The hidden history of the Second World War
Was Churchill an 'anti-fascist freedom fighter' or an imperialist gangster?
On the 28 July 1944, in the midst of the Second World War, George Orwell declared that 'I should be the last to claim that we are morally superior to our enemies, and there is quite a strong case for saying that British imperialism is worse than Nazism.' Such anti-imperialist sentiment has thrown a few members of the soft Left blogosphere into shock. 'I’m still trying to get over it!!!' declares one. 'British Imperialism is morally superior to Nazism'!
Andy Newman of the Socialist Unity group provides comfort, declaring 'Socialists were 100% correct to support the war against fascism' and insists that 'Winston Churchill fought fascism':
'There was both an inter-imperialist rivalry AND a popular anti-fascist war running at the same time. This was why the political battle within Britain for the opening of a second front, for independence of the British colonies, and full implementation of Beveridge were so important, in determining the nature of the war...of course the British Empire was monstrous, but arguing that British imperialism was the main enemy when faced with fascism would have been madness.'
However, there is surely a problem with labelling the Second World War a 'popular anti-fascist war' with just 'inter-imperialist rivalry' tagged on - as Chris Bambery has argued in a recent short series of three articles about the Second World War for Socialist Worker, which those interested ought to read:
How the great powers appeased Hitler
Bloody conflict over competing empires
Crushing the tide of left wing resistance.
The idea that it was a 'popular anti-fascist war' was how that section of the British ruling class around Churchill who wanted to defend the British Empire against Hitler had to sell such a war to the British working class (who were going to have to actually do the fighting) in order to win the argument against the section of the British ruling class happy to make a deal with Hitler.
Churchill had to rely on his friends in the press and the Labour Party to launch a campaign against the Tory appeasers. That required stressing that this was an anti-fascist war. In the summer of 1940, pro-war left wingers were deployed against Tory defeatists. Churchill hoped this was a short term expedient. He was not fighting fascism as such, but defending the British Empire
The Second World War is therefore best seen as an imperialist war 'about the repartition of the world among the great powers'.
It was a continuation of the 1914-18 conflict. What made it different was the ideological question – millions of working people understood fascism posed a mortal danger to them and had to be resisted.
Accordingly, the mood of the British working class throughout the war was not that of jingoistic joy at being sent to fight and die in another bloody conflict - but rather resigned fate that there was no other alternative if Hitler was to be stopped coupled with a growing mood of militancy against the old rulers who had got them into this mess.
The left wing tide swept Britain too. But there was no force that could carry the tide beyond parliamentary limits. In 1940 Labour had backed Churchill. The Communists were anti-war until June 1941, following Stalin’s line. After Hitler’s invasion of Russia they opposed strikes, urging maximum production for the war effort. In the absence of any effective lead from the left, people’s attitude was generally that “Hitler was a bastard and we needed a bastard to fight him – Churchill”. But once the war was won people voted Churchill out.
Elsewhere in Europe, where left wing Resistance movements helped to bring down Nazi occupation, there were glimpses of the potential for the Second World War ending as the First World War had, with imperialist war being turned into civil war and workers revolution - but these movements were betrayed by the Stalinists and social democrats and successfully crushed by the old rulers.
How did the old rulers who had taken society into the bloodshed and horror of the First World War and then supported the rise of Hitler and Mussolini coming to power as a bulwark against the threat of Communist revolution survive? Why didn't the imperialist war end in socialist revolution?
Today I came across an article written in 1995 by socialist historian Raymond Challinor, published in Critique entitled 'The Second World War and its Hidden Agenda'. That 'Hidden Agenda' was the need to stop the possibility of the war ending in workers' revolution - a fear which haunted the leaders of all the capitalist countries.
On August 25 1939, three days after the Nazi Soviet Pact had been signed, Hitler met with Robert Coulandre, the French Ambassador to Germany.
'Hitler told Coulandre he was proud of his agreement - he described it as "a realistic pact" - and went on to express his "regrets" if it consequently led to French and German blood being spilled. "But," Coulandre objected, "Stalin displayed great double-dealing. The real victor in case of war will be Trotsky. Have you thought that over?" "I know" der Fuhrer responded'
As Challinor notes, the interview evoked a comment from Trotsky. His name had been used, he said, because Hitler and Coulandre liked "to give a personal name to the spectre of revolution". But this is not the essence of this dramatic conversation..."War will inevitably provoke revolution," the representative of imperialist democracy, himself chilled to the marrow, frightens his adversary. "I know," Hitler responds, as if it were a question decided long ago. "I know." Astonishing dialogue! Both of them, Coulandre and Hitler, represent the barbarism which advances over Europe. At the same time, neither of them doubts that their barbarism will be conquered by socialist revolution'.
After France fell to the Nazis in 1940, Challinor describes an intriguing meeting at the French Embassy in London on 14 August. 'Present were General de Gaulle, Marceau Pivot of the French PSOP and John McNair, general secretary of the [British] Independent Labour Party. The aim was to explore the feasibility of co-ordinating action of revolutionary socialists and the Free French. From the outset of the discussion, Pivert and McNair conceded their objectives were mutually incompatible - de Gaulle wanted to see a capitalist France, they wanted a socialist France. Yet, both were anti-Hitler and sought to end Nazi occupation. Did this not provide the basis for some co-operation?'
Yet despite the fact Pivert cited how the Bolsheviks and French army had worked together to save both capitalist France and the Soviet Union in early 1918 when faced with a German military assault on Russia, de Gaulle refused to collaborate - 'anxious to accrue greater backing from the existing power structures, de Gaulle understood even the remotest association with revolutionary socialists would be, from his standpoint, counter-productive. To acquire the backing from the British political establishment, as well as to have any appeal to the French upper classes, de Gaulle realised he must remain strictly inside the limits of political orthodoxy. A crucial lesson learnt by the ruling classes of the various capitalist countries from the First World War was the touchpaper of revolution must not be lit: short term military gain must not be purchased at the expense of endangering long-term capitalist stability.'
Challinor also notes the decision by the German High Command during the First World War to let Lenin re-enter Russia through Switzerland in the sealed train - only to find that once back in Russia, Lenin's Bolsheviks not only made a revolution which got Russia out of the bloody First World War through making a revolution as the German ruling class hoped - the Russian Revolution then inspired German troops to mutiny and this helped spell the end of the German Kaiser through a revolutionary upheaval at home!
Challinor's conclusion seems a fitting point to close this discussion:
'Unwittingly the various ruling classes had contributed to their undoing, by the creation of convulsions of revolution that rocked Europe for years after the First World War. From that fearful experience, they learnt the crucial lesson: the train to Finland Station must never be permitted to run again. Neither of the two warring camps in the Second World War did anything that might aid or comfort revolutionary socialists. They realised the potentialities for rebellion were much greater than in the previous conflict, and therefore it would be hazardous to give them any encouragement. Reinforcing their conservative caution came the bureaucracies of social democracy and Stalinism. Together they ensured that Trotsky's prediction that the Second World War would end in a socialist revolution did not happen.'