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Did the Trains Really Run on Time?

In the dying embers of his wonderful blog, my friend Alastair has a piece about Sir Oswald Mosley and British Fascism. Mosley was the British equivalent of Hitler and Mussolini and had widespread support. At one stage he held the biggest ever indoor meeting in the world at Earls Court in London. His populist themes went down well in the hungry 30’s, promising as he seemed to, improved conditions for workers and of course, the stock in trade of potential dictators, he said he’d sort out the jews and repatriate any immigrants. He was scornful of democracy and adopted the phrase ‘Europe a Nation’, seeming to envisage a union of nations where citizens were controlled and manipulated by a myriad of rules and regulations. Thank goodness that didn’t happen eh?

Oswald and Max Mosley

Max and Oswald Mosley. ‘Dad I’d like to keep my politics private but do you know someone who might beat a chap up for money?’

Alastair had posted the article (and I had posted the quiz below) because Mosley’s son Max (who is something to do with motor racing……I know or care not what) had successfully sued the News of the World not for defamation but invasion of privacy. The ‘newspaper’ ran a story about Mosley ( 68 ) being involved in orgies with a Nazi theme.

It set me thinking on the whole totalitarian vista. I may not be the most knowledgeable student of politics but I have always maintained an interest. I long ago came to the conclusion that you couldn’t really put a cigarette paper between communism and fascism. Both find breeding grounds in the same sort of economic conditions and claim an all for one one for all creed, both promise a better lot for the working man and both have a raft of populist proposals and plans which appeal to the human psyche. Easy answers for extremely complicated issues. The reality of course is somewhat different. The one thing the working man is assured of under communism or fascism is more work and often a uniform and a gun to go with it. That and the alienation/demonisation/extermination of certain groups.

Perhaps one of the most popular misconceptions about fascism is that under Mussolini ‘the trains ran on time’. The excerpt below is from snopes.com

hitler mussolini

‘That’s the train now I think’

‘The best ways to gain the support of the people you want to lead is to do something of benefit to them. Failing that, the next best thing is to convince them that you have done something of benefit to them, even though you really haven’t. So it was with Benito Mussolini and the Italian railway system.

After the “march on Rome” (which was itself a myth of fascist propaganda) on 28 October 1922 that resulted in King Vittorio Emanuele’s appointment of Benito Mussolini as prime minister and the accession to power of the fascists in Italy, Mussolini needed to convince the people of Italy that fascism was indeed a system that worked to their benefit. Thus was born the myth of fascist efficiency, with the train as its symbol. The word was spread that Mussolini had turned the dilapidated Italian railway system into one that was the envy of all Europe, featuring trains that were both dependable and punctual. In Mussolini’s Italy, all the trains ran on

Well, not quite. The Italian railway system had fallen into a rather sad state during World War I, and it did improve a good deal during the 1920s, but Mussolini was disingenuous in taking credit for the changes: much of the repair work had been performed before Mussolini and the fascists came to power in 1922. More importantly (to the claim at hand), those who actually lived in Italy during the Mussolini era have borne testimony that the Italian railway’s legendary adherence to timetables was far more myth than reality.

The myth of Mussolini’s punctual trains lives on, albeit with a different slant: rather than serving as a fictitious symbol of the benefits of fascism, it is now offered as a sardonic example that something good can result even from the worst of circumstances. As Montagu and Darling wrote:
Mussolini may have done many brutal and tyrannical things; he may have destroyed human freedom in Italy; he may have murdered and tortured citizens whose only crime was to oppose Mussolini; but ‘one had to admit’ one thing about the Dictator: he ‘made the trains run on time.’
No, thanks. I’d rather walk’


8 Responses

  1. BR By widespread support do you mean across the country or a lot of support? I think that Mosley’s main support base was London rather than the rest of the country.

  2. He had the Daily Mail and Daily Mirror behind him at one stage as well as many prominent people. This included no less than the king (who like Mosley ended up in exile in Paris). You’re of course right about the geography of his support Richard.

  3. Mosley’s public appearances were certainly not limited to London as he held a rally at Glasgow’s Shawfield Stadium, the ‘security’ being provided by the notorious Billy Fullarton and his ‘Billy Boys’ gang.

    This suggests that there was certainly an audience for his sort of extremism, hardly surprising since those at the bottom of the heap are invariably the most easily swayed, and the environs of Glasgow’s overwhelmingly lower working class loyalist areas around Bridgeton and Dalmarnock would no doubt have provided many fellow travellers in the 30’s.

    There is however even to this day a stench of hypocrisy around many middle-class liberal types concerning circumstances which give rise to such rabble-rousers. For example, ever noticed how the issues surrounding present day asylum seekers, often housed in the poorest city areas, can be the catalyst for friction amongst the local populace ?

    As lurid tabloid tales emerge of state largesse to further inflame the situation, the Hyndland and Bearsden possee go into indignant overdrive; all very admirable save for the fact that they would die with their feet in the air should any poor unfortunates ever be billetted in their desirable locales.

  4. Not just those as the bottom of the heap were swayed it would appear. For example check out the obituary at the top of the Mosley ‘home page’ http://www.oswaldmosley.com/index.php?mn=225
    If one reads his 100 questions and answers much of what is written seems pretty reasonable (in the context of its time) until you remember the guy was a power hungry right wing lunatic and a friend of Hitler and Goebels. Once voted most odious Briton of the 20th century and not much disagreement here.

    Whilst middle class liberal types are eminent in the field of indignation, I really doubt if their hypocrisy threshold is much lower than anyone else’s.

  5. Perhaps Mussolini redefined what “on time” means.
    (Correct me if I’m wrong but I believe that in these privatised days a train in Britain is on time if it arrives within ten minutes of its schedule.)

  6. Amazing cross by jackdeighton there……it lands at Almax’s feet and there’s an open goal………………………..

  7. FC & BR interesting stuff. I’ve got a biog of Mosley sitting on my bookshelf that this exchange has prompted me to start reading. Thanks for the the stimulus Rab.

  8. You’re more than welcome Richard. In turn I’ve been following the progress of the owls with interest at your place.

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