Historical Materialism Conference 2012
Donny Gluckstein
War, Resistance, and Revolution:
A People's History of the Second World War -
Resistance versus Empire

Ok. Long time ago, but it was the biggest event in history. You think about the scale of it. All continents. Absolute enormous war.

And yet there's a lot of confusion about what it actually stood for. If you think about it. Tommorrow's Poppy Day - and I notice that there are not many people wearing their poppies - shocking! It's taken by the ruling class as - our great moment - when we fought for freedom and democracy. In 2004 the 60th anniversary of D-Day, Bush comes out and says... Our war in Iraq is a war for Freedom and Democracy, just like in the second World War. And Tony Blair said exactly the same thing. And how could anyone give in to Sadaam Hussein?! Thar would be appeasement! Just as they did in the '30s.

So the ruling class has taken on for itself the war for itself as its war for freedom and democracy. Look at the number of films that have been made on wars. The vast majority of them are about the second World War, and completely uncritical, let's forget about that, and it's all about freedom and democracy stuff.

The problem is, of course, that the idea that Britain is fighting for freedom and democracy, when Britain had an empire of 450 million people, is just a joke. An absolute joke. Hitler never managed it. Hitler managed 350 million. Britain did better. So it's not about freedom and democracy, forget it.

And - you know - the idea that Stalin is going to bring freedom and democracy to the peoples of Eastern Europe or whatever is just - it doesn't make any sense at all.

Just in terms of the atrocities - and this is not to underestimate the atrocities of the Axis, we all know about the Holocaust. The British caused a famine in Bengal - absolutely directly, through their actions - that cost 3.5 million lives. And when there were attempts to relieve it ... Churchill absolutely blocked them deliberately : the Canadians were about to send a ship that could have done something ... he [Churchill] said you are absolutely not to send that ship. So clearly there is a problem in seeing the second World War as a war for freedom and democracy ... from the ruling classes.

However, Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin were not out among the guns on the front ... it wasn't them, it was ordinary people. Millions of ordinary people fighting in the allied armies. Within the NAZI areas ... controlled... and in the colonies, millions of people were fighting exactly the same enemy, the Axis enemy, as Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin. So there's a problem. Because there was an anti-fascist war ... there's not a problem, that's a good thing ... but there's a problem having those two things going on at the same time. And its interesting just to look at the end of the War.

The first Word War came to an end and what? It's worth remembering Poppy Day. Poppy Day happened because the workers in Germany staged a revolution. The workers and the soldiers. The soldiers leading, the workers joined them, the 9th of November the Kaiser falls in Berlin, the 11th of November the War comes to an end. And that came out of the revolution in Russia ... in other words the first World War was deliberately stopped by the masses.

The second World War became more and more popular the longer it went on. If you look at opinion polls - there were early opinion polls in the States - it became more popular. The Resistance movements didn't say ... Oh, we don't want to carry on - we'll just give up. No. They got bigger, they got stronger as the war developed. In other words, what I think we're seeing is two different wars : an anti-fascist war from below and an inter-imperialist war from above. Two separate movements.

Now. How are you going to prove that? Because when a general issues the order : Attack! And the private follows the order and attacks ... you cannot tell this - it's difficult to distinguish between the two of them. You know, it's hard to tell if they're doing the same thing. How can we distinguish between the inter-imperialist war and the people's war?

And the way to do it is that sometimes - not everywhere - but sometimes, they came into direct conflict with each other. You can actually see the two wars fighting each other rather than fighting the Axis. And I want to just pick on a few examples of that.

So I'm going to pick on those, but the general arguments - that there are these two separate conflicts - I think applies virtually right across the board. I'm going to pick on the most clear examples ... I'm going to pick - I've got time to do three, I hope, and I'll start with Greece.

In Greece the ruling government before the War was King George and his Prime Minister was a guy called General John Metaxas. And General John Metaxas said ... Hitler has the Third Reich, I have the Third Hellenic Civilization. He consciously modelled himself on the NAZIs.

But Greece - when the war began - was on our side. The only reason it was on our side was because the Italians wanted it, to expand their territory. So they attacked Greece. So Greece is on our side, they're our fascists, fighting our war.

The king was extremely unpopular, and he runs off to Cairo under British protection. So the war is fought in Greece, not under the control of the imperialists, but from below by ordinary people. It was fought fundamentally by an orgnaization called EAM-ELAS. EAM was the political wing, ELAS was the military wing. Under effective communist control. And what we see in this war is that this is not a war to bring back the fascist king. Why would you?

You're not fighting to restore what came before, you're not fighting to restore influence and imperialism, you're fighting to get rid of the fascists - but also to bring something new. And I just want to read you a description of what they did - and this is important to understand - this was written by a British officer who later on became a Lord and a Tory MP. So hes not exactly sympathetic by nature to what ELAM-ELAS, the communists, are doing. And this is what he says ... and you can tell he hates to have to say this, but he has to admire them ...

“The initiative of ELAS justifies their programs. Though not their tyranny. Now they have in quite control almost the whole of the country except the principal communications used by the Germans. It's given the country things it has never known before. Communications in the mountains by wireless, telephones have never been so good before or since. The benefits of civilization and culture trickle into the mountains for the first time so that the schools, local governments, law courts, puiblic utilities which, since the war has ended, are working again. All the virtues and vices of such an experiment could be seen. For when the people - whom no one has ever helped - started helping themselves their methods are vigorous - although not always nice - the words 'liberation' and 'popular democracy' fill the air with their peculiar connotations.”

In other words, they are fighting the fascists and creating a new state, a new type of society - all sorts of confusion, I don't want to idealize it but it's a different war than they [the Brits] are fighting. They are fighting for liberation, and its social liberation as well as just getting rid of a foreign invader.

And you can tell there are two wars, because when the Germans are losing the war and they want to retreat - and they're out on the islands, the Greek Islands - they want to retreat, back to Germany, and to get back to Germany they have to retreat to the mainland and then get on the trains and go back to Berlin, and they expected massive British opposition, but there wasn't any, and this is what the German high-command said ...

“It's very complex ... the British have allowed our forces to move from the island to the mainland, with no opposition, by sea or in the air. By this they apprently intend to keep German forces on the Greek mainland until the moment when their own British operation is possible and in this way they hope to prevent a general revolution.”

That was the plan. It didn't work. The Germans were defeated by EAM-ELAS two weeks before the British could arrive. So the Bristish arrive in Greece under the control of EAM-ELAS. So what do British do? Well, General Alexander says ... Churchill says ... We are going to take it back and restore the fascist king, and these are his words, to General Scoby, the British commander

“Do not hesitate to fire at any armed man in Athens who assails the British authority or the Greek king. Act as if you in a conquered city where a local rebellion is in progress.”

In other words, they are declaring war on the other war. This is imperialist war declaring war on people's war.

And what did the British do? In the first 24 hours they fired 2,500 shells into the residential areas of Athens - in other words, where the working class lives - causing 13,700 casualties. By the end of the operation 50,000 Greeks were dead ... and there were 2,000 British dead. And after that there was a Greek civil war, which is very rarely heard about which cost several hundred thousand lives.

The American ambassador at the time says, of Churchill, he says

“He's handling these fantically freedom loving country as if it were composed of natives under the Bristish Raj.”

and then he says

“Behind the conflict stands those with possessions on the one hand, those without possessions - the hungry and homelss and armed - on the other”

So these are two wars. I want to lead very, very quickly into Poland.

Poland is a different situation. You might think ... Well, this is anti-communism. The British didn't like communists. So, surely it will be different away from where Russia's involved.

It's not. In the background of Poland is, of course, the Hitler-Stalin Pact. The Hitler-Stalin pact - which started a week before the war began - was where the NAZIs and the Russians ... Soviets ... divided ... call them Russians because they have nothing to do with Soviets ... divided Poland 50/50.

The Russian approach to this was a very interesting one. Stalin decided to let the Germans do all the hard work, of defeating the Polish Army, and then at the end of it he cme in. So the Poles lost 216,000 the Germans lost 60,000 and the Russians just lost 11,000. And Stalin comes in claiming ... I am coming into Poland to prevent further German NAZI expansion. I'm defending the freedom of the Poles.

Absolute rubbish. The deal was : they were splitting the country up. Ok, so that's how it begins. And what we see is absolute brutality by both the Germans and the Russians towards the Poles. Now, the Wehrmacht, for example. Wehrmacht had a policy called house-cleaning , which is to say ethnic-cleanisng, which involves displacing with something like 900,000 people, and systematically exterminating anyone who might break the creation of a slave population. So, for example, in some areas you weren't allowed to speak Polish. In Poland. You're not allowed to speak Polish. The order for the Polish children : they are to learn how to write their names, count up to a maximum of 500 ... how do you stop someone saying 501 - I don't know ... but to learn how to count up to 500, and to learn the following command ...

“It is God’s command that they should be obedient to Germany …”

They should be obedient to Germany. So that's what the Germans do in Poland. What do the Russians do? Well you might have heard of Katyn where several thousand Polish officers were killed. The Russians also shipped off 2 million people, 1 out of 10 of the population they ruled over and the funny thing is ... not funny ... is that it included lots of Polish communists because Stalin didn't want a Polish communist force, Stalin wanted Poland to be part of a Russia.

Ok, so this is what's going on in Poland. So, you get a resistance, and the resistance in this case, actually includes elements of the ruling class and elements of the people from below. The reason being that there is no possible inter-collaboration. Lots of ruling classes collaborated with the NAZIs. Think about France, etc, etc. Vichy ... but all over the place, that's what they did.

The Polish ruling class could not collaborate with the NAZIs or the Russians because they were being exterminated by both. So the resistance takes the form of those above and below. And it's massive. The Poles lost over 6,000,000 people - the highest proportion of any country in the second World War, most of them, a large number of them, Jews; but a large number of them the Polish people. And so the resistance which they put up, whcih is called the Home Army, had 380,000 fighters, an enormous force. it carried out 25,000 acts of sabotage in 3 years and killed 150,000 Germans. NAZI sdoldiers. That is quite impressive. This is a serious force. But the thing it is most famous for is the Warsaw Uprising. And it's important to understand the Warsaw Uprising to see how the two wars work here.

The Warsw and little (?) country ... basically, when the NAZIs open Operation Barbarosa they conquer, they march into Russia and in so doing they take the whole of Poland. So the whole of Poland is under NAZI control. ... Later on as they're losing, the Russians push back. So the Russians push back into Poland and they get to the River Vistula. And the River Vistula - on one side is an area called Praga which is attached to Warsaw, but the main body of Warsaw is on the other side of the river. So you've got the river Vistula, Russians on this side, Germans on that side.

It's at that moment that the Polish army, the whole army, decides to rise up. And they've got 40,000 fighters, they've got weapons enough to fight for one week. One week only. But they think... No, problem because the Russians are just across the river. If we're holding down the NAZIs the Russians will surely come and help us.

So, they start their uprising on the 1st of August, the same time as the liberation of Paris, you know the NAZIs are losing, so they've got hope here. They start the uprising and they take it on. And on the first day they lost 10% of their forces. It cost 4 of their fighters for every 1 NAZI. It was a really, really daring, desperate act. But they wanted to take on the NAZIs and defeat them. Let's see what this involves. A Home Army officer describes ...

the fervor with which the inhabitants will agitate, make barricades, organize soup kitchens at short notice to feed the soldiers and those people who didn't even return to their homes are caught by the uprising in surprise and are getting involved. The mood in the streets remains a continous holiday. Everyone in their own way and within the limits of their ability took part in this struggle.

This is the largest urban insurrection of the entire second World War. This is an uprising from below, obviously in alliance with the old government, but its an uprising from below. And if you look at the demands of the uprising it's absolutely extraordinary because the old aristocrats who ran it are calling for workers' control, nationalization of the banks ... they had to take on the radical demands to mobilixze the people from below. So, they're expecting help from the Russians. It doesn't come.

Stalin wants the NAZIs to destroy the Polish resistance so he can walk in and take over a completely supine country.

Strangely enough, the British and the Americans actually want to help. Because the Polish government in exile is in London, this is the coldwar before it even started, so Churchill definitely wants to help the Polish uprising because, after all, there're elements of aristocracy in the leadership.

And they say to Stalin, all right, we want to help. You won't do any airdrops ... we'll do airdrops. The trouble is our place is in Italy, which is 1500 miles away from Warsaw. So what we're asking of you Russians is ... We'll fly over drop our supplies to Warsaw, land on the other side of the Vistula, refuel, and fly back home.

And Stalin says... You can't. I'm not allowing you to. You're not even allowed to land. In other words, they were prevented from helping the Warsaw uprising. So here again you see two different things. You see an inter-imperialist war, with inter-imperialist intentions - clearly that's what Stalin is about - he is working effectively with the NAZIs to destroy the Poles at this stage, because he's fighting the NAZIs, but he's using the opportunity to wipe them [the Poles] out.

And you see finally, very, very quickly on to Indonesia. Which is a long way away, you think a very different thing. But actually you can see the same thing again, because this takes it to the logical conclusion. Here we see the British, the Dutch, and the Japanese fighting together to defeat the Indonesians. So here we have it. Let me just run through it.

Indonesia used to be called the Dutch East Indies, and they were brutally, brutally exploited by Holland in their time. So when the Japanese arrived they're welcomed. This can't be worse. The Dutch were bad enough, truly the Japanese can't be worse. The Japanese come in, they immediately take 40% of the rice supplies of the small farmers and they brought in this thing called forced labor - romusha it was called - hundreds of thousands if not millions of indonesians were taken into forced labor, often abroad - 50% of them never came home. Absolutely brutal rule.

So let's run straight on to the end of the war. VJ-Day, the 16th of August. When that happens, the instructions to the Japanese are the following : all right, you've lost the war, but we do not want you to give up the territory that you've conquered until the 'rightful' owners can return. That's the deal they signed. So the Japanese have to stay in place in Indonesia until the Dutch come back. So the Dutch need to come back. The problem is, the Dutch have been under NAZI occupation. And so they're not actually in a position to come back and to take the country themselves.

So it falls to the Bristish. The British haven't been [occupied by the NAZIs], they've got the good army, they've been holding down India ... so the British are the ones who have responsiblity for holding down, for bringing back the Dutch to Indonesia. And for preventing the Indonesian nationalists from completing their revolution, because they've declared Independence. They've declared that they are broken away.

And when they did that there was a phenomenon called a social revolution as it was called. Just to give you a sense of what's happening, on the 1st of September the Youth Council in Jakarta of all the enterprises, offices, factories, mines, planatations to be seized from the Japanese. Over the next fortnight they take over the radio, the railway, the travel overseas places; in Semaran - which I'll talk about in a second - they took over most of the civic buildings, plantations, factories; in Surabaya - which is where the biggest industrial concentration of workers is - there's a big overthrow, they're taken over. So there's a revolution, not just independence, but a revolution from below. The new Indonesia is not going to be like the Dutch, or Japanese one it's going to be Indonesian. This is what they want. This is the revolution, the war from below.

Ok, the problem is the British are supposed to bring back the Dutch and get rid of all this stuff. The British are too weak as well. They're stretched, because India is kicking off, in terms of independence. The British are stretched, so what do they do?

They turn to the Japanese. They use Japanese troops to fight back against the Indonesians. In Semerang there was a battle launched : 2,000 Indonesians die, 500 Japanese die. At the end of it Christianson, the British commander, recommended a Japanese major for a distinguished order - he didn't get it becasuse it was a bit ... that's not politically correct, comrade. In January 1946 - now we should talk about comrades because the Labor Party is in power at that time, in Britain. In January 1946 Staff Seargent Parker writes the following to comrade Ernest Bevin, who is the Labor Foreign Secretary in London at the time, he says

“Two Jap sentries stand at my billet door as I write, armed with loaded British rifles and a Brent machine gun, with 13 full magazines. We sleep securely thinking 'Hell! Have we descended to this!?' Our tortured POW comrades must be writhing in their jungle graves. What did they die for?”

So. There are two wars going on. There's a ruling class war - in this case against Indonesian independence.

And later on the British are buiding up their numbers and they carry out an even bigger atrocity than they managed to get the Japanese to do for them. In Surabaya the Indonesians gain control of the Japanese armaments - the reason being the Japanese say.... Why do we want to lose our lives defending this so the Dutch can come back?

So basically they allow the Indonesians to get hold of their arms. And so it turns into a serious battle. And in this battle, Christianson - remember the guy who wanted to give the Distinguished Service Order to the Japanese major - he puts it this way ...

“I sent to bring the whole weight of my air, sea, and land forces, and all the weapons of modern war against them until they are crushed.”

And he did. 30,000 British soldiers - mainly Indian, actually - 21 Sherman tanks, 8 Thunderbolts, 60 mosquito planes, and 6,000 killed.

So, there were two wars going on. There's clearly a war amongst the imperialists, but if we only say that we're not really describing whats going on in the second World War. If you only say that the War is an anti-fascist war for freedom and democracy you're ignoring ... you know?

I think that the only way that you can make sense of the war is to actually see two wars. They are running in parallel most of the time, the ordinary soldier is fighting fascism, the general is fighting for the imperial glory [lucre!] - but sometimes and in significant places we see them coming into conflict. I've given you three examples, there are many more, at all sorts of different levels. But that's really the element I want to put.