Chris Bambery’s account of World War II shows how imperialist schemes and interests meant that it was far from a simple story of a heroic struggle against fascism, finds Peter Stauber
Chris Bambery, A Marxist History of the Second World War (Pluto 2014), 304pp.
Seventy-five years after Hitler's invasion of Poland, the greatest conflict in human history holds a firm grip on our imagination. No historic event is as dominant on our documentary channels and bookshops as the Second World War, and hardly a year goes by without a Hollywod film being released about it (this year: The Monuments Men and the upcoming Fury). Yet, for all the books and documentaries, there is little controversy about the causes of the conflict and the ideological categories in which it is to be seen. According to mainstream history, it was above all a fight against fascism and therefore a necessary war.
While Chris Bambery does not deny that the fight against fascism played an important role, he contends that matters are more complex. Offering a Marxist reading of events, he argues that like the First World War, World War Two was an imperialist war and thus primarily fought for global dominance. He starts his analysis with an overview of the economic and political situation in the early 1930s, when the global economic crisis heightened imperialist tensions among the great powers.
After World War I, Britain was acutely aware of its declining importance in world politics. The City of London had lost its role as the preeminent financial hub to New York, while Britain went from being the world's largest creditor to being its largest debtor (p.13). The crucial question for the British ruling class, which became more urgent during the 1930s, was how it could maintain its global position. While the French elite faced the same problem as the British, the US rejected the formal imperialism of the old European powers in favour of a more subtle form of domination: ‘Its principal aim was not carving out a formal empire but achieving free access for US capital to every corner of the globe’ (p.30).
As the economic crisis deepened, the US, France and Britain resorted to a policy of protectionism to prop up their economies, attempting to create protected trade areas. For the German economy, which relied heavily on exports, this was a catastrophe. Even before Hitler took power, ‘sections of Germany's ruling circles began to argue that its export problems and lack of raw materials could only be solved by domination of Eastern and South Eastern Europe’ (p.6). When he came to power, Hitler continued this foreign policy and its demand for Lebensraum in Eastern Europe, but he coupled it with his own genocidal aims and his dream of world domination (p.43).
Bambery's account of the run-up to the war and the decisive events that marked the road to 1939 – the occupation of the Rhineland, the Anschluss of Austria, the sell-out of Czechoslovakia and the Munich summit – demonstrates just how pervasive the policy of appeasement was within the British ruling class. Blinded by its sympathetic views on German and Italian fascism, the Westminster elite refused to see Hitler as the main threat to Britain. That role was reserved for communist Russia. It was suspicion of Prague's willingness to enter into an alliance with Russia to defend its independence that enabled Hitler to pursue his aggressive policy in Czechoslovakia: ‘War over Czechoslovakia would have brought France and Britain into alliance with Russia, which pledged military help to Prague. This was something neither power desired, and both became desperate to escape their commitments to Czechoslovakia’ (p.69).
Appeasement continued until well into 1940. In December 1939, the permanent under-secretary of state at the Foreign Office warned Lord Halifax of the need to be cautious about war aims, because if they proclaimed them to be 'democracy' and 'liberty', the enemy would think ‘that we stand for the 'Front Populaire' and the 'Red' government in Spain. And millions of people in Europe (I would not exclude myself) think that these things are awful’ (p.79). Finally, Winston Churchill, with the help of the Labour Party, managed to prevail over the appeasers in his own party and set Britain on a confrontation course with Nazi Germany.
After the Battle of Britain, the second turning point in the war occurred on the other side of the European theatre of war. The failure to conquer Russia and the defeat at Stalingrad was the beginning of the end of the Third Reich. In spite of the non-aggression pact between Hitler and Stalin shortly before the invasion of Poland, the attack on the Soviet Union had to come sooner or later, given Hitler's vision of dominatation over Eastern Europe and Russia. Astonishingly, although Stalin harboured a deep distrust of pretty much everybody, he seems to have trusted the fascist dictator of Germany, so that ‘until 21 June 1941, the day before the invasion, Stalin refused to accept that Hitler was about to launch an attack’ (p.120). It was not least because of this stubborn refusal to build up the defences against Germany that the Russian army was initially helpless in the face of the Wehrmacht's advance.
To bolster Russian resistance against the invading army, Stalin ditched all talk of communist ideals and resorted to simple patriotism, declaring that Russia was fighting a 'patriotic war'. However, the more decisive factor that strengthened the Red Army's determination to resist the invaders, writes Bambery, was the sheer brutality with which the Germans waged war in the east. ‘Millions of Soviet prisoners suffered the ravages of the cold, starvation, disease and brutal mistreatment. Eventually it was decided to ship them back to the Reich to use as slave labour – the huge death toll being matched by low productivity’ (p.122). And it was the invasion of Russia that paved the way for the genocidal extermination programme that was aimed at destroying European Jewry.
Distrust of resistance movements
Bambery recounts the events in Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, Asia and the Pacific with considerable detail, and yet he manages to touch on all the important campaigns as well as the economic conditions that finally led to the breakdown of the Third Reich. His central argument – that the European and American elite did not fight the war primarily to defeat fascism but to safeguard their own influence – comes out very clearly in the chapter on the resistance. In Italy, France, Yugoslavia and Greece, the resistance movements against the Axis occupiers were dominated by communist parties, which was seen as a problem by the ruling classes of the great powers. The success of the Greek EAM against the German invaders, for example, was viewed with increasing nervousness in London. When the German forces began evacuating the country and EAM started taking over the country in October 1944, British forces landed in Patras and entered Athens. ‘As British troop numbers built up it was clear they were there not to fight the Germans, who had already left the country, but to prevent EAM taking power’, writes Bambery (p.184). The successful intervention in Greece ensured that Britain continued to consider itself a key player in the Mediterranean for another ten years – an illusion that was finally shattered by the Suez Crisis in 1956.
Resistance movements were not only viewed with suspicion in London and Washington, but also in Moscow. Stalin tried to prevent any socialist revolution that would have curtailed his own influence. A good example is Italy, where the partisans inflicted considerable casualties on the German occupiers in 1943 and 1944. The communist groups which sprang up all over northern Italy drew on the party's revolutionary tradition, but ‘this was at odds with the direction of the leadership of the Communist party’ (p.175). Palmiro Togliatti, the leader of the Italian Communist Party, met up with Stalin in spring 1944 and was told that a coalition with prime minister Badoglio was necessary in order to unite Italy and fight fascism. On his arrival in Naples, Togliatti prevented the popular movement from taking power, advocating instead recognition of Allied authority. ‘In other words, they agreed not to make a revolution’ (p.176).
Because of the imperial rivalries of the Axis and Allied powers, the potential of the ‘the people’s war’ fought by the resistance, whose aim was national liberation and defeat of fascism, was never realised. As so often, the missing link – the independent organisations of the working class – meant that a revolutionary crisis, like the one that gripped Europe after the First World War, did not happen.
Peter Stäuber is a freelance journalist and translator. He writes for English and German language publications and is a member of the NUJ.
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