VE Day: The Real Heroes of World War II

May 7 marked the 75th anniversary of the fall of Berlin and the end of the Second World War in Europe, VE Day (Victory in Europe). Most commemorations of the Allied triumph over fascism celebrate the wrong heroes.

By Vicente Gaynor

In 1943, the Nazi war machine that had conquered most of continental Europe without defeats in just over three years, fell defeated in the battle of Stalingrad, considered the bloodiest in history, with more than two million deaths. It was the beginning of the collapse of the Third Reich. The peoples of the occupied countries rose one by one against the Nazis, while the allied armies advanced towards Germany.

The United States and the United Kingdom invaded Italy in 1943 and France the following year. From there they advanced eastward while the Red Army advanced from the other direction, toward the German capital. On April 20, the Battle of Berlin began, on the 30th Hitler and several of his high-ranking officers committed suicide, on May 2, the defending forces of the city surrendered and, on May 8, Field Marshal Wilhem Keitel signed the unconditional surrender of the German army, ending the war in Europe.

What was World War II?

World War II was essentially a second imperialist war, as Leon Trotsky called it. Both the allied powers and the Nazi-fascist axis fought to maintain or extend their control over territories, resources, markets and labor force. But this was not the only phenomenon.

As always, war and occupation generate resistance. The peoples of both imperialist sides´ colonies carried out rebellions and revolutions of liberation against their oppressors, many achieving independence during or after the world war. For the Soviet people, the Nazi invasion meant defending the conquests of the Russian revolution that endured despite the Stalinist counterrevolution.

The war also confronted two regimes in Europe, the bourgeois democratic and the fascist. The need to defend rights and liberties conquered over decades of class struggle under bourgeois democratic regimes, which fascism meant to bury in one blow, motivated millions of Europeans to confront the Nazi occupation from the first hour. This led them to confront the local collaborationist bourgeoisie as well.

Who Defeated Hitler?

In occupied Europe, working people developed a revolutionary resistance against the German occupation and repression. It was that heroic resistance that weakened and broke the Third Reich. It is common to see these resistances depicted as mere auxiliary forces of the Allied armies. However, this grossly minimizes its role in the fall of the Reich, and it hides the fact that that the interests, motivations and objectives of the resistance was diametrically opposed to those of the Allied leaders.

The defeated bourgeoisies of France, Poland, Yugoslavia or Greece played no relevant role in the resistance. They either fled their countries or collaborated with the Nazis. Therefore, it was the workers and their organizations that confronted and defeated the invaders. In the process, they carried out true revolutions, finding themselves in control of the economy with a vacuum in state power after the collapse of the Nazi occupation.

Unfortunately, their leaders´ intentions, mainly those countries´ communist parties, did not coincide with the expectations of the victorious peoples of emerging from the horror of war towards a better world, but with the interests of the imperialist Allies of rebuilding the previous capitalist order.

Who Were the Allies Fighting Against?

The Allies’ final offensive towards Berlin was deliberately delayed, as they negotiated the partition of the world and crushed the revolutionary movements that had defeated the Nazis in much of Europe.

In Italy, a wave of strikes overthrew Mussolini in 1943 and evolved into a massive resistance when the Germans occupied the country. The Allied troops that invaded from the south delayed their advance in order to give the Nazis time to crush the partisans who had seized power in various Alpine towns.

When they finally reached the north, the Germans had already been driven out by the partisan workers, who had also occupied factories in Turin, Milan, and Genoa. The US tanks then took it upon themselves to repress them. The Italian Communist Party collaborated in the disarming of the insurgent workers and joined the new government of “national unity” under King Emmanuel III.

Workers in France also filled the power vacuum that remained after the collapse of the collaborationist Vichy government, but the Communist Party intervened, under the slogan “produce first,” to rebuild bourgeois industry and the capitalist state.

In Greece, the armed resistance had liberated most of the country by the time English troops arrived in late 1944, under Churchill’s instructions to act as if they were “in a conquered city in which a local rebellion is taking place.”

In the ensuing crackdown, the Allies massacred 50,000 Greeks, restored the monarchy, and imposed a right-wing dictatorial government. They had the support of the Communist Party, whose leader Siantos stated at the time that “Greece belongs to a region of Europe in which the British take full responsibility.”

The Soviet advance towards Berlin was also interrupted by “inconvenient” rebellions. This was the case with the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, led by the Home Army, which the Communist Party was part of. The Red Army had pushed the German troops to the west side of the Vistula River when the uprising broke out. But the Soviet troops halted their advance on the east side, refusing to assist the insurgents, and even preventing American and British planes refueling behind their lines from airdropping supplies to the Polish rebels.

Stalin, for whom an independent Poland was inconvenient, told Churchill that the uprising was “a reckless and terrible adventure.” Soviet troops watched from the Vistula bank for two months as the Germans destroyed Warsaw, before entering city in ruins and continuing their advance towards Berlin.

An International Division of Labor

A few months before the fall of Berlin, Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin met at Yalta. It was the key summit in a series of meetings that had started in Tehran in 1943 and would continue in Potsdam after the war ended, in which Allied leaders shaped the post-war world.

They divided the world into zones of influence for each other. Churchill allegedly passed Stalin a piece of paper with a list of countries and percentages and Stalin checked it with a blue pencil. But Yalta was much more than a geopolitical agreement.

The defeat of the wehrmacht at Stalingrad in early 1943 marked the turning point of the war. The Nazi offensive was halted and began its long agony of setbacks leading to its inevitable military defeat. But it was also a hinge in the international class struggle.

The most widespread and profound global revolutionary surge in history broke out. Workers and oppressed peoples rose up against the fascist occupations in Europe, against the Japanese occupation in China and Indonesia, against colonial oppression in India and Africa, all across the world, working peoples rose up. Never was the world socialist revolution as at hand as then.

The rulers gathered in Yalta shared a fear. They were united in terror, not of Nazism, whose fall imminent, but of revolution. They remembered very well how World War I had ended with revolutions breaking out throughout Europe. They remembered how close the capitalist system came to falling when the revolution that started in Russia in 1917 spread to Germany and the rest of the continent. And they were determined to defend their interests, preventing something similar from happening again.

What was agreed in Yalta was not a simple territorial distribution, but a counterrevolutionary division of labor, in a common effort to stop the worldwide working class uprising. For Stalin and the Communist Parties, holding up their end of the agreement did not imply a passive non-intervention in the countries that corresponded to Western imperialism, but an active collaboration in deactivating, disarming and defeating the revolutions taking place there, and in rebuilding the bourgeois states and the capitalist economy in Western Europe. In exchange, they were integrated into those countries’ regimes, completing their bankruptcy as working class organizations.

However, contradictorily, Stalinism saw itself strengthened after the war, despite having betrayed the greatest revolutionary opportunity in history. Unlike what happened when the socialist parties of the Second International capitulated in World War I and the Bolshevik Party emerged as an alternative leadership after the triumph of the Russian Revolution, by the end of World War II, the revolutionary forces had been effectively crushed by fascism and the Stalinist counterrevolution. Trotsky himself had been assassinated in 1940. Without an alternative leadership challenging him, once the revolutionary wave that defeated fascism was crushed, Stalin managed to establish himself as the hero who defeated Hitler and the leader of “real socialism.”

The images of Soviet flags flying victorious over Berlin allowed him to project that deception to the entire world. The anniversary of the defeat of fascism in Europe should serve to commemorate the real heroes of World War II, the millions of workers who resisted and defeated the Nazi monster, not the imperialist and Stalinist genocides who drowned those workers and their revolutions in blood.