The meaning of Auschwitz

Updated: Feb 12

Neil Faulkner exposes the hypocrisy of politicians who ignore the lessons of history and peddle nationalism and racism.

27 January 2020.

The 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp has triggered a predictable succession of nauseating comments from leading politicians. Trump’s are typical:


We remember the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust and pay tribute to the American soldiers and other Allied forces who fought tirelessly to defeat the Nazi regime. We also recommit ourselves to the fight against anti-semitism and to the two words that cannot be repeated often enough: Never Again!


As I have said in the past, the State of Israel is an eternal monument to the undying strength of the Jewish people. To those who will seek the destruction of Israel and the Jewish people, we say: Never Again!


It would be difficult to pack any more hypocritical and ignorant crap into so few words. This is a textbook example of the abuse of history by right-wing political elites. Let us attempt to unpack it.


The Second World War: genocide


On 27 January 1945, the 322nd Rifle Division of the Red Army arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau. They found about 7,500 people still alive. By this time, at least a million, possibly as many as two and a half million, had been exterminated.


Auschwitz-Birkenau was the largest of a network of extermination camps where genocide had been turned into an industrial process. Nothing like this had ever been seen before in human history. The shock waves spread across the world, and reverberate still.


Genocide was as old as warfare. A million or more people are estimated to have been killed in some earlier genocides, and there would be numerous genocides on this scale during the 20th century.


But most genocides involve crude medieval barbarism, where people are battered or starved to death. What made the Nazi Holocaust so chilling was its industrialised character. Mass murder was turned into a factory process.


But the murder of six million Jews in the gas-chambers was only part of it. Here is the first of Trump’s lies. Around 60 million people died during the Second World War, the great majority of them civilians, most of them victims of either the German Nazis or the Japanese Militarists.


Around six million Poles were killed (16% of the population). Half were Jews, who were first forcibly moved into ghettoes, then, from 1942, transported to purpose-built extermination camps.


The Russian death toll was 27 million (also 16% of the population). Again, many were Jews moved to the camps, but the majority were prisoners-of-war or civilians in the Nazi-occupied zone.


The Japanese Militarist occupation of China was just as murderous as the Nazi occupation of Poland and European Russia. At least 15 million Chinese were killed during the Second World War.


These included women used as slave prostitutes, prisoners subjected to medical experiments and weapon tests, and local people used as human livestock and eaten by Japanese soldiers cut off from their supply bases.


The Second World War: barbarism


The crimes of the German Nazis and the Japanese Militarists – the crimes of fascism – are in a category of their own. But the barbarism of the Second World War extended further.


Stalin’s regime in Russia – a brutal totalitarian dictatorship erected on the destruction of a working-class revolution – did not order racial genocide or build death camps. But it did use armies as instruments of conquest, it did employ millions of slave labourers, and it did operate a police terror as ruthless as that of Hitler’s Gestapo.


And when the Soviet army entered German territory in 1944, it commenced a rampage of state-sanctioned and wholly indiscriminate murder, rape, and destruction. An estimated two million women were raped, many of them repeatedly. Such was the terror that 14 million civilians fled their homes and trekked westwards in the largest mass migration in history until that time.


The ‘democracies’ also committed terrible war crimes. The carpet-bombing of German cities by British and US air forces often had no military purpose whatsoever.


The bombing of Hamburg on 27 July 1943 created an uncontrollable firestorm. Houses exploded. People hiding in cellars suffocated or were roasted alive. Tarmac boiled and fleeing people stuck to it like flypaper. Hair burned, eyes melted, flesh was carbonised.


Twice as many people, 40,000, died that night in Hamburg as in the whole of the eight-month London Blitz. Virtually all of them were civilians. In total, an estimated 600,000 civilians were killed and 3.4 million made homeless across 64 German cities.


The Americans had developed a new kind of bomb they wanted tested. So they dropped two of them, the first on Hiroshima, the second on Nagasaki, killing about 150,000 Japanese, either immediately or slowly and in agony. Neither target had any military significance.

Hitler has some friends for tea: the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.


The victory of fascism


How did this happen – this global descent into barbarism?

It happened because fascism triumphed. Because politicians like Trump, who peddle nationalism, racism, and militarism, became dominant across the world.


When the global economy crashed in 1929 and plunged into the Great Depression, societies were torn apart by unemployment and poverty, and the political centre-ground collapsed.


Between 1929 and 1939, the world was convulsed by a struggle between fascist reaction and socialist revolution. And everywhere, conservatives backed the fascists, while the working class tried to stop them.


Take Britain. When Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists wanted to march through the Jewish area of London’s East End in October 1936, the local working class turned out in vast numbers to prevent them. The streets shook to the cry ‘They shall not pass’.


The Tories sent the police in to attack the demonstration and attempt to baton-charge a way through for the fascists. (The East London workers were victorious: they defended their barricades and stopped the march. Mosley’s movement never recovered. Britain did not go fascist.)


In Spain, where a fascist-backed military coup had been met by working-class revolution – turning the country into Europe’s front-line in the struggle against fascism – the Tories wanted Franco to win and blocked arms supplies to the Spanish Republic. (The revolution was defeated, 200,000 were killed by fascist death-squads, and Spain lived under dictatorship until the 1970s.)


At the same time, many British Tories, like the pro-Nazi ‘Cliveden Set’, were singing the praises of Hitler, Mussolini, and other far-right leaders on the Continent, and promoting the policy of ‘appeasement’ – essentially, underwriting the Nazi takeover of foreign territory in the run-up to war.


It was the same story everywhere. Fascism was aided and abetted by the whole of the pre-war European Right. Mussolini had been made prime minister of Italy by the king. Hitler had been made chancellor of Germany by the president.


Marshal Horthy of Hungary and Marshal Antonescu of Romania, both military dictators backed by local fascists, formed military alliances with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy.


Unsurprisingly, many conservatives elsewhere, frightened of revolutionary change, looked with admiration on fascist regimes that had smashed the labour movement and destroyed parliamentary democracy.

The Battle of Cable Street, 4 October 1936: the Tories send the police in to clear a way for the British Nazis to march through the East End.


The abuse of history


So, armed with some historical facts, let us return to Trump’s lies, distortions, and non-sequiturs. They are these:


1. The death toll in the Nazi Holocaust was not 6 million: that was only the Jews. The total was probably at least 15 million, including 6 million Russians, 3 million Poles, half a million Serbs, and smaller numbers of others – Roma, the disabled, gay men, religious minorities, trade unionists, socialists, and communists.


2. Auschwitz represents not only the Jewish genocide, but the mass killing of many others, and not only in Europe, but across an entire world at war. Properly understood, it is a symbol of humanity’s descent into barbarism in the context of fascism and war.


3. Auschwitz represents not only anti-semitism, but a mass psychotic racism which engulfed entire populations, especially in Eastern Europe and China, during the Second World War. The Nazis regarded the Slavs of Eastern Europe as ‘sub-people’ and treated them like animals. The Militarists regarded the Chinese in the same way.


4. The only real connection between Auschwitz and the State of Israel is this: the Holocaust drove many Jews to support Zionism and emigrate to Israel after the war; the Holocaust was referenced by the Zionist leaders of Israel to justify the armed seizure of Palestine and the expulsion of the Arab population; and the Holocaust caused much mainstream opinion in the wider world to endorse this. But the fact is that you cannot justify an atrocity (the ethnic-cleansing of Palestine) by reference to a different atrocity committed by another people, in another place, at another time (the Nazi Holocaust).


5. As for Trump’s ‘Never Again’, he is the leader of a global wave of nationalism, racism, and fascism which has turned Muslims and migrants into the pariahs of the world, the wretched of the earth – the Jews of the early 21st century.


History is repeating itself. Events are unfolding more slowly and in a different way. But the direction of travel is clear.


One lesson of Auschwitz is that the rulers of the world have not only failed to learn the lessons – even as they pay lip-service to the memory of the Holocaust – but they are peddling the same racist politics that created it.


It is for working people to learn the real lessons of Auschwitz and act upon them. Fascism is rising again. We must act to stop it before it engulfs us.


Neil Faulkner is the author of A Radical History of the World and, with Samir Dathi, Phil Hearse, and Seema Syeda, Creeping Fascism: what it is and how to fight it.

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