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John Newsinger


Survival of the fittest

(January 1994)

From Socialist Review, No. 171, January 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Racial State: Germany 1933–1945
Michael Burleigh and Wolfgang Wipperman
Cambridge £12.95

There are a growing number of books on the Holocaust, all of which give the lie to the ‘Holocaust denial’ garbage peddled by today’s new Nazis. What makes this one distinctive and particularly welcome is the way that it places Nazi anti-semitism and its murderous outcome within the overall context of their racial fantasies.

The first victims of systematic mass murder were the mentally ill. In the summer of 1939 Hitler ordered the killing of patients in mental hospitals throughout Germany, a programme of murder that involved the gassing of its victims. By September 1941, some 90,000 people had been killed. Public protest led to the formal abandonment of the programme but in practice it continued throughout the war and even in the weeks immediately after on a decentralised local basis.

The sick, the old, even severely wounded and shell-shocked servicemen were killed on the order of doctors implementing the programme. Many of the men involved in gassing the mentally ill and others were later sent to make use of their expertise in the death camps.

Less well known than the murder of the mentally ill was the Nazis’ compulsory sterilisation programme that was introduced in January 1934. This was intended to improve Germany’s racial stock by preventing those considered racially unfit from having children. Panels of doctors (half of Germany’s doctors were Nazi Party members) took the decision to sterilise both men and women on the basis of feeble-mindedness, anti-social behaviour, habitual drunkenness, promiscuity, social inadequacy, even laziness.

In practice middle class prejudice with a gloss of scientific racism was given free rein to ‘improve’ the genetic stock of the German nation by sterilising large numbers of working class men and women. By the outbreak of the war, a staggering 320,000 people had been compulsorily sterilised, that is half of 1 percent of the German population.

This figure was regarded as just the beginning. Nazi experts placed the number of sterilisations necessary as anywhere between 5 and 30 percent of the German people.

The Nazis were engaged in a murderous attempt to create a ‘racial community’ that would somehow transcend class division and class conflict. Burleigh and Wipperman argue the Nazis were well on the way to achieving their objective. This is not true. The attempt was always doomed. The Nazis were attempting to find a racial solution to problems that had nothing whatsoever to do with race, and everything to do with ruling an advanced capitalist society in deep crisis.

Nazi rule in the 1930s rested not mainly on racial policies, but on the economic recovery of German capitalism. Any success they may have had in creating an appearance of ‘racial community’ rested on their ability to deliver economic growth. Meanwhile, class conflict continued beneath the surface.

Much of the authors’ own material clearly contradicts their argument, showing that even the supposed Nazi racial community was a class phenomenon. It was not just a coincidence, for example, that nearly a fifth of senior SS officers were members of the German aristocracy. Despite this criticism, the book is invaluable both for its contribution to our knowledge of the Nazis and their crimes and as a weapon against today’s Nazis.

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