The Second World War – A War for Empire (3)

The USA and the UK, just as much as their adversaries, fought the Second World War to defend and extend their imperial power – in defiance of their own proclaimed war aims.

Churchill and Stalin in Moscow, 1942

The most explicit piece of evidence that the liberation of Europe was not an Allied war aim comes from the infamous “percentages agreement” between Churchill and Stalin, a deal struck at the Moscow Conference of 1944. As Churchill described it,

The moment was apt for business, so I said, “Let us settle our affairs in the Balkans. Your armies are in Rumania and Bulgaria. We have interests, missions and agents there. Don’t let us get at cross-purposes in small ways. So far as Britain is concerned, how would it do for you to have 90 percent predominance in Rumania, for us to have 90 percent of the say in Greece, and go 50-50 about Yugoslavia?” While this was being translated I wrote on half a sheet of paper:

Rumania: Russia 90% – The others 10%

Greece: Great Britain 90% – Russia 10%

Yugoslavia 50-50%

Hungary 50-50%

Bulgaria: Russia 75% – The others 25%

I pushed this across to Stalin, who had by then heard the translation. There was a slight pause. Then he took his pencil and made a large tick upon it, and passed it back to us. It was all settled in no more time than it takes to set down…After this there was a long silence. The pencilled paper lay on the centre of the table. At length I said, “Might it not be thought rather cynical if it seemed we had disposed of these issues, so fateful to millions of people, in such an off-hand manner? Let us burn the paper.” “No, you keep it,” said Stalin.

The text of the infamous "percentages agreement"

The cynicism is indeed breathtaking. The label “conspiracy theory” is routinely used to dismiss the possibility that the wealthy and powerful might indeed conspire in the ruthless defence of their interests; here is a cardinal conspiracy fact – two of the most powerful men in the world sitting across a table, secretly carving up Europe between them.

The implications for the people of these eastern European countries is obvious: regardless of the deeds of their own people in fighting for liberation from Axis rule, and regardless of the promise of the Atlantic Charter to respect “the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live”, British or Soviet rule was to be imposed upon them. The consequences were particularly profound for those many countries in which Moscow-aligned Communist parties played a decisive role in the people’s war of liberation, as Stalin’s deals with his imperialist allies meant that, in those countries “allocated” to the western Allies, these Communists would be required to lay down their arms and submit to US/UK overlordship when the moment of liberation came.

What this meant in practice can be demonstrated by the case of Greece. A key transit point on the sea-road to India, Greece had long been seen as vital to British imperialism. Before the war, Greece was ruled by a dictatorship appointed by its monarchy and supported by the British state. Fascist Greece entered the war in October 1940 when it was attacked by fascist Italy – further evidence that the war was not a simple conflict between fascism and freedom, which meant that the British state was now defending one dictator against another, an absurdity recognised by the British General Wilson: “it was really a paradox in that in our struggle against totalitarianism we should be supporting one fascist government against another”.

The swastika is raised over the Acropolis, 1941

The forces of Italian fascism were so feeble that they were repelled by the Greek army, but in April 1941 the Wehrmacht intervened and conquered the country in just over three weeks, sweeping aside both the Greek army and British forces. The monarchy fled to Egypt to function as a “government in exile” under British clientage; the Greek ruling class divided itself between open collaboration and alignment with the exiled monarchy. The Greek people did not have this luxury and were subjected to a particularly heinous occupation regime, in which around 550,000 died (8% of the population), 34% of national wealth was destroyed (including 402,000 homes, leaving 1.2 million homeless). Famine in the winter of 1941 killed 250,000 Greeks.

Inevitably, popular resistance arose from the Greek masses. The largest resistance group was EAM, a broad-based political movement in which Communists were involved (but not as its “leaders”), and whose armed wing ELAS fielded up to 100,000 resistance fighters by the end of the war. The British state, however, gave almost no support to this leading anti-Nazi resistance movement, preferring to work instead with the much smaller (fielding around 12,000 soldiers) and thus much less successful EDES, which followed a line of political “neutrality” and was therefore willing to cooperate also with the Nazi occupation regime. Unsurprisingly, EDES made little headway against the occupiers.

This is remarkable – the British state, supposedly fighting tooth-and-nail against the evils of fascism, denied support to an effective anti-Nazi resistance movement and preferred instead to work with ineffective collaborators. The explanation for this state of affairs lies in both the nature of the resistance struggle of EAM/ELAS and the nature and objectives of British imperialism.

Greek women fight for national and social emancipation

EAM was not simply organising Greeks to fight against Germans – it was a mass grassroots movement of social emancipation. In the words of Dimitros Glinos, an EAM spokesman, “its fight is daily and embraces all levels of existence. It takes place in the people’s market, in the soup kitchen, in the factory, on the roads and in the fields, in every kind of work”. EAM constituted a resistance state, operating under the noses of the Nazi occupation regime, based on local self-government and democracy with local officials elected in mass village assemblies. EAM organised successful resistance to labour conscription, and transformed gender relations by recruiting women – virtually slaves in pre-war Greece – on an equal basis to men. Most remarkably, EAM managed to hold a general election via door-to-door collection of ballots in which one million voters participated – a feat which defeated the “democratic” British state. By the end of the war, EAM had attracted around 2 million members and the support of about 70% of the 7 million strong population of Greece.

Thus for British imperialism, EAM and ELAS were not an appropriate ally. Their people’s war of social as well as national emancipation was not compatible with the British goal, sealed in the “percentages deal” with Stalin, of restoring imperialist control of Greece via the monarchist client state after the war. And further, Britain could not support EAM/ELAS because they were too successful – Britain did not want to see the occupiers driven out of Greece before Britain was in position to ensure that they were replaced with its own client regime, via the “liberation” of Greece by British troops, not a Greek popular resistance.

And British imperialism was prepared to go to remarkable lengths to suppress Greek anti-fascist resistance. The 2nd Brigade of Greek exiles in North Africa, had long been demanding to be sent into action but was now threatened with demobilisation for political reasons. In April 1944, Churchill ordered that “the brigade be rounded up by artillery and superior force and let hunger play its part”. 20,000 were starved into submission and put in concentration camps for the crime of wishing to fight against fascism. Later in 1944, when German collapse in Greece threatened to come to early to suit British imperial interests, in what Mark Mazower describes as “one of the most extraordinary and potentially explosive episodes of the whole war”, an Allied officer, with the full knowledge of his commanders in Cairo, met with representatives of the German Geheime Feldpolizei (secret military police) to discuss possible joint action against EAM/ELAS.

Crucially, the leadership of EAM/ELAS, and particularly the Communist element which formed a significant but not dominant (350,000 party members in 1945) of the resistance, were willing – essentially because of Stalin’s agreement with Churchill which placed Greece within the British sphere of control – to go along with a post-war British takeover, in the form of the return of Britain’s client monarchy within a coalition government.

Thus in October 1944, when the German occupation collapsed leaving ELAS in control of almost all of the country, backed by mass popular support, British troops entered Athens in force within 48 hours. Their aim was to ensure that fascist occupation was replaced by their own client government, which had almost no support within Greece itself. Churchill again openly acknowledged the truth of the situation, ordering British forces to “act as if you were in a conquered city where a local rebellion is in progress”.

Athens, December 1944 - British troops shoot unarmed demonstrators

This unstable settlement could not hold, and the breaking point came rapidly when the British “liberators” employed the pro-Nazi “Security Battalions” – Greek collaborators from the occupation period who had sworn a personal oath of loyalty to Hitler – against Greek opposition, breaking the agreement made with ELAS/EAM. In December the resulting mass demonstrations at this violation of the terms of “liberation” were met with massive force from the British “liberators” including the artillery shelling of residential areas. At a time when British troops were desperately needed on the Italian and western fronts, tens of thousands were deployed in Athens to repress the Greek people they were allegedly liberating. 50,000 Greeks were killed in this initial wave of repression, and 2,000 British casualties sustained.

In the longer term, the British (and later US) determination to maintain imperialist control of Greece through support of a terroristic client regime led to the deaths of 158,000 Greeks in the civil war which ran from 1946 to 1949. In 1947, when the British state passed responsibility for holding Greece in the imperialist camp over to the USA, the New Republic could write that “Churchill’s victory is complete….It could only be slightly more complete if Hitler himself had engineered it!”

The tragedy of Greece is the clearest possible demonstration of the true nature of the Second World War. On the one hand, a people’s war fighting not just for national independence but for social emancipation and revolution. On the other hand, an imperialist war fought between the fascist powers and (in this case) British imperialism, seeking to bring Greece back under its own domination, for which the suppression of anti-fascist resistance was a higher priority than defeating fascism, even if this required collaboration with overtly fascist forces and even the Wehrmacht itself. On the sidelines (in this case), the Stalinist Soviet Union, ready to watch its supposed comrades die at the hands of fascism and imperialism, having cut its own deal with empire.

The fourth part of this article investigates the war in southeast Asia.

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2 thoughts on “The Second World War – A War for Empire (3)

  1. Pingback: The Second World War – A War for Empire (2) | The Rational Colonel

  2. Pingback: The Second World War – A War for Empire (4) | The Rational Colonel

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