—was there an identifiable anti-fascist movement as such? Was appeasement a policy underlined by tacit sympathy for European fascist regimes or was it merely a pragmatic, if inglorious, early response to Nazi aggression? Was the internment of British fascists under Defence Regulation 18B at variance with Britain's claim to be fighting a war in defence of democracy? We will approach these and other questions by consulting primary source material, including political pamphlets and propaganda, newspapers, public records, memoirs, oral testimonies, visual material, film and recordings, and novels.


Teaching and Assessment

Twice weekly seminars will allow for discussion of particular primary and secondary texts, as well as related historical, historiographical and theoretical problems. Students will also be invited to take an active part in their learning by giving presentations, participating in group assignments, and preparing essays.

Further guidance is provided in the module course booklet, available through MOLE.

Information on assessment can be found at: http://www.sheffield.ac.uk/history/current_students/undergraduate/assessment/level3


Preliminary Reading

  • N. Copsey, Anti-Fascism in Britain (2000)
  • M. Cronin (ed.), The Failure of British Fascism (1996)
  • J. Gottlieb, Feminine Fascism (2000)
  • T. Kushner and K. Lunn (eds.), The Politics of Marginality (1990)
  • T. Linehan, British Fascism, 1918-1939 (2000)
  • M. Pugh, Hurray for the Blackshirts: Fascists and Fascism in Britain (2005)
  • A.W. Brian Simpson, In the Highest Degree Odious (1992)
  • Robert Skidelsky, Oswald Mosley (1975)
  • A. Sykes, The Radical Right in Britain (2004)
  • R. Thurlow, Fascism in Britain (1998)


Intended Learning Outcomes
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