Leon Trotsky

Who Is Guilty of Starting the Second World War?

(September 1939)

Written: 5 September 1939.
Source: Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 68, 11 September 1939, p. 1.
Transcription/HTML Markup: Einde O’Callaghan for the Trotsky Internet Archive.
Copyleft: Leon Trotsky Internet Archive (www.marxists.org) 2016. Permission is granted to copy and/or distribute this document under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0.

Yesterday I talked on the immediate responsibility for war. Hitler started bloody military operations, Stalin helped Hitler to start. This time the immediate, so to say “juridical” responsibility for beginning military activities shapes itself more clearly than in the last war. The question of responsibility plays, as it is known, a great role in the international propaganda of both warring camps. Everyone of the states participating in the war attempt to shift the responsibility onto the enemy.

Prom the historical and political point of view, however, this juridical (or diplomatic) criterion is of completely second rate importance. There are progressive, just wars and there are reactionary, unjust wars, independently of who “started” first. From the scientific historical point of view, progressive, just wars are those which serve the liberation of oppressed classes or oppressed nations and thus push human culture forward. On the contrary, those wars are reactionary which serve for the preservation of an antiquated social order, which serve for the enslavement of working classes and backward or weak nations. Consequently, of decisive importance is the question, not of who “started” first, who appeared as an “aggressor,” but which class is leading the war and in behalf of what historical ends. If the oppressed class or an oppressed nation appears in the role of “aggressor” on behalf of its liberation, we will always welcome such aggression.

England Rearmed Germany

The attempts to picture the next war as a war between democracies and fascism, were shattered against the real march of events. The present war, which its participants started before they signed the treaty of Versailles, grew out of imperialist contradictions. It was inevitable as is inevitable the crash of trains which are let loose one toward the other on the same track.

The chief antagonists on the European continent are Germany and France. In the struggle for hegemony in Europe and its colonial possessions, France attempted to keep Germany (not the fascist but the democratic one) in a condition of division and weakness. In this sense French imperialism was the midwife of German national socialism. On the contrary England, which was interested in breaking the European hegemony of France and its international pretensions, began soon after Versailles to support Berlin against Paris. The re-arming of Nazi Germany would have been impossible without the direct help of England. Thus the masked but deep antagonisms between the democracies was a spring-board for Hitler.

In Munich England supported Hitler in the hope that he would be satisfied with central Europe. But a couple of weeks later, England “finally discovered” that German imperialism strives toward world domination. In its role as the world colonial power, Great Britain couldn’t fail to answer the unrestrained pretensions of Hitler with war.

The Real Nature of the War

Diplomatic machinations, juggling with the formula: democracy versus fascism, sophism concerning the responsibility, can not make us forget that the struggle is going on between the imperialist slave-holders of different camps for a new division of the world. According to its ends and methods the present war is a direct prolongation of the past great war, only with much greater rottenness of the capitalist economy, and with much more terrible methods of destruction and extermination.

Consequently, I don’t see the slightest reason for changing those principles in relation to the war which were elaborated between 1914 and 1917 by the best representatives of the workers’ movement under the leadership of Lenin. The present war has a reactionary character on both sides. Whichever camp is victorious, humanity will be thrown far behind.

The Task of the Workers

The task of the authentic representatives of the working class and oppressed nations does not consist in helping one imperialist camp against the other, but in teaching the laboring masses of all countries to understand the reactionary meaning of the present war, to raise their own program – the world socialist federation of nations – and to prepare themselves to replace the regime of robbery by the regime of general cooperation.

This is the program of the Fourth International. It appears utopian to the so-called realists who don’t understand the logic of historical development. The Fourth International now comprises only a small minority. But the party of Lenin also represented only an insignificant minority at the beginning of the last war and received nothing but spite from the cheap heroes of the phrase. War is a severe school. In its fire the old prejudices and habits of slaves will be burned out! The nations will come out of this war different than they went into it, and will reconstruct our planet according to the laws of reason.

Coyoacan, D.F.
September 5, 1939

Leon Trotsky

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Last updated on: 17 March 2016