The recent commemorations of the ‘Battle of Britain’ in 1940 have served once again to remind us about the time when the British Isles effectively stood alone against the threat of Nazi tyranny, and the myths and realities of that long hot summer have become deeply embedded in the national history of the country.
As a historian working on both the interwar fascist and contemporary far right, I have also become more and more aware of how the ‘myths’ and ‘realities’ of past events, especially those associated with the Second World War, can be used and abused by people with an ideological agenda, especially current-day members of the extreme right.
This has been particularly the case with the ‘Battle of Britain’, a highly selective version of which, rather shockingly, has been appropriated in some British far right propagandistic literature in an attempt to make dubious political claims about the nature of society today. In fact, it is important to realise that the contemporary extreme right has always been alive to the usefulness of ‘history’ and other forms of culture for ideological purposes.
This use (and blatant abuse) of history is one of the themes I have explored in a chapter I have contributed to a new edited collection published recently by Routledge: Cultures of Post-War British Fascism, edited by Nigel Copsey and John E. Richardson. In my essay for the new study, in a chapter entitled History and cultural heritage: the far right and the Battle for Britain, I have explored and analysed the British far right’s general ideological landscape in the post-1945 period and up to the present, and the disturbing ways in which a variety of key extreme right writers and activists in this country have selectively appropriated ‘history’ and the past; ideas about culture, heritage, and tradition have often been utilized to try to give intellectual gravitas to some markedly intolerant and ugly ideas.
First, this has taken the form of grand, sweeping ‘philosophies’ about history, where extreme right ideologues have made claims about what they see as the profound underlying forces apparently at work in society and the world, both in the past and present. Second, ‘history’ has also been used as part of the extreme right’s configuration of ideas and policies employed for ‘battles’ in the national political arena i.e. they have sought to portray themselves as defenders of the country’s indigenous national traditions and ‘unique’ cultural heritage, pointing to past ‘great’ heroes who were supposedly doing the same thing, such as Alfred the Great or Hereward the Wake. A major theme has been the idea of defending Britain from ‘invasion’. In 1998, for example, the British National Party’s Spearhead magazine referred to this self-appointed role in rather grandiose terms as ‘the battle to reclaim Britain’.
Interestingly, one important figure in my chapter is a former British Navy Admiral who had local Kingston and Richmond connections, Sir Barry Domvile (1878-1971). Domvile (pictured), who lived in a large house on the Roehampton Vale side of Kingston Hill, was one of the Governors of the Star and Garter Home for Ex-Servicemen in Richmond in the interwar period. Described by the Security Service, MI5, as ‘fanatically anti-Jewish’, Domvile had run a secretive pro-Nazi organisation called ‘The Link’, and had also upset people in the Star and Garter Home by openly predicting that Hitler was ‘going to win the war’ and would soon be in the country, but there was ‘no reason to worry about it’.
In the postwar period, Domvile re-emerged as a leading conspiracy theorist and early ‘historical revisionist’, claiming that the ‘Judeao-Masonic combination’ had, ‘for several centuries’, been behind most of the wars and revolutionary movements in Europe. His ideas about history and the ‘secret forces’ at work behind it are still being pedalled by the far right today.
Returning back to the theme of the ‘Battle for Britain’, I also show in my chapter how the appropriation of ‘historic’ figures, glossy imagery and other historical iconography in their propagandisitc literature has not always gone to plan for the far right. In 2009, when the British National Party (BNP) used the famous wartime song ‘The White Cliffs of Dover’ by Vera Lynn on one of its CD music compilations of ‘historic’ and ‘patriotic’ songs (without permission), there was understandable outrage on the part of veterans and from the singer herself.
Similarly, when the BNP employed images of Sir Winston Churchill and a Battle of Britain Spitfire fighter plane in European Election campaign leaflets (billed as ‘The NEW Battle for Britain’), and complained loudly about Britain being invaded and ‘taken over’ by ‘East European’ migrants, commentators and historians were able to point to the evident historical errors and blatant distortions this entailed, including the fact that the Spitfire used in BNP literature was actually part of the Free Polish contingent of the armed forces in Britain, piloted by a brave Pole.
While fascists and the extreme right have been very keen to cannibalise and ‘politicise’ the past for current-day purposes, they are certainly not good historians by any stretch of the imagination! We have recently held events in this country to commemorate ‘VE’ (‘Victory in Europe’) Day and other events associated with the end of the Second World War. Again, as in the past (see photo), the extreme right have sought to tap into and exploit these memories and events for their own political purposes.
As good scholars and students, we should remain very aware of how history and culture is often open to abuse by extremists, which is all the more reason to study the past with care and attention.
Steve Woodbridge is Lecturer in History at Kingston University