May 8, 2015 marks the 70th anniversary of VE day (Victory in Europe Day) – the end of World War Two in Europe.
The capitalist mass media is awash with stories of heroism and sacrifice on the part of Australia and its Allies in the fight for “democracy”. But while the intentions of the soldiers and workers in the war effort to defend democracy is clear, the intentions of the owners of capital, and the governments of various nations involved, cannot be taken on face value.
World War Two had its basis in economic crisis that began decades earlier. Since 1913 the world had been plunged into a long term depression which it would only recover from after World War Two.
The First World War was essentially the result of intense imperialist rivalry and competition brought on by economic crisis between the various European powers. It was a fight over who would dominate the colonial world. World War Two was both a fight for imperialist domination coupled with an attempt to destroy the USSR.
Germany, Italy, and Japan having been late comers in the imperialist world and/or losers in World War One were largely without colonies. In a period of economic decline a reliable source of raw materials and markets becomes a necessity.
Acting as reliable agents of big capital, Hitler and Mussolini had embarked on an aggressive policy of imperialist expansion well before 1939. Italy had moved into Albania and Ethiopia while Hitler took back all the territory lost in the Versailles Treaty plus Austria and Czechoslovakia. Japan moved into China and Korea.
From here the question flows: Why were the imperialist powers of Britain and France reluctantly prepared to allow Germany and Italy to expand their territory but when it came to Poland in 1939 they were forced to go to war? The answer can be attributed to two factors. Firstly, with exception of Czechoslovakia the territories gained were not of significant economic importance. Secondly was the existence of the USSR.
The September 1 invasion of Poland by Germany was the straw that broke the camel’s back as far as Britain was concerned. Both Poland and Czechoslovakia were client states of British and French imperialism. Before that Britain and France were happy to live with fascist Germany and Italy – largely because of fascism’s role in crushing working class movements and its fierce opposition to the Soviet Union.
Even though the Soviet Union had become a deformed workers state under the Stalinist bureaucracy, it was still basically an antagonistic system to capitalism and especially fascism, both economically and politically. Consequently, Britain and France were quite happy to use Nazi Germany as a future battering ram against the Soviet Union.
The increasing tension over Poland and the fact that Britain and France refused to enter an alliance with the USSR against Germany, resulted in Stalin signing a Soviet-German non-aggression pact in order to stave off an invasion. Essentially it was a treaty allowing Germany access to Soviet raw materials and the splitting up of Poland between Germany and the Soviet Union.
Rather than explain the treaty as a rotten deal and unavoidable concession to Nazi Germany in order to temporarily stave off a Nazi invasion, the Stalinist leadership declared that Poland no longer existed as a nation. The Soviet Union presented Nazi Germany as a less dangerous power compared to Britain or France, and they also fostered the illusion that the deal could guarantee peace to the USSR!
It was under these conditions that Hitler invaded Poland on September 1, 1939 with Britain declaring war against Germany on September 3.
After the partition of Poland, Hitler turned his forces to the West in order to better equip Germany economically and strategically to attack the Soviet Union, which had a larger economy and five times the population.
Even though Britain and France had been fighting Germany for two years before the invasion of the USSR, from the June 1941 invasion, the war was fought overwhelmingly between Germany and the USSR with the allies conducting minor campaigns in North Africa, the Balkans, and Italy.
With the invasion of the USSR from Poland by the Nazis, the character and significance of the war changed fundamentally. The inter-imperialist conflict was subsumed by a class conflict, with the deformed workers state of the USSR pitted against a coalition of capitalist states, headed by German imperialism.
It’s important also to understand the roles of the soldiers and workers in the different camps. The workers of the USSR were fighting to maintain the gains of the 1917 revolution while the forces of the Axis powers and western allies were the cannon fodder of ruling class imperialist interests.
The lie that the Western Allies were fighting for democracy was exposed by the fact that at the end of the war they rushed their forces to their colonies in order to put down independence movements there.
Despite all the talk about the importance of the battles of the western front and North Africa, it was the eastern front that saw the most intense fighting. The Soviet Army was facing an invasion force about twice its size when Hitler’s forces invaded. In 1941 and 1942 the war in the east involved 70% of German divisions. 28% were playing a policing role in Western Europe while 2% were fighting allied forces in North Africa and the Balkans.
The Soviet-German front saw combat on 93% of days while the figure was 53% for the North African, Italian, and Western European fronts. Up to the landing at Normandy the war effort of the Western Allies was mainly confined to defending Britain’s colonial possessions in Africa and its oil supplies in the Middle East against German imperialism.
While in Asia, the European Allies tried to defend their colonies against Japanese imperialism with Japan and the US fighting over domination of the region.
The invasion caught Stalin totally by surprise. Stalin went into retreat and was not seen for 10 days. Instead of using the two years breathing space afforded by the Soviet-German pact to rearm and prepare for the war the Stalinist bureaucracy had totally squandered the opportunity.
Moreover, fearful of potential rivals for his position, Stalin had undertaken a purge of the military officer corps forged in the 1918-21 Civil War. By June 1941 only 7% of army commanders had a higher military education that what they had received at secondary military institutions.
The German army quickly advanced over Soviet territory, occupying an area accounting for nearly half of the Soviet Unions crop land and more than half of its industrial capacity.
But despite the weak leadership, the working class of the Soviet Union fell in behind the Red Army to defend the gains of the 1917 revolution from fascist dictatorship. Workers were armed and organised into workers militias and resistance groups fought alongside the Soviet army and undertook acts of sabotage across the country.
Before long the USSR gave the Allies its first victory with the counter offensive at Moscow between December 1941 and March 1942. The Battle for Stalingrad in February 1943 is widely regarded as the turning point in the whole war. At the same time, in January 1943 the 900 day Nazi siege of Leningrad was broken.
The significance of the Soviet-German war in defeating Nazism was revealed when British Prime Minister Winston Churchill admitted “that it is the Russian army that tore the guts out of the German military machine”.
To ease the war effort on the Soviet-German front Stalin demanded that a second front be opened in Western Europe by the Allies but the Allies refused. A lack of military preparedness was not the reason for the delay. Britain alone had over one million soldiers in the British Isles with 1.5 million men in the home guard, 750,000 in the air force and 500,000 in the navy. The US also had very significant resources.
The intentions of the Allies were quite clearly spelt out by the then US senator, Harry Truman in 1941 when he said “The Allies wanted the Soviet Union and Germany to ‘bleed themselves white’”. After which they could move in and dominate Europe.
But the Soviet Union was steadily winning its fight with Nazi Germany and was advancing back over territory previously lost. Only when the Allies could see the whole of Europe being liberated by a workers state, albeit a deformed one, and the possibility of workers control taking hold in Europe, did the Western Allies organise the Normandy expedition into France in June 1944.
In this invasion the Allies found that some of their work had been done for them. After the landing at Normandy the working class of France, supported by the French resistance, rose up against fascism in massive strike waves and insurrections. These movements liberated the greater part of France, including Paris, before Allied troops arrived. Liberation committees sprang up everywhere and became organs of power, supported by the patriotic militias. A similar process was to take place in other countries of Europe such as Italy, Greece, Albania, and Yugoslavia.
In Italy the rise of workers unrest with the participation of the resistance movement meant that the fascist government had to flee Rome before the Allies entered it. After taking control of the south, the Allies called a three month truce, while the Nazis dealt with the partisan movement in the north.
In Greece, after the resistance movement had liberated the country from German forces the British fought a 33 day long battle to drive the partisans from Athens. Some 11,000 Greeks were killed in the block-to-block fighting. While the Greek Communist Party was fighting the British intervention, Stalin declared at the Yalta conference “I have confidence in the British government’s policy on Greece”.
It is worthwhile to mention the heroic effort of the Trotskyist resistance in France, the PCI, a group in the Fourth International, the international workers organisation founded by Trotsky in 1938 in opposition to Stalin’s Comintern.
Working with German revolutionary Marxists living in the underground in France, they put out a unique publication aimed at soldiers in the German army called Arbeiter und Soldat (Worker and Soldier). This publication was circulated clandestinely amongst German troops in France and other countries of Europe.
Its stand was that German workers and soldiers had no political interests in the war aims of fascism and it called on the soldiers to collaborate with the workers and farmers and to direct their struggle against the real enemy- the Nazi imperialist dictatorship.
In time they gathered more than a dozen German soldiers around them who distributed Arbeiter und Soldat among trusted friends in the barracks. They also produced their own newsletter called Zeitung fur Soldat und Arbeiter im Westen (News for the Soldier and Worker in the West).
In October 1943 a security breach led to the arrest of more than 20 PCI members. It has also been reported, although unverified, that 15 German soldiers were shot by firing squad.
Except for countries like Albania and Yugoslavia, the Stalinist leadership of the communist parties that dominated most resistance movements capitulated to the official governments of their respective nations. They aided in the disbanding of the resistance fighters and participated in coalition governments dominated by ruling class parties.
The enormous opportunities of instituting socialist governments around the liberation committees and the armed workers in the resistance movement were not utilised. In this sense the revolutionary upswing predicted by the Fourth International at the time did not occur.
It was however reflected in the tremendous anti-colonial upsurge in which people from the Philippines through the Indian subcontinent to Africa fought free from colonial rule.
Despite the missed opportunities the USSR emerged strengthened after the surrender of Germany and then Japan in 1945. In the aftermath of the war an economic boom set in resulting in an unprecedented period of growth. But it was only over the bones of millions of workers and the massive destruction of infrastructure resulting from both the world wars that the boom was able to occur.
Today, economic downturn, instability, and conflict are once again the order of the day. Global conflict is an intrinsic part of capitalism in decline. Now more than ever the call for a socialist world is a burning necessity.
Wealth inequality continues to rise as economic crisis grips the globe. Many countries are experiencing unemployment levels not seen since the 1930s. The world is once again being divided up into different trading blocs. With the devastating power of modern warfare, these three trade blocs are reluctant to move into military conflict but the potential very much exists.
Only the organised working class will be able to cut across these tensions by bringing the big multinationals and banks into public ownership and under democratic workers control. Only by removing the profit motive and producing things for human need will the material basis for world war be eliminated.
As we remember those workers and soldiers who died during World War Two we should redouble our efforts to fight for socialist solutions to the problems created by capitalism.
By Neil Gray, Socialist Party
The Balmain Strikes: Opposition to WW2 at home
During the First World War, the radical Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), along with socialist groups like the Victorian Socialist Party, fought attempts by the Labor Prime Minister Billy Hughes to introduce conscription.
After Gallipoli, and during the Battle of the Somme, tens of thousands of young Australians were killed or maimed. This gave rise to the anti-conscription movement.
Twice, referenda to introduce conscription were defeated, with votes “against” higher in working class areas. Five trades and labour councils and 97 trade unions opposed conscription by 1916. The last years of World War One saw big strikes, including the August 1917 general strike in NSW.
During World War Two the situation was very different. After first opposing the war (when it was between Britain and Germany) the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) switched to support the war effort after Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. They believed that telling workers to work harder was the best way to defend the first worker’s state of Russia.
Whereas a CPA controlled Ironworkers union told the government in 1940 that “We are not prepared to voluntarily condemn our members to employment for the duration of the war in places where they are now working”, by 1941 the CPA leader of the same union explained that “We decided that we have a new attitude towards the war and a new attitude towards production, so on our (union) management committee we decided to campaign for increased production and this campaign was not without result. We campaigned to avoid strikes, with the result that it has been surprisingly successful”.
But the Trotskyists of the time (the defenders of the original ideas of the Russian Revolution before they were betrayed by Stalin) argued that the best way to defend the Soviet Union was to fight for revolution in the West. They explained that the ‘support’ for the Soviet Union from the capitalists was weak and unreliable. This was proved after the war.
The Trotskyists exposed the inequality of sacrifice during the war. While the manufacturers grew richer through war contracts, official figures showed that Australia was 257,521 houses ‘short’ as most building materials were used for war production.
The Trotskyists, organised in the Workers Party of Australia, were weak with only a few dozen members but they had some experienced activists working at the Balmain docks. These included Nick Origlass and Laurie Short.
Under their influence workers in this area of Sydney imposed a ban on overtime and shift work during January 1944 in protest at the government trying to take away the Australia Day holiday for ship workers. The next month Mort’s Dock workers struck briefly over the suspension of some unionists by management.
All this time, the CPA leadership of the Ironworkers were trying to discipline the Trotskyists in Balmain. When the leadership removed Origlass as job delegate, workers spontaneously walked out at Mort’s Dock, Cockatoo and at Balmain itself. Mass meeting after mass meeting rejected the CPA leaders’ attempts to get the workers back to work. They would not go back while Origlass remained victimised.
The strike ended after six weeks with a union split in Balmain. A small ‘official’ CPA-aligned union branch at Balmain was maintained but the majority of workers left and joined the ‘unofficial’ branch under the leadership of Origlass and Short.
This side of history will not be reported in the mass media on this anniversary of VE Day but these are events that we must remember and replicate in future struggles against imperialist war and capitalism.