The Nazis’ extermination of the Jews pushes at the limits of understanding. The Nazis murdered six million Jews, two thirds of Europe’s Jewish population, in four years. A further five million LGBT+, Roma and disabled people and political opponents perished in concentration and death camps.
But it is not just the scale.
Nor is it that the Holocaust was primarily the result of an uncontrollable outburst of hatred, like many other appalling genocides. Though some of it was. There were 230,000 Jews living in Lithuania when the Germans invaded in 1941. Three years later 8,000 were still alive after precisely such an outburst of hatred.
But most Jews died as a result of a deliberate, bureaucratically organised process. First came the mass shootings and gassings practised by the Einsatzgruppen in the wake of the German armies as they drove through the western and southern Soviet Union in 1941–42.
Then followed the mounting of murder by assembly line in the gas chambers. Auschwitz became “the largest human slaughterhouse”, as its longest serving commandant called it. According to writer and Holocaust survivor Primo Levi, “Never were so many human lives extinguished in so short a time and with so lucid a combination of technological ingenuity, fanaticism and cruelty.”
It was a capitalist murder, with railroads and industrial firms providing the death camps and the chemicals, IBM processing the data and so on. It required industrial processes to make this brutality possible and it was highly profitable for a handful of still-existing multinational corporations.
Technology was not the only capitalist contribution to the slaughter—so were capitalist relations of production. German capitalists—some of whom had no particular desire for the Nazis or for the genocide—created the conditions for the Nazi regime to rule in their interests.
Germany’s ruling class had bitter memories of the 1918 revolution that had ended the First World War. That humiliation was followed by repeated revolutionary crises. They were wracked by uncertainty over the state’s ability to contain working class revolution.
The Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky wrote, “The established bourgeoisie does not like the fascist means of solving its problems, for the shocks and disturbances, although in the interests of bourgeois society, involve dangers for it as well. The big bourgeoisie dislikes this method, much as a man with a swollen jaw dislikes having his teeth pulled.”
The German ruling class’s preferred option was to try to create “strong” governments around established politicians of the right. But the right desperately needed a mass base to provide them with support in parliament and muscle on the streets.
Hitler’s Nazi party could provide that. The scale of the economic crisis caused the disaffected middle class to search for more radical solutions on the right.
Hitler offered scapegoats. He did not attack capitalism but targeted “alien” capitalists—code for Jews—that did not “serve the nation”. Antisemitism was the essential means of uniting the Nazis despite the contradiction between its middle class base and the party’s support for capital.
Paramilitary street marches and rallies provided a sense of pride to impoverished middle class people and some of the unemployed. They showed Hitler’s worth to the bosses.
In 1932 big business and the military began to explore the possibility of bringing Hitler into government. Despite occasionally employing anti-capitalist rhetoric, he reassured them he would leave their economic power intact and honour the army.
Hitler not only wanted to break the left and the unions—a shared ambition of the ruling class—he wanted to carve out a German empire. He promised re‑armament and expansion. On all this big business and the military agreed.
In February 1933, just after he was appointed chancellor, Hitler called a meeting of Germany’s most powerful industrialists, requesting they stump up three million marks for his election campaign.
The two dozen businessmen didn’t hesitate. Many became committed members of the Nazi party and even the SS. They decorated their mansions with paintings stolen from Jews sent to the concentration camps. Inmates from those camps were worked to death in their factories.
Some of those firms at the meeting are still here, the Quandts of BMW. The Flicks who once controlled Daimler-Benz. The Porsche-Piech family who control car giant Volkswagen. The von Fincks, who co-founded Allianz, the world’s biggest insurance company. And the Oetkers, whose business empire stretches from frozen pizza to luxury hotels.
The man who ran Oetker during Second World War was an officer in the SS who trained at Dachau concentration camp and kept Nazi forces supplied with desserts.
Not all went the bosses’ way.
The Nazi state was from 1935 based on expansion. Hitler promised “to command a secure supply of raw materials and foodstuffs for our people”. This meant reducing the export sector in favour of heavy industry essential to modern warfare. When Hitler’s longest-standing capitalist backer Fritz Thyssen opposed this, his factories were taken.
A short-term financial boost was obtained through “Aryanisation” of Jewish assets both in Germany and further afield. The Nazi in charge of this, Hermann Goring, said, “I know no other way to keep the German economy going.”
The idea was to shift the economic cost of the Reich to territories conquered and the “inferior races”. The ruling class largely retained economic power. But political power was exercised by a number of competing elements of the Nazi movement held together by loyalty to Hitler and racism.
Germany’s ruling class found themselves drawn into a genocidal war. They not only acquiesced to this but fully participated in it. And some of them profited hugely.
From the earliest years of the war Jews were rounded up and forced into ghettos, where they faced state brutality, starvation and forced labour. After waves of Allied bombing, the Nazis drove Jews from their homes so others could be given new apartments. This was an explicit item at the Wannsee Conference in January 1942, which planned the Holocaust in horrific detail.
Gradually the ghettos were liquidated and Jews massacred—forced into labour or concentration camps to become part of the huge conveyor belt system of death.
The Holocaust was linked to the Nazis’ fortunes of war on the Eastern Front. In 1941, convinced that victory was at hand, an elated Hitler gave the signal to carry out accelerated pacification and “racial cleansing” of Germany’s new “Garden of Eden”.
That meant the Einsatzgruppen were expanded and given orders to extend their selective massacres of Jews into full scale elimination. Then Hitler authorised the deportation of the European Jews to the east, and construction of the killing centres.
If the initial expropriation of the Jews had provided wealth for the system, the slaughter of the holocaust was a cost. The Holocaust destroyed scarce skilled labour and diverted rolling stock from the military. Individual capitalist firms, such as IG Farben, profited by supplying the means of extermination to the death camps. But that was not the central issue.
For the Nazis, their racist ideas were the cement that held them together. That was more important to them than profits or military strategy. While particular events affected specific elements of the nature and speed of the Holocaust, the Nazis’ distinct ideology drove the barbarism.
It is also why as the victory turned to defeat the one thing the regime was left with was the determination to accelerate the extermination of the Jews. If they were to lose, they would ensure were no Jewish people left.
Importantly, throughout the war the leadership of the Nazi party had to go to extraordinary measures to keep up anti-Jewish feeling. Many non‑Jewish Germans helped save Jews.
And even in hell there was resistance. Jews in Auschwitz who had been forced to burn bodies of those gassed got explosives and destroyed one of the four crematoria. All were executed. It was one of many examples.
The crisis of capitalism did not require the Holocaust. But it did need the Nazis to break the working class. And the Nazis needed the Holocaust.
Protesters told Socialist Worker why they were marching