The Holocaust: Marxist and psychoanalytical approaches

Issue: 169

Sabby Sagall

This article is a response to Henry Maitles’s review of Enzo Traverso in International Socialism 169.

Henry Maitles’s review of Enzo Traverso’s collection of essays in Critique of Modern Barbarism: Essays on Fascism, Anti-semitism and the Use of History is a useful summary of the key themes of Enzo Traverso’s writings on the Holocaust. He quotes Elie Wiesel’s and Theodor Adorno’s belief that the Holocaust “cannot be properly understood or analysed”. However, Henry agrees with Traverso that we must try to understand the Holocaust if the slogan “Never Again” is to mean anything. As Henry points out, Marxism has tried to explain the Holocaust through an “understanding of the complex relationships between economics and politics that enabled an embattled capitalism to survive, and indeed, on occasion, to thrive”.1 However, this merely provides the setting for the Holocaust but doesn’t explain it.

Henry correctly highlights the opposing interests of German capital and the Nazis: German capitalists created the conditions for the Nazi regime but the Nazis, who ruled in their interests, increasingly behaved in ways that made them uneasy. This is encapsulated in the phrase: ‘The capitalists needed the Nazis and the Nazis needed the Holocaust’. Again, this merely describes the historical sequence of events: why the Nazis needed the Holocaust remains unresolved in Traverso.

Henry refers to Nazism’s “deep irrationalism”. He quotes Traverso’s citing of Raul Hilberg’s view that “in the preliminary phase” of the isolation and expropriation of the Jews, “financial gains…far outweighed expenses, but…in the killing phase receipts no longer balanced losses”.2 Nothing illustrates this better than the Nazis’ decision to adopt the final solution—physical extermination—at the precise moment when the war began to turn against Germany, specifically, with the German army’s failure to capture Moscow in December 1941. As the retreat from Russia began, instead of marshalling all their economic and military resources to defend their gains in Russia and Poland, the Nazi leadership devoted these resources to rounding up the Jews of Europe and herding them into death camps, where they murdered six million.

Importantly, there is little evidence that the Nazis intended to murder the Jews from the outset. As Henry points out, there was an intensification of their plans for European Jewry. A series of stages began with a plan for expulsion (1939-1941), followed by ghettoisation, and only then culminated in genocide.

Traverso’s error is to imagine that one can analyse the Holocaust solely within the theoretical framework of classical Marxist socio-economic categories with no recourse to concepts relating to subjectivity. He quotes Isaac Deutscher: “I doubt whether even in a thousand years people will understand Hitler and Auschwitz…better than we do now… Posterity may understand it all even less than we do”.3 I believe that such intellectual agnosticism is unacceptable for Marxists.

I want to argue two things in this short response. Firstly, Traverso fails to locate Nazism within the specific way that German capitalism developed historically and its effect on the different sections of the middle class. Secondly, we need to add a subjective dimension to classical Marxist approaches to the Holocaust and to those genocides that clearly lack any material or political benefit for the perpetrators. These are irrational in the sense that they are against the stated interests of the perpetrators. This becomes perhaps clearer if one adduces an example of “rational genocide”: Stalin’s destruction of the kulak class of small peasant farmers through forced industrialisation and collectivisation resulted in the deaths of perhaps 12 million people. However, it served Stalin’s purpose of building a powerful industrial state. The need to complement the objective historical class analysis with a subjective analysis is best fulfilled by psychoanalysis because of its focus on the irrational, unconscious aspects of human behaviour.

German capitalism and the Nazi movement

The Nazi movement was largely based on the different sections of the German middle class. Germany never overthrew its monarchy and landed aristocracy; the German middle class was too weak and cowardly to carry out a middle class or bourgeois revolution, as its counterparts in Britain, France and the United States had done. Karl Marx refused to mince his words when he wrote:

The German bourgeoisie had developed so slothfully, cravenly and slowly that at the moment when it menacingly faced feudalism and absolutism it saw itself faced by the proletariat and all factions of the burghers whose interests and ideas were akin to those of the proletariat.4

Recoiling in fear, it threw in its lot with the old ruling class instead.

In the absence of a successful bourgeois revolution from below, capitalist industrialisation was carried out through a “revolution from above”. This was engineered by the new state bureaucracy dominated by Otto von Bismarck, the “iron chancellor” who emerged from the Junker class of Prussian landed nobility. Bismarck governed Prussia from 1862 until 1871, and then the unified German imperial state until 1890. After 1871, German industrialisation was carried out through by Bismarck’s “enlightened despotism”. He dragged the Junkers into an alliance with the top layer of the middle class, the wealthy capitalists. Over the next 30 years, the concentration of production and retail in the hands of fewer and fewer giant monopoly firms developed apace. The majority of the the lower layer—the petty bourgeoisie—lost out, unable to compete with big business. Increasingly, it was squeezed by a pincer movement of the new capitalist ruling class and a powerful labour movement that had developed equally rapidly. Germany’s extremely speedy development between 1871 and 1914 hit the petty bourgeoisie much harder than in those societies where industrial development took place more slowly. Germany’s race to catch up with its more advanced competitors entailed a faster process of economic concentration and cartelisation than occurred in France and Britain. Reports written by official and semi-official bodies in the second half of the 19th century describe a “sense of declining social status and narrowing horizons…a feeling among craftsmen…and shopkeepers…that they were becoming more marginal members of society”.5

As for the peasantry, substantial legal reforms between 1807 and 1821 “emancipated” them from feudal bondage. The impetus for these changes came from the state’s need to raise revenue following the destruction of the Napoleonic Wars. It was hoped that by “liberating” the peasantry, opening up the land to private ownership and reorganising agriculture along competitive lines, productive efficiency would be boosted.6 However, these reforms could not have been carried through without the consent of the landowning Junkers. They benefited by the removal of legal obligations towards the peasants and the improved efficiency deriving from wage labour, but above all by the increase in disposable land. The Prussian state also aided its aristocratic supporters by granting them subsidised credit and tax benefits, whereas peasants had to buy their freedom at a high price, either in cash or by ceding land. The new system of large-scale capitalist agriculture thus arose at the expense of the peasantry, especially in eastern regions, where the area occupied by the large estates increased by two-thirds between 1811 and 1890. It was these that were best able to benefit from the new rationalised methods of cultivation, both providing for a rapidly growing population and profiting from the lucrative export trade. The agrarian sector was an important contributor to the funding of Germany’s early industrialisation, through the increased tax yields arising from the accumulation of private wealth derived from exports.

The transition from inherited feudal servitude to formal legal independence stimulated a huge increase in population, doubling from 25 million in 1840 to 52 million in 1895.7 However, because of the relative decline in opportunities in the traditional occupations, many emigrated, including two million in the years between 1850 and 1870. Many more poured into the new urban industrial centres, where they formed the reserve army of unskilled labour required by the factory system alongside its artisans.

Germany’s rapid development brought it into intensifying conflict with its rivals, culminating in the First World War, an inter-imperialist struggle that German imperialism lost. In the ensuing Versailles treaty of 1919, the victorious allies imposed a harsh reparations burden on Germany that hit the middle classes hard. Then in the hyper-inflation of 1923, their savings were wiped out and Germany had to be rescued by American loans. This lead to an uneasy and short period of stability that was finally toppled by the financial crash of 1929 and the subsequent Great Depression. German industry collapsed, with production declining by 42 percent, unemployment rocketing to 5.5 million. The unemployed accounted for some 30 percent of the workforce, and 45 percent of trade unionists did not have jobs. These events were also unmitigated disasters for the urban and rural middle classes—the petty bourgeoisie—with whole sections of small business wiped out. They were also catastrophic for the layer of lower managers, foremen, clerical workers and other sections of the professional middle class.

Fear of the potential power of the labour movement, and their memory of the German socialist revolution that had begun in 1918, motivated the ruling class to do a deal with the Nazis, even though they did not have a majority in the German parliament, the Reichstag. In fact, the Nazi vote had actually declined in 1932. In January 1933, the big capitalists manoeuvred to get Hitler appointed chancellor, and in return for political power, he agreed to drop the anti-big business measures in the Nazi programme. As Erich Fromm puts it:

Nazism resurrected the lower middle class psychologically while participating in the destruction of its old socio-economic position. It mobilised its emotional energies to become an important force in the struggle for the economic and political aims of German imperialism.8

The disastrous failure of the main left-wing parties, the Social Democratic Party and the Communist Party, to unite against Hitler meant abandoning Germany to the Nazis. As Tony Cliff, the Marxist author, described it, “In stagnant water, scum rises top the top.”

During the 1930s, the Nazis’ rearmament programme eliminated unemployment but led inevitably to the second act of the inter-imperialist drama that had begun with the First World War. German capitalism sought to take back land, markets and sources of raw materials that had been lost to the other Western states during the First World War.

Through that decade, antisemitism grew rapidly as an instrument of Nazi policy and Jews were systematically deprived of civil rights. Nazis sought to channel the hatred, anger and fear of the petty bourgeoisie away from big business and onto the Jews. They were depicted simultaneously as subhuman and as the all-powerful force behind both international finance and Germany’s other great enemy, Bolshevism, whose “stab in the back” was depicted as responsible for Germany’s defeat in the First World War.

According to Arthur Schweitzer, the middle class was divided into three sections: the old, the new, and the “quasi-proletarian”. They did not share a common economic position. The first section, the “old” or traditional middle class, included artisans, dealers in goods and services such as small shopkeepers, and most of the peasantry, as well as managers and small entrepreneurs who owned capital. The second section, the “new” middle class, was made up of salaried employees who were dependent on employers, together with the lower strata of professionals who sold their services on the market, gaining a measure of economic independence. Thirdly, the group of small independents—plumbers and electricians—was designated as “quasi-proletarian”.9

Anti-capitalist ideas developed among all these groups. Small business groups and artisans were outraged at competition from chain and department stores, whose mechanised methods enabled them to capture the markets of the smaller firms. The peasants hated the bankers who bought and speculated in farm products. White collar workers hated the industrialists who ruthlessly sacked older workers or replaced them with machines.10 Marxists of course, regard white collar employees as objectively working class, but in pre-war capitalism a majority probably defined themselves as “middle class”.

The Nazis’ “radical” economic programme, and decisive political leadership profoundly influenced these middle-class groups. There arose for the first time in decades a single ideology uniting the different sections. Gone were their organisational proliferation and economic conflicts. The Nazification of the middle class had been achieved, their traditional parties swept away, and the Nazis established themselves as the leaders of a counter-revolutionary mass movement.

Nazism and psychoanalysis

To achieve a complete understanding of the extreme violence of the Holocaust, we need an analysis of the subjective, motivational factors that impelled a group of perpetrators to commit genocide, together with an explanation of how these are rooted in objective social and historical conditions. How do we account for hatred and destructiveness on such an enormous scale? Marxism is undoubtedly the best theoretical tool for analysing the objective factors leading a group to carry out genocidal violence. However, classical Marxism needs to be supplemented by a theory of subjectivity. Such a theory must explain how external, material conditions become translated into the psyche of the individual, not just as ideology but as their overall emotional life. As Otto Fenichel wrote, “The economic conditions do not just influence the individual directly, but also indirectly, via a change in his psychic structure”.11 The vulgar Marxism of Stalinist and social-democratic traditions held back the development of such a theory due to their fear of psychologism and their mechanical belief in the automatic translation of economic crisis into class consciousness. Their refusal to acknowledge the reality of the subjective factor, and to admit the need for a theoretical understanding of the mediation of objective and subjective factors, resulted in a failure to fully comprehend the “manner and mode by which ideology is translated into the everyday life and behaviour of the individual”, including the presence or absence of revolutionary consciousness.12

Psychologist Stephen Frosh argues: “The potential value of psychoanalysis for people concerned with politics lies in its ability to provide an account of subjectivity which links the ‘external’ structures of the social world with the ‘internal’ world of each individual”.13 This is important for Marxists. It suggests they should take seriously the potential ability of psychoanalysis to help us understand how external structures of exploitation and oppression are internalised into the mind of the individual. Joel Kovel wrote, in a similar vein, that “psychoanalysis has discovered in each of us a spontaneous well of subjectivity that simply does not contain in any immediate sense the categories of political economy and yet plays a powerful determining role in social life”.14

Marx and Friedrich Engels themselves did not have much to say on the individual, subjective aspect of history. There is a reference in The German Ideology to personality being conditioned by class relationships—this is a start but, on its own, does not get us very far. They are not to blame for this. Modern psychological sciences could only emerge out of other sciences such as medicine and psychology or social sciences such as sociology. Rooted in the Enlightenment, Marx and Engels always followed with avid interest new scientific developments, enthusiastically welcoming, for example, the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origins of the Species and Lewis Morgan’s anthropological studies of Native American communities. Unfortunately, Engels died in 1895, the year in which Sigmund Freud and his colleague Josef Breuer published Studies on Hysteria. Freud’s chapter on psychotherapy in this work is generally regarded as marking the inception of psychoanalysis. Arguably, Engels would have greeted Freud’s work with interest, and possibly enthusiasm, though no doubt also critically. Indeed, Engels himself wrote:

Ideology is a process accomplished by the so-called thinker consciously…but with a false consciousness. The real motive forces impelling him remain unknown to him… He works with mere thought material, which he accepts without examination as the product of thought, and does not investigate further for a more remote source independent of thought”.15

In the 1920s, Trotsky pleaded for tolerance towards psychoanalysis in the face of virulent attacks by many Bolsheviks who dismissed it as incompatible with Marxism due to its alleged anti-materialism and over-emphasis on sex. “He protested against the disparagement of Freudism all the more strongly because he held that Freud’s teaching, like Ivan Pavlov’s, was inherently materialistic.” In 1923, Trotsky argued: “Can it psychoanalysis be reconciled with materialism, as, for instance, Karl Radek thinks (and I also), or is it hostile to it?”16 In 1926, Trotsky wrote:

The attempt to declare psychoanalysis “incompatible” with Marxism…is too simplistic… We are not obliged to adopt Freudism. It is a working hypothesis which can produce and undoubtedly does produce deductions and conjectures which proceed along the lines of materialist psychology.17

The concept of social character

The related notions of “character structure”, developed by Wilhelm Reich, and “social character”, developed by Erich Fromm, attempted to provide the crucial link mediating between external society and individual psyche. Reich stated that:

Every social organisation produces those character structures that it needs to exist. In class society, the existing ruling class secures its position with the help of education and the institution of the family… However it is not solely a matter of implanting the ideologies in all members of the society… It not just a matter of attitudes and opinions…but of a far-reaching process in every new generation of a given society, the purpose of which is to effect a change in and mould psychic structures (in all layers of the population) in conformity with the social order.18

The social character that rising or dominant classes create in themselves is not the same as that which they instil into exploited or subordinate classes. These subordinated classes might instead be instilled with a social character based on submission. Fromm argues that the social character of what he describes as the “lower middle class”—small businesspersons, independent artisans and so on—was different from that of the working class (though there was some overlap such as thrift and respect for authority).19

Moreover, under capitalism exploited classes fight back. An emerging or existing ruling class is generally not wholly successful in inculcating the ideology and social character it requires into the subordinate classes. Subordinate classes fight back, and part of that resistance involves the creation of an alternative or opposing ideology and social character. There is a modification of the dominant social character as a necessary adaptation to the impact of the struggle of the exploited class. For example, as I have explained in an earlier publication:

The modern Western working classes organised themselves from the beginning of industrial capitalism into trade unions, at the heart of which lay values of solidarity and collective endeavour. These values were in opposition to the bourgeois values of individual ambition and competition. Through its struggles, the early industrial working class developed a more extroverted, “other-directed” social character than that possessed by their capitalist masters.20

Middle class social character

In sum, no analysis of the rise of Nazism and the Holocaust can be complete without an understanding of the psychological dimension of the crisis of Germany’s middle classes. As a result of their historical experience as a social class in the development of German capitalism, they developed within the family a typical “social character” that some psychoanalysts have described as an authoritarian personality.21 In his analysis of the decline of the petty bourgeoisie, David Blackbourn notes:

The values of fairness, thrift and self-reliance were sufficiently at odds with prevailing conditions of production and distribution that they probably account for some of that commonly noted “overcompensation” in the domestic sphere, which took the form of moral rigidity and patriarchal authoritarianism.22

This “social character” has been described as the simultaneous presence of sadistic and masochistic drives. Sadism was the desire for power over others, combined with the urge to destroy. Masochism was the need to dissolve oneself in a strong power while simultaneously participating in its strength. The Nazi leaders sought power over the masses, while these masses were exhorted to see themselves as having power over other nations and “races”, and particularly over the Jews. Frankfurt School members Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer argued something similar when they wrote:

The reactionary ticket that includes antisemitism is suited to the destructive-conventional syndrome. It is not so much that such people react originally against the Jews as that their drive-structure has developed a tendency toward persecution, which the ticket then furnishes with an adequate object.23

What is striking about Reich’s analysis of the success of fascism is the brilliant manner in which his analysis locks together the economic and psychological crises of the German middle class. He articulates the classic Marxist analysis of fascism as a middle-class movement, which wins support from that class because of its superficial hostility to big business. From the outset, Reich displays a solid grasp of the historical and structural crisis of the German middle class:

The rapid development of capitalist economy in the nineteenth century, the continuous and rapid mechanisation of production, and the amalgamation of the various branches of production in monopolistic syndicates and trusts form the basis of the progressive pauperisation of the lower middle-class merchants and tradesmen. Not capable of competing with the cheaper large industries, the small enterprises go to ruin, never to recover.24

He adds:

As a consequence of his social situation, the lower middle class man could not join forces…with his own class because competition is the rule there. Neither can he join forces with the industrial workers because it is precisely proletarianisation that he fears most of all.25

However, Hitler did a deal with big business. In return for the chancellorship, he dropped the anti-corporate programme through which the Nazis had won the allegiance of the middle class. Nevertheless, they continued to support Hitler even after he betrayed them. So what enabled him to retain their allegiance? Reich points out that the Nazis were highly skilled in working on the emotions of their supporters and avoiding relevant arguments as far as possible. This leads onto his main argument, that the precondition of winning and retaining the mass support of the middle class was that Hitler’s possessed an authoritarian “character structure” in tune with and echoing that of his followers.26 However, our aim is to discover the roots of the collective, not individual, paranoia that afflicted Hitler as a member of this class.

According to Reich, the heart of the middle-class or petty-bourgeois “character structure” is the ambivalent attitude towards authority:

Rebellion against it coupled with acceptance and submission—the basic feature of every middle class (character) structure from the age of puberty to full adulthood… This is especially pronounced in individuals stemming from materially restricted circumstances.27

A bit later, Reich distinguishes between the mass psychology of the “lower middle class” and that of the working class:

Always ready to accommodate himself to authority, the lower middle class man develops a cleavage between his economic situation and his ideology. He lives in materially restricted circumstances, but assumes gentlemanly postures… It is its accommodating attitude that specifically distinguishes the structure of the lower middle class man from the character structure of the industrial worker.28

The social position of the middle class is established, firstly, by its place in the capitalist production process, secondly, by its place in the authoritarian state apparatus, and thirdly, by its family situation as directly governed by its location in the production process, which is the key to understanding its ideology.29 Moreover:

In the figure of the father, the authoritarian state has its representative in every family, so that the family becomes its most important instrument of power… He reproduces his subservient attitude towards authority in his children… It is in the lower middle classes that this structure is most is…embedded…most deeply.30

Fromm took up this analysis where Reich left off. He argued that the middle classes feared independence and had a deep-seated respect for authority. They loved the strong and despised the weak. They suffered deep emotional deprivation in early childhood, being forced to renounce instinctual urges at an early, pre-genital stage. This renunciation occurred abruptly and through punishment rather than in a loving way. The result was repressed rage and destructiveness. Fromm is not suggesting that bad parenting caused the Holocaust, which would represent crude psychologism, but merely that the treatment of children in the authoritarian family should be one link in an overall chain of analysis. At a time of social breakdown, instead of rage being directed at the ruling class responsible for the state of society, it was projected onto scapegoats. Although Traverso mentions the Frankfurt School, astonishingly he fails to include the contributions of either Fromm or Reich.31

Psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut relates violence to narcissistic rage, which is at the origins of some of the most gruesome aspects of human destructiveness, often in the form of well-organised activities in which the perpetrators’ destructiveness is alloyed with absolute conviction about their greatness and with their devotion to archaic, omnipotent figures. Kohut describes Hitler’s psychosis after “he emerged from a lonely period of hypochondria with the fixed idea that the Jews had invaded the body of Germany and had to be eradicated”.32 Hitler’s own childhood was racked by regular, brutal beatings at the hands of a disciplinarian father. Ian Kershaw comments:

Hitler capacity for hatred so profound that it must have reflected an immeasurable undercurrent of self-hatred. This was concealed in the extreme narcissism that was its counterpoint, and it must surely have had its roots in the subliminal influences of the young Adolf’s family circumstances.33

Prior to Germany’s defeat in the First World War, the middle-class individual still felt part of a stable social and cultural world in which he or she had a definite place. However, with the defeat and collapse of the monarchy, followed by hyperinflation, their security was swept away, intensifying these emotional features. Of course, had the workers’ revolution that began in 1918 been successful, instead of being finally defeated in 1923, it would no doubt have offered the middle classes an alternative political road to Nazism. Arguably, this would have enabled them to develop a different and more independent “social character”.

In a fascinating essay, Peter Loewenberg argues that the experience of young children of the First World War, with its terrible physical and emotional privations, and the experience of defeat and its aftermath, were the crucial factors that made a generation of the middle classes psychologically available to the Nazi appeal. “The adults who became politically effective after 1929 and who filled the ranks of the SA and other paramilitary party organisations…were the children socialised in the First World War”.34 An article by American psychoanalyst Martin Wangh spells this out:

The economic and social stresses of 1930 to 1933 reawakened in the youth of this generation the anxiety previously experienced in the years 1917-1920. Once again the lower middle class was particularly imperilled by déclassement and unaccustomed poverty.35

Psychoanalyst Henry Dicks studied a group of SS members and reached similar conclusions. These individuals from middle-class backgrounds grew up with paranoid, sado-masochistic personalities. They harboured deep rage and hatred, which was rooted in early childhood experience that was then projected outwards. This process produced cowards who became bullies: “Killers, terrified of their victims—the projected part of themselves”.36

Of course, not all members of the middle classes developed these inner traits to the same degree, but Nazi killers revealed an extreme example of this general class psychology. They developed an “inner authority image of ruthless contempt for weakness and dependence”. Such weakness was too terrifying to contemplate in oneself as it contravened the moral expectation of strength, manliness and obedience. Therefore, it had to be projected outwards onto the scapegoat.37 Dicks describes one SS killer as “an individual whose need to belong had been perverted, and whose resultant anti-parental hate had been displaced on to authority-approved targets”.38 In general, the Nazi paranoid-aggressive was “self-centred, hardened against guilt, hating both pitiless authority and helpless weaklings, the twin poles of the authoritarian personality”.39 As Norman Cohn has argued:

It is likely that when antisemites kill not simply Jewish men but also Jewish women and children, when they see the extermination of all Jews as an indispensable cleansing or disinfection of the earth, they are moved by terrors stemming from the earliest stages of infancy.40

This psychoanalytical dimension in no way goes against the description of the Nazi killing machine as a smooth, bureaucratic operation: “Though this gigantic operation was carried out in a cold, matter-of-fact, bureaucratic spirit…the majority of SS and Nazi activists shared violent racist beliefs with their Führer”.41 Hence there is no contradiction between ascribing violent racism to SS murderers and the notion of a bureaucratic, assembly-line enterprise—the industrialisation of death—as described by Hannah Arendt in her report on the trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961.

Psychological tests were also carried out on Eichmann during his trial in Israel in 1961 by psychiatrists I S Kulcsar and Shoshanna Kulcsar. A separate test was conducted by Hungarian psychologist Léopold Szondi. They claim that he was not just the bureaucratic conformist depicted by Hannah Arendt:

He was not simply taking orders. He was imaginative in carrying them out. He used the regime and its ideology to satisfy his own murderous desires.42

The authors believe that Eichmann was not specifically antisemitic, but that he hated the entire human race, killing Poles, Russians, communists and Jews with equal relish. In his The Pursuit of the Nazi Mind: Hitler, Hess and The Analysts, Daniel Pick has highlighted the intellectual impact of psychoanalysis on our understanding of freedom, authority and democracy.

With the defeat of Nazism, and the failure of the previously idealised, omnipotent leaders, the latter turned their hatred against themselves—Hitler, Himmler, Goering and Goebbels all committed suicide—while the lower-ranking leaders claimed to be “cogs”, supposedly oblivious of Auschwitz and only obeying orders.43

The middle class family

In sum, we need to understand the historical evolution of this “psychotic” type within the middle-class family, which was itself the product of the changing class relations of German capitalism. Studies of German workers in 1929-30 by Fromm and others found that only a minority were authoritarian.44 It was suggested earlier that middle class alienation stemmed from their experience of gradual exclusion and swamping by big business as a result of the manner in which industrial capitalism developed in Germany. There is perhaps an uncanny parallel between that experience as a class of being “swamped” and that of the middle-class infant of being swamped, with its ego boundaries dissolved. Of course, there is no suggestion whatsoever here that mental distress in itself leads to Nazism.

Robert Waite also states that comparative studies of family life have revealed that the German family tended to be more authoritarian than those of other countries.45 Now, if it is true that the German working-class family did operate on the basis of a lower level of authoritarianism, how can we account for this? Arguably, one factor would perhaps have been the strength of the German labour movement, which had built up formidable organising powers since unification in 1871. This strength bred a degree of confidence that may well have been reflected in a greater level of freedom in family relationships, including a lower level of patriarchal authority. During First World War, many women worked in factories and did other war work. However, the number of women working declined as men reclaimed those jobs after the war. Nevertheless, we can speculate that working-class individuals had stronger Freudian egos and less oppressive super-egos than their middle-class counterparts.

Traverso is full of interesting insights but finally falls into an agnosticism alien to the Marxist tradition. I believe we can begin to understand the Holocaust, and similar expressions of genocidal violence, through a synthesis of Marxism and Marxist psychoanalysis.

Sabby Sagall is the author of Final Solutions: Human Nature, Capitalism and Genocide (Pluto, 2013) and of the forthcoming Music and Capitalism: Melody, Harmony and Rhythm in the Modern World.


1 Maitles, 2020.

2 Maitles, 2020.

3 Deutscher, 1966, pp163-164.

4 Marx, 1962, pp68-69.

5 Blackbourn, 1984, p45.

6 Wehler, 1985.

7 Wehler, 1985, p11.

8 Fromm, 1942.

9 Schweitzer, 1964, pp61-68.

10 Schweitzer, 1964, p75.

11 Jacoby, 1997, p91.

12 Jacoby, 1997, pp91-92.

13 Frosh, 1987, p14.

14 Kovel, 1988, p179.

15 Engels, 1953, p541.

16 Trotsky, 1966, p220.

17 Trotsky, 1963, p12.

18 Reich, 1961, pxxvii.

19 Fromm, 1942, pp183-187.

20 Sagall, 2013, p84.

21 Reich, 1970, pp40-47; Fromm, 1942, pp140-141, 144-148.

22 Blackbourn, 1984, p49.

23 Adorno and Horkheimer, 2002, pp170-171.

24 Reich, 1970, pp44-45.

25 Reich,1970, p46.

26 Reich, 1970, p35.

27 Reich, 1970, p37.

28 Reich, 1970, p47.

29 Reich, 1970, p44.

30 Reich, 1970, p53-55.

31 Fromm was a member of the Frankfurt School of critical theorists, but Reich was not.

32 Kohut, 1971,p256.

33 Kershaw, 1998, p13; see also Miller, 1987, pp142-155.

34 Loewenberg, 1971, p1458.

35 Wangh, 1964, p392. “Déclassement” is a French word referring to social downgrading.

36 Dicks, 1972, p265.

37 Dicks, 1972, p265.

38 Dicks, 1972, p108.

39 Dicks, 1972, p249.

40 Cohn, 1967, p293.

41 Dicks, 1972, p57.

42 Kulcsar, Kulcsar and Szondi, 1966.

43 Dicks, 1972, p265.

44 Fromm, 1942, p183.

45 Waite, 1977, p296.


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