Were the Nazis “Socialists?”

Before I try to answer the question, let me get one argument out of the way that is quite common, but in my view silly. It is: The Nazis called themselves “National Socialists,” so clearly they were Socialists. While I think there is a point here in a certain sense, it is not as easy as it seems. Political movements often appropriate labels that are popular at the time, and certainly “Socialism” had a positive ring to it when the party was founded and afterwards. But at best, this is a clue, not a proof. Vladimir Zhironovsky heads the “Liberal-Democratic Party of Russia,” which is neither liberal nor democratic in any reasonable sense, and arguably not even a party, but a personality cult centered on Zhirinovsky and a puppet “opposition” within the Putinist system.

What is even sillier is when people explain to you that the word “Nazi” comes from “NAtionalsoZIalist.” If you know German that makes you cringe. The word “national” is pronounced “natsional,” so “Nazi” is just the first two syllables. There is also the parallel word “Sozi” (pronounced: Zotsee) in German for a Social Democrat, which is probably older. It is meant in a humorous or mocking way, and I would guess that was also the original usage for “Nazi.” Maybe there is also a connection with the word “Bazi” (pronounced: Batsee) in Bavarian or Austrian German, which denotes a sly fellow. This is not even an abbreviation of anything. The Nazis, however, would have insisted on calling themselves “National Socialists.” It is funny how American cosplay Nazis don’t get this point.

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People who try to make an argument that the Nazis were Socialists mostly assume that the word “Socialism” is self-explaining. But it is not. There are different possible meanings that are quite distinct. In one way, the claim might make sense, in another not. What’s worse: Some such arguments use a very loose definition of the word “Socialism” to establish the equivalence, eg. that the Nazis in power were into some sort of central planning, and then go on to draw a conclusion for a much narrower definition, eg. that they were also “Socialists” as part of an intellectual tradition on the Left.

I can fully understand that those on the Left are annoyed by the equivalence who have a specific conception of “Socialism” and embrace it. The claim often seems to imply that they are culpable for what the Nazis did. But then the Social Democrats were the only party that voted against Hitler’s “Ermächtigungsgesetz” (Enabling Act) in 1933 (the Communist deputies had been arrested). Despite intimidation by the SA and SS, the leader of the party, Otto Wels, stood firm and rejected the usurpation with the words: “You can take liberty and life from us, not our honor.” He and many other Social Democrats had to go into exile afterwards. Many more were sent to concentration camps and even killed. It is disingenous or rather: it is malevolent to insinuate that they were responsible for it themselves.

There is a whole cottage industry that lays the blame for the Third Reich at the feet of the Left. I find it transparent that the purpose is to sanitize the extreme Right and dissociate it from the opprobium that the Nazis deserve. In a way, I can understand the motivation although it is still disingenous. Not all political ideologies on the extreme Right are National Socialist. But that does not do away with the ideological proximity. Historically, the Nazis were clearly on the Right. That does not preclude that they also integrated elements from the Left and were viewed as some kind of a hybrid also by many of their contemporaries. The party had a “proletarian,” anti-elitist, revolutionary, and also “egalitarian” aura. “Egalitarian” here only in the sense of: for the in-group, highly inegalitarian in many other ways.

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I think there are two aspects to the question about whether the Nazis were Socialists: theory and practice. I will start with the first.

To understand what people meant by the term “Socialism” it is necessary to go back to the 19th century when it was not only a moniker for a specific political direction although it could be that, too. The word had a rather narrow meaning, namely, as an economic system where the state directs the economy, not necessarily down to the minutiae, but the broad outcomes. This contrasts with a classical liberal vision that the state only sets the rules and does not try to achieve outcomes, apart perhaps from some narrow exceptions. The word “Communism” also had a rather specific meaning at the time: common property as opposed to private property. Basically, this is a different concept, and it is conceivable that you could have “Communism” without “Socialism” in this narrow sense, and vice versa.

Take on the one hand, the Hutterites, a branch of the Anabaptists. They practice common property within their communities, but have no goal of instituting a state-directed economy. They don’t have a problem with operating in a market economy, just not at the level of their communities. So in this sense, it is “Communism” without “Socialism.”

On the other hand, a feudal system or also mercantilist absolutism can have wide-ranging control over the economy from above, ie. “Socialism” in the narrow sense, without any common property in a meaningful way. Private property rights are heavily curtailed for most people. They are, however, only transferred to certain privileged classes, the state, or both. But that makes them essentially state or class property, which could be the private property of a monarch or of aristocrats, not common property that anyone can use.

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Many classical liberals criticized the party Socialists for advocating an economic system that was similar to feudalism or absolutism. Eugen Richter, the founder of the original “Freisinnige Zeitung,” made this point in 1878 in a Reichstag [national parliament] debate where he spoke out against the “Socialist Law” that was to effectively outlaw the Social Democrats:

Gentlemen, representative Jörg [of the Catholic Center party] has called the Socialist movement a shadow that accompanies modern cultural life. I reject this. Gentlemen, it is the shadow of the police state in demise that has brought people up in the delusion that only the state and the force of the state matters when it comes to producing the greatest happiness in the world. That’s why the opinion has arisen in the heads of those people that it is only about taking over the helm of the state, appointing their people to the leadership of the state, and this dreamed-of happiness would be achieved immediately which is now allegedly withheld out of ill will by those who direct the state.

The word “police state” (Polizeistaat) here has to be understood in an older sense as a state that rules by “Polizeien,” the same word as English “policies,” ie. regulations, and not in the 20th century understanding of a state that rules via a police apparatus although regulations would, of course, also be enforced by the police in a literal sense. Indians would perhaps call this the “licence Raj.”

As noted, Eugen Richter speaks against outlawing the Socialists here. He and his party, the German Progress Party (Deutsche Fortschrittspartei), were in the opposition, and he only defends the government against the assumption that it could work miracles, not because he is content with Bismarck’s policies in particular. Quite the opposite.

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In the terminology of the time, Eugen Richter would have been called a “Democrat.” That is in the sense of the word as it was used during the Revolution of 1848. The Social Democrats viewed themselves also as Democrats. Nowadays the word is written in one word: “Sozialdemokraten” as if it were one concept. But early on, they were hyphenated Democrats as “Sozial-Demokraten.”

And that makes sense. In many ways they were also Democrats like Richter and the Progress Party. They would support civil liberties, elections and a parliament, the separation of state and church, the abolition of the last privileges of the aristocracy, and so forth. Together with the South German Democrats of the “Deutsche Volkspartei” (same name, but unrelated to the party in Weimar Germany), the Progress Party and the Social Democrats made up the Left.

The dividing line, though, were the conclusions the different parties drew from their Democratic principles for the economic system. The Progress Party were classical liberals, the Social Democrats advocated a state-run economy along Lassallean or Marxist lines, where the latter views gained the upper hand from the 1870s on. The South German Democrats stood between the two parties and were more like modern reformist Social Democrats: basically okay with a market economy, but also open to some social reforms and some redistribution.

The Progress party, especially its left wing, was not completely opposed to that either, but with the experience of the Prussian “Polizeistaat” of the 1850s in mind, suspicious about entrusting the government with power over the economy. They viewed “social self-help” instead as the way forward. So they supported the “Gewerkvereine” (trade unions) and the cooperatives movement, especially the “Volksbanken” (people’s banks, the forerunners of credit unions). At the time, the Social Democrats had their own trade unions (“Gewerkschaften”), but were hostile towards the cooperatives movement that was started by a classical liberal, Hermann Schulze-Delitzsch. In their view, it was a distraction from the class struggle. Only later, from the 1890s on, did they begin to support it as well.

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To understand the split in the Democratic movement after 1848, you have to see the two sides of the argument. During the Revolution of 1848, I would say that most Democrats had very unclear ideas about economic issues. That had different reasons, but a major one was that German intellectual life was geared towards philosphy, some political science, and jurisprudence. Economics was hardly on the radar for most, however. So what you see are rather good arguments about civil liberties, the organization of a state, or the rule of law. However, on economic issues, ideas run the whole gamut from freetraders to Communists.

The foundational experience for the Progressives came during the “Reaktionszeit” (time of Reaction) after the Revolution of 1848 had been suppressed and until 1858. The Prussian state used all levers to keep the opposition down, and among them also its power over the economy. An obvious route here was the harrassment and even outright prohibition of the oppositional press. Co-operatives were treated as borderline illegal. But it could also be much pettier. Innkeepers might, for example, be told by officials that if they wanted to keep their licenses, it was not a good idea to subscribe to oppositional newspapers for their guests, only to newspapers that supported the government.

Eugen Richter recounts scenes from his campaign for the first Reichstag elections in 1867 in his “Jugend-Erinnerungen” (Memoir of my Youth, which means: until 30 years of age!) long after the “Reaktionszeit” in a strict sense, but with the mentality still visible. He tries to find a place for a rally on the countryside, but noone dares to rent one to him. He still manages to get one in a village, but the people tell him that they have been intimidated by the municipal forester that if they vote for a liberal candidate, they will no longer obtain wood.

The conclusion from all this for the Progressives was: Don’t entrust the economy to the government, instead keep it as an independent source of power for society as a counterweight. That made them receptive for economic theories that came from Great Britain: free trade, economic liberalization, a restricted role of the government in the economy, mostly only to set rules, not outcomes.

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Other Democrats had a different analysis that made them receptive for Socialist theories. They viewed the richer parts of society, the “bourgeoisie,” as in collusion with the government. Although the “bourgeois” would perhaps support limited reforms rhetorically, when push came to shove, they would side with the government and sell out. That is not an unreasonable idea if you know how the Reactionaries were able to defeat the Revolution of 1848 with an astute divide-and-conquer strategy.

The conclusion from this was that the goals of the Democrats were as threatened by the reactionaries as by the “bourgeoisie” that in the final analysis would prefer protection of their wealth over reform and popular government. And that then led rather naturally to a critique of a capitalist economic system. In principle, this could also stop short of full-blown Socialism in the sense of a planned economy. However, those who argued for that also had another attractive argument for Democrats, namely that the “proletarians” would be the force to achieve the Democratic goals while the “bourgeoisie” would be a gamble or even a non-starter.

It is notable that almost all major leaders of the Social Democrats were first Democrats in a broad sense. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels made the move to Socialism already before 1848, Ferdinand Lassalle in the early 1860s. August Bebel and Wilhelm Liebknecht also started out as Democrats, and many others, too. While progressives like Hermann Schulze-Delitzsch or Eugen Richter insisted that Socialism was at loggerheads with the Democratic ideals, the Social Democrats came to the conclusion that only through Socialism the Democratic goals could be achieved and then preserved. There was a “pipeline to the extreme Left” here that many Democrats went through.

Despite the Socialist program, when you read speeches by Wilhelm Liebknecht or August Bebel on topics unrelated to the economic system, they come across as consistent Democrats. Some major figures in the party like Georg von Vollmar or Ignaz Auer never really got on board with the Marxist program. What is also interesting: Despite its self-image as a party of the workers, a large part of the voters for the Social Democrats were not workers. And neither were all workers Social Democrats who could not make headway in Catholic regions against the “Zentrum” (Center Party, the party of the often beleagured Catholics).

Most of the supporters of the Social Democrats were probably Democrats first who only thought that the Socialist part of the program would be the road to achieve their goals. Fewer were attracted to the party because of its Socialism and in spite of its Democratic goals. Election programs pronounced the Democratic, not the Socialist elements of the ideology.

And that’s also what you had within the party: On the one hand, people who were primarily Democrats, and then only Socialists for instrumental reasons, and on the other hand those who were primarily into Socialism, and were comparably litlle interested in the Democratic ideals. August Bebel, himself ambivalent, managed to paper over this split until his death in 1913. Still, there were recurrent internal clashes along these lines after the party became again legal in 1890 when the “Socialist Law” lapsed. The first came when Georg von Vollmar called on the party to form a common front with the other “bourgeois” parties on the Left. And later in the decade, a similar debate broke out over Eduard Bernstein’s “Revisionism.”

As long as the Social Democrats were in the opposition in Imperial Germany and safely away from power, the faultline remained latent, though. Already, during the First World War this started to change when the Social Democrats aligned with the other parties in a Democratic tradition, together the majority in the Reichstag: the Progressives (different by then from the Progressives earlier on) and the Center Party that had a strong Democratic wing, but also others all over the political spectrum from Left to Right.

After the First World War, the internal division in the Social Democratic party came into the open, with the Majority Social Democrats in support of a liberal democracy, while the minority evolved into Communists. On an ideological level, the Social Democrats began to shed their Socialist goals and slowly reverted to their Democratic roots, a process that was complete after the Second World War. In the Weimar Republic, they would perhaps support trade unions and co-operatives, advocate more welfare programs or some interference in the economy. But that was actually not that far away from what many Democrats would also have found acceptable whom the Social Democrats had fought in the 19th century.

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However, that is only one part of the story: the development on the Left. “Socialism” in the narrow above sense of a state-run economy also became attractive for political directions on the Right. The idea of the Socialists on the Left was that there was a unity between Socialism and Democracy. The people should rule and that would also extend to the economy. But then a state-run economy does not have to imply a democracy. As in the remark from Eugen Richter, it can also be a program for those who want to restore a feudal order and an absolutist monarchy. Progressives coined the fitting term for this type of ideology around 1880: “Social Aristocracy” as opposed to “Social Democracy.”

The roots of this line of thought are old. Some of the people who became interested in Socialism in the middle of the 19th century came from the Right. A notable example here would be Lorenz von Stein who exterted an influence on Karl Marx in his early phase. Friedrich Engels was initially blown away by Thomas Carlyle’s writings. But the thrust with these writers was different: Their critique of the capitalist system came from their understanding that it undermines an old order. Proletarians were viewed as the sorry victims of capitalism that had to be saved by offering them a safe place in a structured order.

You also had a similar take from what would later be called the “Kathedersozialisten” (Socialists of the Chair), an amorphous group of thinkers who challenged classical economics on various points. It is often hard to tell whether they are on the Left or on the Right, but mostly they aligned with the latter. For example, Adolph Wagner ran for a Reichstag seat in Berlin in 1881 as part of the “Berliner Bewegung” (Berlin movement), an alliance of anti-Semites and Conservatives. While these thinkers saw value in a Socialist, ie. state directed, economy, they opposed the Democratic goals that the Social Democrats tied to it. One example here is Albert Schäffle’s critique in “Die Quintessenz des Sozialismus” (The Quintessence of Socialism), published in 1874.

After a severe economic crisis began in 1873, Bismarck saw an opportunity to put pressure on the Liberals, before all the National Liberals (see my series of posts on this part of the story here). The critique of the “Socialists of the Chair” came in handy for him, and so Bismarck now increasingly embraced an anti-capitalist rhetoric while he had advocated liberal policies before. In 1881, during the campaign for the Reichstag elections, there was an article published in the official Prussian “Provinzial-Correspondenz” with the title “Prince Bismarck A Socialist.” The gist of it was that Bismarck was indeed a Socialist in the best sense, just not a Social Democrat.

What this was supposed to mean was that Bismarck had now adopted an economic program that had as its goal that the state should run major parts of the economy, not necessarily all of it, but enough of it to enforce certain outcomes. Unlike the Social Democrats, this was not a promise to realize the Democratic ideals. Instead it was meant to protect “throne and altar.” Bismarck let it also be known that there were times where it was right to rule in a liberal way, but others where it was also appropriate to rule by dictatorial means. As in a feudal order, the ideal economic system was understood by Bismarck as a paternalistic state that should protect the “little man” that he suddenly claimed to be concerned about and who had been ripped off by the capitalist system.

The actual program of this “State Socialism,” as it was called at the time, was a hodge-podge of different projects: social legislation: a state-run pensions system, nationalization also of other types of insurance, eg. for accidents or healthcare, the reintroduction of guilds that had been abolished in the 1860s, regulation of exchanges, a prohibition of derivatives on agricultural products (selling and buying in advance), a state-owned tobacco monopoly, protectionism, subsidies and other support for agriculture, and so forth. The current term for this type of economic system would probably be “economic nationalism.” But in the terminology of the time, the leading progressive Rudolf Virchow called it out in 1878 with the words: “[T]he Reaction is here.” By this he meant an economic system along feudal and mercantilist lines as in the 1850s or even earlier times.

While Americans naively assume that Conservatives are anti-Socialist per se that was not the case in Germany at the time, and the extreme Right subscribed to such a program from then on. They were certainly anti-Socialist in a party political sense because they hated the democratic and egalitarian thrust of the Social Democrats, their republicanism and their atheism as well as a mostly professed, but rather thin internationalism. But then in the understanding of the Right, none of this formed a part of Socialism, a state-run economic order that could be combined with an anti-eligatarian caste system and a paternalistic attitude towards the “working classes.” Basically, Bismarck’s turn was meant as a pincer movement: the aristocratic classes, themselves too weak, should align with the “proletarians” against the liberal “bourgeoisie” that threatened them both.

There were other more far-reaching proposals, eg. Adolph Wagner’s suggestion in the early 1870s to nationalize all land. In this way “land reform” (Bodenreform) became an issue particularly on the extreme Right in Germany. The Socialists were not opposed in principle, but scorned it as an ineffective palliative. Actually, a Georgist land value tax was later implemented in the Kiautschau Bay Leased Territory (Pinyin: Jiāozhōu) in China after 1898.

The State Socialist program could also mesh well with hostility to banks and stock exchanges, department stores and co-operatives, where all of this was often tinged with a certain anti-Semitism. The actual policies were more restrained, though, basically an emerging welfare state and a re-regulation of the economy in many ways.

A major boost for the State Socialist program was then the planned economy during the First World War under Hindenburg and Ludendorff, which was Socialist in a narrow, but certainly not in the Social Democratic sense. That was viewed by those on the extreme Right as a success, and proof that a “German Socialism” was a superior approach. Many writers on the extreme Right embraced Socialism in this sense, eg. Oswald Spengler in his “Preußentum und Sozialismus” (Prussianism and Socialism) published in 1919. The typical attitude here was to view Socialism as a challenge to the Anglo-Saxon capitalist system.

You could add many more thinkers to this list, eg. Werner Sombart, a former rising star with the Social Democrats, but never too closely associated with the party. In his book published in 1934 and with the title “Deutscher Sozialismus” (German Socialism), he tried to advertize his ideas to the Nazis with moderate success as far as I can see. Or more generally, there were writers on the extreme Right in the 1920s and 1930s that have retroactively been called the “Konservative Revolution” and who embraced some form of Socialism, sometimes even an alliance with the Soviet Union as with Ernst Niekisch and the “National Bolsheviks.” Nota bene, though, that these people often had their quibbles with the National Socialists and ended up in opposition to them. But it was still a spectrum that was influential during their rise to power.

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The naive assumption that many Americans appear to have is that “Socialism” can only be an issue on the Left. But in Germany that was not so. It is hard to tell from when on, but gradually it became de rigueur on the Right from Bismarck’s turn in the late 1870s on. It is important to keep in mind, though, that the goal was materially different from what the Socialists on the Left wanted. Basically, the idea was some form of corporatism: combine a state-directed economy with a feudal social order, monarchical absolutism, or after that was no longer possible after the First World War: an authoritarian, anti-democratic and anti-liberal system.

Once you know about this background, it is easy to understand why it is completely false to conclude from the word “National Socialists” that they were a party on the Left. Even with regard to their economic policies, but more so otherwise, the Nazis were an integral part of the Right. Surely, they also saw an opportunity to attract adherents from the extreme Left with their program and rhetoric, which often worked. But that does not show they were a party on the Left. Only ignorance and superficial arguments can make this plausible.

There is also another twist here that I have seen many Americans get wrong because they naively assume that terms have the same meaning as in the US: You can often find claims that the “conservatives” were the staunchest opponents of the socialist Nazis. They often landed in opposition to them, but that was not so because they had a problem with their “Socialism” in the above narrow sense. So such claims fall through when confronted with some historical knowledge. There were certainly major differences: Conservatives wanted a return to a by then somewhat mythical monarchic system, while the Nazis wanted to build a new order. But on economic grounds, the two directions were not too far apart.

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Now for the practice of the Nazis:

Mostly it was the implementation of State Socialist doctrines that had long been popular on the Right in general: a clampdown on trade unions, cooperatives, and department stores, reinforcing the guild system, subsidies for agriculture, protectionism, and so forth. That was not a leftwing program.

There was one “four year plan,” which sounds pretty Communist. But it was effectively a massive government program for infrastructure and before all: rearmament. It never meant a continued effort to build a planned economy as in the Soviet Union. The war economy then took on a more and more state-run character along the lines of the First World War, but not unknown on the Allied side either. A major component of the Nazi program was also a ramp-up of the welfare state, again nothing unusual as a program point on the Right. That made the Nazis popular and kept the population on board, which is well-documented in Götz Aly’s “Hitler’s Beneficiaries: Plunder, Racial War, and the Nazi Welfare State.”

In practice, the Nazi economic program was mostly the State Socialism that had been prevalent on the Right in Germany for a long time. There were also those in the movement who took the Socialist rhetoric more seriously, mostly in the SA. But they were sidelined early on after the “Night of the Long Knives” in 1934.

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More generally, I would think that it is wrong to understand the Nazi program as about Socialism, even in a narrow interpretation. The Nazis viewed a state-directed economy as instrumental for their true goals that lay elsewhere: war, conquest of a continental empire, and implementation of their racial policies. Economics was not central, but peripheral to their thinking.

That meant that actual policies were often opportunistic. When pressed to make decisions, the Nazis mostly fell back on templates that had been around for a long time. The exigencies of fast rearmament and then of a world war, propelled this forward to ever more control over the economy. But on the whole, there was no clear economic system that the Nazis had in mind.

And there was also no real agreement among them of what they were heading for. As noted, the more strongly Socialist wing was eliminated early on. Hitler was pragmatic and used state-control of the economy only as far as he needed it for his true goals. If cartels and big businesses worked for him on their own, there was no push to nationalize them outright.

What is perhaps even weirder are disagreements in a perhaps unexpected direction. Long ago someone on the extreme Left brought this to my attention. Basically, it was meant as proof that the Nazis were actually kind of “libertarians.” I would say that is equally false as claiming that they were Socialists in the sense of the Left. There was still a connection that is perhaps surprising and disconcerting:

Otto Ohlendorf was the head of the “Sicherheitsdienst Inland” (internal division of the security service) of the SS and commander of the “Einsatzgruppe D” that killed upward from 90,000 people in Eastern Europe, mostly Jews. Ohlendorf was an economist by training. In the 1930s, he worked at what is now the “Kiel Institute for the World Economy” with a rather pro-market agenda.

By 1938, Ohlendorf was appointed the head of the Trade section of the “Reich Economic Chamber” (Reichswirtschaftskammer). And in 1943, he also took over as deputy director general in the Reich Ministry of Economic Affairs. There he started to make plans for a post-war economic order after a victory by Germany. What he recommended was an “active and courageous entrepreneurship” instead of economic planning. Ohlendorf had the protection of Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, who was an opponent of the planned war economy under Albert Speer, which he detested as “totally Bolshevik.” Ohlendorf stayed with Himmler until the bitter end, and was executed for his crimes in 1951.

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So were the Nazis “Socialists?” The answer depends on the definition.

  • In the sense on the Left: no.
  • In the sense that had been common on the Right since the 19th century: yes.
  • In practice, there were many policies gleaned from the various State Socialist programs of the German Right: so in this sense, yes, but only to some extent.
  • As for central planing: somewhat, but perhaps mostly driven by the exigencies of rearmament and waging a world war.
  • As a dedication to building a thoroughly Socialist economy: on the early left wing of the party: perhaps, otherwise: not really, and for some: no.

Obviously, it is hard to sum the answer up in a clear “yes” or “no.” And it also not correct to conclude from a “yes” in one sense to a “yes” in other senses.

  • Were the Nazis ideological descendants of the Left? No.
  • Were the Nazis ideological descendants of the Right? Yes.

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Who has to think about unsavory connections then?

Practically everybody: People on the Left could think about influences in a roundabout way, people on the Right about direct continuity, libertarians maybe about how, for example, Otto Ohlendorf could idolize some kind of Randian “active and courageous entrepreneurship” on the one hand, and on the other be a mass murderer.

Egg to land on everybody’s face.

And please, no more: the “NAtionalsoZIalisten” were obviously Socialists and on the Left because it is in their name.