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1945 in Europe

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From: The Socialist issue 392, 12 May 2005: NHS - Stop the profit vultures

Search site for keywords: Socialism - 1945 in Europe - Revolution - Capitalist - Fascism - War - Working class - Nazis - Women

1945 - Victory in Europe: When 'liberation' meant socialism

COMMEMORATIONS MARKING the 60th anniversary 'victory in Europe' (VE) day have concentrated on the sacrifices made by the service men and women in liberating Europe from the clutches of fascism.
The horrors of war, the concentration camps and 'ethnic cleansing', have also been highlighted. However, the mainstream media has ignored the role played by the working class in occupied Europe in driving out the Nazis in the final stages of the war.
As Dave Carr explains, this resurgent workers' movement in Europe between 1945-47 could also have carried through a socialist revolution.

VE had come at an enormous cost. 40 million soldiers and civilians had been killed. 27.5 million in the Soviet Union alone. The ruling classes' gamble with fascism had resulted in much of eastern Europe coming under the influence of the USSR, and capitalism and landlordism being swept away there.

In the West, capitalist industry was on its knees - crippled by the burden and destruction of the war. Throughout Europe the mass migrations of demobbed soldiers, workers and refugees was creating political instability. Everywhere there were food shortages, unemployment, homelessness and poverty.

But as the Allies advanced into Germany they frequently found factories and mines taken over by committees of workers and trade unions who had driven out SS saboteurs. The first act of the Allies was to ban these anti-fascist organisations! Nonetheless, the power of the workers' committees meant that the demand for nationalisation of the mines of Krupps and other war industries became widespread.

For example, in 1946 in Hesse, Germany, 71% approved of the socialisation of industry in a referendum. A shocked US commander Clay vetoed it.

However, the resurrected German Communists (KPD) and social-democrat (SPD) parties, while responding to the workers' demands by calling for partial nationalisation of industries, both called for the restoration of capitalism. In this they were less radical than the Christian Democrats who demanded widespread nationalisation with a section calling for the abolition of capitalism to prevent the resurgence of fascism.

In 1947 a strike wave took place in the industrialised Ruhr area of Germany which included demands for nationalisation of industry.

At its height 350,000 workers were on strike. The US occupiers in response threatened to cut food rations and to impose martial law. The Allies' situation was saved by the trade union leaders and KPD leaders who restrained the workers from taking action. Improved food supplies, an end to the dismantling of industry, and the establishment by the occupying authorities of 'works councils' to deal with workers' wages and conditions, gradually eased the conflict.

Workers' resistance

In France and Italy the dying days of the war saw massive strike waves by a working class growing in confidence of its power. This was to be a major problem for the Allied occupation. In late 1943, after Mussolini's removal, the Italian workers in the industrialised north, still under the control of the German army, organised strikes and a 15,000-strong armed resistance movement. After a general strike, Badoglio's fascist government was forced to recognise workers' factory councils.

In March 1944 one million workers struck in the occupied north. In Milan the bosses were forced to pay the workers for the days on strike! Liberation in 1945 left communist and socialist workers dictating to the capitalists the terms and conditions of employment. Perhaps as many as two million workers joined the Communist Party.

Likewise in France, 50,000 Parisians - arms in hands - drove out the German occupiers forcing the Allies to rush General Charles de Gaulle into the liberated city to head off a new Paris commune.

The Resistance movement published a charter demanding nationalisation of the capitalist monopolies. In many regions this demand was implemented with many companies being run by workers' committees. In the first elections in France in October 1945 the Communists won 26.1% of the vote and the socialists 24.8% - a majority. Moreover, for the first time a majority of workers were organised in trade unions.

The capitalists' fears following the collapse of the Nazi regimes was summed up by the Economist (1 December 1945):

"The collapse of that New Order imparted a great revolutionary momentum to Europe. It stimulated all the vague and confused but nevertheless radical and socialist impulses of the masses. Significantly every programme with which the various Resistance groups throughout Europe emerged from the underground contained demands for nationalisation of the banks and large-scale industries; and these programmes bore the signatures of Christian Democrats as well as of Socialists and Communists." (Quoted in Capitalism since World War II by Andrew Glyn et al)

In the victorious countries of Britain and the US the working class demanded its reward for defeating fascism. Above all, there was a widespread mood that there should be no return to the poverty and unemployment that characterised capitalism between the two wars.

In the US the trade unions embarked on a massive strike wave for better wages and conditions in 1946.

In Britain, the Attlee Labour government was swept into office and established a welfare state and carried through the nationalisation of basic industries such as coal, energy production, railways, steel, etc. But, generally, it was only the investment-starved, near bankrupt companies that were taken over.

The most profitable parts of industry remained in private hands. Yet the weakened capitalist class would not have been able to seriously resist widespread public ownership measures but the Labour and trade union leaders had no intention of challenging capitalism.


WITH WAR-weary US, British and Commonwealth troops desperate to return home, a determined revolutionary workers' movement could have successfully overthrown capitalism at this time. However, Stalin, who controlled the Communist movement, had agreed during 1944-45 with Churchill and Roosevelt to co-exist with imperialism and to divide conquered Europe into Western and Soviet 'spheres of influence'.

This counter-revolutionary arrangement was to last until the fall of Stalinism in the USSR and eastern Europe between 1989-91.

In France, despite the weakness of the capitalist class and the enormous strength of the Communist Party (PCF), no revolution took place. Instead, the PCF participated in a 'government of national unity' which ruthlessly pursued an imperialist policy in Vietnam (Indo-China), Algeria, Madagascar and elsewhere. Having held back strikes and workers' movements, the PCF was dumped from government by the capitalists in 1947.

Only in Greece did the Communists (KKE) make a bid for power when the British ignited a civil war when they tried to disarm the KKE-controlled National Liberation Army (ELAS). The revolution was brutally crushed by the British firstly and then decisively by US troops. Stalin 'helpfully' closed Greece's eastern borders preventing workers from escaping the counter-revolution.

Marshall aid

In 1947, US imperialism, now a capitalist superpower, (British imperialism was bankrupt and faced colonial revolutions in its decaying empire) sought to undermine revolution in Western Europe by imposing stability through the Marshall aid recovery programme. $13 billions in grants and loans were pumped into Europe's ravaged industries over four years.

Many of the capitalist institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT, forerunner of the World Trade Organisation - WTO) were established in the immediate post-war period to impose US imperialism's power on the world economy and prevent restrictions to 'free trade' which had dogged the world economy before the war.

The right-wing leaders of the British and US labour movement were also mobilised in defence of capitalism in Europe. The British TUC persuaded the German trade union leaders to take measures to prevent communist influence. Future SPD leaders like Willie Brandt were taken to America to be schooled in pro-Western capitalist ideology.

Eventually, the revolutionary wave in Europe exhausted itself blocked by the political leadership of the workers' organisations who acted as transmission belts for the policies of either imperialism or Stalinism.

In Western Europe, where the establishment of new military regimes was impossible following the collapse of the Nazi regimes, the counter-revolution assumed a 'democratic form', ie the formation of liberal capitalist democracies backed by the workers' parties leaders and underpinned by Marshall aid.

Eastern Europe - Stalin establishes his satellite states

IN 1944-45 the Red Army rolled across eastern Europe, ushering the collapse of the Nazis and their quisling regimes. This gave rise to revolutionary movements of workers and peasants. However, the Stalinists had no intention of allowing a socialist revolution to reach its conclusion, as a democratic socialist society would end the rule of the privileged bureaucracy.

In 1944, as the workers of Warsaw in Poland rose up against the Nazi occupiers, Stalin halted the Red Army on the city's outskirts until the insurrection was crushed.

In East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, etc, anti-fascist committees, workers' factory committees and soviets were snuffed out by Soviet officials. Governments in these occupied countries were established with officials drawn from social-democratic and capitalist parties. But the key ministries - police and army - were controlled by the Communists who rested on the only real power, the Red Army.

Eventually these 'popular front' governments were swept aside and 'unification' of the social-democratic parties and Communist Parties took place. The new regimes became mirror images of Stalinist Russia. Industry (much already having been looted as 'war reparations' - 15 billion from East Germany alone) was nationalised as the new Stalinist regimes leaned on the working class to deal a blow to the capitalists.

However, not a hint of workers' democracy was allowed. Many genuine revolutionaries wound up in prison followed by social democrats, now that the new regimes had no further use for them. Sometimes the jailers would be former Nazis (see ...And Red is the Colour of our Flag by Oscar Hippe). From the outset these countries were 'deformed workers' states' ie nationalised economies but bureaucratically planned and run by totalitarian regimes.

World revolution abandoned

AS PREDICTED by Trotsky, Stalin's anti-revolutionary strategy of 'socialism in one country' would lead to the political degeneration of the Communist movement along national and reformist lines.

Defence of the USSR, ie the privileged bureaucracy, and a foreign policy of 'peaceful co-existence' with imperialism meant a jettisoning of the world socialist revolution.

Communist historian Eric Hobsbawm concurs that Stalin's position during and after WWII was to derail revolutionary movements.

"The communist revolutions actually made (Yugoslavia, Albania, later China) were made against Stalin's advice.... Few remember that Stalin urged the Yugoslav communists to keep the monarchy or that in 1945 British communists were opposed to the break-up of the Churchill wartime coalition."

"For practical purposes, as dissident revolutionaries recognised, it was a permanent goodbye to world revolution. Socialism would be confined to the USSR and the area assigned by diplomatic negotiation as its zone of influence, ie basically that occupied by the Red Army at the end of the war." (The Age of Extremes, Eric Hobsbawm, pp168-169).

As a gesture to imperialism Stalin dissolved the Comintern (Communist International) in 1943 and the US Communist Party in 1944.

Planned economy decisive

WHILE ALLIED bombing restricted Germany's war economy and US lend-lease supplies to the USSR were important, it was Soviet manpower and above all the strength of the planned economy (albeit distorted by bureaucratic rule), which out-produced the German economy and was therefore decisive in defeating the German army.

That German forces suffered an estimated 93% of their casualties on the Soviet front, shows the Soviet contribution to the war was decisive.

Fascism - a product of capitalist reaction

A PERNICIOUS myth is that the German people were 'collectively guilty' for Hitler coming to power in 1933 and the subsequent world war.

Fascism was never embraced by a majority of the German working class. In July 1932 the Nazis got 13,745,800 votes (37.4%), while the combined SPD/KPD vote was 13,242,300 (36.2%). In November 1932, the last 'free' election in the Weimer republic, the Nazi vote slumped by two million to 11,737,000 (33.1%), easily surpassed by the SPD/KPD vote of 13,228,000 (37.3%).

The Nazis initially moulded a social movement of the small shopkeepers, sections of the middle classes, the peasantry and criminalised elements of the working class (the 'lumpenproletariat'), Financed by the big capitalists, Nazism was used as a battering ram against the workers' movement. It was a desperate last gamble by the capitalist class faced with a growing crisis in their system and the threat of a socialist revolution.

Once in power all vestiges of democracy were snuffed out by the Nazis. Political parties and trade unions were banned. The middle classes and peasantry who formed the Nazis social base were utterly betrayed and the regime assumed the character of a military-police dictatorship.

The German working class were the victims of Hitlerite fascism. Many socialist and communist militants perished in the concentration camps. The backers of the Nazis were the giant industrial and financial corporations such as Thyssen, Krupp, and IG Farben, etc, whose fear of socialist revolution saw them use their power to enable an effective fascist coup.

Only in July 1944 when the German Reich's war was lost did a section attempt to remove Hitler. Yet these reactionary generals and politicians are remembered in official history as the German 'resistance' rather than the brave socialist and communists militants who continued their resistance in the concentration camps and in the underground.

In fact when the Reich collapsed both the Western Allied powers and the Russian Stalinists, instead of 'de-Nazifying' society, incorporated many former Nazis and leaders of other nationalist parties that had backed Hitler in 1933 into the running of East Germany and West Germany.

United front

THE NAZIS could have been prevented from taking power by the mighty German working class. Its principal parties - the Social Democrats (SPD) and the Communist Party (KPD) - attracted millions of votes, had many deputies in parliament, extensive party branches and mass trade union support. They even organised their own workers' militia which defended the workers districts against the fascist brownshirts.

Yet Hitler boasted that he came to power without a single rifle shot being fired. This was only possible, as the Trotskyist opposition warned before 1933, because the leaders of the KPD and SPD instead of uniting the working class had divided it.

The KPD had pursued, in line with the Stalinist Communist International, an ultra-left policy of the so-called 'third period', in which they claimed that the SPD were 'social fascists'. And while the SPD leaders were in fact wedded to capitalism, the working-class ranks of the SPD were not.

But instead of pursuing a workers' united front 'from below' to defeat the Nazis, the KPD attacked the 'main enemy', the SPD. They even went as far as saying that after Hitler it will be the Communists turn to rule!

Equally, the SPD leaders lulled the workers into complacency by saying that Germany wasn't Italy (where Mussolini ruled) and that German culture was too robust to allow fascist barbarism.

Rather than preparing the masses for a decisive showdown with capitalism and its fascist bands, they put their faith in the capitalist state and parliament to defend democracy. But when the Nazi vote fell sharply in November 1932 the capitalist parties backed Hitler to become Chancellor.

In January 1933 the Nazis and right wing parties engineered a parliamentary coup. Hitler was installed but even at this late hour a workers' uprising using its militias could have succeeded but no call came from the SPD or KPD leaders and the workers' movement was demolished like a sledgehammer smashing an ants' nest.

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