One of the comforts of growing older is knowing that some things will never change.
Sports fans will always argue over the designated hitter rule and over who was the best heavyweight boxer of all-time (Muhammad Ali). Movie fans will never agree which Godfather movie was better, the first or the second (the first.) And the trumpets will sound at the Second Coming before capitalists and socialists agree on whether the Nazis were “really socialists.”
The last item has always puzzled me, I confess, and not just because the word is right there in the name: National Socialism. If you read the speeches and private conversations of the Nazi hierarchy, it’s clear they loved socialism and despised individualism and capitalism.
In his new book Hitler’s National Socialism, the historian Rainer Zitelmann gives a penetrating look into the ideas that shaped men like Hitler and Goebbels. While it’s clear they saw their own brand of socialism as distinct from Marxism (more on that later), there is no question they saw socialism as the future and despised bourgeoisie capitalism.
Consider, for example, these quotes from Joseph Goebbels, the chief propagandist for the Nazi Party:
- “Socialism is the ideology of the future.” - Letter to Ernst Graf zu Reventlow as quoted in Goebbels: A Biography
- “The bourgeoisie has to yield to the working class ... Whatever is about to fall should be pushed. We are all soldiers of the revolution. We want the workers' victory over filthy lucre. That is socialism.” -quoted in Doctor Goebbels: His Life and Death
- “We are socialists, because we see in socialism, that means, in the fateful dependence of all folk comrades upon each other, the sole possibility for the preservation of our racial genetics and thus the re-conquest of our political freedom and for the rejuvenation of the German state. - “Why We Are Socialists?” Der Angriff (The Attack ), July 16, 1928
- “We are not a charitable institution but a Party of revolutionary socialists.” -Der Angriff editorial, May 27, 1929
- “Capitalism assumes unbearable forms at the moment when the personal purposes that it serves run contrary to the interest of the overall folk. It then proceeds from things and not from people. Money is then the axis around which everything revolves. It is the reverse with socialism. The socialist worldview begins with the folk and then goes over to things. Things are made subservient to the folk; the socialist puts the folk above everything, and things are only means to an end." -”Capitalism,” Der Angriff, July 15, 1929
- “In 1918 there was only one task for the German socialist: to keep the weapons and defend German socialism.” -”Capitalism,” Der Angriff, July 15, 1929
- “To be a socialist means to let the ego serve the neighbour, to sacrifice the self for the whole. In its deepest sense socialism equals service.” - diary notes (1926)
- “The lines of German socialism are sharp, and our path is clear. We are against the political bourgeoisie, and for genuine nationalism! We are against Marxism, but for true socialism!” - Those Damn Nazis: Why Are We Socialists? (1932)
- “We are socialists because we see the social question as a matter of necessity and justice for the very existence of a state for our people, not a question of cheap pity or insulting sentimentality. The worker has a claim to a living standard that corresponds to what he produces.” - Those Damn Nazis: Why Are We Socialists? (1932)
- “England is a capitalist democracy. Germany is a socialist people's state.” - “Englands Schuld” (the speech is not dated, but likely was given in 1939)
- “Because we are socialists we have felt the deepest blessings of the nation, and because we are nationalists we want to promote socialist justice in a new Germany.” - Die verfluchten Hakenkreuzler. Etwas zum Nachdenken (1932)
- “The sin of liberal thinking was to overlook socialism’s nation-building strengths, thereby allowing its energies to go in anti-national directions.” - Die verfluchten Hakenkreuzler. Etwas zum Nachdenken (1932)
- “To be a socialist is to submit the I to the thou; socialism is sacrificing the individual to the whole. Socialism is in its deepest sense service.” - as quoted in Escape from Freedom, Erich Fromm
- “We are a workers’ party because we see in the coming battle between finance and labor the beginning and the end of the structure of the twentieth century. We are on the side of labor and against finance. . . The value of labor under socialism will be determined by its value to the state, to the whole community.”-Those Damn Nazis: Why Are We Socialists? (1932)
These quotes represent just a smattering of Goebbels’ views on and conception of socialism. One can see that in many ways the Nazi spoke much like Karl Marx.
Phrases like “we are a workers’ party,” “the worker has a claim to a living standard that corresponds to what he produces,” “money…is the reverse with socialism,” and “we are against the political bourgeoisie” could easily be plucked from Marx’s own speeches and writings—yet it’s clear Goebbels despised Marx and saw his brand of “national socialism” as distinct from Marxism.
So what sets National Socialism apart from Marxism? There are two primary differences.
The first is that Hitler and Goebbels fused their socialism with race and German nationalism, rejecting the international ethos of Marxism—workers of the world unite!—for a more practical one that emphasized Germany’s Völkischen movement.
This was a clever tactic by the Nazis. As the Nobel Prize-winning economist F.A. Hayek pointed out, it made socialism more palatable to many Germans who were unable to see Nazism for what it truly was.
“The supreme tragedy is still not seen that in Germany it was largely people of good will who, by their socialist policies, prepared the way for the forces which stand for everything they detest,” Hayek wrote in The Road to Serfdom (1944). “Few recognize that the rise of fascism…was not a reaction against the socialist trends of the preceding period but a necessary outcome of those tendencies.”
The second difference is that National Socialists were less concerned with directly controlling the means of production.
In his 1940 book German Economy, 1870-1940, Gustav Stolper, an Austrian-German economist and journalist, explained that though National Socialism was anti-capitalist from the beginning, it was also in direct competition with Marxism following World War I. Because of this, National Socialists determined to “woo the masses” from three distinct angles.
“The first angle was the moral principle, the second the financial system, the third the issue of ownership. The moral principle was ‘the commonwealth before self-interest.’ The financial promise was ‘breaking the bondage of interest slavery’. The industrial program was ‘nationalization of all big incorporated business [trusts]’. By accepting the principle ‘the commonwealth before self-interest,’ National Socialism simply emphasizes its antagonism to the spirit of a competitive society as represented supposedly by democratic capitalism . . . But to the Nazis this principle means also the complete subordination of the individual to the exigencies of the state. And in this sense National Socialism is unquestionably a Socialist system . . .”
Stolper, who fled from Germany to the United States after Hitler’s rise to power, noted that the Nazis never initiated a widespread nationalization of industry, but he explained that in some ways this was a distinction without a difference.
“The socialization of the entire German productive machinery, both agricultural and industrial, was achieved by methods other than expropriation, to a much larger extent and on an immeasurably more comprehensive scale than the authors of the party program in 1920 probably ever imagined. In fact, not only the big trusts were gradually but rapidly subjected to government control in Germany, but so was every sort of economic activity, leaving not much more than the title of private ownership.”
In his 1939 book The Vampire Economy: Doing Business Under Fascism, Guenter Reimann reached a similar conclusion, the economic historian Richard Ebeling notes.
“...while most of the means of production had not been nationalized, they had nonetheless been politicized and collectivized under an intricate web of Nazi planning targets, price and wage regulations, production rules and quotas, and strict limits and restraints on the action and decisions of those who remained; nominally, the owners of private enterprises throughout the country. Every German businessman knew that his conduct was prescribed and positioned within the wider planning goals of the National Socialist regime.”
The historical record is clear: European fascism was simply a different shade of socialism, which helps explain, as Hayek noted, why so many fascists were “former” socialists—”from Mussolini down (and including Laval and Quisling).”
Like Marx, the Nazis loathed capitalism and saw the individual will and individual rights as subordinate to the interests of the state. It should come as little surprise that these different shades of socialism achieved such similar results: poverty and misery.
Socialists will continue to argue that Nazism was not “real” socialism, but the words of the infamous Nazi propaganda minister suggest otherwise.