The Holocaust - An attempt to explain the inexplicable

We are publishing an article by Inge Eriksson, University lecturer in 'European studies with a historical orientation', at Malmö University, Sweden. The article analyses the roots and conditions that led to the Holocaust under Nazi Germany.

Editor's note:

We are publishing an article by Inge Eriksson, University lecturer in 'European studies with a historical orientation', at Malmö University, Sweden. The article analyses the roots and conditions that led to the Holocaust under Nazi Germany. It explains that the failure of the labour movement to take power after the First World War, together with the terrible social consequences of the 1929 Crash, created the conditions first for the rise of Hitler and then for the carrying out of the terrible massacre of the Jews. The In Defence of Marxism web site does not agree with every detail of this article, (for example, when it states that workers' democracy in the Soviet Union had been rapidly undermined since 1919 - we would agree with Trotsky's analysis and date the beginning of the degeneration of the Soviet Union a few years later). Nonetheless we think that it is a valid contribution to a serious, materialist analysis of why these events took place. It was originally written for publication in Sweden, but we feel that it would be of interest to an international readership as well.

During the last few years the debate about Nazism, racism and xenophobia in Sweden, as elsewhere in Europe, has been intense. Revisionist pseudo-science has tried to belittle or completely deny the holocaust. Public institutions have been forced to respond to the revisionists' worst lies. Much of the media's focus has been on neo-Nazi gangs and skinheads. In the meantime other more "well-behaved", but maybe more dangerous, people are trying to rewrite the past through magazines, books and obscure journals. One of these is the British historian David Irving.

One attempt to counter these lies and historical forgeries has been a book launched by the Swedish government called "om detta må ni berätta" (.Tell ye your children.). Many lies are answered in this book and facts about the holocaust are also presented. It has been distributed widely, for example to all secondary school students in the country. Earlier this year a big international conference was held in Stockholm, with the purpose of highlighting the historical facts, remembering what happened and mobilising politicians against the revisionist lies.

This is all well and good. However, at the same time the above mentioned book raises many more questions than it answers. They fail to really explain the roots of Nazism, how it was possible for Mussolini and Hitler to gain power and how it was possible to create a social situation that could lead to the horrors of the Holocaust. In this article I shall try to find some answers and explanations, hopefully to give a deeper understanding, even if I am totally aware of the fact that history can never be completely explained.

The ideological roots of Nazism

During the late 19th century the number of workers in industry increased rapidly, cities grew and many first generation workers were thrown into completely new living conditions. New technology and a new organisation of the labour process led to alienation and a feeling of being dispensable. This also affected a large layer of the petty-bourgeoisie, who lost more and more of their semi-independent position in society.

The development of the bourgeoisie must also be taken into account, because the degree of independence they could develop differed to a large extent from country to country in Europe and elsewhere. This was a result of different historical processes in each country. Some parts of Europe developed faster than others while the others tried to catch up. For instance, the development of national unification came late in Germany and Italy, and industrialisation in these countries was more connected to the big banks, the state and to foreign capital than in Britain and France. Therefore the old feudal institutions and mentalities survived more present in the "backward" countries. This 'gemeinschaft' mentality had a strong influence on nationalist ideology, and was used in Nazi propaganda as the ideal of how society should be structured.

Where possible, the bourgeoisie tried to avoid direct confrontation with the developing working class. Thus, it was necessary to find the ideological means to break workers' class-consciousness. The bourgeoisie tried to persuade workers to share some fundamental values and concepts with them and to create a common national cause. Workers were expected to see themselves first as Germans, Swedes, Italians etc., and only after that were they to see themselves as belonging to a separate class. Thus, nationalist ideologies were developed. (This also served to justify the bourgeoisie's imperialist domination of the world). Nazism and Fascism later took some of their ideas from these ideologies.

Nationalist ideologies often applied Darwin's theory of evolution to society and the nation, which were regarded as a organisms threatened by foreign viruses. Anti-Semitism, which had existed in Europe for centuries, now had new elements added to it. From being mainly religious, it became mainly racist. "Racial-genetics", i.e. eugenics, was raised to the status of a science. The anti-Semitism of the Nazis meant that Jews were considered as a non-species, i.e. they didn't belong to humanity. This was seen as a genetic fact and thus individual Jews could no longer avoid anti-Semitic persecution through cultural and religious assimilation into society .

Anti-Semitism wasn't an exclusively German phenomenon, neither were racism and the idea that the nation was an organism. These ideas were present all over Europe, including Sweden. The Swedish Social-Democratic leadership used Nationalist, and sometimes even anti-Semitic, phraseology and imagery. When the Social-Democratic parties internationally grew in size and influence many of their leaders came from bourgeois elite groups. These leaders were aware of the social problems that developed from the rapid changes in society, but couldn't conceive of going beyond the limits of the bourgeois state to solve them. When they attempted to impose socialist ideas onto a national framework, they sometimes ended up by pandering to racist ideas.

During the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century much of bourgeois culture was riddled with mysticism, fear of the masses, superhuman ideals and an idolisation of non-Christian cults. In other words the "New Age" movement of the time was very popular. This included a celebration of Aryan and German rites and myths. This was later also incorporated into the Nazi cult.

Nationalist ideas also consisted of (and still consist of) strong notions concerning gender relations and sexuality. Women and men are given stereotype roles within the nation. The man is supposed to be dominant and active and the woman is supposed to be the reproductive and moral force. The widespread use of words like "Fatherland" or "Mother Svea" (Mother Sweden) indicate these categories. No unclear sexual roles are tolerated. This means in turn that homosexuality is perceived as a threat and the bourgeois nuclear family is the only legitimate form of family. Alternative sexual relations are "alien" to the national culture. Men that do not participate in the military defence of the nation or show a warlike and active behaviour are seen as not being "real" men. The Nazi and Fascist ideals and aesthetics, represented by the creation of male paramilitary organisations from an early age and the idealisation of the mother and domestic wife (with medals for "A-mothers") are consistent with nationalist ideology.

These ideas also influenced the Stalinist Soviet Union during the 1930s when many progressive laws and reforms aimed at strengthening position of women in society were abolished or changed. Stalin also gave out medals to the 'Mother of the Month', 'Mother of the Nation', etc. It is no coincidence that during these years teachers in Soviet schools suddenly started preaching about nationalism and the glorious past of the Russian Empire. This shows that the Stalinist ideas are totally alien to international socialism and Marxism.

The emergence of Nazism

In 1914 social and political conflicts in Europe, expressed in nationalism, imperialism and the collapse of the reformist leaderships in the social democratic parties, exploded with the outbreak of the First World War. During the war the flow of refugees increased in Europe, new nationalist movements came to the forefront and demanded their own states. Workers in several countries attempted to bring down their governments through revolution.

For Germany the war ended in defeat and an uprising of workers and soldiers. Revolutionary councils were formed and the monarchy was overthrown. However, the workers' councils never conquered power. The social-democratic leaders diverted the councils into accepting a subservient position within the new bourgeois state, the Weimar republic.

In Italy the end of the war also led to a social explosion. Rural workers and peasants and workers tried to advance their positions through a series of strikes and occupations and through the co-operative movement. In both countries, as in Austria, Sweden and other countries, a series of militant struggles took place between 1918 and 1921. Under the threat of social revolution, universal suffrage, a shorter working day and other reforms were introduced. For a while the bourgeoisie, scared by the experience of the Russian revolution, was forced to accept this development. However, at the same time, especially among the leaders of heavy industry, there was a clear understanding that these were temporary concessions and that later it would be necessary to discipline the workers and smash their independent organisations.

After the war, large numbers of abandoned, disillusioned officers, (together with some low-ranking soldiers), were left to drift around Germany and other countries. They felt betrayed by their own nation as well as by the victorious nation. Even in the victorious countries they felt betrayed by their own nation as they had received next to nothing for their efforts. Most of them were recruited from the bourgeoisie and the petty-bourgeoisie and were therefore wary of the workers' organisations. At the same time many of the petty-bourgeoisie abhorred the large monopolies and banks. It was from within these layers that the first Fascist groups emerged. They built a male companionship that despised civilian life. Willpower and action were most important. Hatred against some elements of the capitalist system was united with hatred of the workers' independent organisations and "foreign" or "Jewish" ideas like Communism, Marxism and Liberalism.

They attacked and broke up strikes, demonstrations and meetings. They burned down workers' meeting places and co-ops, and murdered individual workers' leaders.

In Italy these methods were developed very quickly with the businessmen and landowners financing the Fascist black-shirts. In 1920, after a wave of factory occupations and strikes, a Fascist offensive was launched. Money was provided for arms and transport. In his book, Fascism and Big Business, Daniel Guerin describes in depth how these actions were organised and how the formally democratic state co-operated with the Fascist groups:

"The police lent out their cars to members of the squadrons, and rejected requests for weapon licences from workers and peasants at the same time as they granted them to the Fascists . . . Often the Police co-operated with the Fascists in the preparation of attacks on workers organisations."

These groups developed into paramilitary organisations that lived in barracks and were paid regularly. They were trained by officers from the regular army and had their own uniforms. This example was followed on a greater scale in Germany. This is how the SA, which combined anti-capitalist rhetoric with nationalism and anti-Semitism, and the SS, the bodyguards of the Nazi leaders, were built.

These facts are not shown in today's debate about Fascism and Nazism, because they do not concur with the idea of a neutral state and of relatively strong democracies suddenly collapsing during the depression. However, for the labour movement these are vital facts. What happened then reveals the real content of the state and the bourgeoisie's view of democracy.

In Italy the Fascists took power in co-operation with part of the establishment and, formally speaking, within the framework of a newly enacted legislation. In spite of this, the socialist and communist leaders kept appealing to the state for protection instead of organising proper self-defence groups. In order to calm tensions, they also toned down their own willingness to radically change society. This only strengthened confidence amongst the Fascists at the same time as the working class was losing its confidence and faith in the possibility of changing society. For the petty-bourgeoisie it seemed more and more as though Fascism was the only solution.

Common features in both Germany and Italy were the fear of big business of the advancing proletariat and the petty-bourgeoisie's indecision about which side to support. The petit-bourgeoisie wished for miracles - that time should stand still and that everything should be peaceful and safe. With the failure of the working class to achieve a socialist transformation in both Italy and Germany during the period 1918-1923, the last hopes, that some of the middle layers had entertained, of a change led by the labour movement evaporated. Instead they turned their hopes towards Fascism as a possible salvation from the grinding mill of development.

It was in the battle with the organised working class that Nazism steeled its forces. During the first years after 1918 there were a number of groups that attacked workers' councils and demonstrations. Most often these were the so-called Free-corps (Frei-korps), built out of groups of former soldiers and officers (described above). Unfortunately, they were also used several times by Social-Democratic leaders, such as Scheidemann and Noske, against workers that had taken over German cities. At the beginning of the 1920s, most of these groups merged into one to form the Nazi movement.

During much of the 1920s Nazism was a very small and marginalised political movement. This was due to the economic recovery in Germany and the whole world. But this economic development was fundamentally flawed, even if all looked bright on the surface.


The Depression


The Wall Street stock market crash in 1929 had an immense effect on the German economy. Banks collapsed. Small savers and middle class people, who had seen their savings dissolve in the hyper-inflation of the early 20s, and had now started to recreate their savings and were hit yet again. Many farmers were affected by the plummeting prices that were part of the depression. An avalanche of unemployment hit the working class hard. For those sections of the working class that had been working for a few years and were organised in unions, the crisis was softened a little by the collective social security system that had been created by the labour movement. On the other hand, working class youth were hit very hard. Psychologically the youth often carried the scars of a childhood upbringing during World War One and the inflation years. There had been strong psychological tensions in families and even periods of actual starvation. The memory of all this was now brought back again and this created a great fear for the future.

From 1928 the German National Socialist Party (the Nazi party) became a factor in the German parliament, at the same time as it was continuously strengthening its ground troops. The SA and SS wore uniforms, often living in barracks, and attacked the rallies and demonstrations of their opponents. The German depression created enormous social tensions. At the same time the Social-Democratic Party was seen as partly to blame for the crisis since it had often collaborated with some of the ruling parties and had failed to present a vision of a society without the horrors of capitalism.

The German Communist Party (KPD) was strong. However it chose, on orders from Stalin and his ruling clique in Moscow, to regard the Social Democracy as the twin of Fascism, and hence the main enemy. Sometimes communist militias attacked social-democratic workers and in 1931 the unbelievable happened. The KPD supported a referendum that was called by the Nazi Party against the social-democratic federal state government in Prussia. This had a devastating effect on the possibility of a united front between Social-Democrats and Communists.

The Communists and the Social-democrats both thought that Fascism was a temporary phenomenon, which would soon die out. The Social-Democrats, together with a part of the liberal bourgeoisie, thought that the Nazis would become 'normalised' after a time, into everyday political life. Other parts of the bourgeoisie saw the Nazis as a tool to crush the independent labour organisations at a time when pay cuts were an important part of their programme.

The Communists thought that a victory for Fascism would lead to a proletarian revolution. Stalinist rhetoric hindered them from seeing the difference between different types of bourgeois regimes. They didn't see what a total end to all rights of organisation, freedom of speech and freedom of press would mean. Such restrictions meant that it would be very difficult for the working class to avoid the pressures on them from the bourgeoisie, both ideologically and organisationally. This is a very important lesson to learn for socialists today. The Communists in Germany did not have an especially good example to learn from, as they accepted the developments in the Soviet Union uncritically. In the Soviet Union workers' democracy had been rapidly undermined since 1919. Democratic rights and freedoms, including independent unions, different political parties and an independent media were restricted, banned and in the end liquidated.

From 1930 to 1933 the Nazis increased their electoral support. At the same time the Communists also gained votes. What happened can mainly be described as a polarisation. When we read about these times today, it seems as if the Nazis increased their votes almost automatically. Nobody asks how a party that hardly had 3% of the votes in 1928 could find the resources to get representation throughout Germany and reach 18% in 1930. The radio, newspapers and all other modern methods were used. However, propaganda requires money. Papers, posters, speaking tours, food and clothing for tens of thousands of men in the SA and SS cost money. How was this financed and what was the "democratic state" doing to stop it?

Hitler himself admitted how important real material resources were for the spreading of his message. This is how Daniel Guerin describes it:

"By the summer of 1930 most big businessmen, and bankers associated with them, supported the National Socialist Party. They gave it those enormous resources that made possible the election victory in September 1930 and the resulting 107 seats in the Parliament. Much later, at a speech to commemorate this "fantastic campaign", Hitler asked his audience to think about "what it meant when a thousand speakers each and every one of them has a car at their disposal which enables them to hold some 100.000 meetings in just one year"."

Fascism isn't only a product of big business. Fascism also had the characteristics of a mass movement, but nonetheless it could never have come to power without the political and economic support of the bourgeoisie and the conservatives. It was through an agreement with the highest political leadership in Germany that Hitler got his position of power, not through street fights per se. And his anti-capitalist mass basis was never allowed an independent position in the German State.

That is why, paradoxically, a certain fall in the number of votes for Hitler in 1932 pressurised the bourgeoisie and the conservative powers into acting faster. Hitler promised not to threaten the foundations of private property and not to break the backbone in the army. In exchange, he was made Reichskanzler (Chancellor or Prime Minister).

On 30th January 1933 Hitler became Chancellor. After that the Nazis formally had the legal possibilities to influence the police, legislation and to start to transform the state for their purposes. Elections were going to be held later that spring. Before the election, they began physically attacking mainly Communists, but also Social-Democrats. They did not formally ban the parties, but with a combination of their forces of terror and their control of the state apparatus the elections were far from fair, nor were they held in a democratic atmosphere. A fire at the parliament also gave the Nazis the excuse to ban the Communists. They could not move on with their election campaign. Despite this, the Communists got a relatively large amount of support. The Nazis got more than 43% of the votes, but needed the help of the DNVP (The National German People's Party) to be able to form a government.

Then the first concentration camps were set up, and during this first stage it was above all communists, social-democrats and militant trade unionists that were interned there. The German Communist Party had about 300,000 members. Of these more than half were imprisoned or sent to the concentration camps and 30,000 were killed by the Nazis.

In spite of the fact that the unions and the left parties had their own defence guards, they never put up any organised resistance. The Social-Democrats were hoping, up until the last moment, that the state apparatus, that had protected and supported the Nazis' armed units, would disarm the Nazis! The unions attempted to de-politicise themselves. At least their leaders did. They said that they would confine themselves to defending the workers' immediate economic interest, no matter who ruled. On the first of May 1933 the union leaders made a truly crazy move. They cancelled their own demonstrations and instead called upon the workers to participate in the national workers' rallies that had been organised by Hitler and the regime that same day. By doing this they were sending a clear message to their members: that on the one hand we do not need to fight the Nazis with all the means available, and on the other hand if you want to fight you must do it without us.

In 1934 all the trade unions were banned and the German "workers' front" was formed instead, which was dominated by the state and the capitalists. Before the seizure of power the Nazis had said that they would allow unions to exist and strikes to take place. Often they had used anti-capitalist rhetoric. But now the true face of Nazism was revealed. The labour organisations that had been built through so much hard struggle were disbanded. The workers were more or less left at the mercy of the state and the bosses. This meant that the position of the workers was thrown back decades. This was a deep psychological and moral blow for the workers, which in turn partly explains why the Nazis could hang on to power for so long without facing any collective resistance.

Living under the Third Reich

After assuming power the Nazi party at times went further than the bourgeoisie had expected in reorganising the state apparatus, destroying democracy and eroding cultural diversity. Again, in spite of the different socio-economic foundations, here we can find parallels between Nazism and Stalinism. They express the same aesthetics and style in art, literature, architecture and music. As some have described it, they both had a faiblesse for Society as Theatre. However, many measures were cosmetic to engender a feeling of a national revolution. The workers were supposed to believe they had a high status, and the small farmers and businessmen that their hopes of a stable corporate capitalism, where they could feel safe and appreciated, were being realised. In reality, conditions were a lot worse.

During the first years after 1933 unemployment was still severe and a substantial decrease came about only when the arms race began in 1936. Married women and young people were prevented from gaining employment and thus made room for men. Large-scale relief works were introduced to improve the unemployment statistics. The concentration of companies and farm properties continued uninterruptedly. The Nazis accomplished no social revolution, nor did they carry through any fundamental change in capitalism. Real wages didn't increase much either. Wages were settled on a company level and the workers' former collective sick leave and unemployment funds were transferred to privately owned insurance companies and the payments were in most cases reduced. When real wages finally increased at the end of the thirties, this was mainly due to an increase in working hours.

Big business made huge profits, particularly through rearmament, while the small companies had few opportunities to improve their situation. Only Jewish property was confiscated. When it came to it, it was all anti-Semitism and no anti-capitalism. Confiscated properties often ended up in the economic empires that Nazi-leaders such as Göring and Himmler had created through their control of various parts of the state apparatus.

During 'The Night of the Long Knives' in 1934 firing squads and persecution met the cries of SA activists who were calling for a second anti-capitalist revolution. The SA was banned from carrying its own weapons, which were stored in special armouries accessible only to army representatives. On the whole, all activities were subordinated to the state and in spite of earlier rhetoric, all forms of strikes became illegal with heavy penalties or imprisonment for the offenders.

The channels for collective resistance on the part of the working class were broken and any form of opposition could end in imprisonment or execution. On top of this, the prolonged working day meant less time for other activities. And the all-seeing authorities, together with the indoctrination of children and youth in the schools and Hitlerjugend, created a society characterised by suspicion and fear.

Working class support for Nazism (and Italian Fascism) was insignificant. A good example are the trade union elections of 1933, when Hitler was already Reichskanzler. In these elections the Nazi trade union grouping, NSBO, got only 3% of the votes. For sure, the Nazis gained a foothold among certain sections of the workers. Those who were personally linked to and dependent on their employers were partially influenced by Nazi propaganda. One could find this among farm workers and domestic servants, and in small towns where mobility of labour was low and where there were no traditions of trade unions and workers' political organisations. Under the Nazi regime the mobility of labour was to a great extent halted. We must also understand that in Germany the middle layers in society were at least as large as the working class as a social group.

In order to understand why there wasn't more resistance to Nazi rule, it is important to know how the system originated and what the concrete possibilities were for ordinary workers and young people to do more than temporary and local resistance work. Just compare the Nazi propaganda machine financed by big business before 1933 and their absolute control of all the resources of the state in 1939! How could workers spread a strike from one factory to another without their own telephones, papers, shop stewards and so on? Today's liberal debaters never say what concrete methods of resistance should have been used and how it should have been organised. This has lead to idealistic conclusions and to morally condemning whole populations for "passivity". At the same time they cannot explain why the economic system that they so eagerly embrace assisted in the creation of this monstrous system.

The War and the Holocaust

Fascist states obviously had imperialist ambitions. These ambitions were supported by the big monopolies within heavy industry. In Germany the idea of expansion was linked to the racist and geopolitical idea of 'Lebensraum' (a place where to live). The German minorities, which had been created as a result of the new states that were formed in Europe after the First World War, were used as weapons to aggressively expand German territory. Racist arguments were used to try to explain why Slavs, Jews and others who were considered inferior, ought to be enslaved, forced away or, in the case of the Jews, completely removed from Europe. Anti-Semitism was part of Nazism right from the beginning, while the forms of persecution were not fully developed until the outbreak of war and the planned invasion of the Soviet Union.

It is obvious that Nazi policy, right from the beginning, was aimed at isolating and oppressing the Jewish population. Legislation forced layer after layer of the Jewish population out of public life. Their property was confiscated and special identity cards separated the Jews from the rest of the population. With the 'Crystal Night' in 1938 the mood against the Jews was whipped up to violent proportions. However, it is worth noting that these pogrom-like excesses, on the whole, were carried out by SA and SS groups. They were not uncontrolled, spontaneous attacks on Jews. The sociologist Zygmunt Bauman writes, in one passage in his interesting and thoughtful book 'Modernity and the holocaust', about the lack of popular support for the 'Crystal Night', and how this persuaded many Nazis and other anti-Semites in the German public administration that the removal and killing of Jews had to be carried through in a more organised way.

Another fact worth remembering is that right up until 1939 the so called western democracies such as the USA, Great Britain, Sweden and France continued to trade and have contacts with the political leadership of Germany. The Swedish export industry was strongly favoured by re-armament in Germany. This was one of the reasons for the boom here after the deep depression at the beginning of the 1930s. What was happening in Germany was not unknown to the political and financial establishment. Even the so-called general public got a certain insight through the newspapers, but this was more fragmented. The cause of the outbreak of the Second World War was not that the Western powers declared war against Nazi and anti-Semitic policies, but that the attack on Poland by Germany threatened the balance of power and the market interests of the other states. Of course the character of the Nazi regime made it easier for the ruling classes of these countries to mobilise workers in these countries to go and fight, but the arguments of the political leaders were not primarily about the monstrous anti-Semitism of the German state.

The policy of the Nazis became more extreme with the outbreak of war. The war also made resistance in Germany more difficult. Martial law was introduced which meant that all types of protests were synonymous to high treason. A war encloses human beings in their own nation, and they feel that their protection, even in everyday life, is directly linked to how the nation is fairing in the war. At the beginning of a war people are driven even more into the hands of their own ruling class and its interests. War also breaks down the ability for empathy in individuals. Everything is carried to extremes. The nationalist ideology, with its set of values about "Us" and "them", is expressed in mass slaughter and the terrible fear of dying. In such a context, values and the respect for human dignity is weakened. And, it must be remembered, most people do not have money, contacts and travelling possibilities to make a real choice to leave their country, especially not under a totalitarian regime. Their possibilities to protest are limited. They are dependent on work, income, and the place where they live. They need a sense of collective strength, weaknesses in the state apparatus and outside support before they dare to break the rules.

With the war, and above all the invasion of the Soviet Union, large parts of the Jewish population came under the control of Nazi Germany. Jews were often forced into the Polish cities, and ghettos were established which no one could leave without permission. Jews, Communists and Gypsies who fell under the control of the Nazis in the Baltic States and further east were seldom put into camps. They were shot directly in their thousands by special units of the SS. (The SS was at that time a special force, only partially subordinated to the central army leadership). Fascist and anti-communist groups from Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Belarus and the Ukraine came to their assistance.

In 1941 the notorious Wannsee conference was held. There, leading "experts" on "the Jewish question" from different parts of Europe met to "solve" this "problem", which they themselves had constructed. This is where the formal foundations of what we call the Holocaust were laid. Even before this, experiments had been made at special clinics and with special lorries where mentally ill and other "inferior" peoples where gassed to death. These were now to be used at the Eastern front, as the numerous mass executions were affecting the morale of the troops. The technical solution was an industrial division of labour, which de-personalised the killing and limited the direct contact that German soldiers had to have with the victims. Thus the concentration camps spread as the front moved forward and gradually also special annihilation camps were developed. In describing the situation in the camps and the bestiality the Nazis developed in order to annihilate the whole of the Jewish people in Europe, we do not need to add much to the book published by the Swedish government " detta må ni berätta..."

We must not underestimate the significance of the Holocaust. The special thing about it was not simply the number of victims involved (between five and six million Jews were killed), but that a whole people could be exterminated simply because they belonged to a particular group. No matter how much they adapted, what religion they converted to, which parties they voted for, whether they fought against Germany in the war or not - they had to cease to exist. The total number of people killed in the war is much higher, and in numbers more Russians were killed than Jews, but the systematic character and the ideological purpose for the annihilation of the Jews was different.

It was the war that gave the Nazis the possibility of carrying out the Holocaust. Only through controlling large parts of the continent and its transport systems was it made materially possible. Only through military battles chipping away at people's empathy and escalating the fear of dying, and through alienation produced by bureaucracy and lack of power over industrial processes and organisations, were the barriers sufficiently broken down to provide a big enough group of people for the actual carrying out of the Holocaust.

It is dangerous to completely separate the war from the Holocaust, as is partly done in the book "om detta må ni berätta". The book talks of conventional political war as something different. However, this way of describing what happened risks neglecting the complicated and chaotic dynamics that constitute war. Militarisation and war contribute to national isolation and increase the risks for those who protest against undemocratic conditions and the suffering of broad layers of the population.

A much discussed fact nowadays is the bureaucratic and industrial character of the Holocaust. Camps looked like factories. Human beings were sorted into groups of able-bodied and unfit. Human beings were seen as just another raw material. Their material belongings were considered to have a greater value than the actual human beings, who were burned.

If we consider that capitalism increasingly turns human beings into appendages of machines, and even human feelings, as Marx said, are turned into products, we find the beginnings of an explanation.

Both Nazism and Stalinism used those advanced control mechanisms which were developed by capitalism, with its conveyor belts, supervisors, speed ups and the destruction of all those organisations which are not built by anyone else except those in power. Although we can see these parallels, we must not forget that millions of ordinary soviet citizens died in the battle against Fascism. However, if they had been fighting for a healthy workers' state they could have won over a lot of the German soldiers and maybe the war would have been shorter. If we allow ourselves to think along these hypothetical lines for a moment, a healthy workers' state in the Soviet Union could have influenced the German Communist Party in another way and this in turn could have possibly stopped Hitler from coming to power in the first place. These thoughts can help us to realise that perspectives and politics can make a difference, but at the same time we must accept that the Holocaust really happened and try to learn something from it.

Nazism meant the destruction of the independent organisations of the labour movement, the genocide of the European Jews, mass-annihilation of Gypsies, homosexuals, mentally ill and others who were regarded as inferior. It meant the death of millions on the battlefields and the bombing of whole cities. Socially and economically it meant a dictatorial capitalist state where the profits of the big companies increased, the hours of work were extended and the wages were decided at company level with no possibility for the workers to put forward any demands. During the war social and economic distress gradually increased as houses were destroyed and the infrastructure completely collapsed.

Democracy had proved to be a dispensable extra for large sections of the bourgeoisie. Yet they had not counted with the high price of dictatorship. Gradually, parts of those groups who had supported Hitler in the first place also turned against him and the Nazi party - but only when they saw their own interests were at stake.

We never want to see the Holocaust happen again and we must fight every attempt to hide the truth and we must counter all lies that are circulating among the extreme right wing and Nazi movements. At the same time we must urge the labour movement in Europe and elsewhere to study the past seriously. The labour movement in Sweden and internationally must launch its own campaign against Fascism, Nazism and draw the lessons of the Holocaust. We cannot leave it up to the governments and the universities. The labour movement needs to study these questions and also examine and discuss our own history. We must also draw some conclusions for the world that we live in today. Genocide, mass murder, as well as exploitation and alienation are not something that belongs to the past.

Have the leaderships of the workers' parties been so totally entrapped by neo-liberal ideas, that maintain that only individual responsibility exists, and that existing social, political and economic structures have nothing to do with the form and content of democracy? Do they think that such structures have nothing to do with choices, morale, and ability to resist oppression? We must learn to listen to the warning bells from Austria and elsewhere. Solidarity and Social Justice can never lead to freedom and equality if we put the word National before them. They can only be realised if we use the words International Socialism and Democracy as our guideline. This is one of the most important lessons of the last century.

Inge Eriksson,
University lecturer in 'European studies with a historical orientation',
Malmö University, Sweden, (in personal capacity).


In English:
Bruchfeld, Stéphane and Levine, Paul A. Tell ye your children - a book about the holocaust in Europe 1933-1945, Stockholm, Regeringskansliet, 1998. Original title: om detta må ni berätta .
Bauman, Zygmunt. Modernity and the holocaust, Cambridge Polity, 1991, 238 p. ISBN: 0-7456-0930-9.
Geary, Dick. Hitler and Nazism, Routledge, Great Britain, 1993.
Guerin, Daniel. Fascism and Big Business, Pathfinder Press, New York, 1973.
Marrus, Michael R. The Holocaust in History, Penguin, London, 1993.
Noll, Richard. The Jung Cult: origins of a charismatic movement, Princeton, Princeton Univ. Press 1994, 387 p. ill. ISBN: 0-691-03724-8.
Sewell, Rob. Germany from Revolution to Counter-revolution, 1988. On the internet at
Trotsky, Leon. The struggle against Fascism in Germany, Pathfinder Press, New York, 1987.

In Swedish:
Bauman, Zygmunt. Auschwitz och det moderna samhället, Daidalos förlag, Göteborg, 1994.
Bruchfeld, Stéphane and Levine, Paul A. Om detta må ni berätta, Regeringskansliet, 1998.
Karvonen, Lauri. Fascismen i Europa, Studentlitteratur AB, Lund, 1990.
Leon, Abraham. Judefrågan och sionismen, Röda Rummet, Stockholm, 1982.
Noll, Richard. Jungkulten- en modern mysteriereligions födelse, Ordfront, Södertälje, 1997.
Trotskij, Leo. Kampen mot Hitler, Röda Rummet, Stockholm, utan årtal.

We also recommend to all our readers the writings of Trotsky on the rise of fascism:

Trotsky and the Struggle Against Fascism, an introductory article on Trotsky's analysis of the rise of Fascism on our web site
Fascism: what it is  and how to fight it - a short pamphlet outlining Trotsky's ideas on the subject
Trotsky's writings on Germany which span the period 1930-33 are collected in the volume, The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany.