history: The Holocaust – who was to blame?

The sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz has produced a plethora of TV and radio documentaries, newspaper features and statements from leading politicians.

All of these rightly express revulsion and condemnation of the most evil and barbaric regime in history.

The question posed on this occasion, as it has many times since 1945: how could such horrors be instigated by Germany, a country with rich cultural and political traditions which gave the world such giants as Bach, Brahms, Marx and Hegel? In addition, the German working class developed a mighty trade union movement and the Social Democratic Party which, by 1919, boasted a million members and was committed to the socialist transformation of society; an aim gradually abandoned by its leadership.

At a gathering of world leaders on 25 January this year, the German Chancellor Schroeder is reported as making a ’ground-breaking admission’: that ordinary Germans were responsible for the Holocaust. This reinforces the notion peddled by some ’expert historians’ that it was Hitler’s popular support that propelled him to power.

Schroeder stated: "The evil of Nazi ideology did not come out of nowhere…the Nazi ideology was willed by people and carried out by people." Quite so; but which people is he referring to? In the popular media there is little serious analysis given to the role played by the capitalists in Germany between the wars who funded Hitler and embraced his determination to smash ’Marxism’ (Nazi shorthand for the ’Labour Movement’).

German capitalism

Schroeder could have mentioned Emil Kirdorf, the union-hating coal baron; Fritz Thyssen head of the steel trust; Alert Vogler of United Steel Works; Georg von Schnitzel of the IG Farben Chemical cartel; Cologne industrialist Otto Wolf, and a conglomerate of banks and insurance companies. But it was Baron Kurt von Schroeder, the Cologne banker who was to play a pivotal role in determining the course of German and world history.

The reality is that, before Hitler became chancellor, the Nazis never achieved more than 36% of the popular vote. The growth of Nazism was assisted by retreat and treachery by social democratic leaders like Ebert, Scheidermann and Noske, who collaborated with extreme right-wing forces in Germany from 1919 onwards.

Stalin’s catastrophic characterisation of the social democracy as ’social fascists’ to be treated no differently than the Nazis, produced a massive division within the working class which Hitler was able to exploit.

In spite of this abdication of leadership by the workers’ organisations, the rank and file continued to resist the Nazis. Hitler’s high point was in the presidential election of July 1932 when he secured 36 per cent of the popular vote. In the November presidential election of the same year, the Nazis’ vote declined by two million to 33% whereas the German Communist Party and Social Democrats secured, between them, a total of 37%.

Given a courageous leadership armed with correct strategy and tactics, there is no doubt the working class could have been mobilised to crush the Nazis, whose organisation was in tatters after that electoral defeat. Hitler’s future minister for propaganda Josef Goebbels wrote: ’1932 has brought us eternal bad luck…The past was difficult and the future looks dark and gloomy; all prospects and hopes have quite disappeared.’

Hoisted to power

However, the capitalists, many of whom had up to then held Hitler at arms length, took fright at the upsurge in votes for the workers’ parties. Consequently, on January 5 1933, Hitler was invited to address a meeting of industrialists and bankers organised by vice-president Baron von Papen, at the home of the aforementioned Baron von Schroeder. At the meeting, Hitler promised to bring an end to democracy in Germany and to smash the labour movement so the capitalists would be free to make their profits in peace. Within ten days, the financial problems of the Nazi party had disappeared.

Hitler’s anti-Semitism at this stage was muted and in any case the capitalists had turned a blind eye to what they considered was demagogic ranting and not to be taken seriously. They saw in Hitler a man whose principal role was to rid them of the workers’ organisations.

On 30 January 1933 Hitler, who had never achieved an elected position, was hoisted to power, not by popular acclaim but by a secret cabal of bankers, capitalist ministers and members of the high command of the German army who had persuaded Hindenberg to appoint him Chancellor.


Then, because of the false strategy of the leadership of the Social Democratic Party and the Communist Party, the German working class was disarmed and defenceless and at the mercy of Hitler’s brownshirts. These thug battalions, armed to the teeth and comprised of what Leon Trotsky, in his brilliant analysis of German fascism, described as the crazed petty bourgeois and the lumpenproletariat, were given the freedom of the streets to murder and maim.

The first victims who filled the concentration camps, torture chambers and execution sites, were the flower of the German working class. The mighty shop stewards’ movement was fragmented and shattered. Even after Hitler had demonstrated his murderous intentions, the leaders of the German TUC pleaded to be accepted by the Nazi government – Hitler’s response was to destroy, root and branch, the organisations of the working class and to imprison and murder the leaders.

Nazism was eventually crushed at a cost of fifty million dead and the indescribable horror of the death camps, of which Auschwitz remains the most potent symbol. Today’s labour movement must be rearmed with an understanding of the forces and conditions that prompted German capitalism to install Hitler in power.

From The Socialist, paper of the Socialist Party, cwi in England and Wales

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February 2005