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People's History of World War II

October 22, 2012

A People’s History of the Second World War: Resistance versus Empire
By Donny Gluckstein
Reviewed by Peter Hogarth
A People’s History of the Second World War is an incredibly valuable resource for any socialist, anti-war activist or progressive who has felt stymied or at a loss when confronted by people who bring up the Second World War as an example of war as humanitarian intervention. Since the First World War, all military missions have been branded as humanitarian by the powers trying to wage them. Wars have been waged in the name of establishing democracy, protecting women’s rights, ending dictatorship, protecting neighbouring countries and stopping atrocities. While the lie has been put to these claims most famously in cases such as the US war in Vietnam, the Iraq War and others, World War II is the one that can get even progressives siding with the imperialists.
Parallel wars
In A People’s History, Gluckstein attempts to come to terms with the fact that despite the mass carnage of WWII (some figures state that 50 million died, 28 million of them civilians) it is still widely considered “a ‘good war,’ when righteousness triumphed over injustice, democracy over dictatorship, tolerance over racism, and freedom over fascism.” In recognition of this, Gluckstein’s premise is that WWII was neither an imperialist war for national interests nor a people’s war for a better society, but rather it was both.
Gluckstein applies the idea of parallel wars to World War II as a whole, because as he writes: “on the conventional battlefield those giving commands and those performing them acted in concert, however different their thinking.” Thus, the two wars were indistinguishable even to those involved.
From the perspective of the ruling classes of the various nations, Gluckstein argues that the Second World War was not a fight against world domination, but rather a quarrel between Allied and Axis governments about who should dominate. While the naked brutality of the Axis powers was quite obvious and well-documented, Gluckstein emphasizes the cold calculation of the Allies. These examples include Stalin’s refusal to send supplies to resistance fighters in Yugoslavia until the worst of the fighting was over and Allies’ interests assured in the region; Churchill backing reactionary forces in Greece to crush the resistance that had just liberated the country; Stalin waiting for the Nazis to kill off the non-Communist Poles before coming to the rescue; British and US bombers intentionally targeting German civilians; Britain’s veto of the rescuing of 70,000 Romanian Jews; Allied refusal to stop Auschwitz concentration camp by bombing rail lines or crematorium; the nuclear assault of Hiroshima; and on and on. This is the untold story of competing imperialist war, unconcerned for humanity, during WWII.
On the other hand, people’s war took many different forms and provided the energy and passion to defeat fascism in conjunction with the military power of the Allied nations. The people’s war did not just beat fascism, it also transformed the people fighting, raising their expectations, hopes and confidence to fight for a better world.
People’s war
In Greece, that meant the National Popular Liberation Army (ELAS) featured a women’s regiment. Out of necessity, the ELAS could not overlook the women and as a result, gender roles were transformed. Women voted in the clandestine election of the provisional government for Free Greece, held under the nose of the Nazi occupiers. It immediately declared equal rights for women, equal pay was decreed and women were elected as deputies and judges.
In Poland, the people’s war and the fight against allied and axis imperialism broke down the divisions between soldiers and citizens. As Gluckstein writes: “women and men were rushing to join the AK …one in seven combatants were women…and the majority were workers, railwaymen, artisans, students and clerks in factories, railways and offices.” The AK methods were unlike a regular army, as General Bor-Komorowski noted: “it had all the drive and enthusiasm of a revolutionary uprising we attributed our success of the first few days to the impetuous fervour of this first onslaught. It more than made up for the poor quality of our arms.”
This is the story of WWII. The ambitions and aspirations of the people fighting it went far beyond the limits of the rival imperialisms’ drive for a better share of world power. This was very obvious in the chapter on Britain’s myth of unity during the war. Gluckstein describes the British bombing strategy that involved inflicting massive amounts of casualties in shocking fire storms meant more to impress the British people and their allies than to damage the German war machine. For instance, on February 13 1945, British and US planes bombed Dresden—destroying 19 hospitals, 39 schools, and residential areas, killing between 35,000 and 70,000 people of which only 100 were soldiers. This carnage did not slow German production, but rather steeled the German people to the side of their government, and production rose.
The Allied rhetoric that this was a war for democracy and humanity are belied by statistics like these. However, the people of Britain had different views, demonstrating a people’s war at home and abroad. A rank-and-file soldiers’ movement developed with independent newspapers and a soldiers’ parliament, calling for a people’s war as opposed to an imperialist war. Bosses were forced to include workers in the control of production and meet their needs or face “revolution” in the work place, as one managing director warned his colleagues.
In the US, people’s war manifested itself in the rebellion and resistance of African-American soldiers in the army, who were tired of fighting for “democracy” in Europe while experiencing none at home. A. Phillip Randolph, the socialist leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters Union, organized the March on Washington Movement for civil rights for black National Defense employees. This was the first large-scaled demonstration against federal officials by African Americans and had a lasting influence on the civil rights movements.
In Italy, armed resistance and industrial strike action combined to defeat Nazi occupation. In India and Indonesia, armed militias battled against the rule of both Axis and Allied powers. In Vietnam, the war against Japanese invasion took on a people’s war character as the people who defeated the troops saw their own power and began to demand “land for the peasants! Nationalization of the factories under workers’ control! People’s committees!”
Gluckstein’s book is invaluable for the people looking to find the anti-imperialist heart at the centre of the Second World War. While the First World War ended with revolution spreading across Europe, the legacy of WWII has been much different.
The horror of the WWI left a lasting memory on people. The broken promises of those post-war reforms and economic crisis meant that ordinary people were disgusted by the violence of wars and the motives of the ruling class who started them.  Allied governments knew that simplistic pleas to patriotism and nationalism would not motivate their populations to support another bloodbath. Hence, WWII was fuelled by official rhetoric emphasizing the fight for freedom, equality and post-war improvements.
While the motivations of Allied governments were still the imperialism and a greater slice of the world’s pie, they mobilized people through their expectations of liberation and reform. These motivations were impossible to restrain and were demonstrated by the passion of rank-and-file soldiers, workers and others—who fought, occupied factories, and formed militias and underground organizations to fight against fascism, for national defense and for much, much more.
This motivation, that defeated fascism and posed the potential for another world during WWII, is summed up eloquently by Indian socialist JP Narayan, writing in 1939:
“We work for the defeat both of Imperialism and Fascism by the common people of the world and by our struggle we show the way to the ending of wars and the liberation of the black, white and yellow.”

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