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By Jason Michael
People in the United Kingdom wear the poppy, the symbol of remembrance adopted after the catastrophe of World War I, for many reasons. Chiefly, this is a token of personal and community grief. There was scarce a town or village in Britain and Ireland in 1919 that had not lost some part of the flower of its youth in the greatest armed conflict the world had ever seen. Between July 1914 and November 1918 5.7 million combatants and 3.7 million civilians were killed in what had come to be known as “the Great War.” Britain lost 885 thousand soldiers – volunteers and conscripts – and over 100 thousand civilians, almost 2.2 per cent of its population. In real terms, the United Kingdom (which included Ireland) had lost a sizeable portion of an entire generation. There was no escaping the profound collective grief that washed over British and Irish society in the months and years after the signing of the November 1918 armistice.
In consideration of the horrific and nightmarish conditions of the trenches and the awful effects of mechanised and industrial warfare, it was only natural that the nations’ grief and trauma and the “sacrifice” of those who died be marked. The public mood in Britain during the war, the events of Easter week 1916 in Ireland, revolution in Russia, and the mass civil unrest in post-war Germany convinced the British state that the marking of this agonising grief had to be controlled. It had to be a state dominated “remembrance” with a focus that would bring the country together.
Sitting comfortably in the early decades of the twenty-first century, as we are, we tend to forget that the 1914-18 war did actually tear the UK apart. Home Rule for Scotland and Ireland were put on the long finger as part of the war effort, but by the end of January 1919 Ireland was fighting a war of independence against Great Britain. Recalling the trade union support in Scotland and England for the strikers of the 1913 Dublin Lockout and the fact that James Connolly – one of the leaders of the 1916 Rising – was a Scot, there were no guarantees in 1919 that the antinomian ideas of revolution would not spread over the Irish Sea into Scotland, Wales, and England. Grief and the understanding that the British establishment had wantonly and pointlessly sacrificed the lives of so many – mainly working-class men and boys – were powerful forces. Controlling these forces, then, was a priority of the British government between 1919 and the outbreak of the next war.
Monumental war memorials thus became the order of the day, allowing the heartbroken to find some measure of solace in the shadows of colossal neo-classical mausolea – harking back to the glories of Roman imperialism – in order that comfort would come in the guise of a paternalistic sense of belonging to the British Empire. Death would therefore be given meaning in a re-unified British identity. Of course, people had to grieve. An outlet for the pain had to be found. People were perfectly right to seek comfort. But there is no denying that the British state’s management of this grief – preventing it from becoming an uncontrollable and directed rage – was a propaganda coup.
A century on, the Great War is now far over the horizon of living memory. When we say “We Shall Remember Them” we are talking about people very few of us have ever met. One would have to be at least 102 to have met someone who fell in 1916 or 1917. But the “War to End all Wars” itself became the reason for another, and it in turn for a number of others. Thanks to the militaristic nature of the British state we have all met an old soldier, a veteran, or a serving member of the British Armed Forces. Some of us, sadly, have known soldiers who died in conflict – and, yes, we have every right to remember them and mourn their loss. Regardless of the growing reaction against the poppy and the British state’s cult of remembrance – imperialist symbols of war glorification, it is still right to mourn the loss of loved ones and all those killed as a result of war and violent conflict.
Yet, the defence of the poppy and the state memorial is strong. Those who defend it, for whatever reason, oscillate between two poles – the uncritical acceptance of war service as a morally good and honourable patriotic act and the belief that some of the wars British soldiers fought in were just wars; that some enemies “had to be stopped.” Britain, an imperial power, has always been an aggressor. There is a catalogue of conflicts in which Britain has been the invader and the occupier. And in each of these there is a seemingly endless list of human rights violations and war crimes – committed by British soldiers. Even after the horrors of World War II Britain has been up to its neck in crimes not a million miles from those committed by the Nazis.
It is for this reason we must find the argument which says the Nazis had to be stopped – thus making the case the war of 1939-45 was a just war – so galling. Indeed, the Nazis had to be stopped, and thank God they were stopped. By no means is this essay an attempt to mitigate the monstrous crimes of Nazi Germany, the Empire of Japan, and their allies. They were monstrous. But to suggest Britain and France’s 3 September 1939 declaration of war against Germany fits the jus ad bellum criteria is simply preposterous. It is a scandalous revision of history.
The common belief that Britain, acting as the policeman of Europe, went to war with Hitler to stop the Holocaust is an ex post facto justification. The Nazis’ “Final Solution” – the beginning of systematic murder as a solution to the “Jewish Problem” – did not begin until the Wannsee Conference of January 1942. Adolf Hitler’s opinions regarding the Jews were well known before the war. He wrote a book outlining his antisemitism and his plans to deal with German Jews. Britain may or may not have been comfortable with this development in Berlin, but it did nothing. The Nuremberg Laws –antisemitic laws significantly limiting the rights of Jews in the Third Reich – were unanimously passed by the Reichstag on 15 September 1935. Britain still did nothing. At the Berlin Olympics in 1936 British athletes and tourists got to see Nazi Germany up close. Germany’s treatment of non-Aryans was no secret. Britain did nothing.
Only following the murderous pogrom of Kristallnacht on the 9 and 10 November 1938 did the British government think it appropriate, and only then after pressure had been exerted by Jewish organisations in the UK and around the world, to take in a limited number of Jewish children – the Kindertransport which saved the lives of almost 10 thousand predominantly Jewish children from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and the Free City of Danzig.
Antisemitism was not unique to Germany in the early twentieth century. The Jewish population of Britain had been increasing through the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as Jews fleeing persecution in Czarist Russia came to these shores. In London’s East End there grew a significant Jewish community which soon met the ire of British anti-Semites. At about the same time the Queen – as Princess Elizabeth – was being taught how to give a sieg heil salute by her mother and uncle, the British Union of Fascists instigated the Battle of Cable Street, an attempted popular anti-Jewish pogrom which was repulsed by Jews, Irish dock workers, Communists, and anti-fascists who set up barricades on the streets. The British political establishment had very little interest in being the saviour of Europe’s Jews in 1939.
So, what was the reason Britain went to war against Germany in World War II? The immediate cause was the German invasion of Poland, with which Britain had formalised a pledge of support in the event of German military aggression. Not that this meant much to the Poles – the UK and France had both failed to act when Czechoslovakia – their ally – was invaded and occupied by the Germans in 1938. But imperial reputations matter, and so the invasion of Poland was the last straw. When Hitler ignored the British and French ultimatum to withdraw from Poland their hand was forced. Neville Chamberlain announced war on the radio to the British public on 3 September 1939.
But there were other reasons. Germany’s allies – Italy and the Empire of Japan – posed a threat to Britain’s own empire. Italy was close enough to Egypt and the Suez Canal, and so had the potential to disrupt Britain’s access to supplies and troops from India – where Churchill would create a famine in 1943, Australia, and New Zealand. Japan, having successfully subdued China, was advancing to British imperial “possessions” in the Far-East. As the course of the war would prove, Japan even had the capability to reach Australia and New Zealand. Britain had selfish reasons for going to war with Nazi Germany and its allies – and they had nothing to do with humanitarianism.
But there had never been a need for this war. Hitler’s rise to power was the result of Britain and France’s actions after the previous war. At the 1919 Peace Conference in Versailles near Paris Germany was intentionally humiliated and forced to pay £6.6 billion in reparations – a sum that effectively bankrupted the country. It was stripped of territory essential for its industrial development and economy, demilitarised, and forced to hand over its fleet. Even as the treaty was being signed Marshal Ferdinand Foch, the Supreme Allied Commander, declared: “This is not a peace. It is an armistice for twenty years.” He was right on the money – twenty years later, in 1939, the Great War (part deux) kicked off. The economic hardship imposed on Germany and the subsequent political instability, the retreat of the United States into isolationism, and the failure of the League of Nations all conspired to create the perfect conditions for Nazism and Germany’s thirst for vengeance.
Looking back, of course, we must celebrate that the Holocaust was ended and that the Nazis’ barbaric persecution of ethnic minorities and other vulnerable groups was brought to an end. But this was never the purpose of Britain’s war. Even towards the end of the war, in May 1944, when the allies had control over the air, Churchill did not prioritise the bombing of the rail lines to Auschwitz-Birkenau. By this time London was well aware of what was happening at the extermination centres, but the land war – and the invasion of Germany – was always more important. At every stage of the 1939-45 war Britain’s war was an imperial war, a continuation and development of the war it had fought against Germany between 1914 and 1918. Imperial wars are not just war – no matter what moral goods they may achieve in their execution.
The Treaty of Versailles in 1918 and its Consequences
3 thoughts on “The Just War Myth”
I don’t know of anyone who ever thought that WWII was started to end the holocaust, where did that idea come from?
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Goodness knows, but we always hear it cited as an example of a just war.
“The common belief that Britain, acting as the policeman of Europe, went to war with Hitler to stop the Holocaust”
Whose “common belief” is this? Considering that the Allies had been at war for almost 4 years before they were aware of the existence of concentration camps, you are criticising a viewpoint that only you are making.