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Workers Vanguard No. 894

8 June 2007

German Trotskyists on World War II

German Imperialism and the Lie of "Collective Guilt"

The Red Army Smashed the Nazi Regime!

Part Two

Correction Appended

This part concludes this article, which was translated from Spartakist No. 163 (Summer 2006), published by our comrades of the Spartakist-Arbeiterpartei Deutschlands. Part One appeared in WV No. 893 (25 May).

The Trotskyists put up resistance under Nazi occupation during World War II (see Prometheus Research Series No. 2, “Documents on the ‘Proletarian Military Policy’,” February 1989). There are a few examples of resistance in Oskar Hippe’s book [And Red Is the Colour of Our Flag]. Political questions arose in this context and frequently caused problems for the Trotskyists. Some capitulated politically to the bourgeois national resistance, others broke with the Trotskyist program in the opposite direction by denying that any aspect of the national question existed in Nazi-occupied Europe. Others, like the Dutch Trotskyists of the Committee of Revolutionary Marxists (CRM), avoided these mistakes, and their struggle is exemplary.

The CRM recognized that there was an aspect of national oppression but firmly and correctly rejected any political cooperation with the organizations that wanted an Allied victory. They explained that the task of the proletariat in an occupied country is to struggle, together with the proletariat of the oppressor country, against every kind of social and national oppression and for the right of national self-determination. The CRM condemned the politics of the CPN (Communist Party of the Netherlands) as nationalist:

“They carry the basest nationalist propaganda and try to pretend that their infamous traitorous policy is ‘Leninist.’ These shameless agents of Allied imperialism carry on a propaganda which openly supports British imperialism. They make propaganda for an English ‘liberation’ and intervention. All that Lenin wrote about American and English imperialism is ignored.... Together with the national bourgeoisie they try to obscure class antagonisms.”

Against illusions in the nationalist resistance movements, the CRM stood for proletarian internationalism:

“Always it was a joint and common conviction that only the working class through struggle with its own strength can reach victory, the Socialist society. That is why we did not, and will not, take an anti-German, but an anti-fascist stand. Not as fighters for the National Liberation of the Netherlands, but as fighters for the International Liberation of the World Proletariat through Socialist Revolution did our comrades fall. From that they take their great significance. It is in this spirit that our new paper De Rode October will write and the proletariat will gain the victory.”

—De Rode October [Red October] No. 1, June 1942; quoted in Wim Bot, “Generals Without Troops,” Revolutionary History (Winter 1988-89)

And the CRM always saw the rebirth of the German workers movement as central:

“A sound spirit of resistance is alive in the Dutch proletariat. The coming events will decide whether the German revolution or the Allied counterrevolution will utilise this spirit.”

—Political Declaration of August 1943, De Rode October No. 14

Another model for this revolutionary internationalism was the work of the French Trotskyists among the Wehrmacht soldiers in Brest. With their German-language newspaper Arbeiter und Soldat [Worker and Soldier], they fought for the fraternization of French workers and the German workers who had to serve in Hitler’s armies. There is an enormous difference between the proletarian internationalism of the Trotskyists and what the French Stalinists did. The Stalinists’ propaganda can only be translated as “The only good German is a dead German,” or “Everyone gets his Kraut.” This ugly nationalism could only serve to strengthen the control of the German ruling class and the Nazis over the German proletariat. The chauvinist policies of the Stalinists, who supported their own bourgeoisie in the name of democracy, were an obstacle to breaking German workers and soldiers from nationalism and an obstacle to the revolutionary Socialist United States of Europe, for which the Trotskyists fought.

The Wehrmacht: An Imperialist Army

In discussing the question of the Wehrmacht, the decisive thing is that in the course of the war 18 million Germans were drafted into it. This means that at any point during the war, every second German man was in the Wehrmacht. Five million German soldiers died. The Wehrmacht was a compulsory army, an imperialist army that carried out bloody massacres from the very start. But in this it was not different from the other imperialist armies.

Ulrich von Hassel, who took part in the 20 July 1944 officers’ plot against Hitler, described some of it. This resistance was made up mainly of some of Hitler’s officers who were disappointed that they could not win the war with him. But some of them—the best known being von Treskow and von Stauffenberg—were also motivated by human outrage at the crimes in the East. On 18 August 1941, two months after the invasion of the Soviet Union began, Ulrich von Hassel wrote:

“The whole war in the East was dreadful, general savage destruction. A young officer received the order to mow down 350 civilians who had been led into a barn, and among whom were women and children. At first he refused. He was then notified of what would happen if he refused to obey orders. He requested ten minutes to think it over. Finally he did it together with some others, opening machine-gun fire on the crowd through the open barn door.”

—Exhibition catalogue, Der Krieg gegen die Sowjetunion 1941-1945 [The War Against the Soviet Union 1941-1945]

This officer then incurred a light injury to ensure that he would never again return to the front. There is also an army mail services letter from a noncommissioned officer who wrote:

“They say that an order was given by the Führer that prisoners and anyone who surrenders can no longer be executed. This makes me happy. At last!”


And then he described the horror that all this had meant for him. The letters by soldiers that are quoted show that many also shared Nazi ideology. This is not at all surprising, as the Nazis were a petty-bourgeois mass movement; and it would be simply illusory to expect that opponents of the Nazi regime would express their opposition openly in letters from the front, which were subjected to military censorship. The soldier Kurt Vogeler was horrified by the brutal war: “What a disastrous war it is, this massacre of people in eastern Europe! A heinous crime against humanity!” And this is how Helmut Altner described the alternative for soldiers: “There were only two possibilities. Death by a bullet from the enemy or by the ‘thugs’ of the SS” (quoted in Stephen G. Fritz, Frontsoldaten: The German Soldier in World War II).

But the Wehrmacht leadership fully shared the whole policy of genocide and was completely interwoven with the Nazis. Even before the attack on the Soviet Union, there was a “Commissar Order” issued by Wilhelm Keitel [head of the German Armed Forces High Command] on 6 June 1941 that said:

“The troops must be aware that:

1) In this battle, mercy and considerations of international law are wrong with regard to these elements....

2) The political commissars are the instigators of barbarous Asian methods of combat. Measures against them must therefore be taken immediately, summarily and with utmost severity.

They are therefore, when caught in combat or resistance, always to be executed immediately.”

—The War Against the Soviet Union 1941-1945

The duty of revolutionaries was to win the soldiers of the Wehrmacht to a revolutionary program. It was a draft army, and in World War II there was no chance of escaping the draft. At first the Wehrmacht did not draft politically unreliable people, but later it did. Political prisoners from the concentration camps were also sent to the front in so-called punishment battalions. They were given only light weapons and usually had to search for mines in front of the German lines, which was a deadly job. The historian Omer Bartov illustrated these contradictions in his impressive book, Hitler’s Army:

“While the Kaiser’s armies in World War I only executed 48 soldiers from their own ranks, in World War II between 13,000 and 15,000 soldiers were executed by their own army…. Leaving aside the many thousands transferred to punishment battalions between the end of August 1939 and mid 1944, no fewer than 23,124 soldiers had been sentenced to long prison terms, 83,346 for over a year and another 320,042 for under one year.”

Others report that 20,000 Wehrmacht soldiers were executed for desertion or refusal to obey orders.

In light of these huge numbers, also bear in mind that the pressure on the soldiers was increased further by the fact that, as Bartov notes, those who had been executed lost their citizenship, so that their dependents could not claim a pension. Many rightly feared that their families would suffer repression. This powerfully illustrates that the contradictions of a society are always found in concentrated form in the army. The class line between soldiers, who were workers in uniform, and officers, who carry out the interests of the bourgeoisie, could not be clearer. This does not, however, prevent Bartov from arguing for collective guilt at the end of the book. But to do this he has to rely mainly on statements made by the Nazi brass and on pure moralism. He does not succeed in proving his claim that all the soldiers stood behind the Nazi regime.

One of the most important collective-guilt campaigns in recent years, at least with regard to the Wehrmacht, was the exhibition, “War of Extermination. Crimes of the Wehrmacht, 1941-1944.” In his 2004 book Vom Verschwinden der Täter [The Disappearance of the Culprits], Hannes Heer, who directed the first exhibition, supports the statement by Jan Philipp Reemtsma:

“And the director of the Institute underlined this notion of the Wehrmacht being the quintessence of the Volksgemeinschaft [one united people] and the point of intersection between the population and Nazi crimes. He explained at the opening of the exhibition on 5 March 1995 that its explosive nature came from the fact that it does not show the criminal role of the elites in the Nazi period, as has become common, but rather the ‘potential crimes of ordinary people, of everybody’s husband, father, brother, uncle, grandfather.’ The exhibit therefore provided an answer to the question of how ‘perfectly normal people’ (usually men, but not only) could do ‘something like that’.”

—Krieg ist ein Gesellschaftszustand [War Is a State of Society], edited by the Hamburg Institute for Social Research, Hamburg 1998

The purpose of the Wehrmacht exhibit was the same as that of Daniel Goldhagen’s 1996 book Hitler’s Willing ExecutionersOrdinary Germans and the Holocaust: to put the blame for the Nazi crimes on the so-called “ordinary people,” the “perfectly normal people.” That’s collective guilt. But unlike Goldhagen, the exhibit did not try to torment people with a boring, thousand-page-long pseudo-academic paper. Instead it displayed appalling photos of crimes, in which soldiers were sometimes shown. It reached a wide public, not just a few scholarly historians. From its opening on 5 March 1995 until it was finally closed down on 31 March 2004, it was shown in 34 German and Austrian cities. Almost a million people visited it, and even more read and argued about it. The exhibit deeply polarized the whole country, much more so than did Goldhagen’s book (see also “The Holocaust, ‘Collective Guilt’ and German Imperialism,” Spartacist [German edition] No. 20, Summer 1998 [WV Nos. 697, 698 and 699, 25 September, 9 October and 23 October 1998]).

The exhibition basically tries to prove collective guilt by saying that the Wehrmacht participated in the Holocaust and therefore there was no difference between the ordinary soldier and the Wehrmacht officers or the SS. One section of the exhibition showed pictures of mass shootings of more than 30,000 Jewish women, children, old people and men in 1941 at Babi Yar. In this case it was the Security Service (SD) of the SS which carried out the massacre and not Wehrmacht soldiers. The Wehrmacht did carry out massacres against civilians and took part in the “combat against partisans” whether in the Soviet Union or in Greece, Serbia and other places. But the real question is what was the unique character of the Holocaust—because it was indeed unique.

Of course, in a certain sense Babi Yar marked the beginning of the Holocaust, because the Jewish minority of the Kiev population was singled out to be murdered. On the other hand there have been massacres of innocent civilians in many imperialist wars—for example, the massacre of Filipinos by U.S. troops at the beginning of the 20th century. One of the most horrible examples, where the numbers were even larger than at Babi Yar, was the Nanjing massacre by the Japanese in 1937. Three hundred thousand Chinese civilians were butchered, 80,000 women were raped. There have been other horrible crimes, such as the massacres in India by the British army, or the war by the U.S. in the Pacific, which was waged in a racist fashion against the Japanese (the “yellow peril” in World War II).

But what is specific and unique about the Holocaust is that the extermination of whole peoples, Jews, Roma and Sinti [gypsies], was organized on an industrial scale. In the course of World War II, German imperialism under Nazi leadership killed eleven million people. And many of those were killed with industrial methods. They could not have achieved this any other way. Scientists, administrators, technical specialists and civil engineers, in sum a huge administrative apparatus, was used to organize the death factories. That is a crime which to date is unique—to date, because it is basically an expression of capitalism in its death agony. And the Nazi ideology about the Götterdämmerung [twilight of the gods] and Weltuntergang [end of the world] was just an expression of the fact that the bourgeoisie will not voluntarily give up its power, even if it means the end of all mankind.

The conservatives, up to and including the fascists, were up in arms against the Wehrmacht exhibition; there was hardly a city in which the exhibition was not met by a Nazi march. This peaked in Munich in 1997, when 5,000 people, mobilized by the respectable CSU [Christian Social Union] together with the Nazis, marched against the exhibition. Fifteen thousand protested against the Nazis in spite of an enormous police presence protecting the Nazis. It was clear that leftists defended the Wehrmacht exhibition against the provocations of the Nazis, who were denying that there was a Holocaust (or approved of it) and who mobilized for new genocide with banners such as “Victory and Honor to the Waffen SS!”

Left anti-fascist groups organized demos against the Nazi scum, but the political program of the anti-fascists, which is popular-frontist, is entirely bourgeois. And just like every bourgeois anti-fascist, they reject the working class. In this way, the anti-fascists objectively sow illusions in bourgeois democracy. Instead of looking to class-struggle worker/immigrant mobilizations to smash the Nazis, they rely on individual resistance. This also leads them to blame every German individual for the Holocaust. And that is precisely why the anti-communist, pro-Zionist forces known as “anti-Germans” can recruit from the anti-fascist milieu. It is not such a big step to go from rejecting a class-struggle perspective against fascism—and against the capitalist system that gives birth to fascism—to supporting an imperialist butcher like Bomber Harris [British Air Marshal during World War II who oversaw the firebombing of Dresden and other German cities]. And it is not a big leap either between spreading the lie of collective guilt and supporting Zionist terror against the Palestinian people by the Israeli state.

With its propaganda for “collective guilt,” the left not only exonerates the bourgeoisie of Auschwitz but also prepares the ground for the Nazis. The Nazis attacked the Wehrmacht exhibition because it showed SS and Wehrmacht crimes in particular against the Soviet Union. To mobilize support for this in the population, the Nazis countered collective guilt with slogans such as “Grandpa was no criminal!” Because of its rejection of the proletariat, leftists like the Hamburg autonome group AVANTI could only counter that “our grandfathers were criminals!” (speech by AVANTI, 27 March 2004).

To claim that the drafted soldiers were counterrevolutionary scum and Nazis because they were forced to carry out massacres disappears the class line that runs through every imperialist draft army between the bourgeois officer corps and the ordinary soldiers, who mainly come from the working class. And it disappears the difference between the Wehrmacht, a compulsory army, and the voluntary elite units of Hitler’s regime, such as the SS, SD and Gestapo. The German bourgeoisie counted on the Nazis to save their class rule. In an interview in the tageszeitung newspaper on 6 June 2006, the historian Ulrich Herbert welcomes the left’s ideological rollback to collective guilt and has nothing but contempt for its criticism of capitalism in the ’60s: “After 1968 the West German left no longer addressed the question of the Nazi past. Instead, they pursued an ‘analysis of fascism’ in the tradition of the communist left. The Nazi regime was made a variant of ‘bourgeois rule.’ You can call this a phase of secondary repression—this time by the left.”

Why does the bourgeoisie like collective guilt today? In order to cover up for its own real crimes: If everybody is guilty, then the bourgeoisie no longer is. And the German army was already terrible in World War I, as Karl Liebknecht had noted about the Prussian military. That was an imperialist war. The war against the Soviet Union 25 years later was a counterrevolutionary war, not qualitatively different from the imperialists’ colonial wars. Just look at what imperialist Belgium did in the Congo. In the first few years of Belgian colonial rule, an estimated ten million people—about 50 percent of the original population—were murdered. In the fight against Algerian independence at the end of the 1950s and the beginning of the 1960s, the French imperialists killed a million people, a tenth of the whole population. And in 1945, British and American imperialism reduced Dresden to ashes and the U.S. dropped atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, slaughtering hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians in cold blood. All these are the crimes of the imperialist bourgeoisies and not of the working class of the respective countries.

Postwar Revolutionary Wave in Europe

As the bourgeoisies had feared, there was a revolutionary wave following World War II. In Italy, the PCI [Communist Party of Italy]-led partisan movement overthrew the Mussolini fascists and the working class was armed. But in line with its popular-front policy, the PCI cheered the Americans as their allies, disarmed the partisans and allowed a bourgeois state to be re-established. The revolution was prevented only thanks to the Stalinists’ betrayal. In Greece, British imperialism bloodily suppressed the armed partisan movement.

In France, as in Germany, the bourgeoisie had lost all credibility in the eyes of the workers because it had thrown itself into Hitler’s arms so that he would solve its problem with the working class. The great majority of the bourgeoisie had embraced the Vichy regime, which was put in place after the occupation of France and collaborated with the Nazis in the extermination of the French Jews, for example. Incidentally, in France as well as in Italy the Allies’ attitude that fascism was something purely German was not very convincing. In these countries, the Stalinist CPs, strengthened by the authority of the Soviet victory, were instrumental in saving the rule of the bourgeoisie.

With regard to the postwar revolutionary wave, Germany was no exception. The key is to understand that the soldiers who committed the crimes were forced to do so. These weren’t their crimes, as the collective-guilt moralists claim. Of course some of them had become insensitive butchers. But there was also another conclusion one could draw, namely rage—to come back with rage and smash this German bourgeoisie and its capitalist system. History is written by the victors, and the history told today about World War II came into being after the defeat of the postwar revolutionary wave in Europe, which also shook Germany; after the collective-guilt brainwash took place; and after the workers had been told by the SPD [Social Democratic Party] and PDS [Party of Democratic Socialism] following the [1990] capitalist reunification that they could not change anything, they could not do anything and capitalism will exist forever. But the workers who came back from the war, and the workers who had lived through it, wanted socialism. After 1945, every party spoke of socialism, even the CDU [Christian Democratic Union]. Only the KPD [German Communist Party] spoke out against it.

There are a lot of reports about what was going on in Germany directly after the war, which you will not find in the official version of history. The historian Wolfram Wette, who mainly tends toward collective guilt, wrote a book about the Wehrmacht. This book is pretty useful because it also gives examples that contradict Wette’s own collective-guilt line. On the one hand, he writes that millions identified with the Wehrmacht, even after the war, that the Wehrmacht really wasn’t so bad and that it was all just Hitler and the SS. But then he writes, in complete contradiction to this:

“The Wehrmacht was the force which embodied the war, so to speak. Those who welcomed the end of the terrible war did not shed any tears for the Wehrmacht, which had in any case been forced to disband. The millions of ordinary soldiers certainly were pleased that the officers who, by enacting military orders, had for years been the masters of life and death had this power taken away from them. Unlike World War I, when millions of people united under the slogan ‘Never Again War!’, many Germans now articulated a much more radical and concrete slogan. It was: Never Again the Military!”

—Wolfram Wette, Die Wehrmacht

In 1949 there was an opinion poll in which people were asked if they were for a new Wehrmacht, for rearmament. Six percent were for, 71 percent were against. But this pacifist opposition could in no way prevent the rearmament of German imperialism. To defeat German militarism, it is necessary to overthrow the German bourgeoisie through socialist revolution. Collective-guilt ideology, not least thanks to the SPD/Green government, ensured that the Bundeswehr could once again be sent to the Balkans [in 1999] and elsewhere.

In his contribution to the 8 May 2005 commemoration of the liberation of Germany from Nazism [mentioned in Part One of this article], Peter Gingold gave a further argument for collective guilt and the support that Hitler supposedly enjoyed until the end: “Not even once, when all of Germany except Berlin was liberated, not even then was there an uprising, or a call to stop the fighting! Thirty thousand Soviet soldiers still had to die to liberate this city.” The December 1945 resolution of the European Executive Committee of the Fourth International gives a good answer, in a direct way:

“The German workers, despite the betrayal of their leadership, heroically defended themselves. The thousands of martyrs alone make the thesis of ‘collective guilt’ an insult to these heroes of the German proletariat. Even up to the end, when the Allied armies were laying carpets of bombs over the workers’ sections and seriously paralyzing any full scale resistance against Hitler, the German revolutionary workers engaged in strikes and demonstrations against fascism. Deserters from the German army together with foreign workers rose against the SS. In some towns the workers in daring insurrections even seized power before the Allied armies arrived.”

There is a whole series of examples of fighting between the Wehrmacht and the SS at the end of the war. In his autobiography, Oskar Hippe describes how he argued in his group that, together with other workers parties, it should “build up resistance groups of a military nature which, when the Allied troops had reached German soil, would be able to intervene in the fight against the German army.” The intention was that the German proletariat would not passively wait for liberation—which was the policy of the Stalinists.

In 1945-46, there was a debate about the German working class in the Fourth International. Ernest Mandel [Germain], who was a genuine Trotskyist at the time, wrote a useful polemic. In 1953 he would become one of the leaders of the Pabloite tendency that broke with authentic Trotskyism. This tendency was characterized by political impressionism and the search for non-proletarian forces as substitutes for the working class; Mandel then denied the need for building revolutionary workers parties. But in a December 1945 article, in a section subtitled “The Legend of the Complete Passivity of the German Proletariat,” he argued correctly:

“We know that with the approach of the Red Army, the agricultural workers of Mecklenburg seized the land they had wanted for centuries. We know that at the same time the workers of Saxony hoisted red flags over their factories and elected genuine Soviets. (One of our Belgian Trotskyists took part in one of the factory committees created when the Russian troops entered Dresden. Included on this committee were several Left Communists opposed to Stalinism.) We know that local civil wars broke out almost everywhere, between the SS on one side and the Volkssturm [militia] or the Wehrmacht on the other. We know that as early as 1943, an attempted uprising was crushed at Hamburg. And finally, and most important of all, we know that the moment the Nazi apparatus collapsed, the imperialist armies and the army of the Soviet bureaucracy installed a far more stable and no less harsh police apparatus in all the sections of the country. Under these conditions, it would be truly shameful to label the courageous attitude of the German proletariat as ‘universal passivity’.”


In Part Two of “German Imperialism and the Lie of ‘Collective Guilt’” (WV No. 894, 8 June), the author of The Making of the GDR, 1945-53: From Antifascism to Stalinism was incorrectly identified as Richard Pritchard. The actual name of the author is Gareth Pritchard.


Workers Vanguard No. 894

WV 894

8 June 2007


Germany: For Mass Working-Class Protest Against State Repression!

Down With Police Terror Against Anti-G8 Demonstrators!

Down With the Witchhunt Against the "Black Block"!


Public Services Strike Shakes South Africa

Workers Fight Neo-Apartheid Misery


Full Citizenship Rights for All Immigrants!

Democrats, Republicans Push Vicious Anti-Immigrant Bill


ILWU Longshore Workers Honor Antiwar Picket Line



Trotskyist Opposition to World War II

(Quote of the Week)


Death on the Tracks: Toronto




Defend Róisín McAliskey!

(Class-Struggle Defense Notes)


Again on Why China Is Not Capitalist



On Student Protests in Greece

Trotskyists Say: Down With Government Attacks on Higher Education!


SYC Campus Protests Demand: Free Mumia Now!

(Young Spartacus pages)


German Trotskyists on World War II

German Imperialism and the Lie of "Collective Guilt"

The Red Army Smashed the Nazi Regime!

Part Two




Speech at Berlin Rally

Mumia Abu-Jamal: The Frame-Up of an Innocent Man