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Socialist Review Index (1993–1996) | Socialist Review 184 Contents

Martin Jones


They would not go quietly


From Socialist Review, No. 184, March 1995
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Against all Hope: Resistance in the-Nazi Concentration Camps 1938–1945
Hermann Langbein
Constable £19.95

The victory of fascism in Europe during the 1930s was a catastrophe for humanity. Nothing since has matched the barbarity that was seen in those years. At the very depths of this atrocity was the reign of terror that Hitler’s National Socialist Party in Germany unleashed upon those it interned in concentration camps.

These murderous traps, first established for political prisoners and criminals when the Nazis seized power, by 1945 had spawned the ‘killing factories’ of Auschwitz and its like.

The SS attempted to turn those who were allowed to live ‘into numbers, deprived of the last vestige of humanity, and transformed into the totally submissive objects of the SS men running the camps’.

The experience of those who suffered and perished during those years has more often than not been shrouded in mystery. Today you can still hear people ask in bewilderment, ‘Why did you let yourselves be led like lambs to the slaughter?’

Hermann Langbein, an Austrian former member of the Communist Party, who fought with the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War and who ended up in Auschwitz, sets out in this powerful book to describe what really took place.

He shows how, in defiance of an ‘inconceivably brutal and totally effective system of terror’, resistance to ‘the killing of human beings and of everything human’ took place. By ‘resistance’ Langbein is very specific. Without in any way belittling what individuals did to survive – he points out that to survive itself was an act of defiance – his study focuses on how organised resistance took place in the camps.

This is where the strength of the book lies. It shows how at the height of their power the Nazis were not an invincible machine, that even in the most dreadful situations people resisted them.

Each act of defiance that he describes fills you with optimism. There was the mass rebellion at the extermination camp of Sobibor,where, ‘although acts of violence applied a constant paralysing pressure on the majority of inmates, plans for an uprising ... were made repeatedly and never abandoned.’ Norwegian students, as they were considered ‘Nordic people’, kept their civilian clothes,were given the same food as the SS men, and for several months received instruction and political indoctrination by the SS. Despite all this ‘not a single one of them volunteered for duty with the SS’ causing them to be assigned to heavy labour duties and denied their privileges.

However the SS set out to destroy any collective resistance. They used prisoners to administer the camps, played off one group of prisoners against the other by granting privileges that could mean the difference between life and death, and encouraged nationalist prejudices and anti-Semitism that existed.

It is testimony to those who resisted this terror of ‘hitherto unimaginable dimensions’ that they were able to overcome these divisions and build unified action to limit the fascists.

Langbein addresses the most difficult questions raised by the camps. He tackles the role of those who helped run the camps, the role of the Polish nationalists and Ukrainian anti-Semites, why in a number of instances there was little or no resistance.

However, you are left with the feeling that the author is avoiding certain questions. The Allied refusal to bomb the extermination camps, even though they were aware of their existence, is raised but never condemned.

The insane politics and tactics of the Communist Parties,particularly the German CP, are mentioned but never seriously analysed, even though he admits that the Hitler-Stalin Pact was like‘a hammer blow’ to those resisting.

It is here that the major weakness of the book lies. Again and again Langbein proves beyond doubt that there was resistance to the Nazi terror, and with each example you ask the same question, how did so many brave and fearless people end up in such a wretched situation? The clues are to be found in this volume, but are never pieced together.

But a review of this book should not end in a negative note. It is a powerful weapon in our arsenal against those who would deny the Holocaust, a weapon that can be used to lay bare what the fascists of the BNP ultimately stand for.

Read this book, be inspired by those who would not go quietly, and take strength from their will to resist.

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