From Socialist Review, No. 173, March 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
The new Steven Spielberg film Schindler’s List is a harrowing description of one part of the Nazi Holocaust. Claire Dissington explains how and why the horror happened
Schindler’s List will show tens of thousands of people who previously knew very little about the Nazi atrocities a world where Jews were herded from ghetto to labour camp to concentration camp and the ‘final solution’.
Germany was an advanced nation industrially and culturally and had a reputation of tolerance. The Jewish population in Germany was just under 1 percent and led a generally well integrated life.
Yet the Nazis achieved the power to have 1.5 million homosexuals, 6 million Jews, a quarter of a million Gypsies and hundreds of thousands of Communists, trade unionists, disabled people, Slavs and Jehovah’s Witnesses murdered in what is the single most vile act in history.
Adolf Hitler was able to use the deep economic and political crisis of the 1930s to his advantage. He saw the potential gain to be made from playing on people’s fears and scapegoating sections of society.
From the earliest years of the war Jews had been rounded up and forced into ghettos, where they faced terrible overcrowding, starvation and forced labour. Gradually the ghettos were liquidated and Jews massacred or taken on to labour or concentration camps to become part of the huge conveyor belt system of death. There was a gradual, ever quickening flow of Jews from Belgium, Norway, France, Hungary, Italy, Greece, Russia and central Europe to the main extermination centre of Auschwitz.
From the very first days of Nazi rule in Germany concentration camps were set up. The earliest inmates were political prisoners, homosexuals, Gypsies and Jews. By 1935 over 45 Jews had already been murdered in Dachau. Records reveal that in the initial plans to rid Europe of the Jews the Nazis intended mass deportations, but that when the Germans saw the war was lost they wanted to have achieved one thing, to take the Jews with them. Yet throughout the war the leadership of the Nazi party had to go to extraordinary measures to ensure that anti Jewish feeling was maintained. Many German non-Jews helped save Jews – even some SS officers. One doctor in Auschwitz responsible for massacring Jews by lethal injection committed suicide unable to cope.
The anti-Semitism that fuelled and obsessed leading Nazis was not taken up by many ordinary German people. Even sections of the Nazi party had to be indoctrinated and educated to hate Jews.
SS officers were sent on special courses to learn brutality. Education courses and propaganda had to be used to try to convince people that the Jews were not human. Terminology such as infection, virus, lice, vermin were all used to ensure the officers could cope with the levels of violence and torture. The very words used for the slaughter were guarded – liquidation, special treatment and indeed the ‘final solution’.
Nazis who engineered the phrase ‘final solution’ were on the whole not involved in carrying it out. Visits to camps were rare for top Nazi officials and even then were kept to a very sterile view of events. Himmler only once witnessed an execution in a camp of a group of Jewish women and was promptly sick.
The most disgusting jobs of burning the mass of corpses and emptying the gas chambers were given to inmates.
Strong measures were taken to keep these events secret. On arriving for deportation prisoners were told to carefully label their luggage which would follow shortly. There were bizarre scenes of SS officers even helping Jewish deportees to label their possessions.
Inside the camps pictures of inmates of Auschwitz queuing to go into the gas chambers show them clutching pieces of bread, handed out by the guards. Women were even given bars of soap to take into the ‘showers’.
A camp hierarchy was set up with the infamous symbols of identification – the yellow star for Jews, pink triangle for gays, red triangle for political prisoners, brown for Gypsies. Prisoners were segregated so one section would believe the other fared better. Kapos – or guards – inmates themselves, were used to beat and torture their fellow prisoners for a few more rations or the hope of survival.
Stories of resistance are frequent. On the small Greek island of Zante the local mayor and archbishop refused to hand over the Jewish population of 195 and successfully hid them from the deportation that took over 1,800 Jews from Corfu to Auschwitz. Hungarian, Greek and Polish Jews in Auschwitz who had been forced to burn bodies of those gassed secretly got explosives and destroyed one of the four crematoria. All were then executed.
Russian troops advanced as the war ended and the Nazis desperately tried to cover up the true nature of their work. They destroyed gas chambers and crematoria, burnt bodies and destroyed camps. Inmates were taken on death marches west to Germany.
Although gassing stopped in Auschwitz in November 1944 the slaughter continued. In some camps non-Jews were left and the Jews taken on for the continued slaughter.
The Nazis had maintained the Holocaust throughout the war and continued to use vital resources until the last minute.
So why did the Nazis facing imminent defeat continue to try to destroy the Jews? Hitler had no solution to the crisis facing Germany apart from expanding the German empire and therefore industry through militarism and war. The utopian dreams of an Aryan Europe based on a pre-industrial world collapsed. He found himself in a contradictory position having built a mass movement on anti-capitalist ideology only to find that he needed to court capitalism and big business.
The way out of this was to blame not capitalism itself, but the ‘alien’ element within it. Hitler claimed the Jews were responsible for corruption and crisis.
The crisis of capitalism did not ‘require’ the Holocaust. But it did need the Nazis to break the working class. And the dead end of Nazism needed the Holocaust. Anti-Semitism was the only thing that held the Nazi ideology together. Finally the only goal left to them was the destruction of the Jews.
Crisis is endemic in the capitalist system and Nazism is the ever present threat in a crisis ridden system. And the Holocaust is the most horrendous barbarism waiting at the end of the dark tunnel of Nazi ideology.
Capitalism is in crisis today, a crisis which could bring the fascists to power, yet there are important differences with Germany in the 1930s. The crisis today is not as catastrophic as that faced by the Germans in the 1930s. The ruling class is not yet in a situation where it needs to call on the Nazis, and the working class is more organised and therefore more resistant.
But to confidently say the Holocaust will not happen again, we need to be able to offer a solution to the crisis, to the poverty, unemployment and despair that affects people’s everyday lives.
For information about the Anti Nazi League and fighting the Nazis today, phone 071 924 0333
Last updated: 8 March 2017