At the time, the liberals and the left thought of World War II as a battle between civilisation and barbarism, between progress and reaction. This is still the mainstream view today. But the leaders of the Allies did not think this way, if they were honest. For instance…
The Churchill who demanded a no-holds-barred prosecution of the war was the same Churchill who had been present during the butchery at Omdurman, sent troops to shoot down striking miners in 1910 [this is probably not true], ordered the RAF to use poison gas against Kurdish rebels in British-ruled Iraq [this is arguable], and praised Mussolini. He had attacked a Conservative government in the 1930s for granting a minimal amount of local self government to India, and throughout the war he remained adamant that no concessions could be made to anti-colonial movements in Britain’s colonies, although this could have helped the war effort. ‘I have not become the king’s first minister’, he declared, ‘to oversee the dismemberment of the British Empire.’ He told Roosevelt and Stalin at Yalta, ‘While there is life in my body, no transfer of British sovereignty will be permitted’.
In the Second World War, many – probably most – ordinary people thought of themselves as fighting the evil of fascism, but
the motives of the rulers remained very different from those of their peoples. This was shown in the conduct of the war. Between the fall of France in the spring of 1940 and the Allied landings in southern Italy in 1943 most of the fighting by British armies was in northern Africa. Why? Because Churchill was determined to hang on to the area with the Suez Canal and the oilfields. His worries were not just about Germany but also the US, as was shown by a bitter diplomatic tussle between him and Roosevelt over Saudi Arabia.
The invasion of Italy was itself a consequence of Churchill’s obsession with re-establishing British hegemony in the Mediterranean. He refused pleas from both Russia and the US to open a second front in France at the time when the most vital battles of the war were being fought in western Russia. Instead he claimed that Italy and the Balkans constituted ‘the soft underbelly of Europe’—despite mountainous terrain which was bound to mean bloody battles and a very slow pace of advance.
Churchill’s refusal to concede the principle of independence for India meant that in 1942, while the decisive Battle of Stalingrad was taking place, thousands of British-led troops were brutally crushing demonstrations in India instead of fighting the Nazis, and that an Indian ‘liberation army’ was formed to fight on the side of Japan. It also led to a famine which killed three million people in Bengal.
The quotes are from Chris Harman’s, A People’s History of the World.