From the trenches & cattle trucks of World War One to the Holocaust

Richard Koenigsberg, courtesy of Ideologies of War Newsletter

Richard Rhodes in Masters of Death: The SS-Einsatzgruppen and the Invention of the Holocaust (2002) observes that “The Great War set the stage for the Holocaust. The foul trenches (‘the long grave already dug,’ the English poet John Masefield called them), the no man’s lands of barbed wire, the piles of rotting corpses, the muddy, denuded landscape prefigured the killing pits and the death camps of the Third Reich.” In Murder in Our Midst (1996), Omer Bartov notes that the Holocaust was the almost “perfect reenactment of the Great War,” with the important correction that “all the perpetrators were on one side and all the victims on the other.” Everything else was there:  the barbed wire, the machine guns, the charred bodies, the gas, the uniforms, the military discipline, the barracks. “But this reenactment had the great advantage that it was totally safe for the guards.”

 John Keegan in The Face of Battle (1976), cites Robert Kee who wrote that the “trenches were the concentration camps of the First World War,” drawing our attention to the Battle of the Somme (July 1, 1916) when “long docile lines of young men, number about their necks…plodded forward to their own extermination.” More precisely, the concentration camps repeated what had occurred in the trenches. Hitler and his colleagues produced a massive re-enactment, compelling the Jews to experience what Hitler and his colleagues had experienced during the First World War.

Hitler—blinded by poison gas at the end of the War—declared in Mein Kampf that if twelve or fifteen thousand of the “Hebrew corrupters of the people” had been held under poison gas, “as happened to hundreds of thousands of our very best Germans,” then the “sacrifice of millions at the front would not have been in vain.”

Hitler created the Holocaust in order to subject Jews to the same treatment to which German soldiers had been subjected. The Jew in the Holocaust symbolized the German soldier—sent to suffer and to die by the German nation and its leaders. The Jew repeats the pathetic, abject condition of German soldiers in the First World War: conveyed to a distant location in box cars, hardly imagining that death would be their fate.

  Like German soldiers, Jews were compelled to adopt a stance of absolute submission. The Jew symbolized the fate of a loyal German soldier whose body has been taken over by the nation state—to be used as the nation and its leaders see fit.

The Great War lasted fifty-two and a half months. Roughly 9,500,000 soldiers, from all nations, were killed, which comes to about 181,000 deaths per month, or about 6302 deaths every twenty-four hours (complete statistics on the First World War).

Nation-states and their leaders during the First World War acted to bring forth endless slaughter and massive destruction. In the First World War—and then in the Holocaust—nations and their leaders felt they had the right to send millions of human beings to die. We know that Hitler and the Nazis willed the death of millions (although some imagine that this was not the case). Yet we continue to pretend that Germany’s leaders—and the leaders of other nations—did not will the death of millions of human beings during the First World War.

We can continue to live within this delusion of innocence (everyone is entitled to his or her fantasies). Or we can begin to awaken from the nightmare of history.

German casualties of the First World War:

Dead 2,037,000
Wounded 4,300,000
Missing or Prisoner 974,977
TOTAL 7,311,977

According to the official Army Medical Report, the estimated numbers of cases treated by doctors during the war were:

  Wounded Diseased Total
1914/15 1,579,023 4,513,215 6,092,238
1915/16 1,398,281 5,706,370 7,104,651
1916/17 1,303,322 5,491,044 6,794,366
1917/18 1,406,311 5,787,674 7,193,985
1914-1918 5,686,937 21,498,303 27,185,240

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