Were Hitler and the Nazis Socialists? Only Kind Of

How socialist were the National Socialists?

We know there will be times when an organization or national name doesn’t tell the whole story. As Jacobin writes, how democratic is the Democratic People’s Republic of (North) Korea? It’s hardly a republic either. (Hitler once asked, “Is there a truer form of Democracy” than the Reich — dictators, apparently, misuse terms.) Or look to the Likud, the National Liberals, one of Israel’s major conservative parties. And if the Christian Knights of the Ku Klux Klan were Christians, do they represent Christianity at large? So let us examine the Nazis and see if they fall into this category.

The first task, as always, is to define socialism. Like today, “socialism” and “communism” were used by some in the early 20th century to mean the same thing (communism) and by others to mean different things. As a poet from the 1880s put it, there are indeed “two socialisms”: the one where the workers own their workplaces and the one where the government owns the workplaces. We must remember these different term uses, but to make it easy we will simply be open to both: “Were the Nazis socialists?” can therefore mean either. There is more to it than that, of course, such as direct democracy and large government programs. But these additions are not sufficient qualifiers. There will be whining that the Nazi regime had large government programs and thus it was socialist, but if that’s the criteria then so were all the nations fighting the Nazis, including the U.S. (remember our huge public jobs programs and Social Security Act of the era?). Advanced societies tend to have sizable State services — and you can have these things without being truly socialist. If one has even a minimal understanding of socialist thought and history, then the conclusion that no country can earnestly be called socialist without worker or State ownership of business is hardly controversial. To speak of socialism was to speak of the elimination of private ownership of the means of production (called “private property,” businesses), with transfer of ownership away from capitalists to one of the two aforementioned bodies.

The German Workers Party, founded in 1919 in Munich by Anton Drexler and renamed the National Socialist German Workers Party in 1920, included actual socialists. Gregor and Otto Strasser, for instance, supported nationalization of industry — it’s simply not accurate to say the rhetoric of ending capitalism, building socialism, of revolution, workers, class, exploitation, and so on was solely propaganda. It was a mix of honest belief and empty propagandistic promises to attract voters in a time of extreme poverty and economic crisis, all depending on which Nazi was using it, as we will see. Socialists can be anti-semites, racists, patriots, and authoritarians, just like non-socialists and people of other belief systems. (I’ve written more elsewhere about the separability of ideologies and horrific things, if interested, typically using socialism and Christianity as examples. The response to “Nazis were socialists, so socialism is pure evil” is of course “Nazis were also Christians — Germany was an extremely religious nation — so is Christianity also pure evil? If the Nazis distorted Christianity, changing what it fundamentally was with their ‘Positive Christianity,’ advocated for in the Nazi platform, is true Christianity to be abandoned alongside true socialism if that has been distorted as well?”)

The meaning of socialism was distorted by Hitler and other party members. To Hitler, socialism meant the common weal, the common good for a community. While rhetorically familiar, this was divorced from ideas of worker or State ownership of the means of production. In a 1923 interview with The Guardian‘s George Sylvester Viereck, Hitler made this clear. After vowing to end Bolshevism (communism), Hitler got the key question:

“Why,” I asked Hitler, “do you call yourself a National Socialist, since your party programme is the very antithesis of that commonly accredited to socialism?”

“Socialism,” he retorted, putting down his cup of tea, pugnaciously, “is the science of dealing with the common weal. Communism is not Socialism. Marxism is not Socialism. The Marxians have stolen the term and confused its meaning. I shall take Socialism away from the Socialists.

“Socialism is an ancient Aryan, Germanic institution. Our German ancestors held certain lands in common. They cultivated the idea of the common weal. Marxism has no right to disguise itself as socialism. Socialism, unlike Marxism, does not repudiate private property. Unlike Marxism, it involves no negation of personality, and unlike Marxism, it is patriotic.

“We might have called ourselves the Liberal Party. We chose to call ourselves the National Socialists. We are not internationalists. Our socialism is national. We demand the fulfilment of the just claims of the productive classes by the state on the basis of race solidarity. To us state and race are one.”

Hitler’s socialism, then, had to do with the common good of one race, united as a nation around ancestral Aryan land and identity. What socialism meant to Hitler and other Nazis can only be understood through the lens of racial purity and extreme nationalism. They come first, forming the colander, and everything else is filtered through. In the same way, what Christianity meant to Hitler was fully shaped by these obsessions: it was a false religion invented by the Jews (who Jesus fought!), but could at the same time be used to justify their destruction. Bolshevism was likewise labeled a sinister Jewish creation (was not Marx ethnically Jewish?): “The Jewish doctrine of Marxism rejects the aristocratic principle of Nature…” Further, when Hitler criticized capitalists, it was often specific: Germany needed “delivery from the Jewish capitalist shackles,” the Jews being to blame for economic problems. A consumed conspiratorial bigot, and often contradictory and nonsensical, he would attack both sides of any issue if they smacked to him of Judaism. But we see Hitler’s agreement that National Socialism was the “antithesis of that commonly accredited to socialism”: there would still be private property, private ownership of the means of production; the internationalism and the racial diversity and tolerance at times preached by other socialists would be rejected. (So would class conflict: “National Socialism always bears in mind the interests of the people as a whole and not the interests of one class or another.”) Racial supremacy and the worship of country — elements of the new fascism, and the latter a typical element of the Right, not traditional socialism — were in order. (If these things were socialism, then again the nations fighting Germany were socialist: Jim Crow laws in America were used as models by Nazi planners, there existed devotion to American exceptionalism and greatness, and so forth.)

Hitler often repeated his view. On May 21, 1935:

National Socialism is a doctrine that has reference exclusively to the German people. Bolshevism lays stress on international mission. We National Socialists believe a man can, in the long run, be happy only among his own people… We National Socialists see in private property a higher level of human economic development that according to the differences in performance controls the management of what has been accomplished enabling and guaranteeing the advantage of a higher standard of living for everyone. Bolshevism destroys not only private property but also private initiative and the readiness to shoulder responsibility.

In a December 28, 1938 speech he declared:

A Socialist is one who serves the common good without giving up his individuality or personality or the product of his personal efficiency. Our adopted term ‘Socialist’ has nothing to do with Marxian Socialism. Marxism is anti-property; true socialism is not. Marxism places no value on the individual or the individual effort, or efficiency; true Socialism values the individual and encourages him in individual efficiency, at the same time holding that his interests as an individual must be in consonance with those of the community.

He who believed in “Germany, people and land — that man is a Socialist.” Otto Strasser, in his 1940 book Hitler and I, wrote that Hitler told him in 1930 that the revolution would be racial, not economic; that democracy should not be brought into the economic sphere; and that large corporations should be left alone; to which Strasser replied, “If you wish to preserve the capitalist regime, Herr Hitler, you have no right to talk of socialism. For our supporters are socialists, and your programme demands the socialisation of private enterprise.” Hitler responded:

That word ‘socialism’ is the trouble… I have never said that all enterprises should be socialised. On the contrary, I have maintained that we might socialise enterprises prejudicial to the interests of the nation. Unless they were so guilty, I should consider it a crime to destroy essential elements in our economic life… There is only one economic system, and that is responsibility and authority on the part of directors and executives. That is how it has been for thousands of years, and that is how it will always be. Profit-sharing and the workers’ right to be consulted are Marxist principles. I consider that the right to exercise influence on private enterprise should be conceded only to the state, directed by the superior class… The capitalists have worked their way to the top through their capacity, and on the basis of this selection, which again only proves their higher race, they have a right to lead. Now you want an incapable government council or works council, which has no notion of anything, to have a say; no leader in economic life would tolerate it.

Otto Strasser and his brother grew disillusioned that the party wasn’t pursuing actual socialism, and upset that Hitler supported and worked with big business, industrialists, capitalists, German princes. Otto was expelled from the party in 1930. Gregor resigned two years later.

The referenced National Socialist Program, or 25-point Plan, of 1920 demanded the “nationalization of all enterprises (already) converted into corporations (trusts),” “profit-sharing in large enterprises,” “communalization of the large department stores, which are to be leased at low rates to small tradesmen,” and nationalization “of land for public purposes.” Hitler clarified that since “the NSDAP stands on the platform of private ownership,” the nationalization of land for public use “concerns only the creation of legal opportunities to expropriate if necessary, land which has been illegally acquired or is not administered from the view-point of the national welfare. This is directed primarily against the Jewish land-speculation companies.” Large department stores were largely Jewish-run. And above we saw Hitler’s resistance to profit-sharing. Further, nationalization of businesses would be limited, as noted, to trusts. It could be that the disproportionately strong representation of Jews in ownership of big German companies played a role here, too. Now, a “secret” interview with Hitler that some scholars suspect is a forgery contains the quote: “Point No. 13 in that programme demands the nationalisation of all public companies, in other words socialisation, or what is known here as socialism,” yet even this limits the promise to publicly traded companies, and Hitler goes on, tellingly, to speak of “owners” and their “possessions,” “property owners,” “the bourgeoisie,” etc. that, while “controlled” by the State, plainly exist independently of it in his socialist vision. Nevertheless, the program has a socialist flair, making Otto Strasser’s comment in 1930 comprehensible, yet its timidity vis-à-vis economics (compare it to the German communist party’s platform of 1932) and its embrace of nationalism and rejection of internationalism would understandably make some ask the question George Sylvester Viereck did in 1923.

This socialist tinge, apart from attacks on Jewish businesses, was forgotten when the Nazis came to power. Historian Karl Bracher said such things to Hitler were “little more than an effective, persuasive propaganda weapon for mobilizing and manipulating the masses. Once it had brought him to power, it became pure decoration: ‘unalterable,’ yet unrealized in its demands for nationalization and expropriation, for land reform…” Indeed, while other Western nations were bringing businesses under State control to combat the Depression, the Nazis in the 1930s ran a program of privatization. Many firms and sectors were handed back to the private sphere. The Nazis valued private ownership for its efficiency. The German economy was State-directed in the sense that the government made purchases, contracting with private firms to produce commodities, such as armaments, and regulated business in many ways, as advanced nations often do, including the U.S. Historian Ian Kershaw wrote: “Hitler was never a socialist. But although he upheld private property, individual entrepreneurship, and economic competition, and disapproved of trade unions and workers’ interference in the freedom of owners and managers to run their concerns, the state, not the market, would determine the shape of economic development. Capitalism was, therefore, left in place. But in operation it was turned into an adjunct of the state.” While the regime incentivized business and regulated it, especially in preparation for war, intervening to keep entities aligned with State goals and ideology, “there occurred hardly any nationalizations of private firms during the Third Reich. In addition, there were few enterprises newly created as state-run firms,” summarized Christoph Buchheim and Jonas Scherner in The Journal of Economic History. Companies retained their independence and autonomy: they still “had ample scope to follow their own production plans… The state normally did not use power to secure the unconditional support of industry,” but rather offered attractive contracts. Socialism cannot simply be regulation of and incentives for private companies, to meet national goals — again, this is what non-socialist states do every day (and the U.S. war economy had plenty of centrally planned production goals and quotas, contracts, regulations, rationing, and even government takeovers).

The betrayal of the program was noticed at the time. A 1940 report said that:

Economic planks of the “unalterable program” on the basis of which the National Socialists campaigned before they came to power in 1933 were designed to win the support of as many disgruntled voters as possible rather than to present a coordinated plan for a new economic system. Within the party there has always been, and there still is, serious disagreement about the extent to which the “socialist” part of the party’s title is to be applied… The planks calling for expropriation have been least honored in the fulfillment of this platform; in practice, the economic reorganizations undertaken by the Nazis have followed a very different pattern from the one which was originally projected.

That pattern was tighter regulation, generous contracts, economic recovery programs for ordinary people, and so on, though the occasional State takeover did occur. All this makes sense given what we’ve seen. The Nazis weren’t interested in the socialism of the Marxists, the communists. Hitler, in his words, rejected “the false notion that the economic system could exist and operate entirely freely and entirely outside of any control or supervision on the part of the State,” but business ultimately belonged to the capitalists.

The Bramberg Conference of 1926 was a key moment for the direction of the Nazi Party: would it go in an earnestly socialist direction or simply use this new, diluted version Hitler was fond of? There were ideological divisions that had to be addressed. Hitler, as party leader since 1921 and with the conference officially establishing Fuhrerprinzip (absolute power of the party leader), was likely to win from the beginning. Gregor Strasser led the push at this convening of Nazi leaders for socialist policies, backed by others from Germany’s northern urban, industrial areas. Leaders from the rural south stood opposed; they wanted to instead lean into nationalism, populism, racialism. One such policy was the seizing of the estates of rich nobles, the landed princes — did the National Socialist Program not say land could be expropriated for the common good? “The law must remain the law for aristocrats as well,” Hitler said. “No questioning of private property!” This was communism, that old Jewish plot. Hitler made sure the idea, being pursued at the time by the social democratic and communist parties, died in its cradle. “For us there are today no princes, only Germans,” he said. “We stand on the basis of the law, and will not give a Jewish system of exploitation a legal pretext for the complete plundering of our people.” Again, the rejection of the class war and overthrow of the rich inherent to socialism and instead a simple focus on the Jews — Hitler was “replacing class with race,” as one historian put it, swapping out “the usual terms of socialist ideology.” Hitler was “a reactionary,” Joseph Goebbels realized. After this, Strasser backed off, and the socialist push in the party was quelled.

Similar to State ownership, while the German Workers Party in 1919 spoke of worker cooperatives — worker ownership — the Nazis had no actual interest in this, in fact making cooperative entities targets to be destroyed in Germany and conquered nations because they smacked of Marxism. A dictatorship isn’t going to give ordinary people power.

Outside observers continued to mock Hitler’s socialism — this isn’t simply a tactic of an embarrassed American Left today. As we’ve seen, people of the era noticed the meaning was changed and watched how the Nazis acted when in power. For Leon Trotsky, an actual communist-style socialist writing in 1934, Nazi “socialism” was always in derisive quotation marks. “The Nazis required the programme in order to assume the power; but power serves Hitler not all for the purpose of fulfilling the programme,” with “the social system untouched,” the “class nature” and competition of capitalism alive and well. Stalin said in 1936, “The foundation of [Soviet] society is public property: state, i.e., national, and also co-operative, collective farm property. Neither Italian fascism nor German National-‘Socialism’ has anything in common with such a society. Primarily, this is because the private ownership of the factories and works, of the land, the banks, transport, etc., has remained intact, and, therefore, capitalism remains in full force in Germany and in Italy.”

When one considers how actual socialists were treated under the Reich, the point is driven home.

Communist and social democratic politicians were purged from the legislature and imprisoned. Dachau, the first concentration camp, first held political enemies such as socialists. In an article in The Guardian from March 21, 1933, the president of the Munich police said, “Communists, ‘Marxists’ and Reichsbanner [social democratic] leaders” would be imprisoned there. The next year reports of the horrid conditions inside emerged, such as that in The New Republic, likewise noting the “Social Democrats, Socialist Workers’ party members,” and others held within. Part of the impetus for the Night of the Long Knives in 1934, in which Hitler had Nazi Party members killed, was too much talk of workers, actual socialism, anti-capitalist ideas. Gregor Strasser was murdered that night. Otto fled for his life.

There is a famous saying that is in fact authentic. Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller of Germany often said various versions of the following after the war:

First they came for the Communists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Communist

Then they came for the Socialists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist

Then they came for the trade unionists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a trade unionist

Then they came for the Jews
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew

Then they came for me
And there was no one left
To speak out for me

One might wonder why the socialists would be coming for the socialists. But if this new socialism simply had to do with race and land, opposing State or worker ownership, it begins to make sense. You have to take care of ideological opponents, whether through a conference or a concentration camp. In response, communists and socialists took part in the valiant resistance to Nazism in Germany and throughout Europe.

The recent articles offering a Yes or No answer to the question “Were Hitler and the Nazis Socialists?” are far too simplistic. Honest history can’t always be captured in a word. Here is an attempt to do so in a paragraph:

Foundationally, socialists wanted either worker ownership of workplaces or government ownership of workplaces, the removal of capitalists. The Nazi Party had actual socialists. But over time they grew frustrated that the party wasn’t pursuing socialism; some left. Other members, including party leader Adolf Hitler, opposed actual socialism, and changed the definition of socialism to simply mean unity of the Aryan race and its collective flourishing. True to this, when he seized power, Hitler did not implement socialism, leaving capitalists in place, and instead crushed those speaking of actual socialism.

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