George Orwell once observed that fascism could never take root in England because as soon as someone tried sending soldiers goose-stepping down its avenues, "the people in the street would laugh". Like so many of the designated great man's pronouncements, it has the comforting ring of wisdom while also being absolutely wrong.
In the 1940s, Orwell thought the British had a healthy, ingrained distrust of any militarism; now, in 2015, the Labour party want insulting members of the armed forces to be classified as a hate crime. If you burn a Remembrance Day poppy, you could end up in jail. And while our soldiers might not goose-step, they do parade around in bright red uniforms while wearing big furry tits on their heads. Nobody laughs. Fascism never needed to take root in England: it's the soil itself.
This is why the kerfuffle that followed the Sun's release of a 1933 video showing the future Queen Elizabeth II (then six years old) performing a Nazi salute is so surprising.
For the chronic genuflectors in the British commentariat, there have been three main lines of defence for our Queen. The first, as deployed on the front page of the Sunday Express, is to say that the "Queen was just waving". This is true, in so far as any salute can look like a wave if you don't look very closely. The second is to say that the Queen was six years old, and didn't know what she was doing. This is also true, although you have to wonder about what kind of dysfunctional family would teach the Hitler salute to a six-year-old girl. The third is to say that it was only 1933, and besides, everyone was doing it at the time. This is true as well, but arguing that the salute was normal back then because the entire British ruling class was a gang of fascists isn't exactly comforting.
The Allied victory in the Second World War has, somewhere in the political imaginary, been turned into the victory of good honest Anglo-Saxons against all forms of global evil. In the prevailing narrative, the British response to fascism was marked first by appeasement, a policy simultaneously born from fear and the naïve belief that there could be a worthwhile peace, and then by a stern-faced determination to sort out this Hitler nonsense for good. The truth is a little less clear-cut: the average Tommy on the front lines risked life and limb to kill fascists, but for much of the 1930s, large portions of the British ruling clique were ardent supporters of the Nazi ideology.
There was of course Sir Oswald Mosely, leader of the British Union of Fascists, with his pathetic ranks of sad-clown Blackshirts. There was the Daily Mail and the Daily Mirror, which printed "Hurrah for Hitler"-style articles up until the outbreak of war in 1939.
There was also King Edward VIII, the uncle of the current monarch, who visited Germany in 1937, after his abdication, to hang out with Hitler in the Bavarian Alps. The meeting went well: even in 1970 he told a friend that "I never thought Hitler was such a bad chap."
There was Charles Vane-Tempest-Stewart, 7th Marquess of Londonderry and Secretary of State for Air, who was a frequent visitor to Nazi Germany, where he met with Hitler, Himmler, Göring, Hess, and other beswastika'd hosts.
There was the Right Club, a pro-Nazi group within the aristocracy and political class whose members (including MPs and the 5th Duke of Wellington) greeted each other with "Perish Judah", cheerfully trilling their commitment to the extermination of European Jews.
And there were long and deep links between MI5 and the Gestapo, who carefully co-ordinated their actions against Communism and similar threats to the white race.
The Communism thing was a substantial motivator, and after the war it was easy for some to claim that British fascism was driven more by a principled anti-Communism than any real adherence to Hitlerist fantasies. Nobody knew about the death camps in 1933; Oswald Mosely was as ignorant as the Seig Heil-ing future Queen. (That said, a quick read of Mein Kampf ought to give you some idea of where things were headed.) Fascism was the last line of defence against the Communist menace. But these people weren't afraid of the Soviet Union, on the rough and distant edge of Europe. They were afraid of their own workers.
In 1926, a general strike called by militant coal miners nearly sparked a British Revolution: parliament declared a state of emergency, soldiers were deployed on the streets, and for nine days it really seemed as if the people might bring down the state. When the British aristocracy praised Hitler for standing up to Communism, it wasn't because they were worried about being sent to a Siberian gulag. It was because fascism promised to violently suppress an insurgent working class.
The affection was mutual; Hitler himself was a great Anglophile and an admirer of the British Empire. The Nazis took careful lessons from Britain's ability to administer a vast swathe of the globe with a relatively small group of clerks and soldiers, as well as its unflinching readiness to exercise mass genocidal violence whenever its rule was threatened. The British example was a major factor informing German policy in occupied eastern Europe. After all, among the great inventions of the British military, somewhere on the far side of the list from Teflon and radar, is the concentration camp.
Fascism didn't spring from nowhere. In the 18th and 19th centuries, when most of Europe was busy grabbing whatever patch of ground it could and slaughtering anyone who resisted, Germany was still a fractured collection of intermittently warring states. By the time it unified, much of the world had already been claimed by one bloated Western parasite or another. So instead of heading for the tropics, Germany drove East. Nazism, with its mass killings and its mania for world domination, was little more than the logic of European colonialism as applied to Europe itself. And nobody was better at colonialism than the British.
For hundreds of years, a tiny, chilly island off the coast of Europe unleashed an ocean of blood that swept from one side of the planet to the other; we caused death and suffering on a scale the Nazis never even approached. Is it any surprise that the daughter of a man who would call himself the Emperor of India from his palace in London might raise an arm in militaristic salute? Some apologists have suggested that the Queen's Hitler salute was actually a kind of mockery, a way of putting Hitler down. That might also be true. Maybe the gesture was a subtle sarcasm: a smug dig at the people who would, in the contest for history's most ruthless, always be the runner up.
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