ISBN 978-1-78099-378-2. “The Unpatriotic History of the Second World War” by James Heartfield was published by Zero Books in 2012. This is a work of history and a re-interpretation of events 1939 to 1945. What has increasingly disturbed me is how ‘remembrance’/celebration of the last war has changed over the years. We didn’t use to have a minute’s silence in the workplace on November 11th. That is a recent invention. The idea of war as “good” is a self-evident myth but we all seem willing to believe in it. It is somehow comforting for people. More than that – this myth is politically useful if you wish to justify future wars. Any war… More specifically these days – wars for oil.
When Tony Blair was attempting to rally support for the invasion of Iraq in 2004 he asserted that Britain went to war in 1939 in order to stop the persecution and murder of the Jewish people. Likewise former President George Bush has claimed that modern Islamic fundamentalists are the modern equivalents of Nazis. We are comfortable with this sort of story telling but the uncomfortable truth is that this view of World War Two is based upon a myth. In the case of the Jews in 1939, this had nothing to do with Britain entering the war. Indeed the Holocaust played no part whatsoever in the execution of the Allied war effort. How we forget. How convenient. We are re-inventing history through more recent events and putting a gloss on them in order to justify our actions today.
Hence this book serves as a timely reminder, once again, that there are no “good wars”, least of all World War 2. Heartfield shines a light on the actions of both Axis and Allied sides in the war and shows how very similar they were. Despite attempts to create a myth of a “people’s war” the last war, like so many others, was simply a matter of a dispute over Empire. Since 1945 we have written the history of those events as the victor’s history. No doubt if events had been reversed a very different history would have resulted. I had hoped for more of a perspective from the Axis side but the author is not interested in being too controversial. There are no new revelations in this book. Indeed, many of the episodes are relatively well known to any student of the war. At over 550 pages long this is a long work of history – however its value really is in the re-interpretation of historical events using first-hand accounts from those who were there. Those accounts have so conveniently been air-brushed out of our history because they are inconvenient and jar against our vision of the myth we prefer.
So what do you learn if you strip away the jingoism and deceit? What happens if you no longer believe in “my country right or wrong” and apply some basic moral equivalence? What if we really judged history by deeds not words? In an early section on rationing Heartfield retells the story of Savoy protestors; in 1940, during the Blitz, a band of malcontents gathered outside London’s famous Ritz with placards reading “Ration the Rich”. It seems they had got wind of an unspoken reality of rationing: the very wealthy elite could enjoy fine dining without the need to spend their ration coupons. When the air raid siren rang the Savoy was obliged to take the protestors into its private air raid shelter where the likes of the Duke and Duchess of Kent were served tea and toast on silver trays. Needless to say this was not repeated. The police kept the protestors away from elite privileges for the rest of the war. This story sounds so fresh and new as it could be right out of the pages written on the modern Occupy movement. Nothing has changed. There is always free markets and austerity for the poor. Always socialism and plenty for the rich.
There are other lessons to be learnt that are very telling for us today in 2014. How often we are told that there is no alternative to austerity? How frustrated are we that the politicians drag their feet on the de-carbonisation of our economy? Well, all you need to do is classify your enemy as a “war” and all such problems are swept aside. American Capitalism could not solve the Great Depression but suddenly those problems vanished when it came to re-arming to fight the Axis powers. “Resources which were unimaginable in 1937 were freely available just a few years later…” wrote one historian. Wouldn’t a modern day climate change campaigner wish that could happen?
However, as with all these things, the “can do” attitude only extended to fighting a war. Action was only permissible if it could benefit somebody who mattered. It massively rebalanced the US economy in favour of big business over small. Here in High Wycombe many a small furniture manufacturer was bankrupted in the manufacture of aircraft components. Their assets were sweated mercilessly until the end of war when there was no capital left to purchase new machinery. The small guys went to the wall.
Heartfield writes that Britain entered the war to save its prestige and its Empire. Chamberlain felt he had been duped by Hitler and his pride was wounded. Someone would have to pay. The Allies cared little for Poland as the post-war settlement clearly illustrated. This was an about face for the conservative elements in Britain. Only a short time before the 1939 declaration they had lauded Hitler’s Nazis as a “bulwark against Communism in Europe”. We need only look at the unfortunate history of the Daily Mail newspaper to see evidence of that. The Nazis, until 1939, were our friends. Who cared who suffered? The Communists had to be kept at bay. The elite were fearful and Communism was offering genuine hope for the working classes. Revolution was in the air. What the war did was replace socialism with nationalism. Protest was to be subdued as the oppressed masses were asked to fight for King and the greater glory of their country.
Even in the occupied Nations of Europe there were many in the elite who sought to actively collaborate with their Nazi overlords. Despite what we may believe today there was little objection to the occupation of Holland and Austria. Reactionary indigenous politicians came to power in all the occupied territories. Norway was run with just 806 German bureaucrats. France with just 6000 military and civilian police. French Commanders resisted the German invaders very little. The army was run by the French elite who resented the way the then left-leaning Government had pandered to socialist feelings in the nation.
Then came Churchill. The recount here of his war is most chilling. As early as 1940 the British Government considered giving India self-rule after the war. However, to achieve this required unity amongst Muslims and Hindus. Churchill was adamantly against it. His approach was divide-and-conquer. He feared that a united India would show the Brits the door. Best keep India divided. Then there was the British-engineered Bengal famine…
Churchill denied rice to Bengal through the war in the fashion of a scorched earth policy designed to keep the Japanese out of India. Rice across Bengal was destroyed by the British as were all means of transporting it in. Bengal had been perceived as a troublesome pro-democracy area so, for the elite of the British Empire, this was going to be a ‘win-win’. Three and a half MILLION Bengalis died of starvation.
Today we imagine the use of starvation as a weapon of war is something only Joseph Stalin could imagine for the people of Russia. Few of us now recall that it was the British under Churchill who were so happy to see millions of its own subjects dead. Imagine if that 3.5million had been from the English shires… How different the reaction would have been. Racism soaked every page of the war effort. The reason the plight of the Jews never featured as a reason for war was because the British establishment believed that the Jews were not sufficiently “innocent” enough to be of any propaganda value.
Every nation of the British Empire was ransacked for the war effort. The first four years of the war were to be fought by colonial powers in the colonised nations. These battles were fought not to free these nations but to decide which Empire they would be subjugated by. Of course there were genuine resistance movements in these over-run nations but the Allies were as scared of them as they were of the Germans and the Japanese. Much of the war effort was spent fighting a three-sided war; the Empires of old all fought the resistance movements AND each other! Popular indigenous socialist or communist resistance was never allowed to gain a foothold of power by liberating their own people. That was never the aim of World War Two for the great powers.
To prosecute the war in the Far East it became necessary to demonise the Japanese. It was a genuine surprise, even to me, to learn the awful truth about the Japanese warrior code. The Boys Own comics of yore enforced the idea that Japanese soldiers never surrendered. This is a story that is firmly within the public consciousness having been repeated over and over – even in well respected documentaries. The problem is that it is a myth. The truth is that the Allies simply took no prisoners in the Far East and Pacific theatres of action. The supposed “fanaticism” of the Japanese was out of knowledge that, if they were captured, then they would simply be shot by the Allies. So why were nice English boys so willing to murder Japanese men, women and children? Because the propaganda machine dehumanised the enemy as monkeys and termites.
This book is not without its errors. The text is littered with numerous typographical errors and some simple peer proof-reading would have eradicated some of the more ludicrous mistakes. Take for example the multiple references to the fire-bombing of Japanese cities by “B52” bombers. The B-52 was a cold war jet bomber. The author should, correctly, be referring to the B-29 Superfortress. Even the most cursory check on the details of the bombing campaign against Japan would have made this self-evident. It makes you wonder what other sort of mistakes lurk behind this failure of quality control?
But even here we turn up a gem. On the topic of the trial and execution of the Doolittle raiders in Japan we learn, with interest, the fate of their prosecutors. In 1946 the Japanese officers who tried the American crews were themselves tried and executed in Shanghai. The irony being that during the Doolittle trials themselves the Japanese accused the American of illegally targeting civilian targets. (This was in fact true.) The Americans protested how it was unjust to try military offices in a court of law because no law covered warfare.. However, by the end of the war this was all forgotten as the Allies found the courts very useful in applying their victor’s justice.
So we turn to the analysis of the Nuremburg Trials. We learn just how controversial these trials were at the time – even amongst the Law Professionals hired to work on them. They had been asked to invent new laws in order to prosecute the enemy combatants. This was retrospective justice. There were no such laws against committing acts of war until 1945. Even then the defendants were forbidden from applying any moral equivalence to their cases. Hence a German could not defend himself against accusation that he sank civilian ships even if the Allies had done so with utter gusto. It was to be one law for the vanquished and no law whatsoever for the victors. Somehow, nothing has changed.
So it is with each passing year another layer of Vaseline is smeared on the lens of history. Each generation seems more and more willing to celebrate and remember a war that was nothing more than ritualised slaughter. A war fought over which un-democratic Empire was more deserving of occupying a landmass and subjugating the people there for their resources. With each passing generation the willingness to review such events through ever-more rose-tinted spectacles is only going to lead to one, inevitable, outcome: war.
We must never let our modern politicians turn unholy slaughter into some safe, sanctified, story-book from which they can take their moral compass. War is not “just”. The last war was no different from any that came before or after. The prestige of the modern nation state is now closely linked to the myth of what they achieved as victors in World War 2. The concept of a “People’s War” is simply a legend perpetuated for ideological reasons. All criticism is piled upon the Axis powers as the cartoon bad guys. All judgement is suspended upon the actions of the Allies.
In a work this vast it is hard to do justice to it in a 2000 word review. This is one of those pieces that genuinely makes you stop and think. For it is stopping and thinking that we need. In this spirit I object to the remembrance rituals of Poppy Day. Why should we remember the combatants and not their victims?
As I was reading this book the British media was alive with indignation concerning the case of a British Marine who murdered an enemy combatant in Afghanistan. The media and politicians were indignant at the life-sentence given to the soldier. We were asked to take pity upon him. We were expected to understand how tough it is for a soldier in a war zone. We are never asked what the family of the murdered man feels. They do not exist. They are the enemy. The unpeople… To this day the way our culture talks about our designated “enemies” is repulsive to me. THEY are fanatics. WE are freedom fighters & liberators. THEY have suicide bombers yet WE make the ‘ultimate sacrifice’. Our media and politicians seem still unable to apply any sort of moral equivalence to the affairs of the battlefield. In this sense: nothing has changed in our discourse.
If, for one minute, we stopped assuming that anyone in a uniform is some kind of “hero” and apply to them the same moral arguments that our elite use against the poor… well, what a world we would live in.