Right-wingers love to insist that members of Adolf Hitler’s party were socialists. But Nazism’s real economic policies upheld hypercapitalist principles rooted in social Darwinist ideas about the value of human life. They weren’t socialists at all.

Adolf Hitler inspects a formation of the Hitler Youth in Nazi Germany, ca. 1927–45. (CORBIS / Getty Images)

One of the most tiresome arguments leveled against socialism claims that Nazism was somehow “socialist,” and so something the Left needs to answer for. Adolf Hitler’s men marshaled the economy for war, put the state above the individual — and, as the killer argument, they even called themselves “National Socialists.”

Checkmate? Not quite. Even aside from the fact that other conservative and liberal parties actually voted for full powers to Hitler in 1933, his regime was characterized by massive interventions to help out private business. And the social Darwinism championed by the Nazis, counting the “unproductive” as mere wasteful expense, obeyed the logic of judging human life by the yardstick of profit.

In 2009, Israeli historian Ishay Landa published the book The Apprentice’s Sorcerer: Liberal Tradition and Fascism, an extensive study of the economic and social interests the Nazis really pursued. In this interview with Jacobin, he explains what the term “socialism” meant to Hitler, how his political and economic views were connected — and why we can see the dangers of economic liberalism in Elon Musk today.

Nils Schniederjann

In your book, you examine the economic policies and the ideology of the National Socialists in Germany. Were the Nazis policies actually socialist?

Ishay Landa

No, obviously they weren’t socialist. It’s true that the Nazis occasionally used the term affirmatively. Some people cynically latch onto that as evidence: “They were socialists because they called themselves socialists!” But they were strongly anti-socialist in any real sense of the term.

Nils Schniederjann

Then why did they use the word “socialism” at all?

Ishay Landa

We have to understand the context in which they applied the term. In our own days, right-wing politicians no longer use the term. Why? Because socialism is no longer so popular. But back then, anti-communists faced the challenge of gaining access to socialist strongholds and convincing as many working-class voters as possible. So, they had to present their policies as agreeing with the interests of the working class. The trick was to benefit from the popularity of socialism, which was widely seen as the force of the future, but at the same time to distance themselves as much as possible from its substance.

Nils Schniederjann

If the Nazis called themselves socialists only for strategic reasons, what did their economic policies actually look like?

Ishay Landa

They were strongly capitalist. The Nazis placed great emphasis on private property and free competition. It’s true that they intervened in the free market, but it was also a time of a systemic failure of capitalism on a global scale. Almost all states intervened in the market at the time, and they did so to save the capitalist system from itself. This has nothing to do with socialist sentiment: it was pro-capitalist. In a way, there’s a parallel there with the way big banks were bailed out by governments after the 2008 financial crisis broke out. That, of course, did not reflect socialist intentions in any way, either. It was merely an attempt to stabilize the system a little bit.

Nils Schniederjann

But don’t capitalists always want as much freedom as possible?

Ishay Landa

Not necessarily. State interventions at that time took place in agreement with industry. The capitalists even demanded it, because free-market policies are not always in the best interest of capitalists. They sometimes need the state to succor the free market. So, interventions were not simply imposed on the economy by the fascists — it was a consensual development reflecting requirements by many important sections of industry. The goal was essentially to steer the system in favor of big business.

Nils Schniederjann

How is the political ideology of the Nazis related to this attempt to stabilize the system?

Ishay Landa

Hitler is often accused of subordinating economic interests to his political views, a claim that is partially true. But what exactly were his political views? If we think about Hitler’s most fanatical obsessions – for example, social Darwinism, eugenics, or even his antisemitism — at first blush it appears as though these can only be understood in isolation from economic considerations. However, if we look more closely at each of these elements, we see that they had an indispensable economic basis.

Nils Schniederjann

For example?

Ishay Landa

Social Darwinism is actually a form of hypercapitalism. It takes from capitalism the focus on competition as a struggle of all against all. And the Nazis argued: “Well, that’s just the way nature is.” This was not a break with capitalism, but an intensification of economic views. Capitalism, in the Nazis’ view, is simply a part of nature. So, it is not just a matter of political domination, but of naturalizing economic contradictions. Hitler then said that it is above all “the Jew” who is trying to play a little trick on nature in order to make the struggle for survival superfluous. The will to tamper with the economy made Jews insidious, from the Nazi point of view.

Nils Schniederjann

But isn’t this very positive view of free competition and the struggle of all against all precisely the hallmark of economic liberalism?

Ishay Landa

Hitler didn’t invent all of this, of course; it was part of the conservative and indeed economically liberal mainstream. One could hear very similar statements about the need for ruthless competition in the liberal economic discourse of the time. That someone like Hitler could become the “leader” of a major industrial nation was, after all, the culmination of certain widely held views about economics and about the due limits of popular, political agency. Hitler’s policies met the wishes of many industrialists — which made him so attractive to large sections of the bourgeoisie and the educated classes. The National Socialists were seen as liberating the economy from unnecessary burdens of political and humanistic sensitivity.

Nils Schniederjann

Through eugenics, for example?

Ishay Landa

Exactly. The murder of people with physical, mental, and psychological disabilities was also directly linked to economic concerns — it was intended to rid the economy of people who were considered a burden. The Nazi language was quite economic and financially minded in this respect. For example, a typical propaganda poster read: “60,000 Reichsmarks throughout his life: that is the cost of this hereditary sick person for the Volksgemeinschaft [the Nazi word for national community]. Volksgenosse [national comrade], that is also your money.”

Even the Shoah is related to economic considerations. For in Nazi ideology, Jews were seen as the ultimate obstacle. Obstacle to what? To capitalism, not least. They were considered the backbone of Marxism. The Nazis construed Marxism as an essentially Jewish conspiracy against the capitalist economy — and thus against the natural order. Of course, the Shoah was the result of many factors and the culmination of various Nazi obsessions, phobias, and hatreds. But among all these, one shouldn’t lose sight of this socioeconomic factor.

Nils Schniederjann

But why were the Nazis able to call Marxism a great evil that must be eradicated, while they used socialism as a positive slogan for their movement?

Ishay Landa

By the term “socialism” they didn’t mean anything that we would even remotely recognize as socialist, but rather their policy of intervening in the free market for the benefit of the capitalists. By the term “Marxism,” on the other hand, they meant social democracy and the protection of basic workers’ rights. In Mein Kampf, Hitler says that his antisemitic world view was finally formed the moment he realized that the Jews were the masterminds of social democracy. Nazi discourse was a very convenient — if cynical — way of manipulating concepts and ascribing them completely new meanings.

Nils Schniederjann

If this is so clear, why have there been these recent debates in Germany about a supposedly socialist policy of the Nazis?

Ishay Landa

Well, this is actually not so new, and has a long history. Already during the time of fascism there were attempts to portray the Nazis as socialists, for example by Ludwig von Mises. But in general, the efforts to establish a direct link between Marxism and National Socialism was a minority position. Then, beginning in the 1980s, a turning point occurred when a revisionist current began to emerge in fascism studies. It sought to link fascism much more strongly with the political left, with revolution and with anti-capitalism. This happened at a time when neoliberalism was beginning to dismantle the welfare state. Which made this ideological move very convenient. Advocates of this policy could say: “The Nazis actually stood for an authoritarian form of socialism!” Attacking the welfare state could thus be presented as an anti-fascist act, a resistance to Nazism and a purging of its political residues.

Nils Schniederjann

So, turning Nazis into socialists is also a tool to push through anti-worker policies?

Ishay Landa

That’s right. When did intellectuals actually start writing books accusing the Nazis of having pursued socialist economic policies? When did they start accusing the Nazis of having assisted the masses at the expense of the bourgeoisie? Exactly at the time that politicians tried to impose neoliberal reforms on the labor market. In this way, historiography is linked to economic realities. Policymakers used these theories to support their attacks on the welfare state. Götz Aly, the German historian, said in one of his interviews at the turn of the millennium that it was the task of the Social Democratic government under Gerhard Schröder to finally put an end to the “Volksgemeinschaft.” Thus, by liberalizing the economy, the last vestiges of National Socialism would be removed from German politics. This thinking shows how current political fashions are linked to the ways we perceive the past.

Nils Schniederjann

But did liberals ever confront the fact that Hitler was in part advancing their own political program?

Ishay Landa

There was never a truly forthright and direct reckoning with this legacy. In the postwar years, there was a consensus that the state had to moderately improve the situation of workers — even within a liberal framework. If there was a liberal admission of guilt, it was made on the premise that Nazi policies had not been true liberalism. Nazi liberalism — so argued the few scholars that admitted any relationship between the two ideologies — had been half-baked, helplessly old-fashioned, and renounced the democratic dimension inherent to liberalism.

Later, however, there was a radical change. Suddenly, liberals were much more inclined to say: “National Socialism was socialist. And if you fight against socialism to create a market that is as free as possible from any political interference, you’re a good anti-fascist.” That was the much more enduring, anti-“populist” phase of liberal engagement with the past.

Nils Schniederjann

Another way to enforce economically liberal reforms is by linking social and economic liberalization. Do you think that economic liberalism always goes hand in hand with social progress?

Ishay Landa

I think we should make a distinction between the economic and the political dimensions of liberalism. At the beginning, they sometimes went hand in hand. But at a certain stage, the economic and the political aspect drifted apart. Liberals then had to decide where their priorities lay. Are they economic liberals who defend private property, class society, and the free market at all costs, or do they prefer liberal democracy to actually deliver on its promise of freedom and self-determination for all people? This contradiction has not yet been resolved. And the need to make a choice between the two options abides.

Nils Schniederjann

Why can’t you do both?

Ishay Landa

The conventional wisdom is that liberalism always goes hand in hand with political and individual freedoms, which is sometimes true. But what is forgotten is that from the very beginning liberalism not only opened up political possibilities, but also severely restricted them. What liberalism had to make clear from the beginning was that private property is untouchable; that it forms the unassailable basis of the political order.

So, important liberal thinkers insisted as early as John Locke, you can’t tax the rich without their consent. If you do so, you give the victims of these policies a good reason to rebel and use violence against the usurpers. Liberal politics thus had a dictatorial option inscribed in it from the very beginning. And so it became a dogma to assume that the main task of politics is to protect property, and its principal sin to inveigh against it. But of course, that is a very narrow definition of what politics can or should do. And we suffer from that confinement to this day. In a typical Western democracy, you can do many things — as long as you refrain from infringing on private property.

Nils Schniederjann

So there is something in the basic structure of economic liberalism that actually impedes people’s freedom?

Ishay Landa

Capitalism is essentially an antidemocratic economic structure: it means, above all, domination over workers. Capitalism is hierarchical, not egalitarian. There is also a massive concentration of wealth, which raises a crucial question: How can we redistribute it? Classical liberalism says: “Don’t do anything to change the situation.” But that strictly limits the political sphere, and enormously reduces its possibilities. If we keep the economy secluded from political deliberation, democracy is seriously hamstrung. So, the liberal economic view is to say to the masses, “Don’t try to be too logical when you think about democracy! Don’t try to take democracy at its word. It only creates a lot of trouble!”

Nils Schniederjann

And don’t try to improve the economic situation for anyone but the bourgeoisie.

Ishay Landa

Exactly. And that remains the case very much today. Elon Musk’s statements provide a treasure trove of examples for what we’re discussing here, because he’s pretty frank and blatant about it. He recently said that Americans are trying to shirk hard work and that they should take a cue from Chinese workers “burning the midnight oil.” That’s a very clear statement because, of course, he knows that Chinese workers have no way to democratically resist hard working demands. He implies that the democratic system is far too lax and indulgent and we need a much stricter system to discipline workers, to make them work hard and accept low wages — a system like we see in China.

Nils Schniederjann

Musk has also recently announced that he will support the Republicans. This is despite the fact that Donald Trump still plays a central role in the party.

Ishay Landa

That’s a fine indication of the dictatorial option built into liberal thinking. I’m by no means saying that all liberals would support anything like that. But it’s very hard to reconcile economic and political liberalism. As a result of this conundrum, some political liberals choose a different path economically, and others vacillate back and forth between the two poles without ever really being able to resolve the fundamental conflict. To some extent, it could be argued that socialism is itself a child of political liberalism. Marx and Engels started out as political liberals and never abandoned the basic ideas of liberalism: freedom and democratic participation for all. They merely developed their concept further because they recognized that under capitalism the prospects for the realization of a genuine democratic project were seriously limited.

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