Source: Socialist Fight, Vol. 3 No. 3, May 1961
Transcription: Francesco 2009
Proofread: Fred 2009
Markup: Niklas 2009
Michael Foot writes in the Tribune of Friday 14th April on the question of the cause of the Second World War. He says in reviewing the book by A. J. P. Taylor: “Had the British statesmen of the thirties been capable of this exercise they could easily have stopped the Second World War by discovering what Mr. Taylor discovered: that Hitlerism right up till 1939, was the most gigantic bluff of all time.”
Thus Foot and other “left-wing” Tribunites who think like him are sufficiently gullible to believe that the Second World War was some ghastly “accident” that could have been avoided if only “British statesmen” had been clever enough to understand that Hitler was “bluffing.”
Thus the secondary episodes and accidental incidents that have precipitated war at a particular time in the past are taken out of all proportion and magnified to become the actual cause of the war. To write of history this way is to turn the whole development of mankind into the result of aimless, senseless, bloody and meaningless decisions of this or that individual.
It is true that Hitler—and the German imperialism he represented—were not solely responsible for the war. Just as the First World War was caused not by the wickedness of the Kaiser, but by the rivalry for world domination by British and German imperialism, and the impasse of the capitalist system of that time, so the Second World War was not the result of the evil intentions of even such a monster as Hitler. It was caused by the stage of development reached by Europe at that time and the struggle for markets, raw materials and colonies between Germany and Britain at that particular period. The Daily Telegraph pointed out on the eve of the war that competition between Germany and Britain on the markets of the world had reached a greater depth and pitch than on the eve of the 1914 war.
But the rise of Hitler in Germany was caused by the crisis of capitalism in Germany. Let us never forget that Hitler had the backing of all the main imperialist powers, including Britain, America and France. The ruling class of these countries fearing the socialist revolution in Germany, reluctantly backed the Nazis. This explains the refusal of the British and French imperialists to take action at the time of the Nazi occupation of the Rhineland, and of German rearmament. They were afraid of social revolution in Germany. They also believed that they could use Hitler for war against the Soviet Union in order to destroy “Bolshevism”—i.e. in this context the restoration of capitalism in the Soviet Union by means of armed intervention.
It is impossible to understand the policies of all the powers, including the policy of Hitler or “bluff”, without understanding the class basis of society. Allied imperialism backed Hitler, rearmed Hitler, supported Hitler, Mussolini and the Japanese militarists because of fear of the consequences of their downfall, it was out of fear of the downfall of the capitalist system that they “grovelled” before Hitler in Munichism, etc.
Long before Hitler was ever heard of, when Hitler was a corporal in the armies of the Kaiser during the First World War, Marxism had predicted the inevitability of a second world war if capitalism was not overthrown. In answer to socialists like Michael Foot, who were clamouring for disarmament, a League of Nations, and an agreement between the nations to prevent war, Lenin dismissed these arguments as “fairy tales” of a very pernicious and dangerous character. If, he said, the world war would not be ended by a series of successful socialist revolutions, then there would inevitably be a second world war, to be followed by a third and so on till civilisation itself would be destroyed.
In this respect it must be admitted that Lenin’s sober estimate based on a class analysis of capitalist society has stood the test of time.
But to come to the events with which Michael Foot deals. The non-intervention of the Allied powers in the Spanish revolution was dictated by similar considerations. They feared the victory of the republicans, on the basis of the revolutionary movement developing among the Spanish workers, would lead to the socialist revolution in Spain. As Lennox-Boyd, recent colonial secretary in the Conservative government, explained at the time, the butcher Franco was a “gallant Christian gentleman” fighting the barbaric socialist hordes. It is not accidental that Churchill praised both Hitler and Mussolini as upholders of civilisation against the dangers of “communism”.
Leon Trotsky in a pamphlet entitled “The coming world war”, predicted the outbreak of the Second World War just a few months before it occurred. The war did not take place because Hitler seized Danzig. Just a few months before the Polish imperialists had joined with the Germans to grab a slice of Czechoslovakia. The British imperialists retreated before Hitler’s seizure of Austria and Czechoslovakia because of fear of the alternatives. They wished to build up Hitler for his “drive to the East” and a war against Russia. A policy they partially carried out at the time of Hitler’s attack on Russia. Truman, then vice-president, and Moore-Brabazon, then a minister, blurted out the truth of the aims of the Anglo-American imperialists when they declared that the best result would be the destruction of both Germany and Russia. In the actual losses and scale of fighting the war turned into a Homeric struggle between Germany and Russia.
In all this the real roots of the war can be seen in the class system of society. The Second World War could be seen as the inevitable result of the piling up of the contradictions of capitalist society. The narrow interests of each “national” capitalist class conflict one with the other. Probably none of the powers “wanted” war at that particular time and on those particular issues. Had the imperialists of Britain, France and America not been so short-sighted from the point of view of their own interests, and prevented Hitler from seizing Austria, and Czechoslovakia, possibly war would have been delayed for some months or years. But it is vital for the advanced workers in the labour movement to understand that this or that diplomatic deal or agreement, its arrival or breaking down, is not the cause of war. It was not the violation of Belgian neutrality that caused British capitalism to enter the First World War. It was not the seizure of Danzig—one city and a city populated by Germans at that—that caused the Second World War… That would be straining at the gnat and swallowing the camel, of the Austrian and Czech seizures, that impelled British capitalism to declare war. It was not love of democracy and hatred for fascism, but pure defence of the capitalist interests of the British ruling class that pushed them into their declaration of war.
Hitler’s Germany in 1939 was faced with the alternative of “expand or die”. Hitler in the desperate struggle with Britain for declining markets had declared “export or die”. A similar grim alternative was being posed by the British ruling class. Hitler had rearmed Germany and stretched the German productive machine to its fullest extent. Had war not taken place in 1939 there would have been seven million of unemployed in Germany and the Nazi system could not have survived. Within the narrow confines of the German state, the vast productive machine built by German capitalism, big enough to supply the whole world with goods, was being stifled. The German market was too small for the needs of the German imperialists. Hence the attempt to extend it by seizing the continent of Europe. British imperialist policy on the other hand was determined by the frantic fear of the British ruling class of losing their Empire. They stood only to lose by war. Hence their desperate efforts—to preserve “peace”. They were like a satisfied burglar who, accumulating spoils, is afraid of the loot being hi-jacked by rival gangsters. There is no “love of peace” in this policy. Like the policy of Hitler it was dictated by the class needs of British capitalism.
Michael Foot and the historian he so much admires, A. J. P. Taylor, are searching merely for superficial incidents which explain nothing of the real cause of war in our epoch.
The lesson is clear. Imperialism has provoked two slaughters of the peoples. A third looms ahead for the future—unless the working class draws the lesson of these events. Wars—especially world wars—are not accidental. An accident can cause war if all the other conditions for war are present. But there is no such thing as an “accidental war”. The only way to end the possibility of such madness as fascism and war is to destroy the system which inevitably leads to these horrors.