The Cenotaph graffiti hysteria and the myths of World War Two

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'I utterly condemn the violence and destruction of property by mindless thugs.' Ken Livingstone (London Mayor)

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'It is only because of the bravery and courage of our war dead that these idiots can live in a free country at all.' Tony Blair

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'... I was the first MP to call for air strikes to defeat his [Milosevic's] aggression.' Ken Livingstone1

It may seem surprising that the politicians responsible for the dropping of 23,000 bombs and missiles on Serbia should be so outraged by the small amount of graffiti and window breaking on the London May Day action. However, hypocrisy is second nature to most politicians. Every Remembrance Day they solemnly lay wreaths at the Cenotaph, pretending to care about the suffering of war. The next day they are back in parliament justifying more violence, whether it is arms sales to repressive regimes or more air raids on Iraq (a country where sanctions have caused a million deaths since 1990).

The Cenotaph was unveiled on Armistice Day 1920, just three weeks after hungry unemployed ex-servicemen had fought running battles with police in Whitehall. Ever since then politicians have manipulated people's grief over war with eulogies to what the Cenotaph refers to as 'The Glorious Dead'. In an attempt to keep us passive, they endlessly promote the idea that the 'war dead' died for our freedom. No one could seriously argue that the soldiers slaughtered in the trenches died 'glorious' deaths for freedom. However, it is a common belief that World War Two was all about fighting fascism.

The truth is that Churchill heaped praise on fascist Italy, while members of the royal family, and papers like The Daily Mail, unequivocally supported Hitler. Britain had slaughtered millions through slavery and empire building across the world and Hitler essentially wanted to be left alone to do the same in Eastern Europe. However, this threatened the pre-eminence of the British Empire so the British establishment eventually turned against him.

Even so, WW2 was largely won by Stalin's Russia. Stalin had already killed ten million people by 1940, so his war with Hitler was hardly a fight for freedom. Meanwhile Churchill delayed the Normandy landings, hoping that the German and Russian armies would wear themselves out.2 The result was that 20-30 million Russians perished and millions more died in the concentration camps.

The Allies refused Axis offers to send them Jewish refugees and they never acted on desperate pleas to stop the exterminations by bombing the rail lines to Auschwitz.3 However, they did make great efforts to bomb German and Japanese cities, killing perhaps a million civilians. The culmination of these atrocities was the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; bombings that were authorised by the 1945 Labour government even though Japan was ready to surrender.4

After the war, tens of thousands of German POWs starved to death in Allied prison camps, as did many civilians in a devastated Germany deprived of food aid.5 At the same time the Allies recruited prominent Nazis like Klaus Barbie, 'the Butcher of Lyon', and Walter Rauff, the inventor of the gas chambers. They sent them to Latin America where the US also introduced Nazi counter-insurgency techniques to maintain their control of the region.6

Although WW2 had nothing to do with fighting oppression, this has not stopped the media and politicians justifying more recent wars against Saddam or Milosevic as vital struggles against 'the new Hitler'. It has also not stopped them stirring up racial hatred against asylum seekers in a way that would not have been out of place in Nazi Germany!

A major reason that politicians get away with all this hypocrisy is that the left still claims that WW2 was a 'just war'. They still believe that, no matter how much they oppose democratic capitalist politicians, they need to join with them against any threat from dictators. But history shows this can only lead to massacres and war crimes - from WW2 to the Gulf to Kosovo.

A better way to oppose dictatorship is for people to make revolution against it and every other aspect of capitalism. This is not just sloganeering, it was shown to work in Spain when armed workers prevented Franco's coup in 1936 and proceeded to take over and successfully run industry and agriculture. Tragically, their 'anarchist' leaders then thought they could fight fascism by joining, rather than overthrowing, the 'left' Republican government. However, this merely gave the government the opportunity to destroy the workers' collectives and ruthlessly repress all opposition in the name of the anti-fascist war effort. Franco still won and the Spanish civil war set a precedent for the mass mobilisations of WW2.7

During WW2, people joined anti-fascist resistance movements just to survive. But the only way to really stop the carnage would have been for soldiers to turn their guns on their officers and make revolution. This may well have left them vulnerable to attack, but it could have also sparked off revolts behind enemy lines. After all, the end of WW1, Armistice Day 1918, occurred in the wake of mutinies and revolution across Germany inspired by the Russian revolution.

Wars are often ended by mutinies; examples include the US army in Vietnam, the Iraqi army in 1991 and the Serb army last year. Such a scenario was not impossible in WW2. Indeed the Allies had to violently crush anti-fascist resistance movements in Korea and Greece, as well as to occupy every inch of Axis territory, in case revolutions broke out. Certainly revolution was the only scenario worth fighting for and, whatever its outcome, it could not have been worse than the fifty million deaths of WW2, the worst massacre in human history.

Livingstone's support for the Kosovo war dissuaded many from opposing Britain's first major war in Europe since 1945. This not only led to the deaths of at least 500 civilians but it can only encourage more wars.8 Some of the graffiti on the Cenotaph was pointless; some, like the slogan: 'Why glorify war?', was appropriate. But let us hope the hysteria about it encourages all of us to think about why we were so ineffective during the Kosovo war and how we can better oppose the next war.