Should Oppressed People Join the Police to "Make Things Better"? It's Been Tried Before, So Let's See How It Worked
by Alan Goodman | August 1, 2016 | Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us
In the face of an epidemic of police murder of African-American people, Latinos, and Native Americans in the United States today, people ranging from the Clintons to some activists argue that the way to mitigate or even end this is for Black people to join the police forces.
This has been tried before. Shortly after Hitler and the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933, they set up the Judenrat. These were Jewish councils run by "community leaders" who collaborated with and served the Nazis. They supervised the Jewish Ghetto Police. The Judenrat and Jewish Ghetto Police played a central role in sending six million Jews to death camps.
It is instructive to break down how that actually happened, and draw lessons for today.
The Judenrat and Jewish Ghetto Police in Hitler's Germany
Jews being loaded onto trains in Poland, destined for the Treblinka death camp.
The genocide of the Jews didn't come out of nowhere. For hundreds of years, anti-Semitism—ignorant hatred of Jews—served as an essential tool of ruling exploiters in Europe. This was particularly vicious in Eastern Europe, where the desperation and anger of the masses was periodically and systematically channeled into "pogroms"—bloody racist riots against Jews.
Hitler took anti-Semitism to an extreme and ultimately genocidal level. But that didn't happen all at once. In the first years of the Hitler regime, Jews were demonized in the media as subhuman. They were blamed for crime and disorder. Laws were passed requiring Jews to wear yellow six-pointed stars. They were banned from many professions. They were forced to work for literally starvation wages in sweatshops, often making uniforms and blankets for Nazi troops. Their communities, deprived of basic resources needed to keep people alive and healthy, were declared "unsafe" and off limits to the rest of society.
Conditions for Jews got worse in horrific ways after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union was essentially defeated—at the cost of tens of millions of lives—in 1943. The Jewish ghettos became departure points for trains that carried millions of Jews to camps where they were worked, and starved, to death. (For a developed exploration of the factors behind the Holocaust, see "Revolution Responds to Question on Nature of Holocaust," at revcom.us.)
There were Jewish people who resisted the Judenrat. But there were also forces in the Jewish community who insisted these councils were a good thing. Based mainly among, and reflecting the position of more privileged Jews, defenders of the Judenrat argued that having "people from the community" administer and police the ghettos would work to reduce the violent terror visited on the Jewish population. They even openly argued that collaborating with the Nazis in shipping unemployable people, people on welfare, and troublemakers to the death camps would spare everyone else that fate.
In the book Why Did the Heavens Not Darken? The "Final Solution" in History, Arno J. Mayer notes that when it came to sorting out whom to send to the death camps, "Rather than make the cruel selections themselves, the SS [Hitler's police] fiendishly and confidently left it to the local Judenrat to fill their prescribed quotas."
"Community-Controlled" and "Community-Based" Genocidal Police
It's important to note that at the same time that they kicked down doors and dragged people out of their homes and sent them to death camps, the Jewish Ghetto Police took on the "normal" police functions in the ghettos. They directed traffic, enforced sanitation rules, and arrested people who committed common crimes. They even took up food and clothing drives for starving and freezing people in the ghettos. They lived in and were part of the community they "served." And they were formally accountable to the Judenrat. In the parlance of today, they were "accountable to elected officials," "community based," and "community controlled." And according to at least one historian, some "did indeed believe that joining the ranks of the Jewish police gave them an opportunity to serve the community."
But whatever the motivations of any individual Jewish police, to whatever degree their duties included what were perceived as legitimate police functions, and however much they were "community based," they operated under, and within the framework of the German capitalist-imperialist ruling class which, in that era, took the form of Hitler and the Nazis. And their essential role was enforcing the enslavement of Jews and shipping them off to death camps.
One of the top Jewish police commanders in Poland, Józef Szeryński, was born Jewish but adopted Nazi anti-Semitic ideology. The Nazis insisted on treating him as a Jew, but took advantage of his rabid anti-Semitism and prevailed upon the Judenrat to put him in charge of the Jewish police in Warsaw. Under Szeryński's command, the Jewish Ghetto Police carried out beatings and raids, and participated in searches and arrests of those who resisted. In waves, they rounded up 250,000 Jews—men, women, children, and infants—packed them into trains, and sent them to the Treblinka death camp.
In the end, after all the other Jews had been killed off, and they had served their purpose, the Judenrat officials and the Jewish Ghetto Police themselves were rounded up by the Nazis and sent to the gas chambers. But only after they had played an indispensable role in carrying out genocide.
Lessons for Today
Is it a stretch to learn from this experience today, and apply it to the situation in the United States? Parallels to the period leading up to the Nazi genocide are not exact—parallels never are. History doesn't repeat itself. But the experience of the Jewish Ghetto Police has profound significance right now in the United States at a time when there is an ongoing slow genocide—concentrated in mass incarceration and police terror—that could become fast genocide against Black and sections of Latino people. (See "There Is a Genocide Going On in AmeriKKKa—And It Must Be Stopped!" at revcom.us.)
In Hitler's Europe, genocide was not prevented, or mitigated by the incorporation of the Judenrat and the Jewish Ghetto Police into the machinery of the Nazi regime. Instead, these Jewish police greased the skids for the Holocaust by putting a "Jewish face" on the machinery of death, and by utilizing their ties, knowledge of, and influence in the ghettos to justify and enforce the genocidal Nazi agenda.
Sources and background reading:
"Revolution Responds to Question on Nature of Holocaust" (revcom.us)
Why Did the Heavens Not Darken? The "Final Solution" in History, by Arno Mayer
"The Jewish Order Police: Holocaust Ghettos," a project of the Holocaust Education & Archive Research Team
If you like this article, subscribe, donate to and sustain Revolution newspaper.