Issue 231 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published June 1999 Copyright © Socialist Review
'Milosevic is a fascist. The lesson from the 1930s is that you cannot appease fascism. Therefore we must support Nato's Balkan war.' The last refuge of those who want to justify the war is to try and paint this as a war against 'fascism'. The analogy with the 1930s and the appeasement of Hitler was one trotted out in 1982 by Margaret Thatcher and the then Labour leader, Michael Foot, to justify Britain's Falklands War. It was one used repeatedly to justify the 1990-91 Gulf War, when the west's former ally, Saddam Hussein, was portrayed overnight as the 'New Hitler' in just the same way as Milosevic is today. Yet to confuse fascism with the regime which exists in Serbia or Iraq, or in Argentina in 1982, only helps obscure the danger that Nazism presents to the working class and humanity.
To compare the bankrupt Yugoslavia of today, one which has seen a massive loss of territory, with the Third Reich of the 1930s, based as it was on the most advanced of the European capitalisms, hardly makes sense. But that in itself does not answer the argument: Milosevic might not have Hitler's power, but can the murderous nature of his regime be compared to Nazi Germany? To understand why this is not the case it is necessary to go back to look at the ultimate barbarism which has scarred a century marked by barbarism.
The German ruling class turned to the Nazis because they were haunted by the revolutionary crisis which had swept Germany in the years after 1918. In the hothouse atmosphere which followed the Wall Street Crash of 1929 the German capitalist class did not trust the police and army to contain a situation in which there was mounting class tension. They looked to the ideologically committed Stormtroopers of the Nazi Party to destroy any form of working class organisation and indeed any form of organisation independent of the new one party Nazi state. Between Hitler taking power in 1933 and the outbreak of war in 1939 some 225,000 people were sentenced to 600,000 years in jail for political 'offences.' As many as a million Germans spent time in the concentration camps.
The ruling classes of Britain, France and the US were full of admiration for what Hitler had achieved. They only began to turn against him when it became clear that the Nazi regime, the German ruling class and the high command shared a common goal to repartition Europe and carve out a German empire in central and eastern Europe. After trying to appease Hitler by feeding him the democratic state of Czechoslovakia (and spurning Russian offers to ally with Britain and France in defence of the Czech state), Britain and France realised Hitler would not stop there and committed themselves to trying to cage German territorial expansion by defending the Polish state (itself a military regime marked by high levels of anti-Semitism).
Hitler presided over the expansion of the Third Reich until at its high water mark he ruled from the English Channel to the Don. In contrast Milosevic presides over a Yugoslav state which has seen the loss of Slovenia, Croatia and Macedonia, the partitioning of Bosnia, the probable division of Kosovo on similar lines to that brokered at Dayton in 1995, and the weakening of its control over Montenegro. Far from smashing all opposition inside Serbia, Milosevic's rule has been punctuated by explosions of mass anger. There is a broad range of organisations, from trade unions and human rights groups to opposition radio stations and newspapers, still in existence organising against the Milosevic regime (though their task has become immeasurably more difficult as Nato bombing has rallied support behind the Serb government). Such dissent could not find a voice in Hitler's Germany or Franco's Spain.
An independent trade union movement exists in Serbia. Milosevic might like to destroy this but he cannot. This is in contrast to Hitler's Germany and Franco's Spain, where independent working class organisation was the first victim of fascism. In Germany, and earlier in Italy under Mussolini, the creation of an independent paramilitary force, controlled by the Nazi Party, meant the regime could carry out a far more effective 'cleansing' of German society than the police or army were capable of. Milosevic has no such independent force.
Compared to the Third Reich, Milosevic's regime is a shambles. Hitler created his own military machine, the SS, which he could use against dissidents within the officer corps and the ruling class. In reality the opposition within the ruling class was very weak, and what is remarkable is the unity between the Nazi regime and German capital which lasted until 1945. In contrast, Milosevic has faced repeated waves of strikes and demonstrations which have come within an inch of removing him from power. Some 23 percent of conscripts refused to serve in the Yugoslav army when war erupted in 1991. Popular opposition to the war in Bosnia led to Milosevic accepting a peace deal involving the US at Dayton in 1995 (at that time he was a man Clinton 'could do business with' rather than the 'new Hitler'). Even in its final months the Nazi regime was able to suppress opposition to the war.
It is argued in addition that ethnic cleansing in Kosovo is comparable to the Holocaust when 6 million Jews were slaughtered. It seems callous to compare the loss of life involved in the various episodes of barbarism which have dominated this century. But to understand the Holocaust and to arm us against any repetition of it we must be aware of what made it unique. Hitler had death camps from 1942 onwards where the most modern industrial methods devised by capitalism were used to systematically kill Jews, Roma Gypsies, left wingers and Jehovah's Witnesses. Pseudo-scientific racism was used to justify this.
In Eastern Europe and Russia the Nazi regime used the most barbaric methods devised by Western colonial powers, from the Spanish conquest of America, through slavery and the destruction of native populations to the division of Africa. In the drive for lebensraum (living space) the non-German peoples were treated as untermenschen (subhuman) destined to become slave labour or to be herded ever eastwards. A full 5.7 million people, 16 percent of the population of Poland (half of them Jews), were killed under Nazi rule in the region.
The term Holocaust is bandied about. It was used by those on the left to justify their support for Croatia when that state triggered war with Serbia in 1991 and again when that spread into a three sided war in Bosnia. Terrible atrocities were committed by all sides in this conflict, but it is important to stress the uniqueness of the Holocaust as the ultimate barbarism of human history. What was different about the Holocaust was that at the Wannsee conference in 1942 the major industrial and military power in Europe decided to identify and destroy every single person of Jewish descent in German controlled Europe using factory production techniques.
The images of Stalin's gulag are those of people being worked to death in freezing conditions or being shot in the back of the head. Ethnic cleansing in former Yugoslavia has been carried out by men in uniform using small arms in the main. The images associated with the Holocaust are those of the railways transporting millions of people across thousands of miles to their destruction, of state of the art Zyklon B gas being used to mass murder people, and of multinationals like BMW or Volkswagen profiting from slave labour. In other words, the very images associated with the Holocaust are those of advanced capitalism of the time.
The Holocaust was driven on by the inner core of the Nazi Party and by the SS. Anti-Semitism was the irrational ideology which welded the Nazi machine together. The Jews were the ultimate enemy which had to be destroyed. Their elimination was seen as the only way the German empire could be safeguarded as it expanded eastwards. Their destruction came to be seen as a victory which could be achieved even as the Third Reich was crumbling away. The Holocaust was not rational in terms of German capitalism, destroying badly needed skilled labour and wasting massive resources just as the tide of war changed. It was not rational in terms of maintaining popular support for the regime as all evidence suggests that anti-Semitism, and certainly the murderous anti-Semitism which existed within the Nazi Party, was not popular within Germany. The open violence unleashed against Jewish shops and businesses on Kristallnacht in 1938 met with popular hostility and Hitler retreated from using such tactics again.
Rather, the regime went to great lengths to keep the Holocaust secret, and while many, many Germans knew that something terrible was happening, it was not used as a means to maintain mass support. The Holocaust was carried out by psychopathic killers. But German capitalism had needed such psychopathic killers in 1933 to smash working class opposition and later to create an eastern empire. The other side of the deal between capital and the Nazis was that the same psychopathic killers could carry out their crazed fantasy of destroying the Jews. Remove Hitler, the Nazi Party and the SS and there would be no Holocaust. Remove Milosevic and there would be numerous Serb politicians, including genuine fascists, willing to carry on the politics of ethnic purity.
The other example trotted out to justify Nato's war by Labour MPs, cruise missile liberals and other 'left' warmongers is that of the Spanish Civil War. In 1936 the attempt by the Spanish military to defend and seize power against a democratically elected government was met by the working class using revolutionary methods to seize control of the major Spanish cities. But it is a travesty to compare that war, which galvanised working class solidarity throughout the world, with the Balkans today.
The language of Nato's war is not that of the working class, as in 1936. It is that of the ruling class, carrying as it does the direct echo of the Vietnam and Gulf wars. We are not witnessing a wave of working class solidarity which brought South Wales miners, Manchester engineers and Clydeside shipyard workers to Spain to fight fascism. Instead we are seeing the United States and its allies mobilising the armoury of the new world order. In Spain, by contrast, no big powers gave more than token support to the Republican side, fearing workers' revolution.
After the initial defeat of the military coup in most of the country, Franco understood that he would have to create a mass movement capable not just of winning the war but capable too of destroying working class organisation and imposing a Castilian based state on the minority Basque and Catalan peoples. Franco's victory was followed by the execution of up to half a million of his opponents. For over three decades the open expression of not just socialist but liberal ideas was impossible. Repeated waves of repression and execution were unleashed to deal with any opposition or dissent. For the majority of that time the Spanish fascist regime was an ally of the US, Nato providing bases for US nuclear bombers.
Milosevic is a butcher. This magazine came out clearly against him when he first attempted to whip up nationalism in Kosovo in 1988. But he cannot be compared to Hitler. Nor indeed can his crimes be compared to those of Belgian colonial rule in the Congo, the genocide inflicted on the Armenian people by the Ottoman Empire at the beginning of this century, the artificially created famine by Britain in India which killed 3 to 4 million people in Bengal during World War Two, the death of half a million or more Communists in the CIA backed coup in Indonesia in 1965 or the one and a half million Vietnamese who died in a war the US claimed was 'to save democracy'.
If Milosevic is Hitler reincarnate then where does that leave the rulers of Turkey, who have killed far more people in their dirty war in Kurdistan, or the rulers of Indonesia, who have killed far more in East Timor? In both instances ethnic cleansing is going on. Yet Turkey, where fascists are a junior member of the coalition government, is a member of Nato and is now supplying airbases for the bombing of Yugoslavia. The Indonesian military is showered with weapons by Britain and the US.
Milosevic is a butcher in a region which abounds with butchers. Franjo Tudjman in Croatia and Alia Izetbegovic in Bosnia were similarly ex-Stalinist apparatchiks who jumped ship to reinvent themselves as nationalists, who like Milosevic whipped up nationalism in order to create ethnic based states and encouraged ethnic cleansing. Or we could compare Milosevic to the new chief of staff of the Kosovo Liberation Army, Agim Ceku, who as brigadier-general in the Croatian army was in charge of Operation Storm, the ethnic cleansing of 200,000 Serbs from the Krajina in 1995.
Blair and his supporters on the left who endorse this war want us to think it is for the highest humanitarian principles. That is why they have to make comparisons with Hitler and the 1930s. Yet, as becomes increasingly clear, the real motives of the west are much more about their own advancement. Anyone siding with Nato will find themselves defending militarism and war, not fighting them.