Last month the 50th anniversary of VE Day was ostentatiously celebrated in London and all over Britain. In fact it was only the latest of a series of commemorations which have been going on for over a year. Ever since June of last year when the Normandy landing was celebrated in Britain and France, with thousands of package tour holidaymakers visiting the landing beaches, World War Two commemorations have been big business.
Other commemorations were given less coverage, though. Particularly those in memory of the hundreds of thousands who died in the terror bombing by British and American warplanes of German towns like Hamburg, Bremen and, above all, Dresden. And it is unlikely that similar events for the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic mass slaughters, which are planned in August, will attract the same enthusiastic interest as VE day from Western media and governments.
In the pageant of imperialist history, World War II is meant to remain as a crusade for "democracy" against "fascism". Never mind the fate of entire cities which were almost wiped off the map, in Germany and Japan, for no other reason than to terrorise the population - wasn't all this a war for "democracy"? Never mind either the fact, never mentioned in the commemoration of the Blitz in London, that in order to get access to the Underground, Londoners had to stage demonstrations and sit-ins. Never mind, finally, the fabulous profits made by the capitalists worldwide out of the slaughter of sixty million people. "Democracy", during World War II, was used to justify every and all such crimes.
If, fifty years after, the propaganda machine of the bourgeoisie still needs to use such lies to exonerate the system of any responsibility, it is not difficult to imagine why these lies were used in the first place. When the war broke out, most of the workers who were to be drafted into the war machinery had some direct or indirect memory of the previous one, which had ended only 21 years before. They were surrounded at work, in their neighbourhoods and among their relatives by veterans who had been maimed for life while others had terrifying stories to tell about the butchery of World War I. These workers were not going to be taken in by the usual patriotic lies. So the Western ruling classes fabricated the myth of the crusade for "democracy" to alleviate the suspicions of their working classes. And even then, they were unable to prevent the largest mass desertions ever seen in history, particularly in France and America.
Behind this myth, of course, the real causes and objectives of this war are to be found in the fundamental mechanisms at the heart of the capitalist system. This war was not imposed on any of the capitalist classes involved. True, it was, indirectly, the product of economic forces which no-one was in a position to control - the famous market forces, which are adorned nowadays with so many virtues. But within the conditions created by the economic crisis, the war was, on both sides, the result of a conscious build up, a series of deliberate choices made over the two decades since World War I.
On the side of the Allies, were satiated ruling classes who had shared between themselves the bulk of the world's markets and were determined to hang on to them, even at the cost of another war. On the other side, that of the Axis pact, were ruling classes whose appetites had been partly constrained by the settlement following World War I and who were determined to force a re-partition of the world's markets, even if it meant marching their populations into war. And on both sides there were politicians, intellectuals and businessmen who connived very consciously to push the situation to the point where a war could no longer be avoided.
1919 - The armed peace
The same rivalries which had led to the first world war re-emerged unaltered as soon as the battlefields went quiet. For those four years the rich capitalist classes had used the full might of their national states to fight off their competitors, replacing their permanent economic warfare with military warfare. In northern France and in the East, millions of workers had fought and died on behalf of Europe's finance kings and steel barons. Once the military battles were over, the fight for markets and state contracts, for colonies and cheap raw materials, resumed, just as viciously as before, by other means.
The wartime alliances had been nothing but temporary truces between partners in crime who kept looking over their shoulderd just in case their associates might have a gun pointed at them. In South America and Asia, US businessmen had been busy taking over contracts and trade routes previously held by their European competitors. Meanwhile British capitalists had watched with glee the destruction of France's northern factories and mines while their opposite numbers in France had cheered privately at each British ship sunk by the German fleet. Nothing was more significant of the true relationships between the so-called "allies" than this warning issued by Lord Curzon shortly after the war - «the great power from whom we may have most to fear in future is France. She is powerful in almost all parts of the world, even around India.»
Even the "Holy" anti-Bolshevik alliance which saw all belligerents joining together in a huge military intervention against the Russian Revolution, just after the end of the war, was fraught with rivalries. For all the participants, of course, the idea of the Russian working class expropriating their ruling class together with foreign assets was a horrifying nightmare. But the real cement of the alliance was the participants' fear that if and when the Russian working class was crushed, their competitors might get all the spoils for themselves.
The war's settlement was primarily aimed at making the German economy - and population - pay for the costs of the war. In the longer term it was aimed at preventing the German bourgeoisie from gaining a dominant position in Europe.
Drastic war reparations of up to £6bn (around £300bn in today's value) payable until 1988, were imposed on Germany. Its military forces were cut down to a token navy and 100,000 ground troops - enough to repress the German working class but not to be a serious threat to Germany's neighbours.
More importantly Germany was amputated of almost 15% of its territory and 10% of its population. The mostly German-speaking Alsace-Lorraine which had been taken over by Germany after France's defeat in the 1870 war, was returned to France. Under the pretext of providing the newly-redrawn Polish state with an access to the Baltic Sea, a large stretch of land, known as the Danzig corridor, was carved out of Germany and put in Polish hands while in the South, Upper Silesia was annexed to Poland. This left an Eastern Prussia which was technically part of Germany, but in fact a German island in Polish land.
The same logic prevailed in Central Europe. The Austro-Hungarian empire, having chosen Germany's side in the war, collapsed, leading to a reshaping of the region by the victors. Great efforts were put into keeping the German-speaking populations of the former empire separate from Germany. Thus the tiny unlikely state of Austria came into being with its German-speaking majority, while the German-speaking Sudeten, on the western confines of the old empire became part of the new state of Czechoslovakia.
Outside Europe, Germany lost every bit of its pre-1914 sphere of influence and a large part of its assets was confiscated. It was pushed out of the Middle-East and South America. Its Central African colonies, including today's Tanzania, Cameroon, Togo, Benin, plus parts of today's Gabon and Nigeria, were purely and simply divided up between the British and French empires, with today's Rwanda and Burundi going to Belgium, then a satellite of France. Elsewhere Britain got the lion's share under the fiction of international mandates awarded to British dominions, with South Africa taking control of today's Namibia and its diamonds while Australia and New Zealand grabbed the islands of Nauru and Samoa.
The so-called "peace" treaty signed at Versailles in 1919, and its various subsequent additions, had therefore nothing to do with guaranteeing peace - only with boosting the profits of the French and British bourgeoisies at the expense of Germany. It was effectively meant to strangle the German bourgeoisie for a whole historical period. This could only imply that, for the foreseable future, the primary aim of the German capitalists and their politicians would be to loosen the noose tied around their necks at Versailles. And it would be only too easy for German politicians across the political spectrum, from the Social-Democrats to Hitler, to blame the plight of the population on foreign countries rather than on German capitalists.
Re-partitioning the world
In fact it was not just Germany and its former colonies which were affected. The whole world was reshaped, or rather re-partitioned between the spheres of influence of the major powers. In this, of course, the rivalries between the victorious "allies" played a major role.
Even the settlement in Germany was the subject of violent argument between Paris and London. The French bourgeoisie had set its eyes on a corridor of land on the left bank of the Rhine. London would probably not have had any objection were it for the fact that it would have brought enormous natural and industrial resources under French control - something which the British coal and steel magnates would not hear of. Since all this argument was taking place under the pretext of "guaranteeing peace", the final compromise was to keep Rhineland free of German troops while part some of its coal and steel production would go to France as part of the war reparations.
Central Europe and the dismantling of the former Austro-Hungarian empire was another diplomatic battlefield. While London and Paris connived in frustrating Germany's territorial claims on German-speaking areas, both powers indulged in frantic manoeuvres against one another to bolster their respective influences in the region. The result was a patchwork of artificial states, carved out without the slightest concern for ethnic or language considerations, and divided right from the outset by all kinds of rivalries and border conflicts. Even their economic viability was questionable. But then, wasn't all of this done in the name of the "right to national self-determination"? The vultures have never been short of moralistic pretexts to justify their plunder!
The fate of the collapsed Ottoman empire, another participant in the war on Germany's side, was even more drastic. Promises made to Arab leaders in return for military assistance during the war were conveniently forgotten while the British oil giants were awarded unlimited access to the world's largest oil reserves. Italy got a few islands off the Turkish coast (but not Cyprus which they had covetted), France got Syria and Lebanon and Britain got more or less everything else.
The settlement reached in the Middle-East was significant of the space allowed to all the junior partners in the victorious coalition. In the same way Italy won back south Tirol, previously occupied by the Austro-Hungarian empire, but not the region of Trieste which it had been secretly promised in return for its involvement in the war. Besides, none of the territorial concessions sought by Italy in East Africa were granted, leaving the Italian bourgeoisie with hardly any colonies to speak of.
Japan, who had joined the victors' side in 1917 in the hope of getting recognition as the major regional power in the Far-East was not treated better. In the initial share of the spoils, Japan was handed all German concessions in China. But within two years, the policy of the main imperialist countries changed. They wanted China to remain open to foreign penetration, i.e. to their own influence. At the 1921 Washington conference, Japan had to agree to withdraw its troops from eastern China and southern Siberia, to give up all former German concessions and to reduce the size of its fleet to 350,000 tons, or 20% of the world's five main naval forces. This amounted to cutting drastically the possibilities for the rising Japanese bourgeoisie to find new markets, at least within the rules set by the international treaties.
The Washington conference, in fact, went much further than relegating Japan to a backstage role. It effectively codified the new balance of forces between the imperialist powers worldwide.
At face value Britain seemed to be the biggest gainer in the post-war settlement, if only because the size of its empire had increased by 27%. But Britain was now the largest debtor in the world and its main lenders were American. The USA had made a late entry in the war, limiting their involvement to the barest minimum, for the sole purpose of being part of the final settlement. In this, the American bourgeoisie had acted as a referee between Britain and France, using its weight to prevent either of them from becoming too strong in Europe at the expense of Germany. Its envoys had travelled across Europe to offer loans in glittering dollars in return for fat export contracts. Thus, almost surreptitiously and under the pretense of having no vested interests in Europe, the USA had taken over very significant positions in European markets, leaving Britain far behind as the continent's main banker. As to the Pacific, it was the US bourgeoisie's long-standing ambition to turn it into its own private backyard. And now, thanks to having enormously developed their economic machinery while the European powers were busy fighting each other, the American capitalists were in a position to lay down the law.
Such was precisely the object of the Washington Treaty in which Britain had to agree to a 30% quota of the world's naval power, equal to that of the USA, while Japan, France and Italy were relegated to positions of junior naval powers. Britannia no longer ruled the waves!
1929 - The collapse of the post-war world order
Less than a decade after the last of the postwar treaties, the new peaceful and lasting world order they were meant to establish collapsed. The Wall Street Crash in October 1929 hit the world's largest and richest economy first. Soon it resulted in a 30% fall in world trade. Having secured the lion's share of the world's markets after the war had not prevented the American economy from being hit by overproduction. This exposed the flaws in the postwar settlement, particularly in the repartition of the world's markets it had established. Competition between the capitalist classes and rivalries between their states, which had been pushed somewhat into the background since the war, were bound to come back to the forefront of the scene with a vengeance.
Everywhere the capitalist classes proceeded to make their working classes foot the bill for the crisis. In some countries, this led to the establishment of dictatorial regimes, but in all there was a drastic turn of the screw against the working class. At the same time the state machineries stepped up their intervention in the economy, partly to put some order in the chaos and partly to channel a larger share of their resources into the capitalists' hands. As this was mainly targeted at the heavy industries, which were most affected by the slump, state intervention often took the form of arms contract which, in France for instance, came ironically under the heading of "public works" in the government's annual budget. And of course, the simple fact of boosting the armament sector of the economy while piling up large quantities of weapons, even when they were useless, could only have adverse consequences as far as peace was concerned.
Not all economies were hit in the same way. In statistical terms, the consequences were more brutal and spectacular for the American economy. In the four years up to 1933, its industrial production was halved while unemployment rose to 15 million or nearly one third of the workforce. But the USA had larger resources than any other country. Although it had few colonies, its backyard in Central and South America and South-East Asia was huge. More importantly, unlike the other rich powers, it had an enormous domestic market. All this, coupled with the wealth of the American bourgeoisie, allowed the state to intervene massively from 1932 onwards, in the shape of Roosevelt's "New Deal", bailing out part of the banking system and injecting enormous amounts of money into the economy in the form of major public works and state orders.
The old colonial powers - Britain and France - were not affected in the same way, primarily because they relied already on protected markets for part of their exports and for their imported raw materials. But even so, by 1931 the total value of Britain's exports had fallen to 52% of its 1929 level with France being slightly less affected.
A major consequence of the economic crisis, however, was a return to protectionism. While the USA could enforce an informal, but quite effective protectionism thanks to the comparative weight of its economy and the strength of its currency, the old imperialist powers had to take more drastic measures. France, whose markets were tightly controlled by the army, used the threat of military retaliation against its weaker partners. Britain, on the other hand, with its much larger empire, had to establish a more formal setup. This was done at the 1932 Imperial Economic Conference held in Ottawa. A system of protective tariffs, known as "imperial preferences", was established between Britain and the rest of the empire. More importantly, what was to become the Sterling Zone was created. This made the British pound the single currency across the empire thereby protecting British profits from the ups and downs of the currency market.
Part of the imperialist bourgeoisie was therefore able to shield itself, to some extent at least, from the recession. But not all imperialist powers were in a position to do so. Japan, for instance, was almost instantly pushed to bankruptcy. Apart from its armament industry, which absorbed one third of the government's budget, most of its industry was export-oriented, if only because for a country which had no colonies this was the only way to earn the currencies it required to import the raw materials it did not have. The brutal increase of tariff barriers across the world brought the Japanese industry to its knees. Meanwhile the collapse of the price of rice ruined a large part of its peasantry. All of a sudden, those in the state apparatus and the bourgeoisie who had been arguing in vain for an expansionist policy in defiance of and, if necessary against the rest of the imperialist world, were vindicated in the eyes of the bourgeoisie and a significant part of the population. Soon they were in control of policy making.
In September 1931, a provocation was organised in Manchuria by Japan's secret service. This was then used as a pretext for the Japanese takeover of southern Manchuria, under the pretext of protecting Japanese nationals. By the summer 1932, the whole of Manchuria was occupied and declared a Japanese protectorate. This meant that the problem of finding raw materials for the Japanese industry was mostly resolved. But having broken all international agreements, the Japanese bourgeoisie felt a renewed hunger for profits and the expansionist drive did not stop there. All the more so, as the imperialist powers chose not to do anything, following in this the lead of the USA who were keen to remain on good terms with Japan for a very practical reason: US investments in Japan were twice as big as in China, and US exports to Japan where three times larger than those to China. So it was certainly worth making an exception of Japan's infringement of the Pax Americana! In any case, with America's clearance, the Japanese regime felt confident to continue along the same lines. And in 1937, having strengthened its army enormously, thanks to the plunder of Manchuria and also to the co-operation of American investors, the Japanese troops entered further into China with the aim, this time, of taking over the whole country.
The German capitalist class opts for fascism
It was in Germany that the Depression had the most far-reaching social and political consequences. In fact, even before the Wall Street crash, the German economy had hardly emerged from a state of almost permanent crisis and wild inflation. Apart from the consequences of the long period of revolutionary unrest which had followed the war, the payment of war reparations had placed an enormous burden on the economy.
Germany's inability to meet its payments had been immediately apparent. In retaliation, the French army had invaded the Ruhr in 1923 - thereby provoking a general strike. It took another nine years and two reschedulings before the allies abandoned reparations.
The German capitalist class, like its opposite number in the rest of the capitalist world was determined to live through the depression by increasing the exploitation of the working class. In addition, it was seeking urgently a revision of the constraints included in the postwar treaties, which were putting severe limitations on its economic development.
Superficially, the situation of the German bourgeoisie was not all that bad, however. Its industry had not significantly suffered from the war and, during the second half of the 20s, it had gone through a spectacular period of development. So that, by 1929, Germany was back in second place behind the USA in terms of industrial production. But this apparent success was heavily dependent on one factor - the American loans and investments which had financed a large part of the recovery.
Not surprisingly, the crash of the American stock market had immediate consequences in Germany when American investors, who had been hit by the crash, withdrew suddenly and massively from Germany and stopped providing further loans. Within one year, German industry was operating at 50% of its capacity. By 1932, another blow came when, also as a result of American investors withdrawing from Europe, a major Austrian bank went bust. This triggered a banking crisis across Germany which subsequently spread to the rest of the world. But whereas elsewhere the state was able to bridge the most dangerous gaps, in Germany it resulted in the collapse of the whole financial system, including the virtual bankruptcy of the state itself. That year, unemployment increased to over six million, or one third of the workforce. Meanwhile real wages had dropped to two thirds of their 1928 level.
A whole section of the middle class was ruined. In reaction, the petty-bourgeoisie became radicalised and turned in desperation towards Hitler's demagogy, increasing the Nazi party's share of the vote to 6.5 million in the 1930 election. At the same time, the crisis led to a parallel radicalisation of the working class expressed also by a sharp rise in the Communist Party's share of the vote to 4.6 million in the same election and, more importantly, by a wave of industrial unrest.
The memories of the German revolution were still too recent for the German capitalists not to see the danger. It was at this point, in 1930, that the top level of the German bourgeoisie chose to try Hitler's card, offering him the subsidies he required to develop the influence of his party. This trial decision became final when, two years later, an austerity plan announced by prime minister Von Papen was met by large militant strikes across the country.
In 1930, in the small spa town of Goslar and then in 1932 at Dusseldorf, Hitler had meetings with representatives of some of the biggest capitalist groups in the country. From then on, the capitalists' subsidies flowed into the coffers of Hitler's party. This allowed Hitler to fund his gangs of thugs, offering a wage and an SA uniform to the unemployed and the prospect of a career as an official of the Nazi party to the aspiring petty-bourgeois. Soon the SA gangs flooded the streets, wrecking Jewish shops, attacking working class meetings and in general terrorising any opposition.
When, in 1933, Hitler became Reich Chancellor on the strength of his party's vote, he came to power with the agreement of the German bourgeoisie and leading circles in the army and police. It was a turning point in the run up to World War II, not because of Hitler's personal or political characteristics but because of the tasks for which he had been selected by the German capitalist class. First to crush working class resistance, using the radicalisation of the petty-bourgeoisie duly channelled by the Nazi party. And second, to impose on the working class and the population as a whole the militarisation that was required for a successful attempt to force a new re-partition of the world's markets.
This was to take a number of years. At first, the regime strengthened its domestic position and established a ferocious dictatorship over the population. Then, and only then, did Hitler start testing the water with regard to the imperialist powers, using their weaknesses and divisions, pushing his luck a bit more and backpeddling hastily at the first hint of a possible reaction, until he felt confident enough, both in political and military terms, to take the first open and decisive steps against the postwar settlement.
Thugs one can do business with
Ironically, neither Hitler's accession to power nor Japan's turn to expansionism seem to have caused much concern among the imperialist powers. On the contrary, British and French politicians saw Japan's invasion of Manchuria as being forced on the Japanese regime by the "unruly" attitude of the Chinese, much in the same way as they had been forced themseves to send their owns troops in, in 1925-27, to protect their assets in Southern China. When, later on, Japan launched its all-out invasion of China, many commentators in Europe welcomed the prospect of Japanese troops giving a bloody nose to those untrustworthy Chinese nationalists.
Western attitudes to Hitler were similar. He was seen, first and foremost, as the man who had proved capable of bringing the unruly German working class to reason. And that, certainly in the eyes of many leaders of the capitalist class, was the best of credentials. Of course, this Mr Hitler was a bit eccentric with all his parades and theatrical behaviour. But he was nevertheless a man one could do business with.
Certainly, such was the feeling of the American partners of IG Farben-USA, the US subsidiary of the giant German chemical and steel combine. True, as a then manager of the US company Bethlehem Steel explained to an enquiry commission in the late 40s, it was not always easy to understand the logic of their orders - why, for instance, did they insist on an American steel company providing them with high-precision toolmaking equipment or heavy-duty power stamping machines, as part of a series of high-quality steel shipments? Whether this was unqualified lie or incurable naivity, the truth was that IG Farben-USA acted as the main import channel for Germany's new high-tech arms industry, and this right until late 1940, long after the US governments had banned arms-related exports to Germany. Indeed everyone in the capitalist world was willing to do business, knowingly or not, with Hitler's new arms industry. The man was paying cash in dollars or sterling at a time when large orders were few and far between. Why would one want to be nosy about them?
Hitler's new regime acted cautiously. They did, however, put their case across in no uncertain terms, walking out of the conference on disarmament organised by the League of Nations in late 1933 after their demand for the lifting of all restrictions on German armaments was turned down. This was a way of testing Western reactions, which proved non-existent. Even then Germany's rearmament programme was carried out under tight secrecy. What was to become Germany's modern weaponry in the 1940s was developped in this period and often assembled abroad, like Krupp's new 88mm gun which was assembled in Sweden in large numbers, to avoid the Peace Commission's inspectors.
Ironically, the regimes which were most hostile to Hitler in Europe were the least democratic - from Mussolini in Italy to Horthy in Hungary and Pilsudski in Poland. These dictators were directly threatened by Hitler's openly expansionist aims towards central Europe and they were worried that some sort of agreement might be reached at their expense between Germany and the main European players. It was Pilsudski in 1933, followed by Mussolini in 1934 - not Churchill or De Gaulle - who first raised the proposal of a preventive strike against Hitler. Then, again in July 1934, when the Austrian nazis staged an attempted coup, only Mussolini threatened retaliation by sending four divisions to the Brenner pass, on the Austrian border. And Hitler backed down, fully aware that his army was not yet ready for a confrontation, not even with Italy.
On the other hand, the major powers had not even blinked at the Austrian adventure. This led Hitler to try his luck one step further. In March 1935, Germany withdrew from the League of Nations, stating publicly that it no longer recognised the Versailles treaty and the constraints imposed on its army. Berlin announced its plans to set up 36 army divisions, thereby making Germany the first military power in Europe, ahead of France's 30 divisions. Then Hitler waited for possible reactions. There were none. Mussolini's attempt at setting up the "Stresa front" with Britain and France, providing a joint military protection to the status quo in Europe, fell through when the British government broke ranks only two months after signing the agreement, by initiating secret negotiations with Germany which resulted in an agreement whereby Britain recognised Germany's right to raise the size of its navy to 35% of that of the British navy. Hitler had tested the water and the water was proving agreeable. From the end of 1935 onwards, the German economy became openly, a war economy.
By March the following year, another test was tried. Three German batallions marched into demilitarised Rhineland. Their instructions were to withdraw immediately in case of any sign of a French retaliation. But the French capitalists, whether they liked Hitler's regime and potential competition or not, were above all unwilling to upset in any way a status quo of which they were the main beneficiaries - a preoccupation which they shared with the British and American bourgeoisies. Besides, in the case of Rhineland, the threat of another revolutionary outbreak in Germany was still too recent for the French bourgeoisie to risk occupying Rhineland - as this was likely to spark off a similar mobilisation of the local working class. The French capitalists preferred Hitler and his expansionist aims to the unpredictability of a social upheaval. This policy allowed Hitler to remilitarise the whole of the Western borders, thereby boosting his credit enormously in the country. In December 1936, a new four-year economic plan was launched, aimed at making the German economy self-sufficient. Under the cover of "germanisation" and "restoring international confidence in the German mark", the regime was preparing for a likely wartime economic blockade.
Meanwhile, another sign of the growing tension towards war, was given by Mussolini's occupation of Ethiopia. This was not a mere colonial expedition, it was a full-blown war, between a modern army using tanks and aircraft, and a large and poorly armed population desperately fighting the invasion. Mussolini occupied the capital in May 1936. He had gambled on the main powers' indifference to the fate of Ethiopia, and he was proved right. Again, apart from token economic sanctions by the League of Nations, no further action was taken and the USA did not even bother to interrupt their vital oil deliveries to Mussolini.
1936: Lost Opportunities
Two major events could have dramatically changed the course of history in the Summer of 1936 - the working class mobilisations in Spain and in France. But these opportunities were lost.
In France, due to the criminal policies of the reformist and Stalinist leaders, and despite what was probably the most militant and best organised general strike of all time, the working class was gagged, paralysed and tied up in the tow of the French bourgeoisie.
In Spain, workers had first successfully contained a military coup by General Franco. In the areas under the control of the Republican government, workers had set up their own militias and a revolutionary mobilisation was under way. There again the working class was deprived of the benefits of their offensive against the military by an alliance between its reformist, anarchist and Stalinist leaders. Instead of pursuing the fight for its own class interests, the energy of the mobilised working class was channelled into fighting for one of the two warring factions of the Spanish bourgeoisie. This in itself, long before its physical defeat, signalled the political defeat of the Spanish working class.
It is no use rewriting history. And yet one cannot fail to imagine the likely consequences of a proletarian victory in France or in Spain. Even if such a victory did not spread beyond these countries, the European bourgeoisie - including the German and Italian bourgeoisies - would have had no choice but to take into account the new strength of the working class. And rather than taking the risk of a revolutionary explosion against the threat of war, they would have spared no effort to prevent this from happening, even at the cost of some compromise and sacrifice to their profits. But more likely, such a victory would have sent revolutionary ripples across Europe and probably even further, expropriating the capitalist class in a number of rich countries. Hitler's regime would have had to face the determination of the European working class but also a revival of the recent fighting traditions of the German working class. This was the stake in France and Spain in the Summer of 1936.
Instead, the failure of the Spanish revolution and, subsequently, Franco's victory increased the demoralisation of the proletariat across Europe. It also reassured the bourgeoisie as to the reality of a revolutionary danger.
While Mussolini sent troops to serve under Franco, Hitler used the Spanish civil war as a testing ground for his weapons and tactics and as full-scale training for his pilots and military specialists. At the same time he used the opportunity to drive a wedge between Mussolini and France. The manoeuvre was successful. It was in Spain that Mussolini sealed his participation in Hitler's military adventure.
The "Axis pact" between Germany and Italy was officially proclaimed in November 1936. Within a few days the "Anti-Komintern pact", signed this time between Germany and Japan, and aimed at fighting communism, completed the new set of alliances on which the coming war was to be based.
"Appeasement" or the impotence of the well-fed
The policy of the British and French governments towards Hitler's Germany, known as "appeasement", was just what it said - an attempt to play for time in the hope that the problem would resolve itself somehow. On balance, both governments were still more worried about the risks attached to upsetting the postwar status quo - both in terms of social unrest and of having to defend their share of the world market which was out of proportion compared to their actual economic power - than about Hitler's threats to this status quo.
Besides, after all, the Anglo-French alliance was a rather unlikely one, bringing together as it did the two main rivals in Europe and Africa. Cross-border conflicts, for instance over mineral rights, were a constant source of minor quarrels wherever their colonies shared borders. In fact when original plans were drawn up by the RAF in 1923 for a Bomber Command, it was France rather than Germany which was the imagined enemy.
With Europe stuck in a deep economic slump, the prospect of a dynamic German economy held advantages for British trade and commerce. J M Keynes, for instance, saw a prosperous Germany as the motor for the European economy. Thus many British capitalists felt Hitler should be supported, and revisions made in the Versailles treaty. In addition Hitler had his own fan club amongst the British establishment from the Prince of Wales downwards and especially in the Tory press - even if the admiration was not mutual, Hitler apparently finding them too decadent for his taste.
Of course, there were others who saw further ahead to the point where Hitler might dominate Europe and threaten British interests. Their most notable spokesman was Churchill, who later referred to the policy of appeasement as «five years of futile good intentions and an eager search for the line of least resistance». That being said, Churchill's objections to Hitler were purely pragmatic and had nothing to do with the moral gloss they have often been coated with. His line was simply that any concession to the demands of the German capitalists, including an alliance with Germany, would only bolster their resolve to use military force to reshape the postwar world order, to reflect the real economic balance of forces between Germany and the rest of the world. As, in this process, Britain and France stood to lose most, the sooner Hitler was stoppeds, he argued, the better.
Appeasement, however, did not mean that the French and British states remained idle watching Germany's rearmament. As pointed out before, in the case of France, the war industries started expanding after 1929 in order to channel more state funds towards the capitalist class. The most famous example of this was the "Maginot line", a continuous fortified complex spreading along the whole German border with France. Its construction was decided in 1930 and lasted seven years, providing an undisclosed number of billions (its cost still remains classified data) to a number of selected engineering and building magnates. As it turned out, the Maginot line's only meaningful use came much later, in the 70s, when it was demilitarised and some of it was used for housing (it is said to be quite roomy). But when the German army went into France, they came through the Belgian border and took the Maginot line from behind - something that the strategists of profit-making had never bothered to think about.
Until 1936, the war industries operated at full capacity, but only for the sake of profits, not for the sake of preparing for a war effort which, at this stage was not on the wish list of the French bourgeoisie. As a result, the French army was over-equipped with a largely obsolete equipment. Only in 1936 did the French government, under the socialist prime minister Leon Blum, switch to modernising the army, officially at least. On 7 September 1936, Leon Blum announced a massive increase in defence spending. Although, as it turned out a few years later, all these billions were used to finance the production of renamed versions of the same old weapons. This allowed France's largest industrial groups to net enormous profits. Meanwhile the state tightened the screw on the working class. The following year, the same Leon Blum declared overtime compulsory in all war-related industries, thereby cancelling in fact the 40-hour law won by the June 1936 general strike. Another year and the same left-dominated parliament slashed all overtime bonuses.
Britain, on the other hand, followed a different course, but one just as profitable for the bourgeoisie. The first move towards re-armament was made in 1932, when the Treasury's old "ten years rule", which said that the armed forces had to work out their estimates «on the assumption that the British Empire would not be engaged in any great war during the next ten years», was scrapped. And at the same time, yet another committee was set up to assess the needs of the British army in terms of modernisation. That year, however, the focus remained on defending the empire rather than Britain itself. Thus the very costly work around the building of what was meant to be the empire's "ultimate" naval base in South-East Asia was resumed in Singapore. This was Britain's "Maginot line" for the empire, as it was to fall into the hands of Japan with hardly any fighting, in 1942.
There was also another British-made "Maginot line" to be used in Britain itself. This was the so-called Metropolitan Air Force. The idea actually dated back to the 20s, when the RAF command had insisted that in order to defend the country, the emphasis should be switched from bombers to light fighter aircraft. Little was done in this way until 1932, when plans were laid out to build a comprehensive aircraft industry almost from scratch. The originality of the scheme was that these factories were built on public funds and then their operation was handed over to private capitalists. This, by the way, was subsequently the rule when, from 1936 onwards, war production was stepped up drastically. In most cases the capitalists did not have to fork out one penny in investment, it was all taken care of by the state. A number of obsolete engineering factories were thus bailed out by turning to the production of war equipment, with the government paying for all the machinery needed. With such heavy investments, defence spending soon reached enormous levels, amounting to 26% of total government expenditure in 1936 and 38% the following year. And this was in addition to a National Defence Loan contracted in 1937 to raise some additional cash on top of the already increased taxes.
The three crucial developments in the run-up to World War 2 - Hitler's march into Austria to form the Anschluss in March 1938, the Munich crisis in September 1938 which led to the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia and its absorption into Germany in March 1939, and finally, Hitler's invasion of Poland six months later - each time marked a new attempt by Hitler at pushing his luck and further testing the water. Each time Britain and France gave in, making more or less disapproving noises. And each time Hitler was landed with a situation which was too fragile to become permanent unless a new move forward was undertaken.
Of course, given all the talk about the rule of international law, it was necessary for the British and French governments not to appear to be merely handing Hitler what he wanted on a plate. Besides, giving in too easily would have pushed Hitler to take even bolder steps. But on the other hand, the bottom line was that none of the moves made by Hitler in that period was in itself a direct threat to the status quo. The capitalist classes in Britain and France had still much more to lose by provoking a confrontation than by allowing Hitler to build his "Greater Germany". The truth is that despite all the grandiose official talk there had never been any question of the British and French going to war over Vienna, Danzig or Prague - war was only acceptable for them in defense of their own profits.
In the autumn of 1938, British government ministers viewed the future of Anglo-German relations with optimism. With rearmament more or less complete on all sides, a new economic golden age of higher European living standards was anticipated. The Board of Trade organised business delegations to Germany and promises were made by the City to end Germany's chronic shortage of foreign capital.
The British authorities even managed to find positive aspects to Hitler's coups. When Czech Bohemia was annexed by Germany, Slovakia declared itself independent and rushed to make allegiance with Germany. The British response was summarised by Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, commenting that it was «a natural end to an embarrassing commitment». Meanwhile the Bank of England handed over the Czech gold reserves to the German authorities.
The change of attitude on the part of Britain and France when Hitler threatened Poland was only a matter of formality. They declared war on Germany but otherwise nothing changed. The British navy pretended to enforce an unworkable blockade and 80,000 British troops along with the French army bedded down on the French border to wait for a German attack.
This was not real war, it was the "phoney war" as it became known. For instance when the secretary for air defence was approached with a view to the RAF doing something more than drop propaganda leaflets; say, set fire to some German forests, he replied with an agonised cry «Are you aware it is private property? Why, you will be asking me to bomb Essen next.»
Meanwhile, in France, general mobilisation had been declared. Workers, employees and farmers from all over the country travelled north to join their active units. Not many decided to desert when they received their mobilisation papers. But many never reached their units - sometimes purely by chance, or the lack of it, because of the complete chaos which existed in the army; sometimes also because along the roads they came across growing numbers of draftees whose lack of enthusiasm had been transformed into a determination not to join, after having seen the army's total lack of preparation.
Subsequently, with nothing to do for months on end in the barracks, forts and trenches alongside the German borders, morale went down - to the point where, in the months preceding the German attack, officers often led the way for their men to desert. After the war, the Fifth Column - ie. nazi agents - were accused of having orchestrated the disorganisation and disintegration of the French army. The truth was more simple: the bourgeoisie was still unwilling to go to war and was therefore incapable of mobilising the energy of its own cadres in the state machinery and the army.
At that point the Britis and French bourgeoisies were still prepared to go to great lengths to avoid a war in which they had more to lose than to gain. There were, in fact, attempts at negotiating a way out when representatives of the Foreign Office, acting probably with the agreement of the French bourgeoisie, approached Hitler offering a re-partition of colonies in Africa. They did not go as far as offering to surrender French or British colonies - only those of minor imperialist countries like Belgium or Portugal. In any case, Hitler was not interested. He wanted much more than that.
Of course the phoney war ended when Hitler, having occupied the whole of Nortern Europe, moved into Norway in April 1940. This, in fact, marked the only military action by British and French troops during that period and it was a complete failure, leading to Chamberlain's replacement by Churchill.
Stalin's version of "appeasement"
Chamberlain's undertaking to Poland in March 1939, to declare war on Germany if Poland was attacked, had raised the question of an Anglo-Soviet alliance. As Churchill remarked, «to stop here with a guarantee to Poland would be to halt in no-man's-land under fire of both trench lines and without the shelter of either». But for Chamberlain the Polish alliance was intended to be dissuasive, not offensive. Moreover, Chamberlain's tactics were based on the assumption that Hitler would never approach Stalin for an alliance and that Stalin would never dream of considering one.
Then Hitler issued his bid for the reintegration of the port of Dnazig into Eastern Prussia. Poland's refusal to give in on this led Chamberlain to seek an undertaking by Stalin to provide Poland with military assistance in case of a German offensive.
On the other hand, the USSR had proposed a mutual assistance pact between between themselves, Britain and France. In order to secure Russia's frontiers Stalin demanded miltary control over the Baltic states. This was unacceptable to the British, even though it was the only way to prevent a sudden German attack on Leningrad. Although negotiations went on for months, no agreement was reached and in the end they were broken off.
Meanwhile the USSR had been discussing with Germany and in August 1939 the two countries announced the Hitler-Stalin non-aggression pact, without however announcing publicly the decision to partition Poland.
By November 1939 Stalin was aware of Hitler's designs on Scandinavia. If Hitler was successful, the whole of the Baltic would be in German hands and Leningrad would once more be vulnerable to attack. Stalin sought in Finland the same kind of safeguard for Russia's frontiers as in Poland and the Baltic. When he was turned down point blank by the Finnish government, the Red Army invaded Finland. As the campaign dragged on the Finnish resistance attracted attention in Britain and France. Incapable of squaring up to Hitler, the British and French governments sought a diversion in Finland - even though this would mean taking on Stalin! Plans were made to send 100,000 troops through Norway and Sweden to support the Finns. But by March Hitler had completed his plans for invading Scandinavia and forced Stalin to conclude an early peace in Finland. Stalin had to be content with the seizure of isolated strategic positions.
Ever since 1933 Stalin had probably assumed that Hitler would attack the Soviet Union sooner or later and this would happen with the blessing, if not the open support, of the western democracies. His position was made more vulnerable by the massive purges he had carried out amongst the upper layers of the Red Army. The longer he could forestall a German attack, the better the chance of organising the USSR's defences. The pact with Germany gave him nearly 2 years breathing space, but even so the massive German offensive in June 1941 found the Red Army in bad shape and woefully underprepared.
The fact that the Russians were nonetheless able to survive until winter brought relief was mainly due to the desperate resistance of the local population and the policy of scorched earth. Strategic centres were razed to the ground and 1,360 large factories were dismantled and shipped eastwards. The enormous Soviet industrial machine and the sacrifices of the population allowed the country to resist and eventually to go onto the offensive.
The USA enters tthe war
In June 1940, the French army surrended while British troops were forced into a humiliating retreat at Dunkirk. Yet, the possibility of a last minute compromise was still considered by some in London. Halifax, for instance, supported an attempt at mediation by Mussolini but in the cabinet he was in a minority of one. Although Hitler's peace offer of 19 July "only" demanded Iraq and Egypt by way of concessions, apart of course from the removal of Churchill, it was completely unacceptable. Hitler would have the entire resources of Europe to draw on. He would be able to build up overwhelming strength and choose his moment to attack Britain, or the Empire, or both. For the British bourgeoisie to agree to Hitler's conditions would have amounted to abandoning any pretension of remaining a significant power. By choosing Churchill to replace Chamberlain, the British bourgeoisie effectively settled for the long haul.
On the other hand it was impossible for the British Empire to defeat Germany on its own, Churchill's rhetoric notwithstanding. Britain was forced to seek assistance from the USA.
Initially there was a split in the ranks of the US bourgeoisie. There were those like Henry Ford who felt that a strong man like Hitler offered the best prospects for US capital. More importantly, ideology aside, many big US companies had excellent relations with Hitler's regime. On the other hand, it was anticipated that the USA would gain access to the French and British empires which hitherto were largely closed areas - while Britain's reliance on imports from the US of everything it lacked was bound to increase. Either way, prospects for US profits were promising indeed!
However the German troops' occupation of most of western Europe left no space for short-term greed. If Germany was allowed to build up this kind of economic power and, in addition, take over French colonies in Africa and Asia, the USA's world economic domination would be under threat. June 1940 was a turning point for the American bourgeoisie in deciding to intervene in the war against Germany.
But for the time being the US was constrained by Congress and the reluctance of the American population to become involved. In March 1941, however, Congress approved "lend-lease", by which American goods could be provided to Britain without cash payment, but until the end of 1941 this only produced a trickle of arms. It must also be said that the US did not waste the opportunity to impose conditions on the British government - in particular that of allowing America to control its level of currency reserves.
The first turning point in WW2 came in June 1941 with Hitler's invasion of Russia. This ended Britain's isolation in Europe. But the more significant turning point was the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbour in December 1941, which allowed the US to join the war.
The American bourgeoisie's problem, once it had decided to enter the war against Germany, was to convince the population to go along with it. The only way was to confront them with the necessity of having to respond to a direct attack.
However, Germany was not in a position to deal a direct blow to the USA, nor was it willing to take the risk. Only Japan could do that. Were it not for the need to prevent Germany from taking over Europe, there would have been no need for the USA to take on Japan. Japan's economic and military power just could not match the USA's and its colonial advances into China did not threaten US interests. In fact Japan had long been a very profitable customer for the USA and big banking names like Morgan's had made a fortune thanks to their joint ventures with Japanese companies in Manchuria.
Nor was Japan keen to risk a confrontation with the USA. So Roosevelt had to mount a provocation - a total embargo on Japan's vital oil imports in July 1941. Was the unprotected concentration of the US Navy at Pearl Harbour another deliberate provocation? Did the US leaders expect the attack but not try to prevent it? This is still today subject to speculation. In any case the destruction of the US fleet at Pearl Harbour created enough of a stir in the USA to allow Roosevelt to declare war on Japan and therefore on Germany.
Pearl Harbour prompted Churchill to remark: «So we have won after all!» In one sense he was right - US support would ensure that Britain would not be defeated by Germany. But throughout the war the USA had two agendas. One was military and aimed at defeating Germany and Japan. The other was economic and planned to make the USA and hence US capital the indisputable number one world power - a position which had been vacant ever since the eclipse of Britain aafter WWI.
Behind the scenes US diplomats and businessmen worked away quietly to strengthen the USA's trading position in the post-war world. This was the so-called Open Door policy which allowed US business to penetrate the British and French spheres of influence while keeping the door of the USA and most of the American continent closed to its rivals.
While the Pacific remained of overriding interest to the US economy, "Europe first" became the top priority of the US bourgeoisie. As soon as the war broke out a propaganda offensive was mounted to rally support for Britain, from where daily reports on the radio, in the press and in cinemas testified to the resilience of Londoners in the blitz. The propaganda directed against Japan was predictably venomous and the state proceeded with the wholesale internment of the Japanese-American community.
Another unstable world order
Between 1943 and 1945, WW2 reached its climax. All over the world literally hundreds of millions of people were engaged in a life and death struggle. It dwarfed WW1 in every respect. When the guns at last fell silent, over 60 million people had been killed and whole countries had been destroyed. People might well have asked, what was the point of all the slaughter? But if they asked, they were unlikely to find any satisfying answers. In Europe and Russia years of bitter austerity faced the vast majority. In the colonies, Britain and France quickly moved to restore their interrupted rule. In China the war went on. In the US forces soldiers had to stage mass mutinies just to get sent home.
But of course that was not the whole story. The US bourgeoisie's unpublished agenda was fulfilled beyond their wildest dreams. Firstly they had made billions out of the war. With the rest of the world starved of capital, they were now in the position to "make the world safe for democracy", that is US capital. And they set about this task enthusiastically, particularly in occupied Germany and Japan.
As for British and French capital, and also for the defeated bourgeoisies of Germany and Japan, there were plenty of crumbs falling their way even if the USA picked up the lion's share.
Whether the new world order that came out of WW2 was more stable than that created by WW1 is another question. All that can be said today, in 1995, is that it has lasted longer without another world war.
But the rivalries between imperialist powers and the potential trigger of the world economic crisis are still there and still threaten. No-one can talk with confidence about the stability of the capitalist world. Since 1945 the long series of local wars across the world have left tens of millions dead, maybe not as many as WW2, but not that much fewer. And each one of these local wars, from Korea to Algeria, from Vietnam to the Gulf War, from Yugoslavia to Chechenya, could have been the trigger for a wider regional conflict at least, or maybe a worldwide conflict.
History does not repeat itself. Although the fundamental mechanisms which led to WW1 were the same as those which led to WW2 - they are at the heart of capitalism. But the way in which the build-up to the war was carried out was different in each case. And there are undoubtedly many other ways in which the mad logic of the capitalist system could generate a world war.
We are not doom merchants and our purpose here is not to predict a future WW3. It took ten years after 1929 before the world economic crisis brought about WW2. For several years before its outbreak, there were conspicuous signs of its build-up. Not only was it discussed everywhere, in the news as well as on the shop floor, but governments were constantly using the threat of war to extract greater profits out of the working class.
The build-up to WW2 does show, however, that the capitalist class in the rich countries made a series of conscious decisions, took deliberate steps, which all took them closer and closer to the catastrophe. At each step, even very late in the day, like in June 1936, the working class could have intervened on the political scene to prevent the final disaster. But to succeed in doing that, it needed to raise its own banner and fight for its own perspective - that of the transformation of society. For the working class to follow the various brands of "pacifism" or "democracy" - thereby following the political agenda of one section of the capitalist class or another - proved a bloody dead end.
Tomorrow, if and when the capitalist class once again takes the road of war to try and solve its contradictions by imposing a new world order, let us not forget that our only protection will be the fight for communism.