Hitler’s national socialism was an outgrowth of traditional socialism, not a capitalist tool...
A ‘fact-checker’ at Washington Post, Glenn Kessler, asserts that a Republican Member of the House of Representatives is wrong in a recent comment on Hitler’s national socialism. It is not, as she had said, a branch of socialism. Kessler writes that the German Nazi Party, despite its name (the National-Socialist Workers’ Party), ‘was not a socialist party; it was a right-wing, ultranationalist party dedicated to racial purity, territorial expansion and anti-Semitism—and total political control’.
In support of his case, Kessler quotes the first eight of the 25 points in the 1920 Nazi political programme, including the rejection of the Versailles Treaty, the denial of civil rights to Jews and limits on immigration. He lukewarmly concedes that in the Nazi programme there were also passages denouncing capitalism. But why does he not quote them as well? Here are the next seven:
9. All citizens must have equal rights and obligations.
10. The first obligation of every citizen must be to work both spiritually and physically. The activity of individuals is not to counteract the interests of the universality, but must have its result within the framework of the whole for the benefit of all. Consequently we demand:
11. Abolition of unearned (work and labour) incomes. Breaking of rent-slavery.
12. In consideration of the monstrous sacrifice in property and blood that each war demands of the people personal enrichment through a war must be designated as a crime against the people. Therefore we demand the total confiscation of all war profits.
13. We demand the nationalization of all (previous) associated industries (trusts).
14. We demand a division of profits of all heavy industries.
15. We demand an expansion on a large scale of old age welfare.
It is hard not to discern the socialist overtones in these points. What is perhaps most telling, though, is what comes later in the programme. In the last part of Point 24 about the Nazi Party, it says that ‘common utility precedes individual utility’. This is the Nazi slogan Gemeinnutz vor Eigennutz, everywhere to be seen on their posters and minted, after Hitler’s takeover, on the edge of German silver coins and medailles (as the illustration above shows).
Kessler would have done well to read Friedrich von Hayek’s Road to Serfdom where the author cogently argues that Hitler’s national socialism was not a tool of big business, but rather an outgrowth of traditional socialism. Hayek’s argument was based on his observations of political developments in Germany after her unification in 1871. Liberalism had enjoyed significant support in what had become a new empire, not least in the trading towns on the North Sea and the Baltic and in Rhineland. But when Prussia under Otto von Bismarck basically took over Germany, this changed, for various reasons. After a few years, Bismarck abandoned free trade. This reduced competition and encouraged the growth of industrial cartels which, in turn, eroded middle class support for entrepreneurial capitalism. In an attempt to lure workers away from the growing German Socialist Party Bismarck laid the foundations for an extensive welfare state.
Although the German socialists were then mostly in opposition, they gradually became a part of their country’s consortium of Big State, Big Business, and Big Labour, squeezing out competition. The Socialist Leader August Bebel was only being half-ironical when he remarked that ‘the Imperial Chancellor can rest assured that German Social Democracy is a sort of preparatory school for militarism’. Meanwhile, in German universities the ‘Socialists of the Chair’ conducted a campaign against entrepreneurial capitalism which was, they said, un-German. The future was supposed to belong to organisation, central planning, and the special German virtues of obedience and discipline. The rector of the University of Berlin exclaimed that the institution was ‘the intellectual bodyguard of the House of Hohenzollern.’
The Great War of 1914–1918 reinforced trends that already were stronger in Germany than elsewhere. The whole of society was reorganised to serve one purpose, the defeat of the enemy. The conception of the state changed. It became the director of all activities rather than an amiable night watchman. The searchlight replaced the lantern. The humiliating defeat in 1918 was blamed on lack of organisation rather than on adventurous government policies, while hyperinflation after the war impoverished much of the middle class; and then mass unemployment in the wake of the 1929 economic crash eroded still further support for entrepreneurial capitalism. Whereas democratic socialists received support from unionised urban workers and communists from non-unionised workers, according to Hayek national socialism could be considered to be the rebellious socialism of the lower middle class, including peasants, artisans and petty capitalists. Kessler misses the significance of this when he comments that the ‘Nazi party was largely supported by small-business men and conservative industrialists, not the proletariat’. Moreover, as American historian Henry Ashby Turner demonstrated, German Big Business was wary of the Nazis, although quick to appease them when that was deemed necessary.
Traditional socialists, democrats as well as communists, shared with Hitler’s national socialists the belief that conscious organisation had to replace the spontaneous order which had been developing for centuries in the West and which, according to all these groups, had failed. Traditional socialists as well as national socialists tried to gain support by blaming sinister forces for present troubles: the Capitalists and the Jewry, respectively. While traditional socialists wanted to abolish private property rights to the means of production, national socialists intended instead to bridle capitalism and drive it towards their goal. Traditional socialists thought in terms of the working class, which was to seize power, eliminate the bourgeoisie, eradicate remnants of ‘false consciousness’ and march united into the radiant future. Hitler’s Nazis on the other hand thought in terms of the nation to which capitalists belonged alongside workers, but from which Jews and other ‘alien elements’ had to be purged.
Neither national socialists nor traditional socialists formed ordinary political parties, competing for votes in free elections. Their parties were basically training camps for groups preparing to seize power and put an end to parliamentary democracy. The idea of a collective which embraces all activities of the individuals from cradle to grave was first implemented by socialists in Germany and Austria where Hayek had observed them at first hand. It was the socialists (including democratic socialists) who began to collect children into political organisations to make sure they grew up as good proletarians. It was they who thought of organising sports in party clubs where the members would not be infected by other views. It was they who started distinguishing themselves from others by modes of greeting and forms of address. It was they who organised paramilitary groups.
All these activities were then imitated by national socialists: Komsomol was replaced by the Hitlerjugend, clenched fists became straightened hands, Redshirts were challenged by Brownshirts. There were differences, of course: social democratic paramilitary forces were not as aggressive as the communist ones; and Italian fascists did not go as far in many ways as German Nazis. But what all these groups had in common was a rejection of the liberal order where individual ends were to be mutually adjusted, not replaced by the decisions of a party. What all these groups demanded was conformity instead of diversity. This conformity was to be enforced by what we would today indeed call fact-checkers. As the Nazis said in Point 23 of their programme: ‘We demand legal opposition to known lies and their promulgation through the press.’
Thus, Hayek is certainly right that there are strong family resemblances between traditional socialism and national socialism. Both are totalitarian creeds, even if national socialists did not go as far in economic centralisation as traditional socialists, probably because they were not orthodox Marxists. The German Nazis basically reintroduced the German ‘war socialism’ of 1914–1918. They nationalised people, not capital. They tried to transform citizens into conscripts. As they said themselves, in the true socialist spirit, Gemeinnutz vor Eigennutz, common utility precedes private utility.