It’s Nazi week at Crooked Timber! Do you love thrilling stories about Nazis? Great!
The NSDAP combined its economic scare propaganda with a very heavy emphasis upon its championship of traditional German middle-class political and social prejudices. To make its picture of an impending Marxist take-over credible, the party deliberately exploited the identification in the average German middle-class mind of the SPD and KPD as “Marxists.” Actually, of course, the SPD (unlike the KPD) had no revolutionary ambitions, and its election victories in 1928 were indications of legislative and democratic stability in Germany. Similarly, the NSDAP suddenly became a champion of states’ rights, another value dear to most middle-class Germans. Although in the past Hitler himself had often called for a strictly centralized state, he now publicly recognized the viability of the federal system and the sovereignty (Eigenstaatlichkeit) of the states. From here it was only a step to participation in legislative coalitions. The party that had long debated whether or not to field candidates began in 1929 to deal in backroom compromises in Saxony just like any other interest group. No wonder that to a dedicated revolutionary the NSDAP had become “to put it bluntly, a pig sty!”
The NSDAP even began to provide ostensibly apolitical services as part of its new image. The NSPK (National Socialist Press Correspondence) was organized in mid-1929 to provide free of charge newspaper copy about the NSDAP and its aims to the “neutral” — that is, rightist but not party-owned—provincial press. The party even activated its “save-our-culture” organization. Though established at the party congress of 1927 to preserve the “Germanness” of the German cultural heritage, the KDV did not schedule a full series of public functions until early 1929, when this organization (which had no official connection with the party) became useful as yet another device to demonstrate the NSDAP’s support for middle-class values.
Finally, the party continued its less belligerent attitude toward the nationalist paramilitary and patriotic organizations as part of its effort to make the sponsorship of middle-class ideals credible. In the summer and fall of 1928 the NSDAP proclaimed what amounted to a national emergency. At the time of the Munich conference, Alfred Rosenberg published an article in the VB noting that diplomatically Germany had never been more isolated (and hence more powerless) than at this time, and the paper thereafter continued masochistically to wallow in every real or imagined setback suffered by the Weimar government in international affairs. In a sense, of course, this was nothing new, but the political conclusions which the party drew from this state of affairs were novel. The Reichsleitung utilized its emphasis on national degradation under the new rural-nationalist plan to stage a limited comeback to the far-right fold in German politics. Instead of attempting to isolate itself further, the party now felt strong enough to associate itself with other far-right groups in specific “patriotic” causes and thus demonstrate its championship of nationalist, “apolitical” middle-class values.– Dietrich Orlow, The Nazi Party 1919-1945: A Complete History
Bored yet? Dunked in the alphabet soup? Well, maybe the history of Weimar politics is not for you.
OK, I’ll give you a slightly longer, less acronym-intensive account of how the Nazis repositioned, following the setbacks of 1928:
A major political breakthrough eluded the Nazis, however, and more failures were in store for the movement before the “years of struggle” would come to an end. The Nazis had achieved breadth though not depth in developing their electoral constituency. Despite extensive organizational efforts and a definite Socialist orientation in their propaganda between 1926 and 1928, the National Socialists failed to crack the Communist and Social Democratic monopoly on the workers. The Nazis made some inroads among those employed in craft industries and small firms but not among the bulk of industrial workers or those integrated into the leftist political and social culture of the time. The results of the Nazi working-class strategy merely created a wider gap between the NSDAP and the middle classes. Only elements of the lower-middle class were attracted to the Nazi anticapitalist message. Throughout the 1920s, small farmers, shopkeepers, and artisans remained the core of the Nazi electorate. In the case of both the workers and the lower-middle class, the Nazis drew voters from the nonindustrial segments of society or from those whose economic existence had been declining for decades due to the rise of a modern industrial economy. Nonetheless, these constituencies were still not large enough to make the Nazis a serious threat at the ballot box.
Moreover, the party was struggling against a republic that seemed to have stabilized itself. Four years of economic improvement and domestic order had altered substantially the earlier climate of resentment and insecurity in which the Nazis thrived. The Reichstag elections of May 1928 showed that even the efficient Nazi political machine was useless against the formidable forces of prosperity and stability. In this election, those parties that supported the republic made significant gains, while the rightist parties suffered heavy losses. The Nazis were also handed their most devastating political setback since the Beer Hall Putsch, receiving only 800,000 votes out of the more than 30 million cast. Their worst defeats were in the urban areas, where they had campaigned most heavily and into which they had channeled the bulk of their resources. In the major cities and industrial areas, their share of the vote ranged from less than 1 percent to under 3 percent. The Nazis had employed the wrong strategy at the wrong time.
But then they turned it around:
The Nazis recovered from their defeat of 1928 before the onset of the Great Depression and the political crisis that accompanied it. Shortly after the elections, the NSDAP started to reorganize and reorient its political strategy. Voting patterns had shown that Nazi strength existed in rural areas and among the middle classes in small towns …
Romantic nationalism, strong religious beliefs, and anti-Semitism in these rural districts, along with economic problems, made rural populations perfect targets for Nazi propaganda. Playing upon an existing proclivity toward völkisch nationalism, the Nazis emphasized that the peasantry had a special status as the true nobility of Germany, because they were the purest form of the Volk and in essence the racial backbone of the nation. The Nazis claimed that Jewish bankers and capitalists, and the Marxists that controlled the government, were threatening the economic existence of this group. The Nazis promised the peasants agrarian reform, massive tax relief, and the elimination of indebtedness …
In the small towns, the Nazis presented themselves as allies of the traditional German right and not as revolutionaries. Their stated goal was the rejuvenation of Germany, and they relentlessly attacked the government and other parties as pawns of the Allies who had kept Germany as a slave among nations. Their previous Socialist rhetoric was quickly downplayed, as they portrayed themselves as the defenders of the middle classes and private property, threatened by Marxism, big business, and foreign financial control. Nazi anticapitalism, they explained, was directed only against the large corporations, the Jews, and international finance. Nazi speakers addressed middle-class problems, exploiting the fears and prejudices of this class, while propagandists saturated the towns with posters and leaflets. The Nazi tactic of penetration proved as successful in the towns as it was in the countryside, and they continued to infiltrate various organizations and to nazify them. They also managed to penetrate numerous middle-class professional, business, and student associations in the larger cities. The drive to attract middle-class individuals was partially due to Hitler’s desire to staff the party organization with more intelligent and more competent bureaucrats. The influx of educated members of the middle class into the party in the late twenties showed the positive results of this aspect of the recruitment campaign, just as continual growth in membership from the countryside was an encouraging sign for the rural strategy. However, it would become clear only in late 1929 that the National Socialists had finally found the right political strategy and had been able to identify the groups that would provide the foundations for mass support. A series of events in 1929 rapidly changed the political climate to the advantage of the Nazis. The first development in this direction came with the rightist campaign against the Young Plan, which was to establish a new schedule for German reparation payments. Although the plan contained significant concessions to the Germans, it still required that they continue to pay reparations for fifty-nine more years. To the right, this was further proof that Germany remained the victim of Versailles and that the “November Criminals” in control of Weimar were engaging in treason. In the summer of 1929 an alliance of big business, nationalist organizations, and rightist political parties was formed to fight the plan. These groups cooperated in agitating against the Young Plan and in sponsoring a national referendum to prevent its ratification. The central figure in this campaign initially was Alfred Hugenberg, the new leader of the German Nationalist party and a wealthy industrialist. An extreme nationalist, Hugenberg sought the destruction of Versailles, Weimar democracy, and the power of the German left; thereafter, he intended that Germany would be governed as a conservative authoritarian state. Hugenberg viewed the national uproar over the Young Plan as an opportunity to recoup the great losses sustained by the right in 1928. After some hesitation, Hitler joined this rightist coalition. Upstart radical Nazis and reactionary industrialists again became temporary allies. Hugenberg and Hitler each intended to exploit the other for his own purposes. Hugenberg headed an established and well-financed party with political and social respectability, but one that suffered from lethargy and declining popularity. Hitler represented a rising, dynamic, new movement with the potential to muster widespread support. Having little faith in the ability of the Nazis to acquire power or to govern, Hugenberg wanted to use Hitler as a “drummer” to win back the masses to the rightist cause. In Hitler’s eyes, Hugenberg was a key to national attention, to respect among middle-class voters, and to financial resources from big business.
Joseph W. Bendersky, A Concise History of Nazi Germany
But why am I bothering you with all this mind-numbing detail?
Because we get email. After my recent Graeber post closed, after a mere 1042 comments, I received correspondence from an individual who unaccountably hadn’t managed to deposit his 2 cents before the deadline. Among other things, he was bothered that so many contributors to the thread discussed Nazism as if it were a right-wing political movement. He sent me copious links intended to establish that Hitler was a Marxist (although not a Bolshevik!) and that the Nazis were, from the start, a left-wing workers party, aiming at the elimination of class distinctions and the nationalization of the means of production. Also, the Nazis were anti-Christian, which is inconsistent with them having conservative appeal. Most of all, they were the ‘National Socialist German Worker’s Party’ party, and they grew out of the ‘German Worker’s Party’. So it beggars belief that they could have been anything but some sort of a leftist revolutionary party, as opposed to being any sort of right-wing party. Right-wing means conservative. I was assured communism and fascism/Nazism are ‘oppo-same’, and that only left-wing propaganda has lately obscured this plain truth from view.
This is all argle-bargle, so I decided I would write a pair of posts saying why. This is the first, answering: Why do historians think the Nazis were right-wing? The second will be: in what sense were the Nazis socialists? (If they were right-wing, why did they call themselves ‘socialist’, smart guy?) [It turned out to take two posts to answer this second question – part 1; part 2.)
The point of the long quotes I started with is this: the reason the Nazis are regarded by historians as right-wing isn’t so much that it ended with the Holocaust. It’s the way it began in party politics in Weimar Germany. If all we knew about Hitler was the inside of a German concentration camp, and all we knew about Stalin was the inside of a Russian Gulag camp, it would indeed be mysterious why the one was ‘right’ and the other ‘left’. But that isn’t all we know. It’s impossible to narrate the ins-and-outs of the story of how the Nazis came to power without regarding them as, basically, an extreme right-wing party. There are features of Weimar politics that complicated the left-right binary. There are ways in which the Nazis defy our left-right preconceptions. But basically we can tell left from right. We know which side the Nazis were on. Basically, the Nazis were a right-wing party that tried, and failed, to sell its brand of ‘socialism’ to the working-classes, which preferred left-wing versions courtesy of the Social Democrats or Communists. But it succeeded in allying with old-line conservatives, despite being too radical and revolutionary for their tastes. The Nazis used the conservatives to gain respectability; the conservatives used the Nazis to gain an energized, activist base. In the end, the Nazis came out on top.
My title references Peter Gay’s classic study, Weimar Culture: The Outsider as Insider. “It was a precarious glory, a dance on the edge of a volcano. Weimar Culture was the creation of outsiders, propelled by history into the inside, for a short, dizzying, fragile moment.” It would be a good idea to write a flip-side study, Weimar Culture: The Insider As Outsider, explaining what made it culturally and socially coherent for German conservative forces – the aristocrats, elements of the churches, business interests, the military – to ally themselves with the Nazis, despite the fact that the latter were revolutionary radicals. The conservatives felt they had lost their country. Even though they still had tremendous status and power, their relative losses, after 1918, meant they didn’t feel it. They felt propelled by history to the outside, for a short, dizzying, fragile moment. If you feel like a complete outsider in your own country, as a conservative, you will have fewer compunctions about joining with reactionary revolutionaries who aren’t conservatives but at least are on the right, like you.
Of course, you don’t have to take my word for it. If you are the sort of reader who thinks standard histories are propaganda written by left-wing hacks, you will probably think I am just covering up for them. If the simple ‘why would they call themselves socialists if they weren’t leftists?’ argument sounds utterly decisive, you will probably ignore what I have to say. Still, the answer to the question, why aren’t historians impressed by the sorts of arguments my emailer sent me? is that they don’t provide the means to rewrite the sorts of passages I quoted at the start. The standard pieces fall apart, but fail to come back together in some new, coherent pattern.
If the Nazis were ‘oppo-same’ with the communists and/or Social Democrats (I’ve seen both claims) why did their efforts to win over workers fail, before 1928?
If the Nazis were obviously concerned to destroy class distinctions, why was their greatest appeal to the lower middle-class, which was most concerned to avoid that?
If the Nazis were obviously Marxists (until post-war leftist historians started erasing the evidence) why did they seem to pre-war conservatives like a handy ‘drum’ to beat, against Marxism?
Unless you have good answers to these and other questions you really can’t make any sense of Weimar politics. If you can’t make any sense of that, you can’t write history. If you can’t write history, you are hardly going to impress the historians.
With a little luck, my post title will be the sort of thing Google likes. Maybe I can effect a historicist blunting of Jonah Goldberg’s ahistorical talking points from Liberal Fascism. We really do live in a world in which (largely thanks to Goldberg, I think) most US conservatives now take it for granted that the Nazis were a left-wing Marxist party of some sort. I realize very few regular Crooked Timber readers are likely to share this opinion. But maybe the details will still be interesting to some who already buy the basic outlines. Also, Eric’s post has been making me feel nostalgic for 2008. I’ve been recalling the good old days of making fun of Goldberg, so I’ll just start with a quote from his book:
The major flaw in all this is that fascism, properly understood, is not a phenomenon of the right at all. Instead, it is and always has been, a phenomenon of the left. This fact — an inconvenient truth if there ever was one — is obscure in our time by the equally mistaken belief that fascism and communism are opposites. In reality, they are closely related, historical competitors for the same constituents, seeking to dominate and control the same social space. The fact that they appear as polar opposites is a trick of intellectual history and (more to the point) the result of a concerted propaganda effort on the part of the “Reds” to make the “Browns” appear objectively evil and “other” … But in terms of their theory and practice, the differences are minimal.
Before the war, fascism was widely viewed as a progressive social movement with many liberal and left-wing adherents in Europe and the United States; the horror of the Holocaust completely changed our view of fascism as something uniquely evil and ineluctably bound up with extreme nationalism, paranoia, and genocidal racism. After the war, the American progressives who had praised Mussolini and even looked sympathetically at Hitler in the 1920’s and 1930’s had to distance themselves from the horrors of Nazism. Accordingly, leftist intellectuals redefined fascism as “right-wing” and projected their own sins onto conservatives, even as they continued to borrow heavily from fascist and pre-fascist thought.
Given the benefit of hindsight, it’s difficult to understand why anyone doubts the fascist nature of the French Revolution ….. But if the French Revolution was fascist, then its heirs would have to be seen as the fruit of this poisoned tree, and fascism itself would finally and correctly be placed where it belongs in the story of the left. This would cause seismic disorder in the leftist worldview; so instead, leftists embrace cognitive dissonance and terminological sleight of hand.
There are more tangles here than I am going to venture into. Been there, done that. Just wanted to remind you all what Goldberg says. Let me move on to something else my correspondent urged me to consider. This post at (shudder!) the American Thinker. This is not respectable stuff, but I’m linking to it because it looks respectable. It looks like ‘serious’ history, insofar as it appears to consist of an impressive accretion of detail, quotes from books, references to all sorts of telling evidence, all of which certainly makes it sound as if it is not merely true, but obviously true, that:
Nazis were Marxists, through and through. Although Nazi condemned Bolshevism, the particular incarnation of Marx in Russia, and although the Nazis often bickered and fought with Fascism, the particular incarnation of Marx in Italy, Hitler and his ghastly accomplices were always and forever absolutely committed to that which we have come to call the “Far Left.” Nazis were Marxists.
Well, ok, that’s pretty obviously confused. “The Nazis often bickered … with Fascism” is not a sentence a serious historian would write. Still, the post seems to contain a lot of information, all of which sounds as if it tends to support the conclusion that the Nazis were strictly a left-wing worker’s party. It sounds like there literally is no reason whatsoever to suspect that there was anything right-wing about Nazism. Ergo, the received wisdom that the Nazis were right-wing must be some conspiracy by leftist academic historians, to cover the shame that ‘their’ side was responsible for the Holocaust! It’s the only explanation!
Just for good measure, here is a piece from the Independent, by George Watson, from 1998 (but it is still high in the Google ranks if you look for Hitler + Marx):
It is now clear beyond all reasonable doubt that Hitler and his associates believed they were socialists, and that others, including democratic socialists, thought so too. The title of National Socialism was not hypocritical. The evidence before 1945 was more private than public, which is perhaps significant in itself. In public Hitler was always anti-Marxist, and in an age in which the Soviet Union was the only socialist state on earth, and with anti-Bolshevism a large part of his popular appeal, he may have been understandably reluctant to speak openly of his sources. His megalomania, in any case, would have prevented him from calling himself anyone’s disciple. That led to an odd and paradoxical alliance between modern historians and the mind of a dead dictator. Many recent analysts have fastidiously refused to study the mind of Hitler; and they accept, as unquestioningly as many Nazis did in the 1930s, the slogan “Crusade against Marxism” as a summary of his views. An age in which fascism has become a term of abuse is unlikely to analyse it profoundly.
His private conversations, however, though they do not overturn his reputation as an anti-Communist, qualify it heavily. Hermann Rauschning, for example, a Danzig Nazi who knew Hitler before and after his accession to power in 1933, tells how in private Hitler acknowledged his profound debt to the Marxian tradition. “I have learned a great deal from Marxism” he once remarked, “as I do not hesitate to admit”. He was proud of a knowledge of Marxist texts acquired in his student days before the First World War and later in a Bavarian prison, in 1924, after the failure of the Munich putsch. The trouble with Weimar Republic politicians, he told Otto Wagener at much the same time, was that “they had never even read Marx”, implying that no one who had failed to read so important an author could even begin to understand the modern world; in consequence, he went on, they imagined that the October revolution in 1917 had been “a private Russian affair”, whereas in fact it had changed the whole course of human history! His differences with the communists, he explained, were less ideological than tactical. German communists he had known before he took power, he told Rauschning, thought politics meant talking and writing. They were mere pamphleteers, whereas “I have put into practice what these peddlers and pen pushers have timidly begun”, adding revealingly that “the whole of National Socialism” was based on Marx.
That is a devastating remark and it is blunter than anything in his speeches or in Mein Kampf.; though even in the autobiography he observes that his own doctrine was fundamentally distinguished from the Marxist by reason that it recognised the significance of race – implying, perhaps, that it might otherwise easily look like a derivative. Without race, he went on, National Socialism “would really do nothing more than compete with Marxism on its own ground”. Marxism was internationalist. The proletariat, as the famous slogan goes, has no fatherland. Hitler had a fatherland, and it was everything to him.
Yet privately, and perhaps even publicly, he conceded that National Socialism was based on Marx. On reflection, it makes consistent sense. The basis of a dogma is not the dogma, much as the foundation of a building is not the building, and in numerous ways National Socialism was based on Marxism. It was a theory of history and not, like liberalism or social democracy, a mere agenda of legislative proposals. And it was a theory of human, not just of German, history, a heady vision that claimed to understand the whole past and future of mankind. Hitler’s discovery was that socialism could be national as well as international. There could be a national socialism. That is how he reportedly talked to his fellow Nazi Otto Wagener in the early 1930s. The socialism of the future would lie in “the community of the volk”, not in internationalism, he claimed, and his task was to “convert the German volk to socialism without simply killing off the old individualists”, meaning the entrepreneurial and managerial classes left from the age of liberalism. They should be used, not destroyed. The state could control, after all, without owning, guided by a single party, the economy could be planned and directed without dispossessing the propertied classes.
OK, I’ll quote just a bit more because really this piece does a good job of making it sound like this all makes sense.
For half a century, none the less, Hitler has been portrayed, if not as a conservative – the word is many shades too pale – at least as an extreme instance of the political right. It is doubtful if he or his friends would have recognised the description. His own thoughts gave no prominence to left and right, and he is unlikely to have seen much point in any linear theory of politics. Since he had solved for all time the enigma of history, as he imagined, National Socialism was unique. The elements might be at once diverse and familiar, but the mix was his.
It is the issue of race, above all, that for half a century has prevented National Socialism from being seen as socialist. The proletariat may have no fatherland, as Lenin said. But there were still, in Marx’s view, races that would have to be exterminated. That is a view he published in January-February 1849 in an article by Engels called “The Hungarian Struggle” in Marx’s journal the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, and the point was recalled by socialists down to the rise of Hitler. It is now becoming possible to believe that Auschwitz was socialist-inspired. 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. They were racial trash, as Engels called them, and fit only for the dung-heap of history.
OK, enough arguments that Hitler was a big Marxist. Let’s review the score to this point. I started by quoting long passages from standard histories. These standard histories deny, by implication, all this stuff you get from Goldberg and the American Thinker and the Independent and countless right-wing web sources. The standard histories all presume that the Nazis are right-wing (but not uncomplicatedly so.) But what about all these juicy ‘I was a teen-age Marxist!’ quotes? Riddle me that! Are the historians just ignorant of this stuff?
Frankly, you should trust the histories. Or, rather: you shouldn’t trust the juicy quotes. Not because they are falsified. (Probably some of them are. It’s the web.) But mostly because they can be so misleading. Everyone knows it’s easy to take quotes out of context. But I think sometimes we lack a sufficiently vivid sense for how easy that is, in a case such as this.
Let’s start with the Independent piece by George Watson. Did Marx really advocate ethnic genocide, as Watson implies? Well … sort of. You can read the Engels piece in question here. The concluding line: “The next world war will result in the disappearance from the face of the earth not only of reactionary classes and dynasties, but also of entire reactionary peoples. And that, too, is a step forward.” Harsh stuff. No denying it.
But does that mean the following makes sense? Engels was willing to stomach ethnic cleansing as a side-effect of class warfare; Hitler was a Marx-reader who placed an emphasis on ethnic cleansing. Ergo, probably Hitler sort of got his ethnic cleansing ideas via Marx?
No, that really does not make sense, if you stop to think about it. Even if you believe Hitler studied Marx (which honestly I doubt, although I don’t doubt he said it) it really isn’t very likely that Hitler derived his racial eliminationism from what is basically a long op-ed about the Hungarian Revolution of 1848. It is certainly not the case that the best way to understand Marxism, generally, is to rotate the whole philosophy around the noble figure of Lajos Kossuth. Even though, as Engels writes in the linked piece:
For the first time in the revolutionary movement of 1848, for the first time since 1793, a nation surrounded by superior counter-revolutionary forces dares to counter the cowardly counter-revolutionary fury by revolutionary passion, the terreur blanche by the terreur rouge. For the first time after a long period we meet with a truly revolutionary figure, a man who in the name of his people dares to accept the challenge of a desperate struggle, who for his nation is Danton and Carnot in one person — Lajos Kossuth.
At this point we could go down the Magyar rabbit-hole, emphasizing that Kossuth was apparently kind of liberal. His Wikipedia page contains the following bits (not that I know a damn thing about Kossuth personally!):
Kossuth followed the ideas of the French nation state ideology, which was a ruling liberal idea of his era. Accordingly he considered and regarded everybody as “Hungarian” – regardless of their mother tongue and ethnic ancestry – who lived in the territory of Hungary. He even quoted King Stephen I of Hungary’s admonition: “A nation of one language and the same customs is weak and fragile” Kossuth’s ideas stand on the enlightened Western European type liberal nationalism (based on the “jus soli” principle) (which is the complete opposition of the ethnic nationalism, which based on “jus sanguinis”, archaically: “race-based” principle.)
Despite appealing exclusively to Hungarian nobility in his speeches, Kossuth played an important part in the shaping of the law of minority rights in 1849. It was the first law which recognized minority rights in Europe.
If I were a dishonest man I would take this opportunity to ‘prove’ that Engels couldn’t possibly be countenancing ethnic cleansing, after all. Because, as a devout follower of Kossuth, Engels was obviously a liberal in favor of minority rights. But no, since I am an honest man, I will simply say that it is quite strained to try to settle whether Marx gets some blame for Auschwitz via an argument about what Engels meant by one piece he wrote about the Hungarian Revolution of 1848. Too much of a stretch.
Let me say, however, that George Watson, the author of The Lost Literature of Socialism seems to be playing a more complex game than this one article suggests. Namely, he’s a believer in right-wing socialism: “I want to ask here why, in defiance of the evidence, the name of socialism still sounds benevolent, why its Tory and reactionary traditions, explicit as they once were, have been so soundly forgotten.” So, from the fact that Watson thinks Hitler was a socialist, it actually doesn’t follow that thinks he isn’t a reactionary on the right. (Even though he does imply he’s neither right nor left.)
Let me look briefly at that American Thinker piece. It’s thick with what I think must be intentionally misleading bits. I really don’t think you could know enough German history to write all this, without knowing that it is basically deceptive.
The very term “National Socialist” was not invented by Hitler nor was it unique to Germany. Eduard Benes, President of Czechoslovakia at the time of the Munich Conference, was a leader of the Czechoslovak National Socialist Party.
The problem here is that an honest writer would at least add that, just because they had the same name, it doesn’t follow that they had the same political philosophy. From Wikipedia: “Despite the similar name, the CSNS was not affiliated with the German Nazi Party; the Nazis formally suppressed the party.”
[UPDATE: I’ve been told I’m wrong about this in comments. The Czech National Socialists were racist nationalists, and Hitler might have known about them from his time in Vienna. I confess to insufficient knowledge of Czech history and politics.]
The worst bit in the American Thinker piece, however, is its discussion of the Strasser brothers, who headed the left-wing of the Nazi Party.
Otto Strasser, the brother and fellow Nazi of Gregor Strasser, who was the second leading Nazi for much of the Nazi Party’s existence, in his 1940 book, Hitler and I revealed his ideology before he found a home in the Nazi Party. In his own words Otto Strasser wrote: “I was a young student of law and economics, a Left Wing student leader.”
True! But what does this leave out? Notably, the fact that Gregor Strasser was out of power by 1932, due to his leftism, and was murdered by Hitler’s orders in 1934. And Otto, his brother, wrote Hitler and I, not from Berlin, but from Bermuda, where he was living in exile with a price on his head, having been declared an enemy of the state by Goebbels.
The fact that the Nazi party had a left-wing that was genuinely left-wing (not just left relative to the rest of the Nazis) is something to consider. We’ll get to that in my second post. But it obviously isn’t remotely honest to omit to mention that this left wing was completely and violently purged by the time the party came to power. Anyone who attempts to make the Strasser brothers ideological stand-in’s for Hitler is writing not to inform but to disinform about history, for ideological purposes.
The Independent piece is, as I said, more interesting. It’s both true and potentially important that Hitler really did say stuff like this: “I have learned a great deal from Marxism, as I do not hesitate to admit.” Also, the trouble with Weimar politicians was “they had never even read Marx.” The problem isn’t that the quotes are fake, it’s that the author of the piece is too quick to use them to pin the Holocaust on Marx, rather than thinking about what else Hitler might have meant; why he might say such things even if (as seems likely to me) they weren’t even true.
A little common sense suffices to show that if you regard Marx are your deadly enemy, you are going to have some nice things to say about him. Respectful things, that is.
Let’s try a little thought-experiment. Suppose, 100 years from now, some future historian feels the need to do for the US politics of the Obama era the same sort of ‘we have always been at war with Eastasia’ Orwellian number Goldberg has done on Hitler and fascism. Suppose you wanted to ‘prove’ that Obama was a right winger and, let’s say, Mitt Romney, was some sort of left-wing insurgent. (No, I don’t know why Goldberg’s great-great-grandson has an interest in proving this. Maybe he is trying to allow future conservatives to take full credit for Obamacare. It doesn’t matter.)
How would you go about telling this Big Lie? It’s not hard. 100 years from now most people will be very hazy about what was going on in the first decade of the 21st Century. So you just need to gather a bunch of data points that suggest a reverse-polarity pattern. Roughly speaking, five types of facts are going to do the trick for you:
1) Statements of grudging respect
In a partisan battle, there will always be statements made about the other side that suggest 1) their leaders are geniuses and 2) only the speaker really appreciates the other side’s genius. Conservative activists are always banging on about how you can’t fight the Democrats without having studied Alinsky’s brilliant book. It would be very easy to cherry-pick a bunch of material, and misleadingly imply that conservatives are all left-wing radicals. (Note: I am not suggesting that Media Matters is saying all US conservatives of our era are left-wing radicals. I am saying that anyone who didn’t know they aren’t, but knew that Alinsky was (based on quotes from him), could probably be convinced that conservatives must have been, too, based on the impressive volume of conservative praise of Alinsky.)
Turning to face the other side: to make Barack Obama sound conservative you might introduce, oh say, Rick Perlstein with some quotes. Quote Democrats and progressives praising Perlstein, then quote Perlstein praising Goldwater, then draw the conclusion that, by the year 2000, the Democratic party had basically become the Goldwaterite party. This might sound like a reasonable conclusion, if it was literally all you knew about the Democrats, Perlstein and Goldwater, even though it’s actually total nonsense.
Obviously Alinsky and Perlstein are just examples. The point is: electoral partisan politics is full of eloquent statements about how the other side is alarmingly powerful and effective, an expression of the Zeitgeist, charismatic, strategically brilliant, and etc. Thus, you can make black sound like white, by means of just a bit of creative quotation, to an audience that – due to the passage of time – really doesn’t know what’s what.
Hitler praising Marx is perfectly natural. If all I knew about him was that he was a far-right aspiring totalitarian, I would have predicted it: Wilhelmine German conservatism is dead, and the Weimar Republic is not going to last. The age of individualism is over. The true battle will be between the communists and the Nazis. Praising Marx is a way for Hitler to market himself to reactionaries and even moderate conservatives. He’s the only guy who gets the enemy. That’s a classic sell. Now obviously I didn’t just prove he meant that. But it’s a lot more plausible than that Nazism grows out of an op-ed Engels wrote about Hungary.
2) The Venomous Character of Intra-Party Disputes/The Narcissism of Small Differences
We all know that primaries are often as nasty as the general. We don’t necessarily think how this fact produces a volume of statements that could be used to falsify history, after the point when most people have forgotten the basic outlines of what happened. If you wanted to prove that Mitt Romney was a left-winger, just find the juiciest quotes from his further-right Republican opponents in the primary. If you wanted to prove that Barack Obama was a conservative, just quote Cornel West: “A Rockefeller Republican in black-face.” Add that to that good Perlstein stuff you’ve already got and you’re gold! The same is true of Weimar politics, as you would predict. Conservatives in Weimar at times tried to distance themselves from the Nazis, when they were competing with them for support on the right. They tried to present the Nazis as dangerous radicals – unconservative! like the communists! At other times, they allied with the Nazis for convenience. No one moment gives you the truth. You need to consider the overall scene of Weimar politics; the overall arc of the story of the Nazi rise to power.
3) Thunder-Stealing/Rovian Politics
Another typical feature of electoral politics is that you try to steal your opponent’s thunder, try to attack him where he is strongest, try to make it seem that your position has broader appeal than it probably really does. This produces some very strange moments/gestures. The Nazis did this with ‘socialism’, among other things. I’ll deal with that in the next post. The simple version is this: at times the Nazis attempted to win votes from working-class constituencies that were traditionally leftist. At times they positioned themselves as centrists and traditional conservatives, to win middle-class support. But mostly they said and did things that were pretty far right. We are all aware that politicians are rhetorically entrepreneurial, to say they least. They want to be everything to everybody. But a consequence of this is that it’s very easy to falsify history, without falsifying quotes, by cherry-picking quotes.
4) Even back then, a lot of folks didn’t know what the hell was going on back then
It’s easy to assume that if you are quoting more or less contemporaneous sources, you are getting the good stuff. But suppose, 100 years from now, historians are trying to reconstruct what ISIS was all about on the basis of opinion journalism in US sources. We know perfectly well that something published today about ISIS in National Review, or Slate, may be more an occasion for projecting what one wants to see. At the very least, there may be honest confusion. The same was true in the 20’s and 30’s about what was going on in Germany. Foreign correspondents in London and New York had a lot of different takes. Very confusingly, fascism drew praise and scorn from both right and left, abroad. You can’t just quote bits from that confused record, to suit your ideological priors, and treat it as a genuine corrective to our confusions about fascism today.
We have always been confused about whether we are at war with Eastasia is a true fact that makes ‘we have always been at war with Eastasia’ easier to fake.
5) Weird Stuff Happens
You may have gotten a chuckle, reading that first passage, at the top of the post. “The NSDAP suddenly became a champion of states’ rights, another value dear to most middle-class Germans.” States rights! Obviously those Nazis must have been Goldwater Republicans. But seriously, folks. It would be disingenuous to argue that states rights advocates, in the US, are Nazis because the Nazis advocated states rights for a year, in 1928-9. Likewise, I could try to argue that the Christian right are Nazis because the Nazis, too, were big Christians.
Hitler himself, in the early days of the party, frequently compared the rise of the party to the growth of Christianity, and the most popular activity of party members was the celebration of the party’s annual “German Christmas” parties. Here the synthetic society lived to the fullest its life of illusion; closed to outsiders, the “NSDAP family” celebrated its own feast day as a band of the righteous in the midst of alien customs and peoples.
Dietrich Orlow, The Nazi Party 1919-1945: A Complete History (p. 4)
It sounds like Rod Dreher, advocating The Benedict Option. But obviously that’s total nonsense. Overall, it would not be accurate to describe the Nazi Party as an especially Christian movement, to say the least.
This post is getting too long, so I won’t bang on about this. The point is simple: it’s easy to read a short piece that seems to collect together lots of little bits of evidence that the Nazis were Marxist leftists. It seems remarkable that so much evidence could exist if it weren’t true. But it actually isn’t remarkable. Politics is so full of confusion and deception and tactical positioning. Even if the standard histories are basically reliable, you would expect large bodies of wildly misleading evidence to be easily collectable, making it look like the standard histories must be missing something big.
Let me conclude this post with a general statement from one of the two histories I quoted at the start:
Despite the socialist components of their ideology, the Nazis were less successful in acquiring working-class support, in part because their version of socialism did not offer the sweeping economic and social revolution advocated by the Marxists. National socialism would eliminate neither private property nor class distinctions. It would provide economic security and social welfare programs for the workers; employment, a just wage, and protection from capitalistic exploitation would be guaranteed. But economic equality and a classless society were never Nazi goals. What workers would receive, aside from economic justice, would be enhanced social status. The new image of the worker would be one of honor and pride in his station in life. Workers would no longer constitute an alienated and despised group. They would again take their rightful place in society; their importance and dignity would be recognized by the rest of the nation. In the ideal Nazi Volksgemeinschaft, classes would exist (based upon talent, property, profession, etc.), but there would be no class conflict. Different economic and social classes would live together harmoniously and work for the common good. A national consciousness would replace the class consciousness that had historically divided Germans and turned them against one another. Although socialism and anticapitalism were significant parts of the Nazi ideology, compromises were made on these aspects before and after the Nazis seized power. Ultimately, many of the socialistic ideals and programs remained unrealized. Part of the reason for this was that within the party there was violent disagreement over the essence of national socialism. Hitler himself was more concerned with the racial, nationalistic, and foreign policy goals of the ideology than he was with socialism. While he glorified the workers in his speeches, he retained the contempt for the lower classes he had acquired in Vienna; he later downplayed socialism in his efforts to gain votes from the middle classes and funds from wealthy capitalists. However, the left wing of the Nazi party, led by Gregor and Otto Strasser, considered nazism essentially a socialistic and anticapitalist movement. Their goal was the destruction of capitalism and the establishment of a socialist state, and they vigorously protested Hitler’s compromises. In most cases, Hitler’s views prevailed, but the conflict between these party factions over such issues would last until the suppression of the left wing in 1934. In theory, at least, socialism and anticapitalism remained integral parts of the Nazi ideology, and they continued to play a very important role in Nazi propaganda and election campaigns.
Joseph W. Bendersky, A Concise History of Nazi Germany. Kindle Edition.
If all this is basically true, the idea that Hitler was a ‘man of the left’ is basically not true. The idea that the Nazi party was a left-wing worker’s party, aiming at destroying class-distinctions, eliminating private property, and nationalizing the means of production is not true. The idea that Hitler would have lacked any sense of the left-right distinction is not true.
The reader doesn’t need to take it from me, or from Bendersky. (Maybe he and I are shameless propagandists, trying to cover up the truth.) But, if you want to disprove this sort of thing, you need something better than a handful of ‘I was a teen-age Marxist!’ gotcha quotes, from Hitler and other Nazis. The existence of such evidence does not refute the standard picture. If you want to refute the standard picture, you need to write, not a revisionist profile of Hitler, personally; not even of the whole Nazi party; but of the whole history of Weimar, at the very least. If one puzzle piece changes shape – the Nazis – all these pieces need to change shape. If there is some way to tell that whole story, while painting the Nazis as a left-wing Marxist-socialist party … well, tell that story. But I haven’t read it. And I get email.
Of course, this leaves a lot of interesting questions unanswered. What does the difference between left and right even mean, if socialism can be as easily a radical right-wing as a left-wing project? What might ‘socialism’ have meant to the average Nazi on the street? Did they think it was odd that their party had ‘socialist’ in its name, even though they were fighting communists in the streets, on behalf of what they felt were traditional, even a-political German values? I’ll try my best when I write my second post.