Unpatriotic History of the Second World War, James Heartfield

Jan 29th, 2013 | By | Category: Articles

The myth of the 'Good War'

At the conclusion of the First World War, militarism was widely condemned by the intelligentsia, deeply unpopular among working class leaders - a scepticism that entrenched pacifism and socialist anti-militarism in the 1920s and 30s.

nyemodIn September 1934, US Senator Gerald Nye opened a hearing into the munitions industry in the First World War – the ‘merchants of death’ – saying: ‘when the Senate investigation is over, we shall see that war and preparation for war is not a matter of national honour and national defence, but a matter of profit for the few.’ Neutrality Acts in 1935, 1936 and 1937 forbad US citizens from trading arms with belligerents, and from lending to them. In Britain, in 1933 the sons and daughters of the British ruling class at the Oxford Union voted ‘That this House will in no circumstances fight for its King and Country’. In July 1935 Dick Sheppard chaired a meeting of 7000 pledge signatories in the Albert Hall – soon 100,000 took the pledge against war. Both the German and Soviet Republics were born out of popular dismay at the losses in the war.

By contrast to the First World War, the Second is seen in retrospect as the Good War. The ideology of the Good War was manufactured from the outset, by radicals who wanted to steer the conduct of the war towards their preferred ends - anti-Fascism, social reform and popular accountability. The entry of the Soviet Union into the war and the mobilisation of partisan armies in Europe reinforced the myth of the Good War. The opening of the death camps identified the Nazi regime with atrocities that allied propagandists never dared allege. Post-war accommodation of popular aspirations like the G.I. Bill and the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation in America; or mines nationalisation and the NHS in Britain cemented the perception of a social transformation allied with the People’s War. As time passed, the myth of the Good War became even more intense, as all political traditions, East and West derived their popular authority from interpretations of the war.

The People’s Democracies of Eastern Europe depended on the Popular War Against Fascism as their founding myth. British socialists peoplerevoltderived their ideology from the ‘social revolution’ of the war. French and Italian Communists vied with Gaullists and Christian Democrats over ownership of the resistance struggle. All of the permanent members of the UN Security Council derived their status from the allied victory. The Israeli state gave an organisational form to the supposed centrality of the Holocaust to the European disaster. US troops stationed in Germany and Japan were policing the post-war settlement, as were the Soviet Troops in Eastern Europe. All relied on the Good War ideology to justify their status, and continued to manufacture ever more black and white versions of it. Successive war-time anniversaries have become a battleground of interpretation for just that reason.

For all that, the Good War is a myth.

The phrase, ‘people’s war’ was coined by Woodrow Wilson, when he said ‘This is a people’s war, not a statesmen’s.’ But Wilson was not talking about the Second World War, he was talking about the First World War, which most people since have come to understand was a General’s and a Banker’s war.

It was much more common to talk about the Second World War as a People’s War. In the Hollywood melodrama of Britain’s war, Mrs Miniver, the rector of a bombed church is given this speech:

This is not only the war of soldiers in uniform, it is a war of the people – of all people – and it must be fought not only on the battlefield, but in the … heart of every man, woman and child who loves freedom. This is the people’s war. This is our war.

peoplewarThe phrase had been taken up by the Chinese Communists fighting against Japan and was later taken up by many radicals seeking to invest the Second World War with a popular purpose, like the Indian Communists who called their newspaper The People’s War (though many Indians disagreed). It was true in a sense that whole populations were drawn into the war in a way that they had not been in any previous conflict, and indeed that popular identification with the war aims of the participants was far more important. Still the death toll of more than 60 million, 2.5 per cent of the world’s population, suggests that this was a war against the people.

The elites that fought the Second World War had enriched themselves at the expense of their own peoples, but still they needed more. They had run out of ideas about how to grow, and their countries were at a standstill. They silenced their critics at home and left their democratic chambers as empty shells. More and more it seemed to those elites as if the barriers they faced were those raised by other countries, and the solutions to their problems were to be found abroad. They denounced each other’s trade barriers while raising their own. They demanded territory and resources in far-flung places, and prepared to take or defend them by force. They drove their own people even harder to build the weapons to fight. And they dreamt of seizing the industries of their neighbours. Patriotism turned to hatred for ‘the enemy’, as it silenced dissent at home.

Russia’s entry into the war gave the allies a much needed opportunity to re-brand their war as a ‘People’s War’ against Fascism. Though the Communist Party newspaper the Daily Worker had been banned in December 1940, the British took advantage of the change to recruit more radicals into the war effort.

The war when it came was the greatest descent into barbarism ever. Sixty million soldiers and civilians were killed outright, and millions more were starved to death. Under military orders tens of millions were put in the line of fire, dragooned from one end of the world to another in miserable and often terrifying ways. People were enslaved in their millions too, put to work in factories, mines and plantations at gunpoint. Millions more were told where they had to work by officials who fined or imprisoned them if they would not. Almost all the participants put their citizens on rations, sharply cutting back the amount of goods given over to the people, feeding instead their voracious war engines.

At the end of the war eastern and southern Europe was left in the hands of military dictators. Even in Western Europe where ordinary people had fought to free themselves they were disarmed and put under military rule. In the east Vietnam, Korea and Indonesia were invaded a second time and put under European rule. The defeated powers, Germany and Japan faced military occupation and the destruction of their industries. The rest of the world gloated as their ‘guilty’ people suffered hunger and repression. Not a new beginning, but long years of bitter austerity, not freedom and democracy, but Cold War paranoia and authoritarianism followed the brief victory celebrations.

This is the history of the Second World War that they will not tell you. Instead we have an official, sanitised version, where the Allies fought for freedom and plenty. All the race-hatred, imperial land-grabbing and repression that took place, they tell us, was on the part of the defeated Axis powers, and so ended with the allied victory.

In the defeated, Axis countries, historians have had to confront the myths of their own war propaganda. Though some might prefer to re-write history and reinstate the case for German, Italian or Japanese militarism, most have faced up to the barbarities of those wartime regimes. But the victors, their victory sanctifying the outcome as the best possible, have not had to think about what was done in their name. Retrospectively, it seems that any atrocity is acceptable if it meant bringing a halt to the enemy’s worse crimes.

Too often the history of the Second World War is reduced to one defining atrocity: the extermination of six million Jews at the hands ofatombomb the German authorities. There is no doubt that this was an act of unparalleled barbarism. But sadly the massacre of defenceless citizens was not unique, but common to all the participants. What is more, racial purification and racial oppression were means that the Nazis copied from authorities in America and the British Empire. That the architects of the Final Solution were executed, while those of the Bengal Famine, the massacre at Katyn and the bombings of Dresden and Hiroshima were decorated, was Victor’s Justice. That history still remembers the one, and turns away from the other, is Victor’s History.

The custodians of Victor’s History tell us that it is wrong to compare the atrocities done by the Axis with those of the Allies. ‘Moral equivalence’, they say, must not be allowed. That is the deadly logic of warfare – ‘my country, right or wrong’. But equivalence is what morality means: equivalence between all people, no matter which country they come from; that they should be judged by their deeds, not by the colours of their flags.

Strip away the national and racial labels. Look beneath the fog of war. The Second World War was a class war. It was a war where the governing elite lorded over those who worked in factories and fields. ‘A bayonet is a weapon with a worker at either end’ runs the old slogan. The American financier Jay Gould’s answer to the challenge of industrial labour was ‘I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half’. In 1939 the capitalist elite had run out of answers, and lived in fear of the great mass of working people that made their millions. Their solution was to get one half of the working class to kill the other half. The elite said ‘obey us, or join the enemy’. This is what came to be known afterwards as ‘the People’s War’, a war that saw sixty million of the people slaughtered, and the rest put under martial law, while Generals became Kings and arms manufacturers became as rich as Croesus.


unpatriotichistoryUnpatriotic History of the Second World War

ISBN: 978-1-78099-378-2, $42.95 / £23.99, paperback, 557pp

EISBN: 978-1-78099-379-9, $9.99 / £6.99, eBook

Sixty million people died in the Second World War, and still they tell us it was the 'People's War'.

The official history of the Second World War is Victor's History. This is the history of the Second World War without the patriotic whitewash.

The Second World War was not fought to stop fascism, or to liberate Europe. It was a war between imperialist powers to decide which among them would rule over the world, a division of the spoils of empire, and an iron cage for working people, enslaved to the war production drive.

The unpatriotic history of the Second World War explains why the Great Powers fought most of their war not in their own countries, but in colonies in North Africa, in the Far East and in Germany's hoped-for Empire in the East. Find out how wildcat strikes, partisans in Europe and Asia, and soldier's mutinies came close to ending the war. And find out how the Allies invaded Europe and the Far East to save capitalism from being overthrown.

James Heartfield has worked as a journalist, for a television company, as a lecturer and editor. He wrote The 'Death of the Subject' Explained (2006) and The Aborigines' Protection Society (2011).
James lives in North London with his wife and two daughters.

Website: www.heartfield.org

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