THE HOLOCAUST AND THE COLD WAR: Reflections on some Marxist Perspectives

The following article should be read as a sequel to The Holocaust in Historical Perspective which appeared in the February TPJ Magazine. That article did not succeed adequately in its intention to explore the way in which public understanding of the Holocaust, particularly in Britain and the United States, was influenced for at least three decades after 1945 by the political imperatives of the Cold War. What follows will attempt to go more substantially into this question. Another aspect needing further development concerns the historicising (or de-historicising) of the Holocaust. If it is claimed that it was unique, how is this ‘uniqueness’ to be understood? If it is said, as some historians have said, that Auschwitz is ‘unfathomable’ does this amount to an abdication of their responsibility as historians?

A word is necessary about the sub-title to this article: reflections on some Marxist perspectives. Of the voluminous and constantly expanding literature on the Holocaust, there has been very little that may be described as distinctly Marxist. The small minority of historians who have written on the subject from an explicitly Marxist standpoint, or one influenced by Marxism, have often been heterogeneous in both their interpretations and conclusions. They have, however, been at one with all serious historians of the Holocaust in rejecting the reductionist, mono-causal and essentially racist claims of Daniel Goldhagen in the widely publicized, widely read Hitler’s Willing Executioners published in 1996. Three books written from a more or less Marxist viewpoint during the last 25 years have been influential in shaping the perspective of this article: Arno J. Mayer, Why Did the Heavens not Open: The ‘Final Solution’ in History. 1990; Peter Novick, The Holocaust in American Life.1999 and Enzo Traverso, Understanding the Nazi Genocide: Marxism after Auschwitz. 1999. Each of these books has illuminated different aspects and dimensions of the subject. Mayer relates the decisive step to implement the ‘final solution’ to the first serious setback in the war against the Soviet Union in December 1941 and sees the Judeocide as intrinsically linked to the Nazi crusade against Bolshevism. Novick argues that the way the Holocaust has been perceived in the United States has been influenced from the 1950s by the cold war alliance with West Germany and, since 1967, by Israel’s victory in the Six Day War. Traverso sees Auschwitz as symbolising the accumulated barbarism of the twentieth century and believes that the struggle for the future is no longer, as perceived at the beginning of the century, a choice between barbarism (as a regression to savagery) and socialism, but between socialism conceived as a new civilization, and the destruction of humanity.

Much of what follows has been informed by Peter Novick’s The Holocaust in American Life (which was published in Britain as The Holocaust and Collective Memory). His observations about the way perceptions of the Holocaust have changed over the years in the United States, applies also to Britain. What may be termed ‘Holocaust awareness’ did not begin to assume the importance it has come to have in public consciousness today until the 1970s. It has been remarked that in this respect memory of the Holocaust and awareness of its catastrophic enormity, differs from other historic landmarks in that in other cases such events loom larger and awareness of them is sharper the closer in time we are to them; awareness of them fades with the passage of time. With the Holocaust it has been quite the reverse. It is only during the last twenty or thirty years that Holocaust museums have proliferated. January 27th was designated ‘Holocaust Memorial Day’ and first commemorated in Britain only in 2001. The term ‘Holocaust’ (without the more frequently used qualifiers ‘Nazi Holocaust’, or ‘Jewish Holocaust’) was not in common use until the 1970s. The TV mini-series, Holocaust, was screened to great public acclaim in 1978. Since then, and particularly from the later 1980s, there has been a sea change in public consciousness. From the late 1980s Holocaust survivors in Britain, many of whom had not spoken publicly about their experiences, now began to speak. How do we account for the relative public quiescence that prevailed for more than twenty years after the end of the Second World War?

It is not that the facts were unknown. Serious books about Nazi Germany had been published since the earliest post-war years. To mention just a few that were widely read, Alan Bullock’s Hitler, A study in Tyranny, appeared in 1952; the first comprehensive study of the Holocaust, Gerald Reitlinger’s The Final Solution was published in English translation in 1953 and Lord Russell of Liverpool’s history of Nazi war crimes The Scourge of the Swastika, in 1954. An early study of Kristallnacht, Lionel Kochan’s Pogrom, November 10, 1938 appeared in 1957. But in the public domain it seemed that there was something of a taboo about putting too much emphasis on the Jewish genocide. Much has been made of the fact that after the war, in the Soviet Union and throughout Eastern Europe reference to Nazi atrocities pointedly avoided specific mention of the particular fate of the Jews, treating them solely as citizens of the national states to which they belonged. The Black Book on the Nazi genocide compiled by Ilya Ehrenburg, who was a journalist for the Red Army paper Red Star, was never allowed to be published in the Soviet Union. Vassily Grossman was told that his epic novel Life and Fate, which dealt openly and honestly with the Jewish genocide in the context of the wider war, could not be published in the Soviet Union for hundreds of years. The fate of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee after the war is well known.

Almost immediately after the war the British news media began to down-play and ignore the worst genocide the world had ever experienced despite the fact that it had occurred in the heart of Europe, perpetrated by a regime against which Britain had waged a six year war for its survival. This is unlikely to have been accidental. It almost certainly followed a policy emanating from the Foreign Office. Two salient factors go some way to accounting for it: (i) events in the Middle East leading to the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, and (ii) the British and U.S. role in the division of Germany and backing for the West German state from 1949. Both factors were crucial in the breakdown of the Western wartime alliance with the Soviet Union and the onset of the Cold War.  

It is difficult now, 70 years after the end of World War Two, to recapture a sense of the mood and circumstances of that time. Due to the seemingly endless conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, more intractable now than at any time, it has been largely forgotten that after 1945 the Labour government in Britain completely reneged on its long-held commitment to grant a national homeland to the Jews. It is interesting to note that the strongest voices in support of the UN’s 1947 decision for the partition of Palestine came from the Left of the labour party. The government, and particularly the foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, did everything they could to stop further Jewish immigration and spared no effort to facilitate armed Arab resistance while denying arms to the Jews. Chaim Weizmann, who became Israel’s first president, quoted Bevin as telling him ‘If the Jews, with all their suffering, want to get too much at the head of the queue, you have the danger of another anti-Semitic reaction through it all.’ According to left wing Labour M.P Konni Zilliacus, Prime Minister Attlee, in the Palestine debate of January 26th 1949, ‘hotly denied that Mr Bevin was anti-Semitic. He [Attlee] said some of Mr Bevin’s best friends were Jews.’

It is also largely forgotten that while the United States and Britain placed an embargo on arms to the Jewish state, supplies came the Soviet Union through Czechoslovakia. The Soviet Union and other countries of Eastern Europe had voted with the majority in favour for partition. The Communist parties throughout the world, no doubt following the Soviet lead, were enthusiastic in their support for the creation of a Jewish state. But this was to be a short-lived honeymoon. The birth of the state of Israel coincided with the onset of the Cold War. British imperialism had been terminally weakened by six years of war and the best it could hope for was a subordinate role, masquerading as a ‘special relationship’, to U.S. Imperialism, with possession of the atom bomb as a consolation. Soviet hopes that the Israeli state might become an ally against British Imperialism in the Middle East proved illusory. In the years that followed it suited the revised historical narratives of both the Soviets and the Western powers to draw a discreet curtain over their differing attitudes to the birth of the Jewish state. Israel, for its part, quickly shifted its alignment firmly in the direction of the U.S. and its allies.

But the tensions that had arisen over the question of Palestine left their mark on the Jewish people in Britain. Much of the media was hostile to the Zionist enterprise and there was an unspoken sentiment in favour of keeping a low profile. Then there was the question of Germany, and a little later, German rearmament.

By 1948 the demarcation lines of the Cold War were clearly drawn, and they ran through Berlin. The blockade and airlift of 1948-49 set the scene for the next forty years. West Germany was now ‘our ally’, and from 1955 was a member of NATO. It was no longer acceptable to dwell on the atrocities of the Nazis. This changed mood was already evident in the immediate post war years. In 1945 the British Ministry of Information commissioned a documentary film about the Nazi concentration camps. The film was duly made by Alfred Hitchcock and Sidney Bernstein, but it was never released for public screening. Until recently it remained buried away in the Imperial War Museum. Various explanations have been offered for this, most of which fail to explain anything. Andre Singer, who has recently taken  the original footage, entitled German Concentration Camps, Factual Survey and completed the film with the title Night Will Fall, expressed the opinion, for which apparently he received some flak, that the original film was suppressed because ‘it was too politically sensitive.’ Branko Lustig, a Croatian film producer and Auschwitz survivor, said that he thought Bernstein’s film was suppressed because ‘At that time the British authorities had enough problems with the Jews.’ However speculative such opinions may be, they cannot be ignored.


Political expediency played an important part in downplaying the Holocaust for at least twenty years after the end of the Second World War. A plausible defence of this claim would run along these lines:

The British government’s opposition to large scale Jewish immigration into Palestine and its armed support for the Arab states, militated against recognising and sympathising with ‘Jewish victimhood’. Publicising harrowing images from the Nazi death camps would not assist the Foreign Office in promoting its Palestine policy. This was likely to have had the effect of intimidating many Jews and persuading them to keep a low profile, particularly at a time when armed Jewish resistance, often involving terrorism, was growing in Palestine.

The onset of the Cold War in 1947-48 meant that the former Soviet ally had now become another ‘totalitarian enemy’. This was not the time to engage in widespread dissemination of images of Nazi atrocities or to promote public information about the Holocaust. Given this atmosphere, those who were intent upon emphasising Jewish suffering during the war might be accused of ‘special pleading.’

German rearmament and membership of NATO By the early 1950s Britain and the United States (though not France!) were determined the re-arm West Germany and bring it into NATO. Culturally the ground was prepared for this by, amongst other things, films sanitising the Wehrmacht (e.g. Rommel, Desert Fox). By now, opposition to German rearmament and exposure of Nazis in high office in the Federal Republic, came primarily from communists. In Britain, visits to Auschwitz were orgainized by Communists or Communist front groups. Mainstream Jewish communities, in Britain and the United States, had no wish to become victims of ‘red baiting.’

The Six Day War, 1967 The Israeli victory in the Six Day War came several years after the Eichmann trial. Both events were pivotal in awakening a greater awareness about the Holocaust. Israeli military prowess was evident as never before as was a more open and enthusiastic sentiment in its support. More emphatically than ever it came to be argued that Israel was the guarantor of Jewish security and survival.


Arguments about the supposed uniqueness of the Holocaust were touched upon in the earlier article. Inclusion of the following observations is not intended to add anything to that discussion. The observations have been included because they are made by Marxist scholars who happen to be Jewish. All but one are, or were, historians. Hyman Levy was a scientist who occasionally wrote on Jewish matters. Readers may draw their own conclusions about the engagement of these writers with their subject.

To Jewry it was the greatest wound, the greatest blow that had ever been inflicted on it during its terrible history. At least five million men, women and children perished. I am asserting without fear of contradiction, that only a Jew can grasp intellectually and emotionally what this has signified. Hyman Levy.

Jews and the National Question. 1958.

At bottom the Judeocide remains as incomprehensible to me today as five years ago, when I set out to study and rethink it. Arno Mayer.

Why did the Heavens not Darken? The “Final Solution” in History. 1990

Acknowledging Auschwitz’s historical uniqueness can have a meaning only if it helps to promote a fruitful dialectic between the memory of the past and the criticism of teh present. Enzo Traverso.

Understanding the Nazi Genocide: Marxism after Auschwitz.1999

The fury of Nazism, which was bent on the unconditional extermination of every Jewish man, woman, and child within its reach, passes the comprehension of the historian, who tries to uncover the motives of human behaviour and to discern the interests behind the motives. Who can analyse the motives and the interests behind the enormities of Auschwitz?

I am sure that it is not my personal involvement in the Jewish catastrophe that would prevent me, even now, as a historian from writing objectively about it. It is rather the fact that we are confronted by a huge and ominous mystery of the degeneration of the human character that will forever baffle and terrify mankind. Isaac Deutscher.

The Non-Jewish Jew. 1968