Presentation to the 4th European Communist Meeting on Education - by Robert Wilkinson.
February 4th 2010 Brussels
First of all I should like to express the thanks of the Communist Party of Britain to the Communist Party of Greece, not just for organising this meeting, but also for their work in exposing the campaign being conducted by the reactionary forces in the Baltic States, Poland and the Czech Republic in their attempts to deny and distort the historical record of the victory of the Allies in the Second World War.
The so-called Prague Declaration that is currently being circulated in the European Parliament under the title ‘European Conscience and Communism’, is a rehash of the persistent attempts by reactionary historians to equate Soviet Communism and Hitlerite Fascism, echoing the old slanders of British authors George Orwell and Robert Conquest, now more recently joined by the release of the film ‘Katyn’ by Andrzej Wajda repeating the old lies of the Soviet massacre of Polish officers in 1940.
This ‘red-equals-brown’ distortion of historical truth is also backed by the ancient accusation linking Communism with a Jewish conspiracy in an attempt to cover up the collaboration of the reactionary forces in the Baltic States with the almost total extermination of their Jewish populations.
We need to consider why this offensive has surfaced at the present time.
Throughout Europe there is a growing consciousness that the downfall of the so-called ‘Iron Curtain’ has not produced a cornucopia of prosperity for all. What we have instead is a situation of growing social division and inequality, of increasing religious obscurantism and anti-scientific mythologies. On the one side exist a few mega-rich plutocratic oligarchs with their trophy wives and mistresses and Premier League football clubs and, on the other, a growing mass of social groups who are regarded by the bourgeoisie as ‘useless eaters’. This phrase of Hermann Goering justifying the Nazi euthanasia programme has resurfaced in the current arguments in the USA over healthcare. This ‘surplus’ population is considered fit only to die off as soon as possible as social benefits are cut back in order to pay off the bankers, or turned into migrant workers torn up from their roots in their own communities, at the prey of ‘people traffickers’ and gangmasters, capable of ‘super-exploitation’ by unscrupulous employers.
The increasingly obvious failure of capitalism to bring security and prosperity to the countries of Europe is being deliberately obscured by an attempt to deny the victories that were achieved by the peoples of Europe during the last century. Most significant of all is the aspirations of the reactionaries to erase the memory of the defeat of fascism in order to restore the reputation of those who collaborated with the Hitlerites in their extermination of anyone that did not conform to their perverse racial theories: Jews, gypsies, Slavs, homosexuals, the mentally and physically disabled, pacifists, religious sects and Negroes, in addition to their political opponents. Most shameful of all is that at this present time there are some amongst these groups who are prepared to collaborate with the reactionaries in their anti-communist crusade.
Obliteration of the Evidence
It is reminiscent of the fate of the Negro slaves who were brought across from Africa after the almost complete extermination of the indigenous inhabitants of the Americas. We should remind our working class that those who intend to deny a people a future will attempt to destroy their past. The vindictive demolition of the Palast der Republik in Berlin and the Soviet war memorials in the Baltic States and Georgia is symptomatic of the determination of the bourgeoisie to erase history from the memory of the peoples.
In all of these examples of the distortion and demolition of the historical record of the defeat of fascism is an echo of the persistent demand of Cato the Elder in the Roman Senate that Carthage must be destroyed ‘Ceterum censeo Carthaginem esse delendam’. In their utter hatred of their adversary the Roman conquerors levelled every brick and stone to the ground and sowed the earth with salt so that nothing would grow henceforth upon the land. Tacitus described the situation as one where they make a desert and call it peace ‘Solitudinem fecerunt, pacem appelunt’.
The reactionaries certainly want no future for Communism as it is we who are at the forefront of those who would expose the lies that are being peddled by their ‘rent boys’ in the media and the parliamentary debating chambers across the continent of Europe. In order for this to be achieved they must attempt to destroy our past and it is in opposition to this enterprise that we must be engaged in our considerations today.
As our party is specific to Britain it is our paramount duty to analyse the role played by the British people and the British ruling class during the years of the Second World War, as it is identified in our history as being from September 1939 to May 1945.
Yet as Marxists we recognise that nothing comes into existence spontaneously, like the emergence of the goddess Athena from the head of Zeus. We reject the argument that the war resulted from the psychological megalomania of Hitler, Mussolini and General Tojo. There are profound material forces that drove the ruling classes of Europe, North America and Asia into the most destructive conflict that has existed so far in the history of the world.
We can identify four major contradictions that lie at the heart of the conflicts that resulted in the outbreak of hostilities on such a grandiose scale. It is the relationships between these contradictions that give the Second World War such a complex character in comparison with the relatively straightforward Imperialist nature of what is known as the First World War.
The first is the continued existence of the same contradictions, between the ruling classes of the rising Imperialist countries and those others whose power was on the wane, that had led to the outbreak of war in 1914.
The second is the contradiction between the aspirations for a bipolar hegemony on the part of Germany and Japan and the desire for self-determination by the peoples of those other nations who were being brought under their domination.
The third is the contradiction between the progressive development of democracy, equality, civil rights, scientific knowledge and humanist culture and the barbarous nature of fascism.
The fourth and most influential of all was the contradiction between capitalism and socialism, most significantly expressed in the very existence and growing might of the Soviet Union and the threat that this posed to the Imperialist bourgeoisie.
It was this final contradiction that determined the relationship between the other three and that made the Second World War of an entirely different character from the First World War of 1914-18.
One of the factors that led to the outbreak of the Second World War in Europe clearly lay in the imposition of the Paris peace treaties by the victorious Imperialist powers at the end of the First World War. Yet this had more of a character of a ‘Twenty Year Truce’ as none of the contradictions between the Imperialist powers was resolved by the imposed settlement of 1918.
The uneven development of capitalism had created ambitions in the ruling classes of a number of countries that sought an expansion of their imperial influence. Yet these expansionist pressures were thwarted by the already existing control over most of the world’s resources by powers whose dominance was increasingly hollow and insecure. The ruling classes of countries such as Britain, France, Holland and Belgium, although possessing extensive territories, markets and investments in Asia, Africa and Latin America, were no longer in a position to restrain the growing economic strength of Germany and Japan, or even to continue to suppress the native populations in ‘their’ colonies with as much effectiveness as before. Although Italy and Japan had been ‘on the winning side’ at the end of the First World War, in both cases their rulers felt a sense of grievance that their ambitions had not been recognised sufficiently at the Paris Peace Conference and were determined to seek further outlets for their expansion.
Standing seemingly apart from these European considerations was the growing power of the United States. It had emerged from the conflict in 1918 with its industrial and financial might strengthened. Under the guise of ‘Free Trade’, its penetration of the resources, markets and investments in Latin America formerly under the control of European capitalism was apparently enough to satisfy its profit seeking for the moment at least. Yet in the ‘Far East’ the US Imperialists had their eyes on the great prize of China and very rapidly came into conflict with Japanese ambitions in the region. The Washington Naval Conference of 1921-22 only served to reinforce Japanese determination to seek avenues for expansion wherever it could in Asia and the Pacific.
National Rights Overridden
Despite US President Wilson’s expressed desire to see ‘national self-determination’ as a guiding principle of the Paris Peace Conference, the French Imperialists were determined to establish a ‘sphere of influence’ in Eastern Europe by the creation of a ‘patchwork quilt’ of satellite nations who would be dependent upon France for their existence and prosperity. Of especial significance was the French insistence upon an outlet to the Baltic Sea for the new state of Poland, despite the so-called ‘Polish Corridor’ containing a majority of Germans and dividing Germany in the process. This factor, aggravated by the creation of a separate ‘Free City’ of Danzig, was to be the source of considerable German resentment. Whatever government existed in Germany, it was bound to give rise to a demand for the restitution of an ethnographic border.
Polish expansionism was given every possible support by the French Imperialists, ignoring the proposal by the British Foreign Secretary Lord Curzon to draw the eastern border of Poland along ethnographic lines. The Polish government imposed the Treaty of Riga upon the infant Soviet Union bringing the western parts of the Ukraine and Belarus into ‘eastern Poland’. It was significant that the British government never recognised the legitimacy of the Polish seizure of this territory east of the Curzon Line. When Soviet forces reoccupied this area after the collapse of the Polish government and armed forces in the face of the German Blitzkrieg in September 1939, the British government made no protest. Even Winston Churchill recognised the strategic importance of denying this territory to the Germans.
The ‘Balkanisation’ of Eastern Europe was the deliberate attempt by the victorious Imperialist powers to exercise control over the disputatious nation states created by the peace treaties. Where and when it suited their interests, the professed principle of self-determination was blithely ignored. This ‘witches’ brew’ of national and ethnic rivalries provided a fertile arena for other Imperialist powers to intervene, with of course a similar lack of concern for the democratic and national rights of the people involved.
Ignoring the Soviet attempts to develop a system of ‘collective security’ through the League of Nations, the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain made the Imperialist position quite clear when he said at the time of Hitler bullying Austria into submission: ‘We must not delude small, weak nations into thinking that they will be protected by the League against aggression.’ This had already become evident when Britain had held back the League’s condemnation and prevented the imposition of sanctions against the Japanese invasion of Manchuria and the Italian conquest of Abyssinia.
British sabotage of the Treaty of Versailles limiting German rearmament was signalled by the Anglo-German Naval Agreement of 1935. A year later this betrayal was obvious when the British government made it abundantly clear that they would not support any French military moves to prevent the German remilitarisation of the Rhineland. It should have been evident that collective security between Britain, France and the USSR had become the only means of avoiding war. Yet Chamberlain justified his betrayal of Czechoslovakia by dismissing it as ‘a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing’. The vultures circling around Czechoslovakia now swooped in for their portion of the carcass as Hungary seized Carpathian Ruthenia and southern Slovakia whilst Poland stabbed the Czechs in the back by occupying the coalfields of Karviná (Český Těšín).
The Trump Card
In the pursuance of their inter-Imperialist rivalries, all the ruling classes were now conscious that a temporary advantage over their opponents might be achieved by embroiling them in a conflict with the USSR, as the USA had done in the case of Japan in Manchuria and the British appeasers had hoped to achieve with Germany. On the other hand, coming to some partial accommodation with the Soviet Union was obviously in the interests of those ruling classes whose relative weakness might otherwise prove fatal in the Imperialist conflict with their rivals. It required a great deal of subtle diplomacy on the part of Soviet Foreign Ministers Litvinov and Molotov to negotiate successfully with such untrustworthy dissemblers.
Molotov was later to say on the day before the German attack on Poland in his speech on ‘The Ratification of the Soviet-German Pact of Non-Aggression’ and the failure on the part of Britain and France to conclude a pact of mutual assistance against aggression:
‘…on the one hand, Great Britain and France offered to guarantee the Soviet Union military assistance against aggression in return for like assistance on the part of the USSR. On the other hand, they hedged round their assistance with such provisos regarding indirect aggression as were calculated to convert this assistance into a fiction and to provide them with a formal legal excuse for evading the rendering of assistance and for leaving the USSR isolated in face of an aggressor. Just try to distinguish between such a “pact of mutual assistance” and a pact of more or less camouflaged chicanery.’
As Molotov explained;
‘The decision to conclude a pact of non-aggression between the USSR and Germany was adopted after the military negotiations with France and Britain had reached an impasse.…The conclusion of a pact of mutual assistance against aggression would only have been of value if Great Britain, France and the Soviet Union had arrived at an agreement providing for definite military measures against the attack of an aggressor …. However nothing came of the military negotiations. The difficult they encountered was that Poland, who was to be jointly guaranteed by Great Britain, France and the USSR, rejected military assistance on the part of the Soviet Union. Attempts to overcome the objections of Poland met with no success. More, the negotiations showed that Great Britain was not anxious to overcome these objections of Poland, but on the contrary, encouraged them.’
The Polish people were to pay a heavy price for the hubris of their government and the perfidy of the British government in leaving Poland to its fate as a pawn to be sacrificed in their diplomatic chicanery.
A Bipolar Hegemony
The second major contradiction that determined the character of the Second World War was the attempt by Germany and Japan to divide the entire world between them. Aspirations on the part of these two Imperialist powers to establish a bipolar hegemony, led not only to conflict with the Imperialist countries that already controlled the resources of other nations, but also generated a contradiction with the national sentiments of the peoples of those countries being brought under the heel of their new occupier.
In some ‘colonial’ countries such as India, there were already powerful forces struggling for independence from their Imperial conquerors. The inter-Imperialist conflicts therefore created an apparent dilemma for these forces. The National Bourgeoisie of the ‘colonies’ in some cases sought to free themselves from their former masters by collaboration with the Japanese ‘Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere’ and participation in the Tokyo Conference of November 1943. Subhas Chandra Bose in India, Sukharno in Indonesia, Ne Win in Burma, and the governments of Thailand and the Philippines, all sought to lead their people towards national independence by means of collaboration with the Japanese. When the tide turned against Japan and the resurgent European and American forces reoccupied their countries, some of these forces were able to renegotiate their existence as leaders of their national independence movement, whilst others were executed as traitors by their former colonial rulers.
Most significant of all in Asia was the position of the Chinese Kuomintang. The ambivalence of Chiang Kai-shek in his relationship with the USSR, and the ineradicable existence of the Chinese Communist Party, meant that he was obliged to throw in his lot entirely with US Imperialism, although he sought to avoid too much destruction of his forces in the conflict with the Japanese invaders. In China, Malaya and Indo-China it was the Communists who emerged as the true champions of national independence. The British Imperialists however, in the case of South East Asia, were determined to restore the rule of the former Imperialist powers, even if that meant the use of surrendered Japanese troops to ‘maintain order’ until the French and the Dutch returned.
National Liberation or Betrayal?
In Europe there was a similar dichotomy in the leadership of the movements for national independence against German hegemony. British meddling in the affairs of Yugoslavia, Poland and Greece however made the struggle for leadership between the different national forces almost unavoidably bitter. It was to the eternal credit of the Communist Parties in all the countries of Europe that the underground struggle against the occupier proved so effectively debilitating to the Axis war effort. Despite their leadership in the partisan warfare against the German forces, the Communist Parties of France and Italy were obliged to surrender their independence to a national resistance coalition led by the bourgeoisie restored to power by the presence of the Anglo-American armies. In other countries such as Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria however the national bourgeoisie and other reactionary forces had become completely discredited by their collaboration with the Germans in their failed attempt at the destruction of Bolshevism. There was little that the British or the Americans could do to achieve the restoration of the former rulers in these countries although the role of the British and US Secret Services in stirring up national and ethnic hostilities continued to be dangerously disruptive.
The German objective of a ‘United Europe’ under their hegemony had failed in 1945 but it had left a poisonous residue behind as fascist parties emerged again into the open remarkably quickly in most of western Europe and existed as an underground resistance to the development of the Peoples’ Democracies in those countries liberated by the Soviet armies. Under the cloak of nationalism the former fascist collaborators continued their attempts to sabotage the building of a more just social order throughout Europe.
The aspirations of the bourgeoisie for a European super-state were after 1945 to be pursued by other means but their objective of the destruction of ‘Bolshevism’ continued, albeit henceforth harnessing the resources of the United States.
The Barbarous Nature of Fascism
The third contradiction evident throughout the Second World War was the resistance of the peoples of the world to the barbarity of fascism, an ideology that reached its nadir in the implementation of the theories of Nazism.
Long before the horror of the extermination camps became fully known, the brutality and archaic ignorance of fascist rule had been sufficiently evident for many men and women of integrity and conscience to commit themselves to its downfall.
Much of the progress achieved in the 19th century in terms of democratic rights of citizenship, education in the scientific knowledge of nature and humanity, and the flowering of culture and enlightenment, was seen to be threatened by a nightmare of superstition and bigotry.
The commitment shown by many of the bravest men and women in support of their brothers and sisters in Spain was an inspiration that echoed throughout the world. It became a role model for the far more widespread conflict that shortly followed after. The call by the British Trade Union Congress to ‘Stand By The Czechs’ in 1938 in alliance with the USSR was ignored by the British Parliament with two notable exceptions: Winston Churchill and the Scottish Communist MP Willie Gallacher.
Many intellectuals of the highest calibre joined with the ‘masses’ in a common endeavour to preserve what had been gained in centuries of rational enquiry and social struggles. The fact that fascist ideology perverted the immense discoveries of Darwin into a justification of the ‘survival of the fittest’ by the master race was as insulting as their pretence of ‘socialism’ in the collective enslavement of the working classes into a Corporate State.
The Peoples’ War
On the other hand in many countries that remained at liberty, such as Britain, the war against fascism became a ‘Peoples’ War’. This was a total war with the maximum mobilisation of the nation’s resources that proved far more powerful than that of the fascist war effort because of its voluntary nature. The Home Front became as significant as the arena of military conflict in ensuring that democracy prevailed.
In Britain the Second World War became the high point of working class power through the incorporation of the trade unions and their leaders into the machinery of government. The traditional aristocratic rulers were entirely discredited by their failure at the Munich Conference and the attempts by Lord Halifax to reach an accommodation with Hitler even after the declaration of war in September 1939. In May 1940 Winston Churchill emerged as the leader of those sections of the bourgeoisie who realised that the war could not be won, or Britain even manage to survive, without the full and conscious cooperation of the working class.
Churchill also appreciated the vital need to reach an accommodation with Stalin and the Soviet Union, even if a short while before he had been pursuing his more traditional anti-communist crusade in support of the fascist Mannheim government in Finland.
Veterans of the International Brigades such as Comrade Tom Wintringham helped to organise a Home Guard (Local Defence Volunteers) that put weapons in the hands of workers in guarding their factories and homes as well as training an underground army of resistance to occupation. The ruling class was desperate enough for this to be permitted although they did all that they could to keep it under control.
Communists were also at the forefront of the campaigns to organise the self-defence of the civilian population, including the use of the London Underground stations as shelters from the bombing raids and the attacks by the German rockets later in the war.
We in Britain should not however blind ourselves to the reality of collaboration by some with the invaders. The experience of the Channel Islands showed how there was nothing unique about the British character when faced with occupation by a foreign power. But it also showed how men and women were prepared to risk everything to resist the invader, giving help to escaped Soviet prisoners of war and Jewish refugees and providing intelligence of enemy positions, sometimes at the cost of their lives.
The war effort in Britain created a more united people than ever before as it broke down the divisions in the working class between the manual worker and the skilled technician, between men and women and between the different component nationalities in England, Scotland and Wales. Even the traditional racial prejudices of some were silenced by the need to accept the help of all the various peoples of the British Commonwealth in the desperate need for the country to survive.
The British ruling class realised that the old order could not simply be re-established at the end of the war. A consensus emerged about the need for a ‘Welfare State’ in the report by the Liberal Lord Beveridge and the proposal for the provision of universal Secondary level education by the Conservative politician R A Butler. In order to preserve capitalism as a system, the capitalist class accepted an unprecedented degree of control by the state over their activities.
The defeat of Churchill in the British General Election of 1945 indicated how determined the British people were to build a society based on social justice. Yet the traditional British working class attitude of relying on ‘their’ Labour Party to achieve their demands soon became a retreat from the promises made during the course of the war. Private medicine and Independent schools were allowed to coexist with the state provision that became a second-class service. Yet the worst betrayal of all was the ability of the British Imperialists to use their ‘citizens’ army’ to intervene in Malaya and Greece to prevent the ascendancy to power by the Communist resistance even before the war against the Axis powers was finally concluded.
It was evident that an ideology of ‘social-patriotism’ although playing a progressive role during the wartime alliance with the Soviet Union, was far from adequate as a barrier to the rising anti-communism of the ‘Cold War’. Churchill, although no longer Prime Minister, soon returned to his traditional role as an anti-communist crusader with his speech in Fulton, Missouri, on the ‘Iron Curtain’ that had fallen across Europe. Yet it was the Labour Government that tied the British forces to the US war chariot by secretly inviting their nuclear bombers to be based in the UK and committing British forces to the war in Korea. British capitalism had been bankrupted by the expense of the Second World War and turned to the USA for rescue. President Truman was more than willing to oblige but at the cost of British national sovereignty that has bedevilled the working class in Britain ever since.
The Soviet Challenge
The existence of the USSR as a country building socialism presented a challenge to the bourgeoisie throughout the world. It was this contradiction that fundamentally changed the nature of the World War in comparison with other previous conflicts.
It also meant that the other contradictions had to be subordinated to the over-riding importance of the continuation of Soviet power in the lands of the former Russian Empire.
Molotov had made it clear in his speech of August 31st 1939 ‘On the Ratification of the Soviet-German Pact of Non-Aggression’:
‘It is our duty to think of the interests of the Soviet people, the interests of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. All the more since we are firmly convinced that the interests of the USSR coincide with the fundamental interests of the peoples of other countries’.
We have to accept that this was not always clearly enough understood by some Communists at the time and since. For many sincere and courageous workers, who became part of the fight against the rise of fascism during the period of the Popular Front, it was incomprehensible at first how it was possible for the USSR to agree to a Non-Aggression Pact with Nazi Germany.
The initial response to the outbreak of war in September 1939 by the leaders of the Communist Party of Great Britain reflected this lack of clarity. Harry Pollitt the General Secretary had pronounced that ‘The Communist Party supports the war, believing it to be a ‘just war’.’
A Questionable War
Yet right from the start there were suspicions of the Imperialist aims of their rulers that led the British Communist Party to see the Chamberlain government as totally discredited and requiring to be removed from power. In an intense two day debate at the beginning of October 1939 the arguments of Rajani Palme Dutt prevailed. He argued that in analysing any war it was necessary to distinguish the dominant factors which could be obscured by subsidiary and seemingly conflicting trends. He admitted that ‘the basic character of imperialist conflict for the redivision of the world appears intermingled with other factors, with questions of national liberation and with the question of the working class and democratic struggle against fascism in a tangled knot which requires the most careful unravelling’. He added that since the victory of the socialist revolution in Russia, ‘the central issue of world socialism and world capitalism dominates all other issues’.
The myth that this anti-war line was unpopular with the British working class was denied by the growth in membership of the Party and the increase in sales of the ‘Daily Worker’. The Chamberlain Government’s enthusiasm for supplying troops and military equipment to Finland only served to reinforce this suspicion on the part of working class activists in the Trade Unions and Labour Party of the motives behind Britain’s participation in the war.
However the creation of a coalition government with Labour Ministers under Churchill’s leadership did not put an end to the Communist led criticism of the aims and conduct of the war by British Imperialism. Conscious of the proscription of the French Communist Party for asking the obvious questions of ‘Pour Qui? Pour Quoi?’ (For Whom and For What was the war being fought?), the British CP targeted the ‘Men of Munich’ still in the government for their failure to provide an adequate defence against German attacks upon civilians and protection for the essential supplies being delivered to Britain by the Merchant Navy. The Government made a fundamental error when it released a propaganda poster that read (and the underlining is in the original):
This only reinforced the obvious class divide between ‘Them’ and ‘Us’. It was quickly removed and later replaced by a poster of Prime Minister Churchill with the slogan:
Let Us Go Forward Together
The Peoples’ Convention
If anything the Labour Ministers in the coalition government, such as the Home Secretary Herbert Morrison, were most enthusiastic in attempting to constrain the activities of the CPGB amongst the working class. Seizing of leaflets, arrests, raids on offices and homes were reinforced by notification of the names of any identified ‘troublemakers’ to their employers in order to bring about their dismissal from work. It was only the solidarity of their fellow workers that prevented this from being more effective, plus the fact in some cases that the need for skilled workers was so great that the employers could not afford any disruption to the highly profitable war production.
A highly successful ‘Peoples’ Convention’ was held in January 1941 that declared:
‘The present government is a government of the rich and the privileged, ruling the country in their own interests and against those of the masses of the people. Behind it are the ruling class, the Tory machine, the Men of Munich, the friends of fascism, whose policy built up the power of Hitler, brought the nation into war, and is directly responsible for the unpreparedness which has sacrificed scores of thousands of lives. It protects the most shameless war profiteering, and seeks to place all the burdens of the war on the backs of the masses of the people.’
The normally Social-Democratic ‘Daily Mirror’ reported sympathetically on the supporters of the Peoples’ Convention that ‘They have too many grievances the government leaves unanswered. They expected Labour ministers in the government to be their champions. They are disappointed in them. Labour ministers behave like pale imitations of Tory ministers. So the people feel themselves leaderless. They are beginning to turn to the Communist Party.’
One week later the ‘Daily Worker’ was suppressed by the His Majesty’s Government.
In a final act of defiance (as the decision had been ‘leaked’ the previous day) the ‘Daily Worker’ denounced the ban in these words: ‘The ruling class has got in its hands the BBC and the press; it exercises an almost complete monopoly of propaganda and news. But it is afraid …. Gentlemen, you have good cause to be afraid. In face of the unity and determination of the people, the power of privilege will disappear as snow before the morning sun.’
Yet the attempt by the BBC to prevent supporters of the Peoples’ Convention from broadcasting was overturned thanks to the solidarity of many eminent notables in the world of the arts and culture. Communist votes in by-elections continued to increase.
The About Turn
But on the morning of June 22nd 1941 everything changed.
Communist engineers on trial at the time for organising industrial action were dismissed by the judge with the comment ‘It is your war now, so get back to work’.
Yet there was still suspicion that the British government response might be sympathetic to Hitler. A short time before Churchill had argued that the Finns had ‘exposed, for all the world to see, the military incapacity of the Red Army and the Red Air Force …Everyone can see how communism rots the soul of a nation…’
Churchill in his radio broadcast in the evening of the day of the attack returned to his anti-communist past. ‘The Nazi regime is indistinguishable from the worst features of communism … No one has been a more consistent opponent of communism than I have for the last twenty-five years. I will unsay no word that I have spoken about it …. [but now]…. The cause of any Russian fighting for his hearth and home is the cause of free men and free peoples in every quarter of the globe.’
A Mass Observation survey carried out in Britain shortly after the attack reported that ‘only a small minority expected Russia to win’.
Hitler proclaimed when launching Operation Barbarossa that ‘We have only to kick in the front door and the whole rotten edifice will come tumbling down’. This vain boast reflected how seriously the Imperialist powers underestimated the strength of the USSR, not only in terms of military might but also the social cohesion of the Soviet structure.
The Soviet Colossus
The initial onslaught is often recorded as smashing through all before it, yet even the London ‘Times’ was declaring by mid August 1941 that ‘Russia has astonished the world, and particularly the enemy, by her resistance …’ More recently a series of studies by eminent US and British military historians such as David Glantz has proven how the Barbarossa schedule was fatally disrupted by the stubbornness of the Soviet forces.
In the radio address by Stalin on July 3rd 1941 he recognised the world wide significance of the resistance to the invader:
‘The aim of this national war in defence of our country against the Fascist oppressors is not only the elimination of the danger hanging over our country, but also to aid all European peoples groaning under the yoke of German fascism. In this war of liberation we shall not be alone. In this great war, we shall have loyal allies in the peoples of Europe and America, including the German people who are enslaved by the Hitlerite despots. Our war for the freedom of our country will merge with the struggle of the peoples of Europe and America for their independence, for democratic liberties. It will be a united front of peoples standing for freedom and against enslavement and threats of enslavement by Hitler’s Fascist armies.
‘In this connection the historic utterance of the British Prime Minister, Mr. Churchill, regarding aid to the Soviet Union and the declaration of the Government of the USA signifying readiness to render aid to our country, which can only evoke a feeling of gratitude in the hearts of the peoples of the Soviet Union, are fully comprehensible and symptomatic.’
Shortly after, a further radio address by Foreign Minister Litvinov declared that:
‘The destruction of Hitlerism will mean the elimination of the most shameful phenomenon of our age, the elimination of the greatest obstacle to the development of civilisation that has ever existed. The peoples of the Soviet Union and of Great Britain may still have in store much suffering and privation, ordeals and disappointment over temporary setbacks, but there can be no doubt that, conscious of their responsibility before history and before humanity, they will strain every nerve in the effort to fulfil with honour the historic mission devolving upon them.’
The British working class responded accordingly. By the end of September 1941, 450 aircraft, 22,000 tons of rubber, 3 million pairs of boots and large stocks of raw materials had been sent east in British ships sailing the dangerous Arctic supply route to Archangel. At a factory in the Midlands region of England on the 22nd September Soviet Ambassador Maisky’s wife named the first tank for Russia to leave the assembly line “Stalin”. On other tanks the workers had chalked the unofficial names of “Marx”, “Lenin” and “Another for Joe”. It was reported that ‘If for a single moment a single man seemed to be taking life easily he was urged on by his fellows with “Come on! Old Joe wants that one”.’
The night before the October Revolution parade and Stalin’s historic speech to the troops about to go to the front line, the General Secretary addressed Communist Party activists in a Moscow subway station. He poured scorn on Hitler’s racist belief that the Slavs were ‘untermenschen’, less than human. He said that the German invasion was not just an injury but an insult. ‘It is these people without honour or conscience, these people with the morality of animals, who have the effrontery to call for the extermination of the Great Russian Nation -- the nation of Plekhanov and Lenin, of Belinsky and Chernyshevsky, of Pushkin and Tolstoy, of Gorky and Chekhov, of Glinka and Tchaikovsky’.
The Nazis took particular pleasure in defacing the treasures of Slavic culture. In the town of Klim, they burned the house of the composer Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, and destroyed the score of his Sixth Symphony. Count Leo Tolstoy's house in Yasnaya Polyana was razed to the chimneys, and his gravesite was dug up to allow German soldiers to be buried there instead. Russian Orthodox churches were often burned and their icons destroyed.
Barbarians at the Gates
The Nazi offensive was stopped outside Moscow but this reversal of the fascist offensive has far too often been put down to the effects of the Russian winter and the mud on the supply routes. We should expose this lie as was explained by Soviet commander Marshal Zhukov in his memoirs:
‘No, it was not the rain and snow that stopped the Nazi troops at Moscow. The more than a million strong elite Nazi force was crushed by the iron will, courage and heroism of the Soviet troops who were there to defend their people, their capital, their country.’
The significance of the counterattack at Moscow is only now being fully appreciated in the western histories of the war. Yet at the time two prominent anti-communists were forced to reassess their opinions on the strength of the Soviet forces. Churchill was obliged to admit that ‘for the first time they have broken the Hitler legend. Instead of the easy victories and abundant booty … he has found in Russia so far only disaster, failure, the shame of unspeakable crimes, the slaughter or loss of vast numbers of German soldiers’. In a similar vein General Douglas MacArthur wrote ‘In none of the campaigns of outstanding leaders of the past have I observed such effective resistance to the heaviest blows of a hitherto undefeated enemy … The scale and grandeur of the effort mark it as the greatest military achievement in all history’.
The hard won victories that followed at Stalingrad and Kursk and the fortress city of Leningrad are well known and deserve to be retold as long as historical truth matter to our peoples. Far less appreciated is the immense clash of forces that comprised the destruction of the German Army Group Centre in June 1944 known as Operation Bagration or the strategically brilliant defeat of the Japanese forces in Manchuria and Korea known as the August Storm. The cost of the final Soviet offensive on Berlin can be measured in the mass graves at Treptower Park, a memorial that must be preserved for all time.
Never, Never Forget
We should betray the sacrifices of countless millions of heroes and heroines if we were to similarly allow our peoples’ memories to be erased in order to make them more easily exploitable slaves with their minds dulled by a new barbaric and ignorant amnesia.
If this were to happen then the fascists really will have triumphed after all.
Let our peoples never forget the sacrifice of the millions of dead and injured comrades-in-arms of all nations, united during those years in a common endeavour to bring into being a better world to benefit succeeding generations. Let our people never forget the sacrifices made by the civilian populations that endured tremendous privations in order to maintain the strength of those engaged directly with the enemy. Let our people never forget the sacrifice of the ‘secret armies’ who provided intelligence that enabled the plans of the invaders to be outmanoeuvred on the battlefields and oceans.
Hephaestus must awake, as the true son of Hera. We as Communists are the true children of our native soil and the inheritors of the wisdom of our people. As our Welsh poet Dylan Thomas wrote ‘Rage, rage against the dying of the light’.