One of the big differences between workers and middle-class intellectuals is that workers tend to fight against injustice collectively rather than individually, whether on their own behalf or on others. While Steven Spielburg chose to make a movie about the industrialist Schindler's fight to save Jewish lives, nobody dreams of dramatizing the fight of the German workers against Hitlerism. Part of the problem is that their organizations failed to confront Hitler effectively before he took power, so there is no heart-warming story to be told. The heroism of working-class militants came to naught, since their leadership had the wrong strategy.
After Hitler seized the reins of state, the first thing he did was destroy the workers organizations. He understood that once these organizations were destroyed, atomized workers would be incapable of resisting the naked rule of capital. Gunter W. Remmling's article "The Destruction of the Workers' Mass Movements in Nazi Germany" describes this in chilling detail. In the span of less than a year in 1933, shortly after Hitler's illegal "election", the massive institutions of the working-class had been destroyed.
The event that set the reign of terror in motion was the Reichstag fire of February 2, 1933, the fourth day of Nazi rule, which was set by Brown Shirts but blamed on the Communists. Two days later, they used the fire they set themselves as a pretext for dictatorial rule. The legal cover was provided by article 48 of the Weimar Constitution which allowed them to issue a Decree for the Protection of the German People. This emergency act made it impossible for opposition political parties to hold meetings, demonstrate or publish newspapers. Under the provisions of this act, the SA occupied the Karl-Liebknecht-Haus in Berlin and changed its name to the Horst-Wessel-Haus.
What should be done about the Communists? Frick, minister of the interior, said that they must learn "productive work" in special camps where they would be under strict supervision. The first of these camps, Dachau, was announced on March 20, 1933.
By April of 1933, most Communists were either in Dachau, in prison, in exile or dead. But the Nazis were not finished. They next set their sights on the rest of the working-class movement. They put through a law on April 7, 1933 that would purge all politically suspect individuals from civil service. This included Jews as well, regardless of their political views. The law profession was purged next. "Bolsheviks" and Jews were not allowed to practice law. This meant that if you were an ordinary worker who was arrested for opposing the regime, you could not even find a lawyer to defend you. Is it any surprise that so few Schindlers were to be found in the coal mines or steel-mills, let alone the corporate board-rooms? An idealistic member could always find a good lawyer, but an ordinary worker could not.
In May of 1933 a new campaign against the German Socialist Party began. SA and SS units occupied party, trade union offices and buildings housing their newspapers. In this month, all Socialist deputies, politicians, administrators and mayors were removed from their offices.
The unions were the final bastion of independent working class opposition to be smashed. Legislation was passed on May 19 called the Law About Trustees of Labor. It dissolved the old unions and set up corporatist units under the control of high-ranking Nazis. The goal was to provide political conformity and Arbeitsfrieden, or labor peace.
It wasn't sufficient to destroy the socialist movement and the unions, which had an independent class base. The Nazis found it necessary to clamp down on bourgeois parties next, since they could provide a muffled outlet for proletarian opposition. So on June 25, Goebbels gave a speech that called for the unity of the German people in the Nazi Party. On the same day Nazi cops arrested the deputies and functionaries of the bourgeois Bavarian People's Party. Two days later, the National Party--the equivalent of our Republican party--voted to dissolve itself. On the 28th of June, the Catholic Center Party dissolved itself as well.
When we speak of the culpability of the German workers, we are duty-bound to factor in the destruction of its organizations and the murder of its leaders. In general, I am opposed to guilt-baiting the workers for the crimes of the capitalist class. This was one of the reasons I found the SDS so repulsive during the Vietnam War. They characterized the American people as fascist because it seemed to back the murderous war in Vietnam. The American people at least had ways to express their opposition to the war, which they finally did. The German people had none.
If Nazism was nothing but the naked rule of finance capital and heavy industry, as Stalinists such as Dmitrov claimed, then how was it able to stay in power? After all, the bourgeoisie is a tiny percentage of the population and very rarely rules directly, except for the occasional Nelson Rockefeller. The answer is that German big business had a tenuous alliance with the violent, activists mobs of the Nazi Party who had as much hostility to the ruling class as did to the workers. This lumpen-proletarian and petty-bourgeois base was in favor of some kind of social revolution, as long as it wasn't Marxist-oriented. The Nazi party flattered these social layers with the notion that a new Germany would be built in their image. Hitler's demagogy enable a sizable mass movement to be built. Many rank-and-file Nazis did have an expectation that Hitler would not cater to the bourgeoisie and his first months in power gave them a false promise of what lied in store.
The biggest grievance of all Germans, including the base of the suppressed working-class parties, was unemployment. There were some measures that raised peoples' hopes, as described in Kurt Patzold's "Terror and Demagoguery in the Consolidation of the Fascist Dictatorship in German, 1933-34." (Both articles are contained in the Monthly Review book "Radical Perspectives on the Rise of Fascism in Germany, 1919-1945", a book I highly recommend.)
The Nazis jobs programs was tailored more to public opinion than anything else, but it did have some success.. These programs consisted of placing unemployed workers in rural regions where the degenerate Marxism of the big cities would be less of a temptation. There were also some construction programs that additionally reduced the unemployment rate. These measures in a very real respect were similar to the cosmetic changes introduced in the early years of the Roosevelt administration. They did little to reduce poverty, but they did mollify the masses who anticipated further help from the government.
Goebbels launched a "winter aid campaign" in 1933-34 that provided charity donations in the form of goods and money to the very needy. The recipients were the old, sick and large families. The Nazi press used these campaigns to their full advantage.
Over and beyond such immediate social programs, there was the promise of a new system that would eliminate unemployment and poverty. The whole basis for social transformation was to be through a synthesis of urban and rural life, called "rurban" values by Arthur Schweitzer in his "Big Business and the Third Reich." The Nazis promoted the view that the class-struggle in the city could be overcome by returning to the villages and developing artisan and agricultural economies based on cooperation. Ayrans needed to get back to the soil and simple life.
The ramifications of this was felt most immediately in farming where the Nazis seemed to be on a collision course with the big rural estates of the old-line bourgeoisie. The Nazis passed a law on September 13, 1933 that introduced the principle of cooperative organization into agriculture. They also created an state marketing agency that would set prices and regulate the supply and demand of produce. Finally, they stipulated that farms could no longer be sold nor foreclosed. While the Junkers were assured that the new laws would not effect them, they did feel nervous about the apparent radicalism of the new Nazi laws.
The core of Nazi rural socialism was the idea that land-use must be planned. Gottfried Feder was a leading Nazi charged with the duty of formulating such policy. He made a speech in Berlin in 1934 in which he stated that the right to build homes or factories or to use land according to the personal interests of owners was to be abolished. The government instead would dictate how land was to be used and what would be constructed on it. Feder next began to build up elaborate administrative machinery to carry out his plans.
Not surprisingly, Feder earned the wrath of the construction industry. This segment of heavy industry had no tolerance for any kind of socialism, even if it was of the fake, nutty Nazi variety. Hitler had promised the captains of heavy industry that the "rabble-rousers" in his party would be curbed and Feder certainly fell into that category.
Hjalmar Schacht was a more reliable Nazi functionary who agreed with the need to curb Feder's excesses. After Hitler named Schacht Minister of Economics on November 26, 1934, he gave Feder the boot assured the construction magnates that business would be run as usual.
From 1934 to 1936, every expression of Nazi radicalism was suppressed. After the working-class was tamed in 1933, the petty-bourgeois supporters of a "People's Revolution" were purged from the government one by one. The real economic program of the big bourgeoisie was rearmament. Any pretense at "rural socialism" was dispensed with and the Third Reich's real goal became clear: preparation for a new European war. It needed coal, oil and other resources from Eastern Europe. It also needed to channel all investment into the armaments industry, which could act as a steam-engine for general capitalist recovery. In brief, the economic policy of the Nazi government started to look not that different from Franklin Roosevelt's. It was World War Two, after all, that brought the United States out of the Great Depression, not ineffectual public works programs.
The purge of the the most famous Nazi radicals, the Strasserites, was absolutely necessary in order to rid the movement of its plebeian aspects. Analysis of the Nazi Party has often tilted in the direction of portraying it as a mere tool of capital. The reality is more complex. The Nazis were a grass roots movement that targeted the workers movement, but there was a important anti-capitalist dimension as well. The explanation for the anticapitalist component is simple. The capitalist class in Germany was despised. The ruin of the economy could be attributed to the Treaty of Versailles, the Jews, strikes, etc., but at a certain point one could not let the bourgeoisie off the hook. Too many of the petty-bourgeois supporters of the Nazis had deep resentment to one or another bank that had foreclosed on their farm or businesses.
"Radical Perspectives on the Rise of Fascism in Germany, 1919-1945" (edited by Michael Dobkowski and Isidor Wallimann, Monthly Review, 1989) contains an interesting article "The NSDAP: An Alternative Elite for Capitalism in Crisis" by John D. Nagle. Nagle takes up the question of the nervousness of the big bourgeoisie with respect to the street-fighting, fanatical Nazi movement. One of the biggest anxieties was over the possibility that the Nazis represented a form of "national Bolshevism." The Nazis called for the break-up of department store chains and railed against the big banks and insurance companies. They advocated a "People's Revolution" in contradistinction to the proletarian revolution of the Marxist parties. However, the bourgeoisie is wary of any kind of revolution and preferred to see a stable Bonapartist government such as Hindenburg's in power.
Hitler tried to reassure the big bourgeoisie in two ways. In private talks with the elites, he said that he had no intention of dismantling private property. And in June 1930 he threw Otto Strasser and his followers out of the Nazi party. Yet the influence of the Strasserites remained strong. Throughout the 1932 elections, the Nazi militants continued to employ anti-capitalist rhetoric.
Despite these measures, the ruling class continued to distrust the Nazis. It continued to fear the street-fighting army of the Sturmabeilung (or SA). In the early 1930s, its leader Ernst Rohm claimed not only military authority but political authority as well. The SA had attacked meetings and demonstrations of the left, but it had also attacked bourgeois parties as well.
Eventually the fears of the ruling class were assuaged and Hindenburg the Bonapartist decided to turn state power over to Hitler. Nagle suggests that the Protestant Church was a key factor in improving the public image of the Nazi party. The bourgeois press also began to view the Nazis as the only hope in the fight against Bolshevism. Once the Nazis took power, however, the dangers to the capitalist system from this party were no longer taken seriously. Hitler's economic policy was conducted in close consultation with the ruling circles of big business and plebeian threats to the capitalist system were rooted up. More on this in my next post.
The Nazi Labor Front made a last-ditch effort to rejuvenate the "People's Revolution" at the end of 1936. It announced that all retail organizations would be dissolved and their functions performed by the Labor Front itself. Goring got wind of this plan and dismissed Rudolf Schmeer, the leader of the Labor Front.
With the narrowing of its social base and its transformation into a military-industrial dreadnought, the Nazi regime sought ways to stabilize its rule. The Bolshevik "menace" was of primary use since this allowed the population to accept sacrifice for a military build-up. If the Bolshevik menace was so grave, why would any good German complain over the production of guns rather than butter?
Anti-Semitism was the perfect mechanism to unify the population in support of the government as well. The Jew was a convenient scapegoat for the frustrations of the German people. Since the Jew was still functioning to some extent as a part of the German economy, the Nazi regime could continue to point its finger at Jewish "greed." The ludicrousness of this charge could have been refuted in a left-wing newspaper but those days were long past. Intellectual conformity ruled.
What was the basis for singling out Jews as a scapegoat? While the Zionist historians tend to explain this in terms of the innate hatred of Jews in German society, the anti-Semitism of the post-WWI era has an entirely different and more virulent character than that of the nineteenth century. In my next post, I will relate the thinking of Avram Leon, a Belgian Trotskyist on the causes of the anti-Semitism that eventually led to the "final solution."
Abram Leon wrote "The Jewish Question: A Marxist Interpretation" in 1941 when he was all of 24 years old and at a time when his hands were filled leading the Belgian Trotskyist movement under conditions of fascist repression. Eventually, the Gestapo captured him and sent him to Auschwitz. He did not make it out alive.
Leon's first involvement with radical politics was with the Hashomir Hatzoir, a Zionist-socialist youth group. He grew disenchanted with Zionism and became a Trotskyist at the time of the Moscow trials. This showed a certain independent streak since the Hashomir-ites were pro-Stalin, as well as being Zionist.
While Leon devoted himself to the Trotskyist movement from this point on, he never lost interest in the "Jewish Question." He was anxious to answer the claims of the Zionists, as well as explain the virulent anti-Semitism that had swept Germany. What was the explanation for the failure of the Jews to assimilate? Why had this peculiar combination of race, nationality and religious denomination persisted through the ages? What was the nature of the hatred against the outsider Jew?
Leon took his cue from Karl Marx who wrote in " On the Jewish Question", "We will not look for the secret of the Jew in his religion, but we will look for the secret of the religion in the real Jew." This led Leon to examine the socio-economic relations that might explain both the identity of the Jews and, by the same token, their persecution.
He believed that the key to understanding the Jewish question was their status as a "people-class." The Jews, according to Leon, "constitute historically a social group with a specific economic function. They are a class, or more precisely a people-class." That economic function is tradesman. The Jew, from the days of the Babylonian exile, have functioned as tradesmen. Their location in the Mid-East facilitated commercial exchanges between Europe and Asia. As long as the Jew served in this economic capacity, the religious and national identity served to support his economic function.
Leon was strongly influenced in his views by Karl Kautsky, a leader of the Second International, who theorized the identity of a class with a people in pre-capitalist societies: "Different classes may assume the character of different races. On the other hand, the meeting of many races, each developing an occupation of its own, may lead to their taking up various callings or social positions within the same community: race becomes class." The chief difference between Kautsky and Leon is that Leon made the equation between class and people specific. Where Kautsky saw tendencies, Leon saw a dialectical unity.
The period that lasted from classical antiquity to the Carolingian epoch was a time of prosperity and relative well-being for the Jews. In the Hellenistic era, Jews were part of the commercial elite in cities such as Alexandria, Antioch and Seleucia. The rise of the Roman Empire saw their continued success, as cities such as Alexandria continued to function as trading centers between the West and East. The role of Jews at Alexandria was so important that a Jew, Tiberius Julius Alexander, was appointed Roman governor of the city.
It is important to note that what united the Jews in this period was not wealth and power per se, but their economic role as tradesmen. Within the group were poorer peddlers and artisans. In the decline of the Roman Empire, many of these individuals were hardest hit. Their desperation, argues both Kautsky and Leon, explains the emergence of the Christianity cult which expressed class hatred of the rich in theological terms.
With the advent of the middle ages, the economic role of the Jew shifts somewhat. This is the period when the native merchant class begins to sell commodities produced in artisan workshops, the embryonic form of the factory. The trade that the Jew engaged in prior to this period was separate from production, but the Christian tradesman is part of the network of commodity exchange. Leon notes that "The evolution in exchange of medieval economy proved fatal to the position of the Jews in trade. The Jewish merchant importing spices into Europe and exporting slaves, is displaced by respectable Christian traders to whom urban industry supplies the principal products for their trading. This native commercial class collides violently with the Jews, occupants of an outmoded economic position, inherited from a previous period in historical evolution."
These circumstances force the Jew to make his living as a usurer. He lends money to the feudal lords and the kings to finance their war expenditures and their luxuries. One of the main ways this is done is through "tax farming." The King "farms out" the collection of tax revenues to a "Court Jew", who gets a percentage of the take. My family name "Proyect" means the "counting house of a tax farmer."
This primitive form of banking eventually clashes with banking based on the production of exchange values, which has been emerging during the same period as that of the artisan workshops and early factories. The usurer is hated not only by the lord to whom he charges high interest, but by the peasants who confront the Jew in his capacity as tax collector. The hatred builds to a fever pitch in places like London, Lincoln and Stafford, England in 1189 when massacres of Jews take place. Shakespeare's "Shylock" reflects the lingering animosity toward the Jew long after these historical events took place and the Jew had been driven out of England. The most infamous campaign against the Jew took place in Spain during the Inquisition, when they were burned at the stake. The true motive was economic rivalry, according to Leon.
The Jews take flight to Eastern Europe and Poland in particular, where feudalism continues long after the emergence of capitalism in the West. An 1810 travel diary notes the following: "Poland should in all justice be called a Jewish kingdom... The cities and towns are primarily inhabited by them. Rarely will you find a village without Jews. Jewish taverns mark out all the main roads... Apart from some are manors which are administered by the lords themselves, all the others are farmed out or pledged to the Jews. They possess enormous capitals and no one can get along without their help. Only some very few very rich lords are not plunged up to their neck in debt with the Jews."
In the late nineteenth century, capitalist property relations begin to develop in the Polish and Russian countryside. Lenin writes about this development in order to refute the Narodniks who held out the possibility of a village-based socialism. The transformation of Christian peasants into landless and debt-ridden laborers has dire consequences for the Jew who is not integrated into the new forms of capitalist property relations. They continue to act as intermediary between the peasant and plebeian masses in the countryside on one hand and the wastrel nobility in the big city on the other. As tensions arise, the first pogroms take place.
Also, at this time, the Jews begin to undergo class differentiation under the general impact of capitalism. A Jewish proletariat develops, which works in small artisan shops producing clothing and household utensils. This deeply oppressed social grouping is the target of pogroms, which indiscriminately attack rich and poor Jew alike. The deep insecurities of this period give rise to the Chassidic sects which function in much the same way that Christianity functions in the Roman Empire. It gives solace to a deeply insecure and economically miserable people.
Eventually the economic suffering takes its toll and mass migrations back to the West take place, both to Austria and Germany, and across the Atlantic to the United States. The ancestors of most Jews living in the United States arrived in this period.
Nobody could have predicted at the turn of the century the awful consequences of the exodus into Germany. Notwithstanding the vile utterances of Richard Wagner, Germany had a well-deserved reputation for tolerance. The German Jews, as opposed to their recently arrived Yiddish speaking brethren from the East, spoke German and were assimilationist to the core. Some of the Jewish elites tended to argue for acceptance of the new Hitlerite regime on its own terms, which they viewed as simply another species of ultra-nationalism.
For Leon, the rabid anti-Semitism of the post-WWI period fell into the same category as the age-old forms. It was virulent economic rivalry that grew out of the collapse of the German economy:
"The economic catastrophe of 1929 threw the petty-bourgeois masses into a hopeless situation. The overcrowding in small business, artisanry and the intellectual professions took on unheard of proportions. The petty-bourgeois regard his Jewish competitor with growing hostility, for the latter's professional cleverness, the results of centuries of practice, often enabled him to survive 'hard times' more easily. Anti-Semitism even gained the ear of wide layers of worker-artisans, who traditionally had been under petty-bourgeois influences."
When a Trotskyist veteran first presented this theory to me in 1967, it had powerful explanatory aspects. The true cause of anti-Semitism was the capitalist system, not some latent and free-floating animus toward the Jew. The key to the survival of the Jewish people was not the Zionist state of Israel, but the abolition of the capitalist system.
Recent controversy over the Goldhagen thesis, which tries to explain anti-Semitism in metaphysical terms, has forced me to rethink Leon's nominally Marxist interpretation. We must revisit the question of the explanatory power of Leon's thesis in light of the exterminationist policy of the Hitler regime. It is very likely that Leon himself had not been aware of the pending genocide, which did not take shape until 1943 at the Wansee Conference. Leon was trying to explain an anti-Semitism that was in many ways no more vicious than the anti-Black racism of the American south. The Nuremburg racial laws of 1935 stripped Jews of their German citizenry and made intermarriage illegal. This was deplorable, but after all Blacks could not vote or marry whites in the Deep South in 1935 either.
Another weakness of Leon's work is that he de-emphasizes the people side of the people-class equation. Most of his work is devoted to an examination of the Jew's relationship to the means of production, but very little to their religion, language, culture and values. This is one of the criticisms found in the chapter on Leon in Enzo Traverso's "The Marxists and the Jewish Question: The History of a Debate 1843-1943". The importance of this was driven home to me last night while I watched a 90 minute documentary on Jewish liturgical music on PBS. There is an immense variety of influences on Cantorial chanting. The Falashas of Ethiopia echo African harmonies, while the Turkish Jews employ the oud and tamboura, typical instruments of the region. In all cases, the prayers are nearly identical. The narrator of the documentary asks one Cantor for his explanation of the unity of the Jews over a 3500 year period, when other nationalities have disappeared from the face of the earth. His answer: the geographical dispersion of the Jews is the answer. If the Jews had remained tied to the same territory, they would have gone the way of the Babylonians, Romans, Greeks, etc. This certainly makes wonder if an ironic twist lies in store for the state of Israel.
It could be argued that this deficiency in Leon has a lot to do with the exigencies of trying to write about the social and economic factors when so many others had covered the cultural aspects. It is more likely, as Traverso points out most tellingly, that the reason for this lack has to do with Leon's intellectual dependence on Kautsky.
Kautsky's Marxism was deeply problematic. It comes close to economic determinism. The Second International tended to follow a simplistic base-superstructure model of Marxism. At its worst, it allowed social democrats to side with the bourgeoisie against the Russian Revolution. Since the base of the Russian economy was not fully mature in a capitalist sense, the Bolshevik seizure of power was premature, adventuristic and would lead to dictatorship.
The same methodological error appears in Leon. He tries to explain German anti-Semitism almost exclusively in economic terms. The problem, however, is that this explanation tends to break down when the Nazi regime institutes the death camps. After all, there is no plausible economic explanation for such behavior. It can only be called madness.
In 1933, ten years before the death camps, Leon Trotsky wrote "What is National Socialism." This article does an excellent job of diagnosing the madness of the Nazi movement which had just taken power:
"Fascism has opened up the depths of society for politics. Today, not only in peasant homes but also in city skyscrapers, there lives alongside of the twentieth century the tenth of the thirteenth. A hundred million people use electricity and still believe in the magic power of signs and exorcisms. The Pope of Rome broadcasts over the radio about the miraculous transformation of water into wine. Movie stars go to mediums. Aviators who pilot miraculous mechanisms created by man's genius wear amulets on their sweaters. What inexhaustible reserves they possess of darkness, ignorance, and savagery! Despair has raised them to their feet, fascism has given them a banner. Everything that should have been eliminated from the national organism in the form of cultural excrement in the course of the normal development of society has now come gushing out from the throat; capitalist society is puking up the undigested barbarism. Such is the psychology of National Socialism."
Nazism as undigested barbarism seems much closer to the mark than the base-superstructure model. Trotsky goes even further than this. In 1938, a midway point between date of the preceding article, and the death camps, Trotsky predicts the impending genocide. In December of that year, in an appeal to American Jews, he writes: "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 world reaction signifies with certainty the physical extermination of the Jews."
These remarks are cited in the first paragraph of Norman Geras's "Marxists before the Holocaust", an article which appears in the special July/August 1997 issue of New Left Review on the holocaust. This issue features a lengthy critique by Norman Finkelstein on Goldhagen. While Finkelstein's rather devastating attack on the scholarship and implicitly pro-Zionist ideas of Goldhagen have achieved a high profile, Geras's article is worthy of discussion as well, since it occupies a space much closer to Goldhagen's than to Marxism.
Geras argues that Marxism can not explain the holocaust. His attack is not directed at Leon's economic determinism. Rather it is directed at Trotsky and Ernest Mandel who try to explain the holocaust as an expression of capitalism in its most degenerate and irrational phase. Geras says that the murder of the Jews is radically different than the bombing of Hiroshima, the war in Indochina and other acts of imperialist barbarism cited by Mandel in an effort to put the genocide in some kind of context. The difference between the death camps and the slaughter of the Vietnamese people is one of quantity, not quality. This outrages Geras, who says that Mandel and the German "revisionist" historian Ernst Nolte should be paired.
"What follows should only be said bluntly. Within this apologia there is a standpoint bearing a formal resemblance to something I have criticized in Mandel. I mean the energetic contextualization of Nazi crimes by Nolte, even while briefly conceding their singular and unprecedented character: his insistence that they belong to the same history of modern times as the American war in Vietnam, the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia, the exodus from Vietnam of the boat people--a 'holocaust on the water'--the Cambodian genocide, the repression following on the Iranian revolution, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and, above all, the liquidation of the kulaks, and the Gulag. Against that backdrop, Nolte urged that the Third Reich 'should be removed from the isolation in which it still finds itself.' This is what came, in the debate in question, to be called 'relativization' of the Holocaust; and it is what Mandel himself calls it in taking issue with Nolte's views. Mandel continues even now to assert that the Holocaust was an extreme product of tendencies which are historically more general. But he perceives a need, evidently, to balance the assertion with a greater emphasis on the singularity of the Jews."
Geras says that he will try at some point to offer his own analysis of why the Jews were exterminated. Since I am not familiar with his work, I hesitate to predict what shape it will take. I suspect that there will be liberal appropriation of the type of idealist obfuscation contained in Goldhagen. That would be unfortunate. What is needed to understand Nazism is not essentialist readings of German history, but a more acute historical materialist understanding of these tragic events.
When I was in grade school in the 1950s in the Catskill mountains in upstate New York, there were large numbers of Jews who spent their summers there and shopped in my father's fruit store. I remember seeing the tattoos of numbers on many of their forearms and asked my father what they represented. It was very unusual for a Jew to be tattooed because orthodox rituals stipulated that you must be buried with the same outward appearance you were born with. He explained to me that these Jews had been in concentration camps and murdered by the millions. The shoppers with tattoos were "survivors." I did not understand this. What was their crime to be punished so?
In the 1950s, a time of deep material abundance and spiritual poverty, there was something else that I could not understand. We had to practice nuclear air-raid drills in our school. We had to "duck and cover" in the basement of the building. This would protect us from a H-bomb. This seemed crazy to me. If the United States and the USSR had an all-out nuclear war, wouldn't everybody die? A blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter wrote "The Boy With Green Hair" in these years to dramatize what I and every other 7 year old was thinking.
Why would anybody consider the possibility and prepare for nuclear war, which would be a new Holocaust of even greater dimensions than the Nazi murder of the Jews. This Holocaust would kill everybody on the planet and all living things. Measured by the ordinary laws and values of capitalist society, this made no sense at all.
No, it did not make any sense whatsoever, but the Pentagon was planning on just such scenarios. Not only was it escalating the arms race, it engaged in nuclear brinksmanship over and over again. Nixon argued for an A-bomb attack on the Viet Mihn forces at Dien Bhien-Phu in 1954. Kennedy brought the world to the brink of war in his confrontation over Cuban missiles. While nuclear war did not occur, the chances were not so remote as to be beyond comprehension.
The American government was not run by madmen, who were representative of "undigested barbarism." Oliver Stone, the film-maker who is supposedly highly sensitive to madmen, has made films which attempt to burnish the reputation of Nixon and JFK alike. "Our" capitalist politicians would never blow up the world, would they? Well, yes they probably wouldn't.
But try to imagine a United States in steep economic decline, mired in imperialist war on three continents. Instead of Bill Clinton in the White House, imagine Pat Buchanan or David Duke instead. He is advised by Christian fundamentalists in the Cabinet who believe that we are in the "final days" before Armageddon. If the reward of Christian soldiers is life eternal at the right hand of Jesus Christ, perhaps all-out nuclear war against Communist or Muslim infidels "makes sense."
The point is that capitalism has a deeply irrational streak. The system is prone to wars and economic crisis. It should have been abolished immediately after World War One. The only reason that is wasn't is that the revolutionary movement came under the control of Stalin, who time and time again showed that he did not understand how to defeat capitalist reaction. The success of Hitler is directly attributable to the failure of the German Communist Party to fight him effectively.
Unless the socialist movement finds a way to put an end to capitalism and disarm the war-makers, the survival of the planet remains in question. While we can not "explain" the genocide adequately no matter how sharp our theoretical weapons, one thing is for sure. We have a sufficient explanation for the need to abolish capitalism: it is an inherently irrational system which threatens the human race.