Alex Callinicos on the Holocaust

Yoshie Furuhashi furuhashi.1 at
Sat Nov 1 07:56:51 MST 2003

*****   The Yale Journal of Criticism 14.2 (2001) 385-414

Plumbing the Depths: Marxism and the Holocaust

Alex Callinicos

. . . Ideology and Genocide

The development of research into the Holocaust over the past few 
years has, in my view, definitively settled the long-running debate 
among historians of the Third Reich between "functionalists' and 
"intentionalists." 67 The extermination of the Jews, rather than 
emerging fully formed from Hitler's long-term plans, was a piecemeal 
process driven to a large extent, "from below," by initiatives from 
rival power-centres within the highly fragmented Nazi bureaucracy. To 
say this is not to absolve Hitler of responsibility for the 
Holocaust. His notorious "prophecy" to the Reichstag on 30 January 
1939--"if international finance Jewry inside and outside Europe 
should succeed in plunging the nations once more into a world war, 
the result will be not the bolshevization of the earth and thereby 
the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in 
Europe!"--was frequently cited by both Hitler and his subordinates as 
they sought to fulfil his prediction. 68 But recognition of Hitler's 
role is not inconsistent with an analysis that highlights the 
complexity of the process that led to Auschwitz. To that extent, the 
portrayal of the Holocaust by Martin Broszat and Hans Mommsen as the 
outcome of what the latter famously called a "cumulative spiral of 
radicalization" is correct. 69

Thus, to start with, it seems clear that mass murder of the Jews was 
not the only option considered by Nazi decision-makers in the efforts 
to use the opportunity offered by the world war to rid Europe of the 
Jews--proposals to deport the Jews to Madagascar or to the Arctic 
Circle (once the USSR had been conquered) were seriously discussed, 
though these plans always envisaged the death of many Jews through 
the physical deprivations caused by their forced removal and 
inhospitable destination. But it was the invasion of the USSR on 22 
June 1941 that created context in which the Final Solution actually 
developed. Operation Barbarossa reflected the long-term aims, not 
just of Hitler (as expressed, for example, in Mein Kampf) but of also 
key sections of the German ruling class: the 1918 Treaty of 
Brest-Litovsk forced on Soviet Russia had briefly given Germany 
control of Poland, the Ukraine, and the Baltic states. From the start 
the Nazi leadership made it clear that this was not just going to be 
just another war but a Vernichtungskrieg--war of extermination--waged 
against inferior races--the subhuman Slavs and their 
"Jewish-Bolshevik" masters--to win Lebensraum for the German Volk. 
Mass murder was built into the operation from start. German military 
planners predicted that thirty million Soviet citizens would die as 
result of the diversion of food supplies to meet the needs of the 
Nazi war machine. 70 The Commissar order, as we have seen, authorized 
the German invasion forces to execute the "Jewish-Bolshevik 
intelligentsia" whether or not they were engaged in actual combat.

It was as part of this war of extermination that the Einsatzgruppen 
were sent into the Soviet Union alongside the Wehrmacht. The mass 
machine-gunnings of Jews that they carried out in the summer of 1941 
are generally seen as the beginning of the Holocaust. But in fact 
even here these massacres only approached full-scale genocide through 
a series of stages. In Lithuania, for example, the initial shootings 
in June-July 1941, in which about 10,000-12,000 predominantly Jewish 
victims perished, were confined mainly to Jewish men and Communists. 
It was only in August 1941 that the massacres extended to virtually 
the entire rural Jewish population and substantial numbers of Jewish 
town-dwellers. At least 120,000 Jews perished, while some 
45,000-50,000 more were allowed temporarily to survive the selections 
in the towns in order that they might work for the German war 
industry. Christoph Dieckman argues that a decisive factor in the 
radicalization of Nazi policy towards the Jews of Lithuania was the 
unexpectedly slow progress of the war. This forced the revision of 
the earlier "starvation plan" as the occupied parts of the Soviet 
Union became important base areas for the Wehrmacht. Chronic food 
shortages encouraged the Nazi authorities to give priority to those 
whose labour they needed: rather than feed those Jews whom they 
regarded as "useless mouths" they murdered them. 71

This case study illustrates the diverse factors responsible for the 
extermination of the Jews. Various pragmatic considerations played 
their part. One, as we have just seen, was the development of local 
food shortages in the context of the Nazis' failure to win the rapid 
victory over the USSR they had expected. Another was competition 
between rival Nazi bureaucracies, in which the SS used their success 
in winning overall responsibility for the Jewish Question to stake 
their claim for increased political power and access to scarce 
resources. A further complication was introduced by the fact that the 
scale of the German victories between autumn 1939 and summer 1941 
placed larger and larger numbers of Jews on the Nazis' hands. This 
conflicted with Himmler's grandiose plans (as Reich Commissioner for 
the Consolidation of German Nationhood) to resettle ethnic Germans 
from all over Central and South-Eastern Europe in the new territories 
being conquered by German arms. The result was what Götz Aly calls an 
"ethnic domino effect," in which the demands from Himmler to find 
living space for disgruntled ethnic Germans often stuck in 
resettlement camps and from Nazi Gauleiter eager to make their areas 
judenfrei saddled the German occupation authorities in Poland with 
increasingly unmanageable numbers of pauperized Jews. 72

Mass murder came to seem to Nazi officials as the only way out of 
what they experienced as a managerial nightmare. 73 Aly argues that, 
after plans for the wholesale deportation of the Jews of Europe to 
the more inhospitable parts of the Soviet Union (itself, as he notes, 
a "comprehensive plan for medium-term biological extermination") had 
gone awry thanks to dogged Soviet resistance, a consensus developed 
in Nazi officialdom to murder them. It was against the background of 
this decision, taken according to Aly in the autumn of 1941, that 
gassing was chosen as the main instrument of industrialized 
annihilation, that Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, Chelmno, and Majdanek 
were developed as extermination camps, and that Auschwitz-Birkenau 
took on, in addition to its existing function as a forced labour 
camp, also took on the role of a site for mass murder. 74

Auschwitz indeed in its varying functions sums up the plurality of 
determinations that produced the Holocaust. Strategically cited at a 
junction of the Central European railway system that had made it in 
the late 19th and early 20th centuries a key stopping off point in 
the seasonal movement of Polish agricultural labourers to work in 
Germany and Austria, the little Galician town of Oswiecim became the 
site of, first, a SS concentration camp to service the Nazi terror in 
freshly conquered Poland; then a centre for Himmler's plans to 
resettle ethnic Germans in the farms stolen from their expelled 
Polish owners; then, because of its proximity to the Upper Silesian 
coalfield and the availability of Soviet prisoners of war as slave 
labourers, I.G. Farben's buna synthetic rubber plant; and, finally, 
the extermination camp into which so many of the Jews of Europe 
vanished. 75

Aly describes the process from which the Holocaust emerged as an 
instance of what he calls the Nazis' "practice of projective conflict 

The conflicts of interest between the various power centres of the 
Third Reich, which were constantly losing or gaining importance and 
influence, arose out of the tension between differing and generally 
hypetrophied goals (of conquest), sanitized social utopias, and the 
notorious scarcity of the materials necessary for these. Even when 
the representatives of the various institutions pursued conflicting, 
mutually exclusive interests, they were willing to work together to 
resolve the conflicts necessarily produced by their divergent 
strategies--especially the intended speed of their 
implementation--with the help of theft, slave labour, and 
extermination. 76

Critical to this process was the often only implicit role played by 
biological racism in providing the framework of debate and the basis 
on which decisions could be legitimized. The following remark of 
Hitler's to Himmler in 1942 comes as close as he ever did to 
acknowledging the Holocaust, but it is also highly revealing of the 
character of this ideology: "The discovery of the Jewish virus is one 
of the greatest revolutions that have taken place in the world. The 
battle in which we are engaged is of the same sort as the battle 
waged, during the last century, by Pasteur and Koch. How many 
diseases have their origin in the Jewish virus! . . . We shall regain 
our health only be eliminating the Jew." 77

This medical language (also present in the common Nazi use of the 
word "cleansing" as a euphemism for mass murder) is symptomatic of a 
pseudo-scientific ideology that posited a hierarchical world of races 
from which the "unfit" should be eliminated. It was in virtue of this 
ideology that Hitler authorized the secret T-4 "euthanasia program" 
under which between 70,000 and 90,000 mentally ill patients were 
murdered in 1939-41: the personnel used and expertise acquired in 
this operation were later transferred to the Operation Reinhard camps 
(Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka). 78 The same biological racism--a 
modern ideology, not traditional anti-Semitism--motivated the 
murderof the Roma and Sinti, largely through the initiative of the 
Criminal Police (a separate wing of the RSHA from the Security 
Police) and despite Hitler's lack of personal interest in the "Gypsy 
Question." 79

But it was the Jewish "virus," as Hitler called it, that represented 
the most deadly danger to the health of the German Volk. As Paul Karl 
Schmidt, press chief of the German Foreign Office, put it in 1943: 
"The Jewish question is no question of humanity and no question of 
religion, but a question of political hygiene. Jewry is to be 
combated wherever it is found, because it is a political infectant, 
the ferment of disintegration and death of every national organism." 
80 Thus when it came to devising actual policies for the "final 
solution of the Jewish question," murder was the Nazis' default 
position, set by an ideology that identified the Jews as a deadly 
threat. The Holocaust was the outcome of a bureaucratic 
problem-solving process over-determined by the biological racism that 
constituted the ideological cement of National Socialism.

The primacy of Nazi ideology in the development of the Holocaust is 
critical to understanding that, even if even if economic 
pressures--for example, food shortages in the occupied USSR--may have 
helped motivate particular murder campaigns, the extermination of the 
Jews cannot be explained in economic terms. Raul Hilberg argues that 
"in the preliminary phase [the isolation and expropriation of the 
Jews] financial gains, public or private, far outweighed expenses, 
but . . . in the killing phase receipts no longer balanced losses." 
81 From the standpoint of the war effort, the Holocaust destroyed 
scarce skilled workers and diverted rolling stock from military 
purposes. Individual capitalist firms such as I.G. Farben undoubtedly 
profited from the extermination of the Jews, but, however 
instrumentally rational the bureaucratic organization of the 
Holocaust may have become, this crime was dictated by considerations 
neither of profitability nor of military strategy. 82

Biological racism also played a crucial role in motivating the 
perpetrators. Norman Geras, as we have seen, has sought to highlight 
the importance of the Nazis' liberation of the urge to transgress. 
Now one can see evidence of this, notably in the more pogrom-like 
massacres--for example, during the radicalization of the murder of 
Lithuanian Jews in the summer of 1941, when the Einsatzgruppen 
exploited local anti-Semitism, encouraging Lithuanian popular 
participation in the killings. 83 But anti-Semitism--whether in the 
pseudo-scientific form it took in Nazi ideology or in a more 
traditional version--was required in order to transform the Jews into 
the objectified Other against which these passions could legitimately 
be expressed.

Their commitment to Nazi ideology helped to sustain in the SS elite 
the combination of callous efficiency and self-control that seems to 
have been what Himmler meant by "decency" in his notorious speech of 
4 October 1943 to SS Gruppenführer in Poznan, when he declared: "Most 
of you know what it means when 100 corpses lie there, or 500 lie 
there, or 1000 lie there. To have gone through all this and--apart 
from the exceptions caused by human weakness--to have remained 
decent, that has hardened us. This is a page of glory in our history 
never written and never to be written." 84 As Ulrich Herbert puts it,

the intellectual anti-semitism, so to speak, is detectable, 
especially in the leaders of the Security Police and the 
Einsatzgruppen. Here, in genocide's hard core, enmity towards the 
Jews is recognizable as a manifestation of a radical völkisch 
world-view . . . seeing their own actions within the context of such 
a world-view not only insulated them against interference by other 
agencies, it also provided that exculpatory discourse that lessened 
inhibitions and offered an avenue of self-justification by 
representing one's own actions as the necessary means to a higher 
end, thus suspending acquired humanitarian principles. 85 . . .

Alex Callinicos is a Professor of Politics at the University of York, 
England. He has written extensively on Marxism and social theory. His 
books include The Revolutionary Ideas of Karl Marx, Against 
Postmodernism, Race and Class, Theories and Narratives, Social 
Theory, Equality, and Against the Third Way.

Notes . . .

67. See, for an overview of this debate, see T.W. Mason, "Intention 
and Explanation: A Current Controversy about the Interpretation of 
National Socialism," in id., Nazism, Fascism and the Working Class.
68. Kershaw, Hitler, II. 153. See ibid., II. 520-23, on Hitler's 
awareness of (but refusal explicitly to acknowledge) the 
extermination of the Jews.
69. H. Mommsen, From Weimar to Auschwitz (Cambridge: Polity, 1991), 
175; see esp. id., "The Realization of the Unthinkable," in ibid., 
and M. Broszat, "Hitler and the Genesis of the 'Final Solution,'" in 
H. Koch, ed., Aspects of the Third Reich (Houndmills: Macmillan, 
70. C. Gerlach, "German Economic Interests, Occupation Policy, and 
the Murder of the Jews of Belorussia, 1941-3," in Herbert, ed., 
National Socialist Extermination Policies, 212-17.
71. C. Dieckmann, "The War and The Killing of the Lithuanian Jews," 
in Herbert, ed., National Socialist Extermination Policies.
72. G. Aly, "Final Solution" (London: Arnold, 1999), 166. Aly's 
earlier work with Susanne Heim on Nazi population policy has provoked 
much controversy: see, for example, C. Browning, "German Technocrats, 
Jewish Labour, and the Final Solution," in id., Path to Genocide. 
Browning's criticisms do not, however, seem to apply to this book.
73. The attitude of Nazi officials towards what they defined as 
administrative problems was always permeated by racism. Ulrich 
Herbert argues that the occupation authorities in Poland consciously 
adopted unworkable Jewish policies such as ghettoization in order "to 
pressurize the authorities in Berlin to find a final, radical 
solution," "Labour and Extermination: Economic Interest and the 
Primacy of Weltanschauung in National Socialism," Past & Present138 
(1993), 160.
74. Aly, "Final Solution", chs. 7-11 (quotation from 176), and 
"'Jewish Resettlement': Reflections on the Political Prehistory of 
the Holocaust," in Herbert, ed., National Socialist Extermination 
Policies. There is considerable controversy among historians over 
both the precise timing of the decision to murder the Jews and 
whether it was taken, as Aly argues, as a result of frustrated 
expectations of victory, or in the euphoria occasioned by early 
German military successes against the Red Army. For an influential 
statement of the latter view, see C.R. Browning, Fateful Months (New 
York: Holmes & Meier, 1985) and "Hitler and the Euphoria of Victory," 
in D. Cesarini, ed., The Final Solution: Origins and Implementation 
(London: RKP, 1994).
75. See Robert Jan van Pelt's and Debórah Dwork's compelling study, 
Auschwitz 1270 to the Present (New Haven: Yale University Press, 
76. Aly, "Final Solution," 259.
77. Hitler's Table Talk 1941-1944 (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1953), 332.
78. See, for example, H. Friedlander, "Euthanasia and the Final 
Solution," in Cesarani, ed., Final Solution, id., The Origins of Nazi 
Genocide (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995), and 
Kershaw, Hitler, II. 252-61. Aly stresses the role of "pragmatic 
goals"--clearing hospital space, saving money, etc., in T-4, but he 
acknowledges that "[i]deology did, however, remain important in so 
far as it sufficiently undermined the moral and legal barriers in the 
minds of the perpetrators," "Final Solution,"29.
79. M. Zimmermann, "The National Socialist 'Solution of The Gypsy 
Question,'" in Herbert, ed., National Socialist Extermination 
Policies. The centrality of racism to the National Socialist regime 
is systematically developed in M. Burleigh and W. Wipperman, The 
Racial State (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991). The 
modernity of National Socialism is one of the main themes of 
Peukert's Inside Nazi Germany.
80. R. Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews (rev. edn., 3 
vols., New York: Holmes & Meier, 1985), II. 739.
81. Ibid., III. 1006. As an example of the role played by economic 
factors in specific cases Christian Gerlach argues: "The various 
liquidation programmes in Belorussia, particularly those against 
non-Jewish population groups, were in large part responses to 
pressures related to food economics," "German Economic Interests," 
82. It is a weakness of Donny Gluckstein's generally excellent 
account of National Socialism that he tends to relax the tension 
between ideology and economics in the Holocaust: see The Nazis, 
Capitalism and the Working Class,183-90. Nevertheless, even during 
the last phases of the war, Hitler's opportunism could still override 
ideological considerations: in April 1944, long after the Reich had 
been made judenfrei, he authorized the deployment of over 100,000 
Hungarian Jews to work in the German arms industry: Herbert, "Labour 
and Extermination," 189-92.
83. D. Porat, "The Holocaust in Lithuania," in Cesarini, ed., Final Solution.
84. Hilberg, Destruction, III. 1010. See also on perpetrators' 
motivations, ibid., III. 1007-29, and Christopher Browning's 
outstanding study, Ordinary Men (New York: HarperPerennial, 1993).
85. U. Herbert, "Extermination Policy," in id., ed., National 
Socialist Extermination Policies, 33.

[The full text of the article is available at 
if you have individual or institutional access to Project Muse.] 

* Bring Them Home Now! <>
* Calendars of Events in Columbus: 
<>, & <>
* Student International Forum: <>
* Committee for Justice in Palestine: <>
* Al-Awda-Ohio: <>
* Solidarity: <>

PLEASE clip all extraneous text before replying to a message.

More information about the Marxism mailing list