Today’s Not-Quite-Economic History: Shorter John Holbo: Why the Nazis Are Best Thought of as

There is no point in including entire John Holbo posts in Weekend Reading — Crooked Timber (unlike most of the rest of the online world) is highly unlikely to suffer from linkrot, and those who want to read his posts at their Holbonian length can do so over there. But there is a need for a Shorter John Holbo.

Me? I see five political dimensions as one tries to maneuver through the weeds:

  1. pacifist-militarist,
  2. cosmopolitan-nationalist,
  3. egalitarian-hierarchical,
  4. liberal-authoritarian, and
  5. invidualistic-communitarian

(with none of any of the poles being entirely bad — or entirely good, for that matter). The Nazis thus tended to be: militarist nationalist hierarchical authoritarian communicatarian, except for the Strasser-Roehm bunch who tended to be militarist nationalist egalitarian authoritarian communitarian. (And someone like Jonah Goldberg would tend to be militarist nationalist hierarchical authoritarian individualistic.)

Shorter John Holbo:

John Holbo: Were The Nazis Right-Wing? — or — Weimar Culture: The Insider As Outsider — Crooked Timber: “The reason the Nazis are regarded by historians as right-wing…

…is… the way it began in party politics in Weimar Germany…. It’s impossible to narrate the ins-and-outs of the story of how the Nazis came to power without regarding them as, basically, an extreme right-wing party. There are features of Weimar politics that complicated the left-right binary…. [But] the Nazis were a right-wing party that tried, and failed, to sell its brand of ‘socialism’ to the working-classes…. But it succeeded in allying with old-line conservatives, despite being too radical and revolutionary for their tastes. The Nazis used the conservatives to gain respectability; the conservatives used the Nazis to gain an energized, activist base. In the end, the Nazis came out on top….
It would be a good idea to write a… study,… explaining what made it culturally and socially coherent for German conservative forces… to ally themselves with the Nazis, despite the fact that the latter were revolutionary radicals. The conservatives felt they had lost their country. Even though they still had tremendous status and power, their relative losses, after 1918, meant they didn’t feel it. They felt propelled by history to the outside, for a short, dizzying, fragile moment. If you feel like a complete outsider in your own country, as a conservative, you will have fewer compunctions about joining with reactionary revolutionaries who aren’t conservatives but at least are on the right, like you….

There is the Jeff Herf book, Reactionary Modernism, which I remember as being very good on all of this…

John Holbo:

If the Nazis were ‘oppo-same’ with the communists and/or Social Democrats (I’ve seen both claims) why did their efforts to win over workers fail, before 1928? If the Nazis were obviously concerned to destroy class distinctions, why was their greatest appeal to the lower middle-class, which was most concerned to avoid that? If the Nazis were obviously Marxists (until post-war leftist historians started erasing the evidence) why did they seem to pre-war conservatives like a handy ‘drum’ to beat, against Marxism? Unless you have good answers to these and other questions you really can’t make any sense of Weimar politics… you can’t write history… [and] you are hardly going to impress the historians…. I’ve been recalling the good old days of making fun of [Jonah] Goldberg, so I’ll just start with a quote from his book:
“The major flaw in all this is that fascism, properly understood, is not a phenomenon of the right at all. Instead, it is and always has been, a phenomenon of the left. This fact — an inconvenient truth if there ever was one — is obscures in our time by the equally mistaken belief that fascism and communism are opposites. In reality, they are closely related, historical competitors for the same constituents, seeking to dominate and control the same social space. The fact that they appear as polar opposites is a trick of intellectual history and (more to the point) the result of a concerted propaganda effort on the part of the ‘Reds’ to make the ‘Browns’ appear objectively evil and ‘other’… But in terms of their theory and practice, the differences are minimal. Before the war, fascism was widely viewed as a progressive social movement with many liberal and left-wing adherents in Europe and the United States…. Given the benefit of hindsight, it’s difficult to understand why anyone doubts the fascist nature of the French Revolution…. But if the French Revolution was fascist, then its heirs would have to be seen as the fruit of this poisoned tree….”
Just for good measure… George Watson, from 1998… does a good job of making it sound like this all makes sense:
“For half a century, none the less, Hitler has been portrayed… as an extreme instance of the political right. It is doubtful if he or his friends would have recognised the description. His own thoughts gave no prominence to left and right…. Since he had solved for all time the enigma of history, as he imagined, National Socialism was unique. The elements might be at once diverse and familiar, but the mix was his…. The issue of race, above all, that for half a century has prevented National Socialism from being seen as socialist. The proletariat may have no fatherland, as Lenin said. But there were still, in Marx’s view, races that would have to be exterminated. That is a view he published in January-February 1849 in an article by Engels called ‘The Hungarian Struggle’ in Marx’s journal the Neue Rheinische Zeitung…. It is now becoming possible to believe that Auschwitz was socialist-inspired. The Marxist theory of history required and demanded genocide…. Entire races would be left behind after a workers’ revolution, feudal remnants in a socialist age; and since they could not advance two steps at a time, they would have to be killed. They were racial trash, as Engels called them, and fit only for the dung-heap of history….”
Let’s review the score…. Standard histories deny, by implication, all this stuff…. The standard histories all presume that the Nazis are right-wing (but not uncomplicatedly so.) But what about all these juicy ‘I was a teen-age Marxist!’ quotes?… Frankly, you should trust the histories. Or, rather: you shouldn’t trust the juicy quotes… because they can be so misleading. Everyone knows it’s easy to take quotes out of context…. Did Marx really advocate ethnic genocide, as Watson implies?…. You can read the Engels piece in question here. The concluding line:
“The next world war will result in the disappearance from the face of the earth not only of reactionary classes and dynasties, but also of entire reactionary peoples. And that, too, is a step forward.”
Harsh stuff. No denying it…. [But assigning] Marx… blame for Auschwitz via an argument about what Engels meant by one piece he wrote about the Hungarian Revolution of 1848.. [is] too much of a stretch…. It’s both true and potentially important that Hitler really did say stuff like this: ‘I have learned a great deal from Marxism, as I do not hesitate to admit.’ Also, the trouble with Weimar politicians was ‘they had never even read Marx.’ The problem isn’t that the quotes are fake, it’s that the author… [is not] thinking about what else Hitler might have meant; why he might say such things even if (as seems likely to me) they weren’t even true….
Suppose, 100 years from now, some future historian feels the need to do… the same sort of ‘we have always been at war with Eastasia’ Orwellian number Goldberg has done on Hitler… ‘prove’ that Obama was a right winger and, let’s say, Mitt Romney, was some sort of left-wing insurgent. (No, I don’t know why Goldberg’s great-great-grandson has an interest in proving this.)… How would you go about telling this Big Lie? It’s not hard…. You just need to gather a bunch of data points that suggest a reverse-polarity pattern…. Five types of facts are going to do the trick for you:
Statements of grudging respect…. Introduce… Rick Perlstein with some quotes. Quote Democrats and progressives praising Perlstein, then quote Perlstein praising Goldwater, then draw the conclusion that, by the year 2000, the Democratic party had basically become the Goldwaterite party…. Electoral partisan politics is full of eloquent statements about how the other side is alarmingly powerful and effective, an expression of the Zeitgeist, charismatic, strategically brilliant, and etc. Thus, you can make black sound like white, by means of just a bit of creative quotation, to an audience that — due to the passage of time — really doesn’t know what’s what. Hitler praising Marx is perfectly natural…. The age of individualism is over. The true battle will be between the communists and the Nazis. Praising Marx is a way for Hitler to market himself to reactionaries and even moderate conservatives. He’s the only guy who gets the enemy. That’s a classic sell… a lot more plausible than that Nazism grows out of an op-ed Engels wrote about Hungary.
The Venomous Character of Intra-Party Disputes/The Narcissism of Small Differences: We all know that primaries are often as nasty as the general…. If you wanted to prove that Mitt Romney was a left-winger, just find the juiciest quotes from his further-right Republican opponents in the primary. If you wanted to prove that Barack Obama was a conservative, just quote Cornel West… and you’re gold!…
Thunder-Stealing/Rovian Politics: Another typical feature of electoral politics is that you try to steal your opponent’s thunder…. The Nazis did this with ‘socialism’, among other things….
Even back then, a lot of folks didn’t know what the hell was going on: It’s easy to assume that if you are quoting more or less contemporaneous sources, you are getting the good stuff. But suppose, 100 years from now, historians are trying to reconstruct what ISIS…. We know perfectly well that something published today about ISIS in National Review, or Slate, may be more an occasion for projecting what one wants to see…. We have always been confused about whether we are at war with Eastasia is a true fact that makes ‘we have always been at war with Eastasia’ easier to fake.
Weird Stuff Happens…. It would be disingenuous to argue that states rights advocates, in the US, are Nazis because the Nazis advocated states rights for a year, in 1928–9…. The Nazis… were big Christians…. Overall, it would not be accurate to describe the Nazi Party as an especially Christian movement….
Let me conclude this post with a general statement from one of the two histories I quoted at the start:
“Despite the socialist components of their ideology, the Nazis were less successful in acquiring working-class support, in part because their version of socialism did not offer the sweeping economic and social revolution advocated by the Marxists. National socialism would eliminate neither private property nor class distinctions. It would provide economic security and social welfare programs for the workers…. But economic equality and a classless society were never Nazi goals. What workers would receive, aside from economic justice, would be enhanced social status. The new image of the worker would be one of honor and pride… no longer… an alienated and despised group. They would again take their rightful place in society; their importance and dignity would be recognized by the rest of the nation. In the ideal Nazi Volksgemeinschaft, classes would exist (based upon talent, property, profession, etc.), but there would be no class conflict….. Although socialism and anticapitalism were significant parts of the Nazi ideology, compromises were made on these aspects before and after the Nazis seized power. Ultimately, many of the socialistic ideals and programs remained unrealized. Part of the reason for this was that within the party there was violent disagreement over the essence of national socialism. Hitler himself was more concerned with the racial, nationalistic, and foreign policy goals…. However, the left wing of the Nazi party, led by Gregor and Otto Strasser, considered nazism essentially a socialistic and anticapitalist movement…. In most cases, Hitler’s views prevailed, but the conflict between these party factions over such issues would last until the suppression of the left wing in 1934….”
The idea that the Nazi party was a left-wing worker’s party, aiming at destroying class-distinctions, eliminating private property, and nationalizing the means of production is not true…. Of course, this leaves a lot of interesting questions unanswered. What does the difference between left and right even mean, if ‘socialism’ can be as easily a radical right-wing as a left-wing project? What might ‘socialism’ have meant to the average Nazi on the street? Did they think it was odd that their party had ‘socialist’ in its name, even though they were fighting communists in the streets, on behalf of what they felt were traditional, even a-political German values? I’ll try my best when I write my second post.

Originally published at