Wednesday, 27 February 2013

The Rosenstrasse Protest - Myth and Reality

Today is the 70th anniversary of the Rosenstrasse Protest - one of the most fascinating and poignant episodes in the grim history of the Holocaust.

On this day in 1943, the Nazis rounded up the remaining 8,000 or so Jews who were living legally in the German capital.  In the so-called "Fabrik Aktion", or 'Factory Action', the unfortunate victims were intercepted as they arrived for work in Berlin's myriad factories.  Rounded up and put into trucks, they were processed and transported to various holding centres around the city - including a former music hall - to await deportation.

In the days that followed, some 6,000 of those Berlin Jews were duly deported to Auschwitz and a most uncertain fate.  Yet, curiously, one group of prisoners was spared.  The 1,700 that were taken to the Jewish community building on Rosenstrasse in Berlin-Mitte were not deported.  They were held there, in horrific conditions, as their wives and families gathered on the pavement outside, chanting, protesting and demanding the return of their menfolk.   In due course, after around 5 days, the captives were released.  Even the 25 that had been 'mistakenly' deported to Auschwitz-Monowitz were returned.

So much is clear.  The controversy arises with the interpretation that has subsequently been applied to these events.  Some - quite understandably - have sought to make a causal connection between the facts of the families' protest and the prisoners' release: suggesting that the prisoners were released because their families had protested against their deportation.  If only it were that easy.

The truth - as ever - is rather more complex and rather less romantic.  The protests at Rosenstrasse were certainly brave; the women present there risked their own lives for those of their loved ones and took part in one of the very few examples of popular mass protest against the Third Reich.

Yet, I would argue that there is no causal link between the actions of the families and the release of their menfolk.  The prisoners were primarily those Jews in mixed marriages - the women outside, therefore, were Aryan (in Nazi eyes).  These prisoners, therefore, belonged to a liminal category and had already been selected out of the main body of prisoners - hence their incarceration together at Rosenstrasse.  There is every likelihood that these Jews would have been deported in due course, but it appears that they were not scheduled for deportation in March 1943.  Regardless of the brave actions of their womenfolk, therefore, it seems that they would have walked free in any case.

Rosenstrasse, then, was most certainly a heroic, romantic episode, but it is not quite the heroic, romantic episode that some think it was.

If you are interested in reading more on this - I can recommend my book "Berlin at War" :-)

Monday, 25 February 2013

On Socialism and National Socialism

Twitter took another scalp a couple of weeks ago, when one of the UK's newly appointed 'Deputy Police & Crime Commissioners" - one Dr Rachel Frosch - was obliged to resign after passing on (retweeting) a rather clumsy comment linking Socialism and Nazism.

Of course, the political left cried foul and Dr Frosch was hung out to dry by her own side (the Conservatives).  She was certainly guilty of an error of judgement - in the sense that she should have known better when in public office than to goad the left side of the electorate so blatantly.  Yet, there was nothing wrong with the suggestion that Socialism and Nazism are intimately linked.  Her actions might not have been good politics, but they made pretty sound history.

As it happens, yesterday was the 93rd anniversary of the promulgation of the Nazi Party's "25 Point Programme" - a quasi-manifesto for the nascent party, so this gives a good opportunity to take a look at the Nazi Party's origins, and see what it stood for at the start of its odious, calamitous, political journey.

The party, which was then known as the DAP - "Deutsche Arbeiter Partei", or "German Workers' Party" - had only just fallen under Hitler's leadership at that point, having been founded by a Munich railwayworker, Anton Drexler, in 1919.

The Hofbrauhaus, Munich
Hitler's "25 Points" was an attempt to formalise the nascent party's programme and push it out to a wider electorate - and for that reason, the programme was announced at the cavernous Munich "Hofbrauhaus" beerhall, with a capacity of over 2,000.

The "25 Point Programme" includes many of the staple demands and complaints that one would expect of the Nazi Party: the creation of a "Greater Germany" encompassing all German people (Point 1); the scrapping of the Treaty of Versailles (Point 2); the demand for land for colonisation (Point 3) and the exclusion of Jews from the German body politic (Point 4).

The Nazi "25 Point Programme"
Yet, alongside the xenophobic, anti-Semitic demands, there is also a rich seam of populist 'socialism' - including the following: the abolition of unearned income (Point 11); the criminalisation of "war profiteering" (Point 12); the nationalisation of all "trust" industries (Point 13); profit sharing of all heavy industrial concerns (Point 14); an expansion of old age welfare provision (Point 15) and finally a thoroughgoing land reform (Point 17).

So, the 'socialist' aspect of the Nazi Party Programme of 1920 is indisputable.  Indeed, part of the Party's rationale was to attempt to craft a form of socialism in which loyalty to the nation was paramount, but by which the nation's working class could still be won round.  In short, an attempt to supplant the "International Socialism" of Marxism with a new form of "National Socialism".  Appropriately, this formulation was duly added to the Party's name a couple of months later - the DAP became the NSDAP - the "National Socialist German Workers' Party - known to its opponents as the Nazis.

This 'socialism' was no passing dalliance.  Much changed in the years between 1920 and the Party's 'seizure of power' of 1933, of course; accommodations were made with 'big business' and a cruder realpolitik supplanted some of the early working class populism.  Of course, Hitler's personal adherence to any ideology - beyond anti-Semitism and his own advancement - is rather dubious, yet the broadly 'socialistic' strand within Nazism was never fully extinguished.  Indeed, it was demonstrated by the "Strength through Joy" workers' leisure organisation and the central importance throughout of the 'volksgemeinschaft' or 'national community'.  Goebbels himself, alongside the Strasser brothers, was a proponent of the 'socialist' strand of National Socialism.

All of which merely goes to show that the traditional "left-right" typology of politics can be profoundly unhelpful in understanding such complexities - and that the 140 character tweet is not the place for such challenging and divisive issues to be aired.