Monday, March 31, 2014

James Heartfield - Unpatriotic History of the Second World War

2014 is the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War. It is also the 75th anniversary of the start of the Second World War. Unlike the First World War the Second seems to have produced a constant stream of books. Much of this has discussed the war in the context of the "Good Fight" against Fascism, and for Democracy. But in recent years there have been a number of excellent histories that re-examine the war in a more critical light.

James Heartfield's Unpatriotic History is good example of this, and should be read alongside Donny Gluckstein's People's History of the Second World War. Together they comprehensibly demolish the mainstream, "victor's history".

Heartfield begins by noting that the question of labour is central to the war. The winners were those "who best mobilised their domestic workers and so best equipped their armies". The impact on the working class of this "was that more of them worked much harder, and got paid less." Consequently the war transformed the industrial landscape. "Plant created in Detroit and Dagenham, the Urals and Silesia... would lay the basis for the post war boom".

The working class was also transformed. "Between 1942 and 1945 the number of black Americans in work tripled....  One million six hundred thousand, black and white moved north." Similarly, as in the First World War, the position of women was transformed. Two million more British women were put to work. Doing this meant a transformation of the economies. State capitalism became the norm, "the free market was abandoned in order to achieve maximum efficiency in reorganizing trade".

What was the cause of the war though? It certainly wasn't a struggle for democracy, or a fight to end fascism. This was an imperialist conflict, whatever cause the politicians expounded. Churchill and Roosevelt talked of democracy, but their interests were much more base. As an American slogan put it in the pre-war period, "If goods can't cross borders, soldier's will". Indeed, western economic policies helped push Germany into conflict. Heartfield quotes economic historian Adam Tooze, "Given the isolation imposed on the European continent by the Britsh blockade only the Ukraine could provide Western Europe with the millions of tons of grain it needed to sustain its animal population".

This is not to let German Imperialism off the hook. Hitler had come to power with the backing of big business - it needed access to raw materials, markets and the rest of the world. Japan too was heavily dependent on imports and was looking for expansion. It was the British Empire and US interests that this threatened and thus war became increasingly likely. As Heartfield puts it, "the struggle over Empire was the cause of the Second World War. Those countries that tried to enlarge their empires clashed with those who were trying to defend their own."

The economic interests of big business meant that initially, some of Hitler's policies were considered fairly acceptable. As The Economist wrote in 1941;

"The which the Nazi's have found willing collaborators is not altogether surprising. Industrialists have, of course, been driven into collaboration by the need for raw materials, but there is no doubt that many of them would have been ready for it without this compulsion."

Those who governed in the West of course frequently flirted with Nazis. Churchill for instance, noted the ability of the Fascist regimes to be a bulwark against Communism. Heartfield argues that it was only when his government's imperialist interest was threatened that Churchill was prepared to go to war. The British government was also frequently unmoved by the plight of the Jews

"The whole problem of the Jews in Europe is very difficult and we should move cautiously about offering to take all Jews out of a country like Bulgaria. If we do that then all the Jews of the world will want us to take up similar offers in Poland and Germany. Hitler will take us up on such an offer...", worried Anthony Eden in March 1943 at a meeting of the British Foreign Office discussing the threat of extermination of Bulgarian Jews by the Nazis.

Sometimes I feel Heartfield overstates the case. For instance he suggests that the Second Front in Europe was only launched because Churchill and Roosevelt became worried about the potential for workers uprisings against a crumbling Nazi occupation. I'm not sure this is strictly true. By 1944 I think they were more worried about their position in a post war Europe dominated by the Red Army. Nonetheless, the resistance was significant. But it wasn't always against the Fascists. Heartfield rescues the forgotten histories of those, particularly in South East Asia, who had to fight British and US armies of occupation before, during and after the War.

Some of the most fascinating chapters (as in Gluckstein's book) are those that deal with these forgotten aspects to World War Two. History books focus our minds on Europe and Japan. Less often do we hear about Burma, Indonesia, Malaysia and India. Nor do we hear about the brutalities of the Allies. Victor's justice means we known about the Rape of Nanking, or the Holocaust. We don't get to hear why it was that the US army rarely took Japanese POWs. (They had a no-prisoners policy) or discuss the mass bombing of German civilians.

While the book is very good, it is not without fault. I feel bound to mention that the publishers have failed in their duty to ensure the book was properly proofread... it is littered with typos, and inconsistencies in style. In addition there are a number of glaring errors; B52s were certainly not used to bomb Tokyo - that particular war-crime was committed with B29s. More surprisingly for an author in command of a wide range of sources, the author of The Tin Drum was Gunter Grass, not Heinrich Böll. This is a shame, because the editorial failings detract from an excellent book that challenges many of the most cherished myths of the Second World War.

Related Reviews

Gluckstein - A People's History of the Second World War
Calder - A People's War
Calder - The Myth of the Blitz
Challinor - The Struggle for Hearts and Minds: Essays on the Second World War
Newsinger - Blood Never Dried: A People's History of the British Empire

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