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Lindsey German

World War 2: 50th Anniversary

What were they fighting for?

(May 1995)

From Socialist Review, No. 186, May 1995, pp. 14–15.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Millions saw the Second World War as a conflict between democracy and fascism. But was that how our rulers saw it, asks Lindsey German

The sacrifices of the generation which fought between 1939 and 1945 had saved democracy, said John Major in his introduction to the VE Day commemorative brochure. This view of the war as one to defend democracy against fascism is one with which those of us born in the years shortly after the war were brought up.

As the war went on, its successful conclusion became fused in people’s minds with ideas of radical social change. If industries could be effectively nationalised and labour directed during wartime, why could planning not be used in peacetime to better people’s lives? Why should full employment only be possible with rearmament, as was the case in the 1930s?

The war has been variously described as a good war or a people’s war, terms which denote both the large civilian and popular involvement in this war compared to previous ones, and the sense in which it was a watershed: a defence of democracy against dictatorship which would lead to the creation of a better world.

The ‘good war’ was seen by most working class people as different from the dreadful and seemingly pointless carnage of the First World War. It was also seen in a very different way by the various ruling classes around Europe.

In 1914 these ruling classes each had a simple aim: to win against the rival imperial powers. The cost four years later was great: instability in the victorious powers, revolution in the defeated ones. So by 1939, Europe’s rulers’ fear of being completely overthrown from below was greater than their fear of defeat in war by a rival power. This explains the splits in the ruling classes which led very often to collaboration with the fascists.

In every country occupied by the Nazis the repression of Jews, socialists, communists and trades unionists was at least as much directly by sections of their own rulers, backed by indigenous police and other forces, as it was by occupying Germans.

In France the collaborationist Vichy government was voted in by parliament. In Norway the name of the collaborator Quisling became internationally synonymous with ‘traitor’. In Holland Dutch fascists and military police rounded up Jews for the gas chambers.

There is little doubt that – had Britain been invaded – many Tory politicians and business men would have collaborated. The evidence from the only part occupied – the Channel Islands – shows that many people who resisted the Nazis were persecuted by the islands’ rulers.

Sections of the British ruling class were keen admirers of Hitler, including the former king (the Duke of Windsor), and cabinet ministers such as Lord Halifax.

Before the war, a strong section of the Tory party favoured accommodation to Hitler.

To the bulk of Europe’s population, therefore, the sense of the war as one for democracy was heightened by class hatred for those who wanted to collaborate. In Britain this took the form of hostility to those regarded as appeasers of Hitler – the ‘guilty men’. Many of these same people were blamed for inadequacies of defence, such as few public air raid shelters.

The standpoint of ordinary people in the colonies, however, was very different. For the mass of workers and peasants in India, Africa and the Far East the main enemy was the colonial powers. They did not live in democracies and suffered repression from their colonial rulers. Hardly surprisingly, they did not see the Germans as a bigger threat than the British.

When German and British armies were fighting in the desert not far from Cairo, many Egyptians wanted to see the British defeated. Krishna Menon, who went on to become foreign minister in an independent India said in early 1941:

‘We are not impressed by such things as “democratic imperialism”, there is no such thing, as there is no such thing as a vegetarian tiger ... There is no use in asking whether you would choose British imperialism or Nazism, it is like asking a fish if he wants to be fried in margarine or butter. He doesn’t want to be fried at all.’

The Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky – forced into exile by this time by Stalin – wrote in 1934:

‘A modern war between the great powers does not signify a conflict between democracy and fascism but a struggle of two imperialists for the redivision of the world. Moreover, the war must inevitably assume an international character and in both camps will be found fascist as well as “democratic” states.’

Of course in such a situation there might be aggressor and defender states, but nonetheless the imperialist aims on both sides were clear.

Churchill’s strength as a war leader, indeed, stemmed from his desire to protect Britain’s empire, which is why he was so keen to control the Mediterranean.

Against such a background, what attitude did the left take to the war? The main social democratic and Labour parties in the advanced capitalist counties supported the war, as they had done in 1914. In Britain Labour became part of the wartime coalition and indeed its ministers were absolutely central to ensuring wartime production and preventing strikes taking place.

The line of the various Communist Parties zigzagged according to the dictates of Stalin’s foreign policy. For years before the outbreak of war, the CPs had been arguing for ‘defence of the democracies’ against fascism. When war broke out in September 1939, their leaderships were initially enthusiastic. French CP leader Maurice Thorez volunteered to join the army.

However, the line had changed through the signing of the Hitler-Stalin Pact, and the war was now denounced as imperialist. The CP after much bitter argument and a change of leadership now denounced the war. The Russian paper Pravda in its May Day edition of 1940 talked of two peace loving nations, Germany and Russia.

By mid 1941 the line changed again as ‘peace loving’ Nazi Germany invaded the USSR. Now the CP raised no criticism of Churchill – one of Stalin’s main allies. It supported the war effort and was against strikes. In 1945 the CP wanted a national government of Churchill and Eden.

The Trotskyists were a tiny force internationally. They took a position against the war as an imperialist war, but recognised that it was not possible to simply call for the defeat of one’s own ruling class – as Lenin had done in the imperialist war of 1914 – without taking into account the special conditions which the existence of fascism created.

This did not mean capitulating to the governments of the ‘democracies’ as the main workers’ parties had done. It was necessary to defend democracy against fascism, but at the same time to look at the map of the class struggle rather than the military map to see how this could be done.

Trotsky argued this meant independent working class organisation and demands rather than trusting the capitalist state – however ‘democratic’ its form – to fight the Nazis. ‘If we remain in irreconcilable opposition to the most “democratic” government in time of peace, how can we take upon ourselves even a shadow of responsibility for it in time of war when all the infamies and crimes of capitalism take on a more brutal and bloody form?’

In effect the argument that he and his followers put is that workers wanted to defeat fascism, which they saw as the greatest threat. In order to do so they had to overthrow their own ruling class in order to fight better against the fascists.

Strike days lost

This meant campaigning around class issues at home: backing strikes when workers were forced to carry the burden of higher productivity, fighting for adequate civil defence, supplies of food and housing, ensuring that workers’ living standards were not under attack. It also meant maintaining revolutionary organisation and producing a paper which campaigned against the policies of the ruling class.

Trotsky also explained that ‘if the proletariat should find it beyond its power to prevent war by means of revolution – and this is the only means of preventing war – the workers... will be forced to participate in the army and in war.’ He attacks individualist solutions of passive resistance or sabotage and goes on:

‘But just as in the factory the advanced worker feels himself a slave of capital, preparing for his liberation, so in the capitalist army too he feels himself a slave of imperialism. Compelled today to give his muscles and even his life, he does not surrender his revolutionary consciousness. He remains a fighter, learns how to use arms, explains even in the trenches the class meaning of war.’

The real aims of the ruling classes – the redivision of the world and the continued subordination of the working class and the masses – became more apparent as Hitler’s defeat loomed. When it became clear that Germany was losing the war, the ‘democratic’ governments did everything to prevent revolution and very often helped the fascists and other right wingers who they were supposedly fighting.

In occupied countries, the resistance movements were key to fighting for liberation from the Nazis. Nowhere were they seriously backed by the Allied powers. In Italy the Allies backed the government run by Marshal Badoglio, a fascist who opposed the partisans. France was liberated by the resistance, which was then disarmed by General de Gaulle and Maurice Thorez. Many Nazi war criminals were allowed to escape to the west and many pro-fascists were left in place in Germany and Italy.

Here the role of the CPs was crucial, in helping to disarm the working class and ensure that the revolutionary uprisings which ended the First World War did not recur at the end of the second. The concern of the rulers for democracy was such that they intervened to prevent popular movements coming to power in countries as far apart as Greece and Malaya after the war had come to a close. The Franco fascist dictatorship in Spain and its counterpart in Portugal were allowed to continue in ‘free Europe’ for another 30 years.

Ultimately the ruling classes were more interested in maintaining their own power than in any real freedom for those who had suffered during the war.

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