Issue 176 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published June 1994 Copyright © Socialist Review

The people's war

The people's war

The Second World War is increasingly used by our rulers to promote an image of national heritage where everyone sacrificed to defeat the fascist enemy. Chris Lyneham argues that class divisions determined who sacrificed

It is a tribute to the Tories' incompetence that they have managed to cause outrage over commemorations for D Day. But they misjudged the mood in a deeper sense. The idea of 'celebrating' D Day seems particularly inappropriate now because the ideals that seemed to justify the suffering of war--the defeat of fascism, a peaceful and cooperative Europe, a decent welfare society--have all been betrayed.

The attempt to make political capital out of the Second World War is nothing new. Ten years ago Thatcher and Reagan used the 40th anniversary of D Day to fuel their Cold War propaganda. The establishment has always manufactured a myth of the war in which the Western Alliance is the saviour of freedom and democracy. To sustain the myth they have withheld contemporary cabinet papers, tried to ban television programmes and struggled to defend the reputation of Winston Churchill.

Even the experience of combat in the Second World War has been sanitised. Comics, novels and Hollywood films have turned the Second World War into a Boys' Own adventure in which death and injury are something that only happen to the enemy.

In fact far more people, including many civilians, died in the Second World War than in the First World War. Death and injury rates for those actually fighting in the two wars were very similar, and the experience of the campaigns in Normandy, North Africa and the Pacific was every bit as traumatic as Passchendaele or the Somme.

The Normandy landing in June 1944 was a particularly terrifying experience. One war correspondent described seeing 'a line of American soldiers waist deep in water and immobilised by fear. Descending arcs of tracers were entering the water around them, and they could not bring themselves to move.'

Descriptions of the campaign that followed show little had changed for the infantryman:

Central to the Second World War myth is the version in
Women had to fight for nurseries even in wartime
Women had to fight for nurseries even in wartime
which class divisions were forgotten as the nation pulled together to defeat the common enemy. It is true that millions of ordinary people made terrible sacrifices in the war, but sacrifice was far from evenly shared. While workers put up with rationing it was business as usual at the Savoy. Restaurants, which were mainly used by the rich, were not subject to rationing. The wealthy escaped the blitz by spending their nights in country houses. East Enders had to sleep in the Essex fields because no proper bomb shelters had been built. It was only action by left wing militants that forced the authorities to open up the tube stations at night for shelter.

There was in fact very little enthusiasm for the war in 1939. People remembered the carnage of 1914-18, and they remembered the Depression that followed it. By March 1940, 26,681 people had registered as conscientious objectors. Local elections early in the war registered significant support for peace candidates, and 90 Constituency Labour Parties had passed anti-war resolutions by 1940.

Revolutionary socialists in the small Trotskyist organisations at the time predicted that in the long run the war would create deep bitterness and a potentially revolutionary mood. At first, however, they expected a period of jingoistic enthusiasm for the war.

War fever never broke out, but the mood was very volatile and uncertain. Workers in a Manchester factory struck in April 1940 to win reinstatement of a co-worker who had been sacked for refusing to register for military service. In the same month Yeovil gas workers were on strike because they refused to work with a conscientious objector.

Such uncertainty was partly caused by the anti-fascist rhetoric that the government used to justify the war, and partly by the unprincipled and shifting lines argued by some of the left at the time. The Labour leaders were uncritical members of the Tory led coalition from the start. The Communists followed the wild twists of Stalin's foreign policy with unthinking loyalty: first they opposed the war as imperialist, then they supported it uncritically following Hitler's invasion of Russia.

Nevertheless the experience of the Home Front, far from uniting the classes, had created explosive bitterness and resentment by the end of the war. Workers spat at the queen when she visited the East End in 1944 and 20,000 East Enders booed and heckled Churchill when he tried to speak in Walthamstow Stadium in 1945. In the same year stones were thrown at him in Ladbroke Grove, west London. In the 1945 general election, Labour won its greatest victory ever. In London's East End the Communist Party won a seat.

By the end of the war discontent had spread into the army. Even official military surveys showed a growing resentment of privilege and high handed discipline at the front. One soldier's complaint was typical... 'They [the officers] treat you like a dumb idiot not able to have an opinion of his own and not to be able to think for himself.' After D Day a Canadian paratroop battalion went on hunger strike for three days to protest against a particularly brutal commander.

Regimentation and sheer physical suffering cause dissatisfaction in any conscript army, but soldiers in the Second World War had special concerns. They remembered how their fathers had returned from the first war to be welcomed with the dole queue and economic slump. One correspondent wrote of a growing politicisation in the ranks:

This touched on the central contradiction of the war. Workers and ordinary soldiers may not have been enthusiastic, but they regarded the war as necessary to defeat fascism and defend democracy. The British ruling class, on the other hand, never considered the war as a struggle against fascism. For our rulers the war was about political and economic influence.

At the start of the war there was even some doubt in the British cabinet about whether to take on Germany or Russia. The US ambassador in London reported that Churchill was considering an armistice with Germany in November 1939. The British ruling class had nothing against fascism in principle. Important factions, including newspaper magnate Lord Rothermere, actually promoted it during the 1930s.

Churchill himself was an admirer of Mussolini for years. On a visit to Italy in 1927 he wrote to his wife: 'This country gives the impression of discipline, order, goodwill, smiling faces. A happy strict school... The fascists have been saluting in their impressive manner all over the place.'

The cabinet reluctantly declared war on Germany because the growing possibility of an Italian, Japanese and German expansionist bloc was a mortal threat to the British Empire and British world power.

In order to try and isolate this bloc, the cabinet was quite happy to make a deal with Franco's fascist government in Spain. Later in the war the government was keen to install 'loyal' fascists like Darlan in North Africa and Badoglio in Italy to keep order.

A real struggle against fascism would have involved helping
Sorting through the ration books
Sorting through the ration books
those fighting against it--the workers of Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia and France, and the Jews, Gypsies and Communists in the concentration camps. The allies' approach was in fact very different. They too had learnt that 'war breeds revolution'. They did everything in their power to ensure this imperialist war did not turn into class war. They kept aid to the French Resistance, for example, to a token minimum because they were 'dangerous Communists'. They refused to bomb the railway lines that led to Auschwitz and Dachau. Instead they kept the very existence of the death camps a close secret.

Rather than encouraging popular resistance to fascism in Europe, Churchill sought maximum death and destruction. In his own words, 'All the industrial centres should be attacked in an intense fashion, every effort being made to render them uninhabitable and to terrorise and paralyse the population.' The resulting blanket bombing of German cities failed to disrupt German arms production. It did succeed, however, in killing 590,000 German civilians, more than 15 times the number of British civilian casualties. Far from harming the Nazis, this brutal aerial attack made ordinary Germans identify more with the regime.

Amid the D Day speeches and histrionics, it is worth remembering that Churchill and the British High Command actually opposed the D Day invasion until the last possible moment. Six weeks before D Day Churchill told Cadogan, 'This battle has been forced on us by the Russians and the United States military authorities.'

Churchill opposed a mainland landing not, as apologists claim, simply because he wanted time to build up military strength. He wanted to continue to pour all available resources into the disastrous Mediterranean campaign which was, in the words of US foreign secretary Simpson, 'another diversion in the interests of the British Empire'. Churchill wanted to concentrate the war effort on Italy, Greece and even the Balkans because they were strategically vital to Britain's imperial control of the Middle East and India. He also wished to let Russia take the brunt of the fight against Germany.

The American ruling class promoted D Day because it had different priorities. It wanted troops in mainland Europe because it was worried about Soviet influence. It wanted to lever Britain out of its imperial role by forcing it to participate in the quickest possible defeat of the Germans.

As the defeat of the Germans came closer, the war became a sickening contest for influence between the allies. Churchill, Stalin, Roosevelt and later Truman haggled for control of whole countries at conferences in Teheran and Potsdam. Ironically, approaching victory marked the end of Britain as an imperial power, not because of any change of heart among the establishment, but because the war had stretched Britain's economy to breaking point and Britain had become openly dependent on the US.

The Americans were promoting a vision of a free market postwar world based on 'the self determination of peoples'. Behind the idealistic rhetoric lay economic calculation: the US was emerging as the world's biggest economy. If it could ensure the break up of existing empires it would dominate the world market through sheer economic clout.

Despite growing tensions between Britain and the US, the two powers were united in hostility to the Soviet Union and to the growing popular anti-fascist movements, often led by the Communist Party, that were threatening to take over in various parts of Europe.

As socialists had predicted, the war was ending in a wave of popular discontent. Mass strikes had broken out in northern Italy in 1944, in Belgium the anti-fascist movement had 80,000 members by 1943 and in Greece the popular resistance movement EAM had liberated four fifths of the country.

Because of its 'Communist' and popular nature, the British had ceased all support for the Greek EAM in 1943. In 1944 the EAM was effectively regarded as the enemy. The British army invaded Greece after the defeat of the Germans, and started a civil war in which thousands of Greek socialists and partisans were killed in order to impose a reactionary government.

The bloody and chaotic rush to take northern Europe that started on D Day was primarily a race against the Red Army. But here too a mass movement was stirring that terrified the Western Alliance. The workers of Paris had liberated the city before the Allies arrived. Even many German cities were under the control of popular 'Antifa' committees by the time allied troops arrived.

The 'liberating armies' were ordered to break up these movements. All partisans were disarmed, meetings were banned and no publications could be distributed in 'liberated' territory unless authorised by high command. Everywhere the allies' main concern was to impose 'safe' right wing regimes.

Military might alone would not have been enough to make Europe safe for the capitalists. For that they needed the help of the USSR and the European Communist Parties. Stalin refused to support popular movements in his sphere of influence. He used his control over Communist Parties elsewhere to bargain for more territory. Mass movements anywhere in Europe could destabilise an emerging postwar order.

So the USSR used its influence with Communist Party leaders to impose restraint and cooperation with all non-fascist forces. On his return from Moscow, Thorez, the French Communist Party leader, banned strikes in the name of 'national unity', expelled militants from the party and forced the party to accept the right wing nationalist de Gaulle. This was despite the fact that the Communist Party was the biggest single party in France and that a demonstration of 100,000 Parisian workers on Bastille Day had led to massive strikes across the city.

The Communist Party's line of restraint and compromise defused workers' movements in Greece, Italy, Central Europe and around the world. In Britain the Labour Party provided a safe channel for dissent with its huge election victory in 1945. The allies had a free hand to impose their favoured regimes in Italy, Greece, France and West Germany.

The ruling classes, East and West, succeeded in their postwar carve up. But it was hardly a great victory for freedom and democracy. Spain and Portugal remained under fascist rule. Eastern Europe was under direct control of Moscow. The Americans' struggle for world hegemony that led to the horrors of Korea, Vietnam and the Gulf War had started in earnest with the atrocities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, when the atom bomb was dropped on Japan.

Today, nearly 50 years after the war came to an end, many problems which seemed to have been solved are reappearing. Once again there is mass unemployment, war and the threat of fascism in Europe. No wonder the veterans of D Day are not in the mood to celebrate.


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