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The End of a Tyranny

'The enemy who has now been overthrown was the particular and special enemy of working-class institutions, ideas and hopes.' To mark VE Day, we republish Aneurin Bevan's Tribune editorial on the end of the Second World War.

Hitler is dead. The Nazi Party is totally disintegrated. The appointment, or self-appointment, of Admiral Donitz as Hitler’s successor – a man who never played any part in Nazi politics – makes it clear beyond a doubt that there is not a single prominent Nazi left in Germany who has the will or the power to take the affairs of the country into his hands. Nazism has succumbed.

As we write, the German armies have not yet formally surrendered, but the end of the war with Germany is, at the most, a matter of days.

The first reaction throughout the world will be a passionate relief that the slaughter is ended. Those with loved ones in the fighting will breathe freely again, the dull ache of anxiety lifted from their hearts. 

Those who have suffered loss will not find it easy to share in the general rejoicing, and this thought itself should cause us to reach out for them in their wistful sadness. The consciousness of universal pain and sorrow must inevitably put decent bounds to the expressions of our natural joy.

Furthermore, we must keep constantly in mind that the fighting will not be finished everywhere. In the Pacific, in Burma and in China, men are fighting and dying under strange and terrible conditions, far away from their homes and families. 

Many of these men have been away from home for as much as five and six years, and they must feel an almost insupportable nostalgic yearning to return to their own places. It is not only humane, but also politic to keep these considerations in mind as we seek to give vent to the joy that wells up in all of us.

We cannot yet fully appreciate all that has happened. We are too near to the events themselves and they are on too massive a scale for us to resolve them in the crucible of our imagination. 

It is true, too, that prolonged anticipation has dulled the edge of realisation. Ever since America and Russia became involved in the war the fate of Fascist Italy and of Nazi Germany was certain. The task was to mobilise our resources and hurl them at the enemy in the most effective way open to us. 

For reasons we have discussed on many occasions this took longer than seemed reasonable at the time. Years had to pass before the final grapple, and the lustre passed rom a victory that was so certain and yet so long delayed. The eye travels quicker than the feet, and so the heart grows weary.

The grim stories of what has been happening in the prison camps of Germany bring home to Socialists that this is victory in a special sense for us. In our own fashion, we have been waging war against these horrors ever since Mussolini seized power in Italy. 

It is true that international action by Socialists was fumbling, feeble and ineffectual. We could have done so much more than we did, and here in Britain, as well as in many European countries, we could have done it with comparative safety. 

Nor have we the excuse of the general population that we did not know. In Italy after 1922, and in Germany after 1933, there was less knowledge of what was perpetrated than there was here, if only because of the universal suppression of normal means of social and political inter-communication. 

To Socialists everywhere, these things were known, and in the light of that knowledge we should bow our heads in contrition that we did so little in the face of so much.

And yet we are entitled to deep satisfaction that the enemy who has now been overthrown was the particular and special enemy of working-class institutions, ideas and hopes. We have been compelled during the war to fight our battles under national flags and with the slogans of traditionalism, for this was of the very essence of a situation, in which we could not take the field without temporary allies who fought the same enemy but for different reasons. 

This inevitable alliance has had the effect of tarnishing our ideals and blurring our sense of direction. Many who should have known better, and some who did know, but did not act on their knowledge, succumbed to the easy demagogy of nationalist propaganda, and so came to believe that it was not fascism that we were fighting, but rather a foul emanation of what was conceived to be the unique character of the German people themselves.

Throughout the war it has been our task to oppose this fundamental misconception of the nature of the war from a Socialist standpoint. 

Do we dare suggest that those Germans, Socialists, Communists, Jews who were the special victims of Nazi brutality from 1933 onwards are not our own comrades fighting in the same cause and suffering for the same ideals? Are we now to pile social and political ostracism on to the fearful barbarities of their Nazi victors? 

Is it not rather our duty to reach out to them now the hand of fellowship and pity, bring them into the community of Socialist activity and help to restore them to their rightful place in their own nation? 

Apart from the claims that these anti-Fascists have upon us there are practical administrative problems involved. To what elements in the German populations are we going to entrust the rebuilding and administration of Germany? Already it appears there is a marked difference between the Russian and the Anglo-American approach to the problems. 

From such accounts as we are able to obtain the Russians are seeking out and appointing to administrative positions proved anti-Nazis. The wild and whirling extravagances of Ehrenburg have been rebuked by the Soviet authorities, because the latter are not so stupid as to leave the future of Germany to their avowed enemies. 

In the Anglo-American zones, on the other hand, such sifting appears to be taking place only sporadically. Their first impulse is to set up purely military administrations, and when these prove incapable of coping with the tasks – as they inevitably must – all that is left for them is to make haphazard arrangements. 

Owing to the lack of a clear anti-Fascist policy, almost everything depends on the personal inclinations of the officers in charge. In some places the German administration has been entrusted to genuine anti-Fascists, in others the officials of the old regime were called in. It is not everywhere as bad as in Southern and Central Italy, and in Greece, but in many areas of Germany under Anglo-American control the same sickening pattern is being repeated.

This is not unexpected. Europe must either go on to Socialist reconstruction or back to the conditions which led to Fascism. The Anglo-American Armies are in the control of men who are opposed to Socialism. Under the excuse of distrusting all Germans they will buttress the anti-Socialists of Germany. By the simple logic of the practical alternatives, the universal condemnation of all Germans leads to the re-emergence of the Nazis under a new guise.

All this points to two conclusions. First to the closest possible co-operation between the Socialist movement here, and its counterpart on the Continent; and second, to the urgent necessity for the early overthrow of the political power of the British governing class. Having won the war, we shall now have to fight for the peace.

It is a most difficult and delicate operation that the vested interests of Britain and America are now engaged in. By insisting on the slogan of “unconditional surrender” we have failed to call into existence a body of German opinion and people who can take over the administration of the country. 

This slogan had a political and not a military objective. Indeed from the military point of view it was always childish, and the effect of it has been to prolong the war by at least a year. The alternative for the Allies, however, was to conduct a political warfare that would rally German opinion against the Nazis. In practice this meant summoning the Germans to a revolution.

Such a tactic was inconceivable to the dominant groups in Britain and America, and for the Soviet Union it meant the frustration of possible appeasers here. Now the aim of Anglo-American policy is to prevent revolution supervening upon chaos. They fear this policy will not have time to work itself out before the General Election and the probable victory of the Labour Party. 

That is the meaning of the demand for a continuity of foreign policy, about which so much has been heard in recent weeks. They wish to commit the Labour Party to a line of policy which has already been determined.

Of course, we can agree to no such thing. The duty of Socialists is to prove to Russia that they are sufficiently powerful to break away from British traditional foreign policy and that, therefore, the Russians can co-operate with them. Until we are able to do that it is useless to blame Russia for treating with those elements that are able to achieve governing power. So far the Russians have a contempt for the Socialist Parties of Europe and no one can honestly blame her.

A terrible responsibility rests upon the Labour Party. If we can win the Election we may be able to win the peace. If we fail then we shall hand Europe and ourselves to another decade of futile agony.

About the Author

Aneurin Bevan was the Labour member of parliament for Ebbw Vale between 1929 and 1960, and the Minister of Health who founded the NHS. He was also a founder of Tribune and served as its co-editor with Jon Kimche in the 1940s.