The Second World War was characterised by primeval savagery. Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia and Militarist Japan waged war with unprecedented brutality, but the ‘democracies’ also committed terrible war crimes
Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, and Militarist Japan had at least three things in common – weak or non-existent labour movements, authoritarian police states, and a way of making war characterised by primeval savagery.
These three things were linked. A strong working class is the basis of democracy. An atomised working class is the precondition for dictatorship. The defeat of revolutionary movements in the 1930s meant the dominance of nationalism, racism, and militarism. It meant a descent into barbarism.
Anti-semitism provided Nazism with its ideological framework. The fantasy of an ‘international Jewish conspiracy’ linking Wall Street and Moscow expressed the irrationality of enraged middle class that was being ruined by the economic crisis yet lived in fear of the working class.
A wider anti-Slav racism echoed millennium-old myths as a justification for new wars of empire: the Untermenschen (‘sub-men’) of the East – Poles and Russians – were to be enslaved or ethnically cleansed to create Lebensraum (‘living space’) for an Aryan master-race modelled on the Teutonic knights of the Middle Ages.
The dual logic of Nazi racism and German imperialism led to large-scale genocide as huge swathes of Poland and Russia were overrun. The genocide intensified as the tide of war turned against the invaders. The Jews in particular became scapegoats for defeat and suffering.
Around six million Poles were killed (16% of the total population). Half were Jews, who were first herded into ghettos, then, from 1942, transported to purpose-built extermination camps.
Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest of the camps, was a huge industrial complex designed with the sole purpose of killing as many people as possible as quickly as possible. Three million died at the camp, 2.5 million of them in its gas-chambers, the remainder from starvation and disease.
The war on the Eastern Front cost the Russians 27 million lives (also 16% of the total population). A majority of these were prisoners-of-war or civilians in the occupied zone murdered by the Nazis.
Stalin’s conduct of the war was almost as brutal. He did not order racial genocide or build death-factories. But he did use his armies as instruments of conquest, he did employ millions of slave-labourers, and he did operate a police terror as ruthless as that of Hitler’s Gestapo.
In 1918, the Bolsheviks had leafleted the German trenches calling on German soldiers to turn their guns on their officers and join the world revolution. In 1941, Stalin dubbed the war against Hitler ‘The Great Patriotic War’ and lauded the achievements of 19th century Tsarist generals.
When the Soviet Army entered German territory in 1944, it began a rampage of state-sanctioned and wholly indiscriminate murder, rape, and destruction. An estimated two million women were raped, many repeatedly. Such was the terror that 14 million German civilians fled their homes and trekked westwards in the largest mass migration in history.
The Japanese occupation of China was as murderous as the Nazi occupation of Poland or the Stalinist occupation of East Germany. At least 15 million Chinese were killed during the Second World War.
These included young women used as slave-prostitutes, prisoners subjected to medical experiments and weapons tests, and local people turned into human cattle and eaten by Japanese soldiers cut off from their supply bases.
The barbarism was not restricted to ‘totalitarian’ regimes. The ‘democracies’ were also imperialist powers committed to the subjugation of native populations – the British in India, the French in Indochina, the Americans in the Philippines.
The ‘democracies’ also committed terrible war-crimes. The carpet bombing of German cities by the British and American air-forces often had no military purpose whatsoever.
The bombing of Hamburg on 27 July 1943 created an uncontrollable firestorm. Houses exploded with the inhabitants inside. People hiding in cellars suffocated or were roasted alive. Tarmac boiled and fleeing people stuck to it like flypaper. Hair burned, eyes melted, flesh was carbonised.
Twice as many people (40,000) died in one night as in the whole of the eight-month London Blitz. Virtually all of them were civilians.
Arthur Harris, head of RAF Bomber Command, was an unashamed advocate of vengeance and terror bombing. His aim was to destroy every major city in Germany. His night-time raids, with up to 1,000 planes, killed 600,000 German civilians and destroyed 3.4 million homes across 64 cities.
But the most terrible fate was that of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan.
On 6 August 1945, the American B-29 bomber Enola Gay dropped an atomic bomb nicknamed ‘Little Boy’ on the city of Hiroshima. The detonation killed at least 45,000 people on the first day, and a similar number from injury and sickness later. Most died slowly and in agony.
Three days later, ‘Fat Man’ was dropped on the city of Nagasaki, killing at least 30,000 on the first day, a similar number later.
Neither city was of military significance. The war was almost over. A demonstration that the new weapon existed would probably have secured a Japanese surrender.
But the US government wanted to display its new-found military power and assert the global dominance it afforded. It also wanted to test the effects of the weapon on a live target.
The people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were, in a sense, the first victims of what would become the Cold War.
The imperialist character of the Second World War trapped the peoples of the world in a war of industrialised attrition and genocide that lasted six years and cost 60 million lives.
The war was made possible by the defeat of the great revolutionary wave of 1917-1923, and by the further defeats suffered by the world working class in the 1930s.
After the First World War, humanity had faced stark alternatives: either socialist revolution or unemployment, fascism, and war. The outcome was decided in large part by failures of revolutionary organisation and leadership.
The price of those failures continued to be paid to the very end of the war and beyond. The destruction of the working-class movement across most of Europe prevented an eruption of revolution like that which had occurred in 1917.
Instead, at the end of the war, the Nazis presided over an apocalyptic crescendo of violence. While Hitler in his Berlin bunker fantasised about non-existent armies, issued impossible orders to ‘fight to the death’, and raved against Jews, Bolsheviks, and traitors, his secret police conscripted teenagers and old men to fight Russian tanks and hanged batches of ‘deserters’ along the roadside.
The Stalinist terror also peaked in 1944-1945: an estimated three million returned prisoners-of-war were sent to the gulags for having surrendered or collaborated, and 135,000 serving soldiers were arrested for ‘counter-revolutionary crimes’.
The post-war carve-up of the world after 1945 – its re-division into two great imperialist blocs – faced only disjointed, confused, and largely unsuccessful challenges. This will be the subject of the next chapter.
Neil Faulkner is a freelance archaeologist and historian. He works as a writer, lecturer, excavator, and occasional broadcaster. His books include ‘A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics‘ and ‘A Marxist History of the World: from Neanderthals to Neoliberals‘.
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