Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Female Fuhrer and the British Fascisti

Rotha Lintorn-Orman
The History of British Fascism tends to be dominated by Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, itself a very a-typical fascist organisation. However Baronet Mosley’s (touted as future British Prime Minister during his tenure in both the Labour and Conservative parties) conversion to Fascism didn’t occur until 1931 when he visited Mussolini in Italy and the British Union of Fascists wasn’t formed until 1932 a full ten years after Il Duce’s march on Rome and 6 years after Hitler had published Mein Kampf.
Mosley wasn’t Britain’s first taste of Fascism then, by far, few appreciate long before Mosley Britain had a flourishing right wing scene of would be Nazi’s and Fascists all trying to work out what these strange ‘continental’ ideologies were with varying degrees of quirkiness. By the 30’s such names as ‘Imperial Fascist League, the British Empire Fascists, the Fascist League, the National Fascisti, the Kensington Fascist Party, the Yorkshire Fascists, the Empire Fascist League, the Social Credit Greenshirts, the British Fascisti, the British United Fascists, the National Worker’s Party, the National Socialist League, the Nordic League and the Right Club.’ (1) Would have been common place in the right wing scene. It was one of these aforementioned groups, The British Fascisti, to whom the honour of being the first British fascist group falls.
Rotha Lintorn-Orman (left),
mother Blanche (middle)
Illegal Girls Scouts
In 1908 Baden Powell formed the Boys Scouts, girls were forbidden to join Baden Powell feeling the activities too unladylike. However 2 years later at the first scout rally held at Crystal Palace he was surprised to see a troop of girl scouts march past him.
One of the scout mistresses responsible for this was Blanche Lintorn-Orman and one of the girls her 15 year old daughter Rotha Lintorn-Orman. The girls had got away with joining by only putting their first name’s initial on the application form and their deception had escaped notice by them being them located in rural Liphook far from any other scout organisation. The act forced Baden Powell’s hand, shortly after he formed a female version of the scouts and a year later young Rotha was leader of the only troop in the country with royal patronage, Princess Louise’s Own Bournemouth troop.
This act of female defiance seems to have been the first step in a life of breaching male social convention for the young Rotha Lintorn-Orman and gives us insight into the unique upbringing she had at the hands of her mother. We can also guess from the experience she developed a love of uniforms as for the rest of her life Lintorn-Orman was to either wear a British Army uniform, Red Cross uniform or the uniform of her own personal adult scout troop, to the ranks she would attract such figures as William Joyce (Lord Haw Haw) and Maxwell Knight who Ian Fleming would include in his James Bond novels as ‘M’.

Watch the video version of this article.

Rotha was the daughter of a British army major, but her grandfather was Field Marshall Sir John Lintorn Arabin Simmons and she grew up in a minor gentry household able to afford a servant. When World War One broke out like many women Rotha went to work, but unlike most she did it by joining the army as an ambulance driver serving in the Reserve Ambulance Corp and later the Scottish Women’s Hospital Corps with whom she won Croix du Chairite twice for bravery, serving on the Drins Front in Serbia. In 1917 she was invalided back home with malaria where she joined the Red Cross and became commandant of the Motor School at Devonshire House in charge of training ambulance drivers.
In 1922 Mussolini marched on Rome at the head of his own troop of boy scouts, in Britain it caused heads more to shake than to turn at this strange form of foreign mysticism called Fascism, it was to have an a lasting effect on Rotha. Legend goes that Rotha was in her garden in her Somerset home planting vegetables and alarmed by the Labour Party, the growing influence of the trade union movement and Vladimir Lenin, when an epiphany struck her, to start a fascist party in Britain.
In early 1923 just a few months after Mussolini’s march to power Rotha placed several adverts in the right-wing journal, The Patriot, which read “Seeking Anti-Communists” and within a few weeks and most likely much too her surprise had over 200,000 anti-communists signed up and her mother signed over £50,000 of the family fortune to Rotha to run the movement
Rotha’s then does not only enjoy the unpresidented curiosity of being a woman who founded and lead a fascist party; in 1923 Britain was still months short of its third ever woman MP, women at that time only had limited suffrage (limited by age, wealth and education level) and only had that for 5 years. She was the first woman to found and lead a political party of any kind.
A Very British Fascisti
Rotha started the British Fascisti, but what exactly was a British Fascist? 10 Years later Oswald Mosley was to wrestle with this realising German and Italian forms were not really suited to Britain but it could be said at least Mosley understood what fascism was and why he was modifying it, what Rotha seems to have built is anything but a Fascist movement.
The British Fascisti
It’s often taken by modern readers as a derogatory put down that at the time many people said what Rotha wanted to create an adult scout troop. However early scouting was quite different to its modern counterpart. Scouts carried Union Jacks and Badon Powell had based the movement not on the militaristic Boy’s Brigade but the individualist thinking cadet corps he was in command of during the 2nd Boer War, scouting was about bushcraft, frontiersmenship and survival skills.

Rotha’s idea of the role of the movement is perhaps the most unique thing about it and explains its unusual methods. She had a millenarian vent believing in the coming communist revolution in Britain and the Fascisti role was not so much to become a political force or take power but to try and create trained, disciplined, self sufficient people to get the country running again after a communist revolution. In this respect the image Rotha Lintorn-Orman’s had of her British Fascisti was akin to that of the survivalist movement in the US preparing for the post-holocaust.
The role of women in the Fascisti was equal to that of men, even training wise, female members complained they were expected to change the tyres on vehicles the same as men. While the suffragette movement had ended before Rotha grew up this didn’t stop her having strong opinions on equalising the voting rights for men and women. In fact while most of the suffragette movement had died the one area of radicalism old suffragettes continued in right wing politics, such as the Pankhurst’s Anti-Socialist League, in fact several former suffragette far right groups existed. Membership of the fascisti didn’t just attract proto-feminists but perhaps the most reactionary element of society, the legions of middle aged, middle class, reactionary military wives and widows. It’s unclear by how many the women in the British Fascisti outnumbered the men, but it was quite considerable. Perhaps the most lasting legacy of the British Fascisti was fascist feminism, as later Mosley’s Blackshirts had to tone down the sexist elements of British Fascism much to the derision of leading German Nazis on his visits, in fact 25% of Mosley’s Blackshirts themselves were female and so many women marched with him he had to ban female members form wearing matching black coloured skirts to stop the press dubbing his movement ‘the Blackskirts’.
Women Blackshirt
Politics wise was another curiosity as the British brain at that time didn’t really comprehend fascism, other European countries had the advantage of centuries of absolute monarchies, centralised governments or dictatorships in their recent history. Rotha later was to dislike Mosley’s calling him a communist. It’s quite ironic when the first fascist in Britain sees a man who does actually understand what fascism is and immediately thinks him a communist. The British Fascisti itself spent much of its efforts providing stewards for Conservative Party meetings which in those days were known to come under disruption from communists and socialists. The Fascisti also openly encouraged its members to vote Conservative and it's two main political lines seem to have been the government should pass anti-union legislation and equal votes for women. In Feminine Fascism Julie V. Gottlieb even suggests the British Fascisti was a feminist response to the Primrose League. The club run since the 19th century for women Conservatives, whose entire leadership and committee were men. Also that Rotha who had seen how women had equal treatment during the war had decided uniforms was another way of female emancipation.
Perhaps then the British Fascisti can be considered an early vision of feminism. A uniformed, marching, tyre changing, Ju Jitsu fighting, millenarian, survivalist, Conservative voting, union jack flying, girl scout troop.
The British Fascisti was more a paramilitary group than a political party, while it stood candidates, the pinnacle of its electoral success was winning just two local council seats. However on the professionalism of paramilitary side it put the British Union of Fascist to shame.
Fearing an imminent communist revolution the British Fascisti had adopted both paramilitary and intelligence wings. Its intelligence wing was run by Maxwell Knight who upon leaving the Navy had become impressed by Mussolini and joined the British Fascisti. Knight’s organised the intelligence wing of the British Fascisti so well he was noticed and recruited by MI5 to become Britain’s top spymaster and the figure ‘M’ in the James Bond movies is based upon him. Knight was said to have members of the Fascisti infiltrate the Communist Party, trade union movement and the Labour Party. Ironically just over a decade later as spymaster he would be sending his agents out to infiltrate the British Union of Fascist and other right wing groups, it was Knight who was responsible for the internment of many British Nazis and Fascists during the war, including Mosley and many of his former British Fascisti comrades. Knight was also the first member of MI5 to suspect the communist leanings of some of its members, however he wasn’t believed by his superiors, perhaps because his earlier membership of the British Fascisti had made them wary of any anti-communist claims by him. Finally it was Knight the former member of a political group lead by a woman who introduced women into MI5 on equal status to men. There had been a few before but he was seen as the man who did most to liberate the service.
The paramilitary wing of the British Fascisti run on strict military principles, members wore uniforms based upon Italian Blackshirts, it was divided into regional ‘troops’, district and county commands, a central command in London presided over by a chief of staff. Both men and women received the same military training including Ju Jitsu and survival techniques.
It was claimed there were 800 commands, with 200 to 500 members in each. When the commands took to organising street patrols from 1924, the highly unusual sight for the time of militaristic, marching and drilled groups of uniformed women was unleashed on the bemused British public. These women's street patrol according to inteviews with x-members seem to have been one of the main draws for women members. During the general strike of 1926 the Fascisti's female members were expected alongside the male to engage in violence if needed.
Alumni & Fall
Rotha Lintorn-Orman
Some quite notorious historical figures also passed through the ranks of the Fascisti, some who left to form of join more genuine Fascist or Nazi organisations such as William Joyce and Arnold Leese.
William Joyce, who defected to Germany at the outbreak of World War Two and became the infamous Lord Haw Haw got his facial scare while at a British Fascisti parade, he believed a Jewish Communist responsible and the incident is said to be the source of his fervant Nazism. Arnold Leese was a vet and militant vegetarian, teetotaller, animal rights activist perhaps the most fanatical anti-Semite Britain has ever produced, despite not believing Nazi racial theory and having no objection to Jews other than Kosher food. Leese who left the British Fascisti in 1924 and formed the Imperial Fascist League in 1928 claimed he found no Fascism in the British Fascisti, but “conservatism with knobs on”
The demise of the Fascisti came from being both too moderate for some and too extreme for others. A large section broke away in 1926 to join the male dominated, non fascist, Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies, the dispute being sex and politics based. Moderates feeling the Fascisti too extreme defected, but a lot women members not wanting to be under a male organisation stayed. Much more of the membership was lost to newer genuine fascist organisations disillusioned by the tame fascism, groups like the National Fascisti, Imperial Fascist League and a dozen more were to whittle away members.
When Mosley formed the British Union of Fascist, Union, was an idealistic term as he didn’t really have ideas of giving the other groups choice, those Fascist groups that refused to choose to unite with him, he would force to or destroy. The last large section of the Fascisti defected to Mosley lead by Neil Francis Hawkins in 1932, the remaining anti-Mosley Fascisti was down to 500 members and found themsleves under constant violent attack from the Blackshirts. Britain’s first Fascists were ultimately killed by Britain’s last.
Rotha received much criticism personally for her masculinity, never married, doing a man’s job and never being seen out of uniform. She herself would play Santa Claus at the Fascist Children’s Club Christmas parties and won a fancy dress contests dressed as a grandfather. Rotha also after World War One had increasingly become dependant on drugs and alcohol, like so many men who saw similar service she was most likely suffering shellshock and paranoia, the later of which may have fuelled her communist takeover scenario. Shortly before her death in 1935 at just 40, her mother cut off her allowance as she believed British Fascisti members were supplying her with drugs for cash.
Had she lived, unlike other prominent British Fascist leaders it’s doubtful she would have been interned during World War Two, a Home Office report in the 1930's assessing the dangers to national security of the various organisations in Britain, reads it considered her a “harmless lunatic”.
(1) British Fascism and the Measures Taken Against It by the British State - David Botsford
Feminine Fascism: Women in Britain’s Fascist Movement - Julie V. Gottlieb
A century of British Fascism – John Hope

No comments:

Post a Comment