This feels like old times. Across the pond at the Telegraph, Tim Stanley and Daniel Hannan are having a friendly disagreement on the question of whether the Nazis were in fact socialists. I don’t usually wade into these arguments anymore, but I’ve been writing a lot on related themes over the last few weeks and I couldn’t resist.
Not surprisingly, I come down on Hannan’s side. I could write a whole book about why I agree with Dan, except I already did. So I’ll be more succinct.
Fair warning, though, I wrote this on a plane trip back from Colorado and it’s way too long. So if you’re not interested in this stuff, you might as well wander down the boardwalk and check out some of the other stalls now.
Stanley makes some fine points here and there, but I don’t think they add up to anything like corroboration of his thesis. The chief problem with his argument is that he’s taking doctrinaire or otherwise convenient definitions of socialism and applying them selectively to Nazism.
Stanley’s chief tactic is to simply say Nazis shouldn’t be believed when they called themselves socialists. It was all marketing and spin, even putting the word in their name. Socialism was popular, so they called themselves socialists. End of story.
So when Nazi ideologist Gregor Strasser proclaimed:
We are socialists. We are enemies, deadly enemies, of today’s capitalist economic system with its exploitation of the economically weak, its unfair wage system, its immoral way of judging the worth of human beings in terms of their wealth and their money, instead of their responsibility and their performance, and we are determined to destroy this system whatever happens!
. . . he was just saying that because, in Stanley’s mind, socialism was “fashionable.”
Obviously there’s some truth to that. Socialism was popular. So was nationalism. That’s why nationalists embraced socialism and why socialists quickly embraced nationalism. It wasn’t a big leap for either because they’re basically the same thing! In purely economic terms, nationalization and socialization are nothing more than synonyms (socialized medicine = nationalized health care).
Nazis Hated Bolsheviks, Who Knew?
That Hitler wasn’t a socialist became apparent within weeks of becoming Chancellor of Germany when he started arresting socialists and communists. He did this, claim some, because they were competing brands of socialism. But that doesn’t explain why Hitler defined his politics so absolutely as a war on Bolshevism — a pledge that won him the support of the middle-classes, industrialists and many foreign conservatives.
There’s a stolen base here. Sure, Hitler’s effort to destroy competing socialists and Communists “doesn’t explain” all those other things. But it doesn’t have to. Nor does Stalin’s wholesale slaughter (or Lenin’s retail slaughter) of competing Communists and socialists explain the Molotov–Ribbentrop pact or the infield-fly rule. Other considerations — economic, cultural, diplomatic — come into play. But when people say Hitler can’t be a socialist because he crushed independent labor unions and killed socialists, they need to explain why Stalin gets to be a socialist even though he did likewise.
The fact that many “foreign conservatives” supported Hitler’s hostility to Bolsheviks is a bit of a red herring. Many conservatives today support the military in Egypt as a bulwark against the Muslim Brotherhood. That tells you next to nothing about the content of the junta’s domestic policies. But, it’s worth noting that some foreign Communists and liberals, such as W.E.B. Du Bois, actually supported Hitler’s domestic economic policies (though not the anti-Semitism) in the mid-1930s.
For what it’s worth, the reason that Hitler declared war on Bolsheviks is a rich topic. The short answer is that he was a socialist but he was also a nationalist (hence national-socialism). And the nationalist part considered Bolshevism an existential threat — which it was!