In an interview with New Left Project, Donny Gluckstein, author of the forthcoming A People’s History of the Second World War: Resistance Versus Empire (out in June), discusses his book with Alex Doherty:
[AD]In your book you write that “the world-shattering events of the 1939 to 1945 period did not constitute a single combat against the Axis powers, but amounted to two distinct wars.”
What were the two wars? What is the distinction between them?
[DG]The period of WWII saw a struggle between imperial powers for world dominance. On the one side of this conflict were the Allies, traditional powers, including Britain and France with their vast empires. Britain ruled 25% of the globe, France 10%. They were joined by the USSR (which under Stalinism was an imperialist power in its own right – 50% of the population being non-Russian), and the USA (which was about to embark on a grab for superpower status).
Ranged against them were the Axis powers who were newcomers to the imperial game. (Italy’s unification was completed in 1870, Germany’s in 1871, and Japan emerged from isolation through the Meiji Restoration in 1867). These were the imperial have-nots who battled the Allies for their place in the sun.
But this was only one side of WWII. The Axis adopted aggressive fascist policies both internally, and in a mobile war of conquest, imposed these on vast tracts of Europe and Asia. This meant that ordinary people under the Axis heel fought during WWII not for the imperial dominance of the Allies, but against fascism and for democracy and freedom. This was a very different type of war to the imperialist struggle for world dominance, it was a people’s war.
This type of warfare had erupted even before 1939 (examples being the workers’ uprising in Vienna, 1934, and the Spanish civil war), and could be directed as against the Allies (for example in India and Indonesia) as well as the Axis.
However, generally the two wars existed in parallel during the 1939-1945 period and it could be difficult to distinguish between the motivations of an Allied government and its generals, and the soldier fighting the Nazis in the field or the resistance movement in occupied territories. My book focuses on those moments when the distinction between the two wars became visible.
Gluckstein discusses the role played by Winston Churchill:
Churchill’s war record is shocking in many ways. He was responsible for the Bengal famine which cost some 3 million lives because he insisted on forcing India to raise a huge army and blocked efforts to supply food when the demands of that army caused starvation. Rather than open up a second front in Europe he gave himself an alibi by backing area bombing of Germany. This involved the indiscriminate bombing of German civilians which continued in spite of US advice that targeted bombing would be more militarily effective. Even after the D-Day landings, when it was clear the land war would be the means by which Nazism would be destroyed, he backed Bomber Command which was working through its list of city targets, the most notorious being Dredsen.
Gluckstein concludes by noting the way in which the Second World War continues to influence imperial narratives today:
The recent military campaign in Libya contained many of the elements of the dual wars of WWII. On the ground there was a resistance movement for freedom and democracy, but in the air Nato and its allies were attempting to regain control of the region because this was shaken by the Arab spring. The two elements were fighting the same enemy, but for very different motives. So the lessons of WWII remain relevant today.
Visit New Left Project to read the interview in full.
Donny Gluckstein will be speaking about the book at the Marxism 2012 festival in central London on Saturday 7th July, at 3.45pm. Visit Marxism 2012 for more information.
Resistance Versus Empire
Fascinating history of the Second World War as fought ‘from below’ by anti-fascist militias, who worked both with and against the allied powers.
“The Second World War is so thoroughly surrounded by myth that it is hard to grasp its real character. Gluckstein offers a new interpretation, portraying 1939-45 as two parallel wars: one waged by the Great Powers among themselves, the other by the peoples against fascism. Refreshingly avoiding a conventional narrative approach, he offers new insights that provide a powerful antidote to historical mythology.” – Alex Callinicos, author of Imperialism and Global Political Economy (2009)
“Rigorously structuring his analysis around the two central themes of popular resistance and inter-imperialist rivalry, Gluckstein makes an indispensable contribution to understanding the reality of the conflict in all its complexity.” – Neil Davidson, Senior Research Fellow, University of Strathclyde and author of Discovering the Scottish Revolution