Brendan Simms on Slave Labour in the Second World War

In 1942, ‘The British ‘warfare state’ showed that democracy and mass military mobilization were not only entirely compatible but a more efficient combination than dictatorship’, writes Brendan Simms in his Europe: the Struggle for Supremacy. Simms’ point in this section is that, whereas the German Axis powers utilised ‘the ruthless use of slave labour’ in order to produce armaments in their struggle against their enemies, and the Soviets ‘depended heavily on the forced labour of the Gulag’, Britain and America upheld ‘the most basic civil liberties’ of their citizens and actually outperformed their enemies’. I have no idea what contributed to the complete breakdown of moral order in Germany and Russia during these years. Why was slave labour seen to be an effective way of generating armaments? Why was the Gulag? Why did an equivalent thing not happen in Britain or America? Reading through a book like Simms’ reminds one of the brutality and murderousness of these horrendous dictatorships throughout this period. Here is the quotation in full:

The contending coalitions engaged in a massive domestic mobilization to generate the necessary resources and manpower. The entire US ecomony was now devoted the war effort…In 1942, Hitler put Albert Speer in charge of the war economy. Through innovation, organization and the ruthless use of slave labour he achieved a massive increase in armament productions. Early in the following year, the propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, increased the sense of psychological mobilization by declaring ‘total war’. The Soviet war economy, too, depended heavily on the forced labour in the Gulag. Very soon, Russia was also outproducing the Third Reich in most key categories of armaments. Perhaps the most remarkable mobilization, however, was that of Britian. Despite being cut off from vital European trade and raw materials by Hitler’s domination of the continent, she managed to produce armaments in greater quantity – if not always of better quality – than Germany. Britain was able to sustain not only her own efforts against Germany, but also had enough to spare considerable supplies for the Soviet Union after June 1942. Millions of men were recruited and sent to serve overseas. All the while, parliament continued to sit and most basic civil liberties continued to be respected. Once again, the British ‘warfare state’ showed that democracy and mass military mobilization were not only entirely compatible but a more efficient combination than dictatorship.

Brendan Simms

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