Your guide to Oswald Mosley and the British Union of Fascists (BUF)
He was Britain’s most notorious fascist, known for his violent anti-Semitic rhetoric and for maintaining friendships with the likes of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. But how much do you know about Oswald Mosley and his political party, the British Union of Fascists (BUF)?
Ahead of the sixth season of the BBC gangster drama Peaky Blinders, which features Sam Claflin as Oswald Mosley, the show’s newest antagonist, we explore the fascist leader’s life and legacy…
Oswald Mosley biography: key facts about the fascist leaderName: Sir Oswald Ernald Mosley [the title was inherited, not awarded, via a baronetcy]
Born: 16 November 1896, Mayfair, London, England
Died: 3 December 1980, Orsay, near Paris, France, aged 84
Famous for: Being Britain’s most notorious fascist. He founded and was leader of the British Union of Fascists (BUF) from 1932 to 1940. He was also leader of the BUF’s successor, the Union Movement, from 1948 until his death
Spouse(s): Diana Guinness (née Freeman-Mitford, m 1936–80), who he married at the home of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels; and Lady Cynthia Mosley (m 1920–33)
Children: 5 – Vivien Mosley, Nicholas Mosley & Michael Mosley (with his first wife, Cynthia); and Oswald Alexander Mosley & Max Mosley (with his second wife, Diana)
Who was Oswald Mosley?
The eldest son of a baronet, Sir Oswald Mosley was born into an aristocratic family in London in 1896. He rose to fame as a Member of Parliament (MP) in the 1920s before becoming the founder and head of the British Union of Fascists (BUF) in the 1930s.
As leader of the BUF, Mosley led Britain’s vitriolic anti-Semitic fascist movement. The BUF embarked on a militant campaign of intimidation, harassment, and violence against Britain’s Jewish population, particularly in London’s East End – home to around 100,000 Jews at the time.
When was the British Union of Fascists active?
The British Union of Fascists was established by Oswald Mosley in October 1932. It disbanded shortly after the beginning of the Second World War, in May 1940, so it was active for around seven-and-a-half years in total.
What was Oswald Mosley’s childhood like?
Born into an aristocratic family, Mosley enjoyed a privileged upbringing – he was educated at a preparatory school before entering Winchester College and then the Royal Military College at Sandhurst. At school he became an excellent fencer and boxer after being trained by two ex-army officers.
According to Robert Skidelsky’s 1981 biography of Mosley, the future politician was considered odd by many of his peers at school and had few friends. Mosley was expelled from Sandhurst after just six months, following a violent altercation with a fellow student (reportedly related to a defeat on the polo field to rival military academy Aldershot).
How did Oswald Mosley become famous?
Oswald Mosley rose to fame as an MP after becoming the youngest member of the House of Commons to take his seat in 1918 at the age of just 22, when he was elected Conservative MP for Harrow. Mosley had served in the First World War in the Royal Flying Corps and the 16th Lancers, before working in the Ministry of Munitions and the Foreign Office.
Before leading the BUF, Mosley spent time on both sides of the House of Commons, serving both as a Conservative and a Labour politician – he once even stood as an Independent. Just a few years after being elected as the Conservative MP for Harrow in 1918, Mosley became disillusioned with the party. In 1922 and 1923 he was re-elected in Harrow as an Independent, before joining the Labour party in 1924. He was elected as a Labour MP in a by-election in 1926.
By the early 1930s, Oswald Mosley was a young rising star in the Labour party under Ramsay MacDonald, historian Nigel Copsey explains on the HistoryExtra podcast. Mosley’s ministerial brief as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (a minister without portfolio – i.e., not in charge of specific department of state) was to deal with the unemployment crisis caused by the 1929 Wall Street Crash, which by that time had reached about two million in the UK. He did not want to adopt what he saw as an orthodox deflationary response to the economic crisis and instead proposed public work schemes and the nationalisation of main industries, says Professor Copsey. This “very dynamic and interventionist approach” was considered too radical by the cabinet and was rejected. Mosley was furious and resigned from the cabinet in May 1930.
- Read more | Why did the Wall Street Crash happen?
Oswald Mosley’s wives – who was he married to?
Lady Cynthia Curzon
In 1920 Mosley married Lady Cynthia Curzon, a Labour politician and daughter of the prominent Conservative statesman Lord Curzon of Kedleston. The wedding was a major social event attended by King George V and his wife, Mary. But Lord Curzon (and many others) were convinced Mosley had married his daughter in a shameless bid for advancement through the ranks of the Conservative party. The marriage was tarnished by Mosley’s numerous affairs, including relationships with both of his wife’s sisters, Alexandra and Irene, and with their stepmother, Grace Curzon.
From the early 1930s onwards, Lady Cynthia Mosley diverged politically from her husband, and she reportedly had grave concerns about his move to the far right.
Mosley and Cynthia had three children together – Vivien (b 1921), Nicholas (b 1923), and Michael (b 1932). Lady Mosley died of peritonitis [an infection of the inner lining of the stomach] in 1933, the year after her youngest son was born. It was also the year Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany.
Oswald Mosley married his second wife, Diana Freeman-Mitford, in 1936, at the home of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. Diana had been Mosley’s mistress for several years while he was married to Cynthia – she had left her husband, Bryan Guinness, heir to the brewing fortune, to be with Mosley, but he had refused to walk out on Cynthia.
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Diana was the third eldest of the six Mitford sisters – a family of famous aristocratic socialites who held controversial political views and were friends with the likes of Adolf Hitler. Hitler was one of only six guests present at the wedding of Oswald and Diana; he attended as a guest of honour. The wedding took place in secret at Goebbels’ house in Berlin. Afterwards, Hitler presented the newlyweds with a photograph of himself in an eagle-topped frame.
Diana was as committed to fascism as her husband – she regularly took tea with Hitler and later admitted having a peculiar affinity with him. The pair discussed launching a pro-Nazi radio station in Britain, though it never materialised.
Diana and Mosley spent much of the Second World War in prison – more on that below – but MI5 documents from 1940 released in November 2002 showed that the security services regarded Diana as the greater threat.
One read: “Diana Mosley, wife of Sir Oswald Mosley, is reported on the best authority, that of her family and intimate circle, to be a public danger at the present time. Is said to be far cleverer and more dangerous than her husband and will stick at nothing to achieve her ambitions. She is wildly ambitious.”
In her obituary in the Guardian following her death in 2003, Diana was described as “the most hated woman in England”.
Mosley and Diana had two children together – Oswald Alexander, born in 1938, and Max, the famous Formula One racing mogul, born in 1940. Max Mosley revolutionised the sport and was known as the ‘Godfather’ of Formula One. In later years became a prominent privacy campaigner fighting for tighter press regulation after winning substantial damages from the News of the World newspaper when it wrongly published a story alleging that he had attended a Nazi-themed orgy.
How was the British Union of Fascists founded?
After resigning from the government in May 1930, Mosley set up the New Party – the immediate precursor to the British Union of Fascists. It was a curious hybrid of radical left and conservative right, but failed to take off, Professor Copsey explains. New Party meetings attracted disruption – by Communists who detected an “incipient fascism” and by Labour party activists angry at Mosley’s betrayal. Oswald’s bodyguards – dubbed ‘Biff Boys’ and led by the England rugby captain Peter Howard – damaged the New Party’s reputation with their violence and thuggery. These bodyguards would later become known as Mosley’s Blackshirts.
After the failure of the New Party, Mosley headed to Italy where he met Italian prime minister Benito Mussolini, the first of 20th-century Europe’s fascist dictators. Mosley was so impressed by Mussolini’s fascist system that when he returned to Britain, he decided to set up the British Union of Fascists, directed modelled on Mussolini’s system.
“With his matinee idol looks and dramatic oratory, Mosley cut a darkly glamorous, radical figure,” writes Nicola Baldwin in this article for HistoryExtra. His failed New Party “morphed into the quasi-military British Union of Fascists in October 1932, with Mosley himself as the leader”.
What did the British Union of Fascists do?
The BUF wanted to project itself as a radical, dynamic force – the exact opposite of the conventional political parties that were governing Britain at the time, says Professor Copsey. To convey a sense of struggle, action, and unity, they adopted a paramilitary style – this involved donning Blackshirt uniforms inspired by those in Mussolini’s Italy, which in Britain were in the style of a fencing tunic.
They also adopted the fascist salute – a right-arm-extended salute said to have origins in ancient Rome, which was adopted, with small variations, by fascist-styled groups elsewhere. The BUF also adopted the ‘fasces’ as its symbol [a bundle of wooden rods and an axe bound together by leather thongs] – again imitating Mussolini – but this was later replaced by the lightning flash in a circle, which was supposed to represent action and unity.
The BUF held a vast number of marches, meetings, and public rallies. Some of the largest were held in 1934, including Olympia in London; the Albert Hall; Hyde Park; and Belle Vue Gardens in Manchester. These meetings were often met with anti-fascist resistance. In fact, around 60 per cent of BUF meetings in London in 1936 saw some form of organised resistance. On 7 June 1934, a rally at Olympia in London was infiltrated by several hundred anti-fascists with forged tickets. They heckled Mosley and were forcibly ejected. Many suffered fierce treatment in the foyer before being thrown out on the street, with several requiring hospital treatment. Public reaction to that violence was indignant, and membership and press support for the BUF were negatively impacted.
From the end of 1934 onwards, in light of the bad press generated by Olympia, the BUF embarked on a militant anti-Semitic campaign of intimidation, harassment and violence against Britain’s Jewish population, particularly in London’s East End – home to around 100,000 Jews. In October 1936, Mosley organised a march through the East End. Between 100,000 and 300,000 people mobilised to prevent the march. At Gardiner’s corner, around 50,000 people formed a human barricade, and at Cable Street, barricades were erected. As a result of clashes between anti-fascist protestors and police, the police forced Mosley to abandon the march.
Read more about these famous BUF marches here.
What was the aim of the British Union of Fascists’ political ideology?
One obvious key aspect of the BUF’s ideology was anti-Semitism. Following violence at Olympia in 1934 and the withdrawal of lingering establishment support, the BUF turned to militant anti-Semitism in an effort to revive its flagging fortunes, Professor Copsey explains. There was an element of political opportunism to this, but there had been latent anti-Semitism even in Mosley’s New Party.
The BUF’s anti-Semitism is best understood as a form of conspiratorial cultural anti-Semitism, rather than the racial form of anti-Semitism put forward by the Nazis, says Professor Copsey. Mosley promoted the idea that Jews were behind Britain’s cultural and social decline in the 1930s, fostering a conspiracy that Jews were responsible for the spread of decadence within art, literature, cinema, and sport.
In terms of its economic and political ideas, the BUF can basically be seen as a response to the Great Depression, says Professor Copsey. A signature theme was the ‘corporate state’, which Mosley envisaged as a parliament based on an occupational franchise [voting according to occupation – whereby, for example, engineers would only have a right to vote for engineering candidates, and so on] rather than an electoral franchise. This would run alongside a form of industrial self-governance, where each industry would be organised in corporations that would provide a form of partnership between employers and employees. “Over and above that, you would have Mosley’s fascist government, answerable only to the king. Mosley called this a ‘modern dictatorship’, which he claimed would be implementing the will of the people.”
Listen: historian David M Kennedy explains the Great Depression – the economic crash that devastated the United States and other countries across the globe in the 1930s
How popular was the British Union of Fascists?
In terms of membership, the BUF initially enjoyed a very swift rise in popular support, largely fuelled by sponsorship from the press baron Lord Rothermere, Professor Copsey explains. In January 1934, Rothermere’s newspaper the Daily Mail featured the infamous headline “Hurrah for the Blackshirts!”, and on the back of Rothermere’s support, BUF membership was said to have approached a peak of 50,000 by the summer of 1934.
However, Rothermere’s support for Mosley ended after violence erupted at the Olympia Rally of 1934, and by late 1935 membership had haemorrhaged down to around 5,000. It recovered somewhat to around 22,500 in the run up to the Second World War, largely because of the BUF’s anti-war appeasement campaign.
Listen: historian and journalist Tim Bouverie explores the failed diplomacy that led to World War Two and the Nazi domination of Europe
Electorally, their support was negligible, and they never came close to winning a seat at Westminster, says Professor Copsey. They did have some representation locally, with BUF members elected as town councillors in Worthing and Suffolk. A fair measure of the extent of BUF’s electoral support would come in the London County Council elections of 1937: the BUF put a huge effort into those elections, but despite the fact they were taking place in their real stronghold constituencies – in Bethnal Green North East, Stepney (Limehouse), and Shoreditch – they only captured about 7,000 votes out of 80,000 votes cast.
How connected was the British Union of Fascists to the regimes of Hitler and Mussolini?
To begin with, Mosley’s closest connections were with Rome, says Professor Copsey. On a visit to Italy in April 1933, he was accorded the honour of a 100,000-strong Blackshirt parade. And from 1933 onwards, the BUF received a subsidy from Mussolini’s government in Rome, equivalent to around £2m a year in today’s money.
Back in Britain, Mosley made a number of violent anti-Semitic speeches that received praise from Hitler. On 11 May 1935, Mosley sent Hitler a telegram: “Please receive my greatest thanks for your kind telegram in relation to my speech in Leicester, which was received while I was away from London. I esteem greatly your advice in the midst of our hard struggle. The forces of Jewish corruption must be overcome in all great countries before the future of Europe can be made secure in justice and peace. Our struggle to this end is hard, but our victory is certain.”
According to Morris Beckman’s 2013 book, The 43 Group: Battling With Mosley's Blackshirts, Mosley “modelled his movement on that of Nazi Germany and, like Hitler, selected the scapegoat upon whom the disenchanted and workless could vent their spleen. Thus, anti-Semitism became the main thrust of Mosley’s manifesto. Emulating Goebbels, the successful Nazi propaganda minister, Mosley threw in large visible doses of patriotism by holding mass rallies coloured by seas of Union Jacks and fascist flags.”
But by 1937, Mussolini had begun to lose faith in Mosley. The Italian subsidy was withdrawn, leading to major expenditure cuts at the BUF’s London headquarters, the closure of its Northern Command HQ, and the dismissal of some leading officials. It also meant that Mosley became more reliant on the Nazis.
In 1936 the party was rebranded the British Union of Fascists and National Socialists. There were also funds being channelled in from Berlin, but they were always more modest than the subsidy from Mussolini. “I think Hitler regarded Mosley as more of a thinker than a doer,” says Professor Copsey.
Listen: Richard Bosworth explains fascism, the authoritarian ideology that emerged in Italy a century ago
How important was Oswald Mosley as leader?
Mosley was a leader with a capital ‘L’, says Professor Copsey. “He was projected as the quintessential new fascist man – a charismatic, flamboyant, virile, athletic, supremely masculine figure, and a great orator.
“This image was used to contrast him with the supposedly feminised and decadent political classes ruling Britain at the time. The deferential cult of leadership built up around Mosley was an important aspect of the party culture.”
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Was there ever an attempt to assassinate Oswald Mosley?
Oswald Mosley features as the primary antagonist in the fifth season of the 1920s gangster drama Peaky Blinders and is expected to feature heavily in the sixth and final season, due to air in February 2022.
At the end of season five, a plot unfolds to assassinate Mosley during a Blackshirts rally at Bingley Hall in Birmingham (but the plan goes spectacularly wrong and the fascist leader walks away unharmed). But did this really happen? As far as we know, there was never an assassination attempt on the real Oswald Mosley. In one incident in Hull in 1936, one of the windows of Mosley’s car was photographed with what appeared to be a bullet hole through it, but this may well have been a publicity stunt, says Professor Copsey.
The nearest Mosley came to losing his life as a result of anti-fascist disturbances came in October 1937 in Liverpool, when Mosley was struck on the head by a stone, knocked unconscious and taken to Walton Hospital.
Peaky Blinders BBC drama – the real history behind the show
Who joined the British Union of Fascists, and why?
A wide variety of social groups supported the BUF. In the east end of London, there were large numbers of non-unionised working-class supporters, but also a hefty number from the middle class, says Professor Copsey. With its paramilitary elements, the party particularly appealed to young men. Around 75 per cent of its membership was male, 25 per cent female.
The reasons for joining were largely dependent on the phases of the party’s development. Initially, when Mosley had the support of the Daily Mail, middle-class people saw him as somebody who could offer a more dynamic form of conservatism; someone who could give the Conservative party a “shot in the arm”, says Professor Copsey. But as the support became more focused on certain areas such as London’s East End, it was anti-Semitism that drew people to Mosley’s movement. Finally, at the end of the decade, the support became a little more middle class again, largely due to its super-appeasement, anti-war strategy.
In terms of women, what’s interesting is that, despite Mosley’s intensely masculine image, the BUF didn’t project themselves as being radically anti-feminist, says Professor Copsey. They recognised women’s right to work and to equal pay, and they even attracted some former suffragettes.
Read more about the young people drawn to Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists here.
How did the British Union of Fascists get disbanded?
With the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, the British government had become increasingly suspicious of fascist activity, particularly connections with Berlin, says Professor Copsey. Concerns were further magnified by the rapidity of the Nazi blitzkrieg in the spring of 1940. The government feared that Mosley’s fascists would act as a ‘fifth column’ should Hitler invade Britain – Churchill is reported to have said that, in the event of a German victory, Mosley would serve as “Hitler’s puppet” in Britain.
In May 1940, Mosley and leading members of the BUF – including Mosley’s wife, Diana, whose arrest followed a few weeks later – were arrested and interned under Defence Regulation 18b, which enabled the wartime arrest and detention of enemy sympathisers. It suspended the right of habeas corpus to permit arrest without charge, and detention without trial, Nicola Baldwin explains. Detainees were interviewed at tribunals, without legal representation, to determine what they knew and any threat they posed. Further sweeps followed and around 750 members of the BUF were interned in total.
Diana had given birth to the couple’s second son, Max, just weeks before she was interned, and their eldest son, Oswald, was only a toddler. The young boys went to live with extended family while their parents were held firstly at Holloway Prison and later under house arrest. Diana and her husband were released in 1943 due to Oswald’s ill-health.
In July 1940, all BUF political activity ceased when the organisation itself was shut down.
What did Mosley do after the war?
Those that were interned during the Second World War “kept the flame alive” and continued to support Mosley, but among the general population he was widely deemed to be a traitor, says Professor Copsey. Mosley attempted to return to politics after the war – he set up a new far-right organisation called the Union Movement in 1948, focusing on anti-Semitism – but never reached the prominence he had in the pre-war years.
After the war, Oswald and his wife, Diana, set up Euphorion Books with the aim of publishing the writing of right-wing authors including Mosley himself. Euphorion Books also published a far-right magazine called The European from 1953–59, which Diana edited.
According to Morris Beckman’s book The 43 Group: Battling With Mosley's Blackshirts, Mosley “never expressed a single word of regret for the Holocaust wrought by fascism; his lust for power remained intact, his ability to see only what suited him undiminished.”
Many historians also consider Oswald Mosley a central player in the emergence of Holocaust denial in post-war Europe. “His Union Movement newspaper derided ‘concentration camp fairy tales’ while he also sought to deny the existence of a conscious mechanical extermination program by the Nazis and shift responsibility for any deaths which did occur elsewhere,” says Dr Joe Mulhall, author of British Fascism After the Holocaust (Taylor & Francis Ltd, 2020). Mosley also promoted the theory – later taken up by Holocaust deniers such as David Irving – that Hitler knew nothing about the Final Solution.
- Read more | How do we explain Holocaust denial?
Having moved to Ireland for a time, Mosley returned briefly to the UK to run – unsuccessfully – as an MP in the 1959 General Election for Kensington North and in 1966 for Shoreditch and Finsbury. After his second defeat he and his wife retired to France. There he wrote his autobiography, My Life, which was published in 1968. In it, he denied that he had ever been an anti-Semite.
Oswald Mosley’s final years were blighted by ill-health and Parkinson’s disease. He died at his home in Orsay, near Paris, on 3 December 1980.
With special thanks to Nigel Copsey, Professor of Modern History at Teesside University, who was interviewed for a forthcoming HistoryExtra podcast with our podcast editor, Ellie Cawthorne, due to be released on Monday 28 February 2022. Professor Copsey has a long-standing research interest in right-wing extremism, fascism, and anti-fascism. He co-edits the book series ‘Routledge Studies in Fascism and the Far Right’