History: Sixty years after the end of World War Two

Origins of the war, big business and fascism, and lessons for the workers’ movement

Sixty years ago this week, the Second World War, which started in September 1939 came to an end in Europe (war ended in Asia three months later, with the US dropping atom bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagaski). Overall, it is estimated that at least 70 million people died in WW2.

Holger Dröge, from Germany, looks at the origins of WW2, the role of big business in backing fascism, and the lessons for the workers’ movement.


Sixty years after the end of World War Two

On 8 May 2005, commemorations in Europe will mark the 60th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. For Chancellor Schröder and others, it is an opportunity to point out that ‘all Germans’ bear a huge guilt and ‘all Germans helped the fascists to power’ and therefore the Allies’ war was justified. But this theory of ‘collective guilt’ is untrue.

In essence, contrary to popular perception, WW2 was an imperialist war. Schröder cannot admit this, because it would throw up too many questions about the present situation. The same ruling class is still in power in Germany and, once again, unemployment and poverty are mass phenomena. Once again, the capitalist economy is in deep crisis.

The contradictions of capitalism that led to the catastrophe of WW2 still exist today. The start of the war in 1939 was preceded by the global economic crisis of 1929-32. The number of unemployed people in industrialised countries soared from 6 million to 40 million. In 1937, after a brief recovery, the US economy was heading back towards recession.

Today, the market economy is also in decline. Over-production, over-capacity, and mountains of debt are the order of the day. Today, as in the 1930s, there are trade conflicts between the imperialist states, rearmament and wars. Although there is no immediate threat of a third world war, the ruling classes increasingly use military means to carry out disputes over markets and raw materials. The German army is also involved, with its troops in Afghanistan, Kosova, Djibouti and other countries, to try and secure a slice of the cake for German capitalists.

The First World War (WW1) and its consequences

Despite what pro-capitalist historians tell us, wars are not caused by diplomatic errors or megalomaniac rulers. They are an expression of the internal contradictions of economic and social systems. The private ownership of the means of production forces corporations into competition with each other. This competition between corporations, which are backed up by nation states with their armies and armaments industries, means that world war is inherent within capitalism right from the start.

WW1 was an attempt to solve the contradiction between the development of a world market and the continued existence of nation states. Prior to the carnage, production increased enormously and this created a need for new markets. The conquest of colonies was important to create new markets, secure cheap labour and gain easy access to raw materials. Once the leading industrial nations divided the world between them, an attempt to revise this division with military means was inevitable.

WW1 did not solve the problems of the German ruling class.  As a result of defeat the German empire lost colonies around the world and territory in Europe, thereby losing ground economically to Britain and France. After the defeat, the Treaty of Versailles was an obstacle to future expansion and therefore needed, in the view of the German ruling class, to be done away with. For this reason, the second ‘initiative’, to re-divide the world, WW2, originated from Germany.

The post-WW1 treaties, like Versailles, were designed by the victors to punish the entire peoples of Germany, Austria and Hungary for the policies of their ruling classes, thereby creating new grievances that later the fascists were to exploit.

In relation to foreign policy, German capital was in a worse position after WW1 than it had been before. The ruling class’s grip on power in Germany was under threat too. The end of the war was accompanied by a series of revolutionary movements of the working class. Political radicalisation and the strengthening of socialist and revolutionary ideas lead to the founding of the KPD (Communist Party of Germany) in 1918/19, which became a second mass party of the working class, along with the SPD (Social Democrats). Between 1918 and 1923, the SPD leaders had shown their willingness and ability to betray the working class. SPD government ministers ordered police to shoot at workers’ demonstrations. These ‘leaders’ also disarmed the working class politically and did everything to rescue capitalism. Nevertheless, the German working class, again and again, struggled to overthrow capitalism in the beginning of the 1920s.

The fascist movement was the response by German capitalism to the two ‘problems’ of foreign policy and a radicalised working class.

How did the fascists gain power?

The NSDAP (National Socialists, also known as the Nazis) became a mass movement during the late 1920s. Their support came from the traditional petty bourgeoisie (middle layers in capitalist society) which was then substantially more numerous than it is today.  In the turmoil after the WW1, economically ruined and cast into poverty, many artisans and shopkeepers initially looked towards the working class. But once workers’ revolutionary struggles were temporarily defeated, many of the middle classes turned their backs on the labour movement and, after the 1929 crash, pinned their hopes for change on the Nazis.

The seizure of power by the fascists in Germany was only possible due to the massive support they got from German capital. From the beginning, the fascist movement was financially supported by big business. Some of the first to make substantial donations were the industrialists Ernst von Borsig, Hugo Stinnes, Emil Kirdorf and Fritz Thyssen. The fascists were the attack dogs of the capitalists. This is why the first things they did after seizing power were to ban the KPD and other left groups and parties, like the SPD. The Nazis also outlawed trade unions and introduced the dictatorship of the bosses into the workplaces, under the name of the "Leader principal" (Führerprinzip). Under fascism, wages could be reduced and exploitation increased.

At no time did the NSDAP succeed in achieving an absolute majority in a national election. They had to rely on support from the Centre Party (predecessor of today’s opposition Christian Democrats, the CDU) and other capitalist parties when ‘legally’ establishing their dictatorship, in March 1933. In the general election on 6 November 1932, immediately before Hitler’s seizure of power, the Nazis got 33%, while the SPD and the KPD together got 37% of the vote.

This success for National Socialism was only possible because the leadership of the SPD and KPD failed to organise a united struggle of the labour movement against fascism. The SPD leadership, not willing to challenge capitalism, trusted the state instead of the working class to combat Hitler’s movement. The SPD leaders even went as low as to support Brüning’s emergency decrees and to support Hindenburg’s presidential bid – he later made Hitler chancellor. Meanwhile, the KPD, under Stalin’s influence, steadfastly refused to advocate a united front with the social democrats against the fascist threat. Instead, they condemned the SPD as "social fascists" and as the "twin brother" of the fascists, thereby dividing the working class. At the same time, communist leaders closed their eyes to the seriousness of the fascist menace and consoled themselves with the notion: "After the fascists, it will be our turn".

US and Britain fighting against fascism?

In school books, much is made of the Western powers’ fight against Germany: Britain and the United States defeated fascism and brought democracy to Germany, we are told.

Leaving aside the fact that fascist Spain and other dictatorships were left untouched, it is clear that before 1939, neither the British nor the American or French governments were working towards toppling fascism. The violation of the rearmament restrictions in the Treaty of Versailles, the occupation of the demilitarised Rhineland, and the annexation of Austria, were all tolerated by these powers.

The policy of appeasement reached its peak with the Munich conference in the autumn of 1938, when Britain and France, despite their proclaimed "duty to protect" Czechoslovakia, accepted the annexation of the Sudetenland by Hitler.

This policy was not motivated by pacifism. The notion behind it was the hope that Hitler’s expansion plans would be directed against the Soviet Union, since, despite Stalinism, its planned, nationalised economy was seen as a greater threat by the rulers of the West.

Once it became clear that the Nazis were not just going to act against the Soviet Union, but also against France, Belgium or the Netherlands, the political leaders of the West, such as Roosevelt and Churchill, could not simply sit back and do nothing.

But even then, they didn’t take up the fight against Hitler in a determined fashion, since they hoped that Germany would weaken the Soviet Union and also itself in the war. Roosevelt’s successor, Harry Truman, was quoted in the New York Times: "If we see that Germany is winning the war, we should help Russia, and if Russia is winning, we should help Germany and in this way let the Germans kill as many as possible."

There was a substantial amount of sympathy for Hitler in the ruling élites of Britain and North America, as long as the Nazi regime confined itself to suppressing the labour movement and opening up opportunities for extra profits through massive rearmament. The US car manufacturer Henry Ford was an admirer of Hitler, as was the British monarch Edward VIII.

Workers’ attitude to Nazi threat

The attitude of working people was radically different. During the 1930s, the working class in many European states fought against the rise of fascism in their own countries and displayed international solidarity with workers fighting a life and death struggle against the far right in other nations, like Germany, Spain and Austria.

With the outbreak of WW2, workers in Europe faced the grave threat of Nazi invasion. In Britain, the Trotskyists correctly rejected pacifist ideas and also the ultra lefts’ condemnation of the imperialist war and call for ‘revolutionary defeatism’.

In the run up to war, Leon Trotsky commented on the attitude that his supporters should take in the US. To the "peace programme" position workers would reply, "but Hitler does not want a peace programme," Trotsky argued.

"Therefore, we say, we will defend the United States with a workers’ army with workers’ officers, and with a workers’ government, etc." (Trotsky, The Transitional Programme, 1938).

From mid-1940, Britain was the only country left in Europe fighting Hitler. In occupied Europe, workers and youth fought bravely in the underground resistance, and in the factories and other workplaces, against barbaric Nazi rule.

For the British working class there was a real and immediate danger of Nazi invasion and the threat that they would be living under the iron heel of fascism, like much of Europe. In these conditions, the British Trotskyists said a defeat for fascism, and the capitalist system that created it, called for the ‘war effort’ to be turned into a revolutionary socialist struggle. This would have entailed overthrowing the rule of the bosses and nationalising the economy under democratic workers’ control and planning. This would have unleashed huge resources to fight fascism and to raise living standards. A socialist Britain would have been a powerful beacon to workers across Europe and the world. A socialist government would have made a class appeal to the conscript German soldiers, and to the masses in Europe, to rise up against fascism, the bosses and capitalism, and to struggle for socialism. A socialist appeal to the working class of Soviet Union would have given Soviet workers the confidence to fight for a political revolution that would sweep away the Stalinist ruling clique and re-introduce real workers’ democracy.

Good business with fascist Germany

WW2 did not just "break out" but was the inevitable consequence of the competition between capitalist corporations and between the leading imperialist nations, which were confronted with the deepest crisis their system had experienced. Since any individual capitalist cares about nothing apart from his own profit, foreign companies had no problem with making money from Germany while the German state under Hitler prepared for war.

Companies from the United States, in particular, enjoyed good business in Germany after 1933. Ford Germany increased its profit from 63,000 Reichsmark in 1935 to 1.28 million Reichsmark in 1939. Coca-Cola managed to increase its turnover in Germany by a factor of 15 in the same period. As late as 1939, General Motors Chairman, Sloan, defended the actions of Hitler due to high profitability in Germany for General Motors (General Motors and Ford produced 70% of cars in Germany). After 1933, investment in Germany by US companies actually increased.

US companies collaborated with the fascist government. A subsidiary of IBM, DEHOMAG, provided the Nazis with the punch-card technology to automate the genocide of the Jews. Du Pont invested in German arms factories and Texaco boss, Torkild Rieber, was a good friend of Göring. In July 1941, 44% of German oil imports came from the US.

As Jacques Pauwels put it in his book ‘The myth of the good war – The USA in World War II’: "The leaders of Corporate America in the 1930s had a positive attitude towards Fascism, they were philofascists."

Only when Hitler’s plans for world domination became a direct threat to British and US imperialism did members of the ruling élite in these countries become "Anti-Fascists". Even right-wing politicians like Churchill, who opposed the policy of appeasement, did not do so from a principled anti-fascist standpoint.

Winston Churchill wrote in 1935 (reprinted in his ‘Great Contemporaries’, in 1937): "The story of [Hitler] cannot be read without admiration for the courage, the perseverance, and the vital force which enabled him to challenge, defy, conciliate, or overcome, all the authorities or resistances which barred his path."

Even as late as 1939, Churchill wrote: "One may dislike Hitler’s system and yet admire his patriotic achievement. If our country were defeated, I hope we should find a champion as indomitable to restore our courage and lead us back to our place among the nations." (Winston Churchill, ‘Step by Step’, 1939).

Of Mussolini, Churchill even wrote in his memoirs after the war: "The alternative to his role could easily have been a communist Italy, which would have brought other kinds of dangers and misfortunes upon the Italian people and Europe. His fatal mistake was the declaration of war on France and Great Britain …Had he not done that, he could well have maintained Italy in the role of the holder of the balance of power, being courted and rewarded by both sides and gaining unusual wealth and riches from the fighting between other countries. Even when the question of war became a certainty, Mussolini would have been welcomed by the allies."

(Winston S. Churchill, ‘Closing the Ring’, pp. 44-45, quoted from Gabriel Kolko: ‘The Politics of War. The World and United States Foreign Policy, 1943-1945’, New York 1990, p. 44).

What the ruling classes of the US and Britain were concerned about was not fascism, but that Germany was a rival economic power. The main motivations for the actions of the ruling élite in Britain and the US were political (weakening the Soviet Union) and economic (new markets). In the territories conquered by the Allies during the war, their aim was not to get rid of fascism, but to save capitalism. In doing so, the Western Allies were not afraid to support forces which had cooperated with the Nazis and were still pursuing reactionary aims, while the Allies repressed forces which had risked their lives, and lost many fighters, in the struggle against fascism.

For this reason, 8 May 1945 cannot simply be called the ‘Day of Liberation’. Although it is true that the German working class was finally freed from the terror of Nazism, in the areas occupied by the Allies, workers were not free to take their destiny into their own hands.

In the city of Aachen, for example, by March 1945 a new trade union federation was set up – ‘The Union of Free Trade Unions’. This was actually banned by the British Forces and one of their leaders, Anna Braun-Sittartz, who was a leading member of the communist resistance, died under strange circumstances just after the end of the war.

In many areas of Germany ‘Antifa-Commitees’ were set up after the end of the war. These committees of workers, which were mainly anti-capitalist or even socialist, fought against Nazis who still could remain in their jobs after the end of the hostilities, including, for example, court judges. In the December 1946 referendum in the state of Hessen, a majority of over 70% voted in favour of taking key industries into public ownership. Afterwards, the occupying powers banned all further referenda. In early 1947, strikes demanded nationalisation of the coal mines.

Towards the end of the 1940s, there was a fundamental change in eastern Germany. With the advent of the developing ‘Cold War’, Moscow changed policy regarding Germany. The economy was nationalised in eastern Germany, accompanied by the Stalinist communist party, the SED, forming a dictatorship which robbed workers of their political rights.

The Soviet Union

90% of the German army’s losses were inflicted by the Red Army. The Soviet Union, with over 20 million dead, suffered the heaviest losses. For every American GI who died, there were 53 Red Army soldiers. It was quite convenient for the Western powers that the Soviet Union was bearing the brunt of the war effort – it helped the Western capitalist powers keep their own war ‘costs’ down. At no point did the aid to the Soviet Union constitute more than 5% of the Allies’ military budget.

The Stalinist bureaucracy initially made a pact with the fascists at the beginning of the war (the infamous ‘Hitler-Stalin Pact’). As late as 20 April 1941, Stalin personally congratulated Hitler on his birthday – all in the absurd hope of avoiding a German invasion. When the Nazis finally did declare war on Russia, in the summer of 1941, the defence of the Soviet Union had been significantly weakened. In addition to this there were the Stalinist purges against the opposition (including the extradition of 800 anti-fascists to Germany, where many of them ended up in concentration camps).

There are two reasons why the Soviet Union managed to win the war: the enormous willingness to fight shown by Soviet workers and the existence of a planned economy, although the potential of this mode of production was enormously hindered by the Stalinist dictatorship and bureaucratic obstacles. Thanks to the victories of the Red Army, fascism in Germany was decisively defeated. Afraid that the Red Army might conquer all of Europe after dealing such deadly blows to Hitler, the Western powers then decided to intervene and sent forces into Europe.

While fascists and many capitalists fled westwards ahead of the Soviet tanks, many workers, not just in Eastern Europe, hoped for a genuine socialist new beginning. But the Soviet authorities, and the leaders of the Communist Parties who they had appointed to key roles in the newly created Eastern Bloc countries, quickly stifled any attempt at workers’ independent organisation, and created regimes according to the model of the Stalinist Soviet Union. In East Germany, the SED was the instrument through which the bureaucracy ruled. It organised a series of purges and suppressed a heroic workers’ uprising in June 1953.

Anti-fascist resistance in Europe

In the countries occupied by German fascism, the resistance movement played an important role. Members of the French Resistance, the Partisans, and other such groups played an important role in the victory over fascism.

In Italy, the disastrous economic situation and the defeats of the fascists in North Africa and Stalingrad, lead to a wave of strikes in March 1943, which spelt the end of fascism. Afterwards, Italian capitalists defected to the side of the Allies. Mussolini was deposed in a palace revolution in July. In central and northern Italy, in particular, anti-fascist committees were formed, there were strikes and demonstrations, which the new government of Badoglio suppressed using the old fascist laws and functionaries.

Badoglio was previously one of Mussolini’s leading officers and, among other things, was in charge of the war of aggression against Ethiopia in 1935/36.

King Victor Emanuel of Italy made Mussolini head of government in 1922, and allowed himself to be used by the regime for over 20 years. Now the King and Badoglio were declared to be the legitimate authority in Italy by the US and British governments. In the lower levels of administration, the Allies also kept many fascists in office, and the apparatus of state repression which had served the fascists for over two decades.

But anti-fascists were often equated with ‘communists’ and rejected for official positions. A representative of the Allied ‘Control Council’ justified the decision not to make an anti-fascist the prefect of Naples by saying, "it would be strange to give a government post to man who has spent his life fighting against his government."

Allied policy towards Italy is also an example of the different interests of the US and Britain. British imperialism wanted to control the Mediterranean because of the shipping routes to its various colonies. Therefore Britain wanted an Italian government which was as favourable as possible to British interests. For US imperialism, the main interest was in markets and low costs of occupation.

The British government emphasised that Italy was a defeated enemy country and the population were partly to blame for Mussolini’s crimes. The US government placed more emphasis on the common fight after Italy had switched sides (for this purpose, the word ‘co-belligerent’ was coined), and wanted to use economic aid to halt the forward march of communism.

The economic situation in the occupied areas was catastrophic. To give one example: In March 1944, the population of Naples would have had 615 calories a day – if the supplies were available. Even under the Nazis, the ration was 1,378 calories. The British regarded 2,000 as adequate. The consequences were protests and food riots by starving Napalese. The reaction to this was political repression (press censorship, banning of assemblies etc), including bloody attacks on the workers and poor. For example, on 19 October 1944, 14 demonstrators were shot dead.

When they entered Florence in August 1944, the Allies were met with a new phenomenon which was to be repeated in many parts of northern Italy. A strong resistance movement had formed during the time of Nazi occupation. This movement had not only inflicted severe damage on the fascists, it had also built up a provisional administration before the Allies arrived. There were frequent conflicts when the Allies attempted to replace the officials who had been named by the ‘National Liberation Committees’ with their own bureaucrats.

The units of partisans were, unlike Mussolini’s Carabinieri, disarmed, and only partially integrated into the new army being set up. Some were even arrested and threatened with execution.

But the most brutal repression of the ‘liberated’ by the ‘liberators’ was in Greece, a significant country in the control of shipping routes in the Mediterranean. The resistance in Greece against fascism was firmly rooted in the population and the communist party (KKE) had a large influence on the resistance movement. Although the occupation forces were driven out in summer 1944, British troops landed in Greece in October 1944, ostensibly to "relieve the emergency of the suffering population".

But, in reality, the left was repressed, while the "security battalions", which had been set up under the Nazi puppet regime of Rallis to fight against the anti-fascist resistance, were allowed to continue terrorising the people.

The US government adopted a hypocritical position towards Greece. It supported the repression and agreed to an increase in the number of British troops in Greece (at the expense of the war against the Nazis). But, with an eye on public opinion in the United States, the US government was publicly ‘neutral’ and even made some criticism of British policies in Greece.

In several other countries, such as Belgium and France, there were also conflicts between the "liberating" Western powers and the resistance. Neither did the Allies act leniently once they were back in their colonies. In India, the British government suppressed the resistance movement and Gandhi and many others were imprisoned.

The Allied bombing raids

The questions surrounding the character of WW2 and the role of the allies have been discussed in Germany, particularly in the last few weeks. The labour movement must provide answers to these questions, to draw lessons and to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past in the struggle against fascism and capitalism.

At a demonstration by 5,000 Nazis on 13 February this year, in Dresden, Franz Schönhuber, a former member of the Waffen-SS, said he saw no difference between a concentration camp guard and a British bomber pilot.

During the night between the 13-14 February 1945, 770 British bombers dropped massive amounts of incendiary bombs on the unprotected city of Dresden. At the time, besides the city’s 630,000 inhabitants, there were also many refugees in the city. The dropping of over half a million incendiary bombs created a terrible firestorm. During the two following days, 15-16 February 1945, there was further carpet-bombing by 310 US planes.

The bombing of Dresden and of other German cities, was aimed at the civilian population, as were the earlier mass bombing of British cities by the Nazis. In most cases, the more affluent middle class residential areas were spared the bombs, as were industrial sites (after all, the Allies hoped to use the factories after the war). So why did the Allies rain down such hell on the working people of Dresden? As the collapse of the Nazi regime was by then only a matter of time, the Allies were pursuing one goal first and foremost: the massive intimidation of the German working class to stop the re-building of labour organisations and moves towards a socialist Germany.

The bombing raid on Dresden was also a show of strength directed at the Soviet Union. General David M. Shlatter, Deputy Commander of the air forces at the headquarters of the Allied forces, said: "I am of the opinion that our air force is the trump card which we will bring to the peace talks after the war, and that this operation will hugely strengthen our position, in the sense that it will increase the Russians’ awareness of our strength."

War – Fascism – never again!

Today’s neo-Nazis try to direct attention towards the crimes committed by the Western powers to distract from the crimes committed by the fascists. As socialists, we will use all our strength to resist every attempt by modern-day Nazis and the extreme right to revise history. The fascists are the most aggressive enemies of the working class, irrespective of any social rhetoric they might come out with. Once in power, they put themselves in the service of capital.

However, history also shows that we cannot rely on the capitalist state and its institutions in the struggle against fascism and other dictatorships. The crisis of the capitalist system in the 1920s and 1930s lead to fascist or other types of dictatorships being established not just in Germany but in other countries too: Italy, Spain, Poland, Romania, Japan and others. This was not inevitable – if the then leadership of the labour movement had not made serious political errors, such as failing to recognise the support for the fascists by large sections of capital.

Only if we abolish capitalism can we prevent further catastrophes, such as arms races, new wars, genocides and the complete disfranchisement of the working class. Although the German working class was repressed to such an extent by Hitler’s fascism that it was unable to bring down the Nazi regime by itself, WW2 still showed that the working class is the force that has the historic task of building a new society.

It was the workers of the Soviet Union who were central to Hitler’s defeat. From the beginning hundreds of thousands of resistance fighters in the ranks of the labour movement all over Europe fought against fascism. After fascism was brought down, it was workers who created anti-fascist committees, took over large companies and ran them under democratic control and administration.

Then, as now, it was the working class who create all of society’s wealth, and, because of its role in the process of production, has the ability to work collectively and to achieve a world without repression and exploitation.

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May 2005