Issue 187 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published June 1995 Copyright © Socialist Review

World War 2: 50th Anniversary

The forgotten fighters

Why did revolution not break out at the end of the Second World War, as it had done after the first? Gareth Jenkins explains that there was no lack of revolutionary fervour, but a leadership prepared to settle far short of what was possible
Triumphant after the liberation of Turin

Dominant in the minds of the Western leaders towards the end of the war was the fear that the collapse of fascism would lead not to a restoration of the old order but to revolution.

The reality of what happened between 1943 and 1945 shows that this was not a wild ruling class fantasy. The conventional image is one in which people of the occupied countries played only a supporting role in the military drama of Allied victory. The 'forgotten' side of the Second World War is one of explosive class struggle in Greece, Italy and France--of mutiny, general strikes, peasant revolt, urban insurrection, factory councils.

The struggle was as much against the boss as it was against the fascist oppressor. It therefore led to conflict with the Allies, who showed their class interests by preferring to do deals with right wing, even ex-fascist, forces. Only in Greece did this conflict turn to fighting.

In early March 1943 resistance in the industrial heartland of Italy became open defiance. Workers at the Rasetti factory in Turin held a prolonged stoppage. The protest spread to the giant Fiat Mirafiori factory and other factories. The demands were purely economic (workers wanted compensation for bombardment and the high cost of living) but the strike made an enormous impact internationally. It was the first collective action by workers against fascist totalitarianism. By the end of March 100,000 workers were on strike. The employers and the government were forced to make concessions.

The wave of strikes sent a warning to the government. Fascism was vulnerable. With the Allied invasion of Sicily in July 1943 Mussolini was deposed by the king. The new leader, Marshal Badoglio, was no anti-fascist. He hoped Italy could disentangle itself from a war it was losing but preserve the social order fascism presided over by doing a deal with the Allies.

The Allies were happy to play ball. But the fall of Mussolini galvanised the population. Mass demonstrations tore down fascist insignia. Fascist offices were stormed and burnt down. The demands became political, with 4,000 workers from the Innocenti factory marching through Milan calling for an end to the war. In mid-August strikes in Turin and Milan demanded immediate peace and an end to the alliance with Germany.

Even when repression increased with the German occupation of Italy from September onwards, the movement did not die down. Naples rose in revolt against the Germans and the Nazi attempt to secure compulsory labour service. In January 1944 all the factories in Genoa came out in protest at the killing of eight political prisoners by the Nazis.

In March 1944, a year after the first stoppage in Turin, there was mass political strike action in the industrial north. Around 300,000 workers in the Milan area struck to demand immediate peace and an end to war production for Nazi Germany. (The Germans had created the Republic of Saló, with Mussolini, whom they had rescued from prison, as its puppet head of state.) The strike spread rapidly to the textile factories in Venice, Bologna and Florence. Women and low paid workers took the lead. In June, when the Nazis attempted to dismantle factory machinery and ship it back to Germany, Fiat Mirafiori took strike action which sabotaged their plans.

In the countryside, the landless labourers refused grain to the occupying forces and the partisans even set up republics in remote areas in which there were attempts to implement modest reforms.

A year of struggle was more than a year of fighting to get rid of fascism. It was a year of increasing class polarisation. As a result of struggle from below, the question arose: what kind of society should replace the old regime?

By June 1944 the Allies had taken Rome and were inching their way up towards Florence, which they took in August largely thanks to the partisans who were able to impose their choice of prefect against Allied wishes. The British and Americans were alarmed. The last thing they wanted was liberation of the north at the hands of a resistance movement permeated by the increasingly radical demands of workers and peasants. Italy had to be made safe for the old order. In the bitter winter of 1944-45 they starved the resistance of support. The Nazis crushed much of the resistance. Protest in the cities fell off compared with the high point of struggle in March 1944.

Even so workers still fought back. Working class quarters in the big cities were no go areas for fascists and Germans. When finally, in the spring of 1945, the Nazi armies crumbled, the third wave of protest got under way. On 18 April a general strike in Turin and factory occupations to prevent industrial sabotage were the prelude to insurrections in the cities of Genoa, Milan and Turin. In Milan 60,000 workers took control of the factories. In Genoa the partisans trapped the Germans within the city, forcing the commander to surrender to the partisans rather than the Allies.

By 1 May the whole of northern Italy was free not just from Nazi control but from control by the employing class. The bosses found their factories occupied by well armed workers. Yet there was no revolution. Despite the fact that the old order was thoroughly discredited by its association with fascism, and despite the fact that the mass of the population had weapons, there was no transfer of power to the poor and dispossessed. What prevented this?

Here, those who wanted to preserve the old order received support from the most unlikely quarter, the Communist Party, and it is this which mainly explains why no challenge to capitalism took place. Between the end of 1943 and July 1944 the PCI quadrupled in membership and did so again over the next year and a half. It commanded the allegiance of the best militants and the Communists gained tremendous authority within the resistance and working class movement.

Togliatti, the leader of the PCI, took advantage of this when he returned from Moscow in late March 1944. Stalin had agreed with Roosevelt and Churchill that Italy was to be the West's sphere of influence. Accordingly there was to be no question of undermining the government approved by his Western partners.

This meant that the PCI supported Badoglio and dropped opposition to the monarchy--a position which put it to the right of a substantial section of the resistance leadership. Badoglio was replaced by the scarcely less reactionary but slightly more credible Bonomi. Nevertheless the PCI's authority ensured that the resistance movement formally agreed that it would subordinate itself to the official authorities, both civil and military. Even more importantly, it gave an undertaking that there would be no challenge to the social order.

Togliatti sold this line to the militants by implying that the revolution was merely postponed rather than taken off the agenda. 'Remember', he stated in June 1944, 'that the insurrection that we want has not got the aim of imposing social and political transformations in a socialist and communist sense. Its aim is rather national liberation and the destruction of fascism.'

Having subordinated itself to the Allies the resistance was disarmed ideologically. By giving up their weapons, the mass of workers and peasants were in no position to hang on to social power in respect of the boss and the landlord that their part in the defeat of fascism had conferred on them.

The CPs in Greece and France played the same role and the outcome--in terms of preventing a challenge to the social order--was similar. But there were differences, particularly in the case of Greece.

Aris Velovchiotis, ELAS leader

Nazi control of Greece was never secure and by 1942 the Greek resistance (EAM) administered the majority of the country. It claimed 1.5 million members--a staggering fifth of the population. The People's Liberation Army (ELAS) rose from 20,000 to 70,000 by the end of 1943. EAM ran villages, collected taxes, supplied schools and relief. It was democratic in a way which no previous government had ever been and which reflected the class interests of its supporters.

In March 1944 EAM declared itself the committee for a provisional government. The 'official' Greek monarchist government in exile in Cairo--backed by the British--could not even command the respect of its armed forces. In early April 1944 a large part of the army, together with five ships from the navy, rioted and struck in favour of republican government. The British ambassador to the Greek government wrote to Churchill in alarm, 'What is happening here among the Greeks is nothing less than a revolution.' Greece was vital to British interests in the Mediterranean.

By the end of April the starving mutineers were forced to surrender to the British who arrested the leaders and put 20,000 in prisoner of war cages. Yet the EAM, far from offering support to the mutineers, attacked them. The Greek CP (the KKE) was only a tiny minority in the resistance movement but its prestige ensured that it pressured the EAM into reaching an agreement for a government of Greek unity. As in Italy, the Communists subordinated the idea of social change to victory over the enemy. This was confirmed by the Caserta agreement in late September, in which ELAS agreed to place its forces under the command of General Scobie, head of the British forces.

There was, however, considerable opposition within the resistance movement to this process. Even the KKE was split. When Hitler decided on a lightning withdrawal, ELAS became the undisputed master of the country by the middle of October 1944. Having got rid of the Nazis almost entirely through their own efforts, much of the resistance could see little reason for making any political concessions to the reactionary social forces championed by the British.

This meant that there was considerably more resistance than was to occur in Italy the following year. When Scobie arrived in Athens in November he ordered ELAS to leave the capital--which they did. But there was real reluctance to disarm. The British replaced the resistance forces with conservative, royalist forces and allowed collaborators a free hand. The EAM attempted to go back on its agreement to disarm unless all groups handed in their weapons and the army was purged.

In early December a demonstration, backed by a general strike, took place in central Athens. It was the start of the fight against the British. Churchill told Scobie, 'Do not hesitate to act as if you were in a conquered city where a local rebellion is in progress.' Yet ELAS rapidly got the upper hand as they moved back into the capital and it seemed as if the British were about to go down to disastrous defeat.

What saved the situation for them was ELAS's political capitulation. In return for (worthless) promises to respect EAM, to legalise the KKE and to hold elections and a plebiscite within the year, ELAS agreed to surrender its arms. The resistance handed power back to those who had run Greece before the war. This reactionary and corrupt elite, with British backing, took their revenge. A bitter civil war ensued as the resistance took up guerrilla struggle in the countryside. But a decisive moment had passed.

Building barricades, Paris 1944

In France the resistance played less of a role than in Italy or Greece. Even so, as the war came to a close, popular opposition to the Nazis (and to their puppet regime, the Vichy government) took on a dimension of opposition to the class system. Again the CP acted to stifle any possibility of real change.

The 'free French' leader, Charles de Gaulle, had gained the support of the vast bulk of French soldiers and citizens in North Africa by 1943. His nationalism and contempt for parliament appealed to those who had initially sympathised with but who had now abandoned Vichy. De Gaulle, however, had an even more important source of authority. By mid-1943 his Committee of National Liberation (CNL)--which he had set up with a Vichy appointed North African general--was endorsed by all the underground organisations in France, including those influenced by the increasingly popular CP. The question was whether de Gaulle could ensure that the resistance would submit to the restoration of order on his terms or whether the strongest part of the resistance, sympathetic to social change, would elbow him aside.

The first test came with the uprising in Corsica in September 1943, following Italian withdrawal from the island. It was led by CP French Forces of the Interior, who drove out the Germans and appointed their own administrators. When de Gaulle visited the island in October he replaced them with his own administrators. He had passed the test with flying colours. It was essential to repeat this on the mainland. But things were trickier here. De Gaulle faced a large working class. After the D Day landings in June 1944, the militants were keen on a popular insurrection--an idea that struck horror in the hearts of the right and the military round de Gaulle, who also resisted the idea.

The appeal of an insurrection was that it represented power from below directed both at the Nazi occupiers and at the employing class who had gone along with the Nazis and the Vichy regime. The CP reiterated the idea that a class uprising was not on the cards since the task was the defeat of fascism. That meant accepting the limits imposed by de Gaulle and the CNL and restricting the role played by the resistance to a subordinate one.

Even so the resistance kept on threatening to take a class direction. On Bastille Day, 14 July 1944, a demonstration of 100,000 in Paris faced German guns. On 10 August the railroad workers went on national strike, effectively paralysing the country. In Paris itself there was a call on 19 August for a 'general uprising... to open the route to Paris to the victorious allied armies and to welcome them there'. But the uprising had little to do with direction from above. Workers who went on strike two days before set the scene for a semi-spontaneous uprising driven by the impact of shortages and famine. The Germans were driven out.

De Gaulle was obliged to support the rising. But his attitude to the resistance was clear from his refusal to let its leader sign the official German surrender, by his refusal to proclaim the restoration of the Republic, by keeping the resistance leaders well to the back in his victory parade and by his attendance at mass in Notre Dame cathedral officiated by pro-Vichy clergy.

Like Togliatti in Italy, Thorez, who arrived from Moscow in November tirelessly dampened down class power to ensure national victory. He banned strikes and disciplined the older militant leadership who were unhappy about Thorez's demand that the resistance militia should be dissolved and that the Liberation Committees should accept the government's authority. The fact that divisions arose in such a Stalinised party as the French CP is evidence of a widespread willingness to fight for social change on the part of a very broad layer of militants who looked to the CP for a lead.

That mood persisted for a long time in the French working class. Throughout 1945 Thorez was compelled to call on workers, particularly coal miners, to overcome their 'deficient psychology'--their unwillingness to work for the old bosses.

Thus in Italy, Greece and France, the CP came to the rescue of capitalism and snuffed out any challenge to the Allies' restoration of the old ruling classes. All the same, was revolution possible in 1944-45?

It is true that conditions were different from the period of revolution at the end of the First World War. Millions of people saw the Allies as fighting a just cause--in a way that did not hold conviction in 1918. Also the occupation of the defeated countries by Allied troops (something which had not occurred at the end of the First World War) would have made resistance to the Allies difficult, as the Greeks discovered. But an appeal to soldiers in class terms might well have had an effect. British soldiers were also radicalised by the war.

Nevertheless, the ruling classes were weak and discredited and millions of people were unwilling to accept ruling class hegemony. The tragedy was that the CP threw away the opportunity to develop working class strength and confidence in a way which would have put revolution on the agenda. They did the opposite by binding the best militants to support for a system which once it had made use of them returned to the attack.


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