FACING HISTORY: HOW WORKING CLASS
GERMANS FOUGHT THE NAZIS (Part II)
By John Spritzler
Editor's Note: Part I of this article (New Democracy, May-June 2000) shows that the high school curriculum on the Holocaust, "Facing History And Ourselves," lies when it teaches one million students a year that most ordinary Germans supported Hitler's rise to power and the Nazis' destruction of the Jews.
ANTISEMITISM: AN ELITE WEAPON
Facing History and Ourselves identifies human nature as the source of antisemitism and other prejudices. Its resource book begins with chapters devoted to this theme. One unit on stereotypes and prejudice cites a psychologist who writes: "[W]e tend to see others as representatives of groups. It's a natural tendency...But [it] has unfortunate consequences." The resource book's introduction quotes a former student: "This course made me look inside myself. I for one know that I have felt prejudice toward someone of some other group. These things are all a part of being a human being, but cooperation, peace and love are ingredients also."
Facing History's central theme is that bigotry stems from people's nature as human beings, but that people also have the potential to resist this impulse and to act morally and courageously. This central point, however, is wrong. Bigotry does not stem from human nature; it is fomented by elites who use it as a method of social control. Facing History’s description of Nazi antisemitic propaganda divorces it completely from its role as an elite weapon against the German working classes. Facing History in this way deflects attention from the real source of the problem of bigotry and blames ordinary people instead.
The key fact that makes it possible to understand antisemitism in Nazi Germany is that Nazi antisemitic propaganda was designed to shift the focus of people's anger away from capitalists. This was a time when capitalists all over the world were in mortal fear of losing power to a revolutionary working class. The enormous unemployment and economic hardship caused by the Depression were leading millions of people to question the capitalist system. Taking advantage of the fact that the Bolshevik (Communist) government in the Soviet Union was notoriously anti-democratic, capitalists everywhere used the "Bolshevik menace" to rally followers against the working class in their own countries, whose revolutionary potential is what truly frightened them.
The Nazis used antisemitism to strengthen the forces opposed to working class revolution, or "Bolshevism." Nazis lumped Jews and "Bolsheviks" together, accusing them of being a single diabolical conspiracy against the German people. When people got angry at capitalists, the Nazis singled out Jewish capitalists and in the next breath blamed "Bolshevik" workers.
In the years leading up to Hitler's appointment as Chancellor, Germany was in the throes of the Depression and the world seemed to be falling apart. Record numbers of small merchants and artisans were driven into bankruptcy by banks and big business depriving them of cheap credit and large department stores underpricing them. When small businessmen and artisan associations denounced big business, the Nazis countered that blaming fellow Germans was a "Jewish-Marxist" sham. They said the real problem was that department stores could sell cheap Russian goods because Jewish Bolsheviks exploited Christian workers to benefit German Jews.
The peasants also were being driven into bankruptcy. Demanding "free trade," big business backed government policies that forced the peasants to dump their produce for low prices, and charged them exorbitantly for loans and supplies. Police seized the possessions of bankrupted peasants. Unlike all the other parties, the Nazis organized demonstrations and violent blockades against the police and authorities auctioning off peasant property. The Nazis railed against the "fertilizer Jews," the "grain Jews," the "bank Jews," the "stock exchange Jews" and the "commodity trading Jews," but also against "Jewish Bolsheviks" to blame city workers. A famous Nazi poster attacked the working class anti-Nazi street fighters by portraying one of them protecting a Jewish financier sitting on a bag of gold labeled "War, revolution, inflation—profits of eastern Jews." The poster asks, "Is this your battle against capitalism, Marxist?"
The conservative upper classes of Germany were the backbone of antisemitism. The newspapers and institutions they controlled spewed antisemitic propaganda, and their children disproportionately joined Hitler's SS troops from the beginning. Antisemitism was used to recruit and ideologically motivate elements of the population who could be used to carry out violence against opponents of the Nazi regime.
Antisemitism, however, was not the basis on which Nazis sought support among the general public. In fact, when it came to winning middle class votes, the Nazis actually had to downplay antisemitism. In Germans Into Nazis, Peter Fritzsche writes: "Germans do not appear to have voted for the Nazis because they blamed the Jews for their troubles... [A]nti-Semitism played only a secondary role in National Socialist [Nazi] election campaigns. It was not the main feature in electoral propaganda or in the pages of the leading Nazi newspaper, Volkischer Beobachter." William F. Allen reports the same thing in the town of "Thalburg" just prior to the Nazi takeover: "Social discrimination against Jews was practically non-existent in the town...If Nazi antisemitism held any appeal for the townspeople, it was in a highly abstract form, as a remote theory unconnected with daily encounters with real Jews in Thalburg. Thalburg's [Nazi] leaders sensed this, and in consequence antisemitism was not pushed in propaganda except in a ritualistic way."
In the hundreds of pages which Facing History devotes to the subject of antisemitism in Germany, all discussion of the role of antisemitism as a weapon in the ferocious class war raging in Germany is conspicuously missing. Helping students understand the real origin and role of antisemitism is not Facing History's intent; its intent is to use the horror of the Holocaust to convince students that bigotry comes from human nature. The implicit message, and the reason Facing History gets support from wealthy and powerful people, is that the way to fight bigotry is not to help ordinary people succeed in their struggles against elite power, but rather to admonish people to rise above their innate prejudices.
THE MYTH THAT MOST GERMANS WANTED TO KILL THE JEWS
The Facing History and Ourselves text contends that the Holocaust is proof of the latent bigotry of most people. Supposedly the Holocaust could not have happened unless most Germans wanted it to happen. But, as we have seen, Germans were sharply divided over support or opposition to the Nazis, and even among the middle class attracted to the Nazis, antisemitism was not the basis for that attraction. The wealthiest Germans, on the other hand, bankrolled the Nazis, used antisemitism to deflect popular anger away from themselves and against working people, and used terrorism against Jews to intimidate opposition to elite rule. To carry out the Holocaust, the upper class needed only to cow most Germans into obedience; they neither required nor obtained the agreement of most Germans with their genocidal goal.
Hitler was aware of the widespread opposition to his rule and knew he had to abolish elections altogether. He suppressed his opponents with his new governmental power and then held one last election on March 5, 1933.
On February 27 the Reichstag [Parliament] building erupted in flames. Hitler declared it a Communist crime. The next day, civil liberties for all Germans were suspended—for the duration of the Third Reich. Only the Nazis and their Nationalist allies were permitted to campaign for the election unmolested, while thousands of Communist, Social Democrat and liberal leaders were arrested and beaten.
In the midst of this Nazi terror, with Hitler already Chancellor and the working class parties effectively suppressed, the Nazis still captured only 44 percent of the total vote.
After the Nazis were handed the reigns of government by the German elite, they used that power ruthlessly not only against anyone opposing them politically, but also against anyone expressing solidarity with Jews. In The Gestapo and German Society, Robert Gellately writes, "When it came to enforcing racial policies destined to isolate Jews, there can be no doubt that the wrath of the Gestapo knew no bounds, often dispensing with even the semblance of legal procedures. It is important to be reminded of the 'legal' and 'extra-legal' terror brought down on the heads of those who would not otherwise comply...Sometimes they [those who wanted to aid Jews] were driven to suicide."
The Nazi "Final Solution," the plan to kill all European Jews, did not begin until 1941, well into the war period. The Nazis, and the German elite that put them in power, launched World War II intending to crush any possibility of working class revolution in Europe by enslaving virtually the entire European working class. They thought they could legitimize the slavery with racist ideology.
War is the most powerful weapon that ruling classes have for commanding obedience. In peacetime the Nazis would not have been able to convince sufficient numbers of people to kill innocent people just because they were Jewish. As "leaders of the nation at war," the Nazis declared Jews to be the nation's enemy, and made opposition to the genocide tantamount to treason. Germans were drafted into military and police units and given their genocidal orders.
Most of the drafted men who obeyed their commands did so for reasons that had nothing to do with wanting to kill Jews. These men were stationed as occupying forces in Poland, Russia, and other foreign countries, surrounded by hostile populations. Breaking ranks by refusing orders meant, at the very least, implicitly denouncing the only people who provided material support and social contact far from home. Outright disagreement with the German government's war aims meant declaring oneself a traitor. Few men, in such circumstances, could imagine refusing orders from their legal government in time of war to kill those declared to be the enemy.
Because the Gestapo terror and mass arrests had eliminated organized and visible opposition to the Nazi regime and its killing of Jews, individuals opposed to the killing felt more alone than they really were, and hence lacked the confidence to challenge the authorities. At the same time, Hitler knew how little support there was for the genocide, which is why he shrouded the Final Solution in secrecy and banned public discussion of it.
The notion that the Holocaust could only have happened because most ordinary Germans wanted to kill the Jews is not supported by the weight of scholarly evidence. Yet Daniel Goldhagen, the author of Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, advances this notion, and has received acclaim for it in the New York Times, Time, and other corporate media. Goldhagen makes fraudulent use of historical evidence to argue for his thesis. For example, Goldhagen cites "ritual murder" accusations leveled against Jews as evidence for rampant antisemitism in Germany before the First World War. He writes, "...in Germany and the Austrian Empire, twelve such trials [for ritual murder] took place between 1867 and 1914." Goldhagen, however, omitted the remainder of the sentence which appears in his source; it reads "eleven of which collapsed although the trials were by jury." As Norman Finkelstein and Ruth Bettina Birn point out, honest use of the evidence by Goldhagen would have contradicted his thesis.
If Facing History approached the Holocaust from the perspective of asking why the working classes of Germany failed to defeat the upper classes, despite the fact that they outvoted the Nazis and fought them in the streets, then it would be a valuable course in our schools. Instead Facing History misleads students into thinking that there was no substantial fight against the Nazis, or even disagreement with them, and then cynically asks students to ponder what this means about the moral character of average people.
WHY DID THE NAZIS SUCCEED
IN SEIZING POWER?
What, then, does explain the Nazi victory over working people in Germany? The answer is that Nazism could only have been defeated by a popular armed revolution, and there was no democratic model of revolution appealing to the majority of Germans and no revolutionary leadership committed to such a model. The Social Democratic Party had long since abandoned the goal of revolution and committed its considerable power to protecting the Weimar republic against Communist revolution. The German Communist Party offered only an anti-democratic idea of revolution which had already proved itself a disaster in the Soviet Union.
The problem was not that the Nazis reflected the real values and goals of most Germans. The problem was that the Marxist leaders of the working class parties, the Social Democratic and Communist parties, failed to champion the revolutionary aspirations of the majority of Germans.
If the Marxists had provided leadership for ordinary people's revolutionary goals, history might have been very different. The Social Democratic Party (SDP), however, which controlled the major trade unions, acted like a special interest group and only bargained for trade-union concessions, rather than mobilizing the working class for social transformation.
In these years (that is, 1929-33) the German Communist Party did espouse workers' revolution (this changed in 1935), but the anti-democratic model of Soviet-style revolution could hardly have been expected to gain majority support. In the USSR at the time, having crushed the Workers' Opposition within the Communist Party, the Stalin leadership was consolidating its power, destroying any lingering illusions that the Bolshevik Revolution could lead to a promising new world.
THE LESSONS OF THE HOLOCAUST
The real lessons of the Holocaust are that bigotry is generated by elites as a means of social control and that there is no limit to the horrors the ruling class will impose to stay in power. Until people overthrow elite rule and create real democracy, elites can and will commit mass murder.
Facing History talks about applying the lessons of history to our own lives. But the process should go in the opposite direction. We should use the experiences of our own lives, about which we have real knowledge, to try to understand historical events about which we have only the words of others.
The lesson of our everyday experience and the lesson of real history truthfully told is that ordinary people are the source of what is best in our world—caring relations of commitment to each other, trust, equality and solidarity. Left to themselves, regular people try to make the world better—without racial, ethnic or religious bigotry and without elite domination. This is exactly why the elite work so hard to make people mistrustful of each other. To Germany's elite in the 1930s and '40s, antisemitism seemed like a good way to create this mistrust. Antisemitism had a long history and a sophisticated, "scientific" aura based on new racial theories of "eugenics." Germans in respectable universities were taught that these were progressive ideas that would lead to a better society. Without this progressive facade, antisemitism would have remained a relic from the past.
Today crude forms of antisemitism and racism are largely discredited, so new kinds of propaganda are used. The goal of the propaganda is always the same—to blame ordinary people for problems that are in fact caused by the elite. The difference is that now the progressive facade is not about protecting society from people of this or that race or religion, but protecting it from the majority of people who supposedly have an instinctive tendency towards bigotry, and who supposedly lack the moral fortitude to do what is right.
Facing History And Ourselves is simply the newest, most sophisticated form of propaganda designed to do exactly what antisemitism was meant to do—convince us that ordinary people are the problem and elite rule the solution in creating a humane and just society.
Originally published in New Democracy Newsletter, July-October 2000.