The Second World War was the greatest tragedy in human history. It lasted six years, killed 60 million people, and tore apart the lives of hundreds of millions of others.
Like the First World War, it transformed the productive and liberating potential of the modern economy into its opposite: an industrial mechanism for killing and destruction.
It revealed the alienation at the very heart of the capitalist system as the war turned the products of human labour into instruments of carnage on an unprecedented scale.
The waste of life and wealth was prodigious. Between September 1939 and August 1945, an average of 27,000 people perished each day in the global conflict.
By 1942, Russian factories were turning out 24,000 tanks and 22,000 aircraft a year. On the first day of the final assault on Berlin in April 1945, almost 9,000 Russian guns fired more than 1,200,000 shells. The bombardment was so intense that walls vibrated in the beleaguered city 60 kilometres away.
This stupendous expenditure of blood and treasure was motivated by imperialism. All the great powers fought to defend or build empires.
Hitler’s Germany was attempting to restore its dominant position in Europe and to secure access to the raw materials, labour reserves, factories, and markets necessary for the continued expansion of German capitalism (see MHW 87).
Mussolini entered the war when it appeared that Germany would be victorious. Still a second-rate power, Fascist Italy needed a strong ally, for its aim was to build an empire in North Africa and the Balkans, and to turn the Mediterranean into an Italian lake.
Russia’s vast size, its wealth of resources, and its focus on basic industrialisation made it more inward-looking. Stalin’s main preoccupation was national security. But to achieve it, he was prepared to attack Finland, annex the Baltic states, and participate in a partition of Poland with Nazi Germany.
Such was the incompetence and brutality of the Stalinist regime that it was almost overwhelmed by the German invasion of June 1941. Mass purges had largely destroyed the officer corps of the Red Army. Millions of men were lost in the first months of the war.
But Russia’s vastness – of space, manpower, and resources – absorbed the shock and swallowed up the German Army. Then, once fully mobilised, Russia turned the tide at the Battle of Stalingrad (August 1942-January 1943). Thereafter, as the Red Army advanced, Stalin’s imperial ambition grew.
The ‘Big Three’ – Stalin, US President Roosevelt, and British Prime Minister Churchill – held a series of meetings in the last two years of the war to discuss the postwar settlement.
At one of these meetings – in Moscow in October 1944 – Churchill wrote the following note and passed it to Stalin:
Romania: Russia 90%; the others 10%
Greece: Britain (in accord with USA) 90%; Russia 10%
Yugoslavia: 50% 50%
Hungary: 50% 50%
Bulgaria: Russia 75%; the others 25%
Stalin looked at the note, changed the Russian proportion of Bulgaria to 90%, ticked the top left corner with his blue pencil, and then passed it back to Churchill. Thus was the fate of tens of millions decided by the latter-day conquerors of Europe.
The war in Europe was won on the Eastern Front. The Russians killed about 4.5 million German soldiers, the British and Americans only about 500,000. This was partly because Britain was much weaker, partly because both Britain and the US were also fighting a full-scale war against the Japanese in the Far East.
Churchill’s main war aim was to defend the British Empire. He favoured war as soon as it became clear that Germany might become hegemonic in Europe. Britain’s rulers always feared a threat to their maritime supremacy and trade from a hostile power in control of north-west Europe.
This threat materialised when new German blitzkrieg (‘lightning war’) tactics based on armoured spearheads brought about the collapse of France in six weeks in May-June 1940. Britain itself was not invaded, but communications with the overseas empire were immediately imperilled.
That is why, until late in the war, Churchill prioritised operations in the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and the Far East over the opening of a ‘Second Front’ in north-west Europe. He wanted to protect Egypt, the Suez Canal, and India. ‘I have not become the King’s first minister,’ he declared, ‘to oversee the dismemberment of the British Empire.’
This made the war harder, longer, and bloodier than was necessary. In 1942, the British had more troops policing India than fighting the Japanese. Nationalist demonstrations were brutally suppressed with shootings, floggings, and gang-rapes of protestors, and 30,000 oppositionists were incarcerated.
A year later, three million died of hunger in Bengal because the British authorities failed to organise relief. Little wonder that some Indians chose to fight on the side of the Japanese in an ‘Indian National Army’.
Britain was a declining industrial and imperial power. It was saved from Nazi occupation by the sea. This meant it could become a platform for the projection of US military power from 1942 onwards. US bombers attacked Germany from British airfields, and US armies invaded North Africa, Italy, and France from British ports.
Britain was financially, economically, and militarily unable to sustain the world war on its own. It needed the US to become ‘the arsenal of democracy’, supplying food, fuel, and armaments on a ‘Lend-Lease’ basis.
But this had nothing to do with solidarity among ‘democratic’ ruling classes. The US had imperialist aims of its own. It hoped to emerge from the war as the dominant global power. This meant opening up the protected markets of the old European empires to US trade.
Lend-Lease was designed to advance US interests at the expense of the British Empire. The terms required the British to liquidate virtually all their financial reserves and overseas holdings.
The choice for the British ruling class was either to give up the war and lose their empire or become an economic and military dependency of the US. They chose the latter. The ‘special relationship’ is still with us.
The British and the Americans were in fact fighting two imperialist wars, one in Europe and the Mediterranean against Germany and Italy, and another in the Far East against Japan.
Japan had emerged from the Sino-Japanese, Russo-Japanese, and First World Wars as a major imperialist power. Japan was industrialising fast, but lacked vital resources. Unions were weak, democracy had not taken root, and from 1927 onwards Japanese government policy was increasingly shaped by the ‘Militarist’ wing of the ruling class.
The Japanese Militarists wanted to replace the British, French, Dutch, and American empires in the Far East with an empire of their own. In 1931, they occupied Manchuria. In 1937, they launched a full-scale war against China. And in 1940, they announced their intention to create the ‘Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere’.
War with Britain and the US was triggered in December 1941 with simultaneous attacks on British-occupied Malaya and the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. Within six months, the Japanese had overrun virtually the whole of South-East Asia and the Western Pacific.
The British maintained large forces both to hold down India and defend its border against the Japanese. The US committed vast naval and marine resources to the defeat of the Japanese Empire. At the Battle of Leyte Gulf in October 1944, the US fleet comprised 225 warships, 34 of them aircraft-carriers, and around 1,500 planes.
In a long war of attrition, the combined industrial power of the Soviet Union and the USA was decisive. The contribution of other states to victory was secondary.
Because of this, the war meant the end not only of the German, Italian, and Japanese empires. It also meant the eclipse of the British and French empires.
The British fought their way into Germany driving American tanks and trucks. The French returned to Paris in the wake of the US Army. Berlin was captured by the Soviet Army advancing from the East.
The Second World War was an imperialist war to re-divide the world between competing blocs of capitalists. Dominant among the victors were the US and Soviet ruling classes. The imperialist world war had created a new bi-polar division of the globe.
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