German Marxism and the Holocaust

Issue: 159

Donny Gluckstein

A review of Horst Haenisch, Faschismus und der Holocaust: Versuch einer Erklärung (Edition Aurora, 2017), €8.50

The Holocaust is unusual in gaining more prominence as more time has passed since it occurred. Two reasons for this stand out. Few expected the current revival of fascist parties in Europe stretching from Poland and Hungary, to Germany, Austria and beyond, and knowing where they may lead is vital. Secondly, Zionism uses the Holocaust to justify Israeli state policy, persecute Palestinians and falsely accuse the left of antisemitism; thus a proper understanding is required. Germans, however, have an additional factor: post-war German capitalism dare not truly confront the implications of its past. Horst Haenisch’s book Faschismus und der Holocaust, which draws these out, makes an important contribution here, and so, even though it is not yet available in English, deserves consideration in this journal.

This short review cannot do justice to the richness of its closely argued discussion which is not a history but, as the sub-title suggests, “an attempt at an explanation”. The book considers three main areas: German bourgeois histories; Marxist analyses; and Haenisch’s own interpretation.

His critique of the influential, government-funded Institute for Contemporary History (Institut für Zeitgeschichte—IfZ), is devastating. The IfZ stresses structural factors in generating the Holocaust. Rather than the cause being human action or intention, it suggests there was a step by step process of “cumulative radicalisation” driven by events rather than people: “There did not exist any clear-cut concept [of the Holocaust] until 1941” after which it “sprang up from…emergency situations”.1 Contrary to the assertion that such an explanation offers an “objective” analysis of events, it actually pleads mitigating circumstances for the greatest crime in history, suggesting the perpetrators stumbled accidentally into the Holocaust.2 That in turn exonerates those German state officials who loyally carried out orders. This book exposes how the IfZ maintains its version by manipulation, censorship and distortion of the historical record.

The IfZ’s structuralism has been opposed by non-Marxist so-called intentionalist accounts such as Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust. For Haenisch this has the merit of at least assigning responsibility, but charges the wrong culprits. Blaming all Germans is not only factually inaccurate (Hitler’s 1933 boycott of Jewish businesses and the Kristallnacht pogrom of 1938 found little popular support), it too shelters the Nazis and their state collaborators by diffusing guilt across the entire population.

Turning to Marxist interpretations, the book says: “So far there has been no thoroughly conclusive explanation for the Holocaust”.3 Including a wide range of Marxist thinkers, from Leon Trotsky and Ernest Mandel to writers in the Socialist Workers Party such as Alex Callinicos, Sabby Sagall and myself in this claim, Haenisch warns that any explanation that relies on capitalism or capitalist rationality is flawed, because a potential workforce was exterminated when Germany required millions of slave labourers to staff industry, and organisational resources and infrastructure were diverted when it was losing the Second World War.

He also dismisses entirely explanatory notions such as alienation or capitalist treatment of human beings as dispensable objects because, if such general factors were at work, why did the Holocaust not appear everywhere? The general ideological climate in Germany could not be a cause either since Nazism made few inroads into the German working class before 1933, and the dictatorship carried out the Holocaust in secret and of its own independent volition.

Completing the picture he criticises Tim Mason’s idea of the “primacy of politics”—the notion that this, rather than capitalist economics, was crucial in shaping developments under Hitler. Far from imposing itself upon capitalism, according to Haenisch, the Nazis worked with it, with one key exception: “Among all projects of German fascism, only the Holocaust falls into the category of the primacy of politics”.4 This does not mean he accepts the opposite argument which looks to the dialectical relationship between economic base and political superstructure. This too is taken as flawed because it ignores the unique character of Hitler’s specifically (Nazi) state formation (which was distinct from the pre-existing capitalist state). Conflating the two mistakenly leaves “the state, both bourgeois and fascist, as a collective capitalist entity…the overall political executor operating within the framework of the capitalist valorisation process”.5

Having cleared away these approaches Haenisch provides his own explanation which includes the following interlocking elements:

1) The Holocaust was unique, and for Marxists to deny this has “fatal consequences” for their position.6

2) Pursuing this line, Nazi antisemitism is differentiated from other forms of racism, both that promulgated by the ruling class as a divide and rule tactic, and that prevalent in society generally. Nazism’s middle class supporters were driven by competition with Jews for positions, especially in the liberal professions.7 This made it more deadly than emotional antisemitism of the pogrom variety, constituting instead what Hitler called “the antisemitism of reason”.8

3) The Nazis were able to carry out the Holocaust because a form of Bonapartism was in operation. Marx developed this concept of relative state autonomy after 1852, when Louis Bonaparte carried out a coup using a gang of followers (the Society of 10 December). As French Emperor, Louis was free to act fairly independently of the social forces surrounding him. Hitler’s party was the equivalent of the Society of 10 December, a Praetorian Guard that could act out its racist fantasies as it wished.

4) Germany operated a “double state”,9 which is an idea put forward by a number of writers including Callinicos and Martin Broszat. For almost every conventional bourgeois institution there was a Nazi parallel. Alongside education and the church stood the Hitler Youth. Beside the army there was the SA and SS; for the intelligence services—the SD (Security Service) and Gestapo; for local government—the Nazi Gauleiters, and so on. It was through the latter structures that the Nazis initiated their genocidal project, and it is notable that the Holocaust took place in conquered territory beyond the jurisdiction of the conventional state.

5) Yet that older apparatus played a full part as accomplice to mass murder. Here we find Hitler’s real “willing executioners” rather than, as Goldhagen argues, among the entire German population.

The book accomplishes its polemical task admirably, but in achieving that there is a price to pay. Focusing so narrowly on the question of premeditation and ultimate guilt (spanning from the beginning of the Nazi party to Auschwitz) privileges this one aspect of policy over all others, thus 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.

In issue 156 of International Socialism Alex Callinicos pointed out that “every historical event [is] a peculiar blend of the universal and the particular”.10 A tight focus on the Holocaust is justified and inevitable for a book that aims to explain that appalling tragedy, but to see it only as a particular event and deliberately exclude the universal aspect can distort the analysis.

Two examples bring this out. First, emphasising the Holocaust’s uniqueness and seeing Hitler’s antisemitism in isolation fails to locate the latter as part of his wider analysis of society. The initial euthanasia campaign was not directed against Jews but disabled German children on the grounds that “life that is no more use…seen in material terms…is eliminated accordingly”.11 Furthermore, by 1945 almost 1 percent of Germany’s non-Jewish female population (360,000) had been compulsorily sterilised for eugenic reasons. The Holocaust drew in not just Jews but Roma, Soviet POWs and “shirkers who persistently refuse to do physical labour”.12 In Mein Kampf Hitler wrote that the racist perspective applied to “racially pure” Germans too: it “by no means believes in an equality of the races…and believes in the validity of this law down to the last individual… The capitalists have a right to lead due to their abilities, for they have worked their way to the top, and on the grounds of this selection, proved their higher race”.13 Though the logical connection seems nonsensical to our eyes, the targeting of Jews was integral to a wider counter-revolutionary programme that dated back to the November 1918 revolution and was supposed to improve German capitalist competitiveness both internally and externally.

Secondly there is the decision to set in train the Holocaust itself. In his zeal to debunk the IfZ view that Hitler lacked a clear-sighted intention to execute industrial genocide of the Jews (rather than events shifting him from expulsion to extermination) Haenisch cites an address to army chiefs on 30 March 1941 in which Hitler talked about “a war of racial extermination…against Jewish Bolshevism”.14 The reference to “Jewish Bolshevism” shows the speech’s targets went beyond antisemitism. Far from being an explicit order to commence the Holocaust (as a system of death camps and crematoria and the like), the two and a half hour monologue laid out tactics for the coming war with Russia. We know its content from General Franz Halder’s notes: “Battle of two world views against each other… Bolshevism is just anti-social criminality. Communism is a tremendous danger for the future and we have to escape from that… Annihilate the Bolshevik commissars and the communist intelligentsia”.15

Seen from this wider perspective a rather different picture emerges, and the Marxist theories Haenisch rejects as offering “no thoroughly conclusive explanation” prove their worth. I would argue Trotsky’s emphasis on Nazism as a counter-revolutionary movement (whose antisemitism was therefore tied up with the myth of “Jewish Bolshevism”) is a better way of explaining the Holocaust than pure racist obsession.16 So, alongside its uniqueness, the Holocaust must also be classed as an example of capitalist barbarism (albeit the most extreme one to date). The fundamental connection between the unique and the universal will now be briefly sketched.

A system in which a tiny minority becomes obscenely rich by exploiting the vast majority cannot rely for long on force alone, but combines it with fraud. In Western capitalism (which is generally too technologically advanced for the whip to be very efficient) fraud predominates. Consent is obtained through having freedom of expression, of organisation, parliamentary democracy, the appearance of rights to basic welfare, and so on. During booms this arrangement generally works well for the capitalists by defusing discontent from below.

The ideological consequence of this is that the masses largely buy in to the system for, as Marx argued, the prevailing ideas are the ideas of the ruling class. To put it crudely, many accept that “what is good for the boss is good for me”, something encapsulated in nationalism (which is structured by the contours of capitalist institutions like the state and the economy). Leaving aside situations where there is a (temporary) cross-class interest in throwing off the shackles of imperialism and oppression, let us consider reactionary nationalism.

Among the ruling class, acceptance that “what is good for the boss is good for me” is naturally high. But, for the working class, life experience contradicts this ideology. The result is mostly a combination of partial acceptance and partial resistance which, if organised, takes the shape of reformism. Sandwiched between both is the middle class—what Marx called the petty bourgeoisie. The title is apt. It is true this stratum can be won to the left because shopkeepers and the self-employed suffer at the hands of the banks, big business and economic crisis, while the so-called new middle class of professionals and middle managers are squeezed too. However, many “little” bourgeois aspire to be big bourgeois, while the lower manager craves promotion to the top rank. Thus the middle class can be pulled to the left or right, as can those—of any class—who are not socially rooted (what Marx called the lumpenproletariat).

So far this compressed account suggests that classes operate as single entities. That, of course, is a massive over-simplification. All classes have numerous currents within them and under bourgeois democracy these coalesce into different movements and parties. Equally, the relationship between the capitalist economy and the state is mostly indirect. There is, for example, a division of labour between the bosses, army generals, police chiefs, civil servants and elected representatives.

When competitive pressures strengthen and/or the system enters crisis, bourgeois democratic concessions are not only an irritant but can become channels for resistance to the drive for intensified exploitation. It is notable that by the end of the 1930s, with the exception of Czechoslovakia and the north western fringe (France, Britain, Holland, Scandinavia, etc), every country in Europe had some sort of reactionary authoritarian and nationalist government which operated outside of bourgeois democratic norms.

Where the working class is a serious obstacle the establishment is attracted to divide and rule tactics, and the most potent weapon to hand is ever-present nationalism. This is often sharpened more and more into reactionary forms which may include explicit racism (though that was less pronounced in Italy). Under bourgeois democratic conditions crisis creates disillusion with established parties while intensified nationalism can benefit fascist parties that were merely treading water previously.

What do the latter represent? Haenisch’s strict differentiation of Nazi ­antisemitism from other forms of reaction gives the impression that its fascist ideas appeared like a deus ex machina, a sort of third way outside the fundamental framework of capitalist society. But bourgeois ideology is not a homogeneous block (as current Tory divisions over Brexit show). There is a spectrum of ideologies. Blinded by their anger against existing conditions, fascist leaders and followers may not see themselves as spouting ruling class ideas and believe their ideas to be their own, yet they occupy the extreme right of the spectrum. They use slogans designed to appeal particularly to the middle class but which also represent an exaggerated version of bourgeois ideology. They project a caricature of capitalist ideas in anti-capitalist wrapping.

An important element of fascism (showing just how far along the spectrum it is) is a readiness to dispense with fraud and deploy untrammelled force—creating street armies capable of smashing bourgeois democracy. This feature convinced the establishment to appoint both Mussolini in Italy and Hitler in Germany, as it lacked the muscle to carry this out.

Once in power Hitler had the autonomy to pursue his antisemitic project as a sideline to promoting German capitalism and imperialism, just as Haenisch suggests in his valuable stress on the double state. While that was the mechanism that allowed implementation, the Nazi formation still remained tied to capitalism ideologically if not via direct institutional channels. 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.

Killing Jews cost military output in the short term, but fitted the crazed belief that it would weaken Russia, and also that it would assist Lebensraumthe plan to eradicate 30 million people from Eastern Europe to give space for German settlement after victory in the Second World War.

This review has offered antagonistic Marxist interpretations of the Holocaust—particular versus universal, and intentionalism versus structuralism. It might be tempting to take an agnostic position, or just select data serving one interpretation and disregard the rest. Instead what is needed is the ability to see the dialectical links at work. Marx formulated these perfectly when he wrote that people make history but not in circumstances of their own choosing.

That caveat aside, the strength of this book lies in its impressive polemic against targets in the German establishment, and above all its clear understanding of the very specific threat that Nazism represents. On this latter ground alone the book is a valuable contribution to anti-fascists everywhere. Opposition to contemporary Nazi-style movements cannot be simply subsumed into the generalised fight against capitalism—however much that fight is ultimately necessary to end the fascist threat.

Donny Gluckstein is a member of the Socialist Workers Party in Edinburgh and a trade union activist in the EIS.


1 Interview with Hans Mommsen—Mommsen, 1997.

2 Haenisch, 2017, p22.

3 Haenisch, 2017, p79.

4 Haenisch, 2017, p125.

5 Haenisch, 2017, p124.

6 Haenisch, 2017, p126. See also pages 22, 68, 69, 90, 112, 119 and 128.

7 Haenisch, 2017, p147.

8 Haenisch, 2017, p58.

9 Haenisch, 2017, see pages 112, 63, 64, 105, 112, 135, 147, 150, 157-9, 163, 167-8, 170-71, 177, 179-80 and 182.

10 Callinicos, 2017, p60.

11 Gluckstein, 1999, p177.

12 Gluckstein, 1999, p177.

13 Quoted in Gluckstein, 1999, p21.

14 Haenisch, 2017, p160.

15 Franz Halder’s war diary—Halder, 1941.

16 Trotsky, 1975, p14.


Callinicos, Alex, 2017, “The Orphaned Revolution: the Meaning of October 1917”, International Socialism 156 (autumn),

Gluckstein, Donny, 1999, The Nazis, Capitalism and the Working Class (Bookmarks).

Haenisch, Horst, 2017, Faschismus und der Holocaust: Versuch einer Erklärung (Edition Aurora).

Halder, Franz, 1941, Kriegstagebuch (30 March),

Mommsen, Hans, 1997, “An Interview With Prof Hans Mommsen” (12 December),

Trotsky, Leon, 1975, The Struggle against Fascism in Germany (Harmondsworth).