Socialist Academics Contributed to the Rise of the Third Reich

Nazism did not simply appear out of thin air and infect the minds of docile German people.

Throughout the last three chapters of F.A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, I have found myself questioning whether I am still reading the same book. In chapters 1-11, Hayek went from being an economist to a philosopher, to a historian. But in chapter twelve, “The Socialist Roots of Nazism,” he takes on the role of biographer.

Nazism did not simply appear out of thin air and infect the minds of docile German people. 

Hayek highlights the very important connection between the socialist and Nazi intellectuals by profiling a handful of prominent German Marxist supporters whose philosophical beliefs would radicalize during WWI. While their academic careers were centered on spreading socialist philosophy, many would later come to the conclusion that nothing short of Nazism would help bring about the necessary revolutionary change they each wanted.

But most importantly, Hayek points out that contrary to what many think, Nazism did not simply appear out of thin air and infect the minds of docile German people. There were academic roots that, while grown in the soil of socialist thought, grew into a philosophy that praised German superiority, ultimate war, and the degradation of the individual.

As Hayek writes:

It is a common mistake to regard National Socialism as a mere revolt against reason, an irrational movement without intellectual background. If that were so, the movement would be much less dangerous than it is. But nothing could be further from the truth or more misleading.”

Speaking of socialism’s intellectual leaders who later helped lay the intellectual foundation for the rise of the Third Reich, Hayek says:

...It cannot be denied that the men who produced the new doctrines were powerful writers who left the impress of their ideas on the whole of European thought. Their system was developed with ruthless consistency. Once one accepts the premises from which it starts, there is no escape from its logic.”

While touching on each of Hayek’s examples would be just as long as Hayek’s own twelfth chapter, I will touch specifically on Werner Sombart, Johann Plenge, and Oswald Spengler.

Werner Sombart

Hayek writes:

From 1914 onward there arose from the ranks of Marxist socialism one teacher after another who led, not the conservatives and reactionaries, but the hardworking laborer and idealist youth into the National Socialist fold. It was only thereafter that the tide of nationalist socialism attained major importance and rapidly grew into the Hitlerian doctrine.”

Beginning his list of influential thinkers prior to WWII, Hayek begins with the dedicated Marxist who later embraced nationalism and dictatorship, Werner Sombart (1863-1941). Hayek says of Sombart:

Sombart had begun as a Marxian socialist and, as late as 1909, could assert with pride that he had devoted the greater part of his life to fighting for the ideas of Karl Marx. He had done as much as any man to spread socialist ideas and anticapitalist resentment of varying shades throughout Germany; and if German thought became penetrated with Marxian elements in a way that was true of no other country until the Russian revolution, this was in a large measure due to Sombart.

Sombart was no stranger to radicalized thought. In fact, he would never be allowed to rise to the ranks of university chair in the course of his career because of his ties to Marxism.

Under totalitarian rule, people are seen as means to an end, rather than as ends themselves.

He was also a strong believer in the glory of war and, specifically, the German people’s global role as ideal soldiers. In his works can be found this belief that a “German War” between England’s capitalist society of “peddlers” and Germany’s warrior culture of “heroes” was inevitable and vital for the progress of the world. He seethed with criticism for the English people, who, in his mind, had lost their warlike instincts. This became a recurring theme for him in later writings.

His other main criticism of English culture was the emphasis placed on the individual. For Sombart, individual happiness was hampering societies from being truly great. As Hayek said of Sombart, “Nothing is more contemptible in his eyes than the universal striving after the happiness of the individual…”

Sombart’s dismissal of the individual tied in with his obsession with and glorification of war. In Sombart’s view, the concept of individual liberty was a barrier, preventing Germany from obtaining its true greatness. As Hayek says of Sombart’s beliefs, “there is a life higher than the individual life, the life of the people and the life of the state, and it is the purpose of the individual to sacrifice himself for that higher life.”

This all plays in perfectly with the rise of the Third Reich, where people were seen as means to an end, rather than as ends themselves.

Johann Plenge

Professor Johann Plenge (1874-1963) was another leading intellectual authority on Marxist thought during this time. He also saw war with England as a necessary struggle between two opposite principles: emphasis on the individual and organization and socialism.

Hayek explains what organization meant to Plenge by saying, “Organization is to him, as to all socialists who derive their socialism from a crude application of scientific ideals to the problems of society, the essence of socialism.” But for Plenge, the Marxist doctrine did not take this belief far enough.

Quoting Plenge, Hayek writes:

Marx and Marxism have betrayed this basic idea of socialism by their fanatic but utopian adherence to the abstract idea of freedom.

Interestingly enough, many of these socialist philosophers eventually abandoned Marxism in favor of National Socialism because they considered the former too liberal. Since Marxists at least claim to incorporate principles of democracy into the philosophy, this was thought to give too much power to individuals and was thus seen as dangerous by these intellectuals.

The doctrines which had guided the ruling elements in Germany for the past generation were opposed not to the socialism in Marxism but to the liberal elements contained in it, its internationalism and its democracy...It was the union of the anticapitalist forces of the Right and of the Left, the fusion of radical and conservative socialism, which drove out from Germany everything that was liberal.”

Both Sombart and Plenge would have agreed. In order to have an ideal world, an extreme regimentation of society would have to take place and strong intellectual ideas would need to form the basis for this new planned world.

In Plenge’s own words:

Because in the sphere of ideas Germany was the most convinced exponent of all socialist dreams, and in the sphere of reality she was the most powerful architect of the most highly organized economic system.—In us is the twentieth century. However the war may end, we are the exemplary people. Our ideas will determine the aims of the life of humanity.—World History experiences at present the colossal spectacle that with us a new great ideal of life penetrates to final victory, while at the same time in England one of the World-Historical principles finally collapses.”

Plenge believed that Germany’s war economy born in 1914 was:

The first realization of a socialist society and its spirit the first active, and not merely demanding, appearance of a socialist spirit. The needs of the war have established the socialist idea in German economic life, and thus the defense of our nation produced for humanity the idea of 1914, the idea of German organization, the people’s community (Volksgemeinschaft) of national socialism... The feeling of economic responsibility which characterizes the work of the civil servant pervades all private activity.”

If Marxism, as it was believed, allowed too much of an emphasis on democracy, many of these intellectuals believed that their socialist views had to be taken even further to achieve the ends they wanted. By 1918, Plenge was already reflecting his new belief that something stronger and more authoritarian than Marxism was needed.

Plenge writes:

It is high time to recognize the fact that socialism must be power policy, because it is to be organization. Socialism has to win power: it must never blindly destroy power. And the most important and critical question for socialism in the time of war of peoples is necessarily this: what people is pre-eminently summoned to power, because it is the exemplary leader in the organization of peoples?”

However, while Sombart and Plenge are thought to have provided the intellectual basis for Nazi thought, it was Oswald Spengler (1880-1936) who took the thoughts of these men and directly channeled them into the burgeoning philosophy of the National Socialist Party.

Oswald Spengler

Like the other two intellectuals, Spengler believed philosophy wasn’t enough to ensure the continuation of the German people and viewed liberalism as a dangerous English philosophy that was spreading throughout the world.

For Spengler, the Prussian model stood in opposition to England’s liberalism and was the ideal example of what Germany should aspire to. In the Prussian political model, the individual has no other role than to be a part of the whole and to serve the collective’s interests in the name of the state.

As Hayek says:

The three last nations of the Occident have aimed at three forms of existence, represented by famous watchwords: Freedom, Equality, Community. They appear in the political forms of liberal Parliamentarianism, Social Democracy, and authoritarian socialism... The German, more correctly, Prussian, instinct is: the power belongs to the whole. . .  Everyone is given his place. One commands or obeys. This is, since the eighteenth century, authoritarian socialism, essentially illiberal and anti-democratic, in so far as English Liberalism and French Democracy are meant.

And while Prussian militarism was seen to be the enemy of socialism, Spengler helped bridge that gap. Both schools of thought require an abandonment of the individual identity and a dedication to the greater good of society. Explaining the similarities, Hayek says:

In Prussia there existed a real state in the most ambitious meaning of the word. There could be, strictly speaking, no private persons. Everybody who lived within the system that worked with the precision of a clockwork, was in some way a link in it. The conduct of public business could therefore not be in the hands of private people, as is supposed by Parliamentarianism.”

This sounds shockingly similar to the requirements made of the German people by the Third Reich. This is exactly why Spengler hated English liberalism so much. He targets it as the enemy of the Prussian model.

But unlike the other two, Spengler’s views were directly manifested in his support for Nazism. Spengler, more so than the others, wanted to incorporate these views in a tangible way that made Germany the ultimate authority on the matter.

Spengler writes:

The decisive question not only for Germany, but for the world, which must be solved by Germany for the world is: Is in the future trade to govern the state, or the state to govern trade? In the face of this question Prussianism and Socialism are the same...Prussianism and Socialism combat the England in our midst.”

At its very core, liberalism was the archenemy of planning and organization.

The Birth of National Socialism

At its very core, and as specified by these German thinkers, liberalism was the archenemy of planning and organization. And unless full-fledged National Socialism was adopted, the individual would not be sufficiently squashed as to allow for authoritarian rule.

This hatred and fear of the individual is the worldview espoused by these thinkers and it continues on with those who claim to be socialists today. Unless the concept of individualism is completely eradicated, the glorified state cannot come into existence. Let this, of all things, be a lesson on why Hayek places so much importance on the individual.

It is the individual, above all things, and the philosophical outlook that defends his or her rights, who presents the greatest obstacle to totalitarianism.

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