How Fascist Activists Groomed Children

This World Press photo was taken in Rome and dated August 16, 1937. The caption read, “Italy’s soldiers of the future, some of the 4,500 children who took part in the Great Physical Culture Program in the Mussolini Forum, march with chests bared and Bayonet-fixed rifles across their shoulders past Il Duce and high government officials who witnessed the display”.

Many people are familiar with images of fascist children goose-stepping and saluting as part of the Hitler Youth or Mussolini’s Balilla youth movement. But in today’s world where the radical right are grooming young potential activists at concerts, through churches or mosques, or through the internet, paying attention to the methods used by recruiters to attract children to marginal fascist movements not yet in power has become of growing importance. Fascist movements were active in every country in interwar Europe. Most operated legally, although almost all suffered some sort of restrictions at one time or another, such as bans on wearing uniforms or on holding public meetings. The idea that children were uniquely vulnerable to mental and emotional manipulation was still in its infancy during the 1920s and 1930s, and no government ever explicitly forbade fascists from targeting children. In fact, whereas the general public sometimes frowned on parades, marches, or street fighting, grooming children to become potential activists was one of the most socially acceptable things fascists did.

Rotha Lintorn-Orman organised Britain’s first fascist movement during 1923 and historian Julie Gottlieb describes how Lintorn-Orman’s followers started running Fascist Children’s Clubs (FCCs) in 1925. An article in Fascist Bulletin from February 1926 explained that: “We started teaching them to salute the Flag, and then got busy on games. … [It was good to see] to look of happiness on every child’s face, as they went away fortified with a stick or Fascist rock or an orange.” Grooming children was not Lintorn-Orman’s main motive in founding the British Fascisti, and although it became one of their most popular activities, there was little to differentiate the FCCs from “the Buds” – children’s clubs run by the conservative Primrose League – or from Scouting and Guiding for that matter. The Socialist Review clarified that typical FCC meetings involved:

  1. Roll call and salute the Union Jack.
  2. Hymn and Lord’s Prayer.
  3. Historical and national subjects – lives of good men and women etc.
  4. Games
  5. Competitions given out for home work.
  6. Patriotic songs and items of news.
  7. General tidying up. Monitors take special charge of the Union Jack. God Save the King.

The British Fascisti established a Patriotic Song League the following year, and composed this song for the children to sing:

                   “We are all Anti-Red, and We’re proud of it,           

                        All Britons, and singing aloud of it.

                        If Red, White and Blue isn’t good enough for you,

                        And if you don’t like the Empire – clear out of it.”

When Oswald Mosley founded the British Union of Fascists (BUF) in 1934, he relied on summer camps rather than children’s clubs to groom children as future activists. The BUF took up collections to enable poor boys aged 14-15 to attend holiday camps on the beach at Selsey on the South Coast of England every summer, where they played sports, listened to lectures, and learned fascist values.

Across the Channel the French Social Party (PSF) ran its own “colonies”, where teenagers acted as camp leaders mentoring younger children. Historian Laura Lee Downs explains that leading on such camps could be a way of gaining crucial work experience for young people hoping for a career in social work or related industries. She tells the story of Camille Rogie from Lille, whose application to work at a PSF colony survives in the archives. Camille’s whole family were enthusiastic PSF supporters, and her mother worried about allowing her to work at the camps not because she might become indoctrinated, but because discipline there was not strict enough for her liking. Camille, on the other hand, saw it as a valuable right of passage. The colonies allowed her to branch out and embrace her parents’ politics on her own terms.

In Romania, fascists clashed with police more often than either in France or Britain, but they too actively groomed young children as future activists. In 1924, Corneliu Zelea Codreanu set up a worksite at the village of Ungheni where young activists – most in their early 20s – made bricks for a building they hoped to use as their headquarters and dormitory. They soon established a youth section for their organisation, naming children who volunteered at the brickworks “musketeers”. Some of these young people were remarkably committed, and a fascist newspaper from 1928 claimed that one boy rode his bicycle 185 miles so that he could take part. In 1924, Codreanu was arrested at a midnight meeting he had organised where he was found plotting with high school students to raid the home of the local police chief. They were all interrogated and the following day the angry parents took the police to court for abusing their children while in custody. These children were old enough to take part in illegal activities but still vulnerable enough to be used as victims in a scandal. Later, Codreanu organised “Blood Brotherhoods” for children too young to become card-carrying fascists. These were secret clubs run by the children themselves after school at which they read propaganda tracts to one another, confessed their misdemeanours, and dedicated 10 percent of their time to the cause. As in other countries, many young activists came from families already associated with the radical right. Vasile Coman, for example, had grown up surrounded by ultra-nationalists but his parents forbade him from joining a fascist propaganda campaign because it was too dangerous. Undeterred, he ran away from home at 19 years of age and dedicated his life to fascist activism. Parents who encouraged their children to become fascists were often shocked when those same children took the fascist cause seriously and embraced their causes much more fervently than they themselves ever had. Such surprising revelations point to the importance of parental socialisation and the impact it has on those vulnerable of engaging in radical right activism going forward.

Dr Roland Clark is a Senior Fellow at CARR, and a Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Liverpool. See his profile here.

© Roland Clark. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).