Parallel Wars

Donny Gluckstein, A People’s History of the Second World War: Resistance Versus Empire

Pluto Press, 269pp, £19.99, ISBN 9780745328034

reviewed by John Newsinger

There is an apparently never-ending stream of histories of the Second World War. In recent times Norman Davies, Max Hastings, Anthony Beevor, Andrew Roberts, Michael Burleigh, Evan Mawdsley, and others have all produced substantial single-volume histories of the conflict. This reflects the enduring popular fascination that the war excites. While the predominant popular view is that the war was very much a conflict between Democracy and Dictatorship (a view complicated by the presence of the Soviet Union in the Democratic camp), the socialist view was always different. For many years, people on the Left saw the War as a clash of empires, as a war between the British Empire and American Capitalism on the one hand and Nazi Germany and the Japanese Empire on the other, mitigated by a ‘progressive’ camp led by the Soviet Union. Russia’s tremendous losses in the War, the part played by the Red Army in the Nazi regime’s final defeat and the Communists’ role in resistance movements in both Europe and Asia played an important role in popularising this view, which predominated on the Left right up until the collapse of the Soviet Union. Even today there are many of the left who still celebrate the Soviet Union’s wartime performance.

Donny Gluckstein’s new book, A People’s History of the Second World War, offers a new interpretation that challenges both these earlier understandings of the conflict: the war certainly involved a clash of Empires, a clash in which Stalin’s Russia was one of the active participants, but there was also a parallel ‘People’s War’. While the ruling classes were fighting for imperial advantage, for millions of ordinary people throughout the world this was a war for radical social change, for a better world. As Gluckstein insists these ‘two distinct wars’ ran parallel with each other, indeed they were often ‘indistinguishable to those involved’. There ‘were, however, particular instances where the split was illuminated, as if by lightning’.

Through case studies on Yugoslavia, Poland, Latvia, France, Britain, the USA, Austria, Italy, India, Indonesia and Vietnam, Gluckstein explores the complex relationship between Imperialist and People’s War. With regard to Britain, he shows that Churchill’s primary concern was always with securing the safety of the British Empire. Churchill’s famous ‘blood, toil, tears and sweat’ speech went on to proclaim that victory was vital for the ‘survival of the British Empire ... for all that the British Empire has stood for.’ Indeed, after every stirring appeal there was always a reference to the Empire. The safety of the Empire was not the concern of ordinary people. They hoped for a better, more just and egalitarian world. That is what they were fighting for. Labour’s 1945 General Election landslide came about because, as Gluckstein puts it, the party successfully ‘claimed the mantle of a people’s war’.

The chapters on Italy, Greece, India, Vietnam and Indonesia are particularly impressive. Indeed, nothing better illustrates the reality of the parallel wars than the spectacle of British troops shooting down Indian protestors fighting for freedom in 1942. The Viceroy, Lord Linlithgow, told Churchill that he was facing ’by far the most serious rebellion since that of 1857’. It was put down by brute force. One British official boasted that he had ‘had jolly good fun having shot down twenty-four niggers himself’. Perhaps as many as 10,000 Indian rebels were killed together with almost 100,000 arrested.

Of course, the British did not just use force to suppress the Indian nationalist movement. As Gluckstein shows, they also intervened in Greece, Indonesia and Vietnam. The British military operations in Athens, Saigon and Surabaya in 1944-45 are still not widely enough known. The brutal suppression of the Communist-led resistance in Greece at the end of 1944 was a shocking demonstration of Imperial realpolitik. It was part of the cynical division of southern Europe that Churchill and Stalin had agreed to in October 1944, the celebrated ‘percentages agreement’, a sort of Churchill-Stalin Pact. The agreement gave Britain a 90% predominance in Greece in return for Britain agreeing to a 90% predominance for Russia in Romania and a 75% predominance in Bulgaria. They agreed to share Yugoslavia and Hungary. Stalin stood by while the British crushed the Greek resistance without making any complaints or protests. There could not be a better instance of the Imperialist war and the People’s War coming into violent confrontation.

In Asia, the British re-imposed French rule in Vietnam and Dutch rule in Indonesia. In both countries they met popular resistance and in both countries they enlisted the surrendered Japanese in helping crush the nationalist insurgents. In Indonesia, resistance was particularly fierce. It is quite shocking that this military adventure, the work of Attlee’s Labour government, remains comparatively obscure. The British assault on the port-city of Surabaya, carried out by land, sea and air, left thousands of Indonesians dead. Gluckstein provides an outstanding account of this intervention.

The only problem with A People’s History of the Second World War is that it is too short. There is so much more that one wishes Gluckstein had included in the book. In particular, I would have liked him to have included a chapter on the Jewish resistance instead of limiting the discussion to less than two pages in the chapter on the USA. The incredible story of the Jewish resistances should also have been incorporated into the People’s War thesis. Furthermore, his decision not to have a chapter on the Soviet Union is disappointing. The reason he gives for this is that the Soviet Union itself never experienced the ‘parallel war’ situation, at least in part, because the regime was able to keep the people under such tight control. But it deserves a chapter, especially as there are still people on the Left who romanticise the Red Army and regard the Soviet Union as if it were somehow different from the other Imperial powers. And, of course, as Gluckstein points out, the Russians had a ‘huge influence in the parallel wars’ in other countries. More discussion of the nature of the Russian ‘liberation’ of Eastern Europe would have been useful. Regardless of these regrets though, Gluckstein has written what is arguably the most important book on the Second World War to be published for years. It deserves the widest possible readership. One can only hope for an extended second edition, for a more definitive People’s History.
John Newsinger is a senior lecturer in history at Bath Spa University, and the author of The Blood Never Dried: A People’s History of the British Empire.