The Nazis were leftists. This statement is blasphemy to the academic-media complex. Everyone knows the Nazis were degenerate right-wingers fueled by toxic capitalism and racism. But evidence Hitler’s gang were men of the left while debatable is compelling. The dispute on Nazi origins has surfaced through the confluence of brawling alt-right and antifa fringe movements and recent alternative histories by Dinesh D’Souza and others. The vitriol and lack of candor this debate produces by supposedly fact-driven academics and media is disturbing if unsurprising. They stifle dissent on touchy subjects to maintain narrative and enforce cultural hegemony.
However uncomfortable to opinion shapers, alternative views of the Third Reich exist and were written by the finest minds of their time. Opinions of the period perhaps carry more weight because they are unburdened by the aftermath of the uniquely heinous Nazi crimes. ‘The Road to Serfdom’ by FA Hayek is one such tract. Published in 1944 it remains a classic for young people on the political right discovering their intellectual roots. A sort of academic ‘1984,’ it warns of socialism’s tendency toward planned states and totalitarianism.
But one aspect of the book can shock the conscience. Hayek describes Nazism as a “genuine socialist movement” and thus left wing by modern American standards. Indeed, the Austrian-born Hayek wrote the book from his essay ‘Nazi-Socialism’ that countered prevailing opinion at the London School of Economics where he taught. British elites regarded Nazism as a virulent capitalist reaction against enlightened socialism — a view that persists today.
The shock comes from academic and cultural orthodoxy on National Socialism. From the moment they enter the political fray, young right-wingers are told ‘you own the Nazis.’ At best, the left concedes it owns communism. This comforts little because even if far higher in body count, communism supposedly rebukes the scourge of racism. But it’s all a lie.
The instant problem this debate incurs is from ideological labels themselves. They are malleable and messy and partisans constantly distort them. They change over time. Trump’s particular political brand muddies the scene further, in rhetoric if less in policy. “Conservative” and especially “liberal” have changed over time and have different meanings in the US and Europe. Hayek himself, who had a more European view of conservatism, was wary of labels. He spurned both “conservative” and “libertarian” and dedicated his most famous book to “the socialists of all parties.”
Currently Accepted Political Definitions Place the Nazis firmly on the Left
For precision, I refrain from using “conservative” or “liberal” unless through quotation and use ‘left’ and ‘right’ as generally accepted in modern America.
The right consists of free-market capitalists, who think the individual is the primary political unit, believes in property rights, and is generally distrustful of the administrative state and government solutions to social problems. They view family and civil institutions such as church as needed checks on state power. These people don’t think government should force a business to provide employee birth control or think law should coerce bakers to make cakes against their conscience. They think the solution to bad speech is more speech; the solution to gun violence is more guns. These people talk about “freedom” — the method individual decisions. (The counterexample might be gay marriage but that is a positive right (give me something) instead of a negative right (leave me alone)).
The left believes the opposite. These people are distrustful of the excesses and inequality capitalism produces. They give primacy to group rights and identity. They believe factors like race, ethnicity, and gender compose the primary political units. They don’t believe in strong property rights. They believe it is the government’s responsibility to solve social problems. They call for public intervention to “equalize” disparities and render our social fabric more inclusive (as they define it). They believe the free market has failed to solve issues like campaign finance, income inequality, minimum wage, access to healthcare, and righting past injustices. These people talk about “democracy” — the method of collective decisions.
By these definitions the Nazis were firmly on the left. National Socialism was a collectivist authoritarian movement run by “social justice warriors.” That this brand of “justice” benefited only some based on immutable characteristics perfectly aligns with the modern brand. The Nazi ideal embraced identity politics based on the primacy of the people or “volk” and invoked state-based solutions for every possible problem. It was nation-based socialism — the nation being especially important to those who bled in the Great War.
As Hayek wrote in 1933, the year the Nazis took power:
[I]t is more than probable that the real meaning of the German revolution is that the long dreaded expansion of communism into the heart of Europe has taken place but is not recognized because the fundamental similarity of methods and ideas is hidden by the difference in phraseology and the privileged groups.
Nazism and socialism competed with the Enlightenment-based individualism of Locke, Smith, Montesquieu, and others who profoundly influenced the American founding and define the modern American right at its best.
These thinkers fit easily with Hayek’s Austrian School of Economics, which opposed both the imperialist German Historical School and the Marxists.
Hayek knew what he was talking about. He was a 20th Century intellectual giant. His collected works span nineteen books; he won the Nobel Prize in economics and Presidential Medal of Freedom; and he held the honor of Maggie Thatcher’s “favorite intellectual guru.” But Hayek is only one man. The intelligentsia fiercely attacked him as reactionary throughout his life. Perhaps he was wrong.
Hayek was not alone in his views of National Socialism
Evidence the Nazis were leftists goes well beyond the views of one scholar. Philosophically, Nazi doctrine fit well with the other strains of socialism ripping through the Europe at the time. Hitler’s first “National Workers Party” meeting while still an Army corporal featured the speech “How and by What Means is Capitalism to be Eliminated?”
The Nazi charter published a year later and coauthored by Hitler is socialist in almost every aspect. It calls for “equality of rights for the German people.” The subjugation of the individual to the state; breaking of “rent slavery,”; “confiscation of war profits,”; the nationalization of industry; profit sharing in heavy industry; large scale social security; the “communalization of the great warehouses and there being leased at low costs to small firms”; the “free expropriation of [privately owned] land for the purpose of public utility”; the abolition of “materialistic” Roman Law; the nationalization of education; the nationalization of the army; the nationalization of healthcare for the mother and child; state regulation of the press; and strong central power in the Reich. It was also racist and anti-immigrant.
In some areas the Nazis followed their charter faithfully. They treated children as state property from the earliest age and indoctrinated them at government schools and clubs. The individual had limited rights outside the volk. German lives were for the betterment of the people and state. One’s group identity determined rights and hierarchy in society.
No checks on state power existed. The cross played no role compared to the swastika. Hitler’s musings on the church while at times ambiguous was mostly negative. “Once I have settled my other problems,” he occasionally declared, “I’ll have my reckoning with the church. I’ll have it reeling on the ropes.” When told of SS Chief Heinrich Himmler’s flirtation with the occult Hitler fumed:
What nonsense! Here we have at last reached an age that has left all mysticism behind it, and now he wants to start that all over again. We might just as well have stayed with the church. At least it had tradition. To think that I may some day be turned into an SS saint! Can you imagine it? I would turn over in my grave . . .
These attitudes shouldn’t be surprising given the socialist thinkers that provided the theoretical basis for Nazism abhorred English “commercialism” and “comfort.” As Hayek described, “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.” These “teachers” included Professor Werner Sombart, Professor Johan Plenge, socialist politician Paul Lensch, and intellectuals Oswald Spengler and Arthur Moeller van den Bruck.
It wasn’t only theoretical. Hitler listened. He repeatedly praised Marx privately stating he had “learned a great deal from Marxism.” The trouble with the Wiemar Republic was that its politicians “had never even read Marx.” He also stated his differences with communists were that they were intellectual types passing out pamphlets, whereas “I have put into practice what these peddlers and pen pushers have timidly begun.”
In 1931, two years before gaining power he gave two secret interviews to Richard Breiting, editor of Leipziger Neueste Nachrichten. In them his Marxist views burst forth: “I want everyone to keep what he has earned subject to the principle that the good of the community takes priority over that of the individual. But the state should retain control; every owner should feel himself to be an agent of the State . . . The Third Reich will always retain the right to control property owners.” When Breiting questioned him on industrial socialization, Hitler pushed further: “Why bother with such half-measures when I have far more important matters in hand, such as the people themselves? . . . Why need we trouble to socialize banks and factories? We socialize human beings.”
But it wasn’t just privately that Hitler’s fealty for Marx surfaced. In Mein Kampf he states without his racial insights National Socialism “would really do nothing more than compete with Marxism on its own ground.” Nor did Hitler eschew this sentiment once reaching power. As late as 1941 with the war in bloom he stated “basically National Socialism and Marxism are the same” in a speech published by the Royal Institute of International Affairs.
Nazi propaganda minister and resident intellectual Joseph Goebbels wrote in his diary the Nazis would install “real socialism” after Russia’s defeat in the East. And Hitler favorite Albert Speer, the Nazi armaments minister whose memoir became an international bestseller, wrote Hitler viewed Stalin as a kindred spirit, ensuring his POW son received good treatment, and even talked of keeping Stalin in power in a puppet government after Germany’s eventual triumph. His views on Churchill and Roosevelt were decidedly less kind.
And at the bitter end, as Bolshevik shells exploded just above him, when he had no more reason to lie or obfuscate, whom did Hitler blame for his downfall? Not the communists whose cunning and determination had ultimately ruined his plans, but the evil ‘Jewish capitalistic system.’
Nazi-Communist Hatred was Internecine, the Nastiest Kind
Despite this, one persistent claim for the Nazi-communist ideological divide was they hated each other; the Nazis persecuted socialists and oppressed trade unions. These things are true but prove little. The camps’ hatred stemmed from familiarity. It was internecine, the nastiest kind.
The Nazis and communists not only struggled for street-war supremacy but also recruits. And these recruits were easily turned because both sides were fighting for the same men. Hayek recalls
the relative ease with which a young communist could be converted into a Nazi or vice versa was generally known in Germany, best of all to the propagandists of the two parties. Many a University teacher during the 1930s has seen English or American students return from the Continent uncertain whether they were communists or Nazis and certain they hated Western liberal civilization. . . . To both, the real enemy, the man with whom they had nothing in common and whom they could not hope to convince is the liberal of the old type.
One way Nazi propagandists exploited ideological match was the communist red. They used the color on purpose. As Hitler writes in Mein Kampf, “We chose red for our posters [and flag] after particular and careful deliberation . . . so as to arouse [potential communist recruits’] attention and tempt them to come to our meetings.” And Stalinist Russia didn’t exactly promote trade unions.
Nazi leadership and recruiters weren’t the only ones to see similarities between themselves and communists. George Orwell remarked, “Internally, Germany has a good deal in common with a socialist state.” Max Eastman an old friend of Vladimir Lenin described Stalin’s brand of communism as “super fascist.” British writer FA Voight after several years on the continent concluded “Marxism has led to Fascism and National Socialism because in all essentials it is Fascism and National Socialism.” Peter Drucker author of the acclaimed book “The End of Economic Man” wrote, “The complete collapse of the belief in the attainability of freedom and equality through Marxism has forced Russia to travel the same road toward a totalitarian, purely negative, non-economic society of unfreedom and inequality which Germany has been following.”
Today’s Antifa and Alt-Right share similar ideologies
We see parallels today. Antifa and the alt-right are both collectivist groups vying for supremacy of “their” people. Although there isn’t yet much personnel crossover, in policy their differences shrink. The term ‘alt-right’ denotes distinctness from the American right. Richard Spencer, coiner of that term, speaks like a left-wing progressive advocating a white utopia supplied through government. “No individual has a right outside of a collective community.” Jason Kessler another alt-right figure is a former Obama voter and “Occupy” participant.
Critics argue in practice the Nazis didn’t fulfill all their socialist goals after 1933. Two big industrialists — but only two — supported Hitler’s rise. Others seeing no choice eventually acquiesced, early adopters of the Washington adage ‘if you’re not at the table you’re on the menu.’ The Nazis also began a limited privatization program to some industrial sectors that had been nationalized during the Depression’s worst years. It is also true the party’s foremost left — the SA Brown Shirts led by Hitler rival Ernst Rohm — were eliminated in the Blood Purge of June 30, 1934.
But none of this changes Nazi attitudes toward these interlopers. The limited privatization push was in the service of party power not free-market principles. As Germa Bel states in Economic History Review, “It must be pointed out that, whereas modern privatization has run parallel to liberalization policies, in Nazi Germany privatization was applied within a framework of increasing state control of the whole economy through regulation and political interference.”
Hitler’s stance on economics was practical as described in the writings of confidant Otto Wagener. Wagener explains in texts only translated in the 1980s, Hitler saw the Russian experiment as right in spirit and wrong in execution. Removing production from the industrial class had spewed unnecessary blood. Industrialists could be controlled and used without slowing the economy or impeding social progress.
Hitler’s task was to direct German economic output and convert socialists without killing off the entrepreneur and managerial classes. According to Bel, “there was private initiative in the production process, but no private initiative was allowed in the distribution of the product. Owners could act freely within their firms, but they were extremely restricted in the market.”
Free markets were never at fore of Nazi economic thinking. At the beginning of Nazi control some party members entered businesses, declared themselves in charge, and gave themselves large salaries and perks (a practice quickly stopped). Nonetheless, industrial concerns unwilling to tow the party line had their CEOs replaced with Nazi governors, as happened with aircraft makers Arado and Junkers.
Hitler’s Dream of World Domination Curtailed Socialism’s Worst Aspects
Hitler allowed servile industrialists some leeway because he needed them. He undoubtedly foresaw world domination by the time he took power. That would require utmost industrial might. He also had a failing economy to revive and completely removing production ownership would have been disastrous. Hitler was also disdainful of bureaucrats, the occupation of his hated father.
Hitler also had other priorities. Rearming, purifying the volk, indoctrinating children, teaching schoolboys to throw grenades, and building infrastructure to someday invade neighbors trumped airy economic theory. Nazism was a “middle class” socialism that tolerated private enterprise as long as it paid homage and stayed in its lane — much like the American left today.
This lack of overt hostility however didn’t mean the Nazis welcomed the bourgeoisie or the industrialists. Hitler described the bourgeoisie as “worthless for any noble human endeavor, capable of any error of judgment, failure of nerve and moral corruption.” In 1931 as the Nazis gained power in elections, Goebbels wrote an editorial warning about these newcomer so-called “Septemberlings,’ the bourgeoisie intellectuals who thought they could wrest the party from what they considered the “demagogue” old guard.
Distrust of these outsiders continued through the Nazi reign. As armaments minister, Speer had an up-close view of German industry and party tension. Early in the war Hitler assured him he could run his department without regard to party membership as it was “well known” the industrial technical class did not affiliate with the party. When he defended industry as not “knowingly lying to us, stealing from us, or otherwise trying to damage our war economy” an icy reception from party members followed.
Finally, those claiming National Socialism was a ruse — a marketing strategy — to impose radical capitalism on an unsuspecting German populace must answer a simple question: Who were the capitalists in Hitler’s inner circle? The technocrat Speer? The drug-addled Goering? The suck up Borman? The intellectual Goebbels? The unstable Hess? The racialist Himmler?
None of these people made their name in the private sector. What mattered to the Nazis was your party number, the lower the better. The kind of people that attended lectures titled “How and by What Means is Capitalism to be Eliminated?”
When all else fails the Left always screams racism!
Despite the thoroughly collectivist Nazi ideology one aspect settles the left-right debate for American leftists: racism. The leftist brain is hardwired to think the right swims in racism. They discover racial dog whistles and grievances in everything from hotel toiletries to eclipses. The Nazis were undoubtedly racists. But in context of socialist movements of their day racism was the norm; there were no exceptions.
As shown by George Watson, author of ‘The Lost Literature of Socialism,’ racism and socialism swum together. Marx may have extolled the workers of the world to unite but that didn’t mean all races could join. This view codified in Friedrich Engels’ essay ‘The Hungarian Struggle’ published in the January-February 1849 issue of Marx’s journal Neue Rheinische Zeitung.
According to Watson:
The Marxist theory of history required and demanded genocide for reasons implicit in its claim that feudalism was already giving place to capitalism, which must in its turn be superseded by socialism. Entire races would be left behind after a workers’ revolution, feudal remnants in a socialist age; and since they could not advance two steps at a time, they would have to be killed.
According to Engels they were “racial trash.” And Marx himself, sounding every bit the Hitler mentor in 1853 wrote, “The classes and the races, too weak to master the new conditions of life, must give way.”
Socialism and Racism have always held hands
This racial view animated socialist thinking through the Second World War. It manifested in eugenics, a left-wing idea popular on both sides of the Atlantic with proponents such as Planned Parenthood founder Margret Sanger. It ended finally in the Holocaust — eugenics writ large in the most evil way. Watson states, “The idea of ethnic cleansing was orthodox socialism for a century and more.” English socialist intellectual Beatrice Webb lamented British visitors in Ukraine had been allowed to view a passing cattle car full of starving subversives, “the English” she said “are always so sentimental” about such matters.
This makes sense when one views socialism as defending the rights of one group — the citizens of basically homogeneous countries. According to Watson, “It is notable that no German socialist in the 1930s or earlier ever sought to deny Hitler’s right to call himself a socialist on grounds of racial policy. In an age when the socialist tradition of genocide was familiar, that would have sounded merely absurd.” In America and England too, the left’s ascendancy during the first progressive movement was full of racists including Woodrow Wilson, Sanger, and writers HG Wells and Jack London.
We see more recent examples of left racism and ethnic cleansing in unusual places. Leftist hero Che Guevara wrote in his 1952 memoir, “The Negro is indolent and lazy and spends his money on frivolities, whereas the European is forward-looking, organized and intelligent.” Except for “quiet manner,” find the difference between Hitler and avowed Marxist Pol Pot upon the latter’s 1998 death in the ‘New York Times’ obituary:
Pol Pot conducted a rule of terror that led to the deaths of nearly a quarter of Cambodia’s seven million people, by the most widely accepted estimates, through execution, torture, starvation and disease.
His smiling face and quiet manner belied his brutality. He and his inner circle of revolutionaries adopted a Communism based on Maoism and Stalinism, then carried it to extremes: They and their Khmer Rouge movement tore apart Cambodia in an attempt to ‘’purify’’ the country’s agrarian society and turn people into revolutionary worker-peasants.
Nor was anti-Semitism a right-wing malady. Stalin was anti-Semitic as was Marx despite his Jewish heritage. Anti-Semitism is still alive on the left with figures like Linda Sarsour, Louis Farrakhan, and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK.
Related to the racist claim is that Nazis’ nationalism excludes them from the left. But arguably the most nationalist countries today are Cuba, China, North Korea, and Venezuela. All are militarized and nobody considers them right wing. Even Stalin ruled as a nationalist.
A newer claim by the professoriate is because Winston Churchill ran on nationalizing programs in 1945 when he was defeated by Labour’s Clement Atlee this somehow shows the Nazis weren’t leftists. This misunderstands wartime Britain. By 1945 Britain had been mobilized for six years. As author Bruce Caldwell states “The common sacrifices that the war necessitated bred a feeling that all should share more equally in the reconstruction to come. Universal medical provision was itself virtually a fact of life during the first years of the war, certainly for anyone injured by aerial bombing or whose work was tied to the war effort — and whose work was not in way or another?”
This sentiment spurred Downing Street to undertake a report on post-war Britain’s welfare state. The so-called Beveridge Report included proposals for family allowance, comprehensive social insurance, universal health care, and requirement for full employment. It debuted in 1942 and sold 500,000 copies! Even Churchill wasn’t going to stem that tide. In fact, no one disturbed the consensus until Maggie Thatcher burst the scene in the mid-1970s.
Not Liking the Truth Doesn’t Mean it’s not True
The debate on Nazi origins has surfaced mainly because right-leaning authors like Dinesh D’Souza forced the issue. The reaction by academic historians has been swift. For obvious reasons the left hates this debate. The ‘Nazi’ slur is as old as the Nazis themselves. People who see themselves morally superior based in part on racial attitudes don’t like examining the odious history of their intellectual forebears.
But the left’s umbrage doesn’t mean they’re right and neither does their ability to pile on dissenters through cultural and media hegemony. In fact, it might mean the opposite. In 1981, 364 preeminent British economists wrote in disgust at Maggie Thatcher’s economic proposals. It read in part, “There is no basis in economic theory or supporting evidence for the Government’s belief(s) . . . [P]resent politics will deepen the depression, erode the industrial base of our economy and threaten its social and political stability.” In the long run, to paraphrase the famous economist John Maynard Keynes, all these academics died and no one remembers them. The Iron Lady, conversely, is the for the ages.
The more vehemently the left, particularly academics, argue their dissociation with the Nazis the more they protest “too much.” Indeed, the failure here is as much one of academic prejudice as any willful wish to avoid truth.
Those interested in this question shouldn’t just take my word. But neither should they listen uncritically to leftist historians with a vested interest in their own views. Curious readers should draw their own conclusions from current scholars but also those of the time not so burdened by the weight of history and the place Nazis occupy in the American psyche. If you are on the right, you may realize you’ve been carrying an intellectual cross (the worst of them) that isn’t yours.
A version of this article originally appeared in The Federalist on September 11, 2018
The author updated this story with new sources on October 26, 2019.
Paul H. Jossey is a lawyer in Alexandria, Virginia. Please follow him on Twitter, @paulhjossey