Exploding the myth of a ‘People’s War’

James Heartfield demolishes the dominant anti-fascist narrative to reveal the truth about the Second World War: six years of slaughter, poverty and exploitation.

Neil Davenport

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At the 2012 Labour Party conference, shadow chancellor Ed Balls drew on the ‘People’s War’ to bolster his own ration-style policies. ‘Let me remind you’, he said, ‘of the summer of 1945 – the end of six hard years of war – when our nation welcomed its heroes home from the battlefields of Europe, Asia and the Atlantic, and celebrated together the defeat of fascism’. The fact that it was a Labour Party politician, rather than a Conservative, who was dining out on the Second World War shows how central ‘the People’s War’ mythology still is to the parliamentary as well as the radical left. The further in time we move away from the Battle of Britain, D-Day and the 1945 settlement, the brighter the political stage lights surrounding those particular events. Defeating fascism back then has often become a justification for a range of governmental policies, both at home and abroad, in the present.

It is this all-pervading myth, that the Second World War was a conflict to defeat fascism and restore democracy, which James Heartfield carefully explores and demolishes in Unpatriotic History of the Second World War. As he points out in his introduction, ‘the ideology of the Good War was manufactured from the outset by radicals who wanted to steer the conduct of the war towards their preferred ends – anti-fascism, social reform and popular accountability’. With the final death toll a staggering 60million people, the conflict perhaps should be better known as a war against the people. Heartfield argues: ‘The elites that fought the Second World War had enriched themselves at the expense of their own people, but still they needed more. They had run out of ideas about how to grow. More and more it seemed to those elites as if the barriers they faced were those raised by other countries, and the solutions to their problems were to be found abroad.’

Far from the Second World War being a struggle of democracy against fascism, it was driven by the continuation of economic conflicts that had not been fully resolved in 1918 and had been exacerbated by the world slump in the 1930s. A heavily militarised conflict and its accompanying ideology was used, especially in Germany, to deal with both popular revolt and an increasingly organised working class. In this resulting war, it was the working classes who were robbed of their organisations, political independence, living standards and lives. It was a war whereby class hostilities were intensified, rather than ‘put aside’, as draconian restrictions, longer working hours and lower wages were enforced in Europe and America. Such a mindblowing increase in the rate of exploitation, an increase of 350 per cent in Germany, was the real foundation for the postwar boom. The bitter irony, of course, is that after the Second World War, the left still views the descent into such unparalleled barbarism as a cause for celebration.

Part one of Unpatriotic History, ‘The Meaning of the War’, provides ample evidence of the economic crisis in Europe that ultimately led to military conflict. ‘Our foreign trade is suffering from German competition’, protested one Churchill-sponsored pamphlet. ‘It is not competition, it is simply brute force, compelling the creditor to order in German if he wants to see his money back’. ‘Before long’, writes Heartfield, ‘the trading war would turn into armed competition… Just as trade war led to a shooting war; war itself was a matter of controlling trade.’

Heartfield examines how Britain’s monopoly of oil resources, and the impact of the Versailles settlement, meant that gaining access to raw materials was a key challenge for German industry. Later in the war, for example, the Wehrmacht made sure that it headed south to grab the Soviet Union’s Caucasus oil-fields. Alongside such vital economic considerations, for Britain there was an equally pressing issue of international prestige based on Empire. Heartfield quotes the historian AJP Taylor: ‘[T]he archives now reveal that Great Britain was fighting the Second World War in order to recover the British Empire and even (as with Libya) to add to it.’

Essentially, Heartfield argues, the struggle over Empire was the cause of the Second World War. Those countries which tried to enlarge their empires clashed with those which were trying to defend their own. ‘In 1913’, writes Heartfield, ‘Britain controlled 60 per cent of the world’s foreign investments, down to 50 per cent in 1936. Over those same years, France’s foreign investment dropped from a quarter to a tenth of the world’s share. Germany’s share went from 15 per cent to minus six per cent – that is, she was in debt.’ It was through conquest of the east that Hitler saw Germany’s future, a model that Heartfield argues was ‘mainstream thinking at the time’. In the Pacific, Japan’s establishment of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere was seen as pre-requisite for the country’s survival which, in turn, put it on a collision course with the US. Between 1939 and 1941, all the major powers went to war to defend their honour and their export markets.

Domestic life was not unaffected by the militarisation of international relations. Some of the most fascinating chapters in Unpatriotic History are those that uncover how the war impacted on civilian life. As Heartfield makes clear, the organisation of war industries, the regimentation of war workers, farming and rationing all remade civilian life along military lines. The intensive mobilisation, Heartfield points out, was underscored by a constant haranguing from the Ministry of Information in Britain to ‘Turn that Light Out’, ‘Make Do and Mend’ and ‘Keep Mum!’.

Today, jailing individuals for ‘offensive’ tweets smacks of a new form of authoritarianism, but arguably such petty clampdowns echo earlier forms of repression. For example, ‘a man had been sent to prison for telling a woman in a fish shop that Britain had no chance of winning the war’. Defence Regulation 18b gave the authorities the right to detain people without trial, whether British Union of Fascists members, leftists or labour militants – as well as anarchist anti-war campaigners. Elsewhere, Heartfield exposes some of the myths surrounding the ‘Blitz spirit’ as well as how the war dramatically changed sexual relationships between men and women.

The scope and range of experiences documented and explored in Unpatriotic History makes it consistently compelling and revelatory. Chapters on the collapse of the Soviet Union, and then how it managed to defeat Nazi Germany, the racial war against Japan, and the fate of India under British rule, offer comprehensive rebuttals to every myth and falsehood still espoused about the Second World War. Heartfield’s chapter on the Holocaust may appear slim for the war’s defining act of incomprehensible barbarism, but his explanation as to what drove Nazi commanders – the need for a total victory against an illusory enemy after countless defeats – is striking. The concluding chapter, ‘Revising the History of the Second World War’, offers an overarching analysis that theorises rather than merely sums up the main themes explored. The conclusion also forcefully slams down any nagging doubts that this is ‘yet another’ history of the war. Heartfield’s use of fresh source material adds new layers to already familiar events.

Importantly, the Second World War is not a curiosity for modern history students alone. The Allies’ mythologising of that conflict has often legitimised contemporary politics, too. For example, the invasion of and war against Iraq in 1991, or liberal demands for military strikes during the Bosnian civil war, drew parallels with Hitler and Nazism to justify war action. In 2003, President George W Bush compared the struggle against Islamic terrorism to that against fascism. Back in the 1970s, the more Germany became a powerful economic force, the more America and Britain were keen to advertise its recent dark past.

For Britain in particular, defeating Nazi Germany remains the Last Great Act and thus the preoccupation with the Second World War has grown as the events concerned become more distant in time. However, the increasing number of accounts of Allied atrocities, such as the carpet-bombing of Dresden, mean that competing views and experiences of the war are now providing richer historical material to assess. As such, Unpatriotic History is a valuable contribution to this live and fiercely contested debate.

Nevertheless, Heartfield’s determination to expose the folly of the ‘People’s War’ ideology, and the ruthless class character of the Allies’ and Axis’s drive towards war, with the two characterised as ‘essentially the same’, is rather blunt and unmediated. True, the Allies were as willing as Nazi Germany deliberately to target, bomb or starve to death civilian populations in catastrophic numbers. Hitler and Churchill both micro-managed the battlefield and were willing to view their own citizens as surplus to requirements in the grand scheme of war aims. But the question remains, would the British working class, or indeed Britain’s Jewish community, have been better off under Hitler than Attlee in 1945?

The differences between the internal politics of Germany and Britain during the 1930s and 1940s cannot be ignored. Not only did Germany face a deeper economic crisis than Britain, but the German elites also faced the most politically advanced and organised working class in Europe. The German Communist Party loomed as a threat of unparalleled proportions for the upper and middle classes. As a relatively new nation state and democracy, Germany’s ruling class lacked the institutional and political strength of its British counterparts. By contrast, the British conservative establishment had a clearer understanding of how ruling through consent, rather than brute force alone, was a better mechanism with which to manage class conflict.

By abandoning a consensual approach to running society, the German establishment had bankrolled and endorsed the Nazis, a movement steeped in pre-Enlightenment irrationality and hell-bent on reviving a medieval form of barbarism. As such, from 1942 onwards the conservative German establishment, particularly the generals in the Wehrmacht, had grave misgivings on where the Nazi leadership was taking Germany. By then, of course, it was too late. The internal crisis facing the German elites and German society at large meant their war aims, and how they chose to wage war, were different in important ways to what the Allies did. Equally, by the end of the war, German working-class organisations were completely destroyed, never to return.

As Unpatriotic History demonstrates, challenging the drive towards global war and the poison of national chauvinism was, or at least should have been, the urgent priority for radical leftists. The manner in which the elites resolved their economic crisis remained the biggest political and physical threat to ordinary people. Although the Second World War remains a live issue, Heartfield’s book also demonstrates how completely different world politics are compared to 70 years ago. And, as the landscape of politics has so drastically changed, new responses to such challenges are also required.

Despite the Europe-wide recession and downturn, capitalism has stabilised internationally, with the growth of new economies in China, India and south-east Asia. Imperialism, of course, still exists, as leading powers are routinely driven to internationalise domestic problems and crises. Nevertheless, for the present moment at least, there is not the drive towards global carnage in order to restructure failing capitalist economies. In short, out-of-control free-market states do not represent the physical threat to ordinary people that they did 70 years ago.

Compared to the 1930s, there is no longer a labour movement, with a distinct political identity, anywhere in the world. Empty-shell organisations with little or no organic links to working people are all that remains following the collapse of Stalinism and European social democracy. Instead young, middle-class, anti-globalisation protesters, who represent nobody but themselves, are what pass for critics of capitalism. Such radical activists attempt to revive long-dead political categories to sustain an aura of righteous radicalism, but their anti-consumerist message is far removed from the old left’s demand for better living standards. Essentially, the world is not the same as 1979, let alone 1939. Completely different but no less pressing challenges now exist for upholders of progressive change.

The demise of political contestation, and the absence of a political relationship with constituencies in society, has created a dangerous, liberty-strangling trend in many Western countries. A general low opinion of humanity, and what individuals are capable of achieving, forms the background against which anti-individual micro-politics are now drawn. Bereft of an active relationship with ordinary people, both the political class and its radical opponents are preoccupied, not with how society is organised, but with the ‘damaging’ habits of individuals. Whether it is press barons, millionaire footballers or families on council estates, all sorts of people’s behaviour and expressions are deemed problematic enough to require state intervention and repression.

In the 1940s, if nationalism and expressions of national chauvinism unified the left and right, today the unifying theme is how best to constrain individual actions and free expression. A fierce hostility towards the individual subject has become a powerful, motivating ideology in the early twenty-first century. For example, both the political class and radical activists aim to clamp down on ‘offensive’ opinions, public speakers and public protests that they disapprove of. Both would like to force the rest of us to consume more ‘ethically’ and be ‘supported’ by hectoring state interference. And both firmly believe that basic freedoms, fought long and hard for, are now merely the freedom to harm, to exploit or to damage the environment. In 2012, the face of barbarism doesn’t come in the guise of global war and carnage, but in a war of words against the free-willing subject and a free society.

Unpatriotic History is a trenchant and sustained demolition of the People’s War mythology. It provides a cogent account and analysis of how that conflict was ultimately a war against the people rather than for democracy. It’s also a sharp reminder of the importance of challenging powerful myths and ideologies, no matter how unpopular that can prove to be.

Neil Davenport is a writer and politics teacher based in London. He blogs at the Midnight Bell.

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