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.