Second World War was no defence of democracy

The Second World War, which ended 75 years ago, saw the rulers of the Allies fighting for empire and world domination, not democracy or anti-fascism, writes James Supple

The Second World War leaves a huge shadow even 75 years on.

It is still widely viewed as a “good war” that was necessary to stop fascism and military aggression. This contrasts with the widespread anti-war sentiment against the First World War, fought overtly between the European colonial powers in pursuit of empire, and more recent conflicts like the 2003 Iraq War or Vietnam.

As a result almost every effort to justify war or militarism since has tried to claim the legacy of the conflict. When Liberal MP Andrew Hastie wanted to promote hardline policies against China last year, he compared Australian actions to the French failure against Nazi Germany.

The horrors of Nazi Germany, as well as the supposed threat of Japanese invasion in Australia, meant the war had a high level of public support.

But the fundamental aims of the Allied governments in the war were nothing to do with democracy or human rights. The US, Britain and Russia all aimed at either taking control of a greater slice of the world, or holding onto their enormous existing colonial possessions.

In fact the war was the greatest episode of barbarism in human history, claiming 50 million lives in direct combat alone. The world’s rulers threw every possible resource into manufacturing weapons of mass murder in a ruthless competition for power.

The war grew out of the economic calamity of the Great Depression. Industrial production collapsed by half in both the US and Germany, and unemployment reached almost 30 per cent in both countries.

The response was protectionism, as the great powers threw up tariff walls designed to secure markets and save their economies.

Britain created the “sterling block” across its vast empire, locking out imports from the other powers from an area accounting for one-third of world trade.

France and the US, both possessing large formal or informal empires following the outcome of the First World War, followed suit.

Germany, Japan and Italy’s were at an economic disadvantage, lacking large empires of their own. Yet their economies depended on access to raw materials beyond their borders.

The German Major-General George Thomas argued in 1939 that the country depended on imports for 95 per cent of its bauxite, 80 per cent of its rubber, 70 per cent of its tin, two thirds of its oil and zinc, 50 per cent of its lead and 10 to 20 per cent of its food.

The Japanese homeland lacked the raw materials necessary to run an industrial economy. In 1930 it was importing 79 per cent of its oil and 85 per cent of its iron and steel.

As a result the three powers all saw military expansion as necessary for economic survival.

This required a re-division of the world, and a challenge to the arrangements resulting from the First World War.

The war therefore confirmed the Marxist theory of imperialism developed by the Russian revolutionaries Nikolai Bukharin and Lenin to explain the First World War. By the early 20th century, they argued, the major capitalist economies were dominated by large corporations that needed markets and raw materials well beyond the borders of their home countries.

Economic growth and survival required the support of the state, and ultimately military force, to advance their interests.

Capitalism produced military competition and war between the great powers.

War in Europe

Even before the Nazis came to power in 1933, there were ruling class voices arguing that Germany required control of the resources of Eastern and south-eastern Europe. This had been one of its aims in the First World War, briefly realised through its seizure of huge swathes of Russian territory.

Hitler’s efforts at economic expansion and re-armament, driven by a state investment program similar to the New Deal in the US, made this a necessity. The result was Germany’s seizure of first Austria and Czechoslovakia, then part of Poland.

The British and French ruling classes appeased Hitler because they recognised that they would find it difficult to hold onto their gains from the First World War in a renewed conflict. But they were eventually forced to fight.

Even between the Allies, it was clear that the imperialist division the world was at stake rather than any desire for freedom or democracy.

Britain’s share of world manufacturing had dropped below that of Germany and was only one-third that of the US.

This meant it had difficulty fighting Germany alone, let alone defending its imperial possessions in Asia from Japan as well. As a result Britain was dependent on US support.

But the US refused to enter the war for the first two years, until it was attacked directly at Pearl Harbour. Instead the US supplied military equipment to Britain, demanding exacting conditions in return.

Britain was forced to pay through handing over gold reserves and selling British-owned companies. When it could no longer afford to pay, it was forced to allow US military bases in Newfoundland, Bermuda and five of its West Indian colonies. In exchange for further loans the US secured an end to Britain’s sterling block, which restricted US exports into its empire.

The Allies’ boasts about fighting for democracy were also starkly disproven by Britain’s actions in  India. None of India’s 400 million people was consulted when Britain declared the colony at war.

The Indian Congress Party, whose leaders included Gandhi and Nehru, offered support for the war effort if Britain would show its support for democracy though making India independent.

But Churchill refused any serious negotiations. Instead Congress was declared illegal and its leaders jailed.

Strikes and uprisings across the country followed demanding independence. The British open fire on the crowds with machine guns from the air.

As a consequence of the war, between 1.5 and 3.5 million Indians died in the Bengal famine of 1943. This was a direct result of the huge number of extra soldiers the country was expected to maintain. Yet Churchill sabotaged every effort to import extra grain to feed the population.

At a series of conferences towards the end of the war Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin carved up Europe between the three victorious powers: Britain, the US and Russia.

At one notorious meeting Churchill drew up an agreement giving Britain control of Greece while Russia received Romania and Bulgaria and agreed to share control of Yugoslavia and Hungary.

At the Yalta conference in February 1945 Stalin expressly rejected, “the bleating of the small powers that their rights were at risk”, and declared that, “the small must be ruled by the great”.

This openly imperialist boast was later put into practice when Russia directly annexed the eastern part of Poland and turned the whole of Eastern Europe into satellite states.

The Pacific

Japan invaded Manchuria in northern China in 1931, seeing it as an economic “lifeline” after the US imposed import controls following the Wall St crash, reducing Japanese exports by a quarter.

But this brought it into conflict with the US, which wanted control of Chinese markets for itself.

To the south, supplies of oil, rubber and tin that Japan needed in Malaysia and Brunei were controlled by the European colonial powers.

The US eventually imposed a crippling embargo on Japan, cutting off all trade including crucial supplies of oil, after Japan extended its invasion further into China and then sent troops into French Indochina.

This was designed to force Japan to either capitulate to the US, or declare war. As US Secretary of War Henry Stimson wrote, “The question was how we should manoeuvre them into the position of firing the first shot without allowing too much danger to ourselves.”

So the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbour was not such a surprise to the US government.

The essential issue between Japan and the US was who would control Asia and the Pacific.

Japan’s drive south brought the war to Australia’s doorstep. But there was never any prospect of Japan invading Australia. Such a plan was specifically rejected by the Japanese army. 

Australian Prime Minister John Curtin knew an invasion was impossible by April 1942 after decoding Japanese cables, but kept the idea alive as a way of mobilising enthusiasm for the war.

Another method used in both Australia and the US was to depict the struggle against Japan as a race war. The Australian government organised an ABC radio series on “the Jap as he really is” that became known as “hate talks”.

Australia’s commander-in-chief General Thomas Blamey was quoted in the New York Times as saying that, “fighting Japs is not like fighting normal human beings… Our troops have the right view of the Japs. They regard them as vermin.”

Curtin himself promoted the war as part of defending white Australia, claiming that, “From the day that Captain Arthur Philip landed here, until today, this land has been governed by men and women of our race. We do not intend that that tradition should be destroyed”.

And far from human rights or democracy emerging at the end of the war, Australia, Britain and the US helped to restore European colonial rule over large parts of Asia.

Australia itself would directly return as colonial administrator of Papua New Guinea, and the government lobbied the US for control over then Dutch-controlled West Papua, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, New Caledonia and Fiji as well.

Australian troops helped reimpose Dutch control in Indonesia and aided British colonial rule against independence fighters in Malaysia. Britain also reimposed French rule in Vietnam, with US and Russian acquiescence.

The Second World War was fundamentally an imperialist war, waged in pursuit of wealth and profit. Working class people were asked to sacrifice and die in the interests of our rulers.

We should reject any attempt to use mythology about the war waged 75 years ago to justify militarism today.

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