For over two years, the charitable status of Germany’s main association commemorating the political victims of Nazism has been in limbo. In fall 2019, the Association of Persecutees of the Nazi Regime/Federation of Antifascists (VVN-BdA) received notification from Berlin authorities that it would lose its tax exemptions on the grounds that it had been ruled a “left-wing extremist” organization. The move against the VVN-BdA — one of Germany’s most important groups for Holocaust victims — is currently suspended.
This characterization of the association, which cultivates the memory of the Nazi regime’s mainly Communist and Social-Democratic political victims, is owed to the Bavarian Office for the Protection of the Constitution, based in a region that was itself the cradle of Nazism. It follows in an inglorious history of postwar intelligence agencies harassing Communist members of the anti-fascist resistance — as well as a wider denial of the recognition and welfare accorded to others who suffered and fought the Nazi menace.
This is not simply a German phenomenon. In the Netherlands, Communists were expelled from the association for ex-political prisoners, while commemorations honoring partisan Hannie Schaft were prohibited by armed force, even with the use of tanks.
Today, as we mark the seventy-seventh anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by the Red Army, we should also remember that moment as the end of the greatest cataclysm ever to befall the Left — the greatest white terror in history. The Nazi and Fascist counterrevolutionary violence was prefigured by the thousands killed and exiled in Hungary after World War I, via mass public hangings which wiped out the Communist Party; the hundred thousand “purged” during the Finnish White Terror; and the hundreds of thousands murdered in Ukraine as part of the Russian Civil War. Historians estimate that up to 1 million civilians were murdered by the Nazis on account of their political affiliation — the vast majority targeted as communists.
In World War II and the period leading up to it, left-wingers across Europe were decimated. Yet for all the abundance of research into the Nazi period, in public consciousness and in historical literature, this entire aspect is often left fuzzy. Political victims, if labeled as such at all, are rarely defined as socialists or communists and are never accounted for on a country-by-country basis, as is the case for other victims of Nazi terror.
Historical research and public-memory culture has drawn welcome focus to the variety of populations targeted by Nazi mass murder: Jews, Roma people, those with disabilities, and others.
Recent studies show that young students most often identify “homosexuals” as a Nazi-Fascist victim group, following Europe’s Jews. While pedagogical materials often use the ahistorical label “LGBTQ,” historians generally surmise that the Nazis murdered about five thousand gay men targeted because of their sexuality, within Germany itself. This also happens to be the approximate number of people of African descent murdered by the Nazis, mostly soldiers serving in the French Army.
But as the recent attacks on VVN-BdA suggest, Nazism’s political victims seem to remain the ones whom contemporary consciousness most struggles to recognize.
In fact, in the last five months of the war alone, from January to May 1945, at least 2,162 Spanish Civil War veterans were killed at a single camp, Mauthausen. They were but the remnants of the approximately fifteen thousand Civil War veterans deported by Vichy French authorities to Nazi Germany. Only 837 of these survived World War II. The hunt for “republican” veterans of the Spanish Civil War was emblematic of Nazi-Fascist white terror.
Defenders of the ill-fated Spanish republic symbolized the anti-fascist fight, in two respects: they were the first to recognize the coming global threat, and after 1939 they remained refugees on the run for years, without any stable sanctuary (with the partial exception of the USSR, which took in upward of three thousand child orphans). While compared to other European countries their Spanish homeland was not a center of the genocide of the Jews, mass murder of those deemed “Reds” continued apace in the war years.
Arthur Koestler anointed these refugees as the “scum of the earth.” As many as 226,000 Spanish republicans were captured and imprisoned in France alone. Yet most refugees’ touchstone was less October 1917 than the French Revolution (which the Nazis also vowed to eviscerate), for which they held commemorations while imprisoned as far off as Algeria and Morocco. But whatever their military affiliation, when Civil War veterans were captured by the Nazis, as a matter of policy they were not sent to POW camps — as with other combatants — but directly to concentration camps.
These veterans help us to rethink World War II in ways other than that often extolled by the official narrative in the English-speaking Allied countries. The fight against Nazism was a matter of international resistance to fascism, as much as or even more so than national liberation. The International Brigades in particular proved a schooling for the resistance movements in occupied Europe.
Not only was the French Resistance largely led by former International Brigaders (such that historians have called for it to be renamed the “resistance in France”), but the same could be said of almost any consequential such Resistance movement. In Italy, where at least forty thousand anti-fascists were killed, a US International Brigade veteran observed that, “Every sector of the front was commanded by a guy who fought with the Garibaldi [Brigade] in Spain. The guy who captured Mussolini and strung him up by the feet was Muscatelli. He fought in Spain.” The core of Yugoslavia’s National Liberation Army was largely made up of veterans from the Spanish War, in which near-half of their compatriots had been killed; four of these veterans would command whole armies.
As a rule, upon invasion of any new country, the first to be detained or executed by the Nazi-Fascists were communists and socialists. Nazi police forces, the Sipo-SD, were sent in directly after occupation to target communists, prior to any armed struggle breaking out. Especially notorious is the Kommissarbefehl of June 1941, prior to the invasion of the USSR: this radical break in the practice of warfare formalized the immediate and wholesale slaughter of any Red Army troops with a political affiliation.
Less well-known is that already on April 2, 1941, before the invasion of Greece and Yugoslavia, the Wehrmacht chief of staff Franz Halder for the first time singled out even unarmed Jews and Communists as explicit targets for the Einsatzgruppen death squads. Subsequent mass murders of Jews and Communists together regularly exceeded the 100:1 ratio outlined by Wehrmacht generals. Second Lieutenant Peter Geissler of the 714th Infantry Division recounted developments in “combating partisans” in letters he sent home at regular intervals.
26 July ’41: “Entire hordes of communists are now being shot and hanged on an almost daily basis.”
Of the at least two hundred thousand civilian murders in Serbia, the only other victim group recorded in Einsatzgruppen records was the mentally ill.
The apparent total of almost two thousand Communists murdered in the Netherlands (similar to the Austrian figure) may be numerically small compared to the Yugoslav case. Yet this constituted 20 percent of all prewar Communist Party members and up to half of all Communists engaged in the Resistance. As Rense Havinga, curator of the Freedom Museum in the Netherlands, confirmed: “No other group in the Netherlands joined the resistance in such large numbers. Of Dutch people as a whole, only 0.5 percent joined the resistance. So, a communist was seventy times as likely to be a resistance member as a random member of the general public.”
In France, the percentage was only slightly higher, closer to 1 percent of the population engaged in resistance. And also higher was the number of their ranks deported to Nazi concentration camps for political reasons; around sixty thousand would never return. In France, Nazi-Fascist forces unleashed a specific decree against communists on September 16, 1941, which “required” the execution of fifty to a hundred Communists for the killing of one German soldier by partisans.
Elsewhere in Europe, coalitions of Nazi and otherwise fascist movements joined forces to eliminate Communists. One such case was Operation Schwarz, which saw a hundred twenty thousand German, Italian, Croatian Ustaše, and Bulgarian troops combine to try and murder twenty thousand Communists.
On the run, these resisters also pulled off one of the most dramatic rescues of the war in fall 1943. This pan-Marxist partisan group saved twenty-five hundred Jews from a camp on the Adriatic island of Rab, whose airborne evacuation the British had balked at. Accompanied on boats to the mainland under bombardment, Josip Broz Tito’s forces saw the fight against antisemitism as part of a vision of a socialist future, calling that racism “the most repulsive mask of the fascists, meant to cover their darkest, most beastly goals against the people.” The two hundred too weak to be transported, were ultimately deported to Birkenau.
This remarkable rescue was not the only one that is today largely forgotten. In fall 1944, over two thousand hungry children accompanied by a thousand Communists under lethal threat by Nazi forces in Ossola, Northern Italy, were transferred “illegally” over the border into Switzerland thanks to cooperation with Swiss socialists.
Naturally, it was workers’ parties in Germany itself who bore the full brunt of Nazi terror the longest, with some prisoners, like Communist Party leader Ernst Thälmann, spending up to a decade in solitary confinement before execution. With their intentions un-camouflaged (unlike those toward the Jews) Hitler and associates openly spoke of “destroying and exterminating Communists” and working “until the last Marxist is converted or exterminated.”
Up to forty thousand were seized in 1933, and even after the end of noteworthy resistance in 1934, the Nazis drove anti-Marxist paranoia to consolidate a system of concentration camp terror. Another wave of repression in 1935 went after all former Communist or Social-Democratic functionaries. Top leaders of this latter party including even former president Friedrich Ebert were interned in concentration camps, as were some of its leading theorists: Rudolf Hilferding was murdered in a Gestapo prison in Paris in 1941 and Rudolf Breitscheid in Buchenwald in 1944.
Remarkably given the enormous research on virtually all aspects of Nazi-Fascism, in the official United States Holocaust Memorial Museum encyclopedia the number of victims among Nazism’s “political opponents” (neither Socialists nor Communists are openly named) is listed as “undetermined.” The Association of Persecutees of the Nazi Regime/Federation of Antifascists, currently under threat by the German government, has its own estimates, holding that of the three hundred thousand members of Thälmann’s party, at least half were murdered by the Nazis.
A historical consensus on this point may be a long time coming. But dispersed evidence on the subject already suggests that the overall losses of Communists and Socialists throughout Europe, may be second only to the number of Jewish victims in sheer numbers. While political groups do not fall under the genocide statute adopted by the United Nations after the war, those inspired by Marxism certainly were a hunted and endangered minority.
As Thomas Mann summed up after the war in 1946: “I hardly can be regarded as a champion of communism. Nevertheless, I cannot help feeling that the panic fear of the Western world of the term communism, this fear by which the fascists have so long maintained themselves, is somewhat superstitious and childish and one of the greatest follies of our epoch.” More than superstitious, it was murderous.