The barbarism of the Second World War is the product of capitalism

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2005 abounds in gruesome anniversaries. The bourgeoisie has just celebrated one of them - the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps in January 1945 - with an ostentation that outdid the 50th anniversary of the same event. This comes as no surprise. For the last sixty years, parading the monstrous crimes of the side defeated in World War II has proved the surest means of absolving the Allies from the crimes that they too committed against humanity during and after the war. It has served moreover to present democratic values as the guarantee of civilisation against barbarity.

The Second World War, like the first, was an imperialist war fought by imperialist brigands and the slaughter it generated (60 million dead), was a dramatic confirmation of the bankruptcy of capitalism. For the bourgeoisie it is of the utmost importance that the mystification that made the mobilisation of their elders possible remains in the minds of the new generations; that the illusion remains that to fight in the democratic camp against fascism was to defend human dignity and civilisation against barbarism. That is why it is not enough for the ruling class to have used the American, English, German, Russian or French working class as canon fodder: they are directing their sick propaganda specifically against the present generation of proletarians. Today the working class is not prepared to sacrifice itself for the economic and imperialist interests of the bourgeoisie. Nevertheless it is still vulnerable to the mystification that it is not capitalism that produces the barbarity in the world, but that the latter is the responsibility of certain totalitarian powers that are the sworn enemies of democracy

The experience of two world wars shows us the common characteristics that explain the barbarity which is the responsibility of all the camps involved:

The most sophisticated technology is reserved for the military, which drains society’s strength and resources, as does any form of war effort.

An iron corset encircles the whole of society in order to bend it to the extreme demands of militarism and war production.

The most extreme means are used to impose oneself militarily: mustard gas during the First World War, which, up until its first use, was said to be the ultimate weapon, that would never be used; the atomic bomb, the supreme weapon against Japan in 1945. Less well known but still more murderous, was the bombing of towns and civil populations during the Second World War, in order to terrorise and decimate them. Germany was the first to use this strategy when it bombed London, Coventry and Rotterdam. The technique was perfected and made systematic by Britain, whose bombers unleashed real fire balls at the heart of the towns, raising the temperature to over 1,000°C in what became a gigantic inferno. “The crimes of Germany or Russia should not make us forget that the Allies themselves were possessed of the spirit of evil and outdid Germany in some ways, specifically with terror bombing. When he decided to order the first raids on Berlin on 25th August 1940, in response to an accidental attack on London, Churchill assumed the devastating responsibility for a terrible moral regression. For almost five years, the British Prime Minister, the commanders of Bomber Command, Harris especially, attacked German towns relentlessly (…) This horror reached its zenith on 11th September 1944 at Darmstadt. In the course of a remarkably concerted attack, the entire historic centre disappeared in an ocean of flames. In 51 minutes, the town was hit by a volume of bombs greater than those dropped on London throughout the whole war. 14,000 people died. As for the industrial zone, situated on the outskirts and which represented only 0.5% of the Reich’s economic potential, it was hardly touched.” (Une guerre totale 1939-1945, stratégies, moyens, controverses by Philippe Masson) [1]. The British bombardments of German towns killed nearly 1 million people.

Far from moderating the offensive against the enemy and so reducing the financial cost, the rout of Germany and Japan in 1945 had quite the opposite effect. The intensity and cruelty of the air raids was redoubled. This was because what was really at stake was no longer victory over these countries; this had already been won. The purpose was in fact to prevent parts of the German working class from rising up against capitalism in response to the suffering caused by the war, as had happened at the time of the First World War [2]. So the British and American air raids were intended to annihilate those workers who had not already perished on the military fronts and to throw the proletariat into impotence and disarray.

There was another consideration as well. It had become clear to the Anglo-Americans that the future division of the world would place the main victors of World War II in opposition to one another. On one side there would be the United States (with Britain at its side, a country that had been bled dry by the war). On the other side would be the Soviet Union, which was in a position to strengthen itself considerably through the conquest and military occupation that would follow its victory over Germany. So a concern of the western Allies was to set limits to Stalin’s imperialist appetites in Europe and Asia by means of a dissuasive show of force. This was the other purpose behind the British bombardment of Germany in 1945 and it was the sole reason for using atomic weapons against Japan.

The fact that military and economic establishments were targeted less and less, as these had become secondary, demonstrates the new stakes in the bombings, as in the case of Dresden: “Up to 1943, in spite of the suffering inflicted on the population, the raids still had a military or economic justification, aimed as they were at the large ports in the north of Germany, the Ruhr complex, the main industrial centres or even the capital of the Reich. But from the autumn of 1944, this was no longer the case. With a perfectly practised technique, Bomber Command, which had 1,600 planes at its disposal and which was striking at a German defence that was increasingly weak, undertook the attack and systematic destruction of middle sized towns or even small urban centres that were of no military or economic interest. History has excused the atrocious destruction of Dresden in February 1945 under the strategic pretext that it neutralised an important rail centre, behind the Wehrmacht’s lines as it engaged the Red Army. In fact, the disruption to rail traffic did not last more that 48 hours. However there is no justification for the destruction of Ulm, Bonn, Wurtzburg, Hidelsheim; these medieval cities, these artistic marvels that were part of the patrimony of Europe, disappeared in fire storms, in which the temperature reached 1,000-2,000°C and which cause the death and dreadful suffering of tens of thousands of people” (P. Masson).

When barbarism itself becomes the main driving force

There is another characteristic shared by the two world conflicts: just as the bourgeoisie is unable to maintain control of the productive forces under capitalism, so too the destructive forces that it sets in motion during all-out war tend to escape its control. Equally, the worst impulses that have been unchained by the war take on a life and dynamic of their own, giving rise to gratuitous acts of barbarity that no longer even have anything to do with the aims of the war, however despicable the latter may be.

In the course of the war, the Nazi concentration camps became a huge machine for killing all those suspected of resistance within Germany or in the countries it had occupied or that were its vassals. The transfer of detainees to Germany became a way of using terror to impose order in zones occupied by Germany. But the increasingly hurried and radical nature of the means used to get rid of the population in the camps, the Jews in particular, shows that the need to impose terror or for forced labour was less and less a consideration. It was a flight into barbarism in which the only motive was barbarism itself. At the same time as these mass murders were taking place, the Nazi torturers and doctors carried out ‘experiments’ on the prisoners, in which sadism vied with scientific interest. These individuals would later be offered immunity and a new identity in exchange for collaborating with projects in the United States that were classed as ‘military defence secrets’. The march of Russian imperialism across Eastern Europe towards Berlin was accompanied by atrocities that betrayed the same logic:

Columns of refugees were crushed under tanks or systematically strafed from the air. The entire population of urban centres was massacred with refined cruelty. Naked women were crucified on barn doors. Children were decapitated, had their heads beaten to pulp with sticks, or were thrown alive into pig troughs. All those in the Baltic ports who did not manage to get away or who could not be evacuated by the German navy, were simply exterminated. The number of victims can be estimated at 3 or 3.5 million (…) This murderous madness was visited unabated on all the German minorities in Southeast Europe, in Yugoslavia, Rumania and Czechoslovakia, and on thousands of Sudeten Germans. The German population in Prague, which had been established in the city since the Middle Ages, was massacred with a degree of sadism rarely witnessed. Women were raped and then their Achilles tendon cut, condemning them to bleed to death on the ground in terrible agony. Children were machine gunned at school entrances, thrown into the road from the top floors of buildings or drowned in basins or fountains. Some were walled up alive in cellars. In all there were more than 30,000 victims… these massacres were the product of a political will, of an intention to eliminate, with the help of a stirring of the most bestial impulses ” (P. Masson).

The ‘ethnic cleansing’ of the German provinces in the East was not the responsibility of Stalin’s army alone but was done with the co-operation of the British and American armed forces. Although, even at his time, the lines for future tension were already drawn between the USSR and the United States, these countries and Britain still co-operated without reservations in the task of removing the proletarian danger, by the mass murder of the population. Moreover, they all had an interest in ensuring that the yoke of the future occupation of Germany could be exercised over a population that had been made passive by all the suffering it had gone through, and that included having to deal with the least number of refugees possible. This aim in itself incarnates barbarism but it was to become the departure point for an uncontrolled escalation of brutality at the service of mass murder.

On the Far Eastern front, American imperialism acted with the same brutality:

To return to the summer of 1945. Sixty six of the largest towns in Japan had already been destroyed by fire following napalm bombardments. A million civilians in Tokyo were homeless and 100,000 people had died. To repeat the words of Curtis Lemay, the general of the division responsible for the firebombing, they were ‘grilled, boiled and cooked to death’. President Franklin Roosevelt’s son, who was also his confidant, said that the bombings had to continue ‘until we had destroyed about half of the civilian population of Japan’. On 18th July, the Emperor of Japan sent a telegraph to President Harry S. Truman, who had succeeded Roosevelt, asking once more to make peace. His message was ignored. (…) A few days before the bombing of Hiroshima, vice admiral Arthur Radford boasted: ‘Japan will end up as a country without towns - a population of nomads’.” (‘From Hiroshima to the Twin Towers’, Le Monde Diplomatique of September 2002).

Ideological fog and lies to cover up the cynical crimes of the bourgeoisie

There is yet another characteristic of the bourgeoisie’s behaviour which is particularly present in war, and even more so in all-out war. Those of its crimes that it does not decide to erase from history (as the Stalinist historians had already begun to do in the 1930s), are dressed up as their opposite; as courageous, virtuous acts that enabled them to save more human lives than they destroyed.

The British bombardment of Germany

With the Allied victory, a whole segment of the history of the Second World War has disappeared from the records: “the terror bombings have fallen into almost total oblivion, as have the massacres carried out by the Red Army or the terrible settling of scores in Eastern Europe.” (P.Masson). Of course, these acts are not included in the commemoration ceremonies for these ‘gruesome’ anniversaries. They are banished from them. There remain just a few historical testimonies, too deeply rooted to be openly eradicated, and so are given a ‘media makeover’ in order to render them inoffensive. This is the case with the bombing of Dresden in particular: “…the most beautiful terror raid of the whole war was the work of the victorious allies. An absolute record was made on 13th and 14th February 1945: 253,000 dead, refugees, civilians, prisoners of war, labour deportees. No military objective.” (Jacques de Launay, Introduction to the French 1987 edition of David Irving’s book The Destruction of Dresden.)

Nowadays it is customary for the media, when covering the 60th anniversary of the bombing of Dresden, to give the number of victims as 35,000. When the number of 250,000 is mentioned, it is promptly attributed to either Nazi or Stalinist propaganda. The latter ‘interpretation’ is not very consistent with the great concern of the East German authorities, for whom at the time, “there was no question of spreading the correct information that the town had been overrun by hundreds of thousands of refugees, fleeing from the Red Army.” (Jacques de Launay). In fact at the time that the bombardments occurred, Dresden counted about 1 million inhabitants, of which 400,000 were refugees. In view of how the town was devastated, it is hard to imagine that only 3.5% of the population perished!

The bourgeoisie’s campaign to render innocuous the horror of Dresden by minimising the number of victims is complemented by another one, aiming to present legitimate indignation at this barbaric act as an expression of neo-Nazism. All the publicity given to the demonstrations in Germany, mobilising the nostalgic degenerates of the 3rd Reich to commemorate the event, can only serve to discourage any criticism casting doubt upon the Allies, for fear of being taken for a Nazi.

The atomic bombardment of Japan

Unlike the British bombardment of Germany, where great pains are taken to hide its enormity, the use of the atomic weapon for the first and only time in history, by the world’s most powerful democracy, has never been hidden or minimised. On the contrary, everything possible has been done to publicise it and to make clear the destructive power of this new weapon. Every provision had been taken to do this even before the bombing of Hiroshima on 6th August 1945. “Four cities were marked out [to be bombed]: Hiroshima (major port, industrial city and military base), Kokura (main arsenal), Nigata (port, steelworks and oil refinery) and Kyoto (industries) (…) From that moment on, none of the cities mentioned above were touched by bombs. They had to be damaged as little as possible in order to put the destructive power of the atomic bomb beyond discussion.” (Article ‘The bomb dropped over Hiroshima’ on As for the dropping of the second bomb on Nagasaki, it expressed the intention of the United States to show that it could use nuclear weapons whenever necessary (which was not true in fact, because the other bombs that they were building were not yet ready.)

According to the ideological justification for this massacre of the Japanese population, it was the only way to ensure the capitulation of Japan and save the life of a million American soldiers. This is a gross lie which is still propagated today: Japan had been bled dry and the United States (having intercepted and decoded the communiqués of the Japanese diplomatic corps and headquarters) knew that they were ready to capitulate.

The most important lesson to draw from the six years of bloodshed of the second world slaughter is that the two camps that fought it out, and the countries that followed them, were all the rightful creation of the vile beast that is decadent capitalism, no matter what ideology they used; Stalinist, democratic or Nazi. The only denunciation of barbarism that can serve the interests of humanity is that which goes to the root of this barbarity and uses it as a lever for the denunciation of capitalism as a whole. And which does so with a view to overthrowing it, before it buries the whole of humanity under a heap of ruins. LC-S (16/4/5)

[1] Philippe Masson is head of the history section of the French marines’ history service and teaches at the naval war senior school.

[2] From the end of 1943 workers’ strikes broke out in Germany and the number of desertions from the German army tended to increase. In Italy, at the end of 1942 and especially in 1943, a large number of strikes broke out in the main industrial centres in the north.

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