The truth behind the Second World War


The title An Unpatriotic History of the Second World War might suggest that James Heartfield defines his analysis in the negative, by what it isn’t. On the contrary, by describing it as ‘unpatriotic’, Heartfield claims for his work a rationality and honesty utterly incompatible with patriotic narratives. In many ways the Second World War is modern society’s defining memory, featuring the rise of evil (fascism) and the crusade of good democracy (the allies), but it has been distorted. Though contested and inconsistent, this false record – of a ‘People’s War’, of a crusade against fascism and evil – above all serves the interests of the capitalist classes. As an event and a memory, the war remains the cornerstone of their dominance, proof of the benevolence of patriotic capitalist rule. In his book, Heartfield seeks not only to destroy the myth of the ‘good war’, but to replace it with an alternative theory: that the Second World War was an imperialist class war.

Heartfield splits his book into two parts, the first titled The Meaning of the War. Here he outlines the imperialist/class theory. The relationship between labour and capital, commercial competition and colonial exploitation are its key elements. At one level, the War was waged between competing capitalist classes and their empires for control of markets and resources; more specifically, between the Allied ‘have’ powers, seeking to defend their dominant position, and the Axis ‘have not’ powers challenging the post-Versailles status quo. At a deeper level, it was a conflict between these capitalist classes and the working and peasant classes. The War was an opportunity to reorganise socio-economic structures to the advantage of the imperialist elite, and to turn a profit through an enhanced exploitation of the masses. These levels were inextricably intertwined; while the latter is largely hidden in official accounts, the former is moralised and glorified.

This is the most impressive section of Heartfield’s analysis. He utilises a devastating barrage of statistics to prove his point. Some of the most shocking relate to war profiteering: American corporations made $52 billion after taxation as a direct result of the War, aided by the ‘costs-plus’ system that guaranteed their profits. One might criticize Heartfield’s unsatisfactory placement of the USSR within this model. He recognises that, with the adoption of ‘Socialism in One Country’, the Soviet Union became dependent upon imperialist powers for economic and political support, and he argues that the Soviet leadership’s defensive considerations made it as aggressively expansionist as the capitalist empires. A more thoroughgoing consideration of the USSR’s status could have improved Heartfield’s analysis further.

This political-economic analysis is complemented by a description of wartime social conditions under the imperialist governments. He argues for the fundamental similarity of Allied and Axis policy: the racist basis of their empires, their militarisation of everyday life, and their leaderships’ tendencies towards authoritarianism and hysteria. By establishing these similarities, Heartfield asserts that the War was one of pragmatism and not principle. He also describes soldier’s experiences and changes to people’s family and sex lives. Though Heartfield recognises the sexist nature of attitudes to casual sex and STDs, more could have been said of the gendered quality of the War in general. For example, Heartfield later discusses the less-than-radical nature of the post-war welfare states, but does not consider the conservative gender assumptions upon which they were built.

In the second section, The Course of the War, Heartfield adds flesh to his model and obliterates the notion of the ‘good war’. This is not a military history – the author plays down the importance of conventional military operations, in favour of social factors – and is not meant to be a comprehensive survey. There are however some unfortunate omissions, most importantly the Battle of the Atlantic, which deserves more than a mention in Heartfield’s essentially economic model. Nonetheless, he succeeds in constructing a fundamentally different and compelling narrative.

The common thread of Heartfield’s narrative is the reactionary outlook that informed the actions of Allied, Axis and occupied elites and their governments. Accordingly, Germany’s occupation of Western Europe was possible less because of German military might than the socio-economic and ideologically sympathies between Nazi authorities and indigenous elites. The author’s linguistic choices reflect his attempt to orientate the reader’s perception of the War towards imperialism and class. The Middle Eastern Theatre becomes the Arab Revolt, in which the more substantial conflict was not between Europeans, but between European colonialists and colonised Arabs. The Japanese invasion of East Asia becomes the Collapse of the European Empires in East Asia, in which the Japanese offensive precipitated nationalist revolutions against European rule.

Popular resistance to the War, by workers, partisans and mutinous soldiers, naturally forms a large part of Heartfield’s account. Governments waged a war against their own as well as occupied peoples, imposing military discipline on industry, repressing civil liberties and ruthlessly clamping down on resistance, while employers made fortunes. Despite numerous acts of labour defiance, Heartfield concludes that obedience predominated. He is more optimistic in his appraisal of armed resistance movements, arguing that these revolts, though numerically small, were decisive in the defeat of the German and Japanese empires.

Heartfield’s description of the Allied victory and post-war settlement is even more at odds with official narratives. Firstly, he argues that the failure of the Axis empires was essentially internal. While those elites with which they collaborated prospered, the German and Japanese governments offered only violence and exploitation to the mass of people under their rule. The Axis’ defeat was not primarily caused by the Allies, but by their failure to administrate these subject populations. This failure gave rise to popular resistance movements that would eventually have unravelled the Axis, with or without aggressive Allied action.

Secondly, Heartfield argues that the Allied counteroffensives should not be understood as ‘liberations’, but as Second Invasions of Europe and Asia. In Europe, the Allies invaded to prevent the occupied countries from freeing themselves, thus ensuring that they could dictate a capitalist post-war settlement and forestall genuinely radical social change. Therefore, Allied governments were reluctant to co-operate with partisans during military operations, and acted to disarm, isolate or violently destroy them afterwards. Britain sponsored pro-fascist forces against the Greek communist resistance group ELAS, initiating the Greek Civil War (1946-49). In Asia, the Allies invaded in order to restore their imperial rule. Here too they came into bloody conflict with nationalist groups, even utilising Japanese bureaucrats and soldiers to crush native resistance.

In his analysis of post-war developments, Heartfield focuses on the brutalisation of the German and Japanese peoples and the collapse of their national economies under Allied occupation. He highlights the cynicism of Allied attitudes towards Germany, from collective punishment and industrial dismantlement to inclusion as Cold War allies. The author also devotes substantial time to India, both during and after the War. Britain increased its exploitation and repression of India to fund and feed its war effort, violently crushing nationalist uprisings and bleeding the country of resources. Heartfield argues that the Bengal Famine of 1943, in which 3½ million people starved to death, was a punitive measure caused directly by British policy. He also argues that the partitioning of India was not a natural consequence of independence, but instead was promoted by the British. Heartfield also levels criticism against the post-war military tribunals; the author describes them as examples of ‘victor’s justice’, as hypocritical political exercises that sought to fix all guilt on Axis leaders while pardoning the Allies of theirs.

Heartfield concludes his narrative with the transition from World War to Cold War. He views American reconstruction aid as a means of stabilising European capitalism, thus securing markets for American industry and securing American strategic interests. He also deconstructs the post-war ‘Social Revolution’, arguing that the dominant social theme was obedience rather than radicalisation, that the European welfare states favoured the already advantaged, and that the promotion of centrism was an aim of American strategy.

Overall, Heartfield offers a compelling and fascinating analysis, demolishing conventional accounts of the War and successfully constructing an alternative imperialist- and class-based model. At times, it can read like a catalogue of atrocious acts, statements and statistics, but this simply reflects the weight of Heartfield’s evidence and the reality of the conflict. Some readers may find that the book lacks theoretical depth, or may be frustrated by some of its omissions. This would be unfair, and to rather miss the point. Heartfield is seeking to establish a different way of understanding the Second World War. Bringing together decades of revision, An Unpatriotic History is accessible enough for interested amateurs but sophisticated enough to serve as a starting point for study or research. In highlighting the insidious role played by many Communist parties during the War in uncritically cheerleading on their own ‘democratic’ imperial powers, Heartfield also issues an important warning to leftists today.



  1. August 17, 2012 at 3:54 pm · Reply

    I’m glad bourgeois democracy with all its limitations, won out over fascist dictatorship. I’m also happy that Stalinist bureaucrats beat the shit out of fascist bully boys and their ilk. Still, Capital as a social relation was dominant before WWII and in the aftermath.

  2. class violence
    November 26, 2012 at 8:34 am · Reply

    Mike B has clearly understood nothing.
    [comment edited by moderator to remove swearing – commenter did not leave valid email address]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *