It’s January. And you know what that means.
It’s time for people to start arguing on social media about whether Nazis are or are not “socialists”.
Of course, nobody, left or right, wants to claim the Nazis. It’s pretty understandable.
To the left – and, probably, anyone who learned the subject from a textbook in the past 60 years or so, “Nazi” is “right wing” is “the opposite of socialism/communisml”, and because “they fought a war with each other, they MUST be opposites!”
And to the right, the name “National Socialist German Workers Party” includes the “S” word, and das ist alles sie schreibt.
They’re both wrong.
People on the left trying to disown the Nazis usually go for three points:
- “Naziism is on the right! Communism and Socialism are on the left!”
- “Nazis and Communists fought a war/put each other in camps/killed each other”.
- “The Nazis didn’t nationalize their whole economy”.
Let’s go through each of ‘em.
Left “Vs”. Right – Karl Marx predicted that eventually, a worldwide revolution of the world’s proletariat – the industrial working class – would render all borders irrelevant. Since then, Socialism has always been “Internationalist”. Socialism’s major pillars are a command economy (run by central planners), a comprehensive welfare state, and “Internationalism”.
In 1920, the chairman of the Italian Socialist Party had a revelation. Socialism was doing so-so in Italy; the country wasn’t “proletarian”, it was agrarian and poor and, being Catholic, pretty socially conservative. It was also a very new nation – 56 years – and pretty proud of it. So while a comprehensive welfare state was a pretty easy sell, “Internationalism” was not.
That chairman saw an opportunity; combine the social welfare state of socialism with frank nationalism.
It was heresy to Big-“S” socialists – but the chairman was more interested in winning power than popularity contests among university faculty. So the chairman of the *Socialist* party, a youngish man named Benito Mussolini, broke from the Socialists and created a party that on the one hand led with nationalism – “A but also practiced a command economy, and provided as generous a welfare state as the relatively poor country could afford. They were called the Fascisti, or “Fascist Party”.
The German “National Socialist German Workers Party” started in the waning days of World War 1 – and unlike a lot of political parties, the name actually means pretty much what it says. It was nationalist, *and*…well, promoted a command economy and a comprehensive welfare state. And they delivered it; We’ll come back to the command economy below – it wasn’t a whole lot less centrally-planned than that of the USSR. And the German welfare system – the “Reichswohlfahrtbeamt” – would make a Bernie Bro’s leg tingle, at least in terms of benefits. Its “social engineering” goals were ambitious (and pretty problematic for non-Aryans). It was more successful than the welfare states in Italy and the USSR – Germany was a much wealthier, more-developed nation.
Now, if there’s a term out there for a system with a command economy and a comprehensive welfare state other than “socialist”, I’m not aware of it. I usually run with “socialism” with a small “s”, but if there’s another one, I’m all ears.
Anyway – given that *ideologically* the two “different” movements shared the two pillars that actually meant something to people outside the political class, control of the economy and the welfare state, isn’t something to simply bluster past.
Of course, there’s more to it – and we’ll get that waaaay down below, when we talk about the part the Right gets wrong.
“Enemies” – The next reason the left gives is that Nazis and Socialists fought brutal street battles, and eventually a World War, with each other. If they fought, they *must* be opposites. Right?
Sure. In exactly the same way as the Gambinos are the “opposite”, intellectually and morally and philosophically, of the Luccheses, or the Bloods are the “opposites” of the Crips.
As one “academic” (with little background in this subject, which never seems to stop anyone) put it, “Nazis put Socialists in camps”. True. They also put Nazis in camps. The victims of the Nazis’ first round of mass killings were…
…other Nazis, where the Hitler faction killed off members of another faction within the party that Hitler saw, like dictators do, as potential rivals. Google “Night of the Long Knives” for details; it reads a lot like the part at the end of The Godfather were Michael Corleone rubs out the heads of the other four New York famlies.
By the “academic’s” logic, Nazis weren’t Nazis.
This episode will come back when we get to the part where the Right gets it wrong, too.
Looking at politics in subtle intellectual and political shades is a luxury afforded people whose political systems aren’t fundamentally based a choice between getting and keeping power, and a bullet in the head.
“There were Nazi Capitalists” – when the Nazis took over, two of their primary goals were to re-arm Germany, and to build their way out of the Great Depression. Hitler was many things, but he wasn’t stupid; he’d observed the thrashing around that’d happened in the USSR when Lenin forcibly nationalized all industry (and everything else). The contortions – including the death, exile or imprisonment of much of the USSR’s relatively small technical and administrative class, which wasn’t especially big to begin with in 1920 – set back the industrialization of the USSR, and the recovery of its economy from post-Revolution levels, for well over a decade. And the economy that developed was groaningly inefficient, and stayed that way.
Hitler and the Nazis, learning from Lenin’s mistakes, figured that leaving the businesses and their management relatively alone would be the best way to get his short and mid-term goals accomplished. But they also forced those businesses to operate within the strict guidance of the party’s central planners. There was a carrot – they got to keep their businesses and wealth. There was also a stick – some prominent industrialists got quiet threats from local SS offices that some subtle Jewish ancestry might pop up if cooperation wasn’t fast and cheerful.
It was sort of like the tiki bar scene in “Goodfellas”.
Academics on the subject differ on whether, and for how long, the Nazis were going to continue to allow industry to operate independently. There’s evidence that had Germany won or drawn the war, that would have changed, as the party switched to a “Utopia” phase and the industrialists retired by fair means or foul. Germany lost, so it’s all academic speculation – but there is precisely zero evidence that the Nazis intended to make the market *more* rather than *less* free.
So – the two ideologies share most of their major components. Not just intellectual ones like command economies and welfare states, but also a penchant for “retiring” opposition forcefully. The means differed, the ends were pretty much the same. And the notion that they are “the opposite” is largely the function of western academics, many of whom started out as fanboys of *both* Stalin and Hitler, and put in a lot of overtime after the Spanish Civil War, and especially World War II (although some took a detour back during the Molotov/Von Ribbentrop pact) to erase that history.
So what does the American Right get wrong about the history?
Naziism’s roots, like those of the Italian Fascist party, were simultaneously Nationalist and, with the small “s”, socialist; they believed in Germany/Italy, and in state control of industry.
But Adolf Hitler – who was the party’s elected, political leader by the mid-twenties, and its parliamentary leader before the end of the decade, before seizing all power in a legal coup in 1933 – didn’t much care about philosophy, or politics. He wasn’t especially ideological at all. He believed in getting and holding power.
In fact, Hitler had contempt for politics, for ideology, and for most *belief* – which is what makes me chuckle during the occasional, endless debates over the premise that “Hitler was a Christian” (or “Hitler was an Atheist”, for that matter). He loathed all faith, including atheism, the organized *rejection* of faith. He loathed politicians of all stripes, whether moderate or extreme.
But he had no problem co-opting any or all of those things to get and hold power. The Nazis co-opted German “Volk” mythology to win the Nationalist vote (Germany, like Italy, was also a young, proud nation); they also co-opted parts of the German state churches (read Daniel Goldhagen’s “Hitler’s Willing Executioners” for more); shamefully, they went along at an institutional level (and Lutheran and Catholic clergy who didn’t play ball were among the first residents of Buchenwald). He had contempt for the Prussian officer class that ran the military – but he co-opted them, as well.
He loathed, in fact, politics – which was his big electoral “sell”, in the late twenties and early thirties, when he still had to worry about votes. The German people, after war, civil war, depression, and more near-civil-war, were tired of politics too.
Folklore, faith, institutions, fatigue – all were means to an end.
Likewise, to Hitler and the circle that controlled the party by the mid-thirties, the power of the state was both stick (the secret police, the economic planning machinery) and carrot (the welfare state), both used to help gain and hold power. It wasn’t a commitment to “socialism”; it was using “socialism” as a tool toward their ends.
So HItler, and the party he led, weren’t “Socialists” – they were totalitarians for whom socialism was one of many tools that helped them meet their ends. Calling Hitler, and the Nazis as a whole after about 1937, “socialists” is a little like calling Prince a “guitar player”. Yes, Prince played guitar – but calling him a guitar player is a big oversimplification.
So the left is *more* wrong about things, but both sides need to do some serious reading. All the “conventional wisdom” is either wrong, or way oversimplified.
Like most popular history.
Hope that’s settled things.