Wednesday, 26 December 2018

Auschwitz by Sybille Steinbacher (Penguin £6.99, pp168)

“Today historians are again labouring to rewrite and falsify history in order to justify new wars and discredit opposition to them. Their falsifications aim to “whitewash and legitimise the worst crimes of twentieth-century capitalist imperialism and, conversely, to criminalise and render morally illegitimate the entire struggle of the international socialist movement,”- David North The Russian Revolution and the Unfinished Twentieth Century.

In the opinion, not of bad men, but of the best men, no belief which is contrary to truth can be really useful. John Stuart Mill

Sybille Steinbacher’s book is a welcome addition to an already crowded Holocaust industry. Her book is a polar opposite to the majority of recent books that add nothing to our understanding other than to say this complex of subjects is unexplainable.

Despite the brevity of the book, Steinbacher adds to our knowledge of how the Nazis built and managed death camps like Auschwitz and more importantly she places their construction firmly within the Nazi’s geopolitical interests. These interests were heavily in play when anti-Jewish policies reached genocidal proportions with the Nazi assault on the Soviet Union.

One of the strongest aspects of Steinbacher’s book is her telling of what took place at Auschwitz. She is careful not to overload the reader with the horrors that were perpetrated by the fascists. As the reviewer from Publishers Weekly writes Steinbacher “avoids extensive analysis or morality tales; the meaning of Auschwitz is in the details, which she provides with clinical precision”.[1] However, even with a book this short, the reader will still feel numb and angry at the end of it.

Auschwitz began operations in 1940. Steinbacher goes against recent historiography when she states that the murdering of jews was the first not the priority. The camp was first used for political prisoners. When the state organised, industrial murder had ended over a million people killed 90 per cent of which were Jews. Her book is also different from other more weighty studies in the respect that she reports that not all Jews went quietly to their grave some fought back and were politically led.

To expand on this point, it was not only in the camps that workers fought back. Even when the Nazi’s had consolidated power according to, the historian F.L. Carsten "A sizeable minority of Social Democrats and Communists, "were not willing to knuckle under and to accept passively whatever the new regime might order them to do. The widespread terror accompanying the 'seizure of power' and the mass arrests of the early months told them enough. Large numbers responded by forming underground groups, producing and distributing underground leaflets and papers and disturbing Nazi propaganda as best they could. In 1933 and 1934 hundreds of clandestine groups sprang up all over Germany—and quite often they were equally quickly liquidated by the Gestapo. It has been reliably estimated that the KPD between 1933 and 1935 lost 75,000 members through imprisonment and that several thousands of them were killed.That means that about a quarter of the members registered in 1932 were lost." An excellent account of how some Jews fought back can be found in the excellent The Ghetto Fights by Marek Edelman.

Steinbacher also defies current historiography as she believes if the Allies had bombed the railway lines when they received news as early as 1942 that the Nazis were murdering Jews on an industrial scale they could have saved lives by bombing the tracks.

IG Farben

Auschwitz expanded dramatically when German industries such as IG Farben established factories behind the barbed wire. Again IG Farben saw the move to Poland as a business opportunity at first. It was only when the Nazi’s could not exterminate the Jews fast enough they became complicit in the mass murder.

Sybille Steinbacher 
Steinbacher’s exposure of I G Farben’s role in mass murder is another substantial part of the book. It is true that when the company went into Poland, it was to strengthen their business empire. Steinbacher believes that their motives for involvement in the killing were not entirely economic. Farben’s top executives were leading Nazi’s and were heavily involved in the day to day running of the camps.

As Sybille Fuchs writes “Heinrich Bütefisch, in his capacity as IG-Farben director, was one of those jointly responsible for the exploitation of Auschwitz prisoners. Moreover, he had belonged to the exclusive Freundeskreis des Reichsführers SS (Gestapo and SS chief Heinrich Himmler’s circle of friends) and had obtained the rank of an SS-Obersturmführer. When these facts became known, German President Heinrich Lübke ordered the return of Bütefisch’s medal”.[2]


From a political standpoint, the most critical part of the book is her attack on the numerous “revisionist “ historians who have sought to rehabilitate figures like Adolf Hitler and rewrite history according to their right-wing beliefs. While Steinbacher is correct to oppose these revisionist historians, it is critical to understand that their historical revisionism is not merely down to their particular brand of historiography but is heavily tied to their right-wing ideas.

In the past, there were figures like David Irving and the deceased Ernst Nolte who originated in 1986 The Historikerstreit (Historians’ Dispute), The dispute centred on the downplaying of National Socialism. But now a new generation of right-wing historians have taken their place.

One of the leading proponents of this new historical revisionism is  Daniel Goldhagen and his book  Hitler's Willing Executioners. Goldhagen viewpoint blames the German people for their inherent antisemitism.

David North summarises Goldhagen's argument  “Germans killed Jews because they were consumed, as Germans, by an uncontrollable Germanic anti-Semitism. Hatred of Jews constituted the foundation of the universally accepted weltanschauung, worldview, of the German people”.[3]

It is not only the Marxist movement that has attacked Goldhagen's conceptions. Daniel Finkelstein has opposed Goldhagen's conceptions, with a vigour he writes “no serious historian doubts that anti-Semitism persisted in modern Germany. The question is, what was its scope and nature? Goldhagen argues that anti-Semitism was ubiquitous in Germany. Yet German Social-Democracy forcefully denounced anti-Semitism and, as the single largest political party (the SPD), commanded the allegiance of fully a third of the electorate by the early twentieth century. Not the working-class base, Goldhagen suggests, but only ‘the core of the socialist movement, its intellectuals and leaders’ repudiated anti-Semitism. It was merely a ‘small group’. (HWE, p. 74; see also p. 72) The only source he cites is Peter Pulzer’s Jews and the German State, which enters no such qualification.  Indeed, turning to Pulzer’s authoritative companion study, The Rise of Political Anti-Semitism in Germany and Austria, we learn that ‘anti-Semitism drew little strength from. .the working-class. .The [German worker] knew that national and religious arguments were at best irrelevant to a solution of his problems and at worst a deliberate attempt to cloud his view of the “real issues”.’  A compelling example of popular German anti-Semitism cited by Goldhagen is the recurrence of ritual murder accusations. ‘In Germany and the Austrian Empire’, he reports, ‘twelve such trials took place between 1867 and 1914.’ (HWE, pp. 63–4) Goldhagen cites Pulzer’s The Rise of Political Anti-Semitism in Germany and Austria. Turning to the cited page, we find that Goldhagen has reversed the import of Pulzer’s finding. The remainder of the sentence reads: ‘eleven of which collapsed although the trials were by jury’.[4]

Another misconception of Goldhagen is that Hitler’ anti-Semitiscism was a product not only of diseased mind but was inherent from birth. However, an alternative viewpoint is made by the perceptive antifascist German writer Konrad Heiden, that Hitler’s anti-Semitism was a by-product of his hatred of the proletariat.

According to Heiden, Hitler "hated the whole great sphere of human existence which is devoted to the regular transference of energy into the product; and he hated the men who had let themselves be caught and crushed in the process of production. All his life the workers were for him a picture of horror, a dark, gruesome mass, everything which he later said from the speaker's platform to flatter the manual worker was pure lies."[5]

Heiden believes that Hitler's mad obsession with the Jews in his book Mein Kampf, stemmed from his encounters with the worker's movement. While his encounter with Jewish workers inflamed him, his real hatred and virulent antisemitism were reserved for the leaders of the worker's movement who were predominantly Jewish.

"The great light dawned upon him," wrote Heiden. "Suddenly the 'Jewish question' became clear... The labour movement did not repel him because Jews led it; the Jews repelled him because they led the labour movement."

Götz Aly’s

The writer and historian Gotz Aly’s shares similar historiography to Goldhagen. Aly is a former Maoist according to Stefan Steinberg  “ was a member of the Rotan Zellen and founder of the magazine Hochschulkampf. Between 1971 and 1973 Aly was a member of the Maoist Roten Hilfe and according to his own recollections sympathised at the time with the Red Army Faction.”[6]

Aly is different from Goldhagen only in the fact that he is a representative of the petty bourgeoisie that has shed his radicalism and become a very right-wing political commentator and historian.

Aly spends his time attempting to justifying his defence of Nazi policies, and his books are noteworthy only for the fact that they attempt to rewrite and whitewash the German Nazi dictatorship. His most famous and bizarre falsehood was that National Socialism was striving for social equality!

Aly opposes the common viewpoint that the Nazi defended and furthered the interest of German big business and the banks, Aly’s different viewpoint was expressed in the newspaper, Die Welt, “I knew better, I was disturbed from the start by the one-sided delegation of the blame on German industry, on the banks.”Aly’s most famous book Hitler’s Beneficiaries: Plunder, Racial War, and the Nazi Welfare State published in 2005 continue this theme.


It is just over 73 years since the collapse of Hitler's Third Reich, and Humanity still has to come to grips with the “its legacy of horror and bestiality”. Perhaps because something like the Holocaust is so immense and so evil, there has been a tendency not to try to understand it. As Spinoza said “ Do not weep; do not wax indignant. Understand."?. As David North writes “the scenes of mass murder that were exposed in the spring of 1945 with the opening of the Nazi extermination camps are images that will never be erased from human consciousness. But it is not enough that the crimes against humanity that were committed at Auschwitz, Treblinka, Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald and Dachau should never be forgotten. It is no less vital that the significance and meaning of those crimes be understood”.


Leon Trotsky, The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1970), p. 400. (London: Bloomsbury, 1993), p. 173. 
 F.L. Carsten, The German Workers and the Nazis (Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1995), p. 180. (London: Bloomsbury, 1993), p. 173. 
A critical review of Daniel Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners-By David North -17 April 1997-

[4]Daniel Jonah Goldhagen's 'Crazy' Thesis: A Critique of Hitler's Willing Executioners-
[5]The Fuhrer Paperback-by Konrad Heiden
[6] The Wages of Destruction by Adam Tooze-Review by By Stefan Steinberg
8 February 2008

Saturday, 15 December 2018

Roger Howell and the Origins of the English Revolution-by Chris Thompson

I was privileged whilst an undergraduate at the University of Oxford to spend two terms being taught sixteenth and seventeenth-century English and European history in St John’s College by the late Roger Howell. He was then a Research Fellow at that college having completed his D.Phil. on the subject of Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the English Civil Wars. He was certainly the best and most demanding tutor I ever encountered as an undergraduate, a man with a gift for teaching that I have only ever seen equalled by one person, the existentialist philosopher, Dr Jan Rogan.

Sadly, from my point of view, Roger Howell shortly thereafter returned to his own alma mater, Bowdoin College in Maine, where he became President of that institution until his premature death in the late-1980s. I only ever saw him once again in the North Library of the British Museum in the late-1960s when he was on a brief visit for his own research.

I had no idea until earlier today that Roger Howell had ever written a short pamphlet on the origins of the English Revolution published in 1975.[1] Its contents were and are unknown in detail to me apart from the comments made by Richard T. Hughes of Pepperdine University who reviewed it in the Sixteenth Century Journal.[2]

According to Hughes, Howell argued that it was the House of Commons which upset the constitutional balance inherited from Queen Elizabeth by her Stuart successors despite its members subscribing to the myth of a balanced constitution.

Its members did not force the issue before 1640 because of their vested interests. Charles I, by contrast, was in the right when he claimed that he was the victim of Parliamentary innovation and the defender of the traditional constitution.

Puritanism as Howell defined it involved a concern for moral improvement and hostility to the laxity of the extravagant Court although Hughes thought that Howell had underestimated the degree to which Calvinists aimed to re-shape English society entirely. He was, however, more impressed by Howell’s brief discussion of the impact of the new science and of scepticism on views of the hierarchy in Church and State.

Unfortunately, I have not been able so far to locate a copy of this pamphlet. But my initial and indirect impression is that Roger Howell had become out of touch with the main currents of historical work in this period by the time of its composition. Other historians based in the U.S.A.

Lawrence Stone at Princeton, for example – experienced the same process. Howell’s argument that the House of Commons in particular and Parliament in general proved to be constitutionally aggressive would not have found favourable reception from figures like Conrad Russell or Kevin Sharpe at that time.

Nor would his claim that Kings James and Charles were conservative defenders of the ancient constitution have carried much weight amongst historians in the 1970s or, perhaps, now. But whatever my reservations based on second-hand knowledge, nothing diminishes my gratitude to Roger Howell for his skill as a teacher. It was and remains a privilege to have known him.

[1] Roger Howell, Jr., The Origins of the English Revolution. (Forum Press, Missouri. 1975)

[2] The Sixteenth Century Journal. Volume 7, No.1 (April, 1976), p.106.