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Alex Callinicos

Hope against the Holocaust

(Summer 1995)

From International Socialism 2:67, Summer 1995.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Social Policy in the Third Reich: The Working Class and the ‘National Community’
Tim Mason
Berg), £12.95

Against All Hope: Resistance in the Nazi Concentration Camps 1938–1945
Hermann Langbein
Constable), £19.95

There are some situations, under some regimes, where resistance is impossible. This common assumption is held particularly strongly about certain regimes – namely, those described as ‘totalitarian’. In Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia, where a dictatorial one party state ruled by a combination of police terror and ideological manipulation, the masses were too atomised, intimidated, drugged by propaganda, to fight back. Such was the picture of totalitarianism painted powerfully by George Orwell in 1984.

In the aftermath of the East European revolutions of 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union it has become much harder to hold this view of Stalinism. The mass demonstrations in Leipzig, Berlin, Prague, Bucharest and Moscow gave the lie to the image of a passive, cowed populace. Historical research has shown that even at the height of the Stalinist terror in the 1930s there was considerable workers’ resistance. [1]

Yet the same image persists in the case of Nazi Germany. Here it is reinforced by two myths. One is that the National Socialist regime was supported by the German working class. The other is that the Jews marched meekly into the gas chambers, not resisting their extermination.

I call these myths because the two very different books under review here refute these ideas. Both books are intellectually meticulous attempts to reconstruct histories from difficult and ambiguous evidence – since the fate of working class and Jewish resisters was frequently torture and death at the hands of the Gestapo, they had every interest in concealing their activities. One is by the most important left wing historian of National Socialism. The other is by a survivor of the Communist resistance in Auschwitz.

Tim Mason belongs to a younger generation than Edward Thompson and Christopher Hill, who played a trail blazing role amongst Marxist historians of Britain. In the 1960s and 1970s Mason played a similar role for Marxist historians of Nazi Germany.

He pioneered the ‘history from below’ of the German working class under Hitler. Though he was British, Oxford based and a principal animator of the History Workshop journal during its pioneering years, most of Mason’s major work appeared in German. Social Policy in the Third Reich is an English translation of a book first published in Germany in 1977.

A brilliant but tormented man, Mason killed himself in March 1990. It is only now that his major work is appearing in English, edited by friends and co-workers (notably the historian Jane Caplan). Social Policy is in fact a much expanded version of the German original, containing an introduction and epilogue which represented Mason’s tragically unfinished attempt to deal with the criticisms and unresolved questions raised by his earlier writing. [2]

The book’s main title is misleading. Its subject is nothing other than the German working class under National Socialism. Mason’s thesis is stark and simple. The core of the German working class – those who had been organised in unions and had supported the main workers’ parties, the Communists (KPD) and Social Democrats (SPD) – did not capitulate to Nazism. They remained hostile to the regime, which had smashed their organisations through terror, and seized every opportunity to fight back. Despite the Nazi ideology of a Volksgemeinschaft – a ‘national community’ uniting German bosses and workers – the working class remained outside this community.

When exploring the class struggle under a regime which sought to repress it by police terror, definitions are vital. What acts count as resistance under these conditions? Mason distinguishes between resistance proper, a term he restricts to the ‘clearly politically hostile behaviour of the adherents of persecuted organisations’ – chiefly the underground activities of the KPD and (to a lesser extent) the SPD – and what he calls ‘the workers’ opposition’:

Alongside the resilient agitation and organisation of the illegal groups, economic class conflict re-emerged in Germany on a broad front after 1936. This took forms which were not clearly political … Further, this struggle for the basic economic interests of the working class does not appear to have been organised in any way. It manifested itself through spontaneous strikes, through the exercise of collective pressure on employers and on Nazi organisations, through the most various acts of defiance against workplace rules and government decrees, through slowdowns in production, absenteeism, the taking of sick leave, demonstrations of discontent, etc. [3]

When repression by the Gestapo made overt collective organisation too dangerous, workers found more oblique means by which to resist. What made these forms of struggle viable in the first place was a dramatic change in economic conditions. Mass unemployment had demoralised the German working class, helping to create the climate in which, Mason argues, the Nazis had been able to seize power and smash the organised labour movement. But Hitler’s rearmament drive transformed the situation. Industrial expansion created effective full employment and indeed labour shortage: in November 1938 the labour minister estimated the unmet demand for workers at a million jobs. [4] Workers could use the enhanced bargaining power created by the scarcity, especially of skilled craftsmen, to adopt a more defiant attitude and extract concessions.

The rising workers’ opposition posed a particularly acute problem for the Nazi leadership in general and Hitler in particular. He was obsessed by the memory of the German Revolution of November 1918. Germany had been defeated in the First World War, Hitler believed, because of the ‘stab in the back’ delivered to frontline fighters like himself by the working class at home. The conclusion he drew was that, in the future war he was planning, it was essential to avoid demanding too many material sacrifices of German workers. This didn’t imply a benevolent treatment of the working class – on the contrary, it was necessary also for the Nazis to smash labour organisations to prevent another stab in the back. Nevertheless, as Albert Speer, armaments minister and one of Hitler’s close confidants during the Second World War, put it:

It remains one of the astounding experiences of the war that Hitler wished to spare his own people those burdens which Churchill and Roosevelt imposed on their peoples without second thoughts. The discrepancy between the total mobilisation of the labour force in democratic England and the sluggish treatment of this question in authoritarian Germany serves to characterise the regime’s fear of a change in the people’s loyalties … Hitler and the majority of his political followers belonged to the generation which in November 1918 had experienced the revolution as soldiers, and they never got over it. Hitler often made it clear in private conversation that one could not be careful enough after the experience of 1918. [5]

It is this fear of working class revolt which explains the failure of the Nazi regime to mobilise women to work in war industries, in marked contrast to the successful conscription of female labour in Britain by Ernest Bevin, trade union leader turned minister of labour in Churchill’s wartime coalition. [6] This failure was itself part of a much more general crisis which Mason argues gripped the Nazi regime in 1939–1940.

By 1938 it was clear that the rearmament drive was running up against sharp material limits. The resources – not simply human but material and financial – to sustain rearmament could no longer be found within Germany’s borders. The various factions in the National Socialist regime were agreed that the only long term solution to this situation lay in a war of imperial expansion. But it was also agreed that Germany was not yet economically or militarily ready for a major war involving France and Britain. Hitler talked about a war in 1943–1944, and wished even then to avoid fighting Britain.

The problem facing the regime was that the growing domestic economic crisis did not allow such a relatively relaxed timetable. One wing, represented by General Georg Thomas, head of the War Economy Office at the Ministry of War, wanted to prepare for the coming conflict by systematic state control of the labour market – the conscription of civilian workers to work in war industries, decreed reductions in wages, etc. Such measures were introduced in several steps in 1938–1939, culminating in a War Economy Decree issued in September 1939, when, thanks to a crucial miscalculation by Hitler, the invasion of Poland brought Germany into war with Britain and France.

Yet these measures failed thanks to working class opposition:

Despite the state of war and a 50 percent increase in the income tax for the middle class, workers were not ready to resign themselves to even a limited reduction of wages, to the elimination of overtime pay or to the suspension of industrial safety regulations. The NSDAP [i.e. the Nazi Party], worried because of the plebiscitary foundations of the regime, quickly made itself the proponent of a moderate wage policy, and within a month everything had returned to normal … The dissatisfaction and passive resistance continued, however, until mid-November 1939, when the government saw itself forced to make further concessions in social policy. Bonus pay (except for the ninth and tenth hours of work) and holiday leave were restored, and this was quickly followed by the re-enactment of most of the industrial safety regulations. [7]

The workers’ opposition, Mason argues, did not simply set limits to what the state demanded of them at work. Fear of it was a major factor in Hitler’s decision to launch a war of rapid conquest – Blitzkrieg – in 1939–1940. The adoption of such a strategy was by no means inevitable: even after the outbreak of war in September 1939 an accommodation might still have been found with powers whose governments – above all Neville Chamberlain’s in Britain – were reluctant to wage an all out conflict with Germany.

A war of expansion and conquest would, however, provide the resources to build up German military strength without pursuing the politically dangerous course of squeezing the working class too hard. The economies of conquered countries could be plundered to sustain the war effort.

War, continuous war, war as an end in itself, became the way out of an insoluble domestic situation. ‘In terms of economic and domestic policy, the conduct of war has become the precondition of continuing to prepare for war.’ Mason seizes on a phrase of Hitler’s – ’the idea of a “flight forwards” (Flucht nacht vorn)’ – to sum up this strategy: endless military expansion as a way of escaping the class contradictions which National Socialism had been unable to abolish. [8]

This thesis – that Hitler’s war strategy had its roots in the class struggle within Germany itself – was the aspect of Mason’s work which attracted the most criticism. The long epilogue to the English edition of Social Policy is largely devoted to a response to his critics. [9] Mason, though qualifying and refining his arguments, basically stands by them. He also defends, in the face of changes of historiographic fashion, his use of a class perspective in analysing the National Socialist regime (here he is ill-served by Ursula Vogel, who in her introduction declares that these changes have made Mason’s approach obsolete). [10]

It is clear that his use of the tools of class analysis is more than a matter of intellectual method, but reflects a political commitment. One of the admirable characteristics of Mason’s work is the moral passion that informs it. He spurned the pose of a neutral scholar. ‘If historians do have a public responsibility,’ he wrote at the end of his most influential intervention in German historical debates, ‘if hating is part of their method and warning part of their task, it is necessary that they should hate precisely’. [11]

Mason was a scrupulous historian, whose arguments were based on the most careful scrutiny of archival evidence, yet one is never left in any doubt about the driving force behind his work – the effort to recover the life and struggles of a working class confronted with the most brutal and barbarous of capitalist regimes. It is very good to have this classic work available in English.

With characteristic honesty Mason admits that there were certain obstacles that his historical writing could not overcome – in particular, he was unable to confront directly the Nazis’ biological racism and the policies of extermination to which it led. ‘I have always remained emotionally, and thus intellectually, paralysed in front of what the Nazis did and what their victims suffered,’ he confesses. [12] As he concedes, the failure to address this central aspect of National Socialism imposes distinct limits to his exploration of German society under Hitler – limits which any attempt at a more comprehensive class analysis would have to overcome.

One source on which such an analysis can draw is Hermann Langbein’s remarkable history of resistance by the most vulnerable and abject of the Nazis’ victims, the inmates of the concentration camps. Langbein speaks from direct personal experience. A member of the Austrian Communist Party in the 1930s, he fought in the Spanish Civil War, took refuge in France after the Republic’s defeat, and, like many other Spanish veterans, was sent to a concentration camp after the German conquest of France in 1940. Sent first to Dachau, he was later, as a Jew, transferred to Auschwitz. There he was a leading member of the Combat Group which sought, on an internationalist basis, to resist the SS even in the inmost circle of Hell.

Langbein’s aim is to confront what he calls ‘a distorted stereotype of the concentration camp victim. When younger people meet survivors they often cry out in bewilderment: “Why did you let yourself be led to slaughter like sheep?”’ [13] This stereotype is one that is sometimes reinforced by historians. Perhaps the greatest single historical study of the Holocaust, Raul Hilberg’s The Destruction of the European Jews, tends to minimise the degree of resistance to their murder mounted by the Nazis’ victims. And the predominant image of the Holocaust – lines of prisoners being herded from railway sidings straight into the gas chambers – probably lends plausibility to such attitudes. For how in such conditions could the victims have fought back?

In fact we know that even at the very final moments of the extermination process acts of resistance did take place. In October 1943 what the Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss called a ‘wild shoot-out’ took place when prisoners in the undressing room attached to one of the gas chambers seized guns from the guards and chose to die fighting. [14] But in order to understand how far more extensive and well organised forms of resistance were possible we need to understand the nature of what the Buchenwald survivor David Rousset called the univers concentrationnaire – the world of the concentration camps. It is one of the great strengths of Langbein’s book that he carefully analyses the conditions which some inmates took advantage of in order to fight back.

In the first place, there were different kinds of concentration camp. The first were established immediately after the Nazi seizure of power in January 1933 in order to house primarily political prisoners – members of the KPD and SPD, dissident clergy, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and so on – and ‘asocials’ (chiefly habitual criminals and sex offenders). Chief among these camps were Dachau, Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen. The Nazi conquests between 1939 and 1941 vastly expanded the camp population with Jews, Poles, Russian prisoners of war, Resistance fighters and so on. As this happened the number and size of the camps increased, and their functions changed to include supplying some of the forced labour on which the German war economy came to depend. The SS Economic-Administrative Office (WVHA) became an economic empire in its own right. By 1944 it controlled 20 fully fledged concentration camps and 165 satellite labour camps clustered around them. [15]

There was, however, a third category of camp – the six killing centres established in occupied Poland in 1941–1942 to implement the Final Solution. It was here, at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Kulmholf, Treblinka, Sobibor, Majdanek, and Belzec, that the full scale extermination process – murder by assembly line – took place. Some camps played more than one role. Thus Auschwitz was both a killing centre and a labour camp. Strategically placed at a main junction of the Central European railway system, Auschwitz had functioned since the late 19th century as a labour exchange where Prussian landowners could pick up cheap Polish farm workers. It seems to have been selected by SS chief Himmler as a labour camp soon after the Nazi conquest of Poland in the autumn of 1939, and was later expanded into the vast factory of death where at least one and a half million people were murdered. [16] It continued to play an economic role – thus its largest subsidiary camp was at Monowitz, where IG Farben’s Buna Works manufactured artificial rubber.

The conflicting imperatives of extermination and production introduced a major tension into how the camps were run. This was reflected in the bureaucratic struggle between two sections of the SS. The Reich Main Security Office (RSHA), from where Adolf Eichmann organised the Final Solution, wasn’t interested in the economic contribution camp inmates could make – at most they saw work as a means of what Nazi leaders called ‘extermination through labour’. The WVHA, on the other hand, wanted a relatively stable and efficient workforce, and thus instructed camp commandants in the winter of 1942–1943 to cut mortality rates among prisoners sharply. [17]

The Nazis’ need for the prisoners’ labour could never be counted on. The driving force behind the Final Solution was never economic but reflected the drive by SS fanatics with Hitler’s backing to seize the opportunity offered by German military triumphs to implement a central theme of Nazi ideology – the elimination of ‘inferior’ races, above all the Jews. Mason points out:

Among the first Polish Jews who were gassed in the extermination camps were thousands of skilled metal workers from Polish armament factories. This was in the autumn of 1942, at the turning point in the campaign against the Soviet Union, which was to increase still further the demands made by the Wehrmacht on the German war economy. The army emphasised the irrational nature of this action in view of the great shortage of skilled labour, but was unable to save the Jewish armament workers. The general who made the formal complaint was relieved of his post. [18]

Nevertheless, the prisoners were able to take advantage of the conflicts within the Nazi bureaucracy over how much effort should be made to conserve the camp labour force:

Since the instructions to lower the mortality rate were primarily directed at the SS doctors, some of whom could, on the basis of their profession, more easily be persuaded at least to limit the mass murders, the resistance movement in several camps attempted to influence physicians who were there on duty in SS uniforms. [19]

That this effort met with some success – by the summer of 1943 the mortality rate at Auschwitz (among those prisoners not selected for extermination immediately on arrival) had fallen to 3.5 percent, from over 20 percent the previous winter – was made possible by another crucial feature of the camps. Particularly after the outbreak of war, the camps began to expand enormously, so the SS alone could not run them. They had to rely on a whole system of trusties – the capos. Himmler explained in 1944:

These approximately 40,000 German political and professional criminals … are my ‘non-commissioned officer corps’ for this whole kit and caboodle … The moment he [a prisoner] is made a capo, he no longer sleeps where they do. He is responsible for getting the work done, for making sure that there is no sabotage, that people are clean and the beds are of good construction … So he has to spur his men on. The moment we are dissatisfied with him, he is no longer a capo and he bunks with his men again. He knows that they will kill him during the first night … Of course, we can’t do it with the Germans alone, and so we use a Frenchman as a capo in charge of Poles, a Pole as a capo over Russians, playing one nation off against another. [20]

As Himmler makes clear, this whole system rested on tactics of divide and rule. From the start of the camps, the SS sought to give ordinary criminals power over political prisoners (a similar method was used in the Stalinist gulags), and the system evolved from there. It was an enormously corrupting arrangement: in the appalling conditions of the camps it was all to easy for individual prisoners to seize the marginal advantages offered by the status of capo and become the instrument of brutal, even fatal, punishments inflicted on his or her fellows. But where the prisoners organised to take advantage of the system – especially as the expansion of the camps forced the SS to give non-Germans, and even Jews, positions of responsibility – they could use it to defeat or blunt the Nazis’ aims. This was particularly true in the camp hospital and the work assignments office, where prisoners employed in clerical duties could often save lives by altering lists for particular labour details, camp transfers, etc.

Achieving these goals – like resistance generally – depended on organisation. The professional criminals had to be driven out of their positions. Langbein describes what he calls ‘the battle between Reds and Greens’ (political prisoners wore red triangles, criminals green ones), for ‘the actions of the prisoners’ self-government was a matter of life and death for innumerable people’. [21] The conditions of the camps were designed to atomise the prisoners and set them against each other. Therefore it was those who came to the camps with some tradition of collective organisation and struggle – particularly if they came there together, in relatively large groups – who provided the Resistance with its basis. Members of the KPD and other Communist Parties, of the SPD, of the Polish Socialist Party (PPS), Spanish Civil War veterans – these were the kind of people who were best equipped to adapt and resist. The Jehovah’s Witnesses, though they did not actively fight back against the Nazis, also had an extremely fine record of courageous refusal to violate their religious beliefs by engaging in war work.

The camps became vast depositories of different nationalities. The SS sought to exploit national differences in order to control the prisoners. Sometimes this worked, to some extent at least. The KPD group which ended up running Buchenwald has sometimes been accused of German nationalism. Initially prisoners’ organisation at Auschwitz was dominated by Polish army officers who adopted extremely chauvinistic attitudes towards other nationalities, notably Jews and Russians. But once PPS activists took over the organisation they established close links both with Polish Resistance groups operating in the neighbourhood and with German and other Communists. In general, it is extraordinarily impressive how, in an atmosphere in which the Nazis’ racist ideology and manipulative techniques encouraged prisoners to emphasise the differences among them, they were able, in camp after camp, to create internationalist Resistance organisation. Undoubtedly the traditions and the connections provided by the European labour movement played a crucial role here.

What did resistance achieve? It didn’t stop the extermination of nearly 6 million Jews and millions of others. The sheer overwhelming physical power of the Nazi state over its victims ensured that the killings went on to the very end. When the Russian army drew near to Auschwitz in the winter of 1944–1945, the Combat Group simply lacked the military strength to prevent the SS transferring most of the prisoners to other camps, even though they knew that many would die either on the forced march from Auschwitz or in the new camps.

Nevertheless, some prisoners did rebel, taking up arms against the Nazi butchers. Russian prisoners did at least twice – at Flossenberg in May 1944 and Mauthausen in January 1945. So too did Jewish members of the Sonderkommandos, the special details of prisoners assigned to assist with the extermination process, at Treblinka in August 1943 and at Auschwitz in January 1945. And at Sobibor in October 1943 the 600 remaining inmates rose up, killed their guards and broke out – some 50 or 60 succeeded in escaping.

Langbein underlines the significance of these actions: ‘During the period of the concentration camps’ existence, Jews killed SS men in Treblinka, Sobibor, and … Auschwitz’. [22] The participants in these actions were generally in hopeless situations: Sonderkommando members knew they were bound to die as part of the SS’s efforts to conceal the evidence of their crime. This was especially true in camps which were being wound up, such as Treblinka, Sobibor and Auschwitz were when the risings took place.

But there were other forms of resistance as well. Staying alive was one. The camps were designed to demoralise and humiliate their inmates. ‘As a rule, a person who had lost their inner fortitude was no match for the harsh living conditions of a camp.’ [23] Any form of organisation – not necessarily anything political, but merely giving a music recital, staging a play, or giving a lecture – could help give people the will to live. Then there was saving other people’s lives. Prisoners in positions of responsibility in the camp offices and hospitals could rescue people from death – though all too often they were in the tragic position of deciding who would live or die, rather than saving life altogether.

There were also possibilities of sabotaging the Nazi war effort, particularly as the camps became extensions of the German arms industry. At Dachau the works assignments office would send unskilled prisoners to do expert work in arms factories. One Russian prisoner at Mauthausen who worked in the Messerschmidt factory would throw the rivets for airplane wings into the latrine and replace them with rivets that didn’t fit. And numerous prisoners escaped – to save their own lives and in many cases to take part in Resistance groups outside the camps.

The price of these actions could be appallingly high. Those defying the SS would suffer torture and execution as a matter of course. Open defiance – for example, escape – was usually punished by the execution not simply of the culprits themselves if they were caught but of their workmates. The ‘political department’ – the SS secret police unit within each camp – would frequently conduct mass arrests to break Resistance organisation, exacting the most terrible revenge. And yet, in the immense diversity of forms documented by Langbein, resistance went on. He writes:

When our Combat Group there [at Auschwitz], which had many failures, was able to influence the destiny of the camp, we knew that we were no longer mere objects in that ‘univers concentrationnaire’, in the hermetically sealed world created by the SS in which its misanthropic ideology about members of a master race and persons not worthy of living was to achieve an absolute triumph. We knew that we would not allow ourselves to be broken and would knowingly incur additional risks to pass muster before ourselves as active subjects. [24]

Both Langbein’s book and Mason’s show how, even in the worst possible conditions, it is possible to fight back. But they also carry a warning. The German working class did not rise up against a regime that imposed on it far worse hardships than it had suffered between 1914 and 1918. Mason suggests that one reason why the Second World War did not end in a repeat of the revolution of 1918 was the divisions created by the employment in German industries of 7 or 8 million foreign conscripted workers from occupied Europe. [25] The outright slavery suffered by concentration camp prisoners was the most extreme form taken by these divisions. A divided working class may find itself impotent in the face of racist terror. This is a lesson we must learn.


1. See, for example, D. Filtzer, Soviet Workers and Stalinist Industrialisation (London 1986).

2. See the special issue of History Workshop, no. 30 (1990), devoted to Mason. A collection of Mason’s most important essays, Nazism, Fascism and the Working Class (Cambridge 1995), edited by Jane Caplan, has recently been published.

3. T.W. Mason, The Workers’ Opposition in Nazi Germany, History Workshop, 11 (1981), p. 120.

4. T.W. Mason, Social Policy in the Third Reich (Providence 1993), p. 185.

5. Quoted in ibid., p32.

6. T.W. Mason, Women in Germany 1925–1940, in Nazism, pp. 197–203.

7. T.W. Mason, Social Policy in the Third Reich, p. 252.

8. Ibid., pp. 261–262.

9. See also R. Overy, Germany, “Domestic Crisis” and War in 1939, Past and Present, 116 (1987), the comments by D. Kaiser and T. Mason, and Overy’s reply to them, Past and Present, 122 (1989), and T.W. Mason, Nazism, chs. 1, 4, and 9.

10. U. Vogel, General Introduction, in T.W. Mason, Social Policy in the Third Reich, pp. xiv–xv. Compare the section of Mason’s Epilogue devoted to class, ibid., pp. 284–294.

11. T.W. Mason, Nazism, p. 230.

12. T.W. Mason, Social Policy in the Third Reich, p. 282.

13. H. Langbein, Against All Hope (London 1994), p. 2.

14. Ibid., p. 280.

15. R. Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews (New York 1985), p. 225.

16. I. Traynor, Death and its Detail, Guardian Weekend, 21 January 1995.

17. H. Langbein, Against All Hope, p. 16.

18. T.W. Mason, Nazism, p. 73.

19. H. Langbein, Against All Hope, p. 17.

20. Quoted in ibid., p. 26.

21. Ibid., p. 37.

22. Ibid., p301.

23. Ibid., p316.

24. Ibid., p393.

25. T.W. Mason, Social Policy in the Third Reich, pp331–369.

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