It is sixty years since the revolt of the Warsaw ghetto; and by a strange irony of history, exactly one hundred years before, in 1843, Karl Marx had published his On the Jewish Question, a text which marked a significant step by Marx from radical democracy towards communism. We will come back to this text in another article; here it suffices to say that, while Marx supported the abolition of all feudal constraints on the participation of Jews in civil society, he also pointed out the inherent limitations of any merely ‘political’ emancipation which was founded on the atomised citizen, and showed that real freedom could only take place on the social level, with the creation of a unified community which had overcome commodity relations, the underlying source of man’s fragmentation into competing units.
In 1843, then, ascendant capitalism posed the immediate question of ending all forms of feudal discrimination against the Jews, which had included their restriction to the boundaries of the ghetto. In 1943, the pitiful remnant of Warsaw’s Jews rose not only against the restoration of the ghetto, but against their physical extermination - a tragic reflection of capitalism’s passage from ascendancy to decay.
In 2003, as this decay reaches its most advanced phase, it seems that capitalism has still not solved the Jewish question; the imperialist conflicts in the Middle East and the resurgence of radical Islam have given new life to old anti-Semitic mythologies, while Zionism, which posed as the liberator of the Jews, has not only placed millions of them in a new death trap, but has itself become a force for racial oppression, now directed at the Arab population of Israel and Palestine.
Again, we will return to these issues in other articles. But for now we want to look at a recent artistic treatment of the Holocaust which has been widely praised: Polanksi’s The Pianist, which won the Palme d’Or at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival, the best film award at the BAFTA ceremonies in London, and several Hollywood Oscars.
A capitalist holocaust
Polanski was himself a refugee from the Krakow ghetto, and this film is clearly a statement of considerable personal significance. The Pianist is a remarkably faithful rendition of a memoir of the Warsaw ghetto by one of its survivors, the classical pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman, written immediately after the war and recently republished by Victor Gollanz in 1999 and as a paperback by Phoenix in 2002. Despite a few small pieces of embroidery, the screenplay keeps very close to Szpilman’s simple, unsentimental presentation of the horrific events he lived through, sometimes down to the last detail. It tells the story of a cultured Jewish family who elect to stay in Warsaw at the beginning of the war, and are therefore subjected to the gradual but inexorable forced-march towards the gas chambers. Beginning with smaller humiliations, such as the decree on the wearing of the Star of David, this descent passes through a stage of concentrating the entire Jewish population of the city into a newly-reconstituted ghetto, where a majority are subject to atrocious conditions of work and health, to a lingering death by starvation. However, the flourishing of a class of profiteers, and the formation of a Jewish police force and a Jewish Council entirely subservient to the occupying army demonstrate that even in the ghetto, class divisions still existed among the Jews themselves. The film, like the book, shows how during this phase, seemingly random acts of almost unbelievable cruelty by the SS and other organs of Nazi rule have a ‘rationality’– that of inculcating terror and destroying the will to resist. At the same time the ‘softer’ side of Nazi propaganda encourages all kinds of false hopes and also serves to prevent any thought of resistance. This is illustrated sharply when the final process of deportation begins and thousands are being herded into the cattle trucks that are to take them to the death camps: as they wait for the trains to arrive, they still debate whether they are going to be exterminated or used for labour; it is said that such discussions took place at the very doors of the gas chambers.
There is no doubt that the Holocaust was one of the most terrible events in the whole of human history. And yet an entire ideology, aimed above all at defending the second imperialist world war as a ‘just’ war, has grown up around the supposed uniqueness of the Shoa: in the face of such unmatched evil, it must surely be necessary to support the lesser evil of democracy. It is even claimed by left-wing apologists of the war that because it introduced slave labour and harked back to pre-capitalist, pagan mythologies, Nazism was itself some kind of regression from capitalism, and that therefore capitalism was progressive in relation to it. But what is clear from this whole period was that the Nazi holocaust against the Jews was by no means unique. Not only did the Nazis murder millions of ‘untermenschen’, Slavs, gypsies, etc, as well as political opponents of all shades from bourgeois to proletarian; their holocaust took place alongside the Stalinist holocaust which was no less devastating, and the democratic holocaust which took forms such as the terror bombing of German cities, the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the deliberate starvation of the German population after the war. Nor was slave labour unique to Nazism; Stalinism in particular made tremendous use of it in the building of its war machine. Certainly all this was an expression of capitalism’s extreme degeneracy, especially in a phase when it had defeated the working class and has a free hand to unleash its inmost drives towards self-destruction. But there was still a capitalist logic behind it all, as is demonstrated in the pamphlet Auschwitz or the Great Alibi, published by the International Communist Party.
Having uncovered the most basic material reason behind Nazism’s ‘choosing’ of the Jews – the necessity to sacrifice one part of the ruined petty bourgeoisie in order to mobilise the ‘Aryan’ section of it behind capital and the war – this pamphlet’s description of the economics of the Holocaust closely mirrors the events of the Warsaw ghetto:
“In ‘normal’ times , and when it’s a question of small numbers, capitalism can allow those it has ejected from the process of production to just die on their own. But it was impossible to do this in the midst of war and for millions of people: such a ‘disorder’ would have paralysed everything. Capital had to organise their death.
“Furthermore it didn’t kill them right away. To begin with, it withdrew them from circulation, it regrouped them, concentrated them. And it put them to work while undernourishing them, ie it superexploited them to death. Killing man through labour is an old method of capital. Marx wrote in 1844: ‘to be waged with success, the industrial struggle demands numerous armies which can be concentrated in one point and copiously decimated’….These people had to subsidise the cost of their lives, as long as they were alive, and of their death afterwards. And they had to produce surplus value as long as they were capable of it. Because capitalism cannot execute the men it has condemned, if it doesn’t make any profit from putting them to death”
The Warsaw rising and the indifferenceof the great democracies
Early on in the film – it is September 1939 - we see the Szpilman family listening to the radio announcement that Britain and France have declared war on Germany. They celebrate as though their delivery is at hand. As the film progresses, and the total and utter abandonment of the Jews, of Warsaw, and indeed of Poland becomes all too evident, the hopes placed in the democratic powers prove totally unfounded.
By April 1943, the ghetto population has been reduced from nearly half a million to 30,000, many of them young people who had been selected for hard labour. By now it was long past the time when there could be any real doubts about the Nazi ‘solution’ to the Jewish problem. The film shows Szpilman’s contacts with certain figures from the underground; one, Jehuda Zyskind, is described in the book as an “idealistic socialist” who often nearly convinced Szpilman of the possibility of a better world (the book reveals that Zyskind and his entire family were shot in their own home after being discovered sorting underground literature around a table). Szpilman is an artist rather than a deeply political character; he is shown smuggling guns in sacks of potatoes but he escapes from the ghetto before the uprising. Neither he nor the film go into great detail about the political currents active in the ghetto. It seems that they were made up mainly of former proletarian organisations who were now essentially on the terrain of radical nationalism in one form or another– the extreme left wing of Zionism and social democracy, Bundists, and the official Communist Party. It was these groups who organised the links with the Polish ‘national’ resistance and managed to smuggle weapons into the ghetto, preparing the final rising in April 1943 under the umbrella of the Jewish Fighting Organisation. Despite the paltry number of arms and ammunition at their disposal, the rebels managed to hold the German army at bay for a month. This was only possible because a large proportion of the famished population joined the revolt in one capacity or another. In this sense the rising had a popular character and cannot be reduced to the bourgeois forces who organised it, but neither was it an action of a proletarian character, and it was wholly unable to call into question the society capable of generating this kind of oppression and horror. Indeed it was quite consciously a revolt without perspective, the overriding motive of the rebels being to die well, rather than go like sheep to the death camps. Similar risings took place in Vilna and other cities, and even in the camps themselves there were acts of sabotage and armed breakouts. Such revolts without hope are the classic product of an evolution where the proletariat has lost the capacity to act on its own terrain. The whole tragedy was repeated on a wider scale the following year, in the general Warsaw rebellion which resulted in the final destruction of the city, just as the ghetto had been razed to the ground in the aftermath of the Jewish revolt.
In both cases, the duplicity of the forces of democracy and of the ‘Socialist Fatherland’, who claimed that they were only fighting a war for the liberation of the oppressed from Nazi rule, can be plainly demonstrated.
In his book While six million died (Secker and Warburg, London, 1968), Arthur Morse cites one of the last proclamations of the ghetto rebels: “Only the power of the Allied nations can offer immediate and active help now. On behalf of the millions of Jews burned and murdered and buried alive. On behalf of those fighting back and all of us condemned to die we call upon the whole world…Our closest allies must at last understand the degree of responsibility which arises from such apathy in face of an unparalleled crime committed by the Nazis against a whole nation, the tragic epilogue of which is now being enacted. The heroic rising, without precedent in history, of the doomed sons of the ghetto should at last awaken the world to deeds commensurate with the gravity of the hour” (p 58). This passage illustrates very clearly both the rebels’ understanding that they were doomed and their illusions in the good intentions of the Allied powers.
What were the Allies actually doing about the Nazis’ crimes as the Warsaw ghetto burned? At that very moment – 19 April 1943 - Britain and America had organised in Bermuda a conference on the refugee problem. As Morse shows in his book, the democratic powers had been directly informed of Hitler’s memorandum of August 1942 which formalised the plan to exterminate the whole of European Jewry. And yet their representatives came to the Bermuda conference with a mandate that could only ensure that nothing would be done about it:
“The State Department drew up a memorandum for the guidance of the delegates to the Bermuda conference. The Americans were instructed not to limit the discussion to Jewish refugees, not to raise questions of religious faith or race in appealing to public support or promising US funds; not to make commitments regarding shipping space for refugees; not to expect naval escorts or safe-conducts for refugees; not to delay the wartime shipping programme by suggesting that homeward-bound, empty transports pick up refugees en route; not to bring refugees across the ocean if any space for their settlement was available in Europe; not to pledge funds, since this was the prerogative of Congress and the President; not to expect any change in the US immigration laws; not to ignore the needs of the war effort or of the American civilian population for food and money; and not to establish new agencies for the relief of refugees, since the Intergovernmental Committee already existed for that purpose” (p 52).
“The British delegate, Richard Kidston Law, added some don’ts to the long list brought by his American friends. The British would not consider a direct appeal to the Germans, would not exchange prisoners for refugees or lift the blockade of Europe for the shipment of relief supplies. Mr Law added the danger of ‘dumping’ large numbers of refugees on the allies, some of whom might be Axis sympathisers masquerading as oppressed persons” (p 55).
At the end of the conference the ‘continuation’ of its activity was passed on to an Intergovernmental Committee (a precursor of the UN) which was already well known for…doing nothing.
Neither was this an isolated expression of bureaucratic inertia. Morse narrates other episodes such as the Swedish offer to take in 20,000 Jewish children from Europe, an offer which was passed from office to office in Britain and America and finally buried. And the Auschwitz pamphlet recounts the even more striking tale of Joel Brandt, the leader of a Hungarian Jewish organisation, who entered into negotiation with Adolf Eichmann over the release of a million Jews in exchange for 10,000 trucks. But as the PCI’s pamphlet puts it, “Not only the Jews but the SS as well were taken in by the humanitarian propaganda of the Allies! The Allies didn’t want this 1 million Jews. Not for 10,000 lorries, not for 5,000, not even for nothing!” Similar offers from Romania and Bulgaria were also rejected. In Roosevelt’s words “transporting so many people would disorganise the war effort”.
This brief survey of the utter cynicism of the Allies would not be complete without mentioning the way the Red Army, which had called for the Poles to rise up against the Nazis, deliberately held its forces on the outskirts of Warsaw during the uprising of August 1944 and allowed the Nazis to massacre the insurgents. The reasons for this are explained in our article ‘The massacres and crimes of the great democracies’ in International Review 66: “Confronted with an uprising on such a scale, Stalin had decided to let Warsaw stew in its own juice, the aim being to swallow up Poland without encountering any serious resistance from the Polish population. If the Warsaw uprising had been successful, nationalism would have been considerably strengthened and would have thrown a major obstacle in the way of Russian imperialism. At the same time, Stalin was playing the role of anti-proletarian gendarme, faced with the potential threat of the working class in Warsaw”. And lest anyone think that such ruthlessness was peculiar to the evil dictator Stalin, the article points out that this tactic of ‘letting them stew in their own juice’ was first adopted by Churchill in response to the massive workers’ strikes in northern Italy in the same year: once again the Allies allowed the Nazi butchers to do their dirty work for them. Written in 1991, the article further shows that the very same tactic was used by the ‘West’ in the aftermath of the Gulf war with regard to the Kurdish and Shi’a risings against Saddam.
The survival of human solidarity
Szpilman’s survival through this nightmare was wholly remarkable, based largely on a combination of extraordinary luck and other peoples’ respect for his musicianship. He was involuntarily pulled away from the cattle trucks by a sympathetic Jewish policeman, while his parents, brother and two sisters were thrust inside and went to their doom. After being smuggled out of the ghetto he was sheltered by Polish musicians with connections to the resistance. In the end however he was totally alone and owed his life to a German officer, Wilm Hosenfeld, who fed him while he hid in an attic in the very headquarters of the by now disintegrating German occupying force. The book contains an appendix made up of extracts from Hosenfeld’s diary. We learn that he was an idealistic Catholic disgusted by the Nazi regime and that he saved a number of other Jews and victims of the terror.
There were many such small acts of bravery and humanity during the war. The Poles, for example, had a dreadful reputation for anti-Semitism, not least because Jewish fighters escaping the ghetto were even killed by partisans of the nationalist Polish resistance. But the book also points out that Poles saved more Jews than any other nationality.
These were individual acts, not expressions of a collective proletarian movement such as the strike against the anti-Jewish measures and against deportations which began in the shipyards of Amsterdam in February 1941 (cf our book The Dutch and German Communist Left, pp 316-319) But still they give us a glimpse that even amidst the most terrible orgies of nationalist hatred, there is a human solidarity which can rise above it.
At the end of the film, after the defeat of the German army, one of Szpilman’s musician friends is seen walking past a group of German prisoners of war. He goes up to the fence to shout abuse at them; but he is taken aback when one of them runs up to him and asks him if he knows Szpilman, and appeals for help. It is Hosenfeld; but the musician is ushered away by the guards before he can learn Hosenfeld’s name and details. Ashamed of his initial attitude, the musician tells Szpilman - now restored to his job as a pianist for Warsaw radio - what has happened. Szpilman spent years trying to trace his former saviour, without success, although he did befriend members of his family. And we learn that Hosenfeld perished in a Russian labour camp in the early 50s - a last reminder that barbarism was not restricted to the losing imperialism.
The Holocaust, no doubt, will continue to be exploited by the bourgeoisie to reinforce the myth of democracy and to justify war. And in the present situation, while the best artistic expressions can provide important insights into historical or social truths, they are rarely armoured with a clear proletarian standpoint that resist all efforts at recuperation. As a result the bourgeoisie will try to use honest attempts to portray such events to serve its own dishonest ends. Certainly we are witnessing today the sickening attempt to present the new imperialist offensive in the Gulf as a battle to save us all from the atrocities being prepared by the ‘new Hitler’, Saddam Hussain. But the current preparations for war are revealing with increasing clarity that it is capital as a whole which is preparing a new holocaust for humanity, and that it is the great democratic powers who are leading the charge towards the abyss. Such a holocaust would certainly dwarf anything that could have been unleashed in the 1940s, since it would almost certainly involve the destruction of humanity. But in contrast to the 1940s, the world proletariat has not been pulverised and prevented from acting on its own class terrain, which is why it is not too late to prevent capitalism from imposing its ‘final solution’ and to replace this rotting system with a genuinely human society.
1Both the book and the film show Szpilman and his family witnessing a raid in the flat opposite theirs. Another family has sat down to dinner when the SS burst in and demand that everyone get up. A crippled old man is unable to rise in time and two SS men pick him up, chair and all, and hurl him to his death from the window. Children were treated no differently, as this extract from the book chillingly points out: “We set out, escorted by two policemen, in the direction of the ghetto gate. It was usually guarded only by Jewish police officers, but today a whole German police unit was carefully checking the papers of anyone leaving the ghetto to go to work. A boy of ten came running along the pavement. He was very pale, and so scared that he forgot to take his cap off to a German policeman coming towards him. The German stopped, drew his revolver without a word, put it to the boy’s temple and shot. The child fell to the ground, his arms flailing, went rigid and died. The policeman calmly put the revolver back in its holster and went on his way. I looked at him: he did not even have particularly brutal features, nor did he appear angry. He was a normal, placid man who had carried out one of his many minor daily duties and put it out of his mind again at once, for other and more important business awaited him” (p129).