Migrants and refugees: victims of capitalist decline, Part 2: The depth of the counter-revolution

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In the first article in this series, we gave a brief overview of the origins and function of migration in the capitalist system and how this has changed as that same system began its remorseless historical decline in the early 20th century. In this article, we will examine how these trends developed and became an important factor in the course towards the Second World War, culminating in the horror of the Holocaust.

At the beginning of the 1930s  the proletariat had been defeated physically and the world revolution completely crushed. The successive bloodbaths in Russia and Germany after the defeat of the proletariat in Berlin in 1919, the search for scapegoats, the humiliation caused by the Versailles Treaty and the need for revenge, would all give rise to an increase in the spiral of capitalist horror during the twentieth century.

The emergence of a concentration camp world

By proclaiming “socialism in one country”, the new Stalinist regime in Russia was preparing a race to industrialise with a view to catching up with the more advanced economies. Planning for heavy industry and the manufacture of weapons would increase the extreme exploitation of the working class. Up until the terrible depression of the 1930s, the conquering Western countries had also sought a low cost workforce to ‘divide and rule’ over. But with the economic crisis and mass unemployment, migrants and the refugees became more openly unwelcome. The flow of migrants would be quite brutally slowed down from 1929, including to the United States [1]

The latter adopted quotas to filter out the migrants, dividing and separating them from other proletarians. In this context, with whole populations displaced, the deportees and refugees were forcibly moved on and experienced terrible conditions (during and after the war): they often ended up in concentration camps that began to appear pretty much everywhere.

With the crises and the imperialist tensions escalating, a defeated working class was not able to pose any resistance. This would find expression in Spain, in 1936, with the proletariat beginning to be recruited into the war in the name of “anti-fascism”. This new total war mobilised civilians (women, the young, the old) much more brutally and massively than the first Great War. It would prove to be much more destructive and barbaric. The state, by intervening more directly on the whole of social life, opened up a kind of concentration camp era. It would spawn deportations, ethnic cleansing, famines and mass exterminations.

Deportations, massacres and forced labour

The violence of Stalinism, as brutal as it was unpredictable, was a prime example. At the time of the purges the state did not hesitate to arrest genuine communists, to execute 95% of the leaders from one region, to deport entire populations so it could control and manage its territory effectively. In the years 1931-1932, Stalin would chillingly use hunger as a weapon in attempting to break the resistance of the Ukrainians to the forced collectivisations. This terrible, deliberately caused famine led to 6 million deaths in total. In Siberia and elsewhere, millions of men and women were sentenced to hard labour. During 1935, for example, 200,000 prisoners were digging the Moscow-Volga-Don Canal and 150,000 the second Trans-Siberian route. The brutal collectivisation campaign, in which many millions of kulaks were deported to inhospitable re-settlement areas, the plans for heavy industry and the exploitation by forced-march where workers were killed at work (literally), served Stalin’s obsession of wanting “to catch up with the capitalist countries[2].  Before its entry into the war, in 1941, the Stalinist state was carrying out a real “ethnic cleansing” on its borders, with the aim of strengthening its security. Different populations were suspected of collaboration with the German enemy and so were subjected to large collective displacements. In 1937, the deportation to Central Asia of 170,000 Koreans on simple ethnic grounds, leading to heavy human losses, was a foretaste of what was ahead. Amongst all the displaced that would follow, 60,000 Poles were dispatched to Kazakhstan in 1941. Several waves of deportations then took place after the breakdown of the German-Soviet pact, especially for people of Germanic origin, notably in the Baltic republics who openly became “the enemies of the people”: 1.2 million of them found themselves exiled overnight to Siberia and Central Asia. Between 1943 and 1944, it was the turn of the people of the North Caucasus (Chechens, Ingush ...) and the Crimea (the Tatars) to be brutally displaced. Many of these victims, hungry, criminalised and banished by the “socialist” state, would die during transportation in cattle wagons (through lack of water, food, or from diseases such as typhus). If local people generally showed great solidarity towards those unfortunate exiles, the official propaganda against these new slaves continued its climate of hatred. During transportation, they were often faced with stone-throwing along with the worst possible insults. Upon arrival, according to a report from Beria dated July 1944, “some presidents of the collective farms organised beatings, designed to justify their refusal to hire physically damaged deportees[3].

In these extreme conditions, there were eventually “ten to fifteen million Soviet citizens” sent into “re-education camps to work”, camps that were officially created by the regime in the 1930s[4].

In Germany, when the Nazis came to power, well before the extermination of its enemies was on the agenda, the concentration camps that would multiply across the land and especially in Poland were initially labour camps. This tendency for the development of camps for prisoners or refugees, that would blossom almost everywhere, even in the democratic countries like France and the United States, had the purpose, besides controlling the population, of exploiting an almost “free” labour power. Traditionally, in selling his labour power, the proletarian allows the capitalist to extract surplus value, that is to say, profit. The terms of the contract ensure that exploitation can achieve the maximum productivity whilst guaranteeing, through the low level of pay, the simple reproduction of labour power. In the concentration camps, labour power was exploited almost absolutely. In Germany, the deportees worked more than 12 hours a day, in any weather, on the orders of “kapos”. Secret arms factories or subsidiaries of large German companies were found in the concentration camps or nearby. These war industries enjoyed almost free, abundant and easily replaceable labour. The reproduction of labour power was reduced to mere survival of the worker / prisoner, the very low productivity of this workforce being partially offset by the very low maintenance costs. The food was limited to a subsistence minimum, and the transport likewise, often reduced to the single trip to a remote and isolated place, that of the camp. In the democratic states, the camps would also be used as part of the strengthening the state’s social control of the prisoner populations and / or the exploitation of their labour power. Thus, faced with the influx of Spanish refugees (120,000 between June and October 1937, 440,000 in 1939), the French Government was responding to these “undesirables” liable to engage in “revolutionary actions[5]. In North Africa, 30,000 of them were used as forced labour. The Spanish refugees living on French soil were herded into internment camps (the authorities themselves spoke of “concentration camps”) erected in a hurry in the south of the country (especially on the Roussillon beaches). There were, for example, as many as 87,000 refugees in Argelès, exploited as slave labour in appalling conditions, sleeping on the sand, supervised by the “kapos” of the Republican Guard or Senegalese riflemen. Between February and July 1939, about 15,000 Spanish refugees died in these camps, most of them from exhaustion or victims of dysentery.

Later, during the war, among many other examples, we could refer to the United States which also interned more than 120,000 people from March 1942 to March 1946. This was theJapanese-American population, penned in concentration camps in the north and east of California. These victims of state xenophobia were treated terribly, just like the worst criminals.[6]

The genocide of the Jews, one of the pinnacles of capitalist barbarism

We have pointed out that concentration camps in Germany began as labour camps. The largest forced population movements took place in the direction of Germany, through measures such as STO (Service de Travail Obligatoire) in France. Jews were plundered, rounded-up and subjected to mass deportations nearly everywhere in Europe. In factories, agriculture and mining, one quarter of the workforce was forced labour, notably under the Generalplan Ost. Between 15 and 20 million people in total were deported by Nazi Germany to run its war machine! Such a policy increased the number of refugees fleeing the regime and its manhunt. In the 1930s, there were about 350,000 refugees coming from Nazi Germany, 150,000 from Austria (after the Anschluss) and Sudetenland (after its annexation to Nazi Germany).

From 1942 and the plan for the “Final Solution”, the concentration camps such as Auschwitz-Birkenau, Chelmno, Treblinka, Belzec, Sobibor, Maidaneck ... would be transformed into death camps. In atrocious conditions, many victims among the six million Jews were transported in convoys and massacred, most gassed and incinerated in large ovens. The worst loss and largest quota of victims was provided by Poland (3,000,000) and the USSR (1,000,000). The extermination camps like Auschwitz (1.2 million) and Treblinka (800,000) were running at full capacity. This barbarism is well known because it was extensively publicised and exploited ideologically ad nauseam after the war by the Allies, thus serving as an alibi to justify or hide their own crimes.

The infernal Nazi propaganda machine was indeed a terrible extension of the pogrom mentality that had been introduced in the 1920s, a mentality which sanctioned the bloody defeat of the proletariat and its great revolutionary figures who were equated with “Jewry”: “even though many Jewish revolutionaries such as Rosa Luxemburg or Trotsky considered themselves to be non-Jews (...) the Israelite appears as the harbinger of subversion, as a destructive agent vis-à-vis basic values: homeland, family, property, religion. The enthusiasm of many Jews for all forms of modern art or for the new means of expression such as cinema, still justifies their reputation for a corrosive spirit[7].  In fact, the defeat of the revolution allowed the great democracies to see Hitler as nothing more, nothing less, than an effective bulwark against “Bolshevism”. For all states at the time, the amalgam between Jews and communism was very common. Churchill himself accused the Jews of being the leaders of the Russian Revolution: “There is no need to exaggerate the part played in the creation of Bolshevism and the emergence of the Russian Revolution by these internationalist and mainly atheist Jews[8]. The idea of a “Judeo-Marxist” plot was first spread by the “white troops” and cultivated on the basis of a widespread anti-Semitism: “is it necessary to point out that Hitler was not the source of this anti-Semitism (...) after the First World War, this anti-Semitism was found in most European countries[9].  So the Jews would be systematically stigmatised, marginalised and become scapegoats without this being too much of an embarrassment to the democratic leaders, some of whom, like Roosevelt, already had openly xenophobic and anti-Semitic tendencies. Many of the Jews who were in Poland, the USSR and in ghettos, had already often been forced to flee the democratic countries because of this anti-Semitism (contrary to what one would have us believe, the anti-Semitism of the Vichy regime, for example, was not a spontaneous phenomenon, nor was it limited to his particular regime). Consequently, the anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws of 1935 were, not surprisingly, introduced almost unnoticed. By isolating and marginalising Jewish citizens, their property would be plundered with impunity, in good conscience, since they were seen as very degenerate beings. It is in fact this whole dynamic, this nauseating breeding ground, that lay behind the hygienicist and eugenicist propaganda of the Nazis. From January 1940, the programme “Action T4” (forced euthanasia) in Germany already foreshadowed the Holocaust, methodically programming the elimination of the physically and mentally handicapped. Faced with the tragedy that was to follow, the Allies refused help to the Jews “in order to not destabilize the war effort” (Churchill). It is well established that the Allies were co-sponsors and accomplices in a genocide that was primarily a product of the capitalist system. Very early on, the democratic countries were firm in refusing to provide assistance to the Jews who were seen as outcasts and were unwelcome[10].  Faced with the Nazi repression and persecution, the Popular Front government in France, for example, would show itself intractable. Thus, behind a democratic veneer, a circular from the hand of Roger Salengro, dated August 14, 1936, noted: “we shouldn’t let (…) any German émigré into France and should start removing all foreigners; German subjects, or those arriving from Germany after the August 5 1936, will not be provided with the necessary documents ...[11]

The barbarism comes from both imperialist camps

During the Second World War, all the actions and administrative measures to deport, expel and exterminate the populations were far more imposing and notably had more dramatic consequences than in 1914 to 1918. The number of refugees / migrants was on a much larger scale. The violence used – from the concentration camps and the gas chambers, the carpet bombing, the phosphorous gas, nuclear bombs, the use of chemical and biological weapons - had claimed millions of lives and caused lasting suffering and trauma after the war. The balance sheet is terrifying! The destruction killed in total nearly 66 million people (20 million soldiers and 46 million civilians) compared with 10 million in 1914-1918! At the end of the Second World War, 60 million people had to be relocated, ten times more than in the First World War! At the heart of Europe itself, 40 million died. In East Asia, in China, more than 12 million people died in direct military confrontations and there were nearly 95 million refugees in China. During the war, a number of sieges and military battles were among the bloodiest in history. To give some examples: at Stalingrad, almost a million men died on both sides in a hellish inferno. In a siege that lasted nearly three years, at least 1.8 million died. The battle to capture Berlin killed 300,000 German and Russian soldiers and more than 100,000 civilians.

The famous Battle of Okinawa killed 120,000 soldiers but also 160,000 civilians. Japanese troops slaughtered 300,000 Chinese in Nanking. The atomic bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, according to historian Howard Zinn, reportedly left up to 250,000 dead. The terrible American bombing of Tokyo in March 1945 caused 85,000 deaths. In the USSR, there were 27 million victims. Ukraine would lose 20% of its population, Poland 15% (mostly Jews). Hundreds of cities in Europe were partly ruined or virtually destroyed. In Russia, 1,700 towns were affected, in Ukraine, 714, and  nearly 70,000 villages were destroyed. In Germany, incendiary phosphorous carpet bombs dropped by the Allies and Bomber Command claimed a huge number of victims, razing the cities of Dresden and Hamburg (nearly 50,000 dead). A city like Cologne was 70% destroyed. It was subsequently estimated that there were between 18 and 20 million homeless at the end of the war in Germany, 10 million in Ukraine. The number of war orphans was equally significant: two million in Germany, more than one million in Poland. Some 180,000 children were reduced to the status of vagabonds in the streets of Rome, Naples and Milan.

The appalling suffering caused by this destruction was very often accompanied by terrible vengeance and acts of barbarity against terrorised civilians and refugees. This was true of the Allies, although they were portrayed as the “great liberators”: “hubris, lightning revenge befalls the survivors; the discovery of the atrocities committed by the vanquished only fuels the good conscience of the conqueror[12].

The accumulation of violence generated by decadent capitalism, once released, produced the most atrocious scenes, those of “ethnic purification” and acts of unimaginable cruelty. During and after the war in Croatia, nearly 600,000 Serbs, Muslims and Jews were killed by the Ustasha regime wishing to “clean up” the entire country. Greek communities were massacred by the Bulgarian army; Hungarians did the same to the Serbs in Vojvodina. During the war, defeats were always accompanied by tragic migrations. Thus, for example, five million Germans would flee before the Red Army. Many would die, often lynched by the roadside. This was one of those heroic episodes for the “liberators”, for these “knights of freedom”, who would cynically assume the role of prosecutor after the war despite their own unpunished crimes: “the terrible plight of populations in eastern Germany during the advance of the Red Army is still unforgettable (...) The Soviet soldier became the instrument of a cold will, of deliberate extermination (...) Columns of refugees were crushed under the treads of the tanks or systematically strafed from the air. The population of whole cities was massacred with refined cruelty. Naked women were crucified on the doors of barns. Children were decapitated or had their heads crushed with rifle butts or were thrown alive into pig troughs (...) The German population of Prague was massacred with a rare sadism. After being raped, women would have their Achilles tendons cut and were condemned to die bleeding in agony on the ground. Children were machine-gunned at the school gate, thrown onto pavements from the floors of the buildings or drowned in fountains; in total, more than 30,000 victims (...) the violence did not spare the young auxiliary signalmen of the Luftwaffe, thrown alive onto burning haystacks. For weeks, the river Vltava (Moldau) carried thousands of bodies; some whole families were nailed onto rafts”.[13]

It is difficult to say how many women were raped by German soldiers during the war. What is certain is that with the forces of the Allies advancing and occupying the “liberated” territory, another test awaited them. There were a million women raped in Germany by Allied troops; Berlin alone had around 100,000 cases. The estimates for Budapest lie in a range from 50,000 to 100,000 raped.

What we especially want to emphasise is that far from  intervening in “defence of freedom”, the involvement in the war  of the Allies and the great democracies was aimed at defending purely imperialist interests. The fate of populations and refugees did not concern them until they were in charge and they could be used as exploited labour. They never made mention of the fate of Jews in their propaganda during the war, even denying them help and abandoning them into the hands of the Nazis. The Allies’ motive for entering into the war had nothing to do with a desire for “liberation”. For France and Britain, it was actually about defending the “European balance of power”. For the United States, it was about countering its Japanese rival in the east and blocking the threat of the USSR, and for the latter, it was to extend its influence within Western Europe; in short, for purely strategic, imperialist and military reasons. What else can we expect? It was absolutely not to “free Germany” from the “brown plague” that they acted. This fable is nothing but a diabolic fabrication invented at the time of the liberation of the camps. It was all prepared by the Allied staff and politicians, anxious to hide their own crimes (let’s not be so naïve to think that the military and politicians in the democracies never make propaganda!). If the “liberation” was able to end the practices of the Nazi occupiers, this was primarily an indirect consequence of achieving a purely military objective and not for “humanitarian” reasons. The best proof of this is that the major democratic powers continued to defend their imperialist interests, creating new victims, colonial massacres and new divisions after the war that also produced new waves of refugees and destitute people. 

WH  18 July 2015

In the next article, we will continue dealing with the same question, from the Cold War until the fall of the Berlin wall and into the current period.

[1]. ‘Immigration and the workers’ movement’,  International Review no.140, 1st quarter 2010.


[2]. Note that Stalinist Russia itself was actually a capitalist country, a caricatured expression of the tendency towards state capitalism in the decadence of this system.


[3]. Isabelle Ohayon, La déportation des peuples vers l’Asie centrale. Le XXe siècle des guerres, Editions de l’Atelier, 2004.


[4]. Marie Jégo, Le Monde, March 3rd, 2003.


[5]. P. J Deschodt, F. Huguenin, La République xénophobe, JC Lattes, 2001


[6]. According to one veteran from Guadalcanal: “The Japanese cannot be regarded as an intellectual (...), he is more an animal” and a Marine General also said: “To kill a Japanese, it was really like killing a snake”. See Ph Masson, Une guerre totale, coll. Plural.


[7]. Ph Masson, op. cit.


[8]. Illustrated Sunday Herald, February 8, 1920, quoted by Wikipedia.


[9]. Ph Masson, op. cit.


[10]. Read our pamphlet Fascisme et démocratie, deux expressions de la dictature du capital.


[11]. P. J Deschodt, F. Huguenin, op cit,


[12]. See Ph. Masson, op. cit.


[13]. See Ph. Masson, op. cit.




Refugees and the National Question