As the bourgeoisie marks the sixtieth anniversary of the end of the second world war as the "victory of freedom", the second part of this article focuses on Churchill's wartime role and what it reveals about Britain's real motives and interests in a war supposedly fought for democracy against the evils of Nazism.
Why Britain really fought in WW2
For British imperialism, as Churchill stated clearly, the second world war was a life or death struggle to preserve its status as a world power: ". we mean to hold our own. I have not become the King's first minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire." Britain's only option was to try to destroy German imperialism as its main rival on the European mainland. This Churchill pursued with single-minded ruthlessness.
Churchill's first priority as war leader in 1940 was to protect the imperial homeland and its vital supply routes across the Atlantic; his second was to bring America into the war. In return, the American bourgeoisie set out to bankrupt Britain and turn it into a dependency of the US, by using schemes like lend-lease to bleed its ally dry: "During the early stages of the war the application of these policies hit the British economy harder than the German bombers could."
Given the nature of its strategic interests, Britain unsurprisingly put its main military efforts into protecting its bases in the Mediterranean; the Middle East with its vast oil reserves and control of the route to India; and India itself, which was vital to Britain's world power status. Even at the height of the German invasion scare some 250,000 troops were deployed for the defence of the Suez Canal, and Churchill later spent much of his time fruitlessly pressing the Americans to open a second front in the Mediterranean rather than north-west Europe. In Asia, after the humiliating loss of Singapore to the Japanese, Britain was only able to 'hold its own' with increasing military help from US imperialism, whose post-war aim was to hasten the break-up of the British Empire under the slogan of 'decolonisation'; to which Churchill put up stubborn but futile resistance.
Too weak to defeat Germany on its own, British imperialism needed stronger military allies, whatever their ideology or motives. After Hitler's invasion of Russia in 1941, Stalin provided the necessary ally in the east to enable Germany's encirclement. For Churchill, the supposed anti-Communist, of necessity this meant 'speaking well of the Devil himself'. The resulting Grand Alliance of Britain and the USA with Stalinist Russia says much about the cynical self-interest of Britain's motives and gives the lie to the myth of a war between a 'democratic' and a 'totalitarian' camp.
The realities of British imperialist rule
The war in Asia receives much less attention in British bourgeois histories because the systematic brutality and blatant racism of colonial rule, and Britain's ruthless suppression of any threat to that rule, reveal the sordid realities of a war supposedly fought for democracy. Even more clearly than in Europe this was a struggle between the great powers for control of raw materials and markets.
Churchill had intransigently opposed Home Rule for India as a threat to the Empire, and throughout the war the British army maintained a substantial force in India, not to fight the Japanese but to suppress any move towards independence. When in 1942 the popular Quit India Movement threatened to disrupt the war effort, it was brutally put down with public shootings and mass whippings, torturing of protesters and burning of villages, leading even bourgeois observers to make comparisons with 'Nazi dreadfulness'.
Churchill apparently believed that the Indians were the next worst people in the world after the Germans. When in 1943 food shortages began as a direct result of British scorched earth policies, the British War Cabinet ignored the problem, refusing to stop ordering Indian food abroad in the interests of the war effort. The resulting man-made famine in Bengal may have accounted for as many as 4 million deaths - about 90% of the total British Empire casualties in WW2. Yet Churchill's six-volume History of the Second World War fails to mention it.
Targeting the working class for destruction
Having promoted the use of aerial bombing as an offensive weapon of terror against the Empire's opponents, Churchill became closely associated with the wartime policy of targeting German cities for destruction. Discussion of this policy by bourgeois commentators usually focuses on the devastating attack on Dresden in February 1945, which killed at least 35,000 people (among them many thousands of refugees), and whether this was 'justified' or not; which of course implies that the devastation of other German cities was somehow legitimate (like the raid on Hamburg in 1943 which killed more than 42,000 people in an eight-hour firestorm).
The whole purpose of the bomber fleets built by Britain, Germany and other powers was to threaten total devastation, just like their post-war nuclear equivalents: the role of the RAF was to meet terror with counter-terror. The British bourgeoisie knew exactly what the effect of bombing would be on civilian populations because it spent so much time preparing for the devastating effect on British cities.
British imperialism deliberately targeted the German civilian population for destruction: Churchill boasted to Stalin that "We sought no mercy and we would show no mercy. If need be, as the war went on, we hoped to shatter almost every dwelling in almost every German city." The real target of this policy was the German working class: a 1942 Air Ministry directive explicitly ordered a switch to what it called 'area bombing', i.e. the bombing of city centres: "It has been decided that the primary object of your operations should now be focussed on the morale of the enemy civilian population and, in particular, of the industrial workers." In the logic of barbarism labour power was a vital resource for the Nazi war effort, and therefore to be destroyed along with factories, railways and refineries. But in the bourgeoisie's mind also was the memory of the revolutionary wave that had ended the first world war, and the need above all to prevent any future threat from the proletariat in a country that had been key to the world revolution.
The British were not the first to bomb cities: German imperialism led the way in the use of this weapon of terror in the war in Spain, as well as Warsaw, Rotterdam, London and other British cities after 1939. But the Allied imperialisms more than matched the scale of German barbarism, and British imperialism in particular refined the use of bombing as a strategy directed at the working class, 'scientifically' perfecting the technique of creating firestorms in which to incinerate the maximum number of human beings. This was one of Britain's special contributions to the logic of barbarism in the second world war.
The myth of the Allied 'liberation' of Europe
The Allies' overriding objective when they went onto the offensive against German imperialism after 1942 was not the 'liberation' of Europe but the maintenance of bourgeois order and the suppression of any threat to their rule, particularly from the proletariat.
In the infamous case of Warsaw in August 1944, Stalin halted his advancing armies to let the German army put down the uprising led by the Polish government in exile, and then arrested, imprisoned and shot the surviving insurgents. But it wasn't just Stalinist terror that resorted to such tactics. When it suited their interests, the 'democratic' powers were quite happy to do deals with fascist supporters like the 'French Quisling' Admiral Darlan, and Marshal Badoglio the 'victor' of Italy's dirty war in Africa. They also made use of former local fascist forces to ensure their control, as in Greece in 1944, and, when faced with a dangerous outbreak of workers' struggles, in effect used the German army to crush the working class before continuing to pursue their military objectives.
In Italy in 1943, where Mussolini had to be replaced after an upsurge of workers' strikes, the RAF, acting on urgent political orders, bombed the centres of working class resistance in Milan, Turin and Genoa. This effectively cleared the way for the German army to occupy the north of Italy and restore order, while in the south the Allied leaders propped up the fascist and monarchist government of Badoglio to enable it to do the same. Alarmed by the appearance of the proletariat in the midst of the imperialist war, Churchill, who had in the 1920s praised Mussolini for his role in crushing the working class, warned against the danger of Italy "sliding into anarchy." The Allies only negotiated Italy's unconditional surrender after dealing with the threat from the working class.
In Greece in December 1944, as the Germans withdrew the British army moved in, as agreed with Roosevelt and Stalin at Yalta. When faced with local Stalinist-backed resistance to its plan to impose a puppet regime, Churchill cabled the British general in charge to act as if he were "in a conquered city where a local rebellion is in progress." British troops used tanks and machine guns against demonstrators in Athens, and working class suburbs were bombarded with artillery and rockets. More damage was done to Athens in three months of British 'liberation' than under four years of Nazi occupation.
Dividing up the spoils - Britain's role in 'ethnic cleansing'
At the war's end, Churchill was one the key players in the imperialist carve up, deciding with Stalin and Roosevelt (later Truman) who got the spoils of 'victory' in Europe and in Asia, which involved the forcible expulsion of millions of people, mainly ethnic Germans in Eastern Europe. Churchill enthusiastically supported this policy, which was in effect 'ethnic cleansing' of enormous proportions: "Expulsion is the method which, in so far as we have been able to see, will be the most satisfactory and lasting. There will be no mixture of populations to cause endless trouble... A clean sweep will be made. I am not alarmed by these transferences, which are more possible in modern conditions then they ever were before." These 'transferences' resulted in the deaths of some 500,000 to 1,500.000 people.
Churchill also supported plans to rip out Germany's industrial capacity and reduce the country to a medieval subsistence level, because this would provide much needed markets for British industry. These plans if fully implemented would have led to the death by starvation and disease of 20-30 million Germans in the first few years after the war.
Finally, instead of being indicted as a war criminal, with a breathtaking cynicism only the bourgeoisie is capable of, Churchill was honoured after the war as an early supporter of 'pan-Europeanism' and in 1956 was awarded for his 'contribution to European peace'.
Historically the British bourgeoisie has always had to use cunning and guile in order to manoeuvre between its more powerful European rivals, and to deflect the threat from a large and potentially powerful proletariat, for which it has developed all the techniques of espionage, deception and terror. Churchill, with his keen awareness of the continuity of British interests, stood squarely in this tradition: his observation at the height of WW2 that the truth was so precious it should always be attended by "a bodyguard of lies" expresses the class consciousness of the bourgeoisie far beyond the needs of purely military operations.
As we have seen, over his long career for the British state, Winston Churchill demonstrated the necessary intelligence of the bourgeoisie in the epoch of capitalist decadence: he understood the need to strengthen state capitalism and to try to incorporate the 'Labour movement' into the state apparatus, and the need to deal with the threat from the proletariat. Above all, Churchill's role for the British bourgeoisie was as a war leader to defend the interests of a declining imperialist power facing an immediate threat to its survival. But it is no accident that as soon as the war ended the British bourgeoisie replaced him and brought the Labour Party into power; the British bourgeoisie had learned the lesson from the revolutionary wave at the end of the first world war that at moments of potential class struggle it was necessary to bring forward its left-wing apparatus - the trade unions and the Labour Party - as the specific means to mystify the working class and deflect unrest into support for a 'socialist' government. Ultimately, Churchill remains a warning of just what we can expect from the 'democratic' British bourgeoisie when it feels threatened, and the gloves finally come off.