Something Worse than Slavery?

black soldiers

With the advent of the Black Lives Matter movement, together with the emergence of Critical Race Theory, the spotlight has once again been shone on the heinous institution that was slavery and its aftermath, racial discrimination. Could anything be worse than a system in which a human being becomes the property of another, to do with as the slave owner sees fit?

For good reason, the ownership of one human being by another is now universally prohibited, at least legally, for the inhumane abomination it has always been. Yet, in rejecting slavery it is easy to overlook one aspect that may be identified, for lack of a better word, as its sole positive feature. Namely, it was not in the slave owner’s interest to kill their slaves outright, for only living slaves made it possible for the owner to profit from their labor.

For this reason, at least the most basic needs of slaves for food, housing and medical care had to be provided. True, it was sometimes necessary to terrorize slaves into submission by making an example of a slave who dared to revolt or escape. For rebellious slaves, death was their ultimate fate. Even then, however, the slave owner sought to preserve the lives of as much of his human “property” as possible. Dead slaves produce no wealth.

Once again, could anything be worse than slavery? As counterintuitive as it may seem, I suggest there may be something worse, far worse: military conscription. Why? Because as history, past and present, illustrates, conscripted soldiers are well-known by another name, “cannon fodder”. In wartime Japan, soldiers were referred to as issen-gorin, lit. “one and a half yen”, i.e. the cost to the government of the postcard needed to summon a replacement following their death in battle. Although the price of replacements may vary from nation to nation, there is a universal, if unstated, attitude common among military commanders everywhere, for in order to achieve their assigned military objectives, commanders are prepared to sacrifice the lives of as many of their soldiers as necessary. Whether conscripted or volunteer, soldiers are placed in combat situations where they have no choice but to kill, or be killed, in the course of carrying out the orders of their superiors.

The objection may be raised that whether conscripted or volunteer, soldiers are not sacrificing their lives for the benefit of a slave master but for the wellbeing of their nation. If they die, it is claimed, they do so to protect their country’s national interests. But what, exactly, are “national interests” and who determines their content? In 1935 General Smedley D. Butler, two time Congressional Medal of Honor winner, described his thirty-four years in the Marine Corps as follows:

I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested. Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.

Can fighting for the profits of the National City Bank, Standard Oil, etc. in foreign lands be considered in the interest of all Americans, i.e. in the national interest? Are the profits of these corporations so important that they are worth sacrificing the lives of hundreds, thousands or even tens of thousands of young Americans, let alone the lives of countless foreigners? The reality is that soldiers may, at any time, be required to sacrifice their lives on behalf of corporations whose insatiable appetite for profit is popularly disguised as being in the “national interest”.

Based on his own experience, General Butler came to the following conclusion:

War is a racket. It always has been. It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives. A racket is best described, I believe, as something that is not what it seems to the majority of the people. Only a small ‘inside’ group knows what it is about. It is conducted for the benefit of the very few, at the expense of the very many. Out of war a few people make huge fortunes.

Butler’s words, included in his book War is a Racket, make it clear he was referring to the “huge fortunes” resulting from US participation in WW I, then still known as the “World War”. He wrote, “At least 21,000 new millionaires and billionaires were made in the United States during the World War.” Although by 1935 Butler saw war clouds once again gathering in Europe, he didn’t yet realize this would lead to WW II, beginning with Germany’s invasion of Poland in September 1939. Nor did Butler realize that by WW II the millionaires and billionaires of WW I had figured out how to ensure the major corporations they headed would now be able to reap massive profits from both sides of the conflict.

Profits from both sides

This little known story began even before Hitler and the Nazis initially came to power in January 1933. In the 1920s many American corporations made sizeable investments in Germany. By the early 1930s, the list expanded to include twenty of the America’s largest corporations and banks including Du Pont, Union Carbide, Westinghouse, General Electric, Gilette, Goodrich, Singer, Eastman Kodak, Coca-Cola, IBM, ITT and Union Bank of New York. Union Bank was managed by George W. Bush’s grandfather, Prescott Bush, and closely linked to the financial and industrial empire of German steel magnate Thyssen.

Thyssen Steel was one of the early financial backers of Hitler and the Nazis together with such major German firms as I.G. Farben, A.E.G., DAPAG, etc. Note, however, these latter firms were multinationals that had originally been built up by American loans in the 1920s and early 1930s, complete with American directors and heavy American financial participation. In what proved to be a decisive event, a total of three million Reichmarks (RM) was donated by these and other prominent corporations and bankers to Hitler and the Nazis to use in the March 1933 election, the last genuinely free election held in prewar Germany. The Nazi’s electoral victory led almost immediately to the abrogation of constitutional rights and subsequent seizure of dictatorial power by the Nazis.

But why would the leaders of Germany’s biggest capitalist enterprises have supported an avowed “socialist” like Hitler? After all, “Nazi” was an acronym for the “Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, i.e. National Socialist German Workers’ Party. By the time Nazis came to power, these leaders were well aware that for Hitler “socialism” was no more than a lure to gain the support of Germany’s working class. They also understood that Hitler despised traditional socialism because of its international working-class solidarity, opposition to capitalism, and inspiration it found in the writings of Karl Marx, a Jew. For Hitler, traditional socialism was no more than a Jewish ideology designed to enslave or even destroy the Germans as a race composed of pure “Aryans”. He regarded all forms of Marxism as a Jewish conspiracy, none more so than communism (or “Bolshevism” as he called it). Hence, Hitler was utterly dedicated to war with the Soviet Union, a country he identified as the homeland of Jewish international socialism. Not only did Germany’s corporate leaders and bankers fully support Hitler’s anti-communist crusade, they realized immense profits were to be made in supporting the Nazi war machine.

Unsurprisingly, one of Hitler’s early initiatives after coming to power was to dissolve labor unions and throw German communists, together with genuine socialists, into prison as well as create the first concentration camps to hold them, not Jews, at least initially. This left German workers powerless and leaderless, forbidden from striking for higher wages or even changing jobs. As a result, not only did German corporations reap ever greater profits but American subsidiaries did as well. For example, Ford-Werke, Ford’s German subsidiary, reduced labor costs from fifteen per cent of business volume in 1933 to only eleven per cent in 1938. Additionally, thanks to Hitler’s drive to rearm Germany, the Ford-Werke’s annual profits rose from only 63,000 Reichsmarks in 1935 to 1,287,800 RM by 1939. The Opel factory in Rüsselsheim near Mainz, 100% owned by General Motors, did even better with earnings of 35 million RM (almost US $14 million) in 1938.

One might think that after hostilities broke out these ever growing profits would have ended, at least for the American owners of German subsidiaries. In reality, this caused little more than a hiccup in corporate profit-making. This is because the American corporations’ influence was so great that less than a week after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, i.e. on December 13, 1941, President Roosevelt secretly granted special authorization for American corporations to continue to do business with enemy countries or with neutral countries even though friendly with America’s enemies.

By 1942, of the Wehrmacht’s 350,000 trucks in the field, around 120,000 of them were built by Ford factories in Germany. The General Motors-owned Opel plant in Rüsselsheim produced all-wheel-drive trucks for the Wehrmacht, which proved useful on the mud-soaked Eastern front and in the deserts of North Africa. Even Anglo-American bombing raids were not a problem since American corporate owners successfully arranged to be compensated for damage to their factories. In the war’s aftermath, General Motors received 33 million dollars and ITT 27 million dollars from the American government as indemnification.

The Religious Connection

There is one other important actor that was, so to speak, able to work both sides of the aisle during WW II: organized religion, both Protestant and Catholic. While it is tempting to downplay the importance of religion’s role in modern conflicts, it would be a mistake to do so. In the first place, modern warfare is inevitably accompanied by massive death. For many soldiers and their families, religion gives meaning to death and solace to bereaved family members. Additionally, religion is typically called upon to identify the enemy as evil and one’s own side as good. Religious leaders affirm their country is fighting a “just war”, thereby validating the killing that occurs despite the tenets found in all religions which proscribe killing, at least in normal times.

When the people of an alleged enemy country belong to a different faith, e.g. Islam, it is not difficult to identify their soldiers as evil, while one’s own side is, almost by definition, ‘good’ inasmuch as it adheres to the ‘true faith’, e.g. Christianity. However, things become more difficult when the soldiers and citizens on both sides of a conflict adhere to the same faith. This is what happened in WWI and II, at least in Europe. It then becomes necessary to identify the enemy as adherents of a false or heretical understanding of their common faith. This is exactly what happened in the conflict between the U.S. and Germany in both world wars.

For example, during WW I, the Rev. Courtland Meyers of Boston stated: “If the Kaiser is a Christian, the devil in Hell is a Christian, and I am an atheist.” In Australia the Anglican Synod confidently declared in 1916: “This synod is convinced that the forces of the Allies are being used of God to vindicate the rights of the weak and to maintain the moral order of the world.”

The Roman Catholic Church also approved of WW I, believing it would serve as a mechanism for promoting the submission of all Christians to Rome. Thus the Church effectively suspended the provision in canon law forbidding priests to bear arms or shed blood, allowing for the mobilization of 79,000 priests and nuns, 45,000 of whom came from France alone. Of that number, more than 5,000 were killed in action. Through rivals, both Protestants and Catholics were confident, at least initially, that the war would ensure the maintenance if not enhancement of Western dominance in the world in accord with God’s divine plan (as they understood it).

Whether in the U.S., Germany or Italy, there was a growing fear of the spread of “godless” communism in the 1920s and 30s among both Protestants and Catholics. This fear led to calls for yet another “Christian Crusade,” this time against communism. In Italy, the Roman Catholic Church led the way by signing a treaty with Mussolini on February 11, 1929. Known as the Lateran Pact, Vatican City was granted independent statehood and placed under Church law—rather than Italian law—and the Catholic religion was recognized as Italy’s state religion. In return, Pope Pius XI praised Mussolini, and the official Vatican newspaper proclaimed, “Italy has been given back to God and God to Italy.”

In Germany, the Catholic Church signed a Reichskonkordat treaty with the only recently established Nazi regime on July 20, 1933. On the one hand, the treaty guaranteed the rights, including its properties, of the Catholic Church in Germany. On the other hand, Article 16 of the treaty stated, “[Church] bishops shall take the following oath: “Before God and on the Holy Gospel I swear and promise, as becomes a bishop, loyalty to the German Reich. . .” More ominously, in terms of its impact on the many thousands of students in its parochial schools, Article 21 stated: “[In] Catholic religious instruction in primary, vocational, secondary and higher schools . . . .the patriotic, civic and social consciousness and sense of duty will be particularly stressed and cultivated.” Articles like these lent moral legitimacy to the Nazi regime just after Hitler had successfully created his single-party dictatorship in Germany.

With the establishment of fascist regimes in Italy and Germany, a number of U.S. church leaders also regarded fascism as the best hope of fighting the communist menace abroad and preserving “law and order” at home, especially given the ongoing social unrest caused by the Great Depression. Thus, at least initially, Mussolini and Hitler, as well as Spain’s Franco, were viewed as the new champions of Christian civilization. On the Protestant side, the Reverend Gerald B. Winrod and his “Defenders of the Christian Faith” were active across the “Bible belt” in the American Midwest.

Claiming to speak on the basis of divine inspiration, Winrod stated that “the Hitler revolution has saved Germany and perhaps all Europe from an invasion of Jewish communism directed from Moscow.” Further, in 1935, in his paper, the Defender, Winrod compared Hitler with Martin Luther and said, “Germany stands alone. Of all the countries of Europe, Germany is the only one that has had the courage to defy Jewish Masonic Occultism, Jewish communism and the international Jewish money power.”

For its part, the Roman Catholic Church in the U.S. promoted its “Radio Priest,” the fanatical English-hating, Irish-American Jesuit priest, Father Charles E. Coughlin of New York. With an estimated audience of up to fifteen million listeners, Coughlin railed against President Roosevelt’s New Deal and created an organization known as the “Christian Front”. It sought to unite Christians in the fight against communism and the alleged money power of the Jews. On July 7, 1941, only months before the U.S. entered WW II, Coughlin claimed, “Germany’s war is a battle for Christianity.”

U.S. church leaders like these were, of course, doing nothing more than aping the rhetoric of the Italian and Nazi fascists, including their virulent anti-Semitism. Although among his intimates, Hitler denounced Christianity as a religion for weaklings, he was careful to remain in good standing with the Catholic Church of his childhood until the day he committed suicide, influenced no doubt by the fact that 44% of his troops were Catholics. Further, Hitler made provisions for both Catholic and Protestant chaplains within the German army, and all German soldiers were issued belt buckles inscribed with the words “God with us” (G. Gott mit uns).

These belt buckles were a potent symbol, for at the time of the German invasion of Russia in 1941, Roman Catholic Military Bishop Franz Joseph Rarkowski assured the invading troops that they were engaged in a great “European crusade” to free the world from the specter of godless communism. “The Germany of today has again become Europe’s savior and champion,” he proclaimed.

During the Russian offensive, the Catholic Church’s office for military affairs provided a series of sermon outlines to its approximately 10,000 military chaplains for use in unit worship services. The sermon outline for the 1942 Christmas season contained the following passage:

God gave the German people a noble mission in this war – reordering Europe.  This reconstruction should be done in the name of Christ. Communism means a Europe without God, and without and against Christ. The front of young nations led by Germany wants a Europe with God, with Christ. . . . So we celebrate the birth of Christ very purposely. Christianity is after all not just a workshop for the highest spiritual culture but also a construction site for national greatness and power.

Needless to say, anti-Semitism was a central feature of the Nazi struggle against communism. In Mein Kampf Hitler explained the connection as follows: “If the Jew with his Marxist catechism triumphs over the peoples of the world, his crown will be the dance of death for mankind, and as once before, millions of years ago, this planet will again sail empty of all human life through the ether. . . . I believe that I am today acting according to the purpose of the Almighty Creator. In resisting the Jew, I am fighting the Lord’s battle.

In the Middle Ages, Western Crusaders, at the behest of the Catholic Church, had gone into battle to wrest control of the Holy Land from the hands of Muslim infidels. As Hitler saw it, it was the Nazis’ duty to save Europe from Russia’s godless communists who were part of an insidious Jewish conspiracy to take over the world. Like their Crusader forebears, the Nazis enjoyed the Church’s support in this effort, one that ultimately took the lives of approximately 20 million Russians, 6 million Jews and millions of other Europeans and Americans. Of course, in eliminating the Jews, Hitler claimed to be “fighting the Lord’s battle.”

Although disputed, it was reported that in 2018 former President Trump referred to the American war dead at the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery in France as “losers” and “suckers.” Whether or not Trump actually used these exact words, it is difficult to deny that those hundreds of thousands of young American and German soldiers who literally tore each other apart during both world wars, believing God was on their side, were indeed “suckers”, having sacrificed their lives while corporations and religious hierarchies, in collusion with their own and enemy governments, pursued a policy of profits and ecclesiastical aggrandizements above all else.

Is there something worse than slavery? Yes, it is forcing young men (and now possibly young women) to kill and be killed on behalf of corporate greed, all the while enjoying the war-affirming support of religious hierarchies. In 1973, in the wake of the Vietnam War, the U.S. abandoned conscription and reverted to an all-volunteer military. However, in 1980, the Selective Service System was reinstated, ever ready to once again force young men, and possibly women, onto the battlefield should the nation’s political leaders deem it necessary. Necessary, that is, to protect, if not expand, the country’s “national (read: corporate) interests”.

Echoing General Butler, but predating him by nearly thirty years, in 1906 the French political activist Gustave Hervé wrote: “All wars are crimes because they are always fought only for the benefit of the profiteers and the speculators. I say to you, don’t become sacrificial lambs! Stop turning yourselves into miserable slaves!”

I find it difficult to disagree.

Brian Victoria, Ph.D., Senior Research Fellow, Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies


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