Second World War: The Battle of the Books

James Heartfield surveys the struggle to define the Second World War.

James Heartfield

Topics Books

‘How Josef Goebbels, the original spin doctor must be chuckling’, wrote Tony Rennell, reporting demands from German newspapers that the Queen apologise for a war crime: Goebbels’ ‘clever manipulation of the truth about the Allied bombing of the city of Dresden still has life in it’ (1). Rennell is co-author with original Gulf War hero John Nichols of Tail-End Charlies: The Last Battles of the Bomber War, a stout defence of bomber command.

The Allied cause, victorious 60 years ago, has been taking a battering in recent historical investigations, and sympathy for German victims of warfare is on the rise. Jorg Friedrich published The Fire: Germany under Bombardment 1940-1945, which denounced the British massacre of German civilians in 2003 and branded Winston Churchill a war criminal. In the same year Anthony Beevor published Berlin: The Downfall, reviving accounts of atrocities committed against Germans by the invading Soviet Army.

German suffering was the theme, too, of WG Sebald’s literary account of aerial bombardment The Natural History of Destruction (2003), or Gunter Grass’ Crabwalk (2000). Crabwalk dealt with the sinking of the German liner ‘Wilhelm Gustloff’ in January 1945 by a Soviet submarine, when 8000-9000 passengers, mostly refugees and wounded soldiers, drowned. WG Sebald, German-born professor of English Literature, gave lectures on German inability to talk of the suffering at the hands of Allied bombing in 1997, published in English after his death. If German suffering was a taboo, it was one that was broken by a British historian, Max Hastings. In 1999 he published Bomber Command, which revived wartime criticisms of Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris.

‘The aim of the Combined Bomber Offensive’, said Harris in 1943, ‘should be unambiguously stated [as] the destruction of German cities, the killing of German workers and the disruption of civilised community life throughout Germany’ (2). In 1942, 45,732 tonnes of bombs were dropped on Germany, with just four per cent of them aimed at industrial targets or ports. Incendiary attacks were made on Cologne, Hamburg, and then Dresden, where 135,000 were killed (3). But the British Air Ministry preferred to maintain a public disavowal of the policy, while endorsing it in private.

Tony Rennell’s surprise at the rewriting of British history to damn Harris and sympathise with his German victims is understandable, if his anger is not. In 1992, I went to court to support anti-war protestors who had thrown red paint over the statue of Harris in the Strand, just as the Queen Mother was unveiling it. I can remember my surprise when the judge took time to advise the jury that the case against Bomber Harris was a strong one, at which point the case against my friends collapsed. In 1992, the judge’s distaste for British bombers was a little eccentric, but in the years since, it has become a lot more fashionable to criticise the allies.

How things have changed

Ten years ago, on the fiftieth anniversary of end of the war, the mood in Britain was very different. All through the early 1990s, the anniversaries were notching up, with ever-larger official ceremonies to honour the day that Britain defeated Nazi Germany. Two thousand billboard advertisements were put up, special D-Day packs sent to every school, street parties were organised and then prime minister John Major called it a great opportunity to ‘mobilise’ the nation. Of course mobilising the nation meant ratcheting up the anti-German sentiment: Chancellor Kohl was refused an invitation to the D-Day celebrations, while the press rounded on French hoteliers for cancelling Normandy veterans’ reservations at the last minute.

The mood of national celebration in 1995, though, was pretty forced, and veterans complained about the lack of seriousness (one Heritage Ministry memo recommended ‘spam-fritter frying’ to get into the wartime spirit). The ruling Conservative government’s nostalgia for wartime victories was sharpened by a long line of by-election defeats. More broadly, the British establishment was reeling from the events of 1989, when the collapse of the East German government led to a rapid re-emergence of a united Germany. The preceding Tory prime minister Margaret Thatcher had concluded that the German character was marked by ‘aggressiveness, assertiveness, bullying, egotism, excessive exaggerations, inferiority complex, self pity, sentimentality’, according to a minute drawn up by aide Charles Powell of a seminar at Chequers in 1990 (4). The previous summer, Thatcher begged no less a person than Poland’s Soviet-backed military dictator General Jaruzelski: ‘We cannot allow German reunification’, and ‘you have to protest against it very loudly!’ (5).

In the 1990s, the spectre of German revanchism was rehearsed in books like Robert Harris’s novel Fatherland (1992), which imagines Britain under Nazi rule, or David Marsh’s 1992 book Bundesbank: The Bank that Rules Europe (‘The Bundesbank has replaced the Wehrmacht [German army] as Germany’s best known and best feared institution’). In journalist Ian Buruma’s Wages of Guilt (1994), a comparison between the way that Germans and Japanese have atoned for the past, the criticisms of Germany seem confused: is it that the Germans are intrinsically aggressive, or that they are over-compensating for their past to the extent that they will not take on their military responsibilities (as in waging war on the ‘new Hitler’, Saddam Hussein).

Of course, official celebrations are a lot more sensitive to political pressures than historical research, and it would be wrong to reduce the latter to ideologically driven accounts.

In fact, even then the official attempts to revive a celebratory history of the British war effort tended to provoke historians to look for more provocative angles. Professor John Charmley’s Churchill: End of Glory (1993) challenged the war-time leader’s own claims of prescient anti-Fascism and argued that leaving Hitler to exhaust himself invading the USSR would have been a better policy; Clive Ponting, a civil servant who had risked jail for telling secrets of the Falklands war to the press, published his own scathing Churchill (1994), highlighting the war-leader’s racist and reactionary views; in the same year, Tory-minded historian Andrew Roberts rehearsed some of the same material in his essay on Churchill and the ‘Magpie Society’ in Eminent Churchillians. The more that the historians looked back over the Allied war effort, the more problematic it seemed to be.

In the immediate postwar years, there were no such doubts. Not content with being war leader, Churchill was also the official historian of the war, writing a valedictory six-volume history. Churchill’s version emphasises the heroism of the British people, standing alone against Germany, before the Allied campaign took the war to Europe. Labour Party ideologue Michael Foot (who became party leader in 1983) wrote the definitive exposé of the Conservative Party leaders’ policy of appeasing Hitler, The Guilty Men, under the name Cato in 1940. An official version of the Second World War, in which the people as a whole stood up to Hitler, was hammered out by the Ministry of Information, the BBC and the Army Bureau of Current Affairs. After the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, even Communists could get behind the war effort, and in a curious inversion of trade union activism, the Communist Party of Great Britain organised ‘Joint Production Committees’ to spur workers on to greater efforts (see Richard Croucher, Engineers at War, 1982).

A flavour of the domestic mobilisation can be got from Australian Ian McLaine’s Ministry of Morale (1979), which uses official records to describe the officials’ attempts to galvanise the population, and from Angus Calder’s The People’s War (1969), which uses the records of the ‘Mass Observation’ archive at Sussex University to describe the day-to-day lives of ordinary Britons. As McLaine shows, official propaganda struggled to persuade people to hate ordinary Germans (there was an official ‘Anger Campaign’ in 1941). Lord Vansittart’s radio broadcasts formulated the view that the German character was intrinsically authoritarian. But at the end of the war, official accounts of the concentration camps, like Edward Murrow’s radio broadcast of the opening of the Buchenwald or Lord Russell’s Scourge of the Swastika: A Short History of German War Crimes (1955) seemed to give explanation enough of the rightness of the Allied cause and the ‘collective guilt’ that Vansittart attributed to the German people.

Rewriting the official history of the Second World War, though, has long been the temptation of those who were alienated from the post-war political arrangements. On the far right, reactionaries resisted the account of the anti-Fascist war. Throughout his extraordinary childhood, Trevor Grundy had been told that ‘Churchill was Jewish’, that the war was a mistake and that ‘the King was there to protect people from Communists and Jews’ (see Memoirs of a Fascist Childhood, 1998). More seriously, right-wing historian David Irving sought vainly to prove Hitler had not been responsible for the killing of six million Jews (Hitler’s War, 1977), and since 1988, that it never happened. Irving was also among the first to characterise Dresden a war crime in The Destruction of Dresden (1963).

For the mainstream account of the war, Holocaust revisionists like Irving have always been something of a godsend, representing the lunatic fringe of rewriting history. In many countries, Germany among them, Holocaust denial is a crime – which sounds like a sensible provision, until you realise that it makes the law courts into the final arbiter of acceptable publication.

But the temptation to rewrite the history of the Second World War is not restricted to the far right. Since the initial alliance was struck between the Britain, America, and the Soviet Union to fight Nazi Germany in 1941, there has always been a strand of radical opinion that challenged the official version of the ‘People’s War’ from a wholly different perspective from that of the right-wingers.

The People’s War?

There were things about the official version of the People’s War that did not seem entirely plausible. Caribbean-born writer CLR James wrote articles throughout the war about the struggle against racism in the army that was supposed to be fighting fascism, collected as Fighting Racism in World War Two (1980). Another Caribbean writer, Franz Fanon, who went on to fight with the Algerian Liberation Front, was attached to the Sixth Regiment Tirailleurs Sénégalais in the Free French Army in the war (6RTS). The 6RTS, much feared by the Germans for their tenacity in close quarter fighting, took part in the liberation of France, but were denied ‘the military glory of crossing the Rhine into Germany’ (6). On 12 April 1945, Fanon concluded that he had joined up ‘to defend an obsolete ideal’ (7). On 8 May, as Paris celebrated its liberation, crowds came out in Algiers adding banners for their own independence. French troops opened fire on the crowd, inaugurating five days of skirmishes that left 40,000 Algerians dead (8). In the Far East, too, militants remembered the end of the war as the re-imposition of colonial rule (9).

European partisans, the ‘Resistance’, also had mixed feelings about the Good War. On the one hand, their actions against the Nazi occupiers were cherished by nations that otherwise had only a history of collaboration to look back upon (‘the Belgian resistance, that was after the war’, mocked the artist Marcel Marien). But on the other hand, the partisans’ contribution was swept aside by the invading allies, who saw them as a dangerous menace to the restoration of good order, especially as they were often Communist-led. Gradually stories emerged of the grotesque lengths to which the allies went in order to disarm them.

Roberto Battaglia’s Story of the Italian Resistance, published in 1953 (1957 in English) explained how the partisans had been encouraged to take on the German army and liberate the northern cities by the Allied invasion from the South. On 10 November 1944, however, General Alexander announced over the radio that there would be no advance until the spring. ‘Having received the assurance that they would not be subjected to a major attack by the allies during the winter, they decided to make the most of the respite and deal the partisans a crushing blow.’ (10) British historian David Ellwood’s Italy, 1943-45 (1979) and former intelligence officer Basil Davidson’s memoir Special Operations Europe (1981) confirm the view that the Allies left the partisans to the Wehrmacht’s mercy because they did not want to face an indigenous challenge to their authority.

The Greek partisans had, if anything, a worse tale to tell. Their mass partisan army, ELAS, also dominated by Communists, had succeeded in liberating much of the mountainous north of the country (11). But in exchange for recognising Soviet authority in Eastern Europe, Churchill had Stalin’s agreement that Greece would be in the Western zone of influence – a deal he imposed with military force, telling General Scobie ‘do not hesitate to act as if you were in a conquered city where a local rebellion is in progress’ (12). Astonishingly, the Allies had already sent an intelligence officer, Captain Don Stott to negotiate with the Gestapo chief in Greece, Hermann Neubacher, the transfer of fascist militias to allied command to defeat ELAS. ‘This war should end in a common struggle by the allies and the German forces against Bolshevism’, Stott told him (13). After the war, ELAS was isolated by the allies, and then gradually annihilated by a Greek Army made up of former fascist militias.

The reason that the history of the Second World War is so ripe for revision is that the official account is so profoundly ideological. The war was not fought to save the Jews – the Allies were largely indifferent to Jewish suffering. Nor was it fought to defend democracy – the Allies had at best a pragmatic attitude to that. The British and American governments fought to defend their own economic interests against their German, Italian and Japanese rivals. Stabilising capitalism in Europe was a secondary goal. The people were persuaded to make sacrifices to defeat fascism, but ended up with another form of class rule. But that was the account of the war that would not get past the official version as long as its proponents retained power in Europe.

The embittered memoirs of the European partisans remained marginal curiosities for the most part, as left-wing opinion embraced the post-war settlement as a great victory for the people. Radicals tended to contest conservatives for ownership of the People’s War, rather than criticise it. Characteristically the radicals’ claims were framed as attempts to fulfil the promise of the wartime alliance. There was an underlying dissatisfaction with military discipline that was ridiculed on radio in the Goon Show, which ran through the 1950s, and made more explicit in Spike Milligan’s Adolf Hitler: My Part in his Downfall (1971). It was claimed recently that Milligan had been a member of the British Union of Fascists, and certainly he was a misanthrope, but also a keen observer of the absurdities of war. Pointedly it was Harold Macmillan’s Conservative Party, not the left, which succeeded in appealing to popular dissatisfaction with wartime austerity.

Elsewhere in Europe, national stories were much more problematic than they were in Britain. The Italian government sponsored an official Istituto Nazionale per la storia del Movimento di Liberazione in Italia (INMLI) in 1949 to try to moderate the radical accounts. Their efforts were mirrored across Europe, and in 1958 the first International Conference on the History of the Resistance Movements was held in Liege (14). Among Greek exiles from the military regime in France and America, who would make up the new ruling class many years later, the record of ELAS was treasured as a serviceable national myth (15).

Though the full ramifications are beyond the scope of this essay, the problem was most acutely felt in Germany itself. German history provided little in the way of national pride. Though there is some good research on attempts to deal with the trauma of complicity in fascism, non-German accounts of German attempts to understand the past are generally too accusatory to be entirely trustworthy. For example the recent War Stories, by University of California history professor Robert Moeller, is convincing when he shows how politicians and filmmakers diluted the impact of the Holocaust by emphasising the victimisation of German prisoners of war in the Soviet Union, and of Germans expelled from Eastern Europe.

Moeller’s Vansittartism is on display, however in his frustration at what he assumes is a rejection of German ‘collective guilt’. Confusingly, Moeller challenges the historical account that ‘transformed Germans into victims of the Nazis’ war and attributed responsibility for the crimes of National Socialism to a handful of faceless individuals, not a thoroughly fascistic social order’ (16). But it is the idea that every German was guilty that ensures that the individuals who were personally responsible for the Nazis crimes remain faceless. Against Moeller’s claims, the doctrine of collective guilt imposed by the allies was taken up eagerly by the post-war German elite, the better to ensure that nobody could point the finger at them individually.

Still, economic growth moderated the bad feelings of the immediate post-war period, and only the Communist Party protested when the German Wehrmacht was rearmed to fight the Soviets. Militarism was losing its appeal in the 1960s, and films and plays like Joan Littlewood’s Oh What a Lovely War, Tony Richardson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade, and Peter Nichols’ Poppy mocked warmongering. The hippy pacifistic mood was not to last, though. With the return of the recession in the 1970s strident chauvinism was once again on the rise, especially in Britain. As the country lost out to its European rivals, economic nationalism was the rallying call of the Labour left. They were thrilled at the popular chord that their campaign against the Common Market struck, and increasingly painted their demands in Red, White and Blue (17).

Another wartime theme that re-emerged was austerity. As a child growing up in the 1970s, I can remember my mother’s anger that the wartime slogans of her childhood were revived in the 1970s to justify austerity measures at the school where she taught: ‘make do and mend’, she was told, when asking for teaching materials; ‘put that light out’ was revived as part of the ‘Save It’ energy campaign. Nostalgia for popular sacrifice was an enduring theme of the Labour government official publicity throughout the 1970s, though it was the Conservative Heath government that went so far as to print up 18million petrol ration books to cope with the energy crisis (18).

The national myth was invoked competitively by Labour and Conservative politicians right up to 1983, when the wartime propagandist Michael Foot led Labour. Now two versions of British nationalism were vying for popular support. Tory leader Margaret Thatcher struck a Churchillian pose in the war against Argentina over the Falklands, which Foot was incapable of challenging. Labour in turn manufactured a rose-tinted version of the Blitz Spirit, when we all pulled together. But it was the post-war welfare state created by Attlee’s government that was the focus of their nostalgia, just as Thatcher was dismantling it. (Labour’s little patriots loved to point out that Thatcher had avoided military service working as a chemist, though women were not often in front line service anyway.) One Labour Party candidate, Peter Tatchell, even wrote an account of non-nuclear Socialist militarism, honouring the Communist Party soldier Tom Wintringham, Democratic Defence (1985).

It was this ideological contest over the meaning of the Second World War that generated both a greater interest in patriotic war stories, but also a greater appetite for more critical versions. The New Left generation of historians like Gabriel Kolko, Kees Van Der Pijl and Ernest Mandel had already started to criticise the realpolitik behind the allied war effort (19). In 1980, Nicholas Harman published Dunkirk, the Necessary Myth, after researching a television history. Harman was disappointed to discover that the famous civilian flotilla of tiny ships never did cross the channel to rescue the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), and more so that the BEF concealed its retreat from its French and Belgian allies, to their great cost. Harman was less willing to believe Liddell Hart’s argument that Hitler had let the BEF escape, telling his staff that he wanted a ‘reasonable peace agreement’ with Britain immediately so that he would be ‘finally free’ for his ‘great and real task: the confrontation with Bolshevism’ (20).

As a former intelligence officer working with the Italian partisans, Basil Davidson’s 1981 memoir of the darker chapters of the Allies’ war is inspired by a need to redress the balance. In 1991, Angus Calder, whose People’s War was widely read as popular patriotism, published The Myth of the Blitz, which showed how ‘we can take it’ was a Ministry of Information slogan cruelly at odds with the suffering of ordinary people.

It was not just radical criticisms of the People’s War that were being aired, however. Conservatives, like John Charmley, who did not approve of the compromises that had been made with the left were also willing to ask questions. In Germany, it seemed for a while that the collapse of the Soviet bloc would justify a corresponding revision of the history more sympathetic to the Third Reich, with historians like Ernst Nolte and Joachim Fest emphasising that Hitler’s barbarism had been a reaction to the greater, or at least prior barbarism of the Soviet Union.

In Italy, Renzo de Felice led a frontal assault on the ‘resistance myth’. In the Claude Berri’s 1990 film Uranus, the Communists in the resistance are portrayed as villains, while the collaborators are treated sympathetically. Tobias Abse suggests that ‘The end of the Cold War has brought the measure of anti-fascist consensus created by the Allied victory in 1945 to an end’ (21). In the end, though, the version of history Germans have embraced is not one that lauds the Third Reich, but despises it, more wallowing in guilt.

Having lived under the shadow of the Second World War for so long, I for one am pleased that the myths of the People’s War are coming apart. There are some excellent new critiques of Allied intentions, like Stanley Winer’s Between the Lies or Jacques Pauwels’ The Myth of the Good War, as well as Edwin Black’s IBM and the Holocaust. The positive identification with the Allied cause is much less overwhelming than it was, and there is much greater room for a critical examination of those events. More optimistically, the history of the Second World War plays less of an exhortative role than it used to. It is a blessing not to live under the shadow of a heroic past that was only ever invoked to demand obedience to the status quo.

But looking at today’s versions of history, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that hero-worship has been replaced with something rather more morose. The appeal of films like Downfall, or Laurence Rees’s The Nazis: A Warning from History, or Mark Mazower’s excellent book Dark Continent is something like a pornography of shame. They do not tell the story of the Nazis’ misdeeds to condemn Germans, thankfully. But instead they rehearse the same story to dwell on the evil that lurks in us all.

German Ambassador Thomas Matussek is surely right when he says that British schoolchildren get an unpleasant picture of Germans, taught exclusively the history of German Fascism (22). More destructive though is the vision of humanity overall that these British schoolchildren get from history which, according to the Historical Association, is excessively narrow, with a ‘heavy concentration on Hitler’ (23).

James Heartfield’s Creativity Gap is published by Blueprint magazine this month. His own revisionist essay ‘What really happened in the Second World War’ is published here.

(1) Tony Rennell, ‘Hitler was evil. Our bombs were not’, Observer, 31 October 2004

(2) Ian McLaine, Ministry of Morale: Home Front Morale and the Ministry of Information in World War II, London, George Allen and Unwin 1979, p 161

(3) Ernest Mandel, The Meaning of the Second World War, London, Verso, 1986, p 135

(4) Klaus Larres, ‘Margaret Thatcher, the Foreign Office and German Reunification’, Cercles 5, 2002, 179. See here

(5) ‘Kiss and tell, eastern bloc-style’, Guardian, 4 May 2005

(6) David Macey, Franz Fanon, 2000, p 100

(7) Macey, Franz Fanon, 2000, p 103

(8) Macey, Franz Fanon, 2000, p 206

(9) See Chin Peng, My Side of History, 2003

(10) Story of the Italian Resistance, 1957, p 221-2

(11) See Mazower, Inside Hitler’s Greece, 2001

(12) Constantine Tsoucalas, The Greek Tragedy, 1969, p 85

(13) Dominique Eudes, The Kapetanios – partisans and civil war in Greece, 1943-1949,1972, p108

(14) see Charles Delzell, ‘The Italian anti-Fascist Resistance in Retrospect: Three Decades of Historiography’, Journal of Modern History, 47, March 1975, p 77

(15) See Andreas Papandreou, Paternalistic Capitalism, 1972; Constantine Tsoucalas, The Greek Tragedy, 1969

(16) War Stories, The Search for a Usable Past in the Federal Republic of Germany, 2001, p 49

(17) Tony Benn, Diaries, Single Volume Edition, 1996, p 318

(18) Alan Travis, ‘Oil Crisis and a veto on the Queen’, Guardian, 1 January 2004

(19) See Gabriel Kolko, Main Currents in Modern American History, 1984; Ernest Mandel, The Meaning of the Second World War, 1986

(20) Paul Johnson, Modern Times: A history of the world from the 1920s to the 1990s, London, Phoenix 1992: 366-7

(21) ‘Scarlet and Black: The Italian Revisionist Controversy’, Radical Philosophy

(22) ‘History Teaching in UK stokes xenophobia’, says German envoy, Guardian, 9 December 2002

(23) ‘Teaching of English Faces Review’, Guardian 15 February 2005

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