Monday, August 06, 2012

Donny Gluckstein - A People's History of the Second World War

On the 3rd of September 1939, the Indian people woke up to find that they were at war. Without any consultation, Winston Churchill had declared in the House of Commons that "India has a great part to play in the world's struggle for freedom". As Donny Gluckstein points out this "freedom" did not include "independence for India's 400 million, a population that exceeded the maximum number conquered by the Third Reich."

It is common to hear that the Second World War was a war for democracy, freedom and anti-fascism that united everyone in the Allied nations against the Axis in a common struggle. One of the great themes of Gluckstein's new book is that this was not true. The motives of those leading the Allies were often very different to those of the men who did the fighting.

WWII is one of those subjects that endlessly fascinates and an enormous number of books have been written about the subject. But Donny Gluckstein's book is a breath of fresh air. His angle, which ignores a narrative approach and instead looks at individual countries is certainly different. As is his breadth of research which uses far more than the official histories. But most importantly, Gluckstein brings something new to the debate about what the Second World War was.

In particular he explores what he calls the "parallel war" at the heart of the conflict. For Gluckstein the war wasn't simply about the rulers' interests and the often differing interests of those at the bottom of society. Rather it was a war that brought together two related but different conflicts. For the American soldier fighting in a segregated regiment, the struggle against fascism and democracy meant something very different to the leaders of the US Army. An Italian partisan who had watched big business support Mussolini's attacks on wokers' organisation and living standards was not simply taking up arms against the fascists.

That different sections of society had different interests is not a surprise. But for Gluckstein, "What was unique about the Second World War was that these tensions amounted to parallel wars rather than tensions within the same war." What this meant in practise differed from country to country, but frequently the war fought by the "people" differed in aims from that fought by the leaders. In a fascinating study of the Italian Resistance Gluckstein explores the way that a desire for political and economic change was at the heart of the war from below. He quotes a leader of the Catholic Green Flame partisans;

"the age of capitalism that has produced astronomical wealth and led to unspeakable misery is in its death throes. From the final convulsions of this age a new era is being born, the era of the working classes, infinitely more just, more fraternal, more Christian".

That such sentiments appeared at the heart of the resistance movement (and similar anti-capitalist ideas informed much of the resistance fighters in countries as diverse as France, Greece, Yugoslavia and Vietnam and Indonesia) terrified the Allied leadership. Gluckstein documents how in Greece and Italy the British and US Armies moved quickly to undermine these movements, and resorted to violence. In Greece the British Army behaved with appalling barbarity against those who had helped destroy the German army there, shooting unarmed protesters (including children). In the December events of 1945 there British killed 50,000 Greeks, with two thousand casualties. Churchill declared "our troops are acting to prevent bloodshed". In Vietnam the understrength British Army was happy to get assistance from former Vichy troops and members of the Waffen SS in order to subdue the population. Dubbing the Viet Minh "obviously communists" General Gracey used force to disarm the Vietnamese who had fought bravely against fascism. Gluckstein shows that "a bizarre coalition of Allied victors and defeated Axis, Japanese jailers and jailed collaborators worked together to oust Vietnamese rule in their own country."

But it wasn't just the British. In France De Gaulle moved rapidly to sideline the resistance fighters after they had liberated Paris. In the east Gluckstein documents the appalling destruction of Warsaw as Stalin made sure his armies sat back and allowed the Nazis to destroy the Warsaw Uprising. Tens of thousands lost their lives in an attempt to liberate the city as the Russian army approached. That the Red Army failed to support a genuine revolutionary uprising is one of the great tragedies of Soviet history.

None of the leaders of the Allies emerge from this book well. Since I write from Britain where the wartime leadership of Winston Churchill has become some sort of saintly history, Gluckstein's analysis of Churchill is particular useful. Churchill made it clear from the start that this was a war for Empire which he demonstrates by giving some of Churchill's most famous quotes in their original context:

"I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat... for without victory there can be no survival... no survival for the British Empire, no survival for all that the British Empire has stood for." 

As noted earlier 400 million Indians had a very different view of what the Empire meant, which explains why many of them joined anti-British forces or hoped that the War would lead to their own freedom. One Indian politician asked "why should the liberation of one-fifth of humanity come in their way? If the [Allies] are truly fighting for the aims they profess the Indian struggle should not hinder but help them".

This is not to say that the Parallel War did not emerge in places like India. Even here different social forces had different interests. The masses of the Quit India movement and Gandhi had very different ambitions while uniting over the desire for Indian independence.

When examining Britain Gluckstein brings out the way that many ordinary people saw the war as being in the interests of the rich and powerful, rather than working people. He quotes from Mass Observations reports of factory workers who thought their bosses would be as happy under a fascist regime so long as they could make money. Nonetheless, the fight against Hitler was seen as a struggle for democracy. Though the British establishment was less happy when ordinary soldiers took this rhetoric to a logical step and formed their own parliaments and councils. This analysis builds on other histories of Britain during wartime, such as Angus Calder's monumental history The People's War which examines the war that the Second World War was a very different experience for rich and poor.

One final thing that is worth highlighting about this book is the scope of the material and how it highlights forgotten history. In Britain we are used to thinking of the conflict from a European context. In America the struggle in the Pacific is of great importance. Gluckstein's history also looks at extremely important arenas that are barely remembered - Vietnam, Indonesia and Yugoslavia to name a few. If I have one small gripe with this book it rather strangely omits a chapter on the Soviet Union, a country whose history would have been illuminated by Gluckstein's approach.

The parallel wars fought in these countries before, after and during the Second World War. Their history deserves not to be forgotten in part because of the heroism of ordinary people, fighting for a different world. But also because the particular way that World War Two played out in these countries had enormous ramifications for post-war history. The most important lesson of Donny Gluckstein's book is enormously valuable today. Whatever their rhetoric and slogans, those arguing for war rarely have the interests of ordinary people at heart.

Related Reviews - Other books by Donny Gluckstein reviewed on this 'blog

Gluckstein - The Tragedy of Bukharin
Gluckstein - The Paris Commune: A Revolution in Democracy
Cliff & Gluckstein - Marxism & Trade Union Struggle: The General Strike of 1926 

Related Reviews - Other reviews on World War Two & Resistance

Calder - The People's War 
Calder - The Myth of the Blitz
Kershaw - The End
Paxton - The Anatomy of Fascism
Vinen - The Unfree French
Gildea - Marianne in Chains

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