Capitalism and the Holocaust—the missing link: a reply to Donny Gluckstein

Issue: 161

Horst Haenisch

In its first three pages, Donny Gluckstein’s review “German Marxism and the Holocaust” in issue 159 of International Socialism gives a sensitive and perceptive overview of many—but not all—of the arguments I put forward in my essay on the cause of the Holocaust.1 The remaining three and half pages are dedicated to criticisms of my explanation of the Holocaust for “minimising the role of social and historical context: the genesis of racism in general, the capitalist system, economic crisis, revolution and counter-revolution after 1918, and the Second World War”. Gluckstein goes on to say that to “exclude the universal aspect” in this way “can distort the analysis”.2

His critique continues, arguing that my “strict differentiation of Nazi ­antisemitism from other forms of reaction gives the impression that [the Nazis’] fascist ideas appeared like a deus ex machina, a sort of third way outside the fundamental framework of capitalist society”.3 And, in Gluckstein’s opinion, I get to these results by just selecting “data serving one interpretation and disregarding the rest,” in this way overlooking “the dialectical links at work”.4

Gluckstein is right insofar as I do not make these categories the main elements of my analysis. They nevertheless play an indispensable role. In order to clear the ground for a debate of our differences, it may be useful to sum up my view of the economic and political framework within which the Holocaust happened.

In my essay the framework for the victory of fascism in Germany is ­imperialism. After the First World War, the perspectives of the economically ruling classes in Germany were split. The sectors of industry that had been highly competitive on the world market, such as the electrical industry, the chemical industry and mechanical engineering, mostly wanted to become competitors in world markets on an equal footing again. Their interests became the guiding political principle of the Weimar Republic’s foreign policy in its initial period. And not without considerable success: Germany became a member of the League of Nations, post-war reparations were reduced, postponed and credit financed, so that they never became a barrier to investment. Many other restrictions on German capitalism imposed by the Versailles Treaty were lifted, and so on.

On the other hand, heavy industry, mining and the processing of coal and iron had much bleaker prospects. They had been the driving forces of German expansionism during the First World War. Although they had lost, their greed for coal, iron and the new gold, oil, beyond their borders was unceasing. That’s why from their ranks came the financial support for the most reactionary warmongering political sects and for the military units that refused to lay down arms at the war’s end, the Freikorps, who played a crucial role in crushing the Spartacist uprising and murdered Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht in January 1919. In as much as the Nazi Party (the NSDAP) turned out to be the most determined of these forces, especially in their ruthless readiness to fight the organised working class, the more the Nazis were able to dominate, lead and ultimately unite these reactionary sects, the more they succeeded in organising an armed gang of half a million followers, the more they were financially and logistically supported by this segment of German capitalism and by sympathisers among the army and the police.

Then came the world economic crisis of 1929 and, in the wake of it, a trade war that led to the break-up of world markets in 1931. Integration into a world market that was now defunct ceased to be an option. Instead war now became a recourse for those capitalists who until then had been unwilling or reluctant to prepare for a new world war. Hitler began to tour military circles and ­industrialists’ clubs to explain his programme: war to create a united Europe under German leadership as a counterbalance to the United States alongside the conquest of large parts of the Soviet Union. Acquisition of Soviet oil and other raw materials and of fertile land for industrialised agriculture was only possible by destroying the Soviet Union and by extinguishing the still existing sparks of the 1917 revolution in Europe. The precondition of this was to atomise the working class. And Hitler assured his audiences that the institution of private ownership of the means of production would remain untouched; that the return to a precapitalist Volksgemeinschaft was mere propaganda; and that his armed gangs would be tamed.

The organised working class in Germany were the main obstacle to a new imperialist war. The atrocities and the sufferings of the First World War were not forgotten, nor was the proletarian upheaval of 1918 that ended the war, finished the monarchy and introduced general suffrage and representative parliamentary democracy. As long as the working class enjoyed basic democratic rights, had its organisations, its press and the right to assemble, to strike, to meet and to ­demonstrate, a preparation for war would meet the utmost resistance.

How to tear down this fortress? To decapitate the working class, a military putsch and a military dictatorship was not a realistic option. Such was the lesson of the Kapp Putsch in 1920, when the working class reacted with the greatest general strike ever seen in Germany, turned to the streets, organised a Red Army in some parts of the country and smashed the military coup d’etat against the advice of its political leaders: the social democratic members of the government fled the capital Berlin and the communist and other left leaders warned against taking action because this would mean saving the government of the social democratic traitors Friedrich Ebert and Gustav Noske.5 Despite the impotent leadership of the organised workers, this military putsch was defeated in a way that raised the self-confidence of the German working class and ensured the generals refrained from a second attempt. In a “wargame-like study” in November 1932, the experts of the Reichswehrministerium (defence ministry) concluded, “that the military and police forces are in no way sufficient to protect the constitutional order against national socialists and communists… So the minister of the Reichswehr is obliged to warn the government against resorting to a military state of emergency”.6

Another option was to paralyse the workers’ movement by a dictatorship presided over by the last Reichskanzler before Hitler, Kurt von Schleicher. This military dictatorship was to be supported by the trade union bureaucracy and was to include, at government level, some of its most right-wing leaders as well as some dissident but influential Nazi leaders. This so-called Querfront developed an embryonic countercyclical Keynesian-like programme for economic recovery. Hitler feared a military putsch and understood the Querfront as an even more dangerous menace. Both would have barred the Nazis from political power including from state office and its sinecures. In both cases, it was clear the Nazis were ready to take to the streets with arms knowing that neither the Wehrmacht nor the police could be used against them because of the sympathy many officers held for the Nazis.

The only possible way to terrorise and to eliminate the working class as a political force was to hand over political power to the Nazis. This opportunity came with the electoral success of the Nazis in 1933, where they gained enormously from the other conservative and reactionary parties—although near to nothing from the working class. The Nazis then used their political power—under the cover of the Reichstag fire only a few weeks later—for a coup d’etat. They abandoned any pretence of democracy such as the right to organise, to meet and to assemble, to publish and read and to demonstrate or to strike. Working class leaders of all levels and political backgrounds were the first to be incarcerated in concentration camps and tortured to break them mentally and physically. With the working class neutralised, the way to prepare for the Second World War was open.

In summary, I do not think that fascism “appeared like a deus ex machina”.

But antisemitism, let alone the Nazi version of antisemitism, the annihilation of European Jewry, played no necessary role at all in this process apart from providing the melting heat to forge the Nazi leadership. In handing power to the Nazis, the old bourgeois elites did expect the working class to be decapitated, and they did expect preparation for war, but they did not hope or expect the Nazis to shoot, gas and beat to death six millions Jews. Nor were the Nazis elected because of their antisemitism. Thanks to Gluckstein’s research we know that the Nazis kept a very low profile on antisemitism in the decisive elections, knowing that they would put electoral success at risk.7 In Hitler’s programme as candidate for the election of the Reichspräsident in 1932, antisemitism and Jews were not mentioned at all.

After taking power, the Nazis felt threatened by military dictatorship and the Querfront even more strongly. After the Nazis had dealt with the working class, the ruling classes and the military no longer needed them. That is why Leon Trotsky expected fascism to transform into a military dictatorship.8 But the Nazis were not willing to be reduced to stirrup holders for the old elites. Apart from their broad agreement with the imperialist perspectives of the ruling class and the military, they had their own aims and targets—the extermination of European Jewry—and they had the means to prevent themselves from being removed from power and to pursue these special targets: armed forces and dual state institutions—both solely under party control. In the night of the long knives in 1934, all the leading figures of the Querfront, military and conservative as well as all the Nazi representatives, were murdered, together with the SA leadership. The working class representatives of the Querfront were already incarcerated in concentration camps. It took the Nazis until 1938 to get the decisive upper hand in the military forces. Hitler then felt strong enough to sack the same military leadership that had forced him to turn against his own power base, the leadership of the SA, in 1934.

If, instead, the Nazis had had to give way to a military dictatorship between 1934 and 1937, there would still have been the Second World War, there would have been the murder of Bolsheviks in Germany and in the conquered parts of Europe, there would have been antisemitism and racism9—because war is unthinkable without distorting and discriminating the enemy in a racist manner—but there would have been no Holocaust.

The Holocaust: integral to capitalism or collateral damage?

Gluckstein insists that there is a functional link between capitalism as an economic system and the Holocaust. In passing, he drops several hints about the nature of such a link, all of which are elements of the theory of what caused the Holocaust by historians and social scientists who claim to argue from a Marxist perspective, but instead argue from the perspective of the economic determinism that became dominant in the Third International after 1926. Perhaps Gluckstein is unaware of the political and ideological framework within which these arguments are preeminent, but this is the sphere of writers who defended, or still defend, the GDR as socialist. The mastermind of this version of “German Marxism” is Kurt Pätzold, historian from the former GDR, who in 1997 gave a summary of this theory.10

According to Gluckstein: “The targeting of Jews…was supposed to improve German capitalist competitiveness”:11 The expropriation of Jewish capitalists indeed helped to increase state control over the German economy. But for this purpose expropriation would have been sufficient, the Holocaust superfluous, if not counterproductive. (How the Pätzold school bypasses this problem is discussed below under the heading “Jewish Bolshevism”.)

“That the Holocaust contradicted immediate capitalist interests no more disproves a capitalist connection than the fact that autarky may benefit some companies but damage those dependent on international trade”, says Gluckstein.12 That some win and some lose by state intervention into the capitalist economy is a common pattern. It is the raison d’être of the capitalist state as ideal personification of the total national capital according to Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Acting in favour of the future development of national capitalism the state will thereby discriminate against one sector and favour another. But for which sector of German capitalism was the Holocaust an advantage? And if the Holocaust contradicted immediate capitalist interests, which long-term capitalist aims did it foster? The answer to both questions is: none!

This answer is not accepted by Pätzold, who argues that the extermination of the Jews never hampered warfare or production and that train capacity was only negligibly tied up by transporting the victims to the death camps. According to him, the inmates of the death camps were only killed when not needed for work. The Birkbeck historian Nikolaus Wachsmann, in his recent book on this question, tells a different story: after 1941, the process of annihilating the Jews, Roma and Soviet prisoners of war was at times interrupted or accompanied by slave work which was mortal in itself.13 To put Pätzold in a nutshell: no doubt, the Nazis were driven by their exterminatory antisemitism, but they could only act this out insofar as it did not clash with capitalist economic and military imperialist aims. And as the facts run against this theory, he is obliged to resort to absurd arguments, as for example when, in summer 1944, the Wehrmacht raided Nazi-allied Hungary to deport more than 400,000 Jews to Auschwitz, Pätzold mentions the 300 of them who were put to work.14

The Nazis aimed to destroy Bolshevism, which they identified as Jewish Bolshevism. This shows, in Gluckstein’s view, that the Nazis’ “targets went beyond antisemitism”.15 Much depends on what is meant by “beyond”. If it means they had other motifs together with their antisemitism, then there is no doubt they did. But did anyone ever put forward the idea that the Nazis had nothing in mind apart form the extermination of European Jewry? Therefore “beyond antisemitism” was and still is a very popular message of Marxists in the tradition of the Third International, according to which the Jews were not targeted directly, coming to be gassed only coincidentally. In this tradition, fascism was defined in 1935 by Georgi Dimitrov as “the open, terrorist dictatorship of the most reactionary, most chauvinistic and most imperialist elements of finance capital”16 and nothing else.

Starting from this point, the German Communist Party (KPD) did not take the antisemitism of the Nazis seriously, insisting that the Nazis, as the most brutal army of finance capital, didn’t take it seriously themselves. It was, in their view, mere propaganda for an antisemitic audience. “Aryan” and “Jewish” capital were deeply interwoven. What sense could it make under capitalist auspices to separate them? The party paper Rote Fahne, long before Dimitrov’s definition but in the same spirit, tried to expose the Nazi leaders by saying that they were conspiring behind the backs of their antisemitic followers with Jewish bankers. And Central Committee member Ruth Fischer thought to unmask both Nazi anti-capitalism and antisemitism as fraud by publicly inviting the Nazis in 1923 to “stamp out Jewish capitalists. String them from the lamp posts.”

Even after the militant boycott of Jewish shops by the Nazis on 1 April 1933 the Communist Party underground publication found a way to deny that antisemitism was the motif. For example, historian David Bankier refers to an article, published by the KPD shortly after the boycott, which argues that the Nazis’ antisemitism was merely a diversionary tactic to hide their capitalist nature. According to Bankier, the article states that:

The fact that some Jewish capitalists were harmed also points to the instrumental use of antisemitism. Rich Jews become a substitute onto which the masses, bitterly disappointed at the failure of the regime, can deflect their rage. The article finally concludes by naming one of the concomitant uses of antisemitism for Hitler’s regime: by focusing public opinion in Germany and abroad on Jewish problems, it delusively diverts attention from the fate of the persecuted oppositionist elements. While…the newspapers were busy describing every last detail of the maltreatment of Jews, the regime has a free hand to step up its repressive measures against Communist opposition in the Reich.17

Clearly, writers influenced by the mechanical materialism of the Third International—who are to be found especially in Germany—can no longer argue this way today. The Holocaust did happen, in spite of the deduction that it can’t have happened in a capitalist state. As a result, for more than 20 years the Holocaust was no issue at all in these circles.18 Nor was the literature in the German language such as the research of Gerald Reitlinger or Raul Hilberg, available in the GDR. Then came Tim Mason’s attack on the Dimitrov concept of the fascist state, published in Das Argument, a theoretical journal of the students’ movement. Mason argues that the Holocaust made no sense, either from a capitalist point of view or for the pursuit of warfare, and that only the primacy of politics over economics can explain the Holocaust.19 At that time the East German Communists and their West German satellites tried to influence and to recruit from the students’ movement in the west. So they had to respond to Mason’s thesis and did so with a furious counter-attack. This started a debate that is still ongoing and is not limited to former East German historians or social scientists.20 Sticking with the idea that the fascist state was nothing but a brutal version of finance capital, they deduced now—instead of arguing that the Holocaust couldn’t happen—that the Holocaust was integral to capitalism. At first, an apple cannot fall from the tree because there is no law of gravity, and then after the apple has fallen, it fell because there is no law of gravity.

Why this almost religious faith in a theory that has proven again and again its inability to cope with reality? Because it is no theory, but an ideology for the self-justification of the GDR, and states modelled after the state capitalist Soviet Union, as socialist. For Pätzold and others, the politics of a capitalist state are defined by the private ownership of the means of production, while the politics of a socialist state are defined by the state-ownership of the means of production. To accept the possibility of a primacy of politics would create theoretical chaos and destabilise the pillars of this sort of socialism. Pätzold—in asking himself whether the irrational antisemitism of the Nazis was able to dominate the essential elements of the economy and warfare—warns: “For those who answer this question with Yes, the mass murder of the Jews is the irrefutable evidence, quasi the keystone for the thesis, that the regime was anti-capitalist or has overcome its former capitalist history and achieved a new quality”.21 So, to fit the ideology of Pätzold and his ilk, the Holocaust has to be seen as integral to capitalism.

State and capital: Harman’s hint

Gluckstein mentions my main intention only in passing and in a way that raises doubts as to whether I am understood. My intention is to show that Marx’s and Engels’s understanding of the relationship between economics and politics, between base and superstructure is not a functional one and even less one that can be deduced from formulae. People make their own history under ever-changing conditions, but they do make it. So, surprises are possible. Marx and Engels were always aware of this. To give an example: Gluckstein mentions Marx’s concept of Praetorian rule but gives it a different meaning from mine. He subsumes it as “a form of Bonapartism” under the theory of the relative independence of the state which makes the state the ideal personification of all national capital.22 Instead, Marx says something different here, namely, that under a severe economic and political crisis, given a corresponding constellation of class forces, the state may act free from all social interests on its own behalf. This is a complete break with the concept of Bonapartism and it shows how much Marx was ready to acknowledge a primacy of politics over economics.23

As Gluckstein observes, my essay closely engages with authors from the Socialist Workers Party—himself, Alex Callinicos, Sabby Sagall—and their different and contradictory analyses.24 But he does not mention my reference to the inspiring development of Chris Harman’s ideas concerning the Holocaust. As Harman’s ideas have much to do with the controversy between myself and Gluckstein, I would like to quote his arguments here at length.

In 1986 Harman wrote a convincing article on “Base and Superstructure”.25 In 1991 he returned to this issue, this time—I think to refute upcoming ­reformist ideas—emphasising the limits of politics in relation to the imperatives of the economy. In this context he relates to the Holocaust, saying:

The limiting case for the state is that, even if it overrides the interests of particular capitalists, it cannot forget that its own revenues and its own ability to defend itself against other states, depend, at the end of the day, on the continuation of capital accumulation. Thus, the Nazis could expropriate Thyssen, they could seize the wealth of Jewish capitalists, they could establish the horrific machinery of the death camps without it providing any appreciable benefit to German capital, they could even insist on continuing the war after it was clearly going to be lost and the interests of German capitalism would have been served by attempts at a negotiated peace. But they could only do all of these things so long as they ensured that capitalist exploitation took place on the most favourable terms for capital (state and private) and, therefore, that accumulation continued.26

Is it really convincing to say that by continuing to kill European Jewry, tying up economic and military resources even after the war was objectively lost, that the state was creating—at the end of the day—the most favourable terms for capital accumulation? Not to consider the loss of territory, men and capital. Or was it—to use a term from Hannah Arendt—“complete senselessness”?

In 2008, Harman related to war and again to the Holocaust questioning its rationality under capitalist auspices:

For the first time mass murder became an integral part of the war effort. But it was still mass murder with an allegedly military function—to stop pro-Russian forces regrouping to engage in guerrilla warfare and sabotage… The war involved unbelievable brutality, and the brutalised soldiers were prepared to tolerate, if not join in, the mass murder of Russian and Jewish civilians, with the excuse that they might provide support for resistance activities. Capitalist war has created the context in which such events could occur, and they remained rational by its monstrous standards. It enabled the Nazi leadership to implement a policy which was not rational even in these terms—the attempt to exterminate all of Europe’s Jewish and Roma Gypsy population in secret… In terms of the economic or war needs of German capitalism, none of it made sense. Many of those murdered were skilled workers or members of professions who could have contributed to profit-making or the war economy. Instead, when their labour was used before they were killed, it was as slave labourers performing tasks ill-suited to their skills. The movement of millions of people from one end of Europe to another clogged up railway lines and used rolling stock that was desperately needed for troops, weapons and industrial components. Bureaucratic personnel who could have been much more fruitfully employed were involved in planning the operation. Yet it continued, day after day, week after week, right up to the end of the war.27

Here the Holocaust is in no way “integral” to capitalism as an economic system. It was the faux frais of capitalism as a political system in a deep political crisis, called fascism. Here Harman gives the decisive hint in commenting on the antisemitism of the hardcore Nazi-leadership:

For them, Jews were the ultimate enemy behind every mishap Germany had ­suffered… The German ruling class had needed people with such deranged views to deal with the crisis in the early 1930s. Their derangement provided it with a force which could conquer working class organisations and then sustain their drive towards European supremacy. In return, the Nazis were allowed to act out their deranged fantasies by exterminating over six million Jews, Gypsies and disabled people.28

“In return, the Nazis were allowed”? There is no such deal known between the old elites and the Nazi leaders. The Nazis were not “allowed”, they just did it.

This is one of the theoretical starting points of my essay, and much of it is devoted to the question of what social and political processes and institutions were set in motion and operated—what is covered by Harman’s term “in return, the Nazis were allowed”.

Horst Haenisch is a sociologist active in the party Die Linke and in the network Marx21 in Germany.


1 Haenisch, 2017. I would like to thank Karin Hädicke, Volkhard Mosler and Philip Naylor for their critical comments on this reply in draft.

2 Gluckstein, 2018, p152.

3 Gluckstein, 2018, p154. Probably here we find the motif for Gluckstein’s verdict of my “German Marxism”, that I supposedly think the Holocaust is as completely disconnected from the economic basis of capitalism as Karl Kautsky thought imperialism is. My answer is that it makes no sense to discuss the relationship between economics and politics (or the capitalist state) without considering the gravity of economic contradictions, the severity of class antagonisms and the relations between social classes, their institutions and their political options.

4 Gluckstein, 2018, p155.

5 Harman, 1982, pp157-191.

6 Kühnl, 1977, pp169 and 171.

7 Gluckstein, 1999, p76.

8 There is a misunderstanding. Contrary to Gluckstein’s judgement (Gluckstein, 2018, p150), I don’t criticise Trotsky. Trotsky was extremely keen on political prognosis because he felt sure correctly to identify the social interests at stake and the political forces at work. He forecast in January 1932—a year before it happened—that Hitler would come to power by a coup d’etat after a short coalition government; he was the only one who foresaw in 1938 the extermination of European Jewry and so on. It is no criticism to state that he was not always able to judge from afar and without first-hand information the weight of these forces, that his prognosis at times had to be contradictory. So it is no criticism to state that the expected military dictatorship did not occur.

9 Gluckstein is wrong in saying that there was no massive racism in fascist Italy—Gluckstein, 2018, p154. The Italian war in Africa was accompanied by massive racism. And it is equally wrong to maintain—as Rob Ferguson does in International Socialism 154 (Ferguson, 2017, p43) without giving any sources—that there was massive antisemitism in fascist Italy. There is a chapter on this issue in my book and compare, for example, Klarsfeld, 2001.

10 Pätzold, 1997. After the unification of Germany Pätzold was relegated from the former East-German Humboldt University in Berlin and apologised for having contributed to expelling students with oppositional opinions before 1989. His successor, Heinrich August Winkler had acted comparably in the west in conjunction with the notorious Berufsverbot, without ever apologising. Pätzold died in 2016.

11 Gluckstein, 2018, pp152-153.

12 Gluckstein, 2018, p155

13 Wachsmann, 2015.

14 Pätzold, 1997, p85.

15 Gluckstein, 2018, p153.

16 Dimitrov, 1939.

17 Bankier, 1987, p328.

18 Pätzold answered the question of why social scientists in the GDR circumnavigated the Holocaust for more than 20 years by suggesting that the purpose of this question is to accuse this state of being antisemitic—Pätzold, 1997, p59.

19 Mason, 1966, pp473-494.

20 An example from West Germany is Deppe, 2003. Deppe merely repeats the arguments of Pätzold, discussed above. And this theory continues to find new adherents, like the American historian Peter Hayes in his book Why? Explaining the Holocaust—Hayes, 2017.

21 Pätzold, 1997, p75.

22 Gluckstein, 2018, p151.

23 Hal Draper gives a broad account of the qualitative break the category of Praetorian rule implies—Draper, 1977, pp439-463.

24 It would not be wrong to understand my essay as a review of these divergent accounts, which stand irreconcilably against each other, a situation hard to bear for Marxism, at least in Germany.

25 Harman, 1986. In his book The Tragedy of Bukharin, Gluckstein works with the same concept of dynamic relationships between base and superstructure as Harman does—Gluckstein, 1994.

26 Harman, 1991, p15.

27 Harman, 2008, pp530-531

28 Harman, 2008, p532.


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