Holocaust and Hiroshima - Imperialism and Mass Murder in the Twentieth Century

Everything seemed to have melted and pressed the bodies away in front of us. Women and children were so charred as to be unrecognisable; those that had died through lack of oxygen were half-charred and recognisable. Their brains had tumbled from their burst temple and their insides from the soft part under the ribs. How terribly these people must have died. The smallest children lay like fired eels on the pavement.

Hiroshima? Nagasaki? Neither. This is a 15 year old girl's description of the morning after the RAF and USAAF round-the-clock bombing of Hamburg on July 27th, 1943.(1) At least 45,000 died that night and hardly a military person amongst them. Worse was to come in Dresden on the nights of 13th to 15th February. No-one knows how many died in Dresden on those nights but it was many times more than the 35,000 the Allies later maintained. Dresden's normal population had been swollen by 400,000 refugees, to something like 1 million.(2) The town had hardly been bombed before given that the new fighter planes (P-51B Mustangs) capable of supporting a bomber raid deep into Germany would not be available until the end of 1943. By this time the British and American air forces had realised that incendiary bombs (originally only dropped to guide the high explosive bombs) were actually far more destructive than their more expensive "big bombs". Incendiaries created windstorms of over 100mph as the fires became so large that they sought oxygen from all around. The heat at the centre of these firestorms was over 1,000 degrees centigrade. People within range were sucked into the flames and burned to cinders. This is the kind of destruction described at the beginning of this article. British and American apologists will argue that "Germany started it" by bombing civilian areas during the Blitz of 1940 which eventually brought destruction to many towns and cities besides London. And there is no doubt that revenge was in the minds of Churchill(3) and "Bomber" Harris when they ordered these attacks. Like Hitler, they saw that "total war" meant the demoralisation of the civilian population (both sides were mistaken). Ultimately on all sides the justification was that anything that wins the war is justified. The question that capitalist moralists are always posing is why such atrocities were committed in the twentieth century when "civilisation" had reached such a peak of progress?

The Atrocious Nature of Imperialist War

After all the century had opened so promisingly. The first Nobel Peace Prize was awarded in 1901. Killing civilian non-combatants was outlawed by the Hague Convention of 1907 and signed by all the Great Powers. (Although it might have been more honest if they had stated that this was as long as the non-combatants were white given the massacres of colonial peoples at this time). However, within a few short years, the Hague Convention was in ruins. In 1917, German bombers killed 162 people on an air raid in East London which hit a school. It was the beginning of a new age in more than the military sense. At the end of the First World War the British, French and US Governments refused to lift the blockade of Germany for months, bringing starvation and death from disease to hundreds of thousands of German civilians.

In the court of history victors don't commit war crimes. The accusations are usually only reserved for the losers. However, it is clear from any objective view of the wars of the twentieth century that both sides in both world wars committed atrocities that a century earlier would have been condemned as inhuman. In both 19th and 20th centuries capitalism was the system of economic production but the difference was that the nature of the system had changed. In the nineteenth century, whatever murderous actions were carried out against non-European peoples in China, India, Africa and Latin America, in Europe wars were generally limited and hardly affected most of society. Despite the hubris over Nelson's victories they actually had little impact in most of Britain (in fact news of Trafalgar only reached parts of the North of England in the following year). After the Napoleonic Wars (which lasted 23 years and gave a slight foretaste of the wars of the twentieth century) there were no long wars in the age of capitalist expansion. Wars were fought for limited ends and were settled relatively quickly. For example, the war which set the Italian state on course for independence in 1859 ended after two battles and a few months even though the original aims of the war had not been met. At the time, the casualty level amongst professional armies was deemed too high.

Such limited "cabinet" wars ended with the onset of the imperialist phase of capitalist competition towards the end of the nineteenth century. Imperialism springs from very dynamic of the capitalist mode of production itself, as we explained on many previous occasions. The law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall means that periodically capitalism is thrown into crisis as capital is "overaccumulated". The only way capitalism can resume its cycle of accumulation is if the existing capital values (wealth) are devalued. This occurs in crises as some firms go bankrupt and their devalued productive apparatus is taken over by more successful rivals. Every crisis of capitalism thus leads to the increasing centralisation and concentration of capital. Such centralisation in turn leads to the creation of bigger and bigger companies until they become monopolies within the national state. Competition is now on an international scale. This rivalry between the demands of national monopolies drives the imperialist imperative of each national state.

Historically, the result is that the capitalist powers began to annex spheres of influence throughout the planet in order to control sources of raw materials, cheap labour and markets. To justify annexations of territories inhabited by previously free peoples, the Europeans had to introduce the notion that it was only done because of their "backwardness". No matter how sophisticated the cultures they destroyed, European powers justified their actions as a "civilising" or "christianising" mission. Underpinning imperialist justification was the racist notion that non-Europeans were inferior peoples. All kinds of atrocities were perpetrated at the behest of imperialism (most infamously in the Belgian Congo where rubber workers who failed to deliver their quota to King Leopold's company had their hands cut off), as European powers (and belatedly the USA and Japan) conquered colonial territories.

By the time of our famous Hague Conferences, the entire planet was under the thrall of capitalist imperialism. However, capitalist crises had not gone away. Indeed they became more acute. Now every state sought to preserve the value created by its economic activity at the expense of their rivals. This led to militarism and to an arms race. Nationalism reached its apogee as the need to defend the fatherland became the battle cry of every ruling class. From the end of the Great Depression (1893) to the First World War tension increased as Europe divided into two armed camps. It did not matter how contradictory the demands of the Great Powers against their allies were, as the main thing was that the other alliance was seen to represent the power which threatened their interests the most. Thus, Britain and Russia could bury the hatchets they had been waving at each other since 1830 and concentrate on facing Germany which threatened the British Empire at sea and Russia in Europe. When the war came, its unprecedented horror was not simply a result of the new technology of warfare but because all sides were determined to fight until the utter defeat and destruction of their opponents had been achieved. The purpose of war is to defend every national capital's value but its function, paradoxically, is in fact to destroy value. The First World War has been called the first "total war" by bourgeois history, but total war means imperialist war. Such wars are no longer fought by professional armies, with little reference to the domestic situation, or the local economy. The war is an economic war. In capitalist terms it allows a temporary suspension of the laws of economic accountability as money is printed to gamble on the future victory. And, as the economic stakes are enormous, the means used to fight these wars know no restraint. Imperialist war is the product of a decaying social system. Imperialist war means barbarism.

The Holocaust

The ultimate barbarism was seen in the Nazi state. Germany had no big experience of racist massacres in Africa since it came late into the colonial race. But racism is absolutely central as the ideological justification of imperialism. Just as the British and French (not to mention Spanish, Dutch, Portuguese, Danish and Belgian) ruling classes saw themselves as superior to the Africans and Asians they dominated, the Nazis brought together all the racist ideas which flourished in Germany before the First World War (and not just on the lunatic right - David and Legien who led the German Social Democratic Party were outright racists). Racial theory was taken to its ultimate by Hitler and Himmler who declared that the Germans were the Herrenvolk (Master Race) and who talked of the destruction of the Untermenschen. It comes as a shock to liberals but Himmler saw himself as a "son of the Enlightenment" which so dominated European thinking during the rise of the bourgeoisie. In fact Nazism and fascism in general was not a break with capitalist domination (as the ancestors of our political current argued back in the 1920s). It was the ideological and organisational form adopted by capital in the age of imperialism amongst those powers that had lost the First World War and were seeking to overturn its consequences. German racism was not to be turned against the blacks abroad but against the Jews within. And Nazi anti-semitism, however vile and disgusting its action before the Second World War, only became systematically genocidal in the course of the imperialist conflict itself. We cannot argue that there is even a perverted economic logic to Nazi genocide as the setting up of the death camps and the railway infrastructure that supported them was a huge diversion from the war effort (whereas the earlier concentration camps were more productive for the regime). It did not even function as an ideological effort to mobilise German nationalism since most Germans were not even aware what was really going on. (The Nazis had an elaborate "double-speak", where bureaucratic language hid every crime, that even Thatcher and Blair would have envied). No, the logic of imperialist supremacy for the Germans was to wipe out all those who weakened the purity of the "master race". This did not only include the racially impure (Jews, Slavs and Roma) but also those "Aryans" who happened to be born with a mental or physical disability.

The same sort of monstrous imperialist utopianism can also be seen in Japan after the Army took over (in an unannounced coup) in the late 1920s. The Japanese insularity which assumed (quite wrongly) that the country was racially pure and unconquered in its entire history led its nationalist leaders to despise all foreigners as "non-human". When the Japanese Army attacked the Asian colonies of the British, French and Dutch they were at first seen as liberators from "white racism" (right-wing lunatics in Japan still use this to justify Japan's imperial adventure), but their raping, looting, murdering and enslaving, unsurprisingly, did not endear them to their new colonial subjects.(4)

On the Allied side recent histories (such as those of Anthony Beevor) have highlighted the atrocities committed by the Red Army as it swept towards Berlin. At least a million German women were raped and many were brutally murdered as the Russians took full revenge for the atrocities committed against their civilians during the German advances of 1941-2.(5) Beevor, of course is doing a bit of revisionism himself with an eye to demonstrating that the Russians were not fit to be called "allies" but the US and British Armies were little better. The US army raped its way across Western Germany, if on a more discreet scale, and the treatment of German POWs who died in their thousands in inhumane conditions which breached the 1932 Geneva Convention should not be forgotten.

All these dehumanising atrocities helps to explain why the US ruling class thought that the use of the atomic bomb was entirely justified.

The Bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki

The bomb which fell on Hiroshima did so out of a clear blue sky on the morning of August 6th 1945. However, as we saw above, the destruction which it wrought, and the complete disregard for any notion of who or what was being hit, did not. The nuking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was the culmination of a war to the end. It is the logic of all imperialist conflict.

It was also, in strictly military terms, as the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe Dwight D. Eisenhower said at the time, totally unnecessary. Japan's navy and air force had all but been destroyed and the Japanese had been secretly negotiating with Stalin (as the US well knew, having picked up the transmissions) for months to try to get out of the war. On top of this, the firebombings of Japanese cities had already had a far more devastating effect than the equivalent attacks on Germany. The worst came on March 10th 1945 when 345 B-29 bombers attacked Tokyo. A mainly wooden city, 15 square miles of it burnt in 6 hours, leaving 168,000 dead in a single night. This is still regarded as the single most barbarous act of conventional bombing. It is no surprise that Truman could later say that the decision to use the atomic bomb didn't take a lot of thought and it "was not a decision you had to worry about".

The normal "explanation" for the dropping of the atom bombs was that they were to end the war quickly and to "save American lives". The usual justification for this is to cite the fact that on Iwo Jima 20,000 of the 21,000 defenders were killed whilst only 1,000 surrendered. Although the US lost far less men (6,000) this casualty rate was seen as too high. General Groves told Truman that the dropping of the bomb would save a million and half lives. No-one seems to have asked Groves how he arrived at this figure. And, as he was not a front-line General but the military director of the Manhattan Project to build the bomb, his evidence might be seen as flawed. But there was no need to invade any more Japanese territory. A blockade would have eventually reduced the Japanese to surrender. In 1976, the US Strategic Bombing Survey concluded that

It seems clear that even without the atomic bomb attacks, air supremacy over Japan could have exerted sufficient pressure to bring unconditional surrender.(6)

Why then was the US Government in such a hurry? The answer is that it was already thinking of the situation after the war. The fact that the USSR would end up dominating Eastern Europe already irked the US and they did not want the USSR to be as influential in the Far East. Stalin had promised in 1943 that the USSR would enter the war against Japan three months after the war with Germany was won. The war with Germany ended on May 8th. Three months later would be August 8th. Truman (who had only learned of the Manhattan Project to build the bomb on taking office in April) postponed the Potsdam Conference with Churchill and Stalin until July in order to allow the prototype bomb to be tested at Los Alamos. During the conference the news of the successful test was relayed to Truman who told Stalin that he had a new weapon of immense destructive force. Stalin (who knew all about it from his spies) merely suggested that the US would soon use it against the Japanese. The Big Three then drew up the Potsdam Declaration which threatened Japan with "prompt and utter destruction" unless it surrendered unconditionally.

The real rationale for the use of the bomb was revealed years later by Truman's Secretary of State, Jimmy Byrnes, who explained why Truman did not tell Stalin the full truth about the bomb.

As a result of experiences with the Russian during the ... conference he had come to the conclusion that it would be regrettable if the Soviet Union entered the war, and... he was afraid that if Stalin was made fully aware of the power of the new weapon, he might order the Soviet Army to plunge forward at once.(7)

Hence the decision to bomb Hiroshima on August 6th in order to try to get a Japanese surrender before the Red Army was transferred to the East. Thus the citizens of Hiroshima were amongst the first victims of the Cold War. As a new history of the event underlines the decision to drop the bomb was a political one. The message was really for Stalin, not for the Japanese.

Truman seemed to be saying 'Behave yourself or you will be next'.(8)

Yet Truman maintained the lie that Hiroshima was primarily a military base and that the US had wanted "to avoid, as far as possible, the killing of civilians". This lie only underlines how imperialism has to dress up its most barbaric acts as if they were perfectly rational and acceptable. In recent times the lie that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction has had to be replaced by the post-hoc rationalisation and new lie that the invasion of Iraq was to effect "regime change" and bring democracy to the Iraqi people. In the sixty years of so-called peace since 1945 there have been millions more deaths in war than occurred during the entire Second World War. These wars are not the result of "man's inhumanity to man" or some such liberal twaddle but as we have demonstrated here are absolutely central to the operation of capitalism in its imperialist phase. As long as the drive for profit dominates the planet the drive to the most barbaric form of war cannot be stopped.


(1) Quoted in Richard Rhodes The Making of the Atomic Bomb, 1988

(2) The precise truth is hard to establish now. The official Allied figure of 35,000 is simply not credible. The local police chief at the time reported 60,000 but may have underestimated deliberately in order to maintain German morale. The Hitler apologist writer David Irving, who denies that the Holocaust took place but aims to prove that the Allies committed bigger crimes than Hitler, claims 253,000 died, but whatever the real figure the crime remains huge.

(3) Although Churchill was an enthusiast for bombing innocent people all his life. He justified the first use of poison gas against Iraqi Kurds in 1921 on the grounds that they were "uncivilised" and later even suggested that Harris should send his bombers to destroy "the foul race of Hindus".

(4) See History and Empire in this issue for the main list of the activities of the Japanese military.

(5) One German soldier writing home told his family to expect no mercy if Germany lost the war, although he did not give details of the horrors committed by the Wehrmacht.

(6) Quoted in John Cox, Overkill (Penguin, 1977)

(7) As told to the historian Herbert Feis and quoted in Rhodes, op. cit.

(8) Gerard DeGroot, The Bomb: A History of Hell on Earth (Pimlico, 2005)

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