Socialist Worker

Murder by assembly line

Holocaust Memorial Day commemorates the greatest crime of the 20th century. Henry Maitles has written extensively on the Holocaust, which claimed the lives of members of his family in Lithuania and Poland. Here he spells out a warning from history

Issue No. 1936

The gates of Auschwitz,  chillingly revealed in the BBC2 series.

The gates of Auschwitz, chillingly revealed in the BBC2 series.


THE LAST century was the bloodiest in history. The Holocaust, the Nazis’ attempted annihilation of Jews and other “sub-humans”, claimed 12 million victims and was its most brutal act. It was not the only genocide. There was the attempt by the fledgling Turkish state to wipe out the Armenians from within its borders in the second decade of the 20th century. In the last decade there was the slaughter in Rwanda.

There were other barbarities too—the use of atomic weapons against Hiroshima and Nagasaki, imperialist wars such as in Vietnam, and appalling conflicts such as in Congo.

Yet the Holocaust rightly evokes for most people the ultimate in inhumanity. Hence the outrage and revulsion when David Irving and other Holocaust deniers claim that it was “a detail in history”. However, it was not just the scale and savagery of the slaughter, but the thoroughly capitalist nature of the Holocaust—both in its planning and implementation —that makes it unique.

This shone through in the recent BBC2 series on Auschwitz. One Nazi officer at the death camp even described it as “murder by assembly line”, as the most advanced industrial methods were turned to killing.

In essence, we are dealing with an attempt to strip humans of their humanity, to justify the idea that they are subhuman as a prelude to their extermination.

As Primo Levi, the Italian Auschwitz survivor put it: “Imagine now a man who is deprived of everyone he loves, and at the same time of his house, his clothes, in short, of everything he possesses: he will be a hollow man, reduced to suffering and needs, forgetful of dignity and restraint, for he who loses all often easily loses himself.

“He will be a man whose life and death can be lightly decided with no sense of human affinity, in the most fortunate of cases, on the basis of a pure judgment of utility. It is in this way that one can understand the double sense of the term ‘extermination camp’, and it is now clear what we seek to express by the phrase ‘to lie on the bottom’.”

The capitalist nature of the Holocaust ran through from the conference that planned the slaughter at Wannsee in January 1942 through to the role of industrialists and the civil servants. Jews were not only exterminated immediately, but could, particularly in times of labour shortage, be worked to death as slave labour.

Yet unlike previous barbarities, such as the slave trade, there was no overriding economic logic to the death camps and the mass murder.

It often appeared irrational—industrial managers using slave labour complained of how wasteful it was to constantly have to train up new workers as the SS ensured that Jewish slave labour did not live too long.

On occasion the transport of Jews ran counter to the war effort. On D-Day itself, in June 1944, the main worry of the German High Command, faced with the Allied invasion of Europe, was the transport of a few hundred Greek Jews to Auschwitz.

Yet as the German army was thrown back on the Eastern and Western Fronts, the Nazis’ commitment to wiping out the Jews of Europe remained. The one thing holding the Nazi cadre together was the belief that as they went down they would take millions of Jews and other “subhumans” with them. This has encouraged some to argue that the Holocaust was some inexplicable outburst of “evil” with no connection to the capitalist system.

The connection is there. Germany’s leading engineering firms competed for the contract to build the most efficient crematoria. However, the link is not primarily through the complicity of firms such as IG Farben or IBM in the execution of the Holocaust, but in the way the Nazis came to power and maintained their rule in alliance with big business.

Historian Ian Kershaw, who was adviser to the BBC series on Auschwitz, has described how Germany’s elites hoisted the Nazis into power in January 1933.

Hitler did not win a majority of seats in the German parliament. For all the Nazis’ rhetoric of standing up for the “little man” on the street, Hitler required the support of the representatives of the capitalist class to seize power.

They saw in him a force that could destroy working class resistance. His programme of military expansion, particularly into eastern Europe, chimed with the historic aims of German imperialism.

The Nazis were the barbaric product of the crisis of capitalism in Germany between the wars and the Holocaust was a product of their twisted world outlook which had at its heart the notion that the Jews were a subhuman enemy. The Holocaust became central to the Nazis, while the Nazis and the successful outcome of the war were central to the interests of German capital.

The German invasion of the USSR in 1941 unleashed murder on a vast scale. The Nazis found they now controlled areas with many millions of Jews—there were less than half a million within the borders of Germany itself. Forced Jewish emigration from the lands the Nazis controlled was no longer an issue. The “solution to the Jewish problem” was to murder them.

In the first week of the invasion more Jews were killed by the Einsatzgruppen (the SS killing squads) than in the previous eight years of Nazi rule in Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia and half of Poland.

Indeed, until mid-1941, there were more communists and socialists in Nazi concentration camps than Jews.

The Einsatzgruppen moved in behind the German army. One historian summed up what happened in the city of Bialystok, which had some 50,000 Jews, when the Nazis entered on 27 June 1941: “Dante-esque scenes took place in these streets. Jews were taken out of the houses, put against the walls and shot... At least 800 Jews had been locked in the Great Synagogue before it had been set on fire...the soldiers were throwing hand grenades into the houses.”

The Einsatzgruppen also attempted to involve indigenous populations in doing their killing. Often they were successful and many of those accused of war crimes were Latvian, Lithuanian or Ukranian.

In other places, though, the Nazis couldn’t make the locals into murderers. For example, a report prepared in October 1941 complained that Einsatzgruppen A operating in Estonia could not “provoke spontaneous anti-Jewish demonstrations with ensuing pogroms” because the population in their area lacked “sufficient enlightenment” to murder the Jews.

The need to kill Jews more efficiently and quickly, and the effects of face to face slaughter on the German soldiers, persuaded the Nazi leadership that a more impersonal method of slaughter was preferable.

The Nazis went to great lengths to keep the extermination camps secret from both the Jews and the German population. The Allies did get to know about the death camps. But Allied leaders told delegations asking them to bomb the railway into Auschwitz and the crematoria blocks that they had no proof of mass murder. Saving the Jews of Europe was not an Allied war aim.

We should remember all this as we commemorate the Holocaust this week. Keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive will not by itself stop the rise of fascism in the 21st century. But it does make the Nazis’ job harder, which is why BNP leader Nick Griffin and the rest go to such lengths to deny it. The Holocaust also stands as a terrible warning of the barbaric forces capitalism can unleash when it goes into a deep crisis and its existence is at stake.


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