Was the Second World War a war for democracy?

Seventy years after the end of World War II, it is still celebrated as the good war, a necessary war for democracy to counter the threat of fascism.

This idea was propagated by the governments of the Allied powers—Britain, the US, Stalinist Russia and China—at the time and has been constantly reinforced since by books, TV shows and movies like Saving Private Ryan.

The idea of a “war for democracy” hides the reality of an imperialist war that cost 55 million lives with civilian causalities six times higher than in World War I.

In reality, the “Allies”—governments who the then American President Roosevelt called the “four policemen”—cared little about democracy. The oldest cop, Britain, ruled its colonies with brute force throughout the war. Its army jailed Indian nationalist leaders Nehru and Gandhi and bombed their followers in the Quit Now movement for daring to fight for independence. The British committed Indian troops to the war without ever allowing Indians any say on whether or not to participate.

Stalin’s Russia was a police state, and Stalin had actually struck a non-aggression pact with Hitler, only joining the Allied war effort when Hitler invaded Russia in June 1941. China’s leader, Chiang Kai-Shek, was commonly called a “gangster” by American officials.

Similarly, the new cop, the US, suppressed democracy at home and abroad. The US carved out its own empire, creating puppet regimes in Latin America and the Caribbean. At home, basic political rights were denied to blacks in the South, while workers were denied the right to strike. Perhaps the most outrageous suppression of democracy was the racist internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans in prison camps for the duration of the war.

As Russian revolutionary socialist Leon Trotsky said, “The imperialist democracies are in reality the greatest aristocracies in history. England, France, Holland, Belgium rest on the enslavement of colonial peoples. The democracy of the United States relies on seizure of the entire continent. All of the efforts of these “democracies” are directed toward the preservation of their privileged position”.

The causes of the war were much the same as the causes of World War I. Trotsky wrote, “The present war—the second imperialist war—is not an accident; it does not result from the will of this or that dictator. It was predicted long ago…The immediate cause of the present war is the rivalry between the old wealthy empires.”

British socialist Chris Harman calls World War II the great and barbaric confirmation of Lenin’s classical theory of imperialism. Lenin argued that military conflict grew out of national economic competition. War was the inevitable result of the great powers partitioning and re-partition the world to maintain their economic power.

The 1930s Depression saw world industrial production collapse by 50 per cent between 1928 and 1932. Global trade plummeted by a third. The established colonial powers, Britain and France, used their existing empires to create protectionist trading blocs.

German capitalism, restricted even further after World War I, could make little headway against the existing empires. In the Far East expanding Japanese capitalism was hemmed in by French colonial control of Vietnam, British of Malaya, Dutch of the East Indies and the US of the Philippines.

National imperialist rivalries engulfed the globe as Germany, Japan and Italy sought to protect and extend their economic interests against Russia, China, Britain and the US.

War against Fascism or war for empire?

Far from being implacable opponents of fascism, the Allied ruling classes initially welcomed Hitler and Mussolini as strong leaders who could defeat the workers movement in Germany and Italy.

Britain’s war-time leader Winston Churchill told the fascist press in Italy in 1927, “If I had been Italian, I am sure I would have been wholeheartedly with you from the start to finish in your triumphant struggle against the bestial appetites and passions of Leninism.”

In the 1936 Spanish Civil War, when the Spanish fascists used the military to overthrow the democratically elected government of Spain, Churchill expressed sympathy with Franco. The Allies gave tacit support to Franco to crush democracy and suppress the workers’ movement.

Churchill only opposed Hitler from the mid-1930s when it became evident that Britain’s predominance in Europe would be threatened by Germany.

The Allies’ first reaction had been to appease Germany and Italy. They were quite willing to offer Hitler pieces of Europe in the attempt to buy him off. The ruling classes celebrated Britain’s 1938 Munich Pact with Hitler, which surrendered democratic Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany.

The rulers of the French and British empires were finally pushed to fight Nazi Germany, although they regarded the rapidly industrialising USSR as even more dangerous than their old German rival.

The alliance of Britain and France was only joined by Russia in the summer of 1941, when Germany, encouraged by its victory over Poland, Belgium and France, invaded Russia, pushing into the Ukraine and south east towards the oil of Baku. A few months later the US officially declared war, as Japanese imperialism threatened US interests in the Far East and the Pacific.

The people’s war?

What motivated ordinary people to fight fascism was very different to the motivations of Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin. There was a genuine hatred of fascism among workers around the world. It had smashed the strong workers movement of Germany. They had seen it triumph in Spain and now it looked like engulfing Europe.

The horrors of the Holocaust were yet to come but the savage anti-Semitic racism of the Nazis was already apparent.

The Allied leaders played to workers’ concerns and used the rhetoric of “freedom”, “democracy”, and “self determination”, to mobilise support for the war. But the concerns of workers and those of their rulers were very different.

Despite the various explanations based on pop-psychological analyses of Hitler or the German people, fascism is an extreme form of capitalism.

Trotsky describes how fascism arose out of a particular context of economic, political and social crisis. The German economy was in massive crisis. It had the strongest workers’ movement in Europe. To protect its profits, the ruling class needed to smash the left and the unions. There was a conscious strategy of alliance between the Nazi party and the existing German ruling class.

Hitler’s fascist movement provided the shock troops for German capitalism, mobilising elements of the middle class to physically attack workers’ organisations.

The Nazi government used state power to impose regimentation on the economy. But capitalism and the ruling class remained intact. The Nazi war economy subordinated individual capitalist interests to the needs of an arms drive, but it was a process they supported as the means to extend German capitalism.

The clinching proof that the Allies were not committed to fighting fascism is the abandonment of six million Jews to the Nazi genocide. Although the Alies knew of the mass exterminations they failed to do anything about it. They bombed oil refineries as little as ten kilometres from Aushwitz but didn’t bomb rail lines leading to the camp.

Could fascism have been stopped?

To properly answer that question would need another article, but suffice to say here that the possibilities of stopping fascism actually existed long before the outbreak of war—in the strength of a united workers’ movement, at the beginning of the 1930s. The struggle against fascism in Spain in 1936 was yet another lost opportunity to challenge fascism and the system that spawned it.

Key to understanding the failure of a movement to fight fascism is the influence of Stalin over the Communist Parties around the world. The Communist parties became instruments of Russian foreign policy, not class struggle. This meant that the German Communist Party did not try to build a united front with reformist workers to confront fascism. The German Communist Party at one stage even regarded the German Socialist Party as the main enemy, calling them “social fascists”.

In Spain, Stalin was more concerned with Russia’s foreign relations with Britain and France than with supporting the workers uprising that challenged Franco.

Stalin’s zig-zags created extreme confusion, misleading and disarming the workers’ movement. The Stalin-Hitler non-aggression pact meant that at the outbreak of the war, the world’s Communist parties actually opposed the war. But, overnight, when Germany invaded Russia, the Communist Parties became staunchly pro-war.

Carving up the world

The real concerns of the Allied powers were graphically on display at the end of the war. In August 1945, hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians were killed when the US dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The Japanese government was already prepared to surrender. But the Russians were closing rapidly from the West and the US wanted to send a message about their new horrific power.

Earlier, at Yalta and Potsdam, the leaders of the three major powers ruthlessly divided the world up among themselves. At one meeting, Churchill scrawled on a piece of paper and passed it to Stalin—Romania: Russia 90 per cent, the others 10 per cent; Greece: Great Britain (with the US) 90 per cent, Russia 10 per cent; Yugoslavia: 50 per cent, 50 per cent; Hungary: 50 per cent, 50 per cent; Bulgaria: Russia 75 per cent, the others 25 per cent.

“There was slight pause,” Churchill wrote, “then [Stalin] took his blue pencil and made a large tick and passed the note back to us.”

The end of the war opened the Cold War era—a world divided between the power blocs of Russia and the US. But the free world was not free and the communist bloc was not communist. On both sides of the Iron Curtain the brutality continued.

France waged bloody struggles to hang onto the remnants of its empire in Vietnam and Algeria. Britain suppressed anti-colonial struggles across Africa. Russia and the US fought a proxy war in Korea. And, while Russia ruthlessly crushed workers’ rebellions in Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, the US invaded more than 17 countries to make sure the world was “safe for democracy”.

While our leaders celebrate the 70th anniversary of World War II, it is worth remembering the real history of the war. The imperialist rivalry that produced Hiroshima and the Holocaust still stalks world politics.

The threat of nuclear war has spread. And in Chechnya, Africa, Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan, millions of ordinary people are still paying with their lives.

By Feiyi Zhang

Suggested reading
Gabriel Kolko, The Politics of War
Leon Trotsky, Fascism—What it is and how to fight it
Chris Bambery, Was the Second World War a war for democracy, ISJ 67


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