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Book Review: The Second World War by Antony Beevor

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The Second World War
By Antony Beevor
Published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (2012), $20.00

Although published seven years ago, the 880 pages of this book provide a partly new, overall and global picture of the Second World War. Above all, this is because the Japanese occupation of and war in China, which began in 1931, is presented as part of the war. This is an updated version of an article first published in 2012.

Per-Åke Westerlund, Rättvisepartiet Socialisterna (ISA in Sweden)

Seventy five years ago, the European continent and large areas of Asia and Africa were on fire in the second world war, with inhuman suffering of the worst kind caused by an irreconcilable struggle for global power. Antony Beevor provides a valuable reminder to what depths imperialism and capitalism can sink, even in Europe.

In 1939, capitalist politicians and generals restarted the world war that had been ended by the revolutions in Russia in 1917 and Germany in 1918. The underlying cause of the war, the competition between the different national capitalist classes, had not been solved. On the contrary, not only were they further sharpened during the 1920s and 30s, but the emergence during this period of the Soviet Union (USSR), a degenerated and authoritarian workers’ state, created another complication.

Today, after the drawn-out crisis following the 2007–8 recession, and now the Coronavirus and impending global economic collapse, contradictions within the “peaceful” EU have dramatically increased. The difference from the 1930s, of course, is that the working class has not been smashed by fascism. Moreover, given the catastrophic experience of the second world war, the capitalists can only regret handing over power to the Nazis.

At the current time, world war between the major powers is ruled out. This is not due to the work of the numerous international bodies, but in part, because of the possession of nuclear weapons which, if used, would result in mutual destruction. More importantly, even the threat of such a war would lead to a huge movement of opposition that would put the mass mobilizations against the Iraq war in the shade. However, regional wars in which the major powers intervene, such as the savage wars in former Yugoslavia 25 years ago still continue as we see today in the Middle East and Africa.

Beevor’s book underlines how Adolf Hitler and the Nazis were accepted by the German capitalist autocracy: “The public institutions — the courts, the universities, the General Staff, and the press — crawled for the new regime”. At first, many French and British capitalist leaders too were sympathetic to fascism as a means of stopping the revolutionary struggle of the working class in Europe, particularly when they believed that Hitler’s main goal was the Soviet Union. Hitler was obsessed with smashing what he termed “Jewish Bolshevism”. At the same time, on the other side of the world, “Japanese soldiers were obsessed with the threat posed by the Bolsheviks”, says Beevor describing Japan’s aspirations of Asian domination.

The authorities in London and Paris used dictatorial violence in the colonies and had no moral scruples against oppression in itself. Democratic rights were a relatively new invention, a concession that the ruling class had made in response to the mass struggles from below. “Bourgeois democracy” had become a more convenient way for capitalism to operate in relatively prosperous countries.

Murderous intent

The aim of war is to subjugate the enemy, either by annihilating it politically or rendering it defenseless, the military theoretician of the early nineteenth century, Carl von Clausewitz, explained. Clausewitz’s best-known statement, that war is the continuation of “politics by other means”, and that war does not occur like a thunderbolt from a clear blue sky, both apply to the 1930s and to the world today. So does his conclusion: “The tendency to annihilate the enemy, which is central to the idea of war, by no means has changed or been reduced by the increased educational level”.

In the second world war, the rulers spared no human cost to subjugate the enemy. Beevor tells of German troops in 40-degree cold sawing off the legs of dead Red Army soldiers, thawing them out to take their boots. He reports cannibalism among Japanese troops and in besieged Leningrad. There are terrible mass rapes — in Budapest, Berlin, Japan and the Philippines — and slave brothels. Beevor shows how the Holocaust of Jews developed during the war from the mass executions, “Shoa with bullets”, to the industrialized “Shoa with gas” in the death camps of Auschwitz and Treblinka. In Europe and Asia, millions of people were displaced, hungry and vulnerable to epidemics.

Never before had so much of the world’s resources been spent on weapons of mass destruction. The German General, Erwin Rommel, led 10,000 vehicles through the desert when he attacked British-controlled Egypt. Soviet ships fired 220,000 artillery shells in an hour and 40 minutes when the liberation of Leningrad began. The Allies used 5,000 ships and 8,000 aircraft to transport 130,000 troops across the Channel to Normandy in Operation Overlord on D-Day, June 6 1944.

The scale is almost unimaginable. In the battles around Kharkov, Ukraine, when the Red Army was advancing in 1943, 950,000 Soviet soldiers were killed. Overall, many more civilians died than soldiers. Over 40,000 were killed by the German blitz bombing of London, and as many died when Allied air force raids totally destroyed Hamburg, and by Japanese air bombing of Chongqing in central China. In Tokyo, 80,000 people were killed and 250,000 houses were burnt down by US aircraft. One hundred thousand died when the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on August 8, 1945.

In total, the war caused 60–70 million deaths, calculates Beevor. But it might be even higher, as some Chinese historians are now raising the death toll from 20 to 50 million during the war in China. It is documented that well over 50 million Chinese people were displaced by the Japanese occupation forces. In the Soviet Union, 18 million civilians were killed, plus seven million soldiers and officers of the Red Army.

The war was going on in all oceans and in large parts of the world. Iran and Syria were invaded, as were Tunisia and Libya. The colonial troops that played an important role in the war later accelerated the colonial liberation, especially in India.

Opening shots

The build-up to war in the 1930s took place in parallel with the consolidation of Joseph Stalin’s dictatorship in the Soviet Union. After Stalin’s complete underestimation of the danger of Nazism and the failure to stop its accession to power in Germany, Moscow aimed for cooperation and alliances with Britain and France. But the closer the war came, the more obsessed Stalin became to reach an agreement with Hitler. He seriously thought that the pact signed in the summer of 1939 would prevent a German attack. Beevor describes how Stalin toasted Hitler and “a friendship consolidated in blood”.

In a secret part of the agreement, Poland was divided into German and Russian areas. Until the German attack in June 1941 (Operation Barbarossa), the Soviet Union exported grain, oil, manganese, rubber and minerals to Nazi Germany. A similar five-year “neutrality agreement” was signed between Moscow and Tokyo in April 1941, in which the Soviet Union recognized the Japanese occupation government — “Manchukuo” — set up in Manchuria.

After the brutal partition of Poland, which signaled the start of the second world war, the German Wehrmacht turned west. Beevor shows how its later famous blitzkrieg (lightning war) against Belgium, the Netherlands and France did not follow any plan, but was improvised. The subsequent occupation of Denmark and Norway was motivated by the need to ensure the availability of iron ore in northern Sweden and the need for more ports for the Atlantic war.

While Hitler’s generals did not find many collaborators in Poland, they found enough in France. For the French officers, the “prospect of defeat was less frightening than the risk of revolution and the French army’s decay”. In a coup, Marshal Philippe Pétain took power and established the collaborationist Vichy regime in the south of France in order to “save enough troops to put down the revolutionary unrest”.

The invasion of Russia

At the end of June 1941 came the inevitable German attack on the Soviet Union. Despite reports of a German build up — 140 divisions with three million soldiers mustered — Stalin denied that an attack was coming and accused reporters of spreading rumors. Then Stalin disappeared from public life for most of the rest of the year and was hardly mentioned in the state controlled press.

The Red Army had lost most of its senior officer cadre during the great purges of 1937 and was not ready when the attack came. The first months, therefore, gave the impression that Germany would win as quickly as it had in western Europe. Ukraine and Belarus fell into the hands of the occupiers, Leningrad was surrounded and, by the autumn of 1941, German troops were only 40 kilometers from Moscow. Hitler and the Nazis aimed to crush “Jewish Bolshevism” and conquer Soviet food production and natural resources. According to a Nazi “hunger plan”, the population would starve, with 20–30 million deaths among the Slavic “sub-humans”.

But the Soviet Union was not France. It became a war between two social systems. Capitalism had been abolished in the Soviet Union, and the planned economy had shown its potential, despite Stalin’s brutal dictatorship and bureaucratic mismanagement. Capitalism on a world scale was swamped in the 1930s depression. Hitler’s Germany was crisis-ridden capitalism, led by superstitious, vicious fanatics.

There was a strong voluntary willingness in Russia to defend the new society after the revolution. Few wanted a return to tsarism and capitalism. The German troops soon discovered that Red Army soldiers did not give up. Resistance pockets appeared all the time behind the front. The German frontlines were drawn out and the equipment did not hold for the winter. Although bureaucratic, the planned economy in the Soviet Union was able to move its factories — 2,500 were dismantled and moved to the Urals, where production at the end of 1942 was already four times greater than in Germany.

Hitler turned his attention and military offensive from Moscow to Stalingrad in the south. A breakthrough there would secure the road to the oil of the Caucasus. On August 23, 1942, 1,200 German bombers attacked and left Stalingrad in ruins, killing 40,000. But the German army still could not take the city.

The battle of Stalingrad was the most important turning point in the war. It became apparent that Red Army troops were so much more motivated than the German soldiers and, by then, they had the advantage in numbers and equipment. On November 22, 1942, the German General, Friedrich Paulus, and his 290,000 men were completely surrounded.

Beevor describes how the Soviet troops during their march westward were met with tears of joy by the civilian population. Both sides had lost about half-a-million soldiers at Stalingrad, but the Red Army could enroll twice as many: 5.8 million soldiers against the German eastern front’s 2.7 million. The German defeat was reinforced when its desert troops in North Africa led by Rommel were defeated at about the same time. The brutal logic of war, however, meant that it continued for another two-and-a-half years until the Red Army entered Berlin.

The Holocaust

The Anti-Semitism of the Nazis was accepted by the German capitalist class as a part of the kind of regime that was necessary to crush the labor movement and to “restore Germany”. From the beginning, the Nazi’s strategy was persecution in order to force Jews to emigrate. Workers’ leaders, communists and socialists were the first to be sent to concentration camps.

During the war, Hitler’s ideas of “Aryan superiority” were twisted even further. The Holocaust of the Jews began with mass executions. The death camps also received Roma, lesbians and gays, people with disabilities, socialists, trade union and worker activists. If the yellow Jewish star on a prisoner’s uniform was half red, it meant that the person was both a Jew and a socialist or communist. At the beginning of the war, male Jews with official positions were shot, but the killings were expanded quickly to all Jews, including women and children. In one of the notorious places of execution, the Babi Yar ravine outside Kiev, 33,771 Jews were shot in the first mass execution.

The so-called “final solution” was decided at a meeting of Nazi leaders and “scientists” in a large villa in Wannsee, Berlin. The lethal gas, Zyklon B, had been developed by IG Farben, which established a factory near a then fairly new concentration camp at Auschwitz in Poland. Millions of Jews were transported to the death camps to be killed by gas. Among the most horrifying depictions in Beevor’s book is of how the soldiers that liberated Auschwitz found seven tons of human hair and 1.2 million coats, dresses and clothes. But in the Soviet Union the Holocaust was concealed, after Stalin’s orders not to “categorize” the victims.

Beevor also tells of the uprising in the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw in the spring of 1943, which took two months for German SS units to break. Prisoners also rose up at the Treblinka and Auschwitz camps in 1943 and 1944. Seventy of the 700 Jews who fought back in Treblinka were able to hide in the woods and survived.

Resistance and betrayal

The resistance movement, armed partisans who fought against German occupation, was important to the war. The largest underground army was in Poland, with 100,000 in arms by the middle of 1940. In Ukraine, resistance fighters quickly organized, with 5,000 soldiers in arms just months after the German invasion. Partisan attacks and sabotage were growing and becoming more coordinated. Beevor reports that “the forests south of Leningrad and most of Belarus were controlled almost entirely by partisan forces” in the summer of 1943.

The first uprising against the German troops occurred in Serbia. The Yugoslav Communist Party mobilized an effective partisan movement that gathered Yugoslavs across ethnic and religious boundaries. This laid the foundation for Josip Tito’s rise to power after the war. Above all, communist resistance groups were the fastest to grow and had strong influence in Italy, France, Belgium, Netherlands and so on. The Stalinist “Communist” parties had experienced great difficulties during the Hitler-Stalin pact but, from 1941, their own interests coincided with those of the Stalinist regime in Russia. The resistance in different countries gradually developed underground newspapers and organized strikes.

Stalin, however, whose first priority was to defend his own power, wanted to maintain the alliance with Britain and France. Therefore, he ordered the Communist parties to submit to bourgeois parties and leaders such as General Charles de Gaulle in France. When the French Communist Party leader, Maurice Thorez, returned to France at the end of 1944 he ordered that strikes should be suspended.

Stalin’s greatest betrayal was in Greece. In a private meeting, British prime minister, Winston Churchill, and Stalin divided Europe into spheres of influence, with Greece assigned to Britain. Eighty thousand British troops were deployed to put down the communist-led liberation movement, EAM/ELAS. A bitter civil war was fought all the way to 1949, ending in the brutal defeat of the working-class forces.

In Italy, Benito Mussolini’s regime collapsed like a house of cards when military defeats occurred one after another. Allied troops landed in the south and reported hunger riots, while workers in the north went on strike and took to the streets. Hitler ordered the German occupation forces to confront the Allies. Mussolini was rescued from house arrest but ended his life hanging from a lamppost during the mass uprising.

If Stalin held back social change in the west, it was different in the countries the Red Army marched into. State power was crucially based on military might, while political parties — “communist” and bourgeois — were held subordinate. Stalin did not want popular uprisings and, therefore, allowed the Nazis to put down an uprising in Warsaw in 1944 without the Red Army intervening. After the war, Stalin established a number of client and buffer regimes. Churchill suggested that British troops would intervene in Poland after the war, but it was completely unrealistic because the mood of the soldiers would have made it impossible.

The war in Asia

Japan occupied Manchuria in north-eastern China after the so-called Mukden incident in 1931. The ruling warlords in China, under the leadership of Chiang Kai-shek, had crushed the workers’ revolution of 1925–27 in blood. The Communist Party (CCP) under Mao Zedong was based on peasants and formed its own People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in the countryside. Stalin’s “popular frontism” — that the “Communist” parties should cooperate with bourgeois nationalist forces — meant that the CCP was instructed to form a common front with Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang and his troops against Japan. Mao agreed in words, but realized that the threat from Chiang was not over, so the PLA continued to operate separately.

The Japanese ruling class and the military engaged in the same kind of propaganda as the Nazis, describing Chinese people as “worse than pigs”. The battle of Shanghai in 1937 was the largest of the war in China, as 200,000 Japanese soldiers attacked Shanghai and then the former capital, Nanjing. Japan lost 40,000 soldiers, but 180,000 Chinese soldiers were killed and up to 300,000 civilians. The Japanese troops had orders to take no prisoners.

Two years later, Japanese self-confidence suffered a serious blow during the Nomonhan incident in northeast China, from May through the summer of 1939. There, the Soviet Red Army defeated Japanese forces, killing 61,000 Japanese troops. This outcome encouraged the Chinese resistance against Japan. The Japanese operation in China remained its biggest throughout the war, with 680,000 soldiers, the same as the combined total in all the other Asian countries invaded: Philippines, Indonesia, Indochina, Burma, Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia.

Between 50 and 90 million Chinese were forced to flee from the Japanese army’s cruelty, and between 20 and 50 million died, according to Beevor. The Japanese army also used biological weapons, including the spread of plague and cholera bacteria. US officers based in China and the media in the west found that the nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek were not an effective force against Japan. The US press described Chiang as “dictatorial, incompetent, corrupt”, with an army that refused to fight against Japan because it was being saved for battles against Mao’s forces. US General Joseph Stilwell made the point that the CCP and PLA fought harder than the nationalists.

When the nationalist army retreated, it plundered the countryside, leading to famine and rebellion. The CCP had completely different policies and tactics. Land was divided and cultivated which constantly strengthened the party’s support. This paved the way for the Chinese revolution of 1949.

Japan had rapidly conquered Southeast Asia, but was gradually pushed back. Its military tactics were very conservative and its economy and production could not match the US, which was drawn fully into the war after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

US General Douglas MacArthur, who was forced initially to leave his base in the Philippines, later became the de facto ruler of Japan and Korea after the war, where he gave immunity to those responsible for biological warfare and research. The war in Asia ended with the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, with 135,000 direct deaths and many more later. This show of military might was largely a matter of the US demonstrating its power to the Soviet Union. Washington wanted to establish a new world order: pax Americana.

On-going power struggles

The large number of civilian deaths in the second world war was a result of capitalist leaders relying on artillery and aerial bombardment in order to reduce their own casualties. British Marshal Arthur Harris developed a method where firebombs preceded explosive bombs. He boasted that 63 German cities were destroyed. This is even more the case in recent US wars, with extensive aerial bombings of Vietnam and Cambodia, later in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Horn of Africa.

The outcome of the war in Europe was, basically, a victory for the resistance and for Stalinist Russia against capitalist Nazi Germany. Hitler’s legacy was a country in ruins, with eight million homeless and five million slave workers from other countries.

In the Soviet Union there was support for change, but Stalin’s secret police, the NKVD, launched new mass arrests and purges, with 135,000 soldiers and officers arrested for “counter-revolutionary crimes”. Entire communities, like the Chechens, were displaced. In 1943, Stalin had dissolved the Communist International to emphasize that the task of “communist” parties was to support the Soviet Union (read: Stalin), not to engage in revolutionary struggle and world revolution.

It was this outcome, extending Stalinism to eastern Europe and parts of central Europe, in combination with US imperialism becoming the superpower of the west, that for a whole period established a “balance of (nuclear) terror” — cold war — instead of bloody war in Europe. Outside Europe, new wars followed in Korea, the Middle East, Vietnam and, later, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and so on. In the west and in the Stalinist states, a 20–25 year period of economic upswing followed, based on the enormous destruction of productive forces in the war. The masses in the colonies fought for liberation while the economic exploitation often deepened.

The contradictions that led to the second world war still exist within capitalism today. There is an intense competitive struggle between nation states for economic gain and strategic power. Even within the EU this struggle between the interests of the national capitalist classes is on-going, in particular with the dominant power, Germany, striving to impose its policies on the weaker, peripheral countries. While world war is ruled out by the existence of nuclear weapons, smaller regional wars continue endlessly.

Globally, capitalist states (including major, “peace-loving” EU powers) squander huge technological resources on weapons of war. Such resources should be used to lift living standards, eradicate disease, and protect the environment. Capitalism, based on a competitive drive for profits and spheres of influence, will never get rid of military competition or bury the threat of war. That is why we need a global, mass democratic movement of the working class and its allies to carry through the socialist transformation of society.

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