World War II: the real story



by Sabena Norten

The notion that the Allies fought World War II to defend democracy against fascism became widely accepted at the time and in the decades following that conflict.  The concept of an ‘anti-fascist war’ had a profound effect on people’s attitudes to capitalist society and the state. 

Whereas World War I generated widespread antiwar sentiment – in New Zealand labour activists and pacifists were jailed for opposition to the war – and led many to anti-capitalist politics, things were very different with WWII.  Most workers supported this war, believing it was fought in defence of democracy.  People united across class lines as never before.

In Britain, for instance, the hated Tory reactionary Winston Churchill became the most popular politician in modern British history.  The Union Jack, widely regarded previously as an emblem of reaction, became a popular national symbol and was often even paraded at left-wing activities.  Patriotism became acceptable even among left-wing workers, because it was now identified largely with anti-fascism. 


Left-wing parties, such as communist parties, became ardent supporters of the Allied war effort, urging workers to work harder and make more sacrifices.  In New Zealand, Labour ran the NZ war effort and were, in the words of militant workers’ leader Jock Barnes, the country’s “leading war party” and “number one jingoes”.  Anti-fascism blotted out all political differences and mobilised workers throughout the Allied countries for war on an unprecedented scale. 

But was World War II really a war about fascism?  Western elites, after all, certainly didn’t seem to have too much trouble with it in the 1930s.  Since New Zealand capitalists, closely linked in terms of finance, origins and export markets, generally went where Britain went, let’s take a look at how and why Britain and the other main players went to war. 

“We lived on bluff from 1920 to 1939,” said top British diplomat Alexander Cadogan in 1941, “but it was eventually called.” 

Britain and France, after their victory in World War I, had carved up the Ottoman Empire and Germany’s colonies, under the terms of the Versailles Treaty.   But this settlement could not guarantee lasting stability among the big powers.  It gave France and Britain, for instance, global political power out of proportion with their declining economic position.  For the next two decades, these two countries therefore “lived on bluff”.  Meanwhile, the more dynamic economies of the USA, Japan and Germany extended their influence in Europe, the Middle East, Asia and South America. 

The 1930s depression turned smouldering grievances into fierce conflicts over markets, sources of raw materials and foodstuffs.  Britain stepped up trade with the countries within its old empire, such as New Zealand, to compensate for its decline in other areas.  German businessmen set their sights on eastern Europe and the Mediterranean, while Japan moved into China and Southeast Asia.  The USA, whose industrial power and economic reserves far exceeded those of any other capitalist country, extended its trade and investment throughout the world. 

World relations 

It is this new pattern of world relations which provides the key to the military conflict which broke out in 1939.  There were three main power blocs: the clapped-out veterans (Britain and France), the impetuous upstarts (Germany, Japan and Italy) and the giant United States, whose economic muscle, geographical size and aloofness from old world squabbles put it in a class of its own. 

Each country had its own problems which dictated its pre-war policies.  Britain and France desired nothing more than to maintain a status quo which reflected their past glories rather than their current decline.  Their main objective was to hang on to the colonial empires which gave them a big stake in the exploitation of the Third World.  Given their economic weakness at home and their far-flung overseas interests, they could only achieve their objectives by winning allies. 

The old ruling classes preferred the methods of collaboration with the labour movement to the repressive approach of the newer capitalist powers like Japan and Germany, which lacked the surpluses necessary to grant some concessions to the labour bureaucracy who would then manage the working class for them. 

Abroad, Britain and France relied heavily on diplomacy and manoeuvre to preserve their interests.  Thus the old imperial robbers and warlords rested on past treaties and could present a ‘peace-loving’ face to both their own people and the rest of the world.  Britain was also prepared to grant some economic concessions to countries like New Zealand to keep the ‘white dominions’ of the ‘Commonwealth’ sweet. 

The latecomers, whose role in the world was constrained by the predominance of the old world powers, needed to break up the existing order to survive.  Hence they tended to be aggressive and militaristic in their external relations.  And they exercised fierce repression at home.  German and Italian fascism and the Japanese military dictatorship were not the product of peculiar national psyches but the result of the narrower basis for capital accumulation in those countries at the time and the fact that they had been frozen out of empire.  Dictatorship was the form of capitalist rule they required for exploitation of the working class at home and expanding their influence and power abroad.

Not anti-fascist 

Neither Britain nor France had any particular desire to destroy fascism.  The French ruling class, in due recognition of its economic and military irrelevance, even went so far as to hand over its territory to the Nazi invaders in early 1940 with barely a show of resistance.   

Leaving the proto-fascist Marshall Petain behind in the southern ‘Vichy France’ to deal with the Nazis, the French establishment withdrew into exile in North Africa and London.  Here it patiently waited for the war to end and for the United States to recapture its territories from the Germans. 

The British establishment, stronger than the French and better versed in the skulduggery of international diplomacy, fared better.  Acutely aware of its own weakness, it displayed considerable tactical skill in the hour of its greatest peril.  A statement on the international crisis by the British chief of staff in 1937provides some insight into the elite’s strategic thinking.  “The only way out” of an increasingly sticky situation, he said, was through “any political or international action that can be taken to reduce the numbers of our political enemies and to gain the support of potential allies.” 

Britain approached the Second World War with the objective of strengthening its position by manipulating its allies to weaken the competitors it now labelled as “political enemies”.  British politicians steadfastly pursued this pragmatic strategy. 

Throughout the 1930s Britain did its best to avoid being dragged into a war too early by pursuing a conciliatory approach to Germany, Japan and Italy.  This tactic of ‘appeasement’ has often been interpreted as a lack of resolve on the part of the British establishment.  The Labour Party, always keen to display its patriotism, made great play out of denouncing the ‘treacherous’ appeasers.  Prime minister Neville Chamberlain, who maintained cordial relations with Hitler until the eve of the war, bore the brunt of the left’s patriotic indignation. 

In reality, however, Chamberlain and his team pursued the only rational course available to the British ruling class – keeping their options open.  They were far more aware than their critics of the fragility of Britain’s position, so their policy was to conduct a holding operation.  This meant turning a blind eye to Japan’s annexation of northern China in 1932, Italy’s seizure of Abyssinia in 1935, and Germany’s invasion of the Rhineland (1935), Austria (1936) and Czechoslovakia (1938).  Even when Japan invaded the British enclave at Tientsin in China in March 1939 and subjected the British populace to public strip-searches and other humiliations, there was no interference from London. 

Britain’s strategy of staying out of trouble and, where possible, exploiting tensions among its rivals was the only one consistent with the capacities of a feeble and overstretched imperialist power.  The wisdom of this course of action was fully confirmed by Britain’s military performance once war became inevitable. 

Neither love of democracy – a relatively new concept which had only been enforced upon the British ruling class in the late 1800s and early 1900s, anyway – nor hatred of fascism played any part in British policy.  Britain’s relations with its rivals were based on pragmatic and carefully calculated strategic considerations.  Hitler’s invasion of Poland on September 3, 1939 was a calculated provocation of Britain and France and finally sparked the inevitable conflagration.   

During the first nine months the war centred on Europe and bore all the hallmarks of a traditional European great power conflict.  But this phase, often rightly called ‘the phoney war’ because very little serious fighting took place, was only the prelude to a new type of war.  The global conflict which ensued was of unprecedented ferocity and complexity.  It extended over three major theatres – Europe, the Middle East/North Africa and Asia – and involved far more than the defeat of Nazi Germany. 

The objective of defeating Germany and Japan united the USA and Britain, and countries such as Australia and New Zealand.  After Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, Stalin joined the anti-Hitler coalition.  The Soviet army waged the decisive campaign against Germany, tying down some six million German troops in the Russian steppes until the Germans’ eventual defeat at Stalingrad in November 1942. 

But for the USA and Britain, defeating Hitler was only one of a number of objectives.  While the Soviet forces did a good job of containing the German advance in Russia, the Western allies had the leisure to pursue broader long-term goals.  The ‘anti-fascist’ war was prolonged considerably as the Allies took the opportunity to settle scores with each other. 

Prolonging the war 

A concerted effort by the Allies could probably have defeated Hitler within a year of Stalingrad.  Personal records of top Nazis confirm that by the end of 1941 Hitler was well aware that he could not defeat the Soviet Union and that Germany’s fight to become the dominant world power was lost.  Yet it was not until late 1943 that the USA and Britain embarked on a leisurely offensive against Germany within Europe itself.  While millions were dying on the battlefields and in the concentration camps, the Allies began a series of delicate negotiations concerning what shape the world should take after the war they knew they had sewn up. 

Following the US entry into the war in December 1941, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, US president Franklin Roosevelt published his Atlantic Charter, a document which laid out the war aims of the class he represented.  The Charter demanded – in liberal anti-colonial terms – the dismantling of the French and British empires and the opening up of the Third World to free trade.  The American ruling class gave notice that it intended to run the postwar new world order.  Discreetly, but firmly, Roosevelt made clear to his ‘allies’ that the price for US support during the war was American world hegemony at its conclusion. 

Conflicts among the ‘anti-fascist’, ‘democracy-loving’ allies absorbed much of the energy between 1941 and 1944.  The Middle East became the focus of rivalry between Britain, France and the USA, a rivalry which continued until the Suez Crisis in 1956, by which time American dominance in the region was settled.  During the war itself, however, the US muscled into Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia to break British and French control.  As Roosevelt put it in 1944, the US “must adopt a policy of positive action in Iran, with a view to facilitating not only the war operations of the USA in that country, but also a sound post-war development.”  Meanwhile, British forces moved against French forces in Lebanon and Syria.

In Southeast Asia, US troops were under orders not to interfere with the expulsion of French forces by the Japanese.  “The case of Indochina is perfectly clear,” said Roosevelt in 1944.  “France has milked it for 100 years,” he claimed, and now it was America’s turn.  Using control over the funds with which it financed the Allies’ war effort, the USA sought to take maximum advantage of the enfeebled condition of its rivals.  It cynically prolonged the war to weaken its European allies and put itself in a stronger position at the close of the conflict. 

At the Casablanca conference in January 1943 Roosevelt declared that nothing less than Germany’s unconditional surrender would satisfy the USA.  This demand had the effect of uniting the German people behind Hitler as they never had been before.  It ensured that the war dragged on – to the considerable benefit of the American ruling class. 

The Allies were united against Hitler only to the extent that they had a common interest in frustrating the ambitions of German capitalism to become the dominant global power.  Once this had been achieved in the early stages of the war, the rest of the conflict was mainly devoted to resolving the final shape of the postwar order under American domination. 

The final push against Germany was only undertaken well after the division of the spoils had been settled at the conference tables at Teheran (1943) and Moscow and Yalta (1944) by Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin.  The main concern which finally led to the Allies storming the Normandy beaches in 1944 and driving across France and into Germany was the desire to halt the rapid advance of the Soviet army.   

The British and Americans were particularly concerned to restore control in France and Italy and other areas vacated by the Germans where radical anti-fascist resistance movements were beginning to take over the functions of government and ordinary people were thinking in terms of a new social order rather than a return to the old capitalist one. 

Despite its economic devastation and enormous loss of life, the Soviet Union emerged well out of the conflict with Hitler.  Its armies pushed the Germans back as far as the Elbe and most of the resistance and anti-imperialist movements throughout the world either gave their allegiance to or looked favourably upon the USSR.  The survival of the Soviet Union was a major disappointment to Churchill and Roosevelt who had hoped that Germany and the USSR would finish each other off.  Instead, the Western allies had to race across Europe to restore control before the Soviet armies and left-wing resistance movements became a new threat to the planned postwar order. 

Stalin, however, turned out to be a reasonable customer.  In exchange for a share in the loot – backward, underdeveloped eastern Europe – the Soviet leader endorsed the imperialist carve-up and turned a blind eye to US and British atrocities against people who had looked to the Soviet Union as a force for liberation.  With Stalin’s consent, for instance, British forces moved into Greece in 1944 and slaughtered the anti-imperialist movement.  Soviet assistance proved invaluable to the Western powers in restoring capitalist control in Europe and beyond. 

Fierce repression 

Victory in Europe in May 1945 ushered in a period of fierce repression against the working class.  In Italy, France and Germany, the Allies moved in, banning trade unions and workers’ political parties.  Striking workers and left-wing activists were mercilessly hounded by the occupation forces.  Stalin’s loyal communist parties generally lent a helping hand, exhorting workers in the resistance movements to hand over their weapons to the new masters, leave the class struggle to another time, and generally buckle under and rebuild the capitalist economies.  The ‘liberation’ of Europe brought no freedom to the working class. 

In the Third World the defeat of fascism and the establishment of the new world order was a prelude to terror on a scale which dwarfed even the horrors of World War II.  The nuclear bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki which ended the war in the Pacific in August 1945 set the tone for the barbarism visited on ‘non-white’ people in the Middle East, Southeast Asia and elsewhere in the postwar era of ‘peace and prosperity’.  For millions of people throughout the world, especially in poor countries, the end of WWII meant the beginning of a more vicious phase of imperialist expansion. 

The ‘peace’ which followed 1945 was above all a peace for the capitalist class to resume the business of exploitation free from the pressures of instability at home and rivalry abroad.  The working class was defeated and the international capitalist order reinvigorated.  Nationalism, rather than socialism and class consciousness, became the dominant outlook of the working class throughout the West.  People who had united with their own exploiters throughout the war have continued to do so ever since. 

Winning workers and radical opponents of injustice and inequality to an understanding of the debilitating effects of nationalism in First World countries, such as Britain and New Zealand, is essential  if we are ever to challenge capitalism.  Otherwise people will continue to be lined up behind our own exploiters in their economic and military conflicts abroad. 

Sabena Norten was a German Marxist; her early 1980s article was edited and slightly reworked by Sharon Jones of the editorial collective of Christchurch-based revolution magazine and appeared in issue 10 of that magazine (August/September 1999).


  1. In terms of the cross class alliance in Britain during the war and the sense of national unity, one cannot discount the intense fear engendered in all of British society (except for the pro-collaborationist ruling class faction and Mosleyite fascists) of the prospect of invasion and subjugation by the Nazis. Middle class and upper class British were prepared to die fighting in the Battle of Britain to stop the Nazi invasion; one of the few useful sacrifices of the British ruling elite.

  2. The fundamental mistake you make in this essay is confusing the nature and war aims of the belligerents with what stake working and oppressed peoples had in the wars outcome. Your position leads to the conclusion that it was wrong for revolutionary anti-fascists in France, Yugoslavia, Greece, Italy, China, and Viet Nam to work with the Allied powers to defeat the Nazis and their allies. Try selling that to anyone who lived in those countries during fascist occupation and see if they agree with you that both sides were equally bad.

  3. NGS writes: “Your position leads to the conclusion that it was wrong for revolutionary anti-fascists in France, Yugoslavia, Greece, Italy, China, and Viet Nam to work with the Allied powers to defeat the Nazis and their allies. Try selling that to anyone who lived in those countries during fascist occupation and see if they agree with you that both sides were equally bad.”

    Where does the article say this? It’s your extrapolation. You create this idea and then argue against it. It might be better to deal with *what the article actually says*.

    Or at least show that no other possible interpretation/conclusion can be drawn than the one you have.


    • As I said, your position leads to those conclusions. Of course it’s an extrapolation — the article fudges those issues and topics and instead simply and one-sidedly focuses on the evil intent of the belligerent powers.

      Until you spell out where you stand on what revolutionaries in the aforementioned countries should, in your view and based on your arguments about the reactionary nature of the war, have done, I can only assume you would oppose collaborating with imperialists to defeat fascists.

  4. Well, I can’t stop you from assuming anything – nor would I want to. But you’d have to ask Sabena what she thought, if you wanted to know what she thought.

    For myself, people fighting for liberation can and do get material assistance from wherever they can. The Irish revolutionaries of 1916 got weapons from German imperialism to stage a rebellion against British imperialism. Good for them. Lenin traveled back to Russia on a train provided by the German imperialists. Good for him. If the resistance movement in Nazi-occupied countries could get material assistance off the Allied imperialists, I can’t see why that would be a problem. The issue is their *political independence*, not whether they get some much-needed ordnance from the Allies.

    Sometimes, it’s best not to make assumptions from articles. . . especially when there’s really no basis in the articles to make such assumptions. The article, after all, was about the nature of the war and the various governmental players; it *was not* an exhaustive article that took up a bunch of other aspects of WW2.

    Having said that, I was responsible for deciding on the headline, so perhaps I could have chosen a better one as well.


    • The opening paragraphs make it very clear that the author believes working people were right to be against World War One and wrong for being against World War Two. What’s worse are claims like this:

      “Victory in Europe in May 1945 ushered in a period of fierce repression against the working class. In Italy, France and Germany, the Allies moved in, banning trade unions and workers’ political parties. Striking workers and left-wing activists were mercilessly hounded by the occupation forces. Stalin’s loyal communist parties generally lent a helping hand, exhorting workers in the resistance movements to hand over their weapons to the new masters, leave the class struggle to another time, and generally buckle under and rebuild the capitalist economies. The ‘liberation’ of Europe brought no freedom to the working class.”

      A quick glance at the results of the October 1945 elections for the French Constituent Assembly, held months not years after the defeat of the Nazis, show that the Communist Party got a whopping 26% of the vote. That is hardly “no freedom” for the working class.

      I’m not an expert on World War Two and even I can see that this article has major, major defects and problems.

  5. NGS wrote: “A quick glance at the results of the October 1945 elections for the French Constituent Assembly, held months not years after the defeat of the Nazis, show that the Communist Party got a whopping 26% of the vote. That is hardly ‘no freedom’ for the working class.”

    But the French CP disarmed the resistance and agreed to the maintenance of the capitalist order in France. So their 1945 vote didn’t represent freedom for the working class.

    The CP went on to play a conservative role in French politics, essentially supporting French imperialism in relation to Indochina and then Algeria. And then getting the workers back to work in 1968.


    • Right, but what the French CP did or didn’t do has nothing to do with the fact that the war and that the Allies waged allowed a vote to take place!

      Re: Mandel. He is wrong because he tries to pretend all the aspects of World War Two are separate rather than being interlinked (I dealt with this issue a bit here). The Trotskyist opposition to American participation in the war would, in practice, have meant not sending any aid to Ho Chi Minh or Russia, which would have bolstered the Japanese and the Nazis, respectively. A better essay compared to Mandel and this blog entry on this entire topic is this:

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