The Normandy Landings and the legacy of a war that has never really ended
Sixty-five years ago today, Allied forces took the beachhead in Normandy, France, in one of the most iconic military assaults of the Second World War. The event, which has inspired countless cinematic portrayals, was the pivotal moment in defining the ultimate outcome of the war.
Moreover, the anniversary of the Normandy Landings has coincided with a European election campaign in which nationalists and fascists are expected to make significant gains. Thus, it provides a good opportunity to evaluate the legacy of both the Second World War and the wider war against fascism, a war which has never really ended.
When people hear the word fascism, the image that springs to mind is that of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, of Bennito Mussolini, and of skinheads in bovver boots committing hate crimes. The truth, however, isn’t quite so simple. Roger Griffin, a scholar and political theorist at Oxford Brookes University, in the palingenetic core of fascist nationalism, defined fascism thus;
[Fascism is] a genuinely revolutionary, trans-class form of anti-liberal, and in the last analysis, anti-conservative nationalism. As such it is an ideology deeply bound up with modernization and modernity, one which has assumed a considerable variety of external forms to adapt itself to the particular historical and national context in which it appears, and has drawn a wide range of cultural and intellectual currents, both left and right, anti-modern and pro-modern, to articulate itself as a body of ideas, slogans, and doctrine. In the inter-war period it manifested itself primarily in the form of an elite-led “armed party” which attempted, mostly unsuccessfully, to generate a populist mass movement through a liturgical style of politics and a programme of radical policies which promised to overcome a threat posed by international socialism, to end the degeneration affecting the nation under liberalism, and to bring about a radical renewal of its social, political and cultural life as part of what was widely imagined to be the new era being inaugurated in Western civilization. The core mobilizing myth of fascism which conditions its ideology, propaganda, style of politics and actions is the vision of the nation’s imminent rebirth from decadence.
With such an ability to “assume a considerable variety of external forms,” the fascist movement has survived for well over a century, from the origins of its present form. Fascism as we know it today is the product of various currents that came together during and after the First World War, and which provide the basic tenets that all the variant strands of this malleable ideology hold in common; racialism, nationalism, and authoritarianism.
All fascists, from the delusional extremes of the Nazis to the suited reformists of today’s far-right, view different races and nations of people as fundamentally incompatible. Thus, whether it takes the form of hysterical ranting about the need to “drive every last Jew from the land” or seemingly reasonable rhetoric arguing against the subtle “colonisation” of the nation by immigrants, race is central to the fascist doctrine.
By the same token, all fascist movements hold to a nationalist – as opposed to internationalist – view of the world. Sometimes this goes as far as Giovanni Gentile’s view that “mankind only progresses through division, and progress is achieved through the clash and victory of one side over another.” But, even in the more moderate-sounding terminology of “concern for the well-being of the English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish ethnic nations” as used by the British National Party, the idea persists that people are definable and thus divisible by their ancestry.
Authoritarianism, too, is at the core of the fascist ideology, from Nazism and traditional fascism through to modern, “moderate,” ethno-nationalism. Capital punishment, the suppression of dissidents and “traitors,” and the enforcement of laws and codes of morality that have no bearing and cause no harm to anybody but the perpetrator (such as homosexuality) are commonly advocated throughout fascist literature.
Beyond these common characteristics, however, fascism is a broad church. The illiterate, knuckle-dragging thugs of stereotype, who see “commies” lurking around every corner, certainly abound, but so too do the articulate intellectuals and the neatly suited populists. It is precisely this diversity of character that has kept fascism alive right through to the 21st century, and which has made it such a constant threat – before, during, and after the Second World War.
One could go on endlessly about the monumental landmarkes in the history of the anti-fascist movement – the Battle of Cable Street, the Spanish Revolution and Civil War, World War Two, the Greek Civil War, and so on. Suffice to say, however, that the rise and fall of Adolf Hitler represented neither the beginning nor the end of fascism.
In fact, in spite of the bravery and sacrifice of the many who fought and died in the conflict, the ultimate outcome of the war was not the resounding victory over fascism that most people believe. As Noam Chomsky has argued;
A good way of finding out who won a war, who lost a war, and what the war was about, is to ask who’s cheering and who’s depressed after it’s over – this can give you interesting answers. So, for example, if you ask that question about the Second World War, you find out that the winners were the Nazis, the German industrialists who had supported Hitler, the Italian Fascists and the war criminals that were sent off to South America – they were all cheering at the end of the war. The losers of the war were the anti-fascist resistance, who were crushed all over the world. Either they were massacred like in Greece or South Korea, or just crushed like in Italy and France. That’s the winners and losers. That tells you partly what the war was about.
Of course, the war ended the position of fascist regimes as a major player on the world stage. The conflicting American and Soviet spheres of influence dwarfed all else, and fascist regimes – such as those installed in Greece, South Korea, Chile, El Salvador, etc, – were reduced to nothing more than client states of the USA.
This, of course, brings me to another point. Racist and authoritarian nationalist ideas had long been capable of seeping into the mainstream. The very concept of immigration controls are a product of racial separatist ideas, and anti-communist hysteria developed a viable propaganda function with Woodrow Wilson’s “Red Scare,” to cite just two examples. Going further, one might point out that the staple prejudices of fascism – scapegoating of minorities, suppression of the labour movement and working class, brutal destruction of dissident opinion – have their roots in the basic concept of the state.
After 1945, though, such sentiments have grown over time to the point where even the “liberal” end of the spectrum now spouts fascist sentiments as the norm, with basic tactical and practical reservations. As a leaflet by the Brighton Solidarity Federation notes, fascists “merely represent the logical extreme of all the mainstream parties, as they compete against each other to be the most anti immigration, the hardest on the unions, the toughest on “waste” in the public sector” and act as “convenient pantomime villains – “Nazis” whose policies are completely alien to their own. No matter how much they in fact coincide.”
This, then, is what the legacy of the most iconic moment in perhaps history’s only just war has come to, then, in 2009. Memorial services to honour those who gave their lives become mere photo opportunities for politicians who have so easily adopted the rhetoric of the far-right. Fascists laying wreaths at memorials for those who gave their lives to destroy the ideology. And what of the Holocaust?
Aside even from the awesome human toll, this remains an important part of history that we need to learn from – especially with its present repetition in Sudan and (most ironically and disturbingly) the occupied territories of Palestine. But the phrase “never again” has become a rather wretched joke. In Cambodia, in East Timor, in Rwanda, in Guatemala, in Kurdish Iraq, in Sri Lanka and elsewhere, the systematic destruction of entire peoples continued – and continues – unabated. Meanwhile, the genocide that occurred on the most awesome scale is reduced to a propaganda tool to justify the crimes of the State of Israel and as the subject of paranoid fantasies by neo-Nazis under the misnomer of “historical revisionists.”
Rivalling the Holocaust in terms of both criminality and sheer devestation is the use of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. One of the major problems with the Second World War is that it has become almost blasphemous to call the actions of the allies to account. Certainly, those on the far-right who do such have ulterior motives, but this should never preclude any civilised debate from taking to heart the original principle of the trials, as put forth by Chief US Prosecutor Justice robert Jackson;
If certain acts of violation of treaties are crimes, they are crimes whether the United States does them or whether Germany does them, and we are not prepared to lay down a rule of criminal conduct against others which we would not be willing to have invoked against us. … We must never forget that the record on which we judge these defendants is the record on which history will judge us tomorrow. To pass these defendants a poisoned chalice is to put it to our own lips as well.
Unfortunately, it never quite worked out that way. At Tokyo and Nuremberg, the operational criterion became, essentially, that if the enemy had done it and couldn’t show that we had done it, then it was a war crime. Thus, saturation bombing of urban centres wasn’t considered a crime on the sole basis that we had done it too.
Nobody who truly believes in justice or any basic humanitarian principles can do anything but baulk at the idea of war crimes going unpunished on the sole basis that those who committed them were on the “winning” side. It’s a travesty. Take the thought to its logical conclusion, and imagine a potential Nazi defence of the holocaust based on US and British internment procedures.
A bit far-fetched, perhaps, but just feasible enough to drive home exactly the profound immorality of such a principle. No act can be justified on the sole basis that “we did it,” and certainly not crimes as horrendous and far-reaching as Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or Agent Orange in Vietnam, or depleted uranium in Iraq. To name but a small sample of unspeakable attrocities committed by the “good guys.”
Returning to the atomic bombs, aside from the arguments against them on the fundamental principle that they were “among the most unspeakable crimes in history,” to use Noam Chomsky’s words, a number of experts have argued that they were militarily unnecesary.
Historian Robert Freeman quotes Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Commander in Chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet as saying that “the Japanese had, in fact, already sued for peace. The atomic bomb played no decisive part, from a purely military point of view, in the defeat of Japan.” This is backed up by Walter Trohan’s front page article in the Chicago Tribune on 19th August 1945;
JAPS ASKED PEACE IN JAN. ENVOYS ON WAY — TOKYO
Roosevelt Ignored M’Arthur Report On Nip Proposals
By Walter Trohan
Release of all censorship restrictions in the United States makes it possible to report that the first Japanese peace bid was relayed to the White House seven months ago.
Two days before the late President Roosevelt left the last week in January for the Yalta conference with Prime Minister Churchill and Marshal Stalin he received a Japanese offer identical with the terms subsequently concluded by his successor, Harry S. Truman.
MacArthur Relayed Message to F.D.
The Jap offer, based on five separate overtures, was relayed to the White House by Gen. MacArthur in a 40-page communication. The American commander, who had just returned triumphantly to Bataan, urged negotiations on the basis of the Jap overtures.
The offer, as relayed by MacArthur, contemplated abject surrender of everything but the person of the Emperor. The suggestion was advanced from the Japanese quarters making the offer that the Emperor become a puppet in the hands of American forces.
Two of the five Jap overtures were made through American channels and three through British channels. All came from responsible Japanese, acting for Emperor Hirohito.
General’s Communication Dismissed
President Roosevelt dismissed the general’s communication, which was studded with solemn references to the deity, after a casual reading with the remark, “MacArthur is our greatest general and our poorest politician.”
The MacArthur report was not even taken to Yalta. However, it was carefully preserved in the files of the high command and subsequently became the basis of the Truman-Attlee Potsdam declaration calling for surrender of Japan.
This Jap peace bid was known to the Chicago Tribune and the Washington Times-Herald shortly after the MacArthur comunication reached here. It was not published under the paper’s established policy of complete co-operation with the voluntary censorship code.
Must Explain Delay
Now that peace has been concluded on the basis of the terms MacArthur reported, high administration officials prepared to meet expected congressional demands for explanation of the delay. It was considered certain that from various quarters of Congress charges would be hurled that the delay cost thousands of American lives and casualties, particularly in such costly offensives as Iwo Jima and Okinawa.
It was explained in high official circles that the bid relayed by MacArthur did not constitute an official offer in the same sense as the final offer which was presented through Japanese diplomatic channels at Bern and Stockholm last week for relay to the four major Allied powers.
No negotiations were begun on the basis of the bid, it was said, because it was feared that if any were undertaken the Jap war lords, who were presumed to be ignorant of the feelers, would visit swift punishment on those making the offer.
It was held possible that the war lords might even assassinate the Emperor and announce the son of heaven had fled the earth in a fury of indignation over the peace bid.
Defeat Seen Inevitable
Officials said it was felt by Mr. Roosevelt that the Japs were not ripe for peace, except for a small group, who were powerless to cope with the war lords, and that peace could not come until the Japs had suffered more.
The Jap overtures were made on acknowledgment that defeat was inevitable and Japan had to choose the best way out of an unhappy dilemma — domination of Asia by Russia or by the United States. The unofficial Jap peace brokers said the latter would be preferable by far.
Jap proposals to Gen. MacArthur contemplated:
1. Full surrender of all Jap forces on sea, in the air, at home, on island possessions and in occupied countries.
2. Surrender of all arms and munitions.
3. Occupation of the Jap homeland and island possessions by Allied troops under American direction.
Would Give Up Territory
4. Jap relinquishment from Manchuria, Korea and Formosa as well as all territory seized during the war.
5. Regulation of Jap industry to halt present and future production of implements of war.
6. Turning over of any Japanese the United States might designate as war criminals.
7. Immediate release of all prisoners of war and internees in Japan proper and areas under Japanese control.
After the fall of Germany, the policy of unconditional surrender drew critical fire. In the Senate Senator White (R.) of Maine Capehart (R.) of Indiana took the lead in demanding that precise terms be given Japan and in asking whether peace feelers had not been received from the Nipponese.
Terms Drafted in July
In July the Tribune reported that a set of terms were being drafted for President Truman to take to Potsdam. Capehart hailed the reported terms on the floor of the Senate as a great contribribution to universal peace.
These terms, which were embodied in the Potsdam declaration did not mention the disposition of the Emperor. Otherwise they were almost identical with the proposals contained in the MacArthur memorandum.
Just before the Japanese surrender the Russian foreign commissar disclosed that the Japs had made peace overtures through Moscow asking that the Soviets mediate the war. These overtures were made in the middle of June through the Russian foreign office and also through a personal letter from Hirohito to Stalin Both overtures were reported to the United States and Britain.
As outlined above, then, the legacy of the Second World War leaves a plethora of disparate and complex issues behind as its legacy. Anybody wanting to know how best to press on with the wider war against fascism in which it is framed would do well to understand what they represent.
Anybody who considers themselves a genuine anti-fascist must, of course, be prepared to face the far-right and the polarisation of society that they represent. By the same token, though, one must not be lured into the myth that all that is bad in politics exists at the fringes. Extreme-right ideas permeate the moderation of the narrow liberal-conservative spectrum, and they are in fact more dangerous, more potent here, and must be challenged with at least equal veracity.
It is not the extreme-right that, today, commits wars of aggression – that most serious of international war crimes – and overlooks the oppression of peoples in exchange for oil and business contracts. It is not the extreme right who shoot at the makeshift rafts of desperate refugees, whose snatch squads force terrified asylum seekers onto flights back to their homeland and death, or who detain and abuse the world’s most wretched people in a steadily-spreading “Gulag archipelago” of immigrant-prisons, where people are locked up indefinitely without trial. It is not the extreme-right who monitor our every move and transaction electronically and introduce law after law.
It is the mainstream. The government. Your government.
That, I think, is the legacy of the Second World War, in all of the various issues and strands of thought outlined above; a lesson. The lesson that fascism and fascist thought comes in many guises, and that they must always be opposed if the sacrifice of past generations is to mean anything.
The choice is yours as to whether you learn that lesson.