Holocaust Memorial Day: Enzo Traverso on the Holocaust and the European Civil War, 1914-1945


On the 27th January 1945, the Soviet army entered the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau liberating the remaining 7,000 inhabitants. The massive scale of the killing at Auschwitz, estimated at over 1 million, made its liberation a decisive moment.

In this extract from Enzo Traverso's recently published account of the "European Civil War" of 1914 to 1945, Traverso situates the origins of the "final solution" in the longue durée of European and German history. As he states, "despite its specific features, the Nazi war against the Jews belonged to this European and global civil war". This, Traverso points out, is not to dilute the horrors of the Holocaust, but rather an attempt to discover its particular conjunctural origins. It is only in this way that we can we think through Auschwitz while avoiding the twin dangers of placing outside of history, or as merely a regressive moment on the long march of enlightened progress.

The Second World War was a total war in which several parallel wars again interacted: first of all, a war between the great powers competing for the control of geopolitical territories; then a war of self-defence by the USSR, threatened with destruction by National Socialism; and finally a war of national liberation waged in the countries occupied by the Axis powers, and within this context, a civil war of the Resistance against the collaborationist regimes. It was also a total war between competing visions of the world and models of civilization. Franco’s anti-Communist campaign now assumed the gigantic dimensions of a war of annihilation against the USSR, which Hitler viewed as a "crusade"(Glaubenskrieg) and a "racial war" (Rassenkrieg), in which "Aryans" fought to impose their order against Slavs and Jews. Nazism sought to reorganize Europe on a racial basis. The genocide of the Jews, perpetrated between the start of its military offensive against the USSR in June 1941 and the end of the war, lay at the heart of a double project of Nazi policy: on the one hand, conquest of Lebensraum by the German colonization of Slav territories; on the other, the destruction of Communism. In the Nazi vision of the world, Slavs and Communism were identified with a state controlled by a Jewish elite. The colonization of Lebensraum, destruction of Communism and extermination of the Jews were thus combined in a single war of conquest and extermination. It is true that anti-Semitism formed the ideological and cultural background of this genocide, its indispensable foundation, but it was only in the context of a total war aimed at reshaping the map of Europe that it was able to mutate into a policy of extermination.

Of course, the various steps of this intricate sequence were neither always foreseeable nor systematically planned. Agency played a crucial role in the history of the European civil war. In many cases, its shifts were the result of miscalculations by their actors. Opertion Barbarossa was probably the biggest mistake of both Stalin and Hitler. The Russian dictator had not ignored the aggressive ambitions of his German partner; but neither had he paid attention to the rumours of an imminent offensive, which seemed to him nothing but British propaganda, and his initial passivity led the USSR to the edge of defeat. Hitler fell into the trap of his own ideology – his vision of the Slavic peoples as an "inferior race" – and made a fatal mistake in thinking that he could destroy his enemy in a few months: the failure of his offensive would be decisive for the evolution of the conflict. When he launched his blitzkrieg on the Eastern front, the Nazi dictator pursued four main objectives: a quick collapse of the USSR; a planned famine designed to affect 30 million people from the winter of 1941 onwards; a huge plan for the German colonization of the western territories of the USSR (Ostplan); and the "final solution" of the Jewish question, entailing the massive displacement of the European Jews towards the most remote regions of the conquered territories, where they would be steadily eliminated. The failure of Hitler’s blitzkrieg, however, compelled him to change his plan, modifying its hierarchy of goals. The "final solution", whose completion was foreseen at the end of the conflict, suddenly became a priority, as the only objective that could be immediately accomplished. Since they could not be deported to the eastern Soviet territories, the Jews were exterminated, while the Slavic peoples were submitted to a form of slavery. Auschwitz, a crucial centre of the Polish railways network, was to have been the starting-point for the colonization of the German Lebensraum; it became the terminus for the deported Jews and one of the main sites of their annihilation. Five out of six victims of the Holocaust, however, were killed in territories to the east of Auschwitz. The extermination camps were inseparable from the war against the partisans, from the famine inflicted on the Slavic peoples, and from the starvation of Soviet prisoners of war (2.4 million dead out of 3 million captured by December 1941).

The specific characteristics of the Holocaust – a genocide perpetrated at the heart of the Second World War, but which did not simply follow from its internal logic – need to be emphasized. If the war in the East, radicalized by all the tensions it condensed, made it possible to unleash the wave of extermination against the Jews, the Shoah became steadily more autonomous, to the point of constituting an intrinsic aim of Nazi policy. The conquest of Lebensraum and the annihilation of Bolshevism do not explain the deportation to Auschwitz of Jews from Salonika or Corfu; nor does the context of military operations, especially after the Nazi defeat at Stalingrad at the beginning of 1943. But this does not make the war between 1941 and 1945 a "parenthesis" in the twentieth century. In the context of the war, the Holocaust certainly revealed a specific dynamic bound up with the Nazi project of racial domination, but its premises were inscribed in the longue durée of European and German history. Despite its specific features, the Nazi war against the Jews belonged to this European and global civil war. While it would be wrong to try and deny its singularity, diluting it in the totality of violence of the war, it would be equally absurd to isolate it from this global context, which was its soil and its detonator. So it is not a question of confusing a genocide with a civil war – in the case of the Holocaust, the victims were not belligerents and the executioners possessed the monopoly of violence – nor of seeing the two as linked by a relationship of cause and effect, but of situating it in its historical context. The European civil war created a series of conditions without which the Holocaust could have been neither conceived nor perpetrated.

This is an extract from Enzo Traverso's Fire and Blood: The European Civil War