For baby boomers the decision to join a Trotskyist group in the 1960s entailed coming to terms with WWII especially if you were a Jew. Unlike the Maoists (the CP was generally not an option in those wild times), the Trotskyists viewed the war as a continuation of the inter-imperialist disaster of 1914. As someone who became persuaded by Trotsky’s ideas, putting the war into historical context was made easier by the analysis of Ernest Mandel, a Jew and a member of the Belgian resistance during WWII so committed to class politics that he distributed anti-fascist leaflets to German troops whom he regarded as “workers in uniform”.
His 1976 essay “Trotskyists and the Resistance in World War Two” drew distinctions between the allies versus axis conflict and those that involved struggles for self-determination or the right of the USSR to defend itself from counter-revolution by any means necessary.
Ernest Mandel and the authors represented in Donny Gluckstein’s collection Fighting on All Fronts: Popular Resistance in the Second World War are part of a broader current that rose to prominence during the 1960s out of their “revisionist” take on the supposedly Good War. This includes Howard Zinn, whose chapter on WWII in a People’s History of the United States is titled “A People’s War?” and a number of New Leftist historians like Gabriel Kolko and Gar Alperovitz. To a large extent, Lyndon Johnson’s simultaneous embrace of New Deal domestic policies and the genocidal war in Vietnam forced leftist historians to come to terms with FDR’s historical legacy. The war that many of our fathers fought in, including my own who received a Bronze Star in the Battle of the Bulge, had to evaluated in the light of Marx’s “ruthless criticism of the existing order_, ruthless in that it will shrink neither from its own discoveries, nor from conflict with the powers that be.”
Donny Gluckstein is the son of Yigael Gluckstein, better known as Tony Cliff—the founder of the British SWP. He is a lecturer at Edinbergh College and a member of the SWP. He is also the author of A People’s History of the Second World War, a book that comes highly recommended based on the evidence of the new collection. I learned about Fighting on All Fronts from Tom O’Lincoln who contributed the article “Australia: A war of racism, imperialism and resistance”. I have known O’Lincoln for nearly twenty years as a cyber-comrade and have deep respect for his scholarship. He is a member of Socialist Alternative in Australia, a group that shares the SWP’s general theoretical approach but that is not part of its worldwide tendency. With Tom’s recommendation, I looked forward to reading Fighting on All Fronts since WWII “revisionism” is very close to my heart. Suffice it to say that I was not disappointed.
The book is divided into two parts: War in the West and War in the East. While every article is praiseworthy both in terms of the scholarship and the commitment to a class analysis so sorely missing nowadays, I would like to focus on one article from each part to serve as an introduction to a volume that excels from beginning to end.
Janey Stone’s “Jewish Resistance in Eastern Europe” is a stunning treatment of a topic that is of special interest to me as a Jew and a radical. Stone is a Jew whose mother lost most of her family in the Holocaust and who describes herself as an anti-Zionist. It delves into questions that go to the very heart of Jewish identity and survival. As she unravels the conflicting strands of Zionism, collaboration and working-class resistance, Stone tells a story that is simultaneously inspiring and dispiriting.
The brunt of her article is to challenge the idea that Jews went passively to their death in concentration camps, a view reinforced by both mainstream scholarship and popular culture, with “Schindler’s List” depicting Jews as lambs going to the slaughter and needing a Christian savior.
While nobody would apply the term savior to Jan Karski, a Pole and a Christian, his efforts on behalf of Jews would have made an interesting screenplay but arguably one that Hollywood would have dropped like a hot potato given its take on Roosevelt. Stone explains that after Karski prepared a report on the death camps in Eastern Europe that he discovered after penetrating the Warsaw Ghetto disguised as a Ukrainian soldier, he went to FDR to alert him to the impending human disaster. Karski was disappointed to discover that the president was more interested in the status of Polish horses than that of the nation’s Jews.
Ultimately it would be up to the Jews themselves to organize their defense with the Jewish Labor Bund providing most of the leadership. Stone describes the confrontation between Polish fascists who had been terrorizing Jewish shopkeepers and Jewish activists in 1938 that resulted in ambulances being summoned to carry off the battered thugs who had been lured into an ambush.
Stone tackles the stereotypical view of Poles as anti-Semites with copious evidence to the contrary, especially among the working class that was by and large committed to socialist politics. Furthermore, even in the peasantry, which was by no means as progressive as the workers, there was much more anti-Semitism among the wealthy farmers than those toward the bottom. When peasants organized a ten-day general strike in 1937, the Jews offered support. A Bundist youth leader reported: “During the strike you could see bearded Chassidim [religious Jews] on the picket lines along with peasants.”
Given the widespread attention to Hannah Arendt’s contention in Eichmann in Jerusalem that the Judenrat (Jewish council) was complicit in the extermination of millions of Jews, Stone’s nuanced treatment of this question is essential reading. Citing Lenni Brenner, whose research into this period is essential, Stone points out that Zionists were selected by the Nazis to staff the Judenrat more than all other political groups combined. The remainder came from the traditional Jewish religious establishment.
Some Judenrat figures were barely distinguishable from the Nazis, including Mordechai Rumkowski from the Lodz Ghetto who ran it as a slave labor camp. However, in most cases the collaborationists simply failed to support the Bundist underground and opposed all forms of struggle.
Despite such treachery, struggles did break out. Bundists were on the front lines but so were Labor Zionists. The Zionist officialdom might have made common cause with the Nazis but the more radical youth groups such as Hashomer Hatzair were willing to fight. However, not every Jew was strong enough to engage in combat. For many, the determination to survive was paramount. Setting up soup kitchens or creating art to raise peoples’ spirits was their way of joining the resistance. Even humor was used as a weapon. A joke made the rounds in this bleak world: A Jewish teacher asks his pupil, “Tell me, Moshe, what would you like to be if you were Hitler’s son?” An orphan was the reply.
Although Jews were most often left to their own devices to fight against the Nazi genocide, there were allies. As stated above, the Poles often acted in solidarity despite the fact that they risked certain death if discovered. Stone singles out Zegota, the Council to Aid Jews that was founded in 1944.
Zegota’s headquarters was the home of a Polish Socialist (Eugenia Wasowska) who had worked closely with the Bund. The organisation held “office hours” twice each week at which time couriers went in and out. Despite the enormous number of people who knew its location, the headquarters were never raided by the Germans. One “branch office” was a fruit and vegetable kiosk operated by Ewa Brzuska, an old woman known to everybody as “Babcia” (Granny). Babcia hid papers and money under the sauerkraut and pickle barrels and always had sacks of potatoes ready to hide Jewish children.
The best known Zegota activist is Irene Sendler, head of the children’s division. A social worker and a socialist, she grew up with close links to the Jewish community and could speak Yiddish. Sendler had protested against anti-Semitism in the 1930s: she deliberately sat with Jews in segregated university lecture halls and nearly got expelled. Irene Sendler saved 2,500 Jewish children by smuggling them out of the Warsaw Ghetto, providing them with false documents and sheltering them in individual and group children’s homes outside the ghetto.
Turning to William Crane’s article “Burma: Through two imperialisms to independence”, we are reminded that for many people living in the British Empire, Japan could appear as the lesser evil especially in a place like Burma where George Orwell worked as a cop. In his essay “Shooting an Elephant”, he reflected on the surly natives.
In the end the sneering yellow faces of young men that met me everywhere, the insults hooted after me when I was at a safe distance, got badly on my nerves. The young Buddhist priests were the worst of all. There were several thousands of them in the town and none of them seemed to have anything to do except stand on street corners and jeer at Europeans.
As was the case with India’s Congress Party, resistance to colonialism in Burma was fairly tame with native elites seeking an end to the sort of discrimination that was revealed in Orwell’s complaints. Its vanguard was the Young Man’s Buddhist Association that was founded in 1906 by a British-educated Burmese lawyer.
Eventually the movement grew more militant even if its leadership remained in the hands of the elites who referred to themselves as Thakins, the word for masters. In a new movement that emerged in the 1930s called We Burmans Association, the Thakins drew upon working class support to extract concessions from the British. Like many colonial elites living under British rule, the Burmese nationalists were seduced to some extent by fascist ideology. If “democracy” meant living under the British boot, it was no surprise that rival imperialisms might have a certain appeal.
But another rival to British capitalist democracy had even greater appeal, namely the USSR. In 1939 the first Communist cell was created in Burma under the leadership of an Indian named Narendra Dutt. Despite being a member of this cell, a man named Aung San decided in mid-1940 that an alliance with Japanese imperialism would be more useful for the cause of Burmese independence. He worked closely with Keiji Suzuki, a colonel in the Imperial army who had come to Burma disguised as a businessman and charged with the responsibility of lining up support from nationalists like Aung San, who was the father of Burma’s new president—a reformer who has shown little interest in attacking the deep state that has been in existence for many decades.
Along with other Thakins, Aun San constituted themselves as the Thirty Comrades who became the core of Burma’s wartime armed forces. They received training by the Japanese military in occupied China and began recruiting the men who would join with the Japanese in 1942 in a general assault on British rule. If your yardstick for judging political movements is based on how they lined up in WWII, you will certainly have condemned Aung San on an a priori basis. But as Trotsky pointed out in a 1938 essay titled “Learn to Think”, there are times when workers will find it advantageous to make temporary deals with fascist imperialism rather than its democratic rivals. The only caveat, of course, is that such deals are strictly pragmatic and strictly temporary.
Unfortunately in the case of Burma, the deal was more like a double-deal when the Japanese began their occupation. Aung San and his comrades had exchanged one colonial oppressor for another.
One of the most glaring examples of Japanese disregard for Burmese rights was the construction of a “Death Railway” that became the subject of Pierre Boulle’s novel “The Bridge Over the River Kwai” and the 1957 film directed by David Lean based on Boulle’s novel. You are probably aware that Alec Guinness played the British prisoner of war who in supervising the work crew made up of POW’s lost sight of its use to the Japanese war effort. He saw the bridge much more in terms of Britain’s “civilizing” role in places like India where railways and telegraphs supposedly outweighed colonial exploitation, even in the eyes of Karl Marx early in his career.
What the film leaves out was the costs of its construction on native lives. For that you need to read William Crane’s article:
The conditions for the native labourers in Burma were equivalent if not worse as they were unprotected by even the semblance of concern for the welfare of POWs. The railway upon its completion had consumed as many as 100,000 lives. But we need to draw no special conclusions about the Japanese psyche from the “Death Railway” or any of their other horrific crimes. For the Japanese were trying to catch up with the “civilised” empires of Britain and France, and in the course of this ended up competing with the death tolls they had accumulated over a much longer period of time during the few years of the war. The railway, like the Shoah in Eastern Europe, was the outcome of this process, the realisation of a dream that “projected Japanese dreams of industrial fortitude, economic robustness, and Asian domination”.
Like Donny Gluckstein’s collection, James Heartfield’s Unpatriotic History of World War Two belongs on the same bookshelf along with Zinn, Kolko and Alperovitz. Written in 2012, it is a close to a 500 page debunking of the Good War mythology that is filled with deep insights into how really bad it was. If the Gluckstein collection focuses more on the progressive movements that coincided with a savage bloodletting, Heartfield’s book concentrates much more on the latter. It would be difficult for anybody to read his book and be taken in by the Greatest Generation balderdash that continues to dominate the mainstream narratives of an inter-imperialist rivalry whose damage to humanity and nature alike remains unparalleled.
As many of you realize, I have been sharply critical of Spiked Online, a website that is the latest permutation of a one-time current on the British left known as the Revolutionary Communist Party that emerged as a split from the group that would become Tony Cliff’s Socialist Workers Party. While I generally found the contrarianism of the RCP problematic, particularly around environmental issues, I must admit that any influence it had on James Heartfield’s willingness to spend years of research to write this book that sticks its finger in the eye of the Good War nonsense is to be commended. With so much of the left ready to see the Russian adventure in Syria as a repeat of the war of liberation led by the Red Army against Nazi barbarism, it is of considerable importance to have a book like the Unpatriotic History in our arsenal.
One of the prime dispensers of WWII patriotic gore is the website Socialist Unity that counts John Wight as one of its primary contributors. At one time I considered it a useful resource for regroupment efforts such as the one that took place when RESPECT was a major player on the British left. But when it became obvious that its more fundamental purpose was to breathe life into the Great War mythology and Labour Party reformism, I realized that one’s attitude toward Winston Churchill remained a litmus test for the left. When Socialist Unity began posting “greatest generation” type nonsense about Churchill, I tried to remind Wight et al that the famine in Bengal was really not that great. Suffice it to say that the take on the famine at Socialist Unity amounted to a kind of genocide denial.
The chief value of Heartfield’s book is its copious documentation on how people such as Roosevelt, Churchill, and even Stalin were no better than the Japanese and Germans around a number of questions, particularly their treatment of working people who were cannon fodder and virtual slaves in wartime production when the elementary right to strike was viewed as treasonous.
Chapter Six of Unpatriotic History is titled “Imperialist War” and makes for essential reading. Like every other chapter, it is filled with revealing data and quotations from the warmakers that hoists them on their own petard. Heartfield cites Leo Amery, The Secretary of State for India:
After all, smashing Hitler is only a means to the essential end of preserving the British Empire and all it stands for in the world. It will be no consolation to suggest that Hitler should be replaced by Stalin, Chiang Kai-Shek or even an American President if we cease to exercise our power and influence in the world.
While promoted as a benign free trade policy, Roosevelt’s Open Door Policy was a bid to replace Britain as the world’s number one empire as Leo Amery clearly understood. After signing the Atlantic Charter, FDR articulated the kind of paternalism usually associated with his fifth cousin Theodore:
there seems no reason why the principle of trusteeship in private affairs should not be extended to the international field. Trusteeship is based on the principle of unselfish service. For a time at least there are many minor children among the peoples of the world who need trustees in their relations with other nations and peoples.
But the grand prize for overall depravity goes to Winston Churchill based on this account that clearly would have offended his fans at Socialist Unity:
At a Cabinet meeting on 10 November 1943, Prime Minister Churchill said Indians had brought famine on themselves because they were ‘breeding like rabbits’ and so would have to pay the price of their own improvidence. Churchill’s prejudices were backed up by his chief scientific advisor Frederick Lindemann, Lord Cherwell, in a letter the following day: ‘This shortage of food is likely to be endemic in a country where the population is always increased until only bare subsistence is possible.’ Cherwell carried on to turn the truth on its head, moaning as if it was Britain that was subsidising India, not the other way around:
After the war India can spend her huge hoards of sterling on buying food and thus increase the population still more, but so long as the war lasts her high birth rate may impose a heavy strain on this country [i.e. Britain] which does not view with Asiatic detachment the pressure of a growing population on limited supplies of food.
Let me conclude with some parting thoughts on the spate of World War Two nostalgia that has followed in the wake of Russian entry into the war on the Syrian people. On September 28th, Vladimir Putin made a speech at the UN proposing a coalition against ISIS similar to the one that united the USA, Britain and the USSR in World War Two.
What we actually propose is to be guided by common values and common interests rather than by ambitions. Relying on international law, we must join efforts to address the problems that all of us are facing, and create a genuinely broad international coalition against terrorism. Similar to the anti-Hitler coalition, it could unite a broad range of parties willing to stand firm against those who, just like the Nazis, sow evil and hatred of humankind.
John Wight was obviously one person carried away by this rhetoric to the point of swooning. Showing that he would not be taken in by any weak-kneed aversion to the necessary tasks of a war on fascism, he informed his readers at Huffington Post and CounterPunch that firebombing Dresden and barrel-bombing open-air markets in Syria were not game-changers:
Barrel bombs are an atrociously indiscriminate weapon, for sure, and their use rightly comes under the category of war crime. However just as the war crime of the allied firebombing of Dresden in 1945 did not invalidate the war against European fascism then, neither does the atrocity of Syrian barrel bombs invalidate the war against its Middle East equivalent today. When the survival of a country and its culture and history is at stake, war can never be anything else but ugly, which is why the sooner it is brought to a conclusion in Syria the better.
This specious blast of hot air is so filled with bad faith and faulty logic that it would take a year to elaborate on all of its sinister implications. So let me take a minute to nail them down.
To begin with, the war between Germany and the USA was a war between empires. As Leo Amery stated above, “smashing Hitler is only a means to the essential end of preserving the British Empire and all it stands for in the world.” The democracy enjoyed by Britain was made possible only by its super-exploitation of India, Kenya, Burmese, Egypt, China, et al. This was obvious to anyone who has read Lenin even if it was lost on an aspiring Colonel Blimp like John Wight.
But the most important insight that can be gleaned by Wight’s invocation of the Good War is its affinity with a figure whose ghost walks across the parapet of the Assadist left, namely Christopher Hitchens. His footprints can be seen in all of the Islamophobic articles that appear on a daily basis from people like Wight, Mike Whitney and Pepe Escobar who recently referred to the anti-Assad fighters as “mongrels”, the kind of epithet that usually rolls off the tongues of Israeli politicians.
In 2008 Hitchens wrote an article titled “WW2, a War Worth Fighting” that essentially sums up the outlook of laptop bombardiers like John Wight and everybody else extolling the air war on Syrian rebels from the safety of their offices in the USA or Great Britain–especially the last sentence that jibes with Wight’s ghoulish musings on Dresden.
Is there any one shared principle or assumption on which our political consensus rests, any value judgment on which we are all essentially agreed? Apart from abstractions such as a general belief in democracy, one would probably get the widest measure of agreement for the proposition that the second world war was a “good war” and one well worth fighting. And if we possess one indelible image of political immorality and cowardice, it is surely the dismal tap-tap-tap of Neville Chamberlain’s umbrella as he turned from signing the Czechs away to Adolf Hitler at Munich. He hoped by this humiliation to avert war, but he was fated to bring his countrymen war on top of humiliation. To the conventional wisdom add the titanic figure of Winston Churchill as the emblem of oratorical defiance and the Horatius who, until American power could be mobilized and deployed, alone barred the bridge to the forces of unalloyed evil. When those forces lay finally defeated, their ghastly handiwork was uncovered to a world that mistakenly thought it had already “supped full of horrors.” The stark evidence of the Final Solution has ever since been enough to dispel most doubts about, say, the wisdom or morality of carpet-bombing German cities.