Nazi violence: Prisons, factories, barracks

By Enzo Traverso

Crisis Mirror members decided to translate and to publish the following text, because it  adequatelly explains the phenomenon of Nazism and its relation to modern institutions, such as bureaucracy and the industrial organization of society and economic production. The text also discloses the ties of nazism to the colonial history of Europe. Furthermore, the text unfolds the ambiguities of Nazism, like its simultaneous relation to pre-modern ideas and modern ones.

In the discussion that follows, Italian historian Enzo Traverso presents his view-point on nazi violence and the phenomenon of Nazism in general (magazine No Pasaran issue 10-11, 2002). The motive for this discussion was the publishing of Enzo Traverso’s book: Nazi Violence: A Geneology. As implied by the subtitle of the book, Enzo Traverso mainly attempts to highlight the relationship between Nazism and modern European history, in juxtaposition to opinions that (until today) claim that Nazism was a foreign body for European civilization.

On the contrary, Enzo Traverso highlights the European roots of Nazism, and its connection with the changes that occurred during the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century in the institutional mechanisms of bourgeois states and the capitalist process of production. From the discussion we skipped, for reasons of space, a part concerning mainly the relationship between European colonialism with Nazism, the biological references of nazi racism and the meaning of the First World War.


Nazism has for long been viewed as a tragic parenthesis in the history of the West. Even though it is accepted that it consisted a terrifying experience which reformed the western consciousness and the way it sees the world, besides there is usually the feeling that Nazism emerged out of the blue. Your book shows that nazi violence did not result incidentally but that it is inscribed in a cultural environment.

I believe, from this point of view, that today we witness a sort of regression, even in the level of historiography. After the Second World War a very significant historiography was developed for Nazism and fascism, which – at least during the 1960’s, 70’s and partly in the 80’s—was trying to relate Nazism and fascism to their European roots. On the contrary, the last fifteen years, I ascertain that there is an increasing tension to disconnect Nazism from the course of the western world and modern Europe. Nowadays, for example, Ernst Nolte[1] in many of his texts during at least the last twenty years, supports that Nazism can be exclusively explained as a reaction to Bolshevism, the Russian Revolution, and consequently that it is a phenomenon that was born out of Communism. François Furet, a well-known historian of the French Revolution who before his death published a book with the title The Passing of an Illusion: The Idea of Communism in the Twentieth Century, suggests an interpretation according to which fascism and Nazism on the one side and communism on the other are two parallel phenomena of reaction to the liberal West, that they mutually oppose but also are bound to each other in a relationship of reciprocal help.    

There are other interpretations, such as Goldhagen[2]’s, which has been discussed extensively in France, and who reduces Nazism to a German pathology. It would be, anew, an exclusively German story which would have ended in 1945, since according to Goldhagen after 1945 the   Allies “indoctrinated” the Germans and eradicated and “german microbe”.   Finally, all those explanations, which are very different from one to another, and occasionally contradictory, share at least a position, that of Nazism as a foreign element to the West and Europe. It is therefore a point of view extremely apologetic to the contemporary western liberal status quo, which declares: We got rid of the monsters of totalitarianism since 1945, history is set back on track and since then we live in the best possible world. This is today the dominant interpretation and I regard that from a historiographical perspective it signifies a certain regression. Consequently, I oppose those dominant readings, at least from the point of view of what is called public use of history, meaning those interpretations that know the wider acceptance and are met with the most acknowledgements in the mass media and the press. I am against those in order to point out the deep roots of Nazism in Western history.

(photo: Auschwitz gas chamber)

You refer to the prisons, the factories, the barracks that developed during the entire 19th century and that constitute, according to your opinion, a predecessor of the modern system of concentration camps.

I believe that in order to understand the appearance of the system of concentration camps during the 20th century, generally after World War I, we must study its anatomy, investigate its structures, to be able to explain the emergence of concentration camps in relation to which the elimination camps is just one side, with a new target. To comprehend this system we must perceive the different sides of it that appear much earlier, from the beginning of the 19th century, because the system of concentration camps is simply the amalgam of all these elements. One of these elements is, for example, the modern prison studied by Michel Foucault, as a place of physical exercise and not only as a place of reconciliation and correction. The prison of the industrial revolution is an oppressive mechanism that influences the spirit as well as the body, and constitutes a part of what they would once name -always according to Foucault- a system of bio-political domination. The modern prison as a place that teaches discipline, the social hierarchies, but also as a place of grief, humiliation and defacement appears already in the 19th century. In the idea of prison there is a principle of restriction that also exists inside factories as well as military barracks. It is the establishment of what Max Weber would call modern rationale, in terms of *managment and production at the same time. All these elements reappear after all in the system of concentration camps. Thus I believe that we must investigate how all these elements are born with the industrial revolution, how they develop with industrial capitalism and, after the major historical conflict of World War I, how they pave the way to the system of concentration camps.

(photo: the industrial organization of death camps; airial picture of the Auschwicz-Birkenau concentration-extermination camp)

The idea of the factory also exists, which you also consider as a predecessor of concentration and elimination camps, mostly because of the modern methods of labour and industrial production, otherwise “Taylor-ism” and “Fordism” [3].

Absolutely, because Auschwitz functions as a factory that produces death and corpses, as a camp that reproduces all the typical characteristics of the modern factory with a Taylor-style division of labour, with a scientific management and organization of labour, with a rationalistic separation of the “production process.” Aside from the fact that this factory does not produce goods but corpses, its target is the elimination of a group of people that is considered to be unworthy of living or incompatible with the nazi racial world order. If Auschwitz functions as a factory that produces corpses, this means that nazism incorporated to the conception of its crimes and in its policy some parameters that bare similarities to capitalism. This doesn’t mean that nazism is the unavoidable result capitalism, and that Fordism finds a morbid application in gas chambers or a system of elimination. There’s certainly a difference, given that a factory produces goods that are then pushed to the market in order to pursue profits, while in Auschwitz there’s no profit made. On the contrary, there’s a procedure of killing and elimination that is completely irrational not only from a social and humanistic perspective, but also from financial and military perspective during the war. There exists a gap between the financial rationale of capitalism and the “rationale” of the nazi methods of elimination. That does not nullify the fact that the system of concentration camps incorporated the mechanisms of the factory and the rationale that was born and developed in capitalism. From this perspective, I believe that there’s an organic bond, even if it is neither a cause-effect relation nor identical cases.

With the Eichmann trial and the debates of the last decade in France regarding Vichy and the trial of the Nazi-collaborator Maurice Papon- it is equally important to remember the role of the officials, bureaucrats and performers in the process of extermination [4].

There is a broad literature that has studied this phenomenon long before me. Bureaucracy plays a fundamental role in the Nazi domination and extermination, and the Nazi bureaucracy funcions just like any modern bureaucracy. It reproduces all features of bureaucracy, which according to Max Weber, embodies Western rationalism. Bureaucracy is necessary for the functioning of the system and executes, commands and implements tasks, thanks to the skills and experience that it has acquired. It operates on the principle of non-moral responsibility. A good employee is someone who does his job, who is is trustworthy but he doesn’t wonder about the feasibility of his duty. Hannah Arendt focuses on this point, when she talks about the banality of evil. Therefore, regarding its nature and function, Nazi bureaucracy is a modern, rational, deep western bureaucracy which is essential for the release of Nazi violence.

Moreover, we are aware that some officials of the Nazi power system will be convicted after the war, at Nuremberg for example. But the establishment of such a system of destruction, displacement and extermination requires the contribution of tens or hundreds of thousands of people that were not necessarily aware that they were participating in a criminal activity, and who can anyway be divested of their responsibilities by claiming: “but I just ran a task that in itself had nothing criminal”. For example, they (the head officials of any bureaucratic system) just ask someone who is in charge of railways to allow trains to move, and he is not affected whether the trains carry goods, soldiers or Jews bound to be killed at a camp.

One does not ask himself the particular (moral) question as it has no place in the context of his work and it exceeds his professional ethics. Thus, Nazi bureaucracy is simply the criminal diversion of the functions that characterize modern societies. The aim is not to disconnect Nazism from the path of the West and present it as something completely bizarre and pathological, as does Goldhagen. There is certainly a Nazi pathology and, of course, the Nazi regime is not a normal trajectory of state, but a state of exception.  This exception though has roots that sink deep into the history of the West: it is a system outside normality which, however, requires the normal structures of the modern world.

In the last part of your book you refer specifically to the Nazi anti-Semitism. We face a somewhat paradox, because you explain that, as we have seen, the suffix of the Nazi anti-Semitism, namely the extreme predatory violence, followed an industrial and highly rational process, while the Nazi antisemitism sees Jews as the embodiment of the abstract and impersonal modernity. Could you clarify this as it seems paradoxical or even pretty amazing?

The representation of the Jew as the embodiment of the  rationality that is abstract and calculative belongs to German culture, but in more general terms it also belongs to western culture and to modern anti-Semitism that developed during the transition from the 19th to the 20th century in France (let’s think about the Dreyfus affair) and in Germany. According to European anti-Semitism, the Jew is somehow the embodiment of a hateful, appalling and repulsive modernity. The Jew is the embodiment of the cities of anonymity, mass society, industry and especially of finance capitalism – thus a parasitic economy. The Jew is also at the political level, the embodiment of democracy, because democracy allowed the emancipation of the Jew along with a remarkable social and political rise. In that sense the Jew embodies what the Germans call Zivilisation- a term that does not correspond to the French meaning of the word civilisation, the younger culture in a purely physical sense. Zivilisation destroys civilization. Therefore there is a representation for the Jew, which Nazism inherits, that is quite prevalent in the time’s European culture. The novelty is that the Nazis adopted the above view of the Jew, but pushed the edges of anti-Semitism further, because for the Nazis, the Jew is not only the embodiment of rational modernity, but also the embodiment of the revolution, socialism, communism and the leading group of the USSR. Nazism somehow converts the Jew into a metaphor and invents the new figure of the Jewish intellectual as an expression of an odious modernity, as the leader of the Soviet Union (for example, Trotsky or Lenin made a Jew in the eyes of the Nazis) and as an incarnation of the Revolution. The extermination of the Jews is therefore necessary to implement the plan and worldview of Nazi domination.

We must also add that the extermination of the Jews is also, in the eyes of the Nazis, a regenerative function, a struggle of emancipation, a crusade. The war of extermination was conducted in a spirit of crusade, according to Nazi literature and propaganda, because it allows the regeneration of German capitalism. It is precisely this contradiction that lies at the core of Nazism: the combination between a romantic idealization of the German past, a distaste for industrial society and for cities that remove humans from nature and the forests of Germany, along with a German mythology that is attached to the past, and the cult of modern art, the cult of force that coincides with the steel industry, and so on. Antisemitism thus allows the reconciliation of the romantic rejection of modernity with the worship of the technique. Capitalism can thus become fruitful, positive, and creative on the premise that it gets rid of its brokerage and speculative dimension that is embodied by the Jew. For the Nazis, Europe will be reborn once it gets rid of the calculative spirit of the Jew that is both a revolutionary and a stock trader, a parasitic figure, a capitalist and a Bolshevik. The Nazi antisemitism therefore presents conflicting sides, but integrates this momentum which is translated into a war crusade, or a redemptive struggle – to use religious terms. The result is a policy of extermination, conducted by rational and modern methods to destroy the (by definition Jewish) Modernity and to subjugate Zivilisation to the Nazi worldview. The concept of the “conservative revolution” summarizes well the contradiction just pointed, which is located in the heart of Nazism.

– In relation to the nature of Nazism, there are some minoritarian positions that have grown from a leftist perspective, which enjoy certain popularity. To put in brief, these positions explain that fascism and Nazism is simply a form of capitalism, equating the two systems without seeing any deeper difference between their foundations, their goals, or the means employed by the different systems. As your book demonstrates, the foundation of Nazism is established in the history of the West and liberal Europe. What is the nature of the rift between capitalism and Nazism in your opinion? Is there a fundamental rupture, and if indeed there is, at what level is it placed?

I do not believe that there is a fundamental gap, and I think that this is one of the weakest aspects of theories of totalitarianism. There is a fundamental difference, for example, between Soviet communism on one hand and Nazism and fascism on the other, to the extent that established Communism in power in Russia expropriated the old ruling classes as a result of a social revolution, while fascism and Nazism did not question the power of traditional elites. The fascist Italy like Nazi Germany remained capitalist countries. The great German capitalist enterprises cooperate with Hitler until the end of the Nazi regime, and it is known that there are concentration camps where German companies exploited the labor of the displaced. There is a synergy or rather an organic relationship between capitalism and fascism, but that does not mean that Hitler was merely an agent of German imperialism or subservient to the great German capital, according to a caricaturized perspective or some interpretations that no one defends today. Historiography (and also several Marxists, considering the writings of Trotsky, those of Daniel Guerin in the 1930’s, or some theoretical writings of the Frankfurt School) noted the plebeian roots of fascist movements and their leaders. I mainly think that the Nazi extermination policy is not explained by capitalism and that we cannot try to interpret the Nazi genocide as an aftermath of a politics defending the interests of German big business.

On the other hand, this does not mean that Nazism was a form anticapitalism. There is no cause and effect relationship and the policy of annihilation cannot be explained in accordance to issue related to profit or to the interests of German capitalism. This position, which was previously defended by the official historiography of Eastern Germany, is based on a purely ideological basis. Nazism has a relationship with capitalism, but it is not reducible alone to capitalism, because nazism has its autonomy also. The Nazi worldview has historical roots that are deeply connected to the history of the West, but it does not automatically derive from the mechanisms of capitalism, or the interests of the capitalist class. Capitalism can be adapted to any political regime and any ideology, provided that private property of the means of production, the market system, the movement of capital, profits and so on, will not be significantly challenged. I think that some vulgar Marxist interpretations or some ultra-leftist ones produce a short circuit that completely distorts the historical perspective.


(photos: a Russian concentration camp prisoner recognises his nazi torturer; Spanish antifascists and other prisoners at the Mauthausen concentration camp, salute the Allied forces liberating them in 1945)




[1] German historian and philosopher known for his comparative studies of Fascism and Communism.

[2] Former associate professor of political science in Harvard and author.

[3] Τaylorism: Production efficiency methodology that breaks every action, job, or task into small and simplesegments which can be easily analyzed and taught. Introduced in the early 20th century, Taylorism (1) aims to achieve maximum job fragmentation to minimize skill requirements and job learning time, (2) separates execution of work from work-planning, (3) separates direct labor from indirect labor (4) replaces rule of thumb productivity estimates with precise measurements, (5) introduces time and motion study for optimum job performance, cost accounting, tool and work station design, and (6) makes possible payment-by-result method of wage determination. Named after the US industrial engineer Frederick Winslow Taylor (1856-1915) who in his 1911 book ‘Principles Of Scientific Management’ laid down the fundamental principles of large-scale manufacturing through assembly-linefactories (source:

Fordism: Fordism, named after Henry Ford, is a notion of a modern economic and social system based on an industrialized and standardized form of mass production. It is also related to the idea of mass consumption and changes of working condition of workers over time (source:

[4] The bureocratic organization of mass killing is demostrated by the political philosopher Hannah Arendt, who wrote the book ‘the banality of evil’ while witnessing the trial of Adolf Eichmann, a nazi bureocrat, a so called ‘expert in the Jewish problem’ (sic), who was mainly responsible in organizing the transportation of Jews and other people unwanted by the nazis, from all across occupied Europe, to the death camps. Furthermore, Claude Lanzmann’s documentary ‘Shoah’ that is based on interviews with survivors of the Holocaust, both victims and perpetrators of crimes, offers an interview of a nazi official -a certain Franz Grassler- of the Warsaw Ghetto who, with his oppinions and language use, presents the bureaucratic managment of death and extermination that was coined by the nazis, as well as the ‘career opportunities’ that the nazi occupation and extermination system apparently provided to average, ordinary people like him: (the particular interview of the nazi subject Franz Grassler, is found at 1:26).

Article translated from Greek into English from: