Understanding Genocide

Against the Current, No. 112, September/October 2004

Alan Wald

IN 1944, A gifted young Jewish-American Marxist playwright, scenarist and fiction writer, Albert Maltz (1908-1985), published the novel that would become the most esteemed work of his professional life. The Cross and the Arrow, praised in the New York Times for “the scope of its vision of humanity” (September 22, 1944), adopted the form a fast-paced political mystery to reveal the events underlying an act of sabotage in Nazi Germany.

Through a sequence of well-crafted flashbacks, Maltz reconstructs the circumstances motivating the German worker Willi Wegler, a recent recipient of the War Labor Medal, to ignite an arrow of hay during the night, thereby creating a flaming signal to the British bombers searching out the location of a concealed tank factory.

Maltz produced this anatomy of a feat of anti-fascist insurgency to contest a burgeoning assumption among the Allies about the singular culpability of the German people for fascist atrocities. Many were asking: Was there something unique in German history and culture that led ordinary people to acts of aggression and barbarism outside the norms of “Western Civilization”?  

Maltz was distressed by his finding that there was, indeed, strong sentiment, even on the part of liberals and the Left, for the conception that Germans stood apart from the rest of Europe and the United States in their capacity to tolerate and collaborate in atrocities.

There was even the attitude that ordinary Germans — not just the Nazi party or the regime — would eventually require extermination if they did not undergo a postwar program of re-education.  The foremost advocate of this latter theory was British Diplomat Baron Robert Gilbert Vansittart (1881-1957), whose position was known as “Vansittartism.”

Among the Far Left, especially the pro-Soviet constituent, many were also attracted to such an interpretation, especially as articulated by the journalist and novelist Ilya Ehrenburg (1891-1967), a leading Soviet cultural figure who was capable of writing wartime newspaper columns such as the following:

“Now we understand the Germans are not human. If you have killed one German, kill another. There is nothing jollier for us than German corpses.” (Krasnaya Zvezda, July 24, 1942)

Maltz was himself a Communist; despite episodic disagreements, he eventually faced imprisonment during the McCarthy era and did not disengage from the Party until after the Khrushchev revelations in 1956.  Nevertheless he judged the thinking of Vansittart and Ehrenburg to be forms of racism unacceptable to internationalists, generating simplistic and monolithic explanations for fascism that weakened a Marxist understanding of the phenomenon.

Thus he was astonished when his own Party’s newspaper, Worker, published a critical review called “The Problem of German Evil in The Cross and the Arrow.”  The author, Harry Martel, educational director of a union, faulted Maltz for suggesting that German “evil” resembles other evils in the twentieth century, and for dissenting from the view that “the German people as a whole must pay the cost of their defeat.” (Worker, March 18, 1945, Section 2, 8).

Ongoing Debate

Ironically, the Daily Worker review turned out to be unpopular among readers of the Communist paper; a deluge of letters sympathetic to Maltz was so great that the issue of April 1, 1945, featured three rebuttals to Martel with no rejoinder. But Maltz’s focus on German resistance to fascism  was ignored by virtually every other Left-wing novelist addressing the anti-Nazi crusade in Europe during World War II.

In contrast to the assessment of The Cross and the Arrow that Germans were normal citizens of the West, capable of decency but violently deformed by an indecent system, Martin Abzug’s “Spearhead” (1946), Stephan Heym’s “The Crusaders” (1948) and Irwin Shaw’s “The Young Lions” (1948) mainly dramatized the notion that the Nazis’ evil was a unique type.

The principal modification of “Vansittartism” suggested by these Left novelists was the displacement of an alleged German penchant for militarism by a presumed inordinate degree of anti-Semitism. This trend reached its climax in Martha Gellhorn’s The Wine of Astonishment (1948), which was close to apology for random retaliation upon German civilians.

The World War II era debate about the peculiar degeneracy of German culture, the responsibility of ordinary Germans, and the appropriate measures that should have been taken by the victorious Allies, emerged in new configurations during the ensuing decades.

In addition to academic studies, Stanley Kramer’s 1961 film “Judgment at Nuremberg” and the appearance of Hannah Arendt’s 1963 book Eichmann in Jerusalem — widely condemned because Arendt departed from conventional anti-German prejudice and Zionist celebration — brought the controversy into the public domain.

Willing Executioners?

But the most comprehensive and notorious treatment of the issue did not occur until the debate following the 1996 publication of Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners:  Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, with its argument that the ingrained anti-Semitism that preceded the Nazi regime created a nation ready- made to commit genocide.

The direct link between the 1945 dispute and Goldhagen’s thesis is rendered clear in a column published just one month after The Cross and the Arrow debate, by the popular Communist journalist Mike Gold, who even anticipated Goldhagen’s title: “The crimes [of Nazi Germany] needed millions of criminals to be carried out, and Germans were willing to be instruments of the insane program.”

Moreover, like Goldhagen, Gold maintained the root cause of this criminal behavior predated the Nazi seizure of power: “The Nazis did not invent their horrific program. They were merely the last heirs of the historic philosophy of German nationalism and imperialism.” (Worker, May 20, 1945)

At the time Gold wrote, few radical publications other than those of the Trotskyist movement raised questions about the more complex record of political struggle in pre-Hitler Germany.  (See Felix Morrow, “Stalin Blames the German Proletariat,” Fourth International, June 1942.)

Enzo Traverso’s Contribution

Last year, however, a brilliant, 47-year-old Italian-born Marxist who is Professor of Political Science at the Jules Verne University of Amiens, France, produced a stunning genealogy of German fascism that roots Nazi-era atrocities squarely within Western modernity, especially industrialization, colonialism, bureaucratic organization, and advanced technology.

Enzo Traverso’s The Origins of Nazi Violence (New Press, 2003), argues that the gas chambers of Auschwitz, rather than constituting a “break in civilization,” reveal extermination “to be one of the faces of civilization itself” (Origins, 2. Subsequent page references are to this book unless otherwise noted.)

The most unique aspect to the Nazi holocaust, according to Traverso, is that “it was perpetrated for the specific purpose of a biological remodeling of the human race.” (3) Even here, Traverso insists that the origins of the genocide of the Jews can only be grasped in “a wider context than that of the history of anti-Semitism.” (5)

In contrast to Goldhagen, Traverso finds the roots of the Shoah not in “a structural flaw in German history” but “in the historical context of modern Europe.” (12) Moreover, Traverso regards Goldhagen as concocting an “apology for the West,” which was actually complicit in the anti-Jewish violence through its passivity through the 1930s. (14)

Traverso begins with a critique of the major interpretations of the origins of Nazi violence and genocide as unilateral and monocausal. He demonstrates “roots that lie in the history of the West, in the Europe of industrial capitalism, colonialism, imperialism, and the rise of modern science and technology, the Europe of eugenics and social Darwinism — in short, the Europe of the ‘long’ nineteenth century that ended in the battlefields of World War I.” (16)

Deep Roots of Extermination

Traverso’s five main chapters provide markers toward his conclusion. In “Discipline, Punishing, Killing,” Traverso links the creation of the guillotine to the serialized slaughtering of humans “as though they were animals” (24), as well as to the nineteenth century creations of institutions (such as workhouses, new kinds of prisons, factories with their own affiliated towns) of forced labor. Both anticipate aspects of the Nazi concentration camp system.

In “Conquest,” Traverso focuses on the colonization of Africa as a stage in the genesis of Nazism, especially in regard to the justifications used for the eradication of native populations.  In “Destruction: Total War,” he considers 1914-18 from the perspective of the transformation of once heroic soldiers into “workers in the service of a war machine” (77) along with the “racist dehumanization of the enemy.” (93)

In “Classification and Repression” he examines the “fusion of anti-Bolshevism and anti-Semitism” as a “European product.” (121)  In “Extermination: Nazi Anti- Semitism,” he explains how a new anti- Semitism replaced traditional anti-Judaism (which had religious origins) by the early twentieth century in many European countries as well as the United States, creating an “Aryan/Jew dichotomy” as “one of the pillars of nationalist culture.” (136)

In sum, Traverso fashions a compelling argument that the peculiarity of Nazism lies not “in its opposition to the West,” but in its aptitude for discovering a “way to synthesize the West’s various forms of violence.” (150)

Traverso’s monograph is only 150 pages, but the argument is so nuanced at every stage that it defies condensation. In part, this is because he follows Hannah Arendt’s distinction between “causes” (a determinist perspective) and “origins” (ambient factors that become cardinal in a historical occurrence only after being compressed and congealing within it). As Arendt put it: “An Event illuminates its own past, but cannot be deduced from it.” (Quoted, 17)

Earlier Works

Traverso’s minor classic grows out of earlier writing on German history, culture and intellectuals, which will be of interest to socialist activist-scholars as well. His first book in English,  The Marxists and the Jewish Question:  The History of a Debate, 1843-1943 (Humanities Press, 1994), appeared the same year as his still-untranslated Siegfried Kracauer:  inineraire d’un intellectual nomade (editions la Decouverte, 1994).

In 1995 he published The Jews and Germany: From the “Judeo-German Symbiosis” to the Memory of Auschwitz (University of Nebraska Press), arguing that German-Jewish intellectuals worked against the grain of the mainstream German tradition. Most significantly, Understanding the Nazi Genocide: Marxism After Auschwitz (Pluto/IIRE, 1999), offers a rigorous and creative examination of the implications of the Nazi genocide for contemporary Marxist theory.

Fifty years following the close of World War II, Traverso is contributing intricate answers to questions raised by Marxists of an earlier generation, such as Albert Maltz in The Cross and the Arrow.

Tragically, the brutality of the last decades — from ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia, to mass murder in Rwanda, to the arrogance of U.S. and Israeli power in the Middle East — remind us that the “peculiarities of the Germans,” despite some specificities, remain part and parcel of a twenty-first century world that desperately needs to be changed.

ATC 112, September-October 2004