The Holocaust is the greatest crime in European history. There have been other horrors-terrible wars, mass killings, the dropping of the atomic bomb and the forced movement of peoples on all continents. But the Nazis' systematic murder of six million Jews and millions of others during the Second World War is barbarism without parallel. They used up to date industrial techniques to set about annihilating the entire Jewish population of Europe.
The appalling suffering uncovered when the Nazis' most notorious death camp, Auschwitz, was liberated on 27 January 1945 almost defies belief. Commemorating the Holocaust is not only about paying tribute to its victims. It is a powerful weapon in the fight against those forces, such as the British National Party and the National Front, which seek today to copy Hitler, and which deny the Holocaust to hide their aims.
The Nazi slaughter of the Jews began with the invasion of Russia in July 1941. Hitler had already given the order that the 'war in the East' was to be a 'war of extermination'. Special units, the Einsatzgruppen, swept behind the advancing German lines. Their task was to round up Jews-men, women and children-herd them into isolated areas, shoot them dead and dump their bodies in pits. Within weeks of the invasion the Nazi high command formally adopted a systematic policy of mass murder of the Jewish population.
Nazi officials calmly discussed the construction of six death camps in isolated areas of Poland, which was now totally under their control. These were unlike existing concentration camps and labour camps, which had already been built in Germany and versions of which were set up by a variety of regimes throughout the 20th century. Many concentration camp inmates died from sadistic treatment, slave labour, starvation and executions.
But death at the six camps in Poland was not one feature among many. It was their sole purpose. Over the next three years the Nazis seized Jews from across Europe and transported them to the death camps where they were gassed in specially built chambers, their bodies incinerated in crematoria. Roma Gypsies, Russian prisoners of war and others were also taken to their deaths.
The Nazis had already developed murder through gassing by killing disabled people and other 'unhealthy elements' in Germany. The death camps were, as historian Raul Hilberg put it, 'unprecedented. Never before in history had people been killed on an assembly line basis.' The Nazis used the European rail network to ship Jews from as far away as Salonika in Greece to Poland.
They devoted tremendous resources to the slaughter. For the fanatical core of the Nazis, wiping out the Jewish population of Europe became the central aim of the war.
The Holocaust was rooted in the Nazi regime and the capitalist crisis which allowed it to come to power. Hitler took power in Germany, a modern capitalist state, in January 1933. His Nazi Party had grown enormously over the previous three years out of the shattered hopes of millions of people suffering under the Great Depression, the worst economic crisis capitalism has seen.
But Hitler never won majority support. Tragically, the leaders of the two mass working class parties refused to mobilise joint action against the Nazis. That allowed key sections of the German capitalist class to hand Hitler power in January 1933. They wanted him to bolster the weakened police and army with his Stormtroopers, and launch a savage blow against the working class. Historian Ian Kershaw, author of a monumental biography of Hitler, writes that 'the ruling groups did not have the mass support to maximise their ascendancy and destroy once and for all the power of organised labour. 'Hitler was brought in to do the job for them.'
Hitler did just that, wiping out not only the trade unions and political parties, but every civil institution not under Nazi control, even the Boy Scouts. The Nazis appealed above all to the middle class layers in German society who, unlike workers, had no trade unions to offer them any kind of defence. The Nazis' message was confused. Hitler lashed out at the organised working class and Marxism, which he claimed were destroying Germany.
He also spouted fake anti-capitalist rhetoric. Virulent anti-Semitism was central to holding together the absurd claim that finance capital and organised workers were conspiring together to bring down Germany. The Nazis did not attack big business as a whole, but what they called 'Jewish capital'. They also claimed that socialism was a 'Jewish plot'. Hitler said, 'How wonderfully the stock exchange Jew and the leader of the workers...cooperate. Moses Kohn on the one side encourages his association to refuse the workers' demands, while his brother Isaac in the factory incites the masses.'
Scapegoating Jews, who made up less than 1 percent of the population, was not the main way the Nazis won votes. Germany was not an especially anti-Semitic country. Anti-Semites had greater success mobilising support in France at the end of the 19th century.
Polish and Russian Jews had fled to Germany before the First World War to escape organised violence under the Tsarist Empire. Anti-Semitism was the cornerstone of the Nazis' biological racist world view, which saw humanity divided into a hierarchy of superior and inferior 'races' with Aryans, white Europeans, at the top.
After coming to power, Hitler moved rapidly to reassure the capitalist class that there would be no further upheaval. He turned on those sections of the Nazi Party who took his promises seriously that the 'little man' and not big business would rule in his Third Reich. The Nazi state passed increasingly harsh laws against Jews during the 1930s, banning them from professions, forbidding 'race mixing' with non-Jews and other restrictions.
Nazi propaganda chief Goebbels unleashed an orgy of violence on 8-10 November 1938, Kristallnacht, in which 100 Jews died. Hitler wanted to build a 'racially pure' empire in Eastern Europe. But his advance brought more and more 'non-Aryans' under his control. Treating the Holocaust as one atrocity among many trivialises what the Nazis did.
Nazi sympathisers deliberately did that immediately after the Second World War. They said the expulsion of German civilians from Poland, Czechoslovakia and the rest of Eastern Europe was no different from the Nazi attack on the Jews. About 11.5 million Germans, including anti-Nazis, were expelled from the East. As many as 2.5 million died from hunger and disease.
It was horrific. But it was not a calculated attempt to wipe an entire people from the face of the planet. It was not a holocaust. The founding of the state of Israel in 1948 brought the murder of hundreds of Palestinians. Zionist militias terrorised 750,000 Palestinians into exile. A catastrophe, but not a holocaust.
Western leaders end up belittling the Holocaust today when they claim their military interventions in the Middle East and the Balkans are about stopping 'new Hitlers' and 'another Holocaust'. Britain and the US are in no position to appeal to the suffering of the Jews under the Nazis to justify military intervention. The Western powers decided to turn away German Jewish refugees in the 1930s, and even held a conference in 1938 to coordinate their policies.
They refused to publicise details of the mass murder smuggled out of Poland during the war. They did not bomb the railway to Auschwitz. Saving the Jews was not an Allied war aim. After the war they gave refuge to many of those who had carried out the murder, including 1,500 Ukrainian Nazis who came to Britain. Blair and Clinton claimed two years ago that they were 'stopping genocide' in Kosovo.
The killings and forced movement of Albanians by Serbian forces were grotesque. NATO bombing accelerated the violence. Between 2,000 and 3,000 Albanians were killed, according to war crimes investigators. It was horrific. But, as Aca Singer, a leader of Serbia's Jewish community, said, 'it was not a genocide. There was no effort to exterminate an entire race.'
Capitalism has developed the means of destruction to a horrendous scale. Modern wars mean concerted attacks on civilians. Various authoritarian regimes, such as NATO member Turkey, have copied the techniques pioneered by the Great Powers.
Capitalism breeds more than repeated barbarous wars. In a deep crisis it can summon up the Nazi forces unleashed in the 1930s. Auschwitz is a warning of what can happen if those forces are allowed to get hold of society. Stopping that from happening again means crushing every attempt by Nazis to build, and overthrowing the capitalist system which feeds them.