Fifty years ago a cold sense of apprehension was creeping over Europe. The first feelings of relief following the 'peace in our time' agreement between Hitler and Chamberlain had passed. By March 1939 Hitler had already moved to crush Czechoslovakia. On 1 September his victim was Poland. The Second World War had begun.
It does, of course, serve the interests of capitalism to deflect the blame for the horrors of war on to the actions of particular individuals such as Hitler. So, in this fiftieth anniversary year of the outbreak of the Second World War, beware the rush of books, articles, films and television documentaries in which historians and journalists will, no doubt, concentrate on the personalities and motives of key individuals. They will be following the traditional view that history is somehow determined by the personal whims of caesars, kings, queens, prime ministers and führers.
Not Made by Great Individuals
If it is simply the personalities and motives of leading individuals that make history, then historians face the practical impossibility of knowing these personalities and motives with any degree of certainty. Some might claim authority for their fanciful speculations by resorting to Freudian psychology, but it is hard enough to be sure of the personal motivations of close acquaintances without trying to understand the psychological complexities of someone who is long dead and buried.
Those taking this approach can only fill in a lack of knowledge from their own bias and imagination. By arbitrarily giving the power to shape events to a few 'men of destiny', they exclude the vast majority of men and women from a role in history. With the materialist conception of history, on the other hand, Marx and Engels showed how we must look behind people's conscious aims, intentions and motives to the economic development of society in which everyone is involved. As Engels wrote:
"When it is a question of investigating the driving powers which lie behind the motives of men who act in history, it is not a question so much of the motives of single individuals, however eminent, as of those motives which set in motion great masses, whole peoples, and again whole classes. To ascertain the driving causes which are reflected as conscious motives in the minds of acting masses and their leaders . . . is the only path which can put us on the track of the laws holding sway both in history as a whole and at particular periods in particular lands." (Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical-German Philosophy, chapter IV).
For Marxists, history is about what the whole of humanity has done, not just a few "great men". It is in the economic development of society that we discover the laws of history which regulate the changes in the material circumstances within which people make history. Marx's historical materialism reveals the social and economic causes of history for all to see. What is important is objectively decided by its bearing on economic developments, not by the prejudices of writers who interpret history in the interests of the ruling class.
Hitler and Economic Necessity
The important thing to recognise about the Second World War is that it was fought between rival groups of capitalist states over trade routes, markets and sources of raw materials. It was not about good or evil, democracy or fascism. Certainly, no single individual can be held responsible.
The sad fact is that while even fifty years ago the productive forces were such that the needs of the world's population could have been satisfied, the irrational and competitive nature of capitalism prevented this. Seeing no alternative to capitalism, workers were led to believe genuinely that they could only satisfy their needs or protect their 'way of life' by war.
It is true that the decision to invade Poland, which started the Second World War, was Hitler's. But it is also true that as early as 1932 the German capitalist class and their political representatives had decided that Germany's only real way out of economic crisis was to gain control over Central and Eastern Europe.
Once such a course was set in motion two things made war inevitable. First was the rearmament of Germany's main capitalist rivals, Britain and the United States, who sought to prevent Germany's rise as a world power dangerous to them. Second, the deepening financial crisis in German capitalism caused by its massive rearmament. It was impossible to continue the rate of arms spending, and public spending in general, without additional material resources from outside Germany. Hence the need to plunder the surrounding economies and to seek continental scales of industrial organisation.
So, while the decision to unleash war was Hitler's, the unstoppable collision-course towards war was determined by economic necessities. On the one hand, Germany had, like Japan and Italy, developed too late to acquire a 'place in the sun' which corresponded to its importance as an industrial nation. On the other hand, the capitalists in the established colonial powers, Britain and France, as well as the US with its huge population and natural resources, profited from their privileged access to markets and raw materials. In 1931 Japan had already used armed force to set up a trading monopoly in China. Italy had used force to get an overseas market in Abyssinia in 1935. German capitalists saw the only way out in the conquest of an empire of their own in Europe.
As an historical figure Hitler was the product of social and economic developments. Even his mania about the Jews must be seen in the context of widespread theories of subversion, pernicious and ridiculous as they were, which held Jews responsible for an international conspiracy to undermine the economic stability of whichever country they lived in.
The Case of Churchill
Almost all historians see Churchill's rise to the head of the coalition government in May 1940 as a major turning point in the war. Churchill might indeed have represented the determination of the British capitalist class not to give another inch to their German rivals. But by romanticising his personal qualities, rather than starting from an analysis of the larger economic and social forces, historians continue to fall into the trap of having to guess and explain his personal motivations.
The central question is not what made Churchill, as an individual, more decisive than Chamberlain but why Churchill was suddenly able to unite most of the capitalist and working class behind him years when he had been a political outsider. After all, until 1939 the policy of appeasement followed by Chamberlain had been widely accepted. Britain, as an international trading power, had far more to lose from world war than Germany, but capitalists could not go on indefinitely a blind eye to the actions of their German rivals. Once war had been declared, and at a time when Germany winning, Churchill was the ideal choice to carry out the new policy of combating German capitalism by military rather than diplomatic means.
No conspiracy theory is necessary to explain the economic and social determinants behind the rise of leaders. In capitalist society the institutions that mould individuals include the patriarchal nuclear family, the education system and the organisations which selectively promote politicians (political parties of the right and left, businesses and companies, old-boy networks, employers' associations, and the like). These are the forces of social conformism which produce individuals to suit the needs of the dominant class at any particular moment.
To recognise that the rise of individuals such as Hitler and Churchill is socially shaped is to acknowledge a scientific fact. Value judgements about their actions are unnecessary. Marxists do not cloud the issues with blame: they explain.
The Necessity of Socialism
As these examples from the Second World War show, the materialist conception of history demolishes idealism which seeks to explain history from the ideas held by prominent individuals, directing us instead to developments in the material world of wealth production and distribution. It is this which gives historical materialism its contemporary significance. It is applicable to the here and now. It enables us to understand not only the causes of past events, but the causes of events now taking place and therefore how the real needs of the majority of people today can be satisfied.
Always when the capacity to produce has outstripped what the productive relations allow, it becomes necessary to change those relations in a social revolution. Such necessity impelled the bourgeoisie to sweep away feudal obstacles to the development of capitalism in revolutions like the French Revolution two hundred years ago. Such historical necessity is an objective fact, independent of anyone's desires or intentions. It has nothing to do with mere aspirations, but is an actually existing state of human relations.
Capitalism has long contained such a necessity—the necessity of advancing to socialism. The Second World War was a tragic symptom of this need for change. Within capitalist society the working class is the only force that can carry out the task. This too is a fact, whether it is recognised or not, whether socialists are many or few, or whether anyone does anything about it or not. Marx and Engels did not invent the need for revolution; they discovered it.
Today's historical task of advancing to socialism is simply waiting to be fulfilled and the working class must win political power to fulfil it. This will only be achieved when a majority of workers are informed by a scientific knowledge of the need for change; a majority that refuses to be excluded from history, a majority that puts back into history the countless millions of individuals who slaved to produce the surplus that allowed the "men of destiny" to operate outside the productive system. It will, above all, be a majority with self-respect and confidence, gained from a scientific socialist understanding, to control its own destiny, making sure that catastrophes like the Second World War can never ever happen again.