Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Book Review: More on WWII

(From LSHG Newsletter # 50, Autumn 2013)

Unpatriotic History of the Second World War
By James Heartfield
Zero Books, Winchester 2012 557pp
ISBN 9781780993782

One problem we shall encounter during the forthcoming commemoration of World War I is that even among those who recognise the First World War as an imperialist slaughter, there will be quite a few who still see the Second World War as a “good war” – some, perhaps from patriotism or antifascism, while others fall victim to nostalgia for the days of a “progressive Soviet bloc”, something increasingly prevalent in parts of a demoralised left.

Donny Gluckstein’s valuable People’s History of the Second World War has provoked an interesting debate (see here and here).  James Heartfields’s book, coming from a rather different angle, makes a further contribution to understanding. It is an impressive piece of research: 472 pages of text contain a wealth of information, and the 76 pages of notes reveal the huge range of sources that have been consulted (though unfortunately all are English-language).

My sole reservation is that the argument could have been more tightly structured, and that a fuller index would have made it more useful as a work of reference.

The book covers the whole course of the war and its impact on the shape of the post-war world. Everything is packed in, from major atrocities to minor absurdities. (One of my earliest memories is the removal of railings from the local park to make armaments; I was amused to learn that the metal was never used, but stayed in a warehouse in Durham till the 1970s. [66]) A fascinating chapter entitled “Love and War” deals with the family, prostitution and homosexuality. An excellent final section deals with the historiography of the war – the orthodox myths and the various heretics who dissented, from AJP Taylor to Gabriel Kolko.

Heartfield, as his title suggests, is very much a heretic. He will have nothing to do with the claim that the war was, at least in part, a “people’s war”. As he argues, a war that killed 2.5 per cent of the world’s population was “a war against the people”.[2] Its ultimate cause was the “drive to war” that is a “special feature of capitalist societies”.[463] Anti-fascism was quite low on the list of priorities of the allied ruling classes; as one of Churchill’s ministers put it in 1942: “smashing Hitler is only a means to the essential end of preserving the British Empire”.[55] And that Empire was based on white supremacy which could be just as murderous as Nazi anti-Semitism.

Since it was an imperialist war, Heartfield devotes a good deal of attention to Asia. Brutal as the Japanese regime was, the British ruling class approved Japanese imperialism - until its interests clashed with those of the British Empire. And the impact of the war in Asia was to spark off national liberation struggles which transformed the region after 1945.

Heartfield’s basic method is to take a series of themes, and to illustrate them with parallels from the main combatant countries. He does not ignore the very real differences between fascism and bourgeois democracy, but shows that often they were a matter of quantity rather than quality. In Britain and the US, as in Germany and Italy, “business and government worked together to hold down …. wages”. [21] Nazi Germany relied on slave labour – but the British colony of Rhodesia had a “Compulsory Native Labour Act”. [60] Gay soldiers in Germany were executed; in the US they were confined to psychiatric cells.

Everywhere the realities of class persisted. When German prisoners were landed in Canada, British privates carried the officers’ luggage because officers could not be expected to carry their own bags. In the brutal Japanese prisoner of war camps, British officers disciplined the labour of British common soldiers. Nor was support for the war anything like as solid as is often believed. 100,000 British troops deserted in the course of the war, and there were mutinies and strikes during and after the war. Contrary to myth substantial working-class areas of London were depopulated by the blitz.

While recognising the particular barbarity of the Holocaust, Heartfield insists on the danger of “isolating the Final Solution from the wider conflict”. [455] He is perhaps a little complacent in his discussion of Holocaust Denial. While he is right to point out the “weight of evidence is in no danger of being overturned”, Holocaust Denial could enhance the credibility of far right groupings who pose a real threat to working-class unity.

In more general terms, however, Heartfield is right to situate the Holocaust in the total context of the
war. Before the war Nazis had proposed deporting Jews to Madagascar – a clearly racist measure, but one that fell short of extermination. “The plan failed because Britain blocked the expulsion of German Jews – out of fear that they would come to Britain.” [301]

Heartfield gives much detail on the repressive nature of Stalin’s rule, and of the reactionary policies of Moscow-oriented Communist Parties. He tells us that the USSR was “a non-capitalist power” [54] , yet also that it was “not socialism”. [158] Perhaps, but if so what was it - and if it did not have a “drive to exploit other lands” what made it so “rapacious”? [54]

Heartfield’s work will certainly be controversial. But his accumulation of material will be an asset to all socialists, and it deserves a wide readership.

Ian Birchall

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