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James Heartfield: setting the record straight

The author of ‘Unpatriotic History of the Second World War’ talks about another ‘holocaust’ and why America dropped atomic bombs on Japan

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The diagnosis Heartfield says our understanding of the past does not reflect our contemporary views of where right and wrong lie
Gulf News

As a little boy, James Heartfield used to enjoy reading comics about the Second World War. Tales of heroism of British Tommies in their hats taking on the Nazis were great fun. Yet they would always be based in a desert somewhere. “You would think — where is this desert?” says Heartfield, author of the “Unpatriotic History of the Second World War”. “Well, we knew it was the North Africa campaign. But then you think — were we at war with North Africa? Was North Africa a participant in the war?”

It slowly dawned on him that North Africa and the Middle East had been an arena in which European powers fought each other, visiting “great misery” on the people of the region. “The people in the Middle East were never really asked what was going on,” he says. “They were just made into victims of this contest and bystanders in a terrible and destructive way.”

The Second World War is often presented in the West as the example of a “good war”. In fact it has been a reference point for many politicians and intellectuals to justify participation of Western countries in various conflicts around the world for more than half a century. This is perhaps why the subject matter of Heartfield’s book is so intriguing, and I was curious to find out his motivation for choosing to tell an “unpatriotic” history about the war.

“I wrote it because I was angry about the Iraq war,” he says. “I was angry that we had been suckered again into making a case for this violence. And one of the propaganda arguments for 2003 was Saddam Hussain is the new Hitler, we must fight Saddam as we fought Hitler. And it seemed to me that you must be critical of that account. If we are going to use history as a weapon, let us look at history and understand what it was that was taking place when Britain did fight Hitler.”

My interview with Heartfield took place inside the café at the British Library in London. We were lucky to find an empty table during the hustle and bustle of lunch hour. “German people at least were obliged to confront what was wrong in their society,” he says, “whereas British people never were. You know, to us the lesson of the war seemed to be that the colony was good, that the empire was a force for good, and that was quite a negative thing because it meant that we were ignorant of the damage done by colonialism.”

While there was a criticism of colonialism that came out of the war, it was always aimed at Germany and Japan, complains Heartfield. “It was Japanese imperialism that was bad, it was German militarism that was bad,” he says. “And I think as times have gone on, the English have slowly come to understand better that the British Empire was not always a force for good. But that is a long and painful process, more painful for those that were under the British rule than the British.”

While during the Second World War people in Europe where fighting the brutal Nazis for the liberation of their lands, one of the great paradoxes of the conflict was how some of the same Europeans had a blind spot when it came to the liberation of their colonial subjects in Africa, Middle East and Asia. In fact, in his controversial book “Mein Kampf”, the German dictator Adolf Hitler wrote, “I as man of Germanic blood would in spite of everything rather see India under English rule than any other.”

According to Heartfield, the Nazi leader and those around him were impressed by British colonialism. “They were recreating that same system in Eastern Europe, you know, that was as they saw it. He [Hitler] loved this film ‘The Bengal Lancer’, which was a Hollywood production based on an English story about English troops in Bengal. ‘The Bengal Lancer’ was a film that Hitler would play in his Eagle’s Nest and say that is how we should be. We should be like the British Empire.”

Heartfield also has some embarrassing insights into British leaders of the era. “In the British Parliament, people we think of as great liberals such as Lloyd George, leader of the Liberal Party, said, ‘Well, you know the nationalist government in Germany is a friend of ours because they are friends of stability and opponents of the far left and the workers movement and anti-colonialism.’ So they were admirers.”

In fact during his earlier days the Italian Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, a sort of sidekick to Hitler during the war, had been financed by the British secret service.

“You have to remember Mussolini was on the left,” he says. “[In] his early career, he had fought against military intervention in Abyssinia and Tripoli. So he had campaigned against the Italian troops going to Tripoli. But like many people, he was excited by war and was drawn into the militarist idea. He was helped along the way with some large funds from the British secret service, which wanted to use him to influence Italy’s political course.”

However, Heartfield plays down the suggestion that the funding may have been behind how events later turned out for Mussolini. “There is this rumour which I don’t think is true now — that he was executed so he wouldn’t reveal secrets about his connections with the British intelligence.”

For many people today, the Holocaust is the defining tragedy of the war in Europe. “We see the Second World War now largely through the prism of the Holocaust, and that is not wrong in the sense that of all the peoples in the world, Jews suffered the most,” he says. “But 60 million people died in the Second World War. Six million of them were Jews, but many [other] people died. Massacres were endemic and I don’t think it is really true to say [that] the entire story of the Second World War is just the genocide of the Jews.”

In the war, more than 2.5 per cent of the world’s population was killed. One of the big losses of innocent lives, not so often remembered, was that of 3.5 million people who died in the Bengal famine of 1943. “India was a tremendously productive country with millions of people working, and all of their efforts were redirected towards prosecuting the war,” he says. “In Bengal in particular, rice that was grown there, that would have fed the Bengalis, was redirected particularly to the rubber colonies because they were important in prosecuting the war. And Winston Churchill got messages all throughout the war, he was told again and again, the British Cabinet had reports in front of them of the impending famine for at least a year before it went out of control, and they chose not to act.”

According to Heartfield, the lack of action was because the authorities made a calculated decision that they would sacrifice the Bengal region for the war effort. “They knew that the people in Bengal, certainly the non-Muslim people in Bengal, were largely hostile to the British Empire,” he says. “And they thought they would collaborate with the Japanese. And for that reason they were indifferent to their problems, and they took the rice from the region even as it was starving.”

Another one of the terrible atrocities committed during the war was the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which some historians have painted as a necessarily evil to end the war. Heartfield believes that wasn’t the case. He says it was already known by that stage that the Japanese would surrender.

“There was a diplomatic or a strategic reason to use atomic power,” he says. Americans, during the war, had been very dependent on “proxy armies”, with Chinese forces being supported by the United States against the Japanese. The Soviet Union, which had been busy fighting the Germans, had avoided war with Japan. “But towards the end of the war, they were actually encouraged to turn their forces, now released from its commitments in Western Europe, on Japan. That is why, for example, North Korea fell under Soviet influence, because the Soviet push in the east was quite profound.”

So using Chinese and Russian help to fight these proxy wars meant their influence would also be greater. “That gave it another impetus to the use of the atomic power, because atomic power was such an impressive and demonstrative effect that it silenced all challengers,” he says. “And it spread real fear in the Soviet high command as they understood that the Americans had this weapon that surpassed all others.”

But there was also this campaign to dehumanise the Japanese. “I think you have to see a racial component in this,” he says. “In a way that they didn’t despise the German people, as people, the Americans did despise the Japanese. They didn’t really see them as human beings. You look at the American propaganda. It is quite striking that the Japanese are presented over and over again as lice, or often as monkeys.”

The 1968 Hollywood film “Planet of the Apes” was actually based on the novel of the same name by the French writer Pierre Boulle, who had been captured on the Mekong River in 1943 and served the Japanese as a prisoner of war. “I loved the film as a boy,” Heartfield says. “‘Planet of the Apes’ was great. I recall early on where Charlton Heston looks, and he realises that things aren’t quite right because there is a monkey, a gorilla, on horseback. So that is a very powerful image.”

But Heartfield says there is a “code” to this story of the apes. “The code is, Japanese — monkey, the same thing,” he says. “What Pierre Boulle is doing is showing you that shock with which the Europeans confronted the Japanese in a position of authority. The monkey on the horseback is like the Japanese commanding officer, which was always a terrifying thing for them, because Britons and Frenchmen and Northern Americans had been in authority in the east. Throughout east Asia, colonial officers had been on horseback in their hats.”

Heartfield says there is no denying Boulle’s experience of brutality in the camps. “But for a white European particularly, it was like a moral shock to the system because it was the first situation where you had a colonial, or non-white people, in a position of authority over white people.”

He says Europeans and Americans had an idea of racial superiority, that the white races were basically the leading powers. “So the Japanese victory was, more than the German victories, an immense moral shock to that idea,” he says. “And in the end, I think, it demolished that idea. It is very hard to say, knowing what we know about what the Japanese did to the people.”

Besides writing on history, Heartfield teaches at Queen Mary and Brunel universities. One of his notable achievements has been conducting what was possibly the last published interview of the famous Russian dissident, Alexander Litvinenko, who was killed in 2006.

“He knew about the subject I was writing on with a friend, Julia Svetlichnaja, which was the Chechens in Moscow in the 1980s,” he says. “He had been in what was called the ethnic division of the FSB, which meant that it was his job as a secret service man to infiltrate Chechen gangs in Moscow. Later he was also involved in the early stages of the first Chechen war. That is why we went to him, because he was the source for this.”

“Unpatriotic History of the Second World War” has brought Heartfield a lot of criticism, and he admits he can’t get away from the fact he has written quite a polemical book. However, he also feels history is always illuminated by the present. “Sentiments in the world have changed,” he says. “Colonialism is seen today as a bad idea, largely. I mean I don’t think that is non-controversial. So it is a surprise to learn that Churchill fought the war to save the British Empire and British rule in India. It is a surprise to us because we forgot to adjust our understanding of the past to reflect our contemporary views of where right and wrong lie.”

Syed Hamad Ali is a writer based in London.

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