The Government are invoking a blitz spirit to promote their agenda when the reality for working people during WWII was much more radical, argues Chris Bambery
On 7 May the German High Command, represented by General Alfred Jodl, surrendered unconditionally to the American general Dwight Eisenhower in Reims, France. Days before, on 28 April Mussolini was executed by Communist partisans; two days later Hitler committed suicide in his bunker in Berlin; on 2 May Berlin surrendered to the Red Army.
That surrender ceremony in Reims effectively excluded the British, the Americans drew up the surrender document without reference to them and no British minister or senior general was present at its signing. The Russians too were excluded, a relatively junior Russian general was flown in to add his signature as a witness but Stalin would not accept this, the Red Army was still fighting to take Prague, and the general was ordered east and into the hands of the secret police.
The British commander, Field Marshal Montgomery, had to stage a separate surrender ceremony for the cameras as did the Russians in Berlin.
It was in effect a statement by the United States that they were the dominant military, economic and financial power in the new world order, that this was the American Century, as Time magazine had proclaimed.
Britain was bankrupt and reliant on the United States financially and for much of its raw materials and food supplies. The United States would demand a high price for this: the dismantling of the pre-war Sterling area which was a protected market made up of the UK, its Dominions (Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa), its colonies and client states like Argentina and Portugal. It also had to accept the beginnings of the dismantling of its Empire – the United States would ally with Gandhi and Nehru in demanding Indian independence.
It was a sign too to the Russians that Washington saw them as their great rival in this new world. For the moment, the Cold War was put on hold because the Americans needed the Russians to defeat Japan. The war in the east continued. The Americans were readying for an invasion of Japan and knew it would be a costly business and were unsure the atomic bomb would be ready to brutally force a surrender. Thus they needed Stalin’s help to invade Japan from the north and via Korea.
We shall come back to VJ Day and the war in the East in August.
The role of Russia
The exclusion of the Russians from the Reims surrender was a studied insult. Three quarters of German casualties were inflicted by the Red Army. Of the 13,488,000 Germans killed, wounded or captured, 10,758,000 of those were on the Eastern Front. The Russians always faced the bulk of German forces, suffering over 26,500,000casualties.
The simple truth, largely excised from the never-ending flow of films, TV programmes, books and articles about the Second World War in the United States and the UK, is that Russia won the war against Germany. Even if the Allied invasion of France in June 1944 had failed or never happened Stalin and his commanders were confident they could defeat Hitler on their own.
This is not to ignore the fact that Stalin fought a war with immense brutality – to his “own” people first and foremost. Nor that in August 1939 he allied himself with Hitler to partition Poland and much of Eastern Europe and in turn had provided the raw materials the Nazis required to conquer Western Europe and then Yugoslavia and Greece. Nor that at Yalta in the Crimea in February 1945 when Stalin met with the British Prime Minister, Churchill, and the US President, Roosevelt, all three were meeting as cynical imperialists to repartition Europe with no concern for the wishes of its population.
Stalin’s price was, given at that time he was in the driving seat, quite modest; control of Eastern Europe which the Russians viewed as a buffer zone between them and the Americans and British. Like them they would exploit these territories and install friendly governments, dictatorships in the East unlike the eventual emergence of parliamentary democracies in the West (excluding Spain, Portugal and Greece and odd pockets like Northern Ireland).
It is no way to excuse Vladimir Putin to grasp that in current post-Stalinist Russia the price paid for winning World War Two following the Nazi invasion of the USSR in June 1941 is key to understanding the apprehension over NATO’s relentless expansion into Eastern Europe and former parts of the USSR in the Caucuses.
Fear of revolution
That Stalin stuck to this bargain also goes a long way to explaining why World War Two did not end as World War One did, with a revolution centred first in Russia, then Germany and the ripples of which spread out across Europe and the world.
Hitler shared a fear of that reoccurring with Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin. When the British rushed troops into Greece in October 1944 after the German withdrawal and the takeover of the country by the Communist-led resistance, which had mass support, and the British then attacked the resistance, re-arming the militia raised by the Germans to suppress those resistance fighters, Stalin signalled he regarded this as Churchill’s affair. He instructed the Greek Communists to lay down their arms and join the British imposed government.
In April 1945 the Communist-led resistance in Northern Italy, which had tens of thousands of fighters, rose up in an insurrection which liberated Milan, Turin, Genoa and Venice long before Allied forces arrived. Armed workers effectively held power in the north but the Italian Communist Party, instructed by Stalin, recognised Italy was in the Anglo-American bloc and following the logic of Yalta their task was to join with the Christian Democrats in creating a parliamentary democracy. When Allied troops arrived, the resistance surrendered its weapons (or in most cases cached them, the rank and file showing good sense) and the liberation committees running the towns and cities surrendered control to the Americans and British and their appointees.
The joy and hopes of many millions of Italians would not be realised and a grubby Italian Republic, very quickly a Christian Democrat party one-man state, was what they got.
Occupation, as it always does, bred resistance across Europe. The Allies viewed that with deep suspicion. So, when Poles loyal to the pro-West government exiled in London, rose up to liberate Warsaw in August 1944, the Red Army on the edge of the city allowed them to be butchered by the Nazis and the city bombed into destruction.
Across Western Europe the resistance was often reliant on exiled Spanish, Basque, and Catalan fighters exiled after their defeat in the Civil War. That was particularly the case in France. In October 1944, believing the Allies would assist them in toppling Franco, Communist-led forces invaded the Val d'Aran, in north west Catalonia. The British and Americans and their ally, the head of the new French Republic, General Charles de Gaulle, did no such thing. No support came. French forces sealed the border and Franco’s army was allowed to defeat the attempt.
Soon Washington would sign an alliance with Franco, giving economic aid in return for US bases in Spain, nuclear weapons included.
The Franco regime had not just carried out mass murder of its own opponents, but had aided directly the German U-boat war in the Atlantic, supplied Hitler with vital war materials and sent troops to join the invasion of Russia. Indeed, while the Blue Division (the Spanish fascists wore blue shirts) was withdrawn in October 1943, when the Caudillo realised the Axis might lose the war, Spanish volunteers continued to fight with the Nazis right to the end in Berlin. Former members of the Blue Division would play central roles during the 30 years of dictatorship which followed VE Day and in the new Spanish democracy which followed Franco’s death.
Across Occupied Europe there was a strong element of civil war as the ruling class collaborated in large part and Germany relied on locally recruited forces to deal with the resistance. Post war a veil was drawn over this as, east and west, the old police, intelligence and military leaderships were recruited into the new security forces. In the west the industrialists and bankers were left to carry on. The Americans, British and Russians were in competition in 1945 to trace former Nazis they wanted to help their military, intelligence and economy, most famously Werner von Braun, the rocket scientist who developed the VI and V2 weapons using slave labour and who was spirited off to the US to head up the space programme.
The Western Allies relied on Stalin and the Communist Parties to contain the situation in 1944 and 1945 as the resistance became a mass force in Greece, Italy, France and Belgium. There was one, partial exception, Yugoslavia. This had the biggest resistance movement of all, led by Josip Tito and the Communist Party. It was always viewed with hostility and suspicion by Stalin who sensed he would not be able to control it. The British and Americans refused to help Tito until Churchill decided they were the ones pinning down German troops and killing Nazis (the British sensed too that post-war the Yugoslav Communists for their own nationalist reasons would not dance to Stalin’s tune).
As the Red Army swept westwards they found Tito controlled most of the country, though both would fight to liberate Belgrade. Stalin agreed after its capture that the Red Army would evacuate Yugoslavia, something he almost immediately regretted. Tito began building his own state capitalist country on Russian lines but that did not suit Stalin who would move to try to topple him. That failed and Yugoslavia under Tito ploughed its own furrow (it was rather successful although it was a repressive one party state though never as brutal as the USSR even post-Stalin).
The possibility of revolution in Europe wasn’t a pipedream. For instance, matters did not stop in May 1945 with the disarming of the resistance. The aspirations of the Italian working class remained, as did the tension between them and the former fascist police, judges and officials that they encountered each day and the industrialists and landlords they worked for who’d put their blackshirts at the back of the wardrobe. The Italian Communist Party constantly hinted that their collaboration with the Allies and the Christian Democrats was a tactical expedient and when the time was right they would take the power. They also pointed to the presence of US and British troops though neither state could have contained any revolutionary outburst and whose troops were mutinying and demanding they be sent home.
That tension exploded in July 1948, when the Communists had been removed from government, and there was an assassination attempt on the life of the Communist leader, Togliatti. The Italian working class unearthed its weapons and took control of towns and cities across Italy on a greater scale than May 1945. The party leadership, in contrast, filed into the Soviet embassy in Rome where they were told to stop this nonsense and get their members off the streets, a view reinforced by Togliatti when he regained consciousness. Their comrades acted on these instructions.
Germany at the end of the war
As it became clear in 1943-1944 Germany would lose the war and the country would be occupied fear of a repeat of the 1918-1919 revolution there began to dictate how the war was conducted. Neither the Western powers nor the Russians made any attempt to encourage social unrest in Germany. When the Russians reached German soil they treated German Communists and Socialists with deep suspicion.
The German population was suffering mass bombing, which until long range fighters could reach Germany in late 1944 was not accurate but the RAF had discovered they could destroy cities by creating fire storms with huge loss of life, starting with Hamburg and culminating in the destruction of Dresden. As in Spain during the Civil War and in Britain in 1940-41 the bombing aimed to alienate the population. In the event, some rallied behind the regime, most sank into apathy.
This was reinforced by the fact the civilian population knew what had happened in the killing fields of the east and that the Jews had “disappeared.” The German army, not just the SS, participated in the mass killings in Russia and the roundup of German Jews could not be concealed, plus there were hundreds of thousands of slave labourers in the Reich working alongside Germans. Thus German civilians feared the arrival of the Red Army, which propaganda Chief Goebbels milked to the dictatorship’s advantage.
The Red Army was brutalised – discipline was severe and brutal – and had witnessed terrible things as the advanced west, including liberating the death camps. They would wreak terrible revenge on German civilians, mass rapes particularly, though attempts to equate this with the Holocaust and the mass killings of Russian civilians and POWs downplays the full horror of the Nazi genocide.
So the red dawn never occurred but in Western Europe and North America it left its mark on the rulers. They knew they had to grant the working class concessions: welfare, good jobs with decent pay and so on. This was the post-war consensus which lasted until the arrival of Thatcher, Reagan and neo-liberalism.
In Russia, Stalin had to ease repression during the war in order to rally resistance to a German invasion which had come close to winning in 1941. As the war drew to an end he began to re-install the full repression of the state. But by the time of his death in 1953 his successors grasped they needed to proffer carrots as well as sticks. Ultimately, after decades which included the suppression of the Hungarian Revolution and the crushing of the Prague Spring, that would undermine the whole Stalinist system in Eastern Europe and then the USSR.
Social divisions in wartime
There is one last thing to say. For millions of people who fought Hitler and Mussolini and made the tanks, planes and ships with which to do so they were fighting fascism. Their rulers exploited that sentiment to prosecute what was, in reality, an imperialist not a people’s war. That reality would become apparent in Greece and Poland, and in the colonial world which I will come back to. But it does mean that for my family the Second World War was one that was seen as necessary to be fought – unlike the 1914-1918 Great War.
In Britain, the ruling class has exploited that to the full. As I write under Coronavirus lock down we are encouraged by Her Majesty no less to deploy the Blitz spirit. It’s beyond the scope of this article but while writing this in leafy West London from which most of the wealthy have fled, as they did in 1939 and 1940, its worth recalling that Churchill had the author J.B. Priestley stopped from broadcasting on the BBC in 1941. Churchill took exception to Priestley’s suggestion ordinary people might take over the London homes of those who’d fled the bombing. People currently stuck with kids in flats with no access to a garden might ponder that suggestion!
During this lock down I would like to suggest three of my favourite books about World War Two, two works of fiction and one a biography. The first is Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy which goes a long way to explain what the British ruling class was fighting for and its sheer ineffectiveness in waging war. The second is Vasily Grossman’s monumental Life and Fate about the battle which was the turning point in the European war, Stalingrad. The third is Milovan Djilas’s memoir Wartime which describes the sheer scale and bravery of the Yugoslav partisan war. I would hesitate to add my own The Second World War: A Marxist History.
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Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.
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- The violence of the Spanish state
- Neil Davidson (1957-2020)
- A People Betrayed - book review
- The Fall and Rise of the British Left - book review
- The Irish election: the centre has not held and the left can win
- Scotland: it's time to break from a broken UK