Issue 238 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published February 2000 Copyright © Socialist Review
'Life and death lightly decided'
'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 judgement 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".'
Into the new millennium it is tempting, indeed understandable, to look back on the last century as containing much we want to forget. Add to this desire to start anew the fact that the young perpetrators of the Holocaust in the 1940s, the bloodiest and most barbaric event of the century, if still alive, are in their 80s, then it becomes even more tempting to, if not forgive, at least support the scaling down of attempts to find and prosecute these old men. This may be understandable but is mistaken.
The Holocaust, the attempted genocide of Jews and other 'subhumans', was perhaps the most brutal act of the barbarous 20th century although it was not the only genocide. From the second decade of the century when the Turks attempted to wipe out the Armenians to the events in Rwanda, Kosovo and East Timor in the last decade of the century, genocide, ethnic cleansing and mass murder of civilians have become the norm. Yet the Holocaust evokes for most people the ultimate in inhumanity, hence the outrage when David Irving and other Holocaust deniers claim that the Holocaust was 'a detail of history'.
The programme of genocide was developed in stages, each one with its own unique barbarities. However, it was not just the scale and savagery of the slaughter, but rather the thoroughly capitalist nature of the Holocaust both in its planning and implementation that made the Holocaust such an event. One Auschwitz officer even described the camp as 'murder by assembly line', as the most advanced industrial methods of a vast military economy were put to killing. In essence, we are dealing with an attempt to strip humans of their humanity, their dignity and their identity; an attempt to demonstrate and justify, through the victims themselves, the idea of subhumans and to stamp out any desire or thoughts of resistance.
The camp system involved and dehumanised the prisoners who often took their powerlessness against the Nazis out on fellow prisoners. The struggle for survival ensured, in Primo Levi's phrase, that the 'worst lived, the best all died'. It is little surprise that so many survivors of the camps, like Levi and Jean Amery, still committed suicide 40 years after their liberation, so riddled with guilt did the camps make them and so painful were their experiences. It is in the name of the millions who died that the perpetrators must be brought to account.
The capitalist nature of the Holocaust can be seen from the SS, the army, the industrialists and the civil servants planning the Holocaust at Wannsee in January 1942, to the bureaucratised and efficient train system, to huge research and development into efficient gas for the ovens, to the country's best engineering firms competing for the contract to build the most efficient crematoria, to the fact that 'healthy' Jews were not exterminated immediately but, particularly in times of labour shortage, were worked to death as slave labour.
Put bluntly, the Nazis were the barbaric product of the crisis of capitalism in Germany between the world wars and the Holocaust was a product of their twisted world outlook. Often the murderous affair could appear irrational as industrial managers using slave labour complained, in production terms, of how wasteful it was to constantly have to train up new labour as the SS ensured that Jewish slave labour did not live too long. Also, on occasion, the transport of Jews could seem to go counter to the war effort. Yet the Holocaust was central to the Nazis, and the Nazis and the successful outcome of the war were central to the interests of German capital.
However, it would be a mistake to see the Holocaust solely in terms of the camps. The German invasion of the USSR (Operation Barbarossa) in 1941 unleashed murder on a vast scale as Nazis and a section of the German army found they now controlled areas with many millions of Jews and that the 'solution to the Jewish problem' was to murder them. In the first week of Operation Barbarossa 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, up till mid-1941, there were more Communists and socialists in Nazi camps than Jews. The Einsatzgruppen moved in behind the German army. A non-Jewish Bialystok historian summed up what happened in that city, which had some 50,000 Jews in it, when the Nazis entered on 27 June 1941: 'Dante-esque scenes took place on 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.' These scenes were repeated in all communities which came under Nazi control. Occasionally German army officers registered their disgust. One major wrote in an official report in early 1942 of events he had witnessed in July 1941, 'I cannot begin to conceive the legal decisions on whose basis these executions... Right out in the open, as if on a stage, men murder other men...hundreds of people are thus killed daily.'
The Einsatzgruppen also attempted to involve indigenous populations in doing their own killing. Often they were successful, which is why many of those accused today are Latvian, Lithuanian and Ukrainian. In these areas, the Germans were particularly successful in involving locals although there were cases where they were not capable of making the locals into murderers. For example, a report prepared in October 1941 complained that the Einsatzgruppen operating in Estonia could not 'provoke spontaneous anti-Jewish demonstrations with ensuing pogroms'. The reason given was that 'adequate enlightenment was lacking', that is the local population were not anti-Semitic and refused to involve themselves in the murder of Jews! A similar response was reported by the Einsatzgruppen active in White Russia who complained that the local population was not prepared 'to take part in any pogroms'. But all too often a mixture of bribery, threats and old enmities meant that the Einsatzgruppen became the organisers of local killing squads in the conquered areas. The need to kill Jews ever more efficiently and quickly, and the potential and real effects of the face to face slaughter of the individuals persuaded the Nazi leadership that a more impersonal method of slaughter--the extermination camp--was preferable.
World revulsion at evidence of the Holocaust, which unfolded in 1945, ensured that there were going to be trials for war crimes. The Nazis had gone to great lengths to keep the extermination camps secret. However, the Allies knew about them as they had broken Nazi codes although they constantly lied to delegations asking them to bomb the railway into Auschwitz that they had no proof. On 8 August 1945, the victorious allies agreed to set up an international tribunal for these trials at Nuremberg. This tribunal met from 20 November 1945 till 1 October 1946 and there were successor trials till 1949. These established that the Germans were responsible for the war (the war guilt decision) and the mass murder of European Jewry (crimes against humanity). Although there were problems with the judgement of the victors blaming Germany for the war, the evidence presented by the survivors ensured that Nazi crimes against humanity were exposed to the whole world.
In the three Western zones 5,025 people were convicted of war crimes or crimes against humanity; 806 were sentenced to death and 486 were executed and some committed suicide. However, others, such as Eichmann, escaped, others still were useful to the occupying powers and still others melted away only to come to light later. They should be exposed and made to pay for their crimes.
Can Marxists explain Auschwitz? Was Auschwitz a defining moment of the 20th century? Was it an unparalleled example of barbarism at the heart of civilisation? Enzo Traverso makes a hugely impressive effort to answer these questions. He is aided, and sometimes inhibited, by combining four key influences: Trotsky; the postwar Marxism of the Fourth International; Walter Benjamin and the academic Marxism of the Frankfurt School; and some of the recent debates in Holocaust studies.
Was Nazism simply then an extreme version of imperialism and capitalism? Certainly, Hitler's war in eastern Europe was justified in the name of 'living room' for the German people. Lesser peoples had to be cleared out for this colonial expansion. Hitler mobilised the pseudo-scientific race biology theories in ideological self defence which had been pioneered by imperialism in the 19th century.
The German capitalist class entered the Second World War with great enthusiasm. It was determined to avenge the humiliation of its defeat by British imperialism in the 1914-18 war. Its sophisticated machinery would be put at the service of the concentrated massacre that was the Holocaust. This is one of its most frightening aspects. Its modern efficiency, and the everyday routine compliance of large numbers of people, directly and indirectly in the killing, resembled 'normal' capitalist activity.
In one sense it was normal capitalist activity. The mass production of death was a repeated characteristic of the 20th century. But what made the Holocaust unique was the attempted systematic extermination of a distinctive ethnic group, the Jews, identified as the source of all evil in the modern world.
Traverso is very careful not to claim that the 'undigested barbarism' (to use Trotsky's phrase) here is 'worse' than, say, the African slave trade. But he is saying it is different. The slave trade had a rational, if hideously induced objective from the point of view of the capitalist system. But the Holocaust made no sense to German capitalism. It destroyed labour, often valuable skilled labour, and it drained resources from the war effort. It had about it a madness, a deadly irrationality. It is this sense of the irrational, as well as the scale of the horror, that makes the shadow of the Holocaust loom so large at the end of the century. It is a shadow over the future of civilisation itself.
Trotsky had warned of this: Nazi anti-Semitism, and western imperialism's complicity with it, signalled the decline of capitalism. He even predicted the Holocaust. Only the working class could save, and build on, the foundations of civilisation. Walter Benjamin reached a similar conclusion. Adapting Marx's metaphor that the revolution is the 'locomotive of history', he proposed that 'perhaps revolutions are the reaching of humanity travelling in this train for the emergency brake', halting the rush towards catastrophe.
The Second World War had Auschwitz at its heart and Hiroshima at its end. There is a disturbing symmetry between them. Hiroshima posed the possibility of nation states pursuing their rational self interests and using nuclear weapons to blow the world to bits as the end result. That threat, alongside new and quite unnecessary ecologically threatening global catastrophes, is still with us.
The argument about irrationality was developed by the Frankfurt school of Adorno and others. Here Traverso underplays, and sometimes even reflects, their extreme pessimism. He seems to doubt the political capacity of the working class to rise to the challenges he so eloquently describes. He should probably have made much clearer, too, the role anti-Semitism played as the ideological hammer used to smash the workers' movement. The fate of gypsies, gays and Soviet and other East European death camp prisoners should have been accorded greater attention.
Nevertheless, this is a genuinely original contribution to our understanding. Students of the Holocaust sometimes worry that too much analysis may immunise us against its unbelievable horror. Traverso avoids that risk with great sensitivity and imagination.
Understanding the Nazi Genocide
Enzo Traverso, Pluto Press £11.99