Fighting on all Fronts

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Next month is the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. There will be official events, which combine just the right amount of sombreness with a celebration of the victory of “democracy” and “freedom” over fascism and tyranny.

But for the rulers of the Allied nations the war was never about democracy or freedom.

In his previous book, A People’s History of the Second World War, Donny Gluckstein argued that what actually took place was two parallel wars: a clash of imperialisms as well as a “People’s War”, fought by ordinary people, mobilised by anti-fascist, democratic sentiments.

Fighting on all Fronts brings together further examples from around the globe. The result is an illuminating book in which different authors highlight forgotten history.

Tomáš Tengely-Evans’s excellent chapter on the Slovak National Uprising describes how 78,000 partisans and soldiers fought fascist Slovakian forces and 48,000 Wehrmacht and SS troops.

We are normally told that the population of Japan blindly followed their leaders. But as the war progressed increasing numbers felt differently.

Sometimes this was on an individual level, like the kamikaze pilot who read Lenin’s State and Revolution secretly in the toilet, and just before his death concluded the war was imperialist. But it was also collective. Thousands of Japanese workers took part in strikes and protests during the war and workers’ mass absenteeism reached the staggering levels of 49 percent after the 1942 bombing of Tokyo.

This forgotten history is important because it challenges contemporary ideology.

Perhaps the most important example of this is Janey Stone’s moving chapter on Jewish resistance. Stone demonstrates that Jews did not just meekly go to their deaths in the gas chambers, but often fought back. The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943 will be familiar to many readers of Socialist Review from Marek Edelman’s book The Ghetto Fights.

Stone describes other examples such as the Minsk underground resistance, which united Jewish and non-Jewish resistance under Communist leadership. From 1941 it “ran a clandestine press and smuggled Jewish children out of the ghetto... Jews and non-Jews both engaged in sabotage within Nazi factories.” Some 10,000 Jews were saved as a result.

Colonial history also affected how the war played out. In South East Asia, European powers had dominated, but other countries wanted to expand their influence. So, for the Chinese, the Second World War began many years before Hitler invaded Poland when Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931.

Tens of millions of Chinese died, and resistance was on an enormous scale. In 1943 the Chinese Communist Red Army was supported by a militia of 7 million with another 12 million in “anti-Japanese associations”.

According to Mao Tse-tung, China’s official leadership the Kuomintang had a “line of oppressing the Chinese people and carrying on a passive resistance”, compared to the “Chinese people’s line of becoming awakened and united to wage a people’s war”.

Every chapter in this book illuminates further the central contradiction of the Second World War, but I am not convinced that this all fits neatly into the idea of “parallel wars”. Frequently the struggles influenced each other — Churchill and Roosevelt needed to talk about “freedom” to motivate the masses to fight.

Yet this rhetoric encouraged their soldiers (and the partisans listening on radios around the world) to believe that a different world was possible. As Gluckstein himself notes, “In two broad arcs stretching from Beijing through Hanoi to Jakarta and Delhi and then from Athens through Belgrade to northern Italy and Paris the masses, many of them armed, were challenging for control.”

But at times the war was even more complex. The struggle in Burma was simultaneously a battle for liberation from Japanese occupation and from pre-war British rule. This meant that the Burmese freedom fighters fought with both the British and the Japanese at different times.

But there was also a conflict within the Burmese ruling class with some wanting to return to the old colonial arrangement, others to fight for independence in which they would benefit.

Gluckstein summarises “The People’s War” as amounting to “a rejection of capitalist imperialism and imperialist capitalism”. I think the processes are more complex than this.

I was struck, for instance, by the story of the Australian troops who cheered Stalin every time he appeared in newsreels, not out of ideological conviction, but simply because it annoyed their officers.

In some parts of the world the war did lead to revolutionary moments. Elsewhere resistance movements failed to reach such heights, took the road of anti-colonial nationalism, or were suppressed by the Allies.

I don’t have to space to highlight other excellent chapters such as that on neutral Ireland, the Netherlands, or the mass struggle in the Philippines. I can only encourage readers to get hold of this book and read it.