In the course of the Holocaust 6 million Jews — two thirds of the entire European Jewish population — died at the hands of the Nazi murder machine. Adolph Hitler’s regime oversaw the killing of roughly 5 million socialists, communists, Roma Gypsies, Slavs, Christians, LGBT and disabled people.
Seventy years on from the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp the question of the roots of the Holocaust remains ever pertinent. The Holocaust shows what reaction is capable of. The sheer brutality of events in Nazi Germany, whether the state-sponsored pogroms of the Kristallnacht or the industrialised murder of the gas chambers, poses huge questions.
Why did the German ruling class hand power to Hitler and the Nazis on 30 January 1933? Before the Great Depression convulsed German capitalism, the Nazi party had polled no more than 2.6 percent of the vote for the Reichstag, the German parliament. In 1932, after three years of severe economic crisis, industrial production had been devastated and by the autumn 5 million people were unemployed.
The ruling class was haunted by the spectre of the German Revolution of 1919-23 which overthrew Kaiser Wilhelm, the German king. Just a decade before Hitler came to power workers in Germany took militant action and won huge gains such as the eight-hour day and wage increases. They had gone as far as creating workers’ councils, such as in the southern region of Bavaria — which was to become a Nazi stronghold — where they temporarily seized power. There was a sense that the working class could seize power as they did in the 1917 Russian Revolution.
Crushing the power of the workers became the key aim of the ruling class, and even before the great depression of the 1930s industry leaders were labelling Germany as “a trade union state”.
In the Reichstag elections of November 1932 the Nazis won 11.7 million votes, just over 33 percent of all those cast. But this doesn’t paint the full picture of what was taking place in German society.
The Nazi vote had fallen by 2 million votes since the July elections, and the SPD (the German Labour Party) and the Communist Party (KPD) had a combined total of 36 percent of the vote. Together they had more support than the Nazis, but the necessary unity never materialised. Thirteen years earlier, during the German Revolution, the SPD government had orchestrated the killing of two leading communists, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. KPD members couldn’t forgive them. But more importantly, the KPD theorised the SPD as “social fascists” whose attacks on workers created conditions in which fascism could flourish, and refused to work with them.
The disunity of the left allowed the Nazis to tear through the middle of both. By the end of 1933, 130,000 members of the KPD had been interned, and from then until 1945 over 3 million Germans were taken as political prisoners. The German elite were confronted with the continuation of the crisis and the parliamentary breakthrough of the Communist Party which won 77 deputies in the parliament. In response, the ruling class united with the Nazis, appointing Hitler as chancellor in order to smash the organisation of the working class.
The handing of power to the Nazis must be understood in the context of this deep economic crisis and the power of German workers. Once in power the Nazis introduced a raft of anti-Semitic legislation. In 1933, two months after Hitler’s accession, the Nazis introduced a law that meant that they could sack Jewish workers from the civil service. The law also stated that they could remove anyone whose “previous political activities afford no assurance that they will at all times give their fullest support to the national state”.
This was important — it undermined the ability of socialists and trade unionists to resist both the racism of the state and the huge attacks on workers that were to come. It was an effective use of anti-Semitism to attack working class organisation. In 1935 laws were introduced to prevent relationships between Jewish and non-Jewish people. This was punishable with hard labour. These policies had the aim of further dividing workers in Germany by ratcheting up anti-Semitism, but also of holding together the forces united behind the Nazi ideology of National Socialism.
It would be wrong to reduce the Holocaust to fulfilling the needs of the big businesses — such as Kellogs, IG Farben, Volkswagen and IBM. Big business did benefit from the smashing of the workers’ movement, but the Nazis went much further. The Holocaust meant the killing of millions of workers; it was not “rational” for capital. The interests of the ruling class and the Nazis converged on what to do with the workers’ movement, but great tensions also existed between them. Fascism is a mass movement of the petty bourgeoisie, the “shopkeepers and dentists”, and not of big capital.
Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky described how fascism turned “worms into dragons”. The petty bourgeoisie had been victims of the profound instability of post-war Germany, pitched between the powerful workers’ movement and the big capitalists; fascism represented their reaction to this crisis.
This was far from a specifically German movement. In Russia the wave of reaction that followed the defeat of the 1905 Revolution included a number of state-sponsored pogroms aimed primarily at Jews.
The German petty bourgeoisie were responding both to the threat of Bolshevism in the workers’ movement, and the threat of finance capital looming over them. Hitler’s caricature of the “Jewish banking cartel” appealed to them as a culprit for the continued instability in German society.
Kristallnacht in 1938 was an important turning point. The pretext for the massacre was the assassination of a German diplomat, Vom Rath, by a Polish Jew whose family had been expelled from Germany. The Nazis used the pogrom to confiscate Jewish property to raise funds for the war effort, separate and isolate the Jews into the concentration camps, and extend the state policy of extreme discrimination into one of state violence.
The biological racism of the Nazis was the cement with which the National Socialist movement was held together. However, the Holocaust was the result of the combination of this racism and the radicalising of the Nazis’ attempts to deal with the “Jewish question” in the face of numerous setbacks — principally their military defeat at the hands of the Russians. A major spur for the radicalisation of the Nazi plans was the invasion of the USSR in June 1941. From the outset it was clear that the Nazi leadership saw this as a war of extermination against “Judeo-Bolshevik Russia”. Special troops, the Einsatzgruppen, were sent in alongside the German army to carry out mass killings of Jews.
Initially the Einsatzgruppen had been formed to support the invasion of Poland in 1939 where they executed teachers, intelligentsia, clergymen and even some of the nobility. As part of the invasion of the USSR, some 3,000 Einsatzgruppen soldiers were deployed in four groups. With orders from Reinhard Heydrich, their purpose was to secure the offices and papers of the Russian state and Communist Party; to liquidate all the higher cadres of the Russian state; and to instigate and encourage pogroms against Jewish populations.
From the beginning of June they were ordered to kill all communists, as well as to kill all male Jews aged 15 to 45. By August the killings involved women, children and the elderly too. The biggest mass murders perpetrated by the Einsatzgruppen were near Kiev, the capital of Ukraine. Over two days more than 33,000 Jews were killed. Their possessions were stolen; they were stripped of their clothes, forced to lie down, then shot in the back or head.
Hitler had threatened the extermination of the Jews in a Reichstag speech in January 1939, but it’s unlikely that the “final solution” itself had been part of a long-formed plan. The Nazis had discussed, among other things, transporting the Jews to Madagascar. Rather it seems that the decision to exterminate the Jews had been reached as a result of upward pressures upon the divided and fragmented Nazi bureaucracy.
The mass murders accelerated as food shortages meant that the Nazis would only keep alive those capable of labouring. The slow progress of the war meant that Nazi officers increasingly found they couldn’t find “efficient” ways of dealing with thousands of Jews. The Nazis’ main aim of creating a petty bourgeois utopia was crushed by the looming defeat at the hands of the Russian army. Thus the Nazis pursued one “victory” they could deliver — the physical destruction of the Jews and all “anti-social elements”.
The Final Solution was finalised at the Wannsee Conference, a secret meeting of 15 high-ranking Nazi officials on 20 January 1942. Hitler informed the attendants that the Final Solution – the systematic murder of not only the Jews living within Nazi controlled regions, but of all 11 million Jews living in Europe — would take place. Heydrich would oversee the operation. The conference, far from discussing whether the genocide should take place, discussed its implementation.
The experience of Hungary is an example of both the efficiency and the brutality of what was to come. In March 1944 German tanks rolled into the capital, Budapest, and the government of Döme Sztójay was installed. The fascist party Arrow Cross was legalised and started to organise the roundup of Jews. Twelve thousand a day were piled into cattle cars and sent to the death camps.
In two months some 600,000 Hungarian Jews were sent to die in Auschwitz. There were so many corpses that the crematoriums were full — the Nazis resorted to burning bodies in the open air.
One of the most popular theories explaining the Holocaust is that German society was inherently anti-Semitic.
The most notable example of this is Daniel Goldhagen’s 1996 book Hitler’s Willing Executioners. For Goldhagen, the entire German society sat on a spectrum of “eliminationist anti-Semitism”.
At one end sat Germans who believed that Jews were somehow different; at the other those who believed that Jews were distinctly evil. Those who sat at the former end of the spectrum, in pursuit of the attempt to eradicate “different” Jewish features, slid quickly into the opposite camp — of genocide.
But this attempt to paint all of German society as deeply and latently anti-Semitic is problematic. Reducing the Holocaust to the culmination of German society fails to explain how violent anti-Semitism could take place elsewhere. As well as anti-Semitic pogroms in Russia, the persecution of a Jewish officer in 1894 in France, known as the Dreyfus Affair, showed how imperialist states were willing to use anti-Semitism to paper over the cracks in their crisis-riven societies.
One of the striking things about the Holocaust is the sense in which many bureaucrats involved in its organisation weren’t clear what they were helping to drive and create. The Nazis took great care that their plans for the Jews would stay guarded. Leading Nazis such as Himmler had insisted that there should be no official mention of “the special treatment of the Jews”.
Germans hadn’t automatically accepted the anti-Semitism of the state. People who had given food to Jews had been shot in the street by the Nazis, and Goebbels had made it clear that “criticism is permitted only to those who are not afraid of getting into a concentration camp”. Himmler railed against the fact that all Germans seemed to know “a decent Jew”. Far from suggesting acceptance, there were lots of acts of resistance — after the war roughly 1,000 Jews emerged from hiding in Berlin alone.
Why is this significant? Firstly, it showed that the majority of people didn’t support the Nazis and if the left had united they might have stopped the Nazis. Secondly, it is a warning against any complacency in the face of fascism. Today, in the context of both the military defeat of the West in the Middle East and the economic crisis, the ruling classes are stoking Islamophobia and anti-immigrant racism.
The Holocaust provides a warning to us all of what happens when the right reaps the rewards of political and economic turmoil.
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