Thursday 9 August 2012

Old, unhappy, far off things

Sixty-five years ago this month the Daily Express published a particularly horrific picture on its front page.  Under the heading Hanged Britons: Picture that will shock the world, it showed two British sergeants, Clifford Martin and Mervyn Paice, who had been murdered by Irgun paramilitaries in the Mandate of Palestine.  The sergeants had been kidnapped and killed in reprisal for the execution of three members of the Jewish underground organisation in what was becoming an increasingly ugly guerrilla war. 

There had been other terrorist incidents in the course of the conflict, but what became known as “the sergeant’s affair” was different.  The sheer ugliness of the event – the bodies were also bobby trapped – brought the conflict home to the people of Britain, causing the most widespread anti-Semitic rioting the country had ever seen, notwithstanding the fact that the killings had been condemned by British Jewish leaders.

By the end of the August holiday weekend there had been serious anti-Jewish rioting in Manchester, Glasgow and Liverpool, with more minor disturbances in Bristol, Hull, Warrington and London.  Although there were no fatalities a number of people were beaten up and property destroyed, including a wooden synagogue in West Derby.  In Eccles, John Regan, himself a former sergeant, harangued a crowd of some seven hundred people, saying “Hitler was right.  Exterminate every Jew – every man, woman and child.  What are you afraid of?  There’s only a handful of police.”

Serious stuff, but in the end it all proved to be so much hot air, not just Regan’s incitement, for which he was charged and fined, but the whole violent wave.  Even obvious fascist politicians like Jeffrey Hamm, formerly of the British Union of Fascists and now in charge of the League of Ex-Servicemen, could not make any lasting political capital out of the incident.  The Express, which had triggered the violence with its sensational front page lead, backed off in shock, calling for calm and describing the attacks on innocent shopkeepers as a national disgrace.

That short hot summer has left almost no memory.  It’s a pity, really, because as history the whole episode is really quite intriguing.  Although superficially caused by an event far from these shores, it revealed much more about problems and difficulties far closer to home: the problems of austerity Britain

George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, published two years after the sergeants’ incident, is supposedly about a dystopian future.  In actual fact it was much more about a dystopian present, as people reading it at the time would have recognised.  The drab London he depicts in the novel was not some imaginative construct but a living reality.  Like so many other British cities, it had not fully recovered from the war.  Vacant lots and bomb sites were everywhere.  With a housing shortage came a serious problem of homelessness. 

The war, and its financial legacy, also had had a profound effect on the economy. Some foodstuffs, like butter, meat were still rationed. Confectionary had come off ration in 1949, but distribution had to be brought back under state control because demand was simply too great. Shortages meant that people took to producing their own food in back gardens and allotments. Income tax was at an extraordinarily high level, more than twice what it is today. Bureaucratic red tape was a major feature of everyday life, also brilliantly reflected in Nineteen Eighty-Four, and the 'social comedies' being produced by Ealing Studios, movies like Whisky Galore and Passport to Pimlico.

The war had been won; the peace was clearly being lost.  Food shortages and serious unemployment were compounded by a fuel shortage in the bitter winter of 1946-47, when coal was rationed in a coal-rich country.  Unhappy and bewildered, people looked for scapegoats, turning to the greatest scapegoats of all – the Jews.  Rationing created a vigorous black market which, by common perception, was controlled by the Jews. It’s not that surprising that so many ordinary people were taken in by this, especially as Ernest Bevan, foreign minister in the Labour government of the day, made anti-Semitic remarks, including one to the effect that the Jews of Europe were “pushing to the front of the queue.”

Cities like Glasgow, Liverpool and Manchester, where the rioting was worse, also happened to be the places most affected by unemployment and general deprivation.  What began there as anti-Jewish riots soon turned into a looting free for all.  But the whole thing passed just as quickly as it had emerged.  The hooliganism had been based on personal frustration not on any deep rooted anti-Jewish hostility.  It was too soon after the Holocaust, details of which were still being revealed, for anti-Semitism to become a credible cause.  1947, as Lionel Trilling said in an article on the subject (New Statesman, 28 May), was the end of a chapter, not the beginning. 

The following year the state of Israel was formed and the sergeants’ affair, and the riots, forgotten.  It left one painful and unnoticed irony: Clifford Martin was Jewish.  


  1. Such a shock to read this as my best friend is a Jewish. He would find this article very intriguing himself.

    How did you come to discover all these historical facts?

    1. James, I read widely, subscribing to a whole range of magazines and periodicals. I'm a bird in the garden; I alight on all sorts of tidbits. :-)

  2. I've never heard of the Sergeants affair: there's so much shadow history waiting for light to be shone on it, as you've just done.

  3. Completely new item for me and yet another door in t0 history that I must open: the stuggle to create a Jewish state. Exodus (the movie)made a big impression on me. Not sure if it was the historical content or Paul Newman! Do admire the way you construct your stories..grabbed my attenion right down to the powerful last sentence!

  4. It would be interesting to read the old Soviet records concerning this incident - indeed, the entire period from the end of WW2 to the start of the Korean War. We know the Kremlin was working double-time to foment communist takeovers in Indo-China, Africa, South America, and consolidating gains in Eastern Europe. What was Soviet influence on the French and British protectorates in the mid-East? Did the Kremlin sway Atlee's Labour government over Jewish migration? There's a whole alternative history to be explored.

    1. Calvin, what an intriguing and fascinating set of suggestions, all sorts of possible leads. I must see if I can uncover anything. What I do know is that Stalin was in favour of the creation of Israel because he thought, mistakenly, that it might offer a base of support in the region.

  5. Hi Ana, I'm glad you brought up the murder of the British sergeants. You're probably also aware of Irgun's bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem in 1946. In 1973 the Israeli airforce also attacked (and I think sank, in any event killed many sailors) a US Naval ship, allegedly because of a mistake, and the Sabra and Shatila massacres in 1982 perpetrated by Israel's proxies.

    The reality is that violence is a tactic available to the weak when confronting the strong, particularly when it is difficult for the strong to respond without triggering counter-productive publicity.

    Israel is an interesting case because the author of much of its early terrorism, Menachem Begin, went on to become an influential Prime Minister and architect of an aggressive Israeli foreign policy. How much discussion can one find in the contemporary media about Monsieur Begin?

    Israel's harsh treatment of Mordechai Vanunu, who revealed Israel's nuclear programme, contrasts instructively with steady Israeli pressure to release Pollard, the Israeli spy in the US whose treachery caused the deaths of several US agents when the Israelis traded his information to the Soviets.

    Violence has always been available to a determined weak party confronting the strong, and when the weak successfully use violence to become strong themselves, they have no obligation to abjure violence.

    In fact, every nation state has the right to exercise its power (including violent and coercive power) to protect its interests.

    Of course, the dilemma that every nation state which purports to stand for transcendent values must manage--and the former Soviet Union, the United States, and Israel all made such claims at one time, and the latter two continue to purport to do so--is how to exercise its capacity for violence and coercion without fundamentally bankrupting its claims to stand for those transcendent values.

    It's a tricky predicament, but a nation that pretends that the world isn't watching is deluding itself.

    1. Chris, yes, I actually stayed in that wing of the King David on a visit to Israel eight years ago. The incident features in a video of the hotel's history, shown on the inhouse channel.

      Your points about violence are very well made.