Chris Harman

Thinking it through

Hitler’s friends

(September 1999)

From Socialist Review, No.233, September 1999.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive at
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

‘Key figures in the French military and the French ruling class had no great desire to fight Hitler’

One argument was used repeatedly by supporters of Nato’s war against Serbia. Milosevic’s Serbia, they said, was like Hitler’s Germany. It was necessary to support the western powers’ war machine just as vigorously as in 1939.

We rejected the comparison as a complete diversion from the real issues involved in the Balkan War. Germany in 1939 was the world’s second greatest power and intent on domination of all of Europe while Serbia was not even capable of dominating former Yugoslavia. But even in relation to the Second World War, the argument did not hold water.

The socialist left in the 1930s had no doubts about the need to resist Hitler. They had seen him destroy the workers’ movement in Germany and knew that throughout Europe there were sections of the ruling class keen to emulate him. But there was division over how to resist him. The debate was largely academic in Britain. The defeat of the General Strike in 1926 and the betrayal of Ramsay MacDonald in 1931 meant that the left was a marginal political force. It was very important, however, in France, where a huge upsurge of workers’ struggles in 1934-36 led to the Socialist Party becoming the biggest single parliamentary group.

The socialist right had an easy answer. It was necessary, they said, to ally with members of the main bourgeois party, the Radicals, who stood for a continuation of the policies embodied in the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. These had involved forcing Germany to pay punitive reparations to France and Belgium; preventing German speaking Austria from joining Germany proper; maintaining a series of French client states in Eastern Europe; forcibly incorporating the German city of Danzig into Poland. Such arrangements could only be sustained if France was fully armed, ready for a resumption of the military hostilities of 1914-18 against a recalcitrant German government of any political hue.

At first the socialist left were adamant in their opposition to such an approach. Many had fought and suffered in the useless bloodlust of 1914-18. They understood that all the talk of the ‘glorious French nation’ had been simply a cover for the interests of a French imperialism which kept half of Africa and all of Indochina in slavery. Then in 1935 something happened that shifted the views of a major component of the left. The right wing Radical foreign minister Laval signed a military treaty with Russia. The Communist Party became a sudden convert to the idea of a union sacrée (holy union) against Germany.

The argument seemed overwhelming that more arms for France meant a weaker Nazi Germany. When the Socialist Blum government was formed in 1936, the left who opposed rearmament were marginalised and by mid-1937 reforms that had been introduced to improve workers’ conditions had been sacrificed to the military budget.

The dilemma of the left was shown starkly in the summer of 1938. Hitler, having absorbed Austria into Germany, now threatened Czechoslovakia. The French ruling class split down the middle as to whether to put up resistance to his demands. Opposition to Nazism, it seemed, meant supporting the most belligerent section of the ruling class against the elements who wanted to appease Hitler. Some pacifists who refused to accept this ended up effectively backing the appeasement wing of the ruling class. Ever since, the conventional wisdom has been that the pro-war elements were proved right when Hitler took advantage of the concessions made at Munich in 1938 to attack Poland in September 1939.

There is one great fault with this reasoning. The arms acquired by the French military between 1935 and 1939 were not used to stop Hitler. Despite Allied superiority, the Germans swept the French armies in northern France aside in May 1940 and took Paris. Part of the reason was that key figures in the French military and the French ruling class had no great desire to fight Hitler.

Daladier, the Radical war minister, who was a great favourite of the pro-war socialists, had told the American government in 1938 he was worried ‘Germany would be defeated in the war ... but the only gainers would be the Bolsheviks as there would be social revolution in every country in Europe’. Such reasoning led the French government under Marshal Pétain to come to an agreement with Hitler in June to establish a collaborationist regime – an agreement backed by the majority of Socialist Party deputies elected in 1936. From that point on, every gun which had been bought with left wing support in the 1930s was a weapon for strengthening the Hitlerite hold on Europe.

Leon Trotsky saw more clearly than most the genocidal logic of Nazism in the 1930s. He also confronted squarely the dilemma facing the left – between doing nothing or helping to arm French and British bourgeoisies who would inflict imperialist horrors of their own on the world and then, if the need arose, do a deal with Hitler. His conclusion was that the only way workers in France could guarantee resistance to Hitler was by opposing the union sacrée and waging a revolutionary struggle to take power into their own hands.

But by 1940 war had burst upon the world. Trotsky now insisted revolutionaries could not simply turn their backs on this fact in the way that pacifists tried to. Hitler was the enemy of workers everywhere and the most class conscious workers recognised this. If revolutionaries, for instance, resisted being drafted into the forces, the best workers would not understand why. But revolutionaries should not repeat the French Socialists’ and Communists’ mistake of the 1930s, of trusting their own imperialist rulers. Instead, they had to argue for independent revolutionary initiative as the best way to fight Nazism and as the only way to prevent a return of the conditions that had created it.

Trotsky saw that the horror of the war itself would create enormous revolutionary possibilities, as Hitler’s occupation of Europe provoked new currents of working class opposition. The possibilities of revolution were real enough, but in 1944-45 they were derailed in country after country by the same forces within the workers’ movement that had preached reliance on the likes of Laval and Daladier in the 1930s. The result is that in the decades since the world has continued to stumble from one barbarity to another. But this does not mean that these forces were right and Trotsky, with his opposition to all imperialisms, wrong.

Last updated on 21 December 2009