By Mark Kilian
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Their war and ours: the people and the Second World War

This article is over 9 years, 10 months old
The Second World War is usually portrayed as a "good war". But in a recent book Donny Gluckstein argues that the war was both an imperialist war and a people's war. Mark Kilian explores this fascinating new study
Issue 373

No war has been covered more in books and films than the Second World War. Yet Donny Gluckstein’s A People’s History of the Second World War is an original and comprehensive account which contains valuable lessons for the future.

Throughout the world only a handful of countries were not involved in World War Two (WWII). Fifty million people died across five continents, including 28 million civilians. Cities were destroyed or severely damaged – London, Berlin, Warsaw, Stalingrad, Rotterdam and Hiroshima, to name a few. Yet WWII is remembered as a “good war”. The left wing historian Howard Zinn wrote, “World War II…made war, so thoroughly discredited by the senseless slaughter of World War I, noble once again.”

This is based on a combination of two claims, which most accounts support: first, that it was a war of liberation, of democratic Allies versus fascism; second, that the Allied governments and their peoples were united.

In his new book Donny Gluckstein is rightly critical of this view. He argues WWII combined two parallel wars – a “people’s war” and an imperialist one. He writes “political relations between states generated war between the Axis and Allied power blocks; but political relations between people and governments produced another war fought by the former for their own ends – this phenomenon being particularly evident in resistance movements which operated beyond the control of formal governments.”

This provides a useful way of criticising both the idea that the Allies were fighting an anti-fascist war, and the argument that it was purely an imperialist war, as Trotsky had predicted in the late 1930s. The idea of a “people’s war” is not a new one, but Gluckstein gives a new substance to the idea: “The gulf between the motivation of Allied governments and those who fought against brutality, oppression and dictatorship could not be bridged.” So inevitably there were clashes between the resistance and the Allied armies and their leaders.

Gluckstein distinguishes “people’s war” from both “class war” and “national war”, arguing it is an amalgam of both. A people’s war drew participants from different social classes, but it also involved a radical attempt to reconstitute the social fabric of society in the interests of the lower classes. Those who fought the people’s war were not fighting for the preservation of the pre-war situation – they wanted something better.

The crimes of the Axis powers in the 1930s would have justified intervention. After the first pogroms in 1933 and the Kristallnacht, Hitler’s militant racism had become clear before WWII. Mussolini had invaded Abyssinia in 1935-6 and the Japanese army invaded Manchuria in 1931, leading to the infamous mass rape in Nanjing.

These acts of aggression came not, as is sometimes argued, from an authoritarian nature of Germans or Japanese. They resulted from the geopolitical position of those states. Colonial expansion, particularly by Britain and France, had subdivided the world by the end of the 19th century. Gripped by crisis and depression in the 1930s, the only way out for the ruling classes of the Axis powers was to try and secure fresh raw materials, markets and labour power at the expense of the old empires.

Some of the responsibility of the Allied states was even more direct. Prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 US President Franklin D Roosevelt placed an embargo on oil to Japan, forcing it to choose between either abandoning its imperial ambitions or retaliating. And in 1939 British prime minister Neville Chamberlain simultaneously compelled Czechoslovakia to cede territory to Germany and declared “peace in our time” with Hitler.

The earliest victims of the Axis powers were their “own” workers. During and after World War One (WWI), revolts and revolutions throughout Europe had shaken European ruling classes. In Germany between 1918-1923 workers’ and soldiers’ councils sprang up, and the Kaiser was forced to flee. In Italy, two “Red Years” saw a wave of factory occupations in the industrial north. Unfortunately, only in Russia was the regime successfully overthrown. In Italy and Germany fear of revolution induced sections of the ruling class to support the Nazis. Those events were not the result of the supposed “mentality” of any single nation.

Western imperialism
Hitler’s anti-Bolshevism drew support from capitalists and admiration from Allied rulers. Churchill was an overt fan of Mussolini. Hoping Hitler would attack Russia, Allied policy until 1939 was appeasement. Western powers intervened to defend their own interests – Britain engineered Operation Torch in 1943 in North Africa to protect the Suez Canal, and the US went to war in the Pacific in 1942.

Neither had the Axis powers a monopoly on war crimes. The British Empire, on which “the sun never set”, was also one “where the blood never dried”. In India in 1942 British troops shot protesters fighting for their freedom. Thousands were killed in the repression.

The large majority of Allied bombs hit civilians, not military targets. Gluckstein writes, “Up to 437,000 lives could have been saved if Auschwitz’s railways lines and crematoria had been bombed, but the War Department declared this ‘impracticable’. In fact, between July and October 1944, ‘a total of 2,700 bombers travelled along or within easy reach of both rail lines on the way to targets in the Blechammer-Auschwitz region’, and on several occasions the camp actually shook from attacks at nearby installations.”

Spain and Stalinism
An American anti-fascist volunteer wrote “To me, World War Two started on July 18, 1936. That’s when the first shot was fired in Madrid.” Events in Spain, Gluckstein writes, were the prelude to WWII. Franco was not a classic fascist leader, but his military regime was supported by Hitler and Mussolini. Hitler sent transport planes to fly soldiers from Morocco and later Franco sent 47,000 troops to fight on the Nazis’ eastern front.

The Spanish Civil War was also a social revolution, combining resistance to Franco at the front with class war behind the lines. It was the first example of a people’s war. In Barcelona 80 percent of enterprises were collectivised. 32,000 International Brigade soldiers fought alongside the Spanish working class, including members of the British Independent Labour Party such as George Orwell.

The future Allies of WWII did not support the revolution. France and Britain promoted a Non-Intervention Committee – which in practice helped Franco’s cause. Russia supplied arms, but not enough for the anti-fascists to win. Eventually the Communists disarmed Spanish workers and Franco prevailed.

This outcome was the result of a paradox. While the Russian Revolution of 1917 had helped create Communist parties throughout the world, the revolution itself had been confined. The Stalinist bureaucracy replaced the idea of international revolution with “socialism in one country”. They wanted their empire to coexist with others, integrated into the world economy. This meant preserving friendly relations with other imperial powers.

From the mid-1930s the Communist parties, guided by Russian interests, adopted the Popular Front policy. This called for unity of all “progressive” classes against fascism, including ruling classes. Independent workers’ struggle was therefore put on hold in order to cement Popular Front alliances. This is not to say that all Communist Party members slavishly obeyed orders from Moscow – but the Popular Front policy subordinated international Communist parties to the priorities of Russian foreign policy.

That neither of the Allied camps were interested in liberation was shown throughout WWII, especially in Greece and Poland.

The Greek dictator Metaxas severely repressed Communist opposition in the 1930s. Invaded by Italy, Greece entered WWII on the Allied side. Britain’s General Wilson observed the irony of “supporting one Fascist government against another”. After Mussolini was repulsed Hitler stepped in and the Greek monarchy fled to Cairo.

The Nazi occupation was ruthless, costing the lives of 550,000 people. A famine in 1941-2 claimed some 250,000 victims. Greece’s rulers were divided. Some preferred open collaboration, others banked on “discreetly financing every possible winner”.

Resistance movements emerged. The largest was EAM (the National Liberation Front). EAM was a broad-based political movement established in October 1941. One account tells that its “fight is daily and embraces all levels of existence. It takes place in the people’s market, in the soup kitchen, in the factory, on the roads and in the fields, in every kind of work.” Gluckstein writes, “By the end of the war EAM claimed up to two million members, and the support of about 70 percent of the seven million population…Comprising just a fraction of EAM’s total membership the [Communist KKE] Party could only lead it if the masses freely accepted the party’s policies.”

EAM organised a resistance state. When Germany wanted to conscript labour, a quarter of the population of Athens demonstrated “empty-handed through a hail of bullets… The Athenians charged, insane but irresistible, transported towards their objective with a battle-crazy momentum that could not be touched by mere blood, by a scattering of deaths.” Nazi conscription of slave labour suffered a huge defeat. This resistance generated mass activism. Public utilities, communications, schools and other infrastructure were created by the movement, while women gained unprecedented rights and freedoms.

Without much outside help, the EAM military liberated 80 percent of the Greek mainland. But Britain wanted to retain Greece in its sphere of influence. So while until 1943 it supported EAM militarily, it changed track when the Nazis were beaten. Brigadier Barker-Benfield insisted that “British troops are sent to Greece at the appropriate time. These troops would have two roles, firstly that of hitting the Germans where they are weakest, and secondly, that of ensuring a British military control of the whole country.”

The EAM military controlled large areas of Greece by September 1944. But ultimately the British crushed the resistance movement. This British victory was enabled by the politics of EAM and the KKE Communist party. Moscow’s foreign policy was shaped by its Anglo-American alliance. KKE leader Siantos declared “Greece belongs to a region of Europe where the British assume all responsibilities.” EAM had to choose either continuing its people’s war or cooperating with Britain. This caused heated debate within the resistance. At a crisis meeting in the summer of 1944 even the Communist secretary of EAM denounced the betrayal. But sadly this opposition was too weak.

Churchill instructed General Scobie, “Do not hesitate to fire at any armed male in Athens who assails the British authority or Greek authority…Act as if you were in a conquered city where a local rebellion is in progress.” To consolidate their hold the British forces and their Greek assistants employed the Security Battalions, straight out of the era of Nazi occupation. Churchill preferred collaborators to anti-fascists, and Nazi auxiliaries to the people’s resistance.

But Greeks had much higher expectations about their liberation. Protesting against the security forces, a mass demonstration shook Athens in December 1944. At least ten people including unarmed children were killed by police. Allied repression was ruthless. In December 50,000 Greeks were killed, and in 1945 “a right wing reign of terror murdered 1,289, wounded 6,671, arrested 84,931, and tortured 31,632 Greeks”. Gluckstein concludes, “What happened in Greece was not a difference of opinion within a single world conflict. It was two types of war clashing to such an extent that bombs, tanks, torture, rape and prisons decided the outcome.”

Imperialism and resistance clashed in Poland too. Once an important European power, Poland had been partitioned until World War One. When Nazi Germany invaded Poland, Stalin moved in as well, each imperial power occupying half the country. There was a joint Nazi-Soviet victory parade at Brest-Litovsk even before Warsaw fell on 27 September.

Hitler regarded Poles as “more like animals than human beings”. The Russian army executed several thousand Polish officers at Katyn. The Nazi SS and Russian secret police (the GPU) coordinated their operations. All told, over six million were slaughtered in Poland, of whom 90 percent were civilians and half were Jews.

In Poland upper and lower class forces joined the active resistance. The Home Army, launched from the military, grew to 380,000 fighters. They carried out 25,000 acts of sabotage in three years and by 1945 had killed 150,000 Germans. As in Greece, the resistance tried to organise the whole of society: education, welfare, a court system and a clandestine press. They adopted the tactics of people’s war. The degree of popular radicalisation can be illustrated by the fact that aristocratic cavalry officer General Bor-Komorowski called for expropriation without compensation of large rural estates, a welfare state, nationalisation of industry, and workers’ councils. But active mass resistance also put the Home Army on a collision course with Russia.

As the Warsaw Rising drew near, the US allocated 10 million dollars, on condition that the resistance collaborated with the Red Army. When Russian troops won their first battles in Poland, they demanded the resistance dissolved or joined a puppet Polish army under General Berling. Those who refused were interned or executed.

The rising in Warsaw – the biggest of WWII – began on 1 August 1944. Two motives for it were fear of German deportations of the city’s inhabitants, as well as a Red Army broadcast of a Polish Communist statement, which said, “The hour of action has already arrived.” The resistance had weapons for few of its 40,000 but nonetheless fought heroically.

With the Russian troops at the Vistula River, the resistance expected rapid support against the German army. But their hopes were betrayed. When Churchill asked Stalin to help the resistance, Stalin refused, calling it a “reckless and terrible adventure”. He refused air drops of supplies and arms – and did not allow the other Allies to land or refuel in Russia. After two months the insurgents capitulated. The Nazis devastated Warsaw, and the Red Army entered a virtual ghost city. Stalin had ensured that his imperial share did not contain an active and armed opposition from below.

The war of the world
Gluckstein’s book takes in a number of other countries and other fronts – the Allied bloc, Britain, the US and France, and the Axis bloc, Germany, Austria and Italy, as well as Yugoslavia and Latvia. While in Latvia there was no independent resistance, in Yugoslavia a people’s war prevailed, creating a relatively independent state capitalism after the war. The excellent chapters on Indonesia, India and Vietnam show how talk of liberation went hand in hand with terrible colonial oppression.

If any criticism could be made of this outstanding study, it is that it is too short. At least two more stories need to be told: first, Russia, where Stalin subjected workers to his war aims, and second Japan, where the US committed their greatest war crimes ever with atomic bombs, after which US occupation defended the imperial palace against popular anger. But with rebels taking up arms in Syria and revolution back on the agenda, now is an ideal time to read A People’s History of the Second World War.

Donny Gluckstein’s A People’s History of the Second World War is out now, published by Pluto Press. It is available from Bookmarks bookshop:

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