The patriotic myth of VE Day

Spare a thought for all those British patriots who’d been prudent enough to buy their Victory in Europe (VE) day paraphernalia well ahead of time writes Andy Stowe. Their commemorative table cloth will have set them back £104 and that £59 PVC banner isn’t really the sort of thing you can use at a child’s birthday party – though at £10.68 the union jack bowler hats might always come in useful.  

The Tories had decided that the 75th anniversary of Germany’s surrender was important enough to merit a day off work for lots of people, but not important enough to add a public holiday to the 2020 calendar. Their solution was to cancel the May Day bank holiday which falls on the first Monday of the month and shift it to Friday May 8th. An event which resonates with class solidarity and internationalism is replaced with a carnival of British nationalism and militarism

 “As well as marking the Allies’ victory in 1945, the bank holiday will serve as an opportunity to pay tribute to those who have served and continue to serve in the UK Armed Forces and their families.” 

An estimated 450 000 British soldiers and civilians died between 1939 and 45 and almost every family will have lost someone. The British figure represents a fatality rate of 0.94%. Yugoslavia lost about 10% of its population, the Soviet Union with an estimated 26 million casualties lost about 13%. Approximately 17% of Poland’s population died.  

Churchill – a reactionary imperialist 

What makes the British approach to World War 2 unique is that it is much more a central component of national identity than in any country which wasn’t occupied. This feeds a specifically English contempt for Europe and the Brexiteers seemed to talk about the war nearly as much as they banged on about immigration. Winston Churchill, a thoroughgoing imperialist reactionary, who died in 1965, seems to get more mentions in the press, TV and radio than Keir Starmer; a quick scan of the documentaries on the BBC’s iPlayer show a broadcaster obsessed with a version of 1939-45 history.  

It seems undeniable that in the early years of the war the overwhelming majority of the British working class supported Churchill’s wartime government. What’s lost in all the great man myth making is that his cabinet included a number of prominent Labour figures. This mix of Tories and Labour running the war effort reflected the make-up of public opinion. There was a real fear of Nazi invasion, a nationalist sentiment and a working-class hatred of fascism which was by no means shared among the British monarchy or bourgeoisie.  

Trotsky had predicted as early as 1931, ten years before it happened, that Hitler would launch a war against the Soviet Union if he took power. It was to be an eastward expansion of German imperialism to seize land and natural resources to compensate for their failure to acquire colonies in Asia and Africa comparable to those the French and British had seized in the previous century.  

British imperialism has for centuries had the strategic objective of preventing any other power dominating the European continent and has been willing to shed a lot of blood to achieve that. A successful German domination of Europe would inevitably have been followed by an attempt to seize territories that British imperialism considered its own. What distinguished Churchill was that he argued this more consistently than any other leading figure after the Nazi seizure of power.  

The Second World War was at its heart a war for world domination. None of the states which subsequently went to war against Germany made serious efforts to stop the increasingly violent campaign again German Jews which inexorably led to the Holocaust. The Marxist Ernest Mandel who lived under Nazi occupation, twice escaping from prison, says of their ideology that it was the “ultimate expression so far of the destructive tendencies existing in bourgeois society, tendencies whose roots lie deep in colonialism and imperialism…”  

British, French, Spanish, Dutch, Belgian and American imperialism had pioneered mass murder of “inferior” groups of people to expand the territories they controlled. The Allied imperialists continued their exploitation of hundreds of millions of colonial subject all through the war with the support of the unions and social democratic parties. A famine in India claimed 3 million lives with Churchill remarking that it was attributable to the Indians “breeding like rabbits”.  

German imperialism turned it into what Mandel called “an industrial extermination project”. This is what made the Holocaust and the Nazi atrocities against Europeans uniquely horrific.  

Working class radicalism 

The principal ideological weapon of the powers fighting the Germans was anti-fascism. Churchill’s defeat in the 1945 election shows that the British working-class resisted the appeals to nationalism, opting to vote for a Labour Party which offered a radical social programme. That radicalisation which permeated both the armed forces and the civilian population has been completely wiped from the official story of “great national endeavours” and reactionary nationalism. So too has the Labour government’s use of British troops to suppress revolutionary democratic movements in Greece, Indonesia and Indo-China. This included using recently released Japanese prisoners of war in Vietnam.  

 German defeat became certain when the United States entered the war. Its industrial resources dwarfed those of the other combatants. From 1943, despite huge losses of soldiers and territory, the Soviet Union was again producing weapons at full capacity which, combined with aid from the US, allowed the Red Army to start pushing back the Germans. The Nazis were running out of both equipment and men, being able to replace barely half their losses by late 1943. During the course of the war the Red Army fielded almost 35 million fighters against the Germans, killing more than 3.5 million of them. The Red Army destroyed the Wehrmacht. 

WW2 was in reality several wars. Japanese and American imperialism were fighting for hegemony over the Pacific region; British and German imperialism were fighting for their empires; Chinese, Filipino, Vietnamese liberation movements were struggling against the Japanese; resistance movements in Europe were opposing fascist occupation; British workers were resisting invasion and fighting to destroy fascism.  

At a moment when the new Labour leadership is playing the triangle in the symphony of reactionary nationalism, socialists have a responsibility to patiently explain that the story of the defeat of German fascism is much more complex than the official myths.  

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6 Comments on The patriotic myth of VE Day

  1. Mark Findlay // 3rd May 2020 at 4:20 pm // Reply

    We could also look at casualties on the “other” side. German casualties are broken down here , and must of course include massacres committed by the Nazi regime itself. And then it gets more complicated because many or most of the Jewish victims were not German citizens to start with, but came from the large populations of Jewish people in Eastern Europe and smaller ones in other European countries. However the total figure of about 7 million out of 69 million, over 10%, seems credible.

  2. Mark Findlay // 3rd May 2020 at 4:25 pm // Reply

    …And there was the massive death rate of other countries that were on the “other” side; millions of Japanese killed partly in combat but massively in the hugely destructive bombing raids on Tokyo and other cities, and of course the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

    The figures above are assumed to be citizens of the countries concerned!

  3. This article should have had some reference to how Trotskyist in Britain and elsewhere reacted to the war and to Trotsky’s Proletarian Military Polich. Here is Pierre Broue on that subject:

    How Trotsky and the Trotskyists confronted the Second World War

    This article links the subject matter of our previous issue on the history of the revolutionary movement in Greece to the general theme of this magazine, that of the attitude to be taken up by revolutionaries towards the Second World War. It first appeared under the title Trotsky et les Trotskystes face à la deuxieme guerre mondiale, in Cahiers Léon Trotsky, no.23, September 1985, pp.35-60. Yet again we must offer our thanks to Professor Broué and his conscientious translator John Archer for permission to publish this thought-provoking contribution. It drew a sharp criticism at the time from Pierre Vert, Trotskyists in World War Two, Spartacist, nos.38-39, Summer 1986, pp.46-8, to which Broué addressed a curt rejoinder, Broué Replies in Spartacist, no.40, Summer 1987, and then a more extensive reply, La deuxième guerre mondiale: question de method in Cahiers Léon Trotsky, no.39, September 1989, pp.5-21.

    The debate was extended by the publication of the Documents on the Proletarian Military Policy, the second of the Prometheus Research Series, in February 1989. The implications of the documents were further commented upon in World War II and the Proletarian Military Policy in Workers Vanguard, 17 March 1989, and Workers Hammer, April 1989.

    Three issues of the Cahiers Léon Trotsky have so far been devoted to this historical problem (nos.23, 39 and 43, September 1985, September 1989 and September 1990), and we have been able to publish two of our own, Revolutionary History, Volume I nos.3 and 4, Autumn and Winter 1988. In the first of these appears Jean-Paul Joubert’s essay on revolutionary defeatism (from the Cahiers, no.23) along with an essay written for us by Sam Levy, The Proletarian Military Policy Revisited, which now appears in the Cahiers, no.43. Those who are anxious to explore this theme in more detail are referred to the introductions to the different articles in these two previous issues of our journal, where numerous other references can be gleaned.

    The dilemma of the European Trotskyists at the time is explored in Le Trotskysme et l’Europe pendant la deuxieme guerre mondiale by Gerd Rainer-Horn, a young man who does not always see fit to acknowledge the sources of his material, in Cahiers Leon Trotsky, no.9, pp.49-75, and by Al Richardson, Fourth International? What Fourth International? in Workers News, October-November 1990. Other documentation on the collapse of the leading organs of the movement at the start of the war occurs in Trotsky in 1939-1940: The IEC Does Not Exist, in Spartacist, nos.43-44, Summer 1989, pp.28-31. The politics of the French Trotskyists during the resistance struggle are now becoming more clearly known, both through their propaganda, more of which is now available in Documents sur la politique du Front Ouvrier (POI 1943) et sommaires des numeros du journal Front ouvrier (1944-48), which appeared in Les Cahiers du CERMTRI, no.48, March 1988, and by their courageous activity on the spot as remembered by Andre Calves, Sans bottes ni medailles: Un trotskyste breton dans la guerre, which can be obtained from La Breche at 2 rue Richard Lenoir 93100, Montreuil, France, at a cost of 60 francs plus postage.

    Opinions regarding the American (or Proletarian) Military Policy among the Trotskyists were sharply divided at the time, and remain so today. Readers of the former issue of our journal will gather that the majority of Greek Trotskyists were opposed to it. Stinas expressed himself most bitterly on the politics of the American, British and French Trotskyists during the Second World War (Memoires, Paris, 1989, p.273), and an equally forthright condemnation by Karliaftis takes up the Minneapolis case in particular, in Cannon and the SWP: On the Track of the Social Betrayers in Front of the Second World War: Documents of the Workers Vanguard (Greece), in Internationalist, no.5. January 1983. His criticism is derived from that made at the time by the veteran Spanish revolutionary Grandizo Munis, in Defense Policy in the Minneapolis Trial in International Bulletin, Volume 2 no.4, and afterwards in El SWP y la guerro imperialista (1945) and Le Trotskysme et la Defaitisme Revolutionnaire (both of them still obtainable from Alarma, BP 329, 7564 Paris Cedex I 3). Similar criticisms were made at the time by the Indian Trotskyists (cf. Charles Wesley Ervin, Trotskyism in India, in Revolutionary History, Volume 1 no.4, pp.312). In Britain opinion was divided, the Revolutionary Socialist League itself being torn between outright rejection of the Military Policy by the Militant Centre Group of D.D. Harber and John Archer, together with the Left Fraction led by John Robinson and Tom Mercer, as against enthusiastic support from the Trotskyist Opposition of John Lawrence and Hilda Lane. The other group, the Workers International League, moved from a guarded response to a more whole-hearted agreement with the American SWP as the war went on (cf. S. Bornstein and A Richardson, War and the International, London 1986, pp.12-5, 34-5, 40-2), to the extent of publishing Cannon’s courtroom testimony as a general educational pamphlet on Socialism in three separate editions. And there were still those associated with the WIL, like Fred Kissin, the leader of the Danzig Trotskyists, who felt that it did not go far enough, submitting a contribution of this own to the internal bulletin, The Present War and Socialist Internationalism in April 1943. (Cf. S.F. Kissin, War and the Marxists, Volume 2, London. 1989, pp203-3, which shows that this was still his opinion just before his death.) The agitation of the WIL inside the armed forces has also been touched on by Tony Aitman, ‘The War Within the War’ in the British Militant, 15 September 1989.

    General Marxist analyses of the Second World War should be consulted by those who do not have the time to subject the various problems to closer scrutiny. Among the shorter of these we might mention Phil Frampton, Why the World Went to War, Militant, 8 September 1989, and Marxism and the Second World War, Workers Power, no.122, September 1989. A good overall guide remains Ernest Mandel’s The Meaning of the Second World War, Verso, London 1986) which was sharply criticised by Gemma Forest in Marxism and the Mid-Century (Confrontation, no.3, Summer 1988, pp.147-55) and in her review in this magazine (Volume 1 no.4, Winter 1988-89, pp.45-8; cf. the correspondence upon this in Volume 2 no.2, pp.65-6, no.3, p.50, and Volume 3 no.1, pp.48-9).

  4. Geoff Ryan // 4th May 2020 at 10:33 am // Reply

    Other myths of the second world war are that Britain stood alone and, popular among English football fans, ‘if it wasn’t for us you’ld all be Germans’.
    Britain,that is British capitalism, never stood alone. It had the huge resources of the British empire at its disposal. More or less from day one soldiers were recruited to defence of the empire, not only from the so- called ‘white dominions’ (Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa – all of which contained significant non-white populations brutally oppressed by and in the interests of British imperialism) but also from India.
    Moreover Britain was given significant aid by the United States from very early in the war, long before the USA actually entered the war. Without ‘lend-lease’ and the considerable resources of empire Britain would have been at much greater risk of defeat.
    The Battle of Britain is often cited as proof that it was Britons who defeated Hitler. Certainly the Battle of Britain was a very important episode in preventing the victory of Nazi capitalism. And many brave Britons helped deter the Nazis from attempting invasion. But they were not alone. Canadian and Polish pilots played an important part in winning the Battle of Britain, as well as French, Czech and South Africans.
    Another famous British victory, El Alamein, was also far from an exclusively British affair. Australian, Canadian, Czech, French, Greek, Indian, New Zealand, Polish and South African troops all took part in the battle.
    Victory in North Africa was undoubtedly important in bringing about the defeat of Nazism but the real fight against fascism lay elsewhere. The halting of the German army outside Moscow, the ability of Leningrad to hold out despite horrendous conditions (more Leningraders died in a single year of the war than the entire death toll of Britain and the U.S. throughout the whole war) and the Red Army’s victories at Stalingrad and, especially, Kursk were the decisive events in ensuring the defeat of Nazism.
    The view that ‘plucky’ Britain alone defeated Hitler also ignores the important role of partisan fighters, largely but not exclusively organized by the Communist Parties throughout Europe. In France, Italy, Greece, Yugoslavia, Ukraine and all the countries occupied by the Nazis partisan groups organised resistance. And, unlike conventional armies, women played a major part in the resistance movements.
    Finally, Churchill’s reputation as a great war leader should also be questioned. Actually he wasn’t that good. He was primarily responsible for the disaster at Gallipoli and the Dardanelles during the first world war. He was also largely the architect of the decision to invade Norway in the early stages of the war, another disaster that left Hitler firmly in control of Norway and the loss of allied lives. And he frequently interfered in the conduct of the war in North Africa without any understanding of the real conditions the 8th army was having to deal with. In fact it was only after Churchill stopped interfering and left decision making to his military commanders that British fortunes in the war began to improve. In that regard he resembles Stalin who also, eventually began to allow Red Army commanders to make decisions without interference. Hitler, on the other hand, increasingly overruled his military commanders and insisted on his decisions being implemented leading to more and more disasters for the Wehrmacht and thereby contributing significantly to the defeat of Nazism.

  5. Geoff Ryan // 7th May 2020 at 5:39 pm // Reply

    I inadvertently missed out the considerable contribution of soldiers from the Caribbean to the war effort. I could also have mentioned that Maori and Aboriginals volunteered for the imperial armies in New Zealand and Australia respectively, while the Canadian forces included people from the first nations. The role of Black people has also largely been written out of the dominant, and utterly false, English nationalist account of the second world war.

  6. 70 000 from the partitioned southern Irish state also served. These were driven for the most part by unemployment and poverty. 5000 of them perished. The presence of these Irish troops was no doubt a factor preventing the implementation of widely discussed plans for a British re occupation of Ireland.

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