Unpatriotic History of the Second World War by James Heartfield reviewed by Andrew Murray
Zero Books 556pp £23.99
Battle has been joined, it might be said, over the significance of the First World War. Fought in the trenches of the Daily Mail and The Guardian it pits Michael Gove, believing that Britain fought a just struggle against German aggression, against Tony ‘Blackadder’ Robinson, who has offended by putting a humorous twist on the traditional lions-led-by-donkeys thesis (albeit the Blackadder lions weren’t terribly leonine), and various historians and politicians (including Labour’s Tristram Hunt, who is both) arguing that it is all still too complicated for summary judgement.
Among the unspoken assumptions behind the debate is the consensus that, while the First World War remains controversial the Second World War was a slam-dunk for the good guys – a war for democracy and freedom against the Nazis.
If one can speak of a single truth about war, the truth is that it was far more complicated than that. James Heartfield’s book does a political service in bringing out what are far more than nuances in the official narratives, be they of the “this was their finest hour” or the “ people’s war” variants. His starting point – that describing an episode in which more than fifty million died as “the good war” is barely sustainable – is unarguable, and too seldom stated.
Heartfield – the author of other books on ‘liberal imperialism’, and the undemocratic nature of the European Union – powerfully restates the case that the Second War was rooted in a conflict of rival imperialisms, each seeking to defend or extend their spheres of super-profitable control, all afraid of the working classes above everything, and all ruling over most of their colonial subjects by main force. Neither the British nor the French governments had the slightest interest in confronting Hitler until his expansionism threatened their own vital interests, and were generally supportive of the spread of authoritarian governments as long as the latter left them in undisturbed control of their historic possessions. He cites chapter and verse on all this, rather than relying on ideological assertion.
And even after the Nazi programme of conquest unfolded big business in the western former parliamentary democracies was quite happy to take its place in the new German-dominated European order, as Heartfield illustrates. For the French elite, it was far better to be dealing with Goering than with Thorez. And Heartfield’s examination of the actual record and position of the British Empire points to the dirtiest secret of all – that Hitler’s imperialism differed from Chamberlain and Churchill’s in degree but not in many essentials .
That is to say that there was little done by the Nazis that was not rooted in practices, and racial or class-based assumptions, common to all imperialisms, British imperialism included (indeed, especially, as Britain was the world leader in the Empire field). Hitler went further and faster than others – and the victims of his aggression were European, rather than Asian, African or Arab, which ultimately contributed to his undoing.
The argument of a degree of equivalence between the British Empire and the Nazis is scandalous in what might be called contemporary G7 discourse, but it is not all that controversial in the rest of the world. W.E.B. DuBois wrote that “there was no Nazi atrocity – concentration camps, wholesale maiming and murder, defilement of women…which Christian civilisation or Europe had not been practicing against coloured folk in all parts of the world in the name of and for the defence of a superior race born to rule the world.”
And the great anti-colonial writer Aime Cesaire argued that fascism’s real offence was applying to white people the methods “which until then had been reserved exclusively for the Arabs of Algeria, the ‘coolies’ of India and the ‘niggers’ of Africa.”
Moreover – and Heartfield details this clearly – all the democracies marked the start of the conflict by introducing measures against working-class organisation and civil rights more generally. This did not take them as far as full-throated fascism, although the Germans did not need to suppress the French Communist Party in May 1940, because the democratic French Third Republic had already done so in August and September 1939; but it did mock the idea of a war for freedom.
These considerations which bear on the European theatre of the war – especially in its earliest phases – apply still more strongly in the Asian war, where the conflict was clearly provoked by the drive by both Japan and the USA to expand into the Pacific, China and the Far East, bumping up against the entrenched positions of Britain, France and the Netherlands as they did so.
Most of the peoples of the region were indifferent as to which racist imperial power came out on top, and many welcomed the humiliation of the white overlords by the Japanese in 1942. Others saw inter-imperialist conflict as an opportunity to establish their own national independence.
For example, everyone recalls Gandhi, and many Nehru, as instigators of India’s independence from the Raj. Yet not many in Britain have heard of the man many Indians hold as being as great as either, Subhas Chandra Bose, who concluded a life spent in struggle against the British Empire by organising an Indian National Army to fight alongside the Japanese in order to drive the British from India. When the fiftieth anniversary of India’s independence was marked in the New Delhi parliament recordings of Gandhi, Nehru and Bose speaking were played – and it was the latter who drew the longest applause from the MPs.
Likewise, few know that as the war in the east drew to an end under the shadow of “democratic” mass murder by atom bomb, British soldiers were fighting the Vietnamese and Indonesian peoples to restore the colonial rule of the French and Dutch respectively, just as they were fighting in Greece to crush the anti-fascist resistance. Little wonder that Hitler had earlier been so anxious to forge a global alliance with the British Empire he publicly admired.
Of course, this line of argument, which Heartfield develops persuasively, is open to challenge on several points. The first concerns the specificity of the Holocaust, which has moved in historical accounts over the last generation to often appearing as the central issue of the entire conflict, of which it accounted for about twelve per cent of the victims. This has reached the point whereby, when now-disgraced Tory MP Aidan Burley was first outed as having hosted a Nazi-themed stag party in France, he felt an apology in the Jewish Chronicle was sufficient to deal with the matter, as if no-one else might have had grounds to take offence.
Heartfield regards the mass slaughter of Europe’s Jews, which he rightly locates in a combination of Nazi anti-semitism and the strains of the anti-Soviet war of conquest in the East, as “the very nadir of the depravity of the Second World War”. Certainly, no other ethnic group was marked out for complete continent-wide extermination, carried out with implacable brutality. But the abominations of the death camps and the roving SS murder teams were not aberrant – they sat in a context of global elite racial and social assumptions and organised violence which Hitler carried to its extreme conclusion. The six million Jews who died were victims of imperialist barbarity pushed to the point of irrationality, as were the dead of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
A second objection is that Heartfield, a former member of the contrarian Revolutionary Communist Party (defunct since the 1990s), minimises the changes in the war wrought by the Axis attack on the Soviet Union in 1941. This flows from his assessment of the USSR itself, which he holds to have been a “military-bureaucratic regime”, not capitalist but operating very much as one great power among several. In this he shares in one of the curiosities of Trotksyism, in that while rejecting the political assumptions of the ruling classes on many points it embraced them more-or-less wholesale in relation to Stalin and the USSR. The “military-bureaucratic” formula is strange, since there was no power during the war in which the military were more firmly subordinated to civilian leadership than the USSR.
Anti-sovietism, as much as preservation of their existing conquests and booty, animated Anglo-French policy in advance of the outbreak of war. Anything – and certainly fascism – was preferable to Bolshevism, which threatened the property and social power of the elites. Similarly, Anglo-American strategy, dominated as it was by imperialist rather than democratic considerations throughout, as Heartfield points out, came to elevate the prevention (or at least limitation) of Europe’s liberation by the Red Army as a central concern from 1942 onwards.
This was not a matter of another great-power rival. The imperialist powers did not completely shut their rivals out of their markets, expropriate landowners or nationalise industrial property (except partially and temporarily), let alone elevate working-class based parties to government. This was understood by millions in Europe at the time, and led to the unprecedented phenomena – expressed in the “Tanks for Joe” banners hung in previously militant munitions factories in Britain, and in the vast popularity of Stalin and the Soviet state outlined, for example, in Pavone’s history of the Italian resistance – of ordinary people being at the same time not only ambivalent towards or opposed to the war objectives of their own country but also passionately committed to the aims and struggle of another state, the USSR. In this way – rather than in such strike action as took place in Britain – class attitudes permeated the “national unity” narratives of the Second World War at the time, but this is an aspect which the Trotskyist tradition cannot easily grapple with.
The forced Soviet entry into the war was decisive in shaping the “People’s War” outlook, in so far as it had purchase at the time, in the teeth of the many counter-currents which Heartfield identifies. It strengthened the identification of the working class in Britain with the war effort, while in German-occupied Europe it inspired many to take up arms against fascist invaders and laid the foundations for resistance movements inspired by hopes for social as well as national emancipation. This would not have happened on anything like the same scale without Soviet involvement in the anti-Nazi front. While the impact of resistance movements on the course of military events may have been negligible outside the Balkans (and the special circumstances of the occupied parts of the USSR), their political resonance was profound. The attitude of the Anglo-American political and military hierarchies to the resistance is further evidence that it is hard to understand the course of the war without assigning elite anti-communism a central place.
So, did the right side win World War Two in the end? Or was it possible to refuse the logic of this question and search for other outcomes? Heartfield does not seem to come to a clear judgement. To take the latter question first, the anti-fascist struggle was never going to pose the question of class power in the principle imperialist combatants – Britain, the USA and Germany. In the last-named the revolutionary moment had passed a generation earlier, and the war itself was in part a consequence of the failure of 1919-23. In the US and Britain the labour movement emerged from the war strengthened, unlike almost everywhere else. Out of this came Attlee, the NHS and the “spirit of 45”, all presently the subject of lively nostalgia, but not socialism.
The possibility of transforming resistance into socialist revolution did, however, exist in five European states – Yugoslavia, Albania, Greece, Italy and France. In the first two, the Communist Parties did indeed come to power mostly through their own efforts and introduce socialist measures, while in Greece the probability of such a thing occurring was defeated by British intervention (Harold Macmillan is quoted as observing that ‘the Greek bourgeois class is determined to eliminate the Greek Communists and will fight to the last British solider to do it’). In France it would always have been a long-shot, given not only the Allied military presence but additionally the strength of a Gaullist movement able to trade on the General’s inflated prestige and also to draw all the many Vichy elements to its side. Italy is the most challenging case, and the possibility of the working class overturning Mussolini’s Salo republic and installing its own class regime in the north of the country was a real one. Some would attribute the failure to attempt this to Stalin’s policy, which unsurprisingly set its face against any course of action which would certainly have provoked a civil war in Italy and have risked embroiling the Soviet Union itself in a conflict with its erstwhile allies while the war was yet un-won; and the same considerations which would have confounded a revolutionary movement in France applied in some measure in Italy too, with the whole country occupied by rival foreign powers from 1943 onwards. However, a struggle for power was most likely never on the agenda of Italian Communist party leader Togliatti – “there is something alien about him, something unlike us” as Dolores Ibarruri remarked to Georgi Dimitrov in 1941 – who was certainly in the van of post-war reformism in the Communist movement. And there was no-one to lead revolutions other than the Communists.
Revolutionary change elsewhere in Europe advanced mostly as a consequence of the Red Army’s successes. In the unconquered or restored parliamentary regimes of the west, as the limitations of winning a “war for democracy” became apparent, capitalism continued somewhat modified but largely unimpeded. Still, the working class regained its freedom of organisation which it incrementally banked as real social improvements, civil liberties were restored and, in the east, a more profound transformation of society was set in train, with the old ruling orders shattered and scattered. In the west, domination by Germany was replaced by US hegemony. Clearly the difference between the two was a life-and-death one for Jewish people and for labour activists. That this was a better outcome than the alternative, even in a context of dashed hopes, seems hard to gainsay. The “Peoples War” narrative seems not wrong as much as one-sided.
For the victory of democracy in Europe meant little to the Malaysian Communists decapitated by British occupiers or to the Kenyan Mau-Mau subject to a counter-insurgency regime of decidedly fascist characteristics (the full scope of which is only today gradually emerging from the imperial archives); nor to the Vietnamese people facing a renewed struggle against French colonialism, and the Algerians massacred in their thousands by “free France” even as Europe celebrated victory over fascism. Stalin famously remarked in 1946 that the Second World War “assumed from the very outset the character of an anti-fascist war”, to which he might have added “and maintained to the very end the character of an imperialist war” (as the Communist International had initially characterised it), since both formulations seem largely true.
It is the merit of James Heartfield’s book that it directs attention to the second, reactionary, side of the conflict, drawing on a wealth of well-researched detail, unearthing aspects of the war – like the brazen official racism of the US and British authorities throughout – which have been overlooked or at least neglected in the mainstream narratives. The work has its oddities – the condemnation of the Nuremberg Trials as a legal sham is fine as far as it goes, but justice was nevertheless served and the author’s alternative plan of treating the Nazi leaders as the Italian partisans treated Mussolini hardly seems like a practical suggestion given all the circumstances at the time, not least the absence of a German resistance movement remotely analogous to the Italian in 1945. That aside, there is much of value in this “unpatriotic history”, and the whole stands as a corrective to the bland nationalist underpinnings of the rhetoric of the “last good war”.
Heartfield’s concluding hope, that there may be a possibility of new syntheses in accounts of the War, seems at once too modest and too optimistic. Too modest in so far as he makes a powerful case not merely for a new synthesis but for reinstating anti-imperialism as a core analytical tool in addressing the global conflict, but too optimistic in that the official narratives are not, I believe, fading as fast as he suggests. In an age of unpopular wars, there are vested interests in maintaining that Britain has fought at least one “good one”.
Nevertheless, if most people continue to regard fighting the Second World War as a just cause, this is less important than that they oppose the projects for further imperial conflicts in the 21st century. Last month, the former US Defence Secretary Robert Gates warned that British armed forces had drawn down to the extent that the US could no longer regard them as militarily consequential and, separately, Ministry of Defence sources told The Guardian that Britain is in the grip of a war-weariness in part due to the unpopular occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, and in part because of Britain’s increasingly diverse ethnic and cultural composition. All that, at least, would have been very hard to envisage had Hitler prevailed in 1940.
Andrew Murray is the former chair of the Stop the War Coalition and a contributors to 21centurymanifesto
picture shows the Soviet ambassador Maisky speaking to tank production workers as the first Valentine tank, named in honour of Stalin, is built.