War and the Soviet Union: The Soviet victory over fascism

hitler head

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! no. 49 May 1985

Who wants war? The British and American governments continually claim that they are only involved in the armaments race in order to defend the 'free' world against the aggressive, expansionist ambitions of the Soviet Union and its socialist allies. Yet an honest investigation of the 1939-45 war, the only world-wide open armed conflict between imperialist and socialist powers clearly shows that the imperialist nations were the aggressors. The causes of the present arms race lie here — after suffering enormous devastation in that war, the Soviet Union and its allies are forced to maintain armed forces to defend themselves against imperialist aggression.


The basic cause of the war was the rivalry between the leading imperialist powers. After the end of the 1914-18 war, Britain and France had imposed on Germany the Versailles Treaty (1919), which prevented her from re-arming and greatly weakened her economically. The Nazis, who came to power in 1933, sought to re-establish Germany as a major imperialist power. In all his writings and speeches, Hitler had made no secret of his admiration for the British Empire, as the embodiment of his theory of the 'master race' — he simply wanted Germany to have an empire of the same kind. His other major aim was to destroy the Soviet Union, just as he had destroyed the communist and labour movement in Germany.

Wide circles of the British and French ruling classes supported Hitler's destruction of the labour movement in Germany, and thought that a Nazi Germany would be a 'bastion against Bolshevism' in Europe. The British government's policy of 'appeasement' of Hitler allowed him to rearm, especially from 1936 onwards. He gradually began incorporating the smaller nations surrounding Germany as part of his policy of 'living space' for the German nation and as a springboard for his attack on the Soviet Union. The most notorious instance of this was the Munich agreement (1938), by which the British and French allowed Hitler to take over Czechoslovakia.

Not only did the 'democracies' of Britain and France give political encouragement to Hitler, but they and the US supplied vital war materials right up to the last moment. In 1938, Germany bought from the British and French empires decisive quantities of iron ore, lead, chromium, copper, manganese, nickel, zinc, and rubber. Only 2 weeks before war was declared, on 19 August 1939, the Nazis were able to buy on the London Stock Exchange raw materials vital for their war preparations, particularly rubber and copper, which had been plundered from British colonies.

Despite repeated requests by the Soviet Union, the 'democracies' also refused even to enter into serious discussions about making an agreement with the Soviet Union to defend Poland and other European countries against Nazi aggression. Consequently, the Soviet Union was forced to enter an agreement with the Nazis, the USSR-German Non-Aggression Treaty (23 August 1939), which in effect allowed it to buy time to prepare to meet the threat of the Nazi invasion.

Why, then, did the British government on 3 September 1939 declare war on the Nazis? It did so for two main reasons — firstly, it was disappointed that the Nazis had entered a pact with the Soviet Union. In one of his speeches, Churchill said that Britain declared war on Germany because Hitler, who had promised 'war against the Bolsheviks' had 'deceived Western civilisation' by signing a non-aggression treaty with the USSR. Secondly, it became increasingly concerned that the Nazis' expansionist ambitions might threaten British imperialism itself. For example, Rumania and Greece, where there were important British investments, were now within striking distance for the Nazi army.

However, as events quickly showed, the declaration of war did not mean a serious offensive against fascism. Indeed, the Churchill government was more than willing to continue the policy of 'appeasement', not only towards German but also towards Italian fascism. In November 1939 Churchill made overtures to Italy, including a recognition of Italy's seizure of Albania, and trading relations between the two countries were unaffected. The real war aims of the British ruling class, and its supporters in the labour movement, remained unchanged — to turn the war against the Soviet Union, and to defend the British Empire.

In order to camouflage its real aims, imperialist statesmen and their labour apologists showed their utter contempt for truth, by calling the war a 'war for democracy'. A Comintern statement of November 1939 correctly warned: ‘Don't believe those who are calling upon you to support the war under the false pretext of the defence of democracy. What right to speak of democracy have those who oppress India, Indo-China, the Arab countries, who keep half of the world in the chains of colonial slavery?' And indeed, the Viceroy of India, Britain's largest colony, declared war on Germany on India's behalf without consulting any section of Indian opinion or making even the vaguest promises about self-determination for the Indian people. Within the first two years of 'war', the number of Indian troops was raised from 123,000 to 750,000 — by the end of the war 45% of the 'British' army was from the colonies and Dominions.


It quickly became apparent that Chamberlain's declaration of war was purely formal. Although under the terms of the Mutual Assistance Agreement of 25 August 1939 (that is, 8 days before the invasion), Britain was pledged to act 'at once' with 'all the support and assistance in its power', the British government delayed for a week before even meeting representatives of the Polish army, at that moment being destroyed by the German Blitzkrieg (lightning war). It then offered to supply a derisory quantity of antiquated equipment, but by then the Nazi conquest of Poland was complete.

English anti-fascists called it 'phony', the French 'a joke', but both terms aptly describe the initial phase of the ‘war'. In 1939, the British and French armies in the west had 110 divisions in the west, while the Nazis had 23, but the Allied armies made no move. It took 9 months before even a small contingent of British troops was landed in France. After 9 months of 'mobilisation', there were still a million unemployed in Britain. Likewise, factories were not converted to arms production —it took 8 months for the Ministry of Supply to set up a committee to study the design of tanks. No wonder this was called a ‘phony war'.

The case of Finland shows that this delay was entirely due to political reasons. On 30 November 1939 the Red Army invaded Finland to block one of the most crucial lines of entry into the Soviet Union from the West. The Finnish frontier was only 20 miles from the suburbs of Leningrad, and offered an obvious jumping-off point for an invasion of the Soviet Union. The British government roused itself from its selective lethargy and, urged on by the Labour Party, supplied arms in large quantities to Finland for use against the Soviet Union. The British and French military staffs sent 400,000 rifles, as compared to the 10,000 antiquated rifles reluctantly offered to the beleaguered Poles in September 1939.


After the fall of France to the Nazi armies (summer 1940) it became evident that the 'democracies' would offer little resistance. As the Battle of Britain showed, the British ruling class had hardly prepared for a defensive action against the Nazis, let alone for mounting a serious offensive. Thousands of British working class people died as a result. With little to fear on the western front, Hitler began serious planning for the invasion of the Soviet Union. At 4am on 22 June 1941, without declaring war, the Nazi armies, the most massively armed force in history, invaded the Soviet Union.

Their aim was to fulfil Hitler's lifelong ambition — the destruction of the world's first (and at that time only) socialist state, and the enslavement of the Soviet people. Under Hitler's genocidal plan, 30 million Soviet citizens would be murdered, in particular communist officials would be treated as criminals and could be summarily executed. Leningrad would be razed to the ground and Moscow turned into an immense lake. Under fascist rule, the education of the surviving Soviet people would be reduced to learning simple sums (counting to 25), writing their own names, reading traffic signs and to learning that ‘by divine ordinance, they should obey the Germans and be honest, hard-working and submissive.'

Hitler's model for an enslaved Soviet Union was British rule of India, which he greatly admired. In private conversations at the time of the invasion he said: ‘Our role in Russia will be analogous to that of England in India . . . The Russian space is our India. Like the English we shall rule this empire with a handful of men ... Let's learn from the English, who, with 250,000 men in all, including 50,000 soldiers, govern 400 million Indians.'

At first the Nazis swept everything before them. Within two months, they had destroyed half the Red Army infantry divisions and two-thirds of the armoured divisions, and about half the tanks — within 3 months they had taken 3 million prisoners. By the end of October, Nazi troops got to the farthest point of their advance, within 12 miles of the centre of Moscow.


For almost 4 years, until the end of the war, 75% of the fascist armed forces were thrown against the Soviet Union, using the most up-to-date armaments and the most combat-worthy troops. The Nazi army was able to draw upon the military and economic resources of almost the entire continent of Europe —a population of 300m lay under its domination. Thus there were 26 divisions from Hungary, 22 from Rumania, 24 from Finland, and 700,000 men from Austria. The plunder of its allies and the occupied territories enabled Nazi Germany to double its output of coal, steel and electricity and to quadruple its supply of grain.

By comparison, the Allied involvement in the war was insignificant. Thus at the end of 1943, Allied operations tied down only 20 second-rank divisions, while 200 of the first rank fought on the eastern front. Right until the end of the war the eastern front was the major theatre of war. Even when the Nazis were being attacked on several fronts, they continued to fight mainly on the east. Thus in February 1945 Hitler sent 1,675 new or repaired tanks and assault guns to the east, and only 67 to the west; and the major part of the fascist armies was committed on that front.

Bearing the brunt of the fascist war Machine the Soviet Union suffered devastation on a scale which is hard to comprehend. After only 6 months of war, the Nazis had seized industrial areas producing 63% of the USSR's coal, 68% of its cast iron, 59% of its steel —in all, industrial production fell to half the pre-war level. Land which produced 38% of the wheat and 60% of the livestock was overrun by the Nazis. It was as if an army invading Britain had occupied the whole country north of Birmingham and completely devastated it.

By the end of the war 6 million houses were destroyed, including half the apartment blocks in the area under occupation — 25 million people (equal to half the present population of the UK) were made homeless. 1,710 towns and cities and over 70,000 villages were razed to the ground by the Nazi invaders. For every Coventry destroyed by fascist air raids, 100 Soviet towns were destroyed. In the war-ravaged areas 32,000 factories, 98,000 farms and 65,000km of railway track were ruined.

From the invasion until the end of the war over 20 million Soviet citizens were killed — in proportion to the size of the population, this is 18 times greater than the UK casualties of 400,000. Only 3% of Soviet men who were 17 years old at the beginning of the war survived. In the occupied cities there were mass murders of the Soviet population, particularly of Jews. For example, in September and October 1941 75,000 Jewish civilians were killed in Kiev.


The Red Army was able to defeat the Nazis not only because of the people's burning hatred of fascism and determination to defend socialism, but also because of the superiority of socialist methods of production. Soviet scientists produced some of the outstanding weapons of the war, such as the T34 tank and the Katyusha rocket gun. It was also possible to transport Soviet factories very quickly to the other side of the Urals after the outbreak of war — within 12 months 2,500 major enterprises had been moved and brought into operation. In general, Soviet armaments production was more efficiently organised than that of either the Allies or the fascists. Thus for every million tons of steel the USSR produced 1.5 times more planes than the UK, 2.6 times more than Germany, and 3.2 times more than the USA.

Almost all western 'experts', especially the 'socialists', thought that the Soviet Union would rapidly collapse under the impact of the Blitzkrieg waged by the Nazi forces, as France and Poland had done so ignominiously. But Lenin's saying that ‘No revolution is worth anything unless it can defend itself' found living proof: workers went straight from the factories, arms in hand, heroically defending every yard of Soviet soil, fighting for their factories, railways and apartment blocks. Behind them an army of civilian volunteers, men and women, young and old, dug trenches to delay the invaders' advance.

In the Nazi-occupied areas, the Soviet people were forcibly introduced to a type of society new to them - capitalism. In some cases, ghosts from the Tsarist past, former landowners, had their property restored to them. The Soviet people saw the conquests of their revolution being overturned, socialism's promise of a better life being replaced by capitalist drudgery. Because of the elimination of the kulaks (rich peasants) as a class in the early 1930s, there was no class basis in the Soviet Union for widespread collaboration with the fascist forces. Behind the lines of the Nazi army there were formed organised resistance movements on a large scale, which always tied down at least 10% of the invading forces.

Nevertheless, despite the heroic resistance of its citizens, the USSR badly needed help. In the first months after the invasion, it was outnumbered in manpower on the front, and facing an enemy which, having prepared for war for 7 years, had vastly superior armaments, 25% more tanks, especially important in mobile war. Therefore it called for the organisation of a Second Front of military activity in western Europe, in particular an invasion of France by Allied forces, to relieve the pressure.


For three years the British government made hardly any attempt to help the USSR. The material it supplied to the Soviet forces was of negligible importance to the Soviet war effort. From America and Britain the Red Army received 2% of its pieces of artillery, 10% of its tanks, and 12% of its aircraft. The British government continually postponed military operations in the west. Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister, consistently lied to Stalin about the military possibilities of opening a Second Front, claiming that Britain lacked the necessary shipping, aircraft and manpower. US General Wedemeyer, who participated in talks on the Second Front held in April 1942, admiringly characterised British talents for deception and hypocrisy:

‘The British were masters in negotiations — particularly were they adept in the use of phrases or words capable of more than one meaning or interpretation . . . What I witnessed was the British power of diplomatic finesse in its finest hour, a power that had been developed over centuries of successful international intrigue, cajolery, and tacit compulsions.'

A brilliant characterisation of British imperialist hypocrisy!

For two years, hardly any preparations were made for opening a Second Front; and Britain did not even declare war on the Nazi satellites, Finland, Rumania and Hungary, which supplied considerable numbers of men and materials for the Nazi armies in the USSR, until December 1942, that is, six months after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. Nor was there any urgency in sending military supplies. 10 weeks after the invasion only 200 second-rate planes had been sent. This was not because the supplies were not available — during the Soviet-Finnish war (1939-40) Britain and France had sent 405 planes to Finland without delay.

During crucial periods of the war (such as in August-December of 1942 when the Nazi armies were making rapid progress towards Stalingrad) supplies even ceased altogether! The British used the excuse of the destruction of the PQ17 convoy on the way to Archangel, whereas the losses sustained by the convoys on the northern route were not greater than those sustained by British convoys in the Atlantic and Mediterranean. Nor was any attempt made to produce suitable vehicles (such as landing craft) specifically for an invasion of Europe. Large quantities of landing craft were produced in the period before the landings in North Africa, after which production stopped abruptly.


Churchill's refusal to give real support to the Soviet Union would not have been possible without the loyal support given to his government by the Labour Party and trade union leadership. Within the war Cabinet there were two right wing labourites (Attlee and Bevin) and one ‘left' (Cripps). They actively supported Churchill by giving false assurances to the British people that a Second Front was being planned. The 'left' wing of the Labour Party, led by Aneurin Bevan and Stafford Cripps, made free with all kinds of 'criticisms' of the War Cabinet's conduct of the war, but refused to campaign either inside or outside parliament to end the coalition with the Tories and to set up a government without Churchill to give effective support to the USSR. At the Labour Party Conference of 1942 an amendment to break the Coalition was overwhelmingly defeated (by 2,319,000 votes to 164,000).

This refusal to organise a campaign in support of the Soviet Union played a vital role in preventing assistance reaching the USSR and was thus directly responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Soviet citizens and the destruction of large areas of the USSR. It was a refusal all the more treacherous as there was real popular enthusiasm for the USSR: meetings held to support the Second Front were among the best attended of the last 60 years; shortly after the invasion the Miners' Federation of Great Britain sent the USSR a cheque for £60,000, roughly the equivalent of a day's pay for each miner in Britain.

Instead of supporting the Soviet Union in its fight against fascism, the British government directed its war of fort into safeguarding the interests of British imperialism. Even when Britain itself stood in imminent danger of invasion (at the end of the summer of 1940), half the available tanks were sent to Egypt. A year later, nearly half of British military production was being directed to North Africa. From early August 1942, 100,000 troops and a considerable quantity of armaments (including over twice as many tanks as were sent to the USSR) were sent to North Africa, where the fascist forces were quite small, to prevent the fascists replacing British imperialism in Egypt and the Arab countries.


Far from this being a 'war for democracy', imperialist repression if anything intensified during the course of the war. Between August 1940 and December 1941 23,000 Indian nationalists were imprisoned for demanding the basic democratic right of self-determination. As the national liberation movements grew in strength, Cripps, Churchill's ‘left-wing' socialist errand boy, was sent to India in March 1942 to try to gain nationalist support for the British war by making spurious promises of national liberation —after the war.

On 8 August 1942 Indian nationalists passed a resolution calling on Britain to leave India —the Quit India resolution. In the uprising which followed, at least 10,000 and perhaps as many as 50,000 Indians were killed. There were at least 6 instances of crowds being machine-gunned from the air; collective punishment was inflicted on villages which had supported the rising; and 60,000 were imprisoned.

On 10 November 1942, with the support of his War Cabinet members, Attlee and Bevin, Churchill made Britain's war aims brutally clear: 'We intend to remain the effective rulers of India for a long and indefinite period ... We mean to hold our own. I have not become the King's First Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire ... '. Towards the end of the war this aim was stated with equal frankness by a prominent Labour spokesman on the colonies, Arthur Creech Jones: 'Britain today is in the colonies and she cannot withdraw, nor do I think it desirable that she should' (speech in the House of Commons 6 June 1944).


The British ruling classes' real wish was that Nazi Germany and the USSR should pound each other to pieces, while Britain waited on the sidelines and then profited from the sacrifices of the Soviet people. Churchill decided to give the Soviet Union just enough support to stay in the war against Germany, but not enough to enable her to win a decisive victory.

While Britain was nominally the Soviet Union's ally, this could not be said openly, but on occasion the truth slipped out. The Minister for Aircraft Production, Moore-Brabazon, publicly stated that he hoped that Russia and Germany would exterminate each other so that Britain would be the dominating power over Europe. Probably the majority of the ruling classes shared Moore-Brabazon's opinions but, as one of them put it, 'We are all Moore-Brabazons, but he was a fool to blurt it out.' Not that it did him any harm — no steps were taken to remove him from office or even to censure him.

Similar views prevailed in influential sections of the US ruling class. A month after the invasion, Senator Harry S Truman, who was to be US President in the immediate post-war period, said: 'If we see that Germany is winning the war, we ought to help Russia, and if Russia is winning we ought to help Germany, and in that way let them kill as many as possible' (New York Times 24 July 1941). It is true that other sections of the US ruling class, such as President Roosevelt, wanted to involve Britain and the US in a more decisive struggle against Germany, mainly as a way of weakening Britain economically and militarily so that the US could break the hold of British imperialism over her colonies.

The decisive turning point in the war was Stalingrad, where the Nazi offensive which, if successful, would have cut off the rest of the USSR from its oil supplies in the south, began on 19 November 1942. Here gigantic armies (up to 2m soldiers in all) were locked in battle for more than 6 months. The scale of the conflict dwarfed any other wartime engagement — at the supposedly 'decisive' battle of El Alamein, North Africa, between the British 8th Army and a German-Italian army, which imperialist historians falsely present as important as Stalingrad, about one-seventh of the forces were involved. Over the entire Soviet-German front, there were 16 times as many fascist divisions as there were on the Egypt-Libya front.


After a protracted struggle the Red Army inflicted a crushing defeat on the Nazis at Stalingrad, encircling an entire German army. The victory at Stalingrad was a crucial turning point in the war —it meant that the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union had failed. The following battle, at Kursk (which began 5 July 1943), showed that the Red Army would be able to drive the Nazis from Soviet soil.

From this point the British ruling classes were more concerned with the post-war settlement than with the defeat of Germany. Churchill had never made any secret of his hatred of the Soviet Union. Even while 'allies' he had written a Cabinet memorandum (October 1942), in terms strikingly reminiscent of Hitler's speeches — 'My thoughts rest primarily in Europe —the revival of the glory of Europe—the parent continent of the modern nations and of civilisation. It would be a measureless disaster if Russian barbarism overlaid the culture and independence of the ancient states of Europe.'


The 'cold' war was planned well before the end of the war - even as early as the beginning of 1942 the British government got busy forming an anti-Soviet bloc of East and Central European states, setting up a special group to bring together governments in exile, some of which, such as the Polish, were neo-fascist. The danger for imperialism was that a consistent anti-fascist struggle in the countries liberated by the Red Army, such as Bulgaria, Poland and Rumania, would mean the overthrow of capitalism there, as virtually the entire ruling class had collaborated with fascism.

When it became clear that the Red Army would not stop at the borders of the USSR but would pursue the Nazi invaders back to Germany, Britain attempted to conclude secret agreements with Hungary (September 1943), Rumania, and Germany (March 1945). In particular it tried to arrange a separate military surrender in the south of Germany to enable the Nazis to bolster their defence against the USSR. At the beginning of 1945, a directive of the Allied Combined Chiefs of Staff: 'The Soviet Union has achieved successes in the east to an extent not expected by the Anglo-American command. In the event of any further rapid advance towards the West, a situation may thus develop which would be extremely unwelcome to the Anglo-American Governments and Commands... Our military measures must therefore be such as to permit the Germans to reinforce their Eastern Front, a reinforcement they can mainly achieve by weakening their Western Front … '


At the cost of enormous sacrifice, the Red Army and the Soviet people had destroyed the fascist regimes in Germany and central Europe. The USSR now required a period of peace in order to be able to reconstruct its economy and to continue the building of socialism. To do this it would be necessary to ensure the complete destruction of fascism. At the Yalta Conference (4-11 February 1945), the 'democracies' seemed to commit themselves to this aim. A communique signed by representatives of the USSR, the UK, and the USA solemnly declared:

‘It is our inflexible purpose to destroy German militarism and Nazism ... to bring all war criminals to just and swift punishment . . . to remove all Nazi and militarist influences from public office and from the cultural and economic life of the German people…'

But it was only in the areas outside the influence of the 'democracies' that the Yalta resolution was implemented. There genuine anti-fascists carried through a consistent struggle against fascism and for people's democracy. Nazi organisations were completely destroyed; Nazi war criminals were brought to justice; former Nazis were not allowed to hold any important public positions, or to have any influence over policy; and capitalists and bankers who had collaborated with the Nazis were expropriated.

By contrast, in the zones occupied by the British, French and US forces, no real attempt was made to punish Nazi war criminals or to destroy the bases of Nazi power. Within 3 years the British in particular were employing leading Nazi bankers and industrialists to rebuild capitalist industry; within a decade western Germany had begun rearming with numerous former Nazis in positions of power in national and local government. The aim was to rebuild Germany as a base for another war against the Soviet Union, which meant that the Soviet Union was forced to enter into the arms race again. This is the cause of war and the preparation for war - the reactionary ambitions of imperialist powers!

Patrick Newman



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