Why Was Ww2 A People's War

Submitted By orjones
Words: 2666
Pages: 11

At a recent Labour Party Conference, Ed Balls mentioned the “summer of 1945….when our nation welcomed home its heroes….and celebrated the defeat of fascism together”1. The so called “Dunkirk Spirit” lives on in politics today, with a labour politician using the romanticism of the People’s War in order to bolster his own politics. However should this statement and others in the same mould be frowned upon as exploiting the emotions of a public with comparatively fresh wounds, or is it admissible to hark back to a country hardened by conflict in order to inspire greater unity? It is undeniable that history can be a powerful weapon. While critiquing James Heartfield’s books which portrays the Second World War as an anti-fascist narrative, Ian Davenport suggests that with a death toll of 60 million, it would be more apt to describe the war as one against the people rather than for it.2 Evidently casualties from conflict are inevitable, and the scale of these casualties cannot be the sole factor in defining any war, however with such high figures justification must be prioritised. In order to tackle the question of whether or not World War II was a People’s War certain questions must be addressed. The motivation for the war, people’s experiences during the war and whether or not the war contributed to a more socially unified Britain are all key in assessing whether or not World War II was indeed the closest thing to a People War that we have seen.
The causes of the World War II are well documented. Having followed a policy of appeasement under Neville Chamberlain, Britain declared war when it became clear that Hitler’s expansion into both Eastern and Western Europe wasn’t going to stop of his accord. Poland was nominated as the last step before the declaration of war. The persecution of Jews in Germany cannot be considered a genuine reason for going to war as this had been taking place since Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 and his intent was shown as early as 1925 in Mein Kampf. As Howard Zinn points out, Chamberlain was loathe to address Hitler’s treatment of ethnic minorities.3 Would a more cynical reason for going to war undermine the idea of a people’s war altogether? James Heartfield suggests that “the good war was manufactured from the outset by radicals who wanted to steer the conduct of the war towards their preferred ends”4. Here Heartfield is perhaps referring to the maintenance of Britain as an imperialist power. Certainly AJP Taylor is in agreement with Heartfield, concluding that “the archives now reveal that Great Britain was fighting the Second World War in order to recover the British Empire”5. Certainly fear of a German invasion in Britain was exploited in gaining public support for the war effort.6
These claims, true or false, alone cannot undermine World War II as a People’s War if the people themselves were aware of them and still willing to go to war. Perhaps here lies the difference between Heartfield’s “Good War”7 and the term “the people’s war”. There is little evidence after the outbreak of war to suggest that there was much opposition to it, although this may be explained by the fact that so many were involved that to oppose it would have been insensitive. Kevin Jeffreys does note that in stark contrast to World War I, that the King and Queen’s visit to the East End of London was “not met with cheering crowds”8. However the fact that no major movement formed at the outbreak, suggests if nothing else a general acceptance of the war. Regardless of the true motives behind the war, which are difficult to determine, it can certainly be said that the decision to go to war was made for the people, rather than by the people.
One of the foremost reasons for World War II being labelled a people’s war was probably the sheer number of men and women involved in, or at least affected by, the war effort; civilians and soldiers alike. Due to technological advances in both aircraft and bombs, the beginning of World War II