The annihilation of six million Jews in the Second World War was the dark heart of the twentieth century. A uniquely concentrated and deliberate attempt to wipe out an entire people, its historic significance grows rather than diminishes if it is seen in the context of the horrors of the First and Second World Wars, and other genocides which preceded and followed them.
Although Hitler, in his speech to the Reichstag of 30 January 1939, had talked of “the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe”, the maniacal anti-Semitism of one man, or even of one party, alone did not bring about the Holocaust. The Hitler genocide must be understood as a result of the function of fascism for the German ruling class and its war aims – even though it ultimately frustrated and brought these to total disaster.
National Socialism was a regime produced by extreme capitalist crisis and Germany’s defeat and spoliation by its rivals in the first imperialist war. In January 1933, six million were unemployed, nearly one third of the working population. By 1939 the Nazis had reduced this to 302,000 by rearmament, militarisation, slashing wages, forced labour etc.
But already by 1938 the signs of impending economic crisis were appearing once again. Germany’s “military Keynesianism” faced the prospect of state bankruptcy. Without breaking free of the straight-jacket imposed on Germany by the Allies after the First World War, Hitler’s regime would have faced a social explosion. No anti-Semitic demagogy or even pogroms like Kristallnacht (9-10 November 1938) could have compensated for this.
The way out that Nazism had always envisaged was a massive expansion of territory, the acquisition of lebensraum (living space). The first steps were the Anschluss (union) with Austria (March 1938), the gaining of the Czech borderlands in October of the same year and less than one year later the attempts to acquire the Polish Corridor and Danzig by similar threats and ‘negotiations’.
But this led directly to war against Britain and France, who were now (they thought) ready to call a halt to Hitler’s expansions. Hitler had hoped for a settlement with these powers that would leave him free to attack the USSR. His attack on France was necessitated by the fact that such a powerful enemy could not be left in his rear if he turned on Russia. Meanwhile in 1939 he fooled the USSR into signing the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Stalin thus threw the world’s Communist parties and their popular fronts with the Labour, Socialists and Liberal parties into total disarray.
It was the war in the east – first against Poland, and then from 22 June 1941 against the USSR – that set in train the events that led to the destruction of between five and six million of the Jewish people of Europe.
Nazi plans for genocide
Bourgeois historians wish to unload onto Hitler’s “dark charisma” or onto the Nazi elite the whole responsibility for the genocide. Whilst utter revulsion against their “diabolical” inhumanity is totally justified, it is as useless as an explanation for Hitler’s demonisation of the Jews for losing Germany the First World War. Above all it excuses capitalism and the system of imperialist rivalry that spawned Nazism.
The holocaust – horrific and unparalleled as it was as an act of policy by a modern bourgeois state – is not exempt from historical materialist analysis and understanding. Indeed we need to do this or we will not develop the politics needed to prevent it ever happening again.
German imperialism’s particularly concentrated military brutality was a product of both its economic dynamism as a “young capitalism”, thwarted by its older rivals. This took the form of first its exclusion from a share of the spoils in the division of the world from the 1880s onwards and then after the First World War Britain and France seizing its existing colonies and even parts of own national territory.
Reparations and near total disarmament merely crammed down the lid on the pressure cooker. The new and dynamic productive forces of German industry and finance could not reproduce themselves within their own national framework.
Hitler’s territorial ambitions faced eastward. The farming lands of Poland and the Ukraine, the oilfields of Moldavia and the Caucasus – were “traditional” objectives for German imperialism. In addition the Germans aimed at clearing lebensraum for German settlement – hence the forced population transfers and the destruction by starvation and massacre of millions of Poles and Russians. Britain had done the same by its genocidal clearing and settlement of North America, Australia, and South Africa etc.
Launching the Holocaust
The unexpectedly total success of the Nazis’ war efforts in 1939-40 gave them control of nearly the whole continent west of the borders of the USSR. In this phase the rounding up of the Jews in Germany proper and their transfer to concentration camps began. Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, was appointed Reich Commissioner for the strengthening of “Germandom” and put in charge of the deportation and re-settlement of the Jews.
No single master plan for the Holocaust has yet been found. But this is scarcely a surprise. The terms “deportation” and “resettlement” were quite sufficient for the first stages. The pogromist methods used and knowing what gained Hitler’s approval (and promotion) were quite enough to set thousands of Nazi officials “working towards the Fuhrer” (See Ian Kershaw – Hitler, the Germans and the Final Solution (Yale, 2008),
How to dispose of the Jews evolved from creating a “reservation” for Jews in Eastern Europe, then after the war with the USSR began, driving them across the Urals into Asia. At every stage these goals were genocidal even if the industrial death camp methods only emerged later. The Nazis’ immediate objectives were a “Jew free” Germany. After the occupation of Poland some three million Jews came under Nazi rule. The SS carried out the first mass pogroms during the clearance of the new German Province of Warthegau in Western Poland.
Some 90,000 Poles and Jews were brutally driven out by the SS Einsatzgruppen (Special Forces). The rump of Poland became a province of ghettoes, concentration and eventually death camps. In Warsaw and Lublin huge ghettos were created to which the Jews of Germany, Holland and then other western occupied zones and the Balkans were progressively deported.
The preparation for the mass destruction of Jews was, however, part of the plans for the invasion of Russia. The Einsatzgruppen had the clear task of eliminating Jews in the areas behind the advancing Wehrmacht. With the rapid advance after the 22 June 1941 surprise attack they fanned out, encouraging local peasants in Lithuania and the Ukraine to carry out “spontaneous” pogroms against the Jews.
Whilst some did occur and the Lithuanian and Ukrainian nationalist forces did participate in them, this was not enough for the Nazis. The Einsatzgruppen soon resorted to mass killings themselves. The most infamous of these occurred in September outside Kiev. 33,771 of the city’s Jews were brought to the ravine of Babi Yar.
A witness recalled: they found themselves on the narrow ground above the precipice, twenty to twenty-five metres in height and on the opposite side there were the Germans’ machine guns. The killed, wounded and half alive people fell down and were smashed there. Then the next hundred were brought, and everything repeated again. The policemen took the children by the legs and threw them down alive into the Yar.” The Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko wrote his famous 1961 poem about it.
But every major town and village witnessed its own massacre. So horrific were they that they even began to take their toll on the nerves of their perpetrators. For this reason a method of mass murder, which was “less gruelling” for the Nazi henchmen, was sought. The answer was found in special lorries capable of gassing eighty people at once with the vehicles’ own carbon monoxide fumes.
Nearly two million Jews perished at the hands of the Einsatzgruppen, the Wehrmacht and their allied Ukrainian and Lithuanian militias. But an unexpected military fact forced the Nazis to go one step further. Disastrous as the Soviet defeats in the summer and autumn of 1941 were, they did not, as everywhere else, lead to a lightning victory. The Nazi and Wehrmacht chiefs had confidently expected total victory before the winter set in, but the Nazi advance was halted outside Moscow in December 1941.
Now the Germans had to face a long drawn out war of attrition. All resources, all food stores had to be concentrated on this. Clearly there was no hope of simply driving the Jews into the steppes of central Asia to perish. The Nazis had neither the desire nor the logistical resources to keep them alive.
At Wannsee in the Berlin suburbs a conference planned the setting up of a series of death camps: Auschwitz-Birkenau, Chelmno, Majdanek, Belzec, Sobibór and Treblinka. Auschwitz, the largest, stood at the hub of a railway network to which cattle wagons crammed with men, women and children rolled with grim efficiency from all over the Nazi empire. In this gigantic factory of death four huge gas chambers and crematoria “processed” arrivals. A small proportion of those fit for labour worked in factories associated with the plant run by IG Farben.
Was this all simply a uniquely irrational nightmare – the product of one man or even one pathological murderousness and his party’s limitless power? Some writers have argued this must be the case because in the last two years of the war, once the SS machine was working at full stretch, it began to clash with the rational pursuit of war aims. It occupied railway timetables, freight wagons etc, that the Wehrmacht needed for the pursuit of the military campaign.
But it was no more dysfunctional than the continuation of the war itself once the tide had turned on the Eastern Front between the winter of 1942 and the summer of 1943. The Allies ruled out any kind of negotiated peace settlement, and the Nazis were doomed to go down themselves in the impending defeat. In this situation the dictatorship of the SS turned to an ever more frenzied pursuance of its anti-Semitic pogrom. The military justification of the massacres in the earlier period was no longer tenable. The virulent ideology of anti-Semitism in the SS now became their primary justification for the continuing Holocaust.
The Jewish people were undoubtedly the principle target of Hitler’s racist programme, in that he sought their total physical annihilation and actually succeeded in destroying 67% of European Jewry, some six million in all. But not all those that perished were Jewish. Some 220,000 Roma, one third of Europe’s total population, were murdered too. Homosexuals and “racially useless” persons were included.
In addition 3 to 3.5 million Soviet prisoners of war perished. The numbers of civilians from the various Slavic peoples, destroyed, not in death camps but by fire, pestilence, famine and the sword, exceeds even the six million Jews. The Nazis dubbed them Untermenschen, sub-humans, a term they borrowed from a US racist writer and Ku Klux Klan member Lothrop Stoddard.
How could it have been avoided?
The conclusion we can draw from this tragic history is that the fate of the Jews was inextricably tied up with the destiny of imperialist conflict and with the fate of the whole socialist workers’ movement and of the resistance of all other racially oppressed peoples. One thing is certain that the Zionist project of emigration to Palestine saved only a tiny fraction of the Jews of Europe and played next to no role in the resistance to the Nazis.
Indeed insofar as Zionism’s constant theme was that resistance to European anti-Semitism was futile it was a negative quantity within this struggle. This, more than any temporary agreements between German Zionists and the Nazis, is the real charge to be levelled against the colonial settlers of Palestine against the opposition of its indigenous population.
In 1928 the Nazis were a relatively insignificant if vicious force, whilst the German Social Democracy (SPD) and the German Communist Party (KPD), plus the trade unions linked to them, had millions of members and voters. Then came the economic catastrophe of 1929-30. Suddenly there were 3 million unemployed, a figure that was remorselessly rising.
Instead of uniting their forces to bring an anticapitalist government to power that could solve the crisis, the SPD supported Liberal and even right wing political governments as “the lesser evil” to the ballooning Nazi membership. Meanwhile the KPD proclaimed the SPD as social fascists and the main enemy who had to be defeated before dealing with Hitler.
From opposite angles both parties blocked the formation of a united front – the necessary tactic that Leon Trotsky argued for. However as long as the German workers had their powerful organisations, which included the SPD’s 3 million strong Reichsbanner militia and the KPD’s Roter Frontkämpferbund with 130,000 fighters, the Nazi road to power could have been blocked and the road to workers’ power opened. But the SPD paralysed the great majority of the workers’ movement while the KPD disorientated and isolated its militant vanguard.
Thus the big industrialists like Fritz Thyssen and Alfried Krupp, plus the army High Command and President Hindenburg were able to bring Hitler to power without a fight. Once there, as Trotsky had predicted, he proceeded to grind into pieces the most powerful workers’ movement in the world. Thus the road to the Second World War and the Holocaust was opened. In this war the Krupps and Thyssens played a critical role in the efficient running of the technical and industrial infrastructure of the extermination and slave labour camps.
In a period of renewed and increasing inter-imperialist rivalry, accompanied by the rise of the racist right, with capitalism incapable of solving its deep-seated contradictions, we should remember not only the millions of victims of Nazism and the horrific fate they faced, but that it could have been prevented if the workers’ movement had settled accounts in good time, not just with the monstrous Hitler, but with the capitalist system which gave birth to him.