Holocaust week: Who was responsible and what we should remember?

By Robert Bechert

Deep emotions were aroused by January’s week-long ceremonies to mark the 60th anniversary of the Red Army liberating the Auschwitz extermination camp complex.

For survivors of all the Nazi extermination and concentration camps the terrible memories came back of death, torture, starvation and, particularly for those who were children then, suddenly losing parents, brothers, and sisters, as the SS decided who died immediately and who would be worked to death as a slave labourer. But these bitter memories were not limited to the camp survivors, they were shared by the refugees forced to flee their homeland, and by all those who suffered the brutality of Nazi rule and occupation throughout Europe and North Africa.

For many people, the 60th anniversary was especially important because in ten year’s time probably only a handful of survivors will still be living.

But these ceremonies did not explain how and why the Nazis came to power. Indeed, many of the speakers, like the Russian President, Putin, simply used the occasion to justify their own present day policies.

German Chancellor Schröder repeated that the “official view” that Germans today have a “special responsibility” for the Holocaust. Yes, some Germans did have “special responsibility” for the Nazis, but these were not the majority of workers and middle class Germans. First and foremost, Schröder ignored the fact that the Nazis’ rise was backed and financed by significant sections of the German ruling class. In the decisive months of early 1933, the Nazis were supported and massively funded by the majority of the German ruling class, who feared the possibility of socialist revolution in Germany, and wanted the Nazis to destroy the German workers’ movement. A second responsibility, tragically, lies on the shoulders of the leaders, both Communist and Social Democrat, of the German workers’ movement, who could have stopped the Nazis but were politically unable or unwilling to do so.

In the official commemoration events, again and again, international political leaders said that lessons need to be learnt from the Holocaust. But these leaders choose ‘lessons’ that suited their own purposes.

Perhaps nothing better summed up the callousness of these leaders than the fact that at the main January 27 ceremony at Auschwitz more than 1,000 survivors suffered once more in the freezing cold and snow. ‘The Times’ newspaper (London) explained that this further insult occurred “because some of the visiting dignitaries met for a pre-anniversary lunch in Cracow, the survivors had to wait for even longer than the scheduled two hours. They were given tea but by the end of the ceremony many were breathing with difficulty, their faces red raw from the cold, coughing hard.” (January 28). The priorities of these leaders were clear – lunch was more important that limiting the amount of time these old people sat waiting in the open air and snow.

These leaders were, in reality, merely using the survivors as a stage props while they rapped themselves in a cloak of humanitarian concern. Practically every government represented at Auschwitz has carried out, or defends historically, brutalities committed either against its own or foreign peoples, whether it be in Iraq, Chechnya, Palestine or in the old colonial empires.

No mention was made of the Jews that were refused asylum in Western Europe or the US before the Holocaust began. Before the Second World War, a Jew fleeing the Nazis was only allowed to enter Britain if they either already had a sponsor willing to look after them or had a definite job waiting for them. Often much is made of the Kindertransport – the trains full of Jewish children that left Germany and Austria for refuge in Western Europe. But usually there is silence over why these children had to leave their parents behind – it was often because their parents could not get visas. The history of the limited sanctuary offered for the Nazis’ victims is a taboo subject now when most governments are restricting the right of asylum.

Today, Western leaders stand up to condemn the Holocaust but, for their own interests, ignore the recent mass slaughter in the Democratic Republic of the Congo or, in the case of the US and Britain, kill up to 100,000 civilians in Iraq. Even Israel Singer, President of the World Jewish Congress, warned those who believe that genocide “is a uniquely Jewish problem need only examine Rwanda’s recent past, Sudan’s present and Nigeria’s future.” (Financial Times 26/1/05)

Red Army liberated Auschwitz

Noticeably it has only been in the last few years that many countries have started to significantly mark the Holocaust. The reasons are quite clear. Before the collapse of the former Soviet Union, in 1991, a special emphasis on marking the anniversary of Auschwitz’s liberation would have been embarrassing for Western leaders, as the death camp was freed by the Red Army. This simple fact would have drawn more attention to the reality that the decisive Nazi military defeats during WW2 took place on the eastern front where, despite the terrible impact of Stalinism, the underlying strength of a planned economy, and the fighting spirit of the Red Army, wrecked Hitler’s hopes of victory. This alone would have shown again that there was an alternative to capitalism.

But, after Stalinism’s increasingly paralysing grip helped lead to the restoration of capitalism in the former Soviet Union, the way was opened for Western leaders to try to seize the opportunity to emphasise their own democratic credentials and to argue that capitalism was the only system on offer.

Even so, capitalist governments are selective in what they apologise for. For many people in neo-colonial and Muslim countries this selectiveness is striking and offensive. Thus the Spanish state has recently apologised for the 1492 expulsion of Jews from Spain but not for the simultaneous expulsion of Muslims. In Britain, for example, York City Council has apologised for the 1190 massacre of its then Jewish population, but, days before this year’s Holocaust commemoration, the British Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, said that Britain had no longer to apologise for its colonial past. This was despite the fact that two recently published books have documented the brutality which the British government used in Kenya in the 1950s to suppress an uprising against its rule, illustrating the violence with which the British Empire was built and maintained.

This two sided approach has been typical. In fact, many Western leaders are despicably exploiting the raw emotions of many Holocaust survivors, those who lost members of their families, and the millions whose lives were shattered by Nazism and the Second World War.

During the commemoration the Israeli government repeated again the fact that most European governments did little or nothing at all to help Jewish refugees before the Second World War, and that the authorities in many occupied countries co-operated with anti-Jewish measures, including deportations to the extermination camps like Auschwitz. Many older Jews know that even after the war anti-Semitism continued in parts of Europe, the most infamous example being in Kielce, Poland, where, in July 1946, over 40 died in a pogrom, which then resulted in over 50,000 Jews fleeing Poland within three months.

What happened in Europe is used by Israeli leaders like Sharon to argue that Jews can, in the end, only rely on the state of Israel, as a refuge and defence, and then history is further twisted to justify the present day oppression of the Palestinians. In fact, the almost continual state of war that has existed in the Middle East since the state of Israel was founded is a terrible confirmation of Leon Trotsky’s 1939 warning that the idea of creating a Jewish state in Palestine would be a “trap” for Jews.

Tony Blair’s statement the Holocaust started “with a brick through the window of a Jewish business, the desecration of a synagogue, the shout of racist abuse on the street” is meaningless. It fails to explain why genocide did not also take place after other anti-Semitic attacks. In particular, the real story of how Nazism came to power, the general role of fascism, who financed the fascists, and the use of anti-Semitism throughout Europe, is all suppressed. The history of the inner-war period, of revolution and counter-revolution, of class struggles, of the 1930s Great Depression wrecking lives and creating mass unemployment, are all ignored.

Trotsky’s warnings

In the late 1930s, before the mass extermination started, Trotsky warned again and again, about the fate awaiting the Jews as fascist reaction gained power in different countries. “It is possible to imagine without difficulty what awaits the Jews at the mere outbreak of the future world war. But even without war the next development of the world reaction signifies with certainty the physical extermination of the Jews” (‘Appeal to American Jews’, 22 December 1938, Trotsky’s emphasis). The 1930s threat to Jews, Trotsky argued, was because “decaying capitalism has everywhere swung over to an exacerbated nationalism, one part of which is anti-Semitism” (Der Weg interview, 18 January 1937).

In Germany, as in some other countries, an important additional factor in anti-Semitic propaganda lied in the fact that the workers’ political parties, the Social Democrats (SPD), and the Communists (KPD), at least formally, then adhered to the ideas of Marxism. A large part of Nazis propaganda was the use of anti-Semitism to mobilise opposition against the “unpatriotic”, “UnGerman” and “Jewish” ideas of Marxism and Bolshevism. The fact that Marx and many leaders of both the German and Russian workers’ movements were of Jewish origin was used to justify the Nazis’ propaganda. It was not accidental that the Nazis often used slogans linking together Judaism and Bolshevism. Hitler had already declared in 1932, “I want victory for a nationalistic Germany and annihilation for its Marxist destroyers and corrupters”, and once in power the Nazis carried this out, first seizing communist and socialist workers, and then proceeding to attack the Jews.

But, understandably from their own class point of view, today’s capitalist politicians do not offer any real explanation as to why the Holocaust came about and instead simply blame “evil” or “Germany” and “Germans”.

Israel Singer, reflecting the undoubted bitterness that many Jews still feel, repeated in the already quoted article the idea that “Germany, as the nation that initiated and perpetrated the greatest of all human crimes, bears particular and unforgivable responsibility”.

But, despite the fact that this concept has been repeated, again and again, it is not an explanation as to why the Holocaust took place when it did, and does not provide any lessons for today. In particular, this line of argument does not aid the fight against neo-Nazism today in Germany, as it both distorts history and reduces the struggle against fascism to purely a ‘moral’ battle. Furthermore, the Holocaust is not simply a unique “evil”. While the Holocaust is particularly chilling, because of its sheer scale and industrial organisation, feudal and early capitalist Europe had a centuries’ long history of massacres in the course of wars, civil wars, and religious conflicts, including numerous inter-Christian conflicts.

Fundamentally, the attempt to reduce history to a moral issue is a way of avoiding, or consciously concealing; the question of which forces and which classes, in society allowed and supported the Nazis to come to power.

Hitler and his clique were clearly a gang of increasingly mad adventurers, who took control of the German state and gambled their future on war. The loss of the war weakened German capitalism for a whole historic period; even today the German ruling class cannot even mention the idea of re-gaining the large territory it lost, in both 1918 and 1945. This actually makes it easier to present the Nazis as something completely separate from ‘normal’ politics. The Nazis were abnormal, but to leave any analysis at that level is to ignore how the vast majority of the German ruling class after 1933 supported Hitler, at least until the tide of war turned against him.

Two days before this January’s main ceremony at Auschwitz, Germany’s Chancellor Schröder re-wrote history to confirm again the “guilt” of all Germans for Nazism, thereby ignoring how the Nazis came to power and who supported them. Germans, he said, cannot “circumvent our responsibility by blaming everything on a demonic Hitler. The evil manifested in the Nazi ideology was not without its precursors. There was a tradition behind the rise of this brutal ideology and the accompanying loss of moral inhibition. Above all, it needs to be said that the Nazi ideology was something that people supported at the time and that they took part in putting into effect. The vast majority of the Germans living today bear no guilt for the Holocaust. But they do bear a special responsibility.”

Nazis never won majority support

As always, the attempt to blame all Germans ignores even simple historical facts, such as the fact that the Nazis never won a majority of votes in any free, or even semi-free, elections.

During the radicalisation and polarisation produced by the post-1929 economic collapse, the Nazis’ vote jumped from 810,127 (2.6%) in 1928 to 13,765,781 (37.4%) in July 1932, the first of two elections held that year. This was the Nazi’s electoral highpoint prior to coming to power.

Alongside the Nazis, the German communist party, the KPD, was the only other party to grow during this period, although at a much slower pace. The KPD won 5,980,162 (16.9%) votes in the last free election, in November 1932, and still gained 4,848,058 (12.3%) in the semi-free elections held under mounting Nazi terror, on 5 March 1933.

The second, November 1932 election, in which the KPD won its highest vote, also saw the Nazi vote fall by over 2 million to 11,737,010. This meant that the combined vote of the two workers’ parties, the SPD (social democrats) and the KPD, was, at 13,228,118, one and a half million votes higher than that won by the Nazis. So how can all Germans bear any responsibility for the Nazis, given that even in the semi-free 1933 elections they only won 43.9%, not a majority?

The November 1932 fall in the Nazi vote, and the continued growth of the KPD, meant that the ruling class faced the possibility that their fascist ‘reserve weapon’ would be weakening, just as the revolutionary socialist threat was increasing. This was one of the factors that lead to the Nazis being asked to form a government in January 1933.

Hitler came to power as a result of manoeuvres within the ruling elite and because, in a situation of deepening radicalisation in society, sections of the ruling class hoped they would be able to use the Nazis to crush the growing communist party and to ‘solve’ German capitalism’s massive crisis via dictatorial methods. In the deep social and economic crises of the 1920s and 1930s, fascism developed in a number of countries as mass movements, mainly composed of the middle class and the unemployed, which the capitalists sought to use as a battering ram to cripple or destroy workers’ organisations. But, while the capitalists used the fascists, many within the ruling class had doubts about actually letting the fascists hold power on their own.

Capitalist/Nazi collaboration

In Germany, the irony was that Hitler outmanoeuvred those bourgeois elements who simply wanted to use the Nazis and gave the whole ruling class a choice – back me or else face the real threat of a socialist revolution. In early 1933, faced with this alternative, the vast majority of capitalists made their accommodation with the Nazi leaders, and poured vast amounts of money into the Nazi party to ensure its victory in the March 1933 elections.

When the new elected Reichstag first met on March 21, the KPD had effectively been illegalised, over 10,000 KPD members arrested, and the 81 KPD members elected to the Reichstag were not present and were then disqualified. Faced with the alternative of accepting the Nazis in power or risking a socialist revolution, all the German capitalist parties voted to give the Nazis special powers, powers which legalised the crushing of all opposition and all potential sources of opposition. A week later, the Catholic bishops ended their opposition to the Nazis; by November 1933 the Catholic bishops in Bavaria issued a pastoral letter saying that the German people had been saved from “the horror of Bolshevism.”

Even before these extra powers were voted through the Reichstag, a wave of repression had already swept through Germany, not just against the KPD, but also against SPD members, trade unionists, and other worker-activists. Workers’ organisations had been closed down; both KPD and SPD newspapers had been suppressed, dozens of activists had been killed, and thousands more arrested. One further warning of what was coming was the March 8 announcement that the first concentration camps had been established. But this did stop all the bourgeois parties voting to give the Nazis special powers.

This collaboration between the Nazis and the majority of the German ruling class was maintained at least until it became obvious that the Second World War was lost. But even then most of the Nazis’ bourgeois co-workers, and some lower level Nazi leaders, were able to continue their careers, enjoy their wealth, and receive good pensions in West Germany, after the Second World War.

A well-known example was Hans Globke, the civil servant who partly wrote the infamous 1935 ‘Nuremburg Decrees’, the Nazi race laws, and then produced the official guidelines on how to implement them. Despite being officially praised in 1936 on his work in writing these laws Globke claimed, after 1945, that as he had not actually joined the Nazi party he was not a Nazi. However the reason for this was that in 1940, Martin Bormann, who became Hitler’s private secretary, vetoed Globke’s application to join. Later, after developing a friendship with Adenauer, West Germany’s first Chancellor, the anti-Semite and would-be Nazi, Globke, was for 10 years State Secretary, the head civil servant, in Adenauer’s own office.

So, while Schröder’s repeated claim that Germans as a whole bear “a special responsibility” is nonsense, as shown above, specific groups of Germans do have responsibility, namely the Nazis themselves, the German ruling class, and, tragically, in a different way, the leaders of the German workers’ movement.

Tragedy of German workers’ movement

The Nazis victory can only be understood in the light of the tragedy of the German workers’ movement. Twice, in two generations, German workers built powerful organisations with the aim of overthrowing capitalism.

The building of the social democrats (SPD) was a conscious attempt to build a socialist revolutionary force. With the motto of “not a penny, not a man for this system” the SPD became, by 1912, the largest German party in terms of both membership and votes. But during the First World War the SPD leaders suddenly declared their support for the “system” and the Kaiser’s war. When the German Revolution in 1918 ended the war, the SPD leaders strove to save the “system”, albeit without the Kaiser, and were prepared to use both the army and the semi-fascist Freikorp militias to suppress workers’ attempts to overthrow capitalism.

The SPD leaders did not gain much support from the ruling class for this service. In 1920, the army leadership refused to act against an attempted right-wing Freikorp putsch. This putsch was defeated by a general strike and, in the Ruhr area workers formed their own Red Army to fight the putschists. But this did not change the policy of the SPD leaders, as they then proceeded to use the previously ‘neutral’ army to crush these armed workers’ groups. Ebert, the SPD leader, who was then the German President, actually issued a “backdated decree applying the death penalty to public order offences and thus retrospectively legitimising many of the summary executions that had already been carried out on members of the Red Army by units of the Freikorps and the regular army.” (‘The Coming of the Third Reich’, by Richard J Evans).

The combination of the experience of the SPD leaders in the First World War and revolutionary events afterwards, along with the example of the October revolution in Russia, were the basis for the rapid development of the mass KPD. But the KPD’s development was soon distorted and handicapped by the rise of Stalinism in the Soviet Union. Having missed an opportunity to organise a socialist revolution in 1923 the KPD leaders were then misled by the zigzags of the Stalinist clique that had come to power in the Soviet Union in the 1920s. In particular they implemented the policy of denouncing the SPD as “social-fascists” and regarding it as a bigger enemy than the Nazis, a policy that was accepted by many KPD members because of their utter disgust at the role of the SPD leaders after 1914.

But, at that time, the SPD, unlike the bourgeois party it is today, was a contradictory party. It had a leadership which, as was seen in 1918-20, was prepared to use the Freikorps to crush attempts to overthrow capitalism, but it still retained a large part of its working class base, particular amongst older workers. It was, in Marxist terms, a bourgeois workers’ party, and, as such, was also threatened by the rise of fascism.

Faced with the threat that fascism posed to the rights, liberties, living standards, and organisations that workers had won and built over the years it was essential that the united strength of the workers’ movement was used against the Nazis, a struggle which, if successful, could also have opened the way to overthrowing capitalism. Trotsky and the Left Opposition argued for this policy, but not only did the KPD leadership reject this, they argued that the followers of Trotsky were also fascists!

Firm opposition to the Nazis’ attacks was needed but also a fighting policy that offered a socialist way out of the horrendous economic and social crisis Germany was then in, with about a third of the workforce unemployed at the end of 1932. By this time, there was widespread support for the idea that Germany needed a ‘revolution’, the question was whether it would be the ‘national’ anti-Marxist revolution, which the Nazis claimed they stood for, or socialism. But the KPD leaders, handicapped by the policies of Stalin’s ruling clique in the Kremlin, did not seriously campaign for united workers’ resistance, and were not able to appeal to those workers still following the SPD.

The SPD leaders were totally incapable of organising any serious struggle against the fascists. They pinned their hopes on not breaking the law and steadfastly refused to call for any serious action against the Nazis. The trade union leaders were even worse. Indeed some of them attempted to work with the new Nazi government before the trade unions were dissolved in May 1933. Tragically, the KPD leaders also failed to seriously fight for united workers’ action against the Nazis, and were not even able to, at least, fight a serious rearguard action that would have left a tradition of fighting fascism, something which the Austrian workers did in 1934.

Heroic resistance

That is not to say that there was not resistance to the Nazis coming to power or to ignore the tens of thousands of workers and youth who attempted to resist. Immediately after Hitler became Chancellor, on January 30, protests and a few strikes took place. That night, while Hitler’s SA (storm troopers) and supporters held victory demonstrations, clashes took place in Berlin, Düsseldorf, Hamburg, Halle and Mannheim. Protests were held later in many other cities and towns. A protest general strike took place in Lübeck on February 3, in Staßfurt on February 6, the day after a Nazi shot dead the local SPD Mayor, and also in Hannover, on February 24. But these were isolated events, not part of an organised prepared resistance. Both the KPD and SPD had their own, tens of thousands strong, armed units, but these not used in a co-ordinated way to defend workers under attack.

The Nazi onslaught against working class activities and organisations was not accidental. It flowed both from fascism’s role in smashing the workers’ movement and because a dictatorship could only be established once the workers’ movement was unable to fight back. The brutality of the assault reflected both the seriousness of the struggle and the Nazis’ own weakness within the working class.

Before they came to power the membership of the so-called “employees” wing of the Nazis, the NSBO, reached around 300,000 – mainly white collar and technical employees, and foremen – compared with over 5 million in the social democratic and Christian trade unions.

In March 1933, as the Nazis were consolidating their power, the Works’ Council elections began, and the first results showed workers’ continuing rejection of the Nazis; the Nazis won only 11.7% of the seats before they forcibly cancelled the voting.

The results from two Daimler-Benz factories illustrate this. In the Sindelfingen plant, near Stuttgart, the social democrats won 588 votes, the Communists 432, and the Nazis 162, while in Mannheim, workers elected four social democrats, one Communist, and one Nazi (the Nazis running unopposed amongst white collar workers). But having seized power, the Nazis were not going to accept any electoral defeat. For example between March 11 and April 4 1933, around 60 Communist and social democrat worker activists from areas near Stuttgart were arrested and imprisoned in a horse riding hall.

For the capitalists, the Nazi dictatorship offered the complete destruction of all working class organisations, and the opportunity for the bosses to rule unchallenged within the workplaces. Once the Nazi dictatorship was installed, management often moved into action. For example, at Daimler-Benz, workers could be fired for “activities hostile to the state”.

By the summer 1933, the German working class had been crushed and defeated. The way was now open for German imperialism to prepare to once again to challenge its imperialist rivals and to try to reverse its 1918 defeat.

The Holocaust is one of the great tragedies of the twentieth century, but it could have been stopped if the Nazis had been smashed before they came to power. However, the Nazis could only have been permanently stopped if the German workers’ movement had not only united in action against the Nazis but also offered a serious struggle for socialism – the only a genuine, humane, alternative to the chaos and evils of capitalism. This is the real lesson that comes from the Holocaust. Today’s struggle against oppression and for socialism is the practical way to pay homage to the Nazis’ millions of victims.