Sources: The Blackshirts

Blackshirt Masquerade is historical fiction, so required a fair amount of research before it could be plotted, and then top-up research whilst drafts were in progress. It is set in 1935 when Hugh Clifton is persuaded by MI5 to infiltrate Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists. Much of the action and intrigue takes place within the fascist movement, so I needed to create a cast of Blackshirt characters who are not stereotypes. I also needed to pay attention to the actual historical situation and timeframe, so when I needed to deviate from these for the purpose of fiction I did so deliberately rather than in error.

As the Blackshirts crop up from time to time in the background of novels set in the 1930s and 1940s, other authors may find this list useful. Military historians interested in the paramilitary aspects of the Blackshirts and their potential role in alternative histories of the period may also find it a handy guide.

Sir Oswald Mosley transitioned from a Labour cabinet member to the leader of Britain’s most prominent fascist party in the early 1930s. His key policy objective was to replace parliamentary democracy with a corporate state with himself as ‘The Leader’.

Mosley himself has only a walk-on part in the novel, but Stephen Dorril’s Blackshirt was essential reading. So many books on Mosley are written from the starting point that he and his followers were evil. This book gives a balanced historical look at the enigmatic Mosley and his political career. It contains a great deal of information that provided sparks for side plots and character development.

Martin Pugh’s Hurrah for the Blackshirts takes its ironic title from a Daily Mail editorial from a date when Mosley was still seen (by some) as respectable. The book looks critically at the politics of fascism between the wars, focussing less on Mosley’s longer political career.

Political autobiographies are not the best place to find introspective assessments of a career. Mosley’s book contains the expected self-justification, and as it was written 30 years after his Blackshirt phase the distance of time alters his perspective. The uglier aspects of the Blackshirt movement are skated over and he takes the opportunity to condemn Hitler.

It is however useful to hear the man’s voice and turn of phrase. If he doesn’t get many lines in the novel, other characters paraphrase him or live out his dreams. If Mosley is not just to be a caricature (as he was in the last season of Peaky Blinders) it is necessary to look behind the facade.

Mosley’s author son Nicholas wrote Rules of the Game, followed by Beyond the Pale as family history. It covers much of the ground of the above book but offers a handy emotional counterpoint. The author is both sympathetic to his father as a man but also critical of his actions and decisions. He was a man permanently in search of a crisis.

Both books were out of print when I searched but I was able to hunt down a second hand double volume.

Political movements tend to be defined by their opponents. This is particularly true of the BUF, whose erstwhile supporters fell very quiet when the horrors of Hitler’s regime became apparent. As I writer I needed to understand the men and women who joined the Blackshirts, both to create characters and add texture to the plot.This is an unapologetic history of the movement where the reds are the bad guys and the darker side of fascism is glossed over.

Jeffrey Hamm has brought together a selection of case studies of ordinary people who joined the Blackshirts in the 1930s. A shorter book than the above, it covers some of the same ground, it is a useful insight into how the lower ranks of the movement were recruited and operated. Exclusively they all felt they had done nothing wrong, and the arrests and imprisonment of members in 1940 is portrayed as a great injustice.

A very useful little book full of detail about the Blackshirts as a paramilitary organisation. Ranks, badges, flags are catalogued and illustrated, making it a goldmine for the writer or anyone wishing to portray the movement with a degree of accuracy.

Much of this information could be found by trawling the internet, but the book saves time and makes for a less dodgy search history. The BUF was only in existence for eight years, half of that without the black uniforms, but went through a bewildering change of organisation, personnel, paraphernalia and policy in that time. It even changed its name. I found the detail particularly handy when writing the second book in the series when Hugh is embedded within the fascists with little option to escape his role.

An uncritical history of the BUF in the North East of England, compiled with copious reference to local newspaper clippings. As such it offers another inside view of the movement; local meetings, visiting speakers, commemorative marches and clashes with the reds. It often feels more like the Women’s Institute than a party committed to the downfall of democracy.

The value here is discovering the mundane nature of the organisation at grass roots. A few high profile events in London dominate the national memory of Mosley’s movement, yet most of its strength was in the regions. Again this was more of value in my second novel where the action shifts away from London.

The role of William Joyce in the BUF is overshadowed by his later notoriety as the traitor ‘Lord Haw Haw’. J A Cole’s relates a tragedy in the original Shakespearian meaning of the word. Joyce is a young man torn by anger, bigotry, hubris, self-doubt and loneliness. Possibly the best orator in Britain after Mosley, he was regarded by Hitler as a more promising potential Leader for the British fascists. Joyce is an ongoing character in the series, so this book proved invaluable for creating his manner, tone of voice and deeply disturbing political views.

There are plenty of pieces on British fascism on the internet, mostly taking a critical view from the left. An online search can find PDF copies of the right-wing magazine Comrade, which includes nostalgia pieces on the BUF/BU. Also useful was a PhD thesis by Peter Richard Pugh A Political Biography of Alexander Raven Thompson which provided useful insight into the development of fascist thought within the BUF. Other sources can be found on the websites of modern far-right groups, which I won’t cite here, and which include items viewers may find offensive. Some indeed have a warning that the content may not be viewed in West Germany. Here be dragons!

Blackshirt Masquerade is published by the Historia imprint of Level Best books and its sequel Blackshirt Conspiracy will be published in spring 2023. This is the first of an occasional series on sources and inspirations for the books.

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