Were The Nazis Right-Wing? – or – Weimar Culture: The Insider As Outsider

by John Holbo on May 3, 2015

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
(pp. 106-108).

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
(Kindle edition)

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.



Sandwichman 05.03.15 at 6:45 am

“Many recent analysts have fastidiously refused to study the mind of Hitler…”

Mr. Watson was contending that hearsay is inherently more reliable than documented statements and slogans. In the case of “what x said y said in private conversation”, Watson appears to be arguing that double hearsay is more admissible as evidence of “the mind of Hitler” than documented statements. Those analysts are just too damn fastidious! Could it be that Watson had some telepathic insights because of a peculiar affinity for “the mind of Hitler”? We’ll never know (unless he reveals it in private conversation to someone who subsequently writes a memoir).

Didn’t Milton Friedman once say that “we are all Keynesians now”?


Matt 05.03.15 at 7:05 am

If the Nazis were really right-wing, why would they put “socialist” in the name? If North Korea is really a dictatorship, why would it have “Democratic People’s Republic” in the name? Why is this bill to outlaw mosques within 1000 feet of schools and churches called the Freedom of Association Restoration Act? How is babby formed?


John Holbo 05.03.15 at 7:14 am

“If the Nazis were really right-wing, why would they put “socialist” in the name?”

I’m sympathetic to this. You can’t over-analyze the name. Partly it was introduced just to create brand confusion, re: the left-wing socialist parties. The Nazis wanted a name that might peel off some left-wing votes in their favor. But I think there’s a bit more to it. Per that last quote by Bendersky, the Nazis did take ‘socialism’ seriously. There was 1) a real left-right struggle in the party. 2) Both the left and the right in the party wanted ‘socialism’, although they didn’t want the same thing.


bad Jim 05.03.15 at 8:04 am

I thought Friedman said “We are all Kenyans now”, but maybe that was the other Friedman.


Magpie 05.03.15 at 8:20 am

Excellent article — albeit long — and very timely, too.

Regarding the final 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.”

Like you say, it’s harsh stuff (there are a couple of previous instances too; say: “All the other large and small nationalities and peoples are destined to perish before long in the revolutionary world storm.”)

But — and call me dishonest if you will — I understand this as Engels, the amateur futurologist/strategist, making a prediction. That’s not quite to say Engels, the 19th century Judge Dredd, passing a death sentence on anybody, after all, it would be kind of silly: even if he wanted to execute his sentence, he had no means to do it.

Engels’ is a long piece and, to me, a bit confusing, so maybe I should re-read it.

Great work!


Vanya 05.03.15 at 9:29 am

“Despite the similar name, the CSNS was not affiliated with the German Nazi Party; the Nazis formally suppressed the party.”

However, the CSNS was also a racist, anti-democratic nationalist party that did probably inspire, if not Hitler directly, a lot of Pan-German nationalists that Hitler would have been exposed to in pre-WWI Vienna. The CSNS was a right wing party as well. As a general rule if someone combines “nationalist” with “socialist”, it is the first element they really care about.


Janne 05.03.15 at 9:31 am

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?

This is a weak argument. If you look at, say, the current political landscape in Europe, you’ll find a large number far-left parties that fail to win more than a handful of votes from traditional left-wing constituencies (or anyone else, except for a smattering of highly educated people from affluent backgrounds). Does this mean that these parties are, despite their openly avowed Marxism, Trotskyism, Maoism, or what have you, really secret right-wingers? No. The fact that left-wing voters aren’t attracted to their message does not make them right-wing.

If the Nazis were, especially until 1928, doing their darndest to attract working-class voters using leftist rhetoric but failed, it hardly counts as compelling evidence of their right-wing-ness.

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 the sort of social democracy that came to dominate Western European politics did not offer such sweeping changes, either. Is social democracy right-wing, too? This argument shows that the Nazis weren’t Marxists, not that they weren’t leftists.

By the way, I agree that the Nazis were more right-wing than left-wing if we must use this crude binary. It’s just that your arguments making that point aren’t very good.


Robespierre 05.03.15 at 9:43 am

It is entirely possible to dislike modern (1920s) industrial capitalism and its society in a reactionary way, rather than a progressive one; laissez faire capitalism is, historically, the exception in ways a society can becorganised, and most “right wings” do not actually support it.


John Holbo 05.03.15 at 9:46 am

“However, the CSNS was also a racist, anti-democratic nationalist party that did probably inspire, if not Hitler directly, a lot of Pan-German nationalists that Hitler would have been exposed to in pre-WWI Vienna.”

I did not know that. I stand corrected. I thought they were a democratic socialist party.


Peter T 05.03.15 at 9:46 am

It’s a bit hard to fit the Nazi ideology into the left/right continuum. It was obsessed with race (even at considerable cost to the war effort), had no time for the existing elites in themselves (although it worked with them as long as it felt them useful) and worshipped violence as an end in itself. The archetypes were the trench fighter, the freikorps veteran and the street brawler (Horst Wessel). That Hitler was able to parley such a movement into power speaks volumes for the dysfunctions of German society from 1870 on.


John Holbo 05.03.15 at 9:53 am

“This is a weak argument. If you look at, say, the current political landscape in Europe, you’ll find a large number far-left parties that fail to win more than a handful of votes from traditional left-wing constituencies (or anyone else, except for a smattering of highly educated people from affluent backgrounds). Does this mean that these parties are, despite their openly avowed Marxism, Trotskyism, Maoism, or what have you, really secret right-wingers? No. The fact that left-wing voters aren’t attracted to their message does not make them right-wing.”

Well, perhaps I made it unclearly. I’m just saying that, on the view that the Nazis were very different from the SPD and KPD – right rather than left, to start with – there is an explanation for why they did poorly with the working class. On the view that the Nazis are basically indistinguishable from one or the other of those parties, some explanation is in order for the very different profile of their supporters. I’m not saying explanation is impossible. I’m just saying explanation is owed. And I doubt it is forthcoming.


R.Porrofatto 05.03.15 at 10:59 am

Speaking of “I was a teenaged Marxist!”: Norman Podhoretz was a lefty, Irving Kristol and Gertrude Himmelfarb were Trotskyists, David Horowitz was an actual commie, etc. Applying the Goldbergian principle of equivalence: youthful enthusiasms for Marx/socialism = fascism, all these lunatics are indeed fascists. Jonah is proven right once again. Take that you liberal monkeys!


Robespierre 05.03.15 at 11:43 am

Names aside, is the UKIP left wing? Is the Front Nationale, Lega Nord, AfD or Golden Dawn?
I mean, there are actual fascists/nazis out there right now. Are they on the left?


Vanya 05.03.15 at 11:49 am

@John Holbo

I suspect a lot of Czechs will tell you that the CSNS was indeed a liberal socialist party. For some reason inside the Czech Republic that party still enjoys a decent historical reputation. However, given that it was a party based on cultural nationalism that believed that indigenous ethnic Germans and German speaking Jews had no business sharing in political or economic power in Bohemia, I don’t think it can really be called “left wing”. Post WWI events tend to cast 19th century Czech nationalism and anti-Habsburg obstructionism in a retrospectively more progressive light than it probably deserves. Brigitte Haman in her essential biography “Hitlers Wien” talks about some of the ways the ethnic German nationalists in the Habsburg empire saw the CSNS as an example to be emulated of how a nationalistic politicial party should act, including a hatred of compromise, single minded devotion to the racial cause, and a willingness to tolerate violence.


Vanya 05.03.15 at 11:54 am

@Robespierre. The only left wing element those parties share is that they generally support Putin’s adventures in the Ukraine, which in the US seems to be the province of the far left. Although the more racist elements of the US right also seem sympathetic with Putin’s struggle against “Ukrainian Nazis”, I suppose those are the sort of right-wingers who have convinced themselves Nazis are on the left.


Ben Alpers 05.03.15 at 2:40 pm

@Vanya: A little OT, but I suspect that the bizarre left US support for Putin is a combination of two-fold enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friendism — the two enemies being US foreign policy and Ukrainian fascists* — and a little leftover Old Left russophilia.

* RT and other Russian propanganda outfits have done an effective job convincing folks that the very real Ukrainian fascists are even more significant than they in fact are and that there is nothing fascist about Putin and his regime because they oppose these Ukrainian fascists. AFAICT this is principally a national, not an ideological, struggle and there is plenty of fascism and antisemitism to go around on both sides of it.


David Blake 05.03.15 at 2:49 pm

Hitler was always very clear about this. He used the techniques of Marxist parties to fight to destroy them. Plentiful use of red is just one example.
All his rubbish about Hitler being left wing is an insult to the memory of the many people on the left in Germany who died at the Nazis’ hands.


Norwegian Guy 05.03.15 at 2:50 pm

If you apply Goldbergian standards of quote mining and guilt by association, it should be trivial to prove that Jonah Goldberg is himself both a liberal and a fascist. Does he even know that in Europe, liberals are often right-wing?


pseudoerasmus 05.03.15 at 3:09 pm

People like Goldberg insist that Nazi Germany was “socialist” because property rights were not totally unrestricted under the regime. But in reality, the Nazi regime was one which largely respected property rights (at least of those deemed Aryan enough anyway…) It did not, with one major exception, nationalise industries. Moreover, Nazi economic policies did not use brute compulsion and peremptory diktats against businesses; rather the Nazis for the most part used incentives and manipulation schemes to get what they wanted out of business. See, for example, Buchheim & Scherner http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=449534


SamChevre 05.03.15 at 3:10 pm

The viewpoint that the Nazi were left-wing, and the banality of that perspective in conservative thought, predates Goldberg; it’s very well-argued in Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, Leftism: from de Sade and Marx to Hitler and Marcuse.

I don’t think that your argument here works, so I’m awaiting the second installment. Opposing financiers, multinational corporations, and large land-owners, while supporting small farmers, small shopkeepers,and national-champion corporations, is a fairly common left-ish point of view-see “Occupy Wall Street.”


LFC 05.03.15 at 3:19 pm

Haven’t yet read every single word of Holbo’s characteristically long post (or every comment), but my initial reaction: The claim that “Nazis were Marxists” [sic; I can barely type this without retching] is on its face such preposterous, ludicrous, profoundly ignorant garbage that, notwithstanding that some idiots who have read Jonah Goldberg’s piece of trash apparently believe it, I’m not sure it deserves refutation at such length. (When Holbo spars with National Review and The American Conservative, that’s one thing; I wouldn’t spend my time that way, but if he wants to, fine. But when this much space is devoted to refuting this kind of argument, I begin to have some qualms. I suppose if enough people actually believe it, it is worth refuting. Just very depressing if enough do believe it to make that the case.)


David 05.03.15 at 3:19 pm

Aaagh! These silly theories, which you rightly discount, are based some simple errors. Apart from the NSDAP not being formed by Hitler and the 1920 program (again written before he joined) never being formally repudiated, the fact is that being of the “Right” does not have to mean being conservative and reactionary. As I’ve pointed out in another thread the Nazis were a radical right wing party, whose diagnosis of the problem (the Weimar Republic and its works) was very similar to that of the Communists, but also to the traditional Catholic Right. Like the Communists, they had a radical solution. The problem for the Nazis was that, so long as the Weimar Republic more or less endured, it made more sense for its opponents to vote for the Communists, or one of the traditional parties of the Right, according to taste. It was only after economic and political collapse in 1929-30 that it began to make sense for those on the Right who wanted the Republic gone but feared the Communists (and the KPD was a large and powerful organization, the only one that could rival the Nazis) would vote for Hitler’s party. It’s worth pointing out that nobody in Germany at the time, lacking perhaps our superior insight, ever seriously thought Hitler was anything but a man of the Right.
Partly of course this is because ideas of the Right have themselves changed. But nationalism, bitter-anti-communism, opposition to modern culture, exterminationist theories of war and conquest and contempt for democracy …. well, those are not hard to situate on one side of the political spectrum at the beginning of the 1930s. When you understand that the first, second, and third priorities of the Nazis were preparing for exterminatory wars against their Eastern neighbors, then a lot of so-called “left-wing” policies, like control of the economy or improved health care, become perfectly explicable.


LFC 05.03.15 at 3:22 pm

very well-argued in Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, Leftism: from de Sade and Marx to Hitler and Marcuse

Any book with this subtitle instantly reveals itself to be complete rubbish.


Sandwichman 05.03.15 at 3:31 pm


stevenjohnson 05.03.15 at 3:32 pm

Very good educational article I thought.

I believe the comments already show that some people imagine that the only choices are between class collaboration and submission to the (recently) historically dominant class. Apparently they then conclude that class collaborationism is the leftist position. It’s like watching Thea von Harbou/Fritz Lang’s movie Metropolis and feeling all warm inside about being such a lefty.

The notion that a program of restoring the old ways is different from a program aimed at creating new ways seems difficult to grasp for them, I think because they believe firmly that there is nothing new under the sun, that you can’t go against human nature, that fundamentally all misery is the individual’s fault and messing around with society is hubris, etc. If some of the lower orders take part in political action to save the family farms or restore the small shops’ profitability, then it must be leftist.


John Holbo 05.03.15 at 3:33 pm

“Apart from the NSDAP not being formed by Hitler and the 1920 program (again written before he joined) never being formally repudiated”

Nit-pick. Hitler joined the DAP in September 1919, before the renaming of the party. I am pretty sure he himself delivered the speech, articulating the platform.


bianca steele 05.03.15 at 3:56 pm

The arguments that the Nazis were leftists seem to be legion:

They tried to appeal to the working classes. But they were not the first right wing politicians to appeal to working class voters with a right wing platform, especially in Germany and Austria.

They were statists. This is just silly, unless anyone who’s not a libertarian or anarchist is a Nazi.

They have the word socialist in their name. They weren’t monarchists. They thought the church should be subordinate to the sovereign state. Etc. Again, silly.

From the other side, the argument that the Nazis appealed to the working class but in the wrong way, that is, by ignoring proper socialist tenets, or that the Nazis appealed to the lower middle class, broadly considered, and therefore anyone who does either of those is a Nazi or fascist, is equally silly.

Again, any mass movement or would be mass movement of the twentieth century is going to have some things in common, and it would be ridiculous to insist they are therefore all the same. Early Communists supported free love but sexual liberation is not therefore Communist. Nazis declared everyone under Nazism would be happy but that doesn’t mean everyone who aims at happiness for all is a Nazi.


Scott P. 05.03.15 at 4:21 pm

Let Mussolini explain the difference:

“Fascism [is] the complete opposite of…Marxian Socialism, the materialist conception of history of human civilization can be explained simply through the conflict of interests among the various social groups and by the change and development in the means and instruments of production…. Fascism, now and always, believes in holiness and in heroism; that is to say, in actions influenced by no economic motive, direct or indirect. And if the economic conception of history be denied, according to which theory men are no more than puppets, carried to and fro by the waves of chance, while the real directing forces are quite out of their control, it follows that the existence of an unchangeable and unchanging class-war is also denied – the natural progeny of the economic conception of history. And above all Fascism denies that class-war can be the preponderant force in the transformation of society….”


Paul 05.03.15 at 4:58 pm

Definitely a persuasive article and worth the time it took to read. But I also think it would be more enlightening if you provided some more explicit definition of what “right-wing” means in the claim “the Nazis were a right-wing party.” Are they right-wing because of whose interests they represented? Or because of what policies they advocated? Or because of their theory of politics and history? Or because they were anti-communist? Or simply because they were racists? You distinguish the Nazis from the “conservatives” who represented the interests of the pre-Versailles power structure, but is that supposed to mean merely that they disagreed about tactics? If it’s something more substantial, in what sense do both groups belong to the right.

Obviously the notion that the Nazis were Marxists is right-wing echo chamber hooey. But I’m not fully convinced by what I see here that there isn’t something to the more moderate claim that it isn’t theoretically fruitful to try to put them on a familiar left-right continuum. But I’d be convinced if you could explain why “right-wing” refers to some characteristics that the Nazis and other organizations and people we think of as right-wing have in common.


Placeholder 05.03.15 at 5:24 pm

Let Mussolini? Why not let Hitler? Mein Kampf:

“The fact that we had chosen red as the colour for our posters sufficed to attract them to our meetings. The ordinary bourgeoisie were very shocked to see that, we had also chosen the symbolic red of Bolshevism and they regarded this as something ambiguously significant. The suspicion was whispered in German Nationalist circles that we also were merely another variety of Marxism, perhaps even Marxists suitably disguised, or better still, Socialists. The actual difference between Socialism and Marxism still remains a mystery to these people up to this day. The charge of Marxism was conclusively proved when it was discovered that at our meetings we deliberately substituted the words ‘Fellow-countrymen and Women’ for ‘Ladies and Gentlemen’ and addressed each other as ‘Party Comrade’. We used to roar with laughter at these silly faint-hearted bourgeoisie and their efforts to puzzle out our origin, our intentions and our aims.

We chose red for our posters after particular and careful deliberation, our intention being to irritate the Left, so as to arouse their attention and tempt them to come to our meetings–if only in order to break them up–so that in this way we got a chance of talking to the people.”

I’m surprised people don’t know this.


Roger Gathmann 05.03.15 at 5:28 pm

The revisionist history of the Nazis would have astonished the contemporaries of the Nazis. As we all know, giant american corporations like Ford were very active, commercially, in Nazi Germay. The VP of General Motors, Graeme K. Howard,, wrote a book in 1940 advocating alliance with the Nazis because they would be an excellent bulwark against the communists: America and the New World Order. The Lindbergs were not operating as socialists or leftists when they celebrated the German military in the 1930s. The allies of FDR were not behind America First, or the Hearst papers multitudinous favorable articles about Mussolini. Reinhold Billstein’s book, Working for the Enemy, details the connection between American corporations and their leaders – who were all very opposed to “socialism” – and the German economy in the 1930s.

However, I don’t really think the argument is about the Nazis and Fascists, whose fans in the US in the thirties are copiously ignored by the right’s superficial thumbsuckers today. It is more about a cultural crisis underneath the surface of conservatism regarding race. Conservatism as a modern political grouping has always included, in its platform, the idea that the white race is superior. The standard conservative response to the civil rights movement in the sixties – for instance, Buckley’s – was that it was wrong because it upset the natural order: the order which put the white race first.
Classical liberalism, on the other hand, had no such sense of the “natural order”, or at least any such sense was idiosyncratic to the classical liberal who held such views. This is one of the things classical liberalism brought into conservatism in the post-war years, and I think successfully drove out the anti-semites – after a long process. Jews haved become “white”. But the conservative strain continually reasserts itself regarding blacks. You can do an experiment to show that this is true – just write something about African-Americans and racism in the U.S. and watch the outpouring of comments.


Roger Gathmann 05.03.15 at 5:46 pm

ps – someone should resurrect the articles that Hitler and Mussolini wrote for the Hearst newspapers. “Adolf Hitler’s Own Story”, which appeared on september 28,1930 in the Hearst sunday supplement, plus the columns that the Hearsts had a contract with Mussolini to write in the thirties.


PlutoniumKun 05.03.15 at 6:03 pm

It goes without saying of course that attempts to persuade everyone that the Nazi’s were left wing is just self justifying nonsense.

Having said that, I find the terms left-wing and right-wing increasingly irrelevant – its astonishing to me that it is still used commonly in academia as it really doesn’t seem useful to me as a way to describe many political movements. In many ways, the Libertarian/Authoritarian axis is at least as useful. If we talk in those terms, it is much less surprising that, for example, many 1970’s hippy green types have flipped to quite extreme anti-government standpoints, up to the extent of completely rejecting public health or schooling initiatives. Likewise of course, many old Leninists and Trotskyists found they didn’t have to change very many beliefs to become neo-liberals.

To some extent, it is what might be termed ‘progressives’ fault for focusing on social rather than economic issues as lodestones of being ‘left’. Hence you have UK Labourites and US Democrats who stand side to side with neo-liberals on military interventionism and pro-corporate policies, while maintaining their position ‘on the left’ purely in terms of being pro equality as defined by left wingers. This seems to me to be a very skewed and unhelpful way of defining anyones position on the spectrum. It has also blinded many to the true extent of many political movements. For example, superficially, the Khymer Rouge were ‘of the left’, but it does seem that the primary motivation of the foot soldiers was a mix of class anger and racial nationalism – i.e. quintessential fascistic features.

I’m not sure I can offer many useful suggestions, but I do think that to an extent that joining in on arguments on whether the Nazi’s were actually left wingers is not just pretty much the definition of pig wrestling in the mud, it is unhelpful in the broader sense of precisely identifying where political movements lie on the spectrum – which is ultimately about identifying who we should be worried about.


Stephen 05.03.15 at 6:06 pm

The OP seems to me to be confused, perhaps irrecoverably, about some basic issues.

We are told “There are ways in which the Nazis defy our left-right preconceptions”. Well yes, that does seem consistent with the rest of the post. But then we are also told “But basically we can tell left from right”. These two statements are not, I think, entirely compatible.

Concerning the Strasser brothers: the OP says “the Nazi party had a left-wing that was genuinely left-wing (not just left relative to the rest of the Nazis)”. OK, let’s accept that. There is then no inconsistency in being both genuinely left-wing (whatever we take that to mean) and being a Nazi. The argument that Nazis must be right-wing does, at this point, seem to collapse. (The argument that Hitler was himself not a left-wing Nazi is of course different.)

What is meant, according to the OP, by being left-wing is made clearer later on: the Nazis were not “a left-wing worker’s party, aiming at destroying class-distinctions, eliminating private property, and nationalizing the means of production”. Well, that’s a possible definition of left-wing on two out of three points: I’m not sure that any party, however left-wing, has ever aimed to destroy class distinctions. Replace existing distinctions by new ones, yes.

But if we define left-wing parties as those that aim to eliminate private property and nationalize production, I fear we are left with the unpalatable conclusion that the only true left-wingers in the world now are in North Korea and (maybe, I don’t know) in Cuba. I do not find that entirely comforting.

The OP ends, very reasonably, by saying the matter “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 indeed? I should confess my own inclination: I don’t think that making a simple one-dimension left/right distinction is a useful way to approach political matters.


Alex K. 05.03.15 at 8:22 pm

Shouldn’t a discussion of whether a political party was left wing or right wing include something about the economic policies they actually implemented?

Peter Temin thinks that the Nazi and Soviet economic policies were in fact strikingly similar. Even though private property formally existed in Nazi Germany, its ownership was conditioned on its owners furthering Nazi plans — especially so for industries that were part of the Nazi four year plan.

“Agriculture was within the scope of the Four Year Plan, as shown in Figure 1. In order to tie farmers to the land, the Nazis prohibited the sale of agricultural land (Petzina, 1968, pp. 91- 96) . In order to maintain stable prices and still control production, marketing boards were given monopoly rights to agricultural output. There were quotas for delivery of specific products to the marketing boards at fixed prices.
While farm ownership remained nominally private, the ability to make decisions and to claim the residual income was taken away. Ownership in the sense of having discretion over operations was put into escrow (Grossman and Hart, 1986) .
Despite the nominal difference between public and private ownership, the state’s control over agriculture was similar in the two countries. In both cases the state took control over prices, quantities and the access to land. And in both countries agricultural problems were among the most troublesome obstacles to fulfillment of the multi-year plans (Petzina, 1968, p. 96).”

“In a market system, prices move to guide resources into uses, both in production and consumption. Fixed prices clearly could not fulfill this function. Profits also lost their allocative function, as profits based on fixed prices do not carry the information of profits with market prices. Both economic systems therefore eliminated profits as an indicator of desirable investments.
Other means had to be found to allocate resources. The Five and Four Year Plans set quantity goals for firms and enterprises. Soviet quotas are well known. The Nazis also set quotas for many industrial goods, including pig iron, steel, aluminum, magnesium, gun powder, explosives, synthetic rubber, all different kinds of fuel, and electricity (Reichsamt fiir Wirtschaftsaufbau, 1944). ”

“The Nazis also used terror as an instrument of state policy. Historians have detailed the violence against Jews and other groups. But this was not the whole of the Nazi program. Terror was also used to control groups and organizations central to German society and economy. Hitler is supposed to have told Schacht, “The primary cause of the stabilization of our currency is the concentration camp” (Hayes, 1987, p. 380). The standardized allocation form described above included penalties for noncompliance. It declared that, “Acquiring materials except for Four-Year Plan purposes will be regarded as economic sabotage.” Under Nazi rules, this language threatened death or a concentration camp for any manager who pursued his own ends (Reichsamt fiir Wirtschaftsaufbau, 1937b) .”

There is more in Peter Temin’s “Soviet and Nazi Economic Planning in the 1930s.” The paper’s abstract is:
“This paper argues that economic planning under Stalin and Hitler in the 1930s was essentially similar, both in process and outcome. Both economies had fixed prices and used coercion as part of a rather chaotic process of resource allocation; consumption in both countries was sacrificed to investment in heavy industry. Both economies can be thought of as socialist, and socialism in the 1930s was hardly more than military mobilization.”

There’s obviously a place for the discussion of the differences between the Soviet and Nazi economy. For instance, even the nominal existence of property rights could have allowed for better functioning of the Nazi economy, as even such residual rights allow the property owner to alleviate some of the inevitable follies of the central planner.

But insisting that “Nazi’s were very, very right wing” does not belong to the desirable end of the intelligent conversation spectrum.


Collin Street 05.03.15 at 9:01 pm

Having said that, I find the terms left-wing and right-wing increasingly irrelevant – its astonishing to me that it is still used commonly in academia as it really doesn’t seem useful to me as a way to describe many political movements.

What could the academics possibly know that overrides my intuition!


mdc 05.03.15 at 9:25 pm

One thing I noticed in Germany (about 10 years ago), was that politicians and journalists both on the right and the left recognized “sozial” as a honorific adjective, almost as a name for the basic good that every possible political movement would claim to promote. (During an election, I remember Angela Merkel arguing that her platform was more “sozial” than the SPD’s.) The word isn’t used that way in anglophone politics at all. Thus, the name of the SPD among a lot of Germans, I think, has a blandish, broad, political-marketing feel- and not a feel of a determinate left wing theory of economic justice. Anyway, I wonder if this sense of the term goes as far back as the 20s and 30s.


adam.smith 05.03.15 at 9:57 pm

Alex K @34 —
For one, I don’t think Peter Temin’s 35 old paper has held up particularly well and there’s a whole cottage industry of young historians and economic historians debunking the command-by-expropriation thesis central to his argument:
see e.g.
http://economics.yale.edu/sites/default/files/files/Workshops-Seminars/Economic-History/buchheim-041020.pdf (now published in JEH):

[F]irms, despite the rationing and licensing activities of the state, still had ample scope to devise their own production and investment profiles. Even regarding war-related projects, freedom of contract was generally respected; instead of using power, the state offered firms a number of contract options to choose from. There were several motives behind this attitude of the regime, among them the conviction that private property provided important incentives for increasing efficiency.

http://www.ub.edu/graap/nazi.pdf (now published in EHR)

In the mid-1930s, the Nazi regime transferred public ownership to the private sector. In doing so, they went against the mainstream trends in western capitalistic countries, none of which systematically reprivatized firms during the 1930s.

But even if we did take Temin by his word, you conveniently leave out the part where he argues (at least in the working paper version):

[A]ctual socialist planning in the 1930s was closer to military mobilization than the market socialism of Western theorists

In other words, a large part of the reason for the similarities in practice that did exist are that Stalin’s Russia didn’t look like a particularly socialist, either.


adam.smith 05.03.15 at 10:01 pm

[long answer to Alex K in moderation]
@mdc — though that’s partly because there is no English equivalent to “sozial.”
social is only a partial translation. Leo.org suggests “caring,” and you do find that, rhetorically, in Bush’s “compassionate conservatism.”


Bruce Wilder 05.03.15 at 10:28 pm

The length and tediousness of the OP defeated my attempt to read the whole thing.

Writing any kind of analytic historical narrative requires heroic compression of information. A history of the politics, domestic and international, of a major European state, is stuffing the doings and life experience of tens of millions of people over the course of decades into a few hundred pages, feebly supplemented by a few maps, graphs and iconic photographs. (Now, if there were a lot of cartoons . . . !) And, getting anything out of reading history requires a remarkable capacity to imaginatively unstuff and unpack, hopefully following the directions helpfully provided by the writer of history.

Any writer of history, attempting to provide helpful hints about how to imaginatively unpack the narrative, will inevitably find herself conflicted, between the lazy desire to implicitly handwave, gesturing the reader to imagine the past is like the familiar present in some respects, and the need to make the effort to draw attention to at least the critical ways in which the past is another country altogether, foreign to our present-day experience. We read history in part to understand our heritage, to understand how the present was made, and we inevitably search for the family resemblances in pictures from the past.

I get why the left-right spectrum is a handy rule of reference in explaining how figures in a particular place and period relate to one another. A simple metaphor — Obama is left of Romney — affords a lot of information compression. But, the linear spectrum is far from timeless, and it totally craps up understanding the past. “Hitler is right-wing” can sound like it implies “Goldberg is a Nazi”, and I can imagine even an idiot like Goldberg finds that disconcerting. Historians, firmly in “the past is another country” mode may well have occasion to outline the spectrum of politics in, say, Weimar Germany, and having conveyed the outline, place figures and groups on the spectrum associated with that outline. I’d hope that readers would not unpack into speculation about who Hitler would have voted for in New Jersey in 2012.

There are aspects of political configuration, attitudes and philosophical rationalization, which are recurrent and/or inherited, but the strict right-left alignment along a spectrum is not a useful map to pack on your Tardis.

Tendentious unpacking of the past for an ignorant present is a cottage industry and any hope of a means of prophylaxis short of actually learning some (historiographically well-argued) history seems not even quixotic.


stevenjohnson 05.03.15 at 11:37 pm

In politics, “conservative” is not a synonym for timorous, cautious, prudential, stodgy, old-fashioned, reverent, pious, patriotic or what have you abstract virtue. There is a la-la land of discourse and performance where liberal and conservative, left and right, are catch all labels for a moral amalgam as meaningless as it is irrelevant to anything but public relations. All this has only a tenuous connection to parties and their policies, to personnel and their working principles. Importing this confusion into a serious discussion is quite unwise.


LFC 05.04.15 at 12:51 am

I’ve now read a bit more of the OP. The most interesting portion (of those portions I’ve read) is the paragraph where Holbo talks about inverting Peter Gay’s title and German conservatives feeling like ‘outsiders’ in their country after 1918. Perhaps (?) a bit too strongly put but prob. something to it. I don’t think (p’rhaps missed it) the OP mentions the 1918 revolution, the workers’ councils, etc. Wouldn’t that, albeit that it was fairly short-lived, have frightened traditional conservative elites and made them more open to alliance w a radical-Right group? (Also acknowledge the stuff about internal ideological divisions in Nazism; but the quotes in the OP say that was over by 1934.)


LFC 05.04.15 at 1:15 am

Alex K:
But insisting that “Nazi’s were very, very right wing” does not belong to the desirable end of the intelligent conversation spectrum.

As many readers of this thread probably know, and perhaps as a previous commenter has already mentioned (in which case apologies for the duplication), ‘left’ and ‘right’ as political designations stem from the French Revolution; they were a result of which sides of the Natl Assembly (or Convention, whatever) different factions physically sat in. The distinction of course then takes on a long life of its own, long after the Jacobins and the Girondins et al. are history.

Even within the French Revolutionary context itself, however, the left-right distinction is arguably of somewhat limited utility. (Insert usual caveats: not a historian, blah blah blah.) Brissot and the Girondins were ‘the war party’, favoring an aggressive foreign policy designed ostensibly to spread the Revolution abroad, whereas Robespierre, in his pre-Terror incarnation, spoke against the war party. But was Brissot to the ‘right’ of Robespierre because the former was more bellicose, the latter (initially) more pacific? Not really, b/c, iirc, on domestic issues Brissot was v. much to the ‘left’.

If the left-right distinction is somewhat crude even for the period in which it originated, why should it be anything other than crude when carried forward into other historical contexts? In the 19th cent. one has to speak, at a minimum, of several ideologies: reformist (and free-trade) liberalism; traditional conservatism; nationalist-oriented mercantilism; different strands of socialism, including but not limited to Marxism. The left/right binary isn’t going to cover it adequately.

Prob. even more will that be the case with the rise of Fascism and Communism in C20th. Obvs. anyone will be able to find some pts of similarity btw them but the differences are considerably more significant, notwithstanding asserted similarities betw Nazi and Stalinist economics.

The question of fitting these movements into tidy left and right boxes would not even be a pressing question were it not for the fact that some fools, apparently mostly in the U.S., have decided that fascism is a “left-wing phenomenon.” Jonah Goldberg, the prior controversies about whose book I didn’t follow, apparently read a few pages of Jacob Talmon (or whoever) and proceeded to write that the French Revolution was ‘fascist’. In addition to being, strictly speaking, meaningless, this is possibly one of the most stupid sentences a sentient human has ever published.

There are serious writers (N. Bobbio comes to mind) who think the left/right distinction is useful and explicable etc, and if one wanted to write a post about that, fine. But to drag Jonah Goldberg back into the discussion and get all het up about his nonsense doesn’t seem v. productive to me. YMMV, of course.


A H 05.04.15 at 1:18 am

Alex K.

Was Nixon left wing then? Pat Buchanan?

20th century Governments tend to assert control in economic crisis, whether left or right wing. Private vs. public ownership does tend to be a big right vs. left tell.


William Berry 05.04.15 at 1:22 am

BW, of all people, complains that JH is tl/dr! World turned upside down :)

Awesome work, JH. I have pasted your Five Theses into an iPad Page for future reference.


LFC 05.04.15 at 1:25 am

Bruce Wilder @38

Tendentious unpacking of the past for an ignorant present is a cottage industry and any hope of a means of prophylaxis short of actually learning some (historiographically well-argued) history seems not even quixotic.

Yeah, pretty much this.


LFC 05.04.15 at 1:41 am

The more I read of the OP the more nauseated I get (not with Holbo, but with the stuff he’s quoting (and refuting)).

George Watson: Marxism and Nazism were both “theories of history” not just legislative proposals. Oh well. QED. Hasn’t this idiot Geo. Watson ever read a snippet from a liberal (or a conservative) 19th c. historian? Didn’t Macaulay have a theory of history? Didn’t Lord Acton?

Arnold Toynbee most definitely had a theory of history, and he’s about as far from a Marxist (or Nazi) as one could get.

The stuff Holbo is painstakingly refuting is just garbage piled on garbage piled on more garbage, as far as I can tell.


Peter T 05.04.15 at 1:59 am

The politics of Weimar (and the Nazis) were in many ways a continuation of the politics of Wilhelmine Germany (no surprise there – the same, mutatis mutandis, could be said of the US, Britain or France). And the issue of mass participation in politics was as central to Wilhelmine Germany’s politics as, say, slavery was to the pre-Civil War US. Both the Reich and Prussian constitutions were carefully designed to limit parliamentary control. The military was a major power centre in its own right up to 1941, which actively worked to undermine Weimar. As BW says, another country – one in which the quarrels of the immediate past played a larger role than any abstract ideological positioning.


Sebastian H 05.04.15 at 3:57 am

Part of the problem is that we are shifting back and forth between rhetorical/motivational concepts and economic policies without bothering to say when we are doing so.

Nazism used quite a few motivational/social organizing styles that were more right wing (see especially its eugenic racism), but many economic policies that tend more toward the left (for its time, I’m not arguing that most leftists of today want the kind of command and control state ownership that Nazism employed).

They were both. Trying to label them “right wing” in a totalizing sense is essentially a stupid endeavor. Trying to label them “left wing” in a totalizing sense is an even more stupid endeavor.


Ben Alpers 05.04.15 at 4:06 am

One further piece of the garbage pile that’s largely simply assumed by Goldberg and his accolytes: the equation of contemporary American liberalism (or anything that the Democratic Party stands for) with both the 1930s (far) left (in its various forms, but especially Stalinism) and with the 1960s New Left. So that if you can prove that the Nazis were just exactly like the Weimar-era KPD, then you’ve proven that Hillary Clinton is just like the Nazis, too.


Vanya 05.04.15 at 9:17 am

Nazism used quite a few motivational/social organizing styles that were more right wing (see especially its eugenic racism),

In the context of the 1920s it is not clear that eugenic racism was all that right wing. The Catholic Church was against eugenics. Many liberals favored eugenic policies to encourage a more intelligent working class, while opposing racism. There were bizarrely racist elements in Soviet Communism as well, particularly in their “civilizing mission” towards “backwards” minority peoples that was rather like a Communist White Man’s Burden. Hitler’s innovation, if you want to call it that, was to take the latent colonial racism that was a feature of many European right wing parties, and redirect at it at fellow Europeans.


Richard M 05.04.15 at 9:44 am

Trying to label them “right wing” in a totalizing sense is essentially a stupid endeavor. Trying to label them “left wing” in a totalizing sense is an even more stupid endeavor.

The truth is in the middle: the Nazis were moderate centrists.

Or at least they were, on every point except nationalism and racism. Truth is, there is very little explanatory power in the economic polices of fascist parties, because that was a topic none of the key people gave a fuck about.

Say you used a time machine not to kill Hitler, as is conventional, but to drop him a late 20C economics textbook. Add sufficient supporting material to fully intellectually convince him, and everyone around him, of the power and efficiency of the unfettered free market.

Nothing really changes; he still invades Poland, builds Auschwitz etc. Maybe some tank models become available a few months earlier (or later), maybe a battle goes a different way. But it’s still all about a war of extermination between nation-races.

In contrast, the same exercise with Lenin, or Stalin, would either fail, or change everything.


name withheld by flying saucer 05.04.15 at 12:00 pm

If you want political psychology, go to where it happens. Just finished a remarkable book the likes of which I had always searched for: a study of how Nazism came to power in a single, small town. The Nazi Seizure of Power: The Experience of a Single German Town, 1930-1935, by William Sherwin Allen (1965). Takes it almost month by month. Who got hired, who got fired, how the town voted, the newspaper editorials, the reaction of the Lutheran ministers, etc. etc. Shows many things, but overall, the Nazis appealed to the middle class who were frightened of the worker’s demands in the face of the Depression, and the Nazis allowed the burghers to retain ownership of their businesses and to flourish. The Nazis saw themselves as anti-left, pitched themselves as anti-left, and pursued anti-left policies as soon as they gained power. They were ruthless against the Social Democrats (the SPD).


reason 05.04.15 at 12:52 pm

Vanya @54 “Hitler’s innovation, if you want to call it that, was to take the latent colonial racism that was a feature of many European right wing parties, and redirect at it at fellow Europeans.”
I would have thought just exterminating them, rather than patronizing them was a difference in kind not just in degree.

Having browsed the comments, I’m inclined to agree with the view that using left/right without carefully defining what you mean by that, is not very constructive.


Alex K. 05.04.15 at 5:36 pm

“I don’t think Peter Temin’s 35 old paper has held up particularly well and there’s a whole cottage industry of young historians and economic historians debunking the command-by-expropriation thesis central to his argument:”

It’s a 25 years old paper and I don’t see it as debunked — rather, there are other historians who are pushing the pendulum the other way, as it often happens. The first paper makes its claims strongly, but in the end all it argues is that private enterprise still had a lot of latitude in making decisions. Temin agrees with part of this and mentions that even in the Soviet Union, factory managers dealt with the disfunctionality of the central plans by engaging in blat :

“Since [Soviet] planning was loose and somewhat random, much of the economy functioned outside the plan. Officially recognized market transactions were used for many activities: material balances were only calculated for 105 commodities in 1934
(Zaleski, 1980, p. 98). Myriad other goods were allocated piece-meal by other agencies or by the market. In addition, enterprises dealt with the divergence between the plan and reality by reallocating materials among themselves by
“blat. . . . the use of personal influence for obtaining certain favors for which a firm or individual is not legally or formally entitled” (Berliner, 1957, p. 182). Blat was used to obtain both centrally planned goods and market goods without queues. The market and underground economies were important parts of the resource allocation process.“

The second paper you cite analyses the motivation for the privatizations carried out in Nazi Germany and comes to the conclusion that it was NOT done for ideological reasons. It also includes quotes by Hitler, justifying why Nazis should not bother with nationalization:

“Hitler explained that “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.” (Calic, 1971, p. 32-33). Another indication of Hitler’s position on the state ownership of the means of production is found in Rauschning 33 (1940, pp. 192-3), which reports the following answer by Hitler when questioned on socialization: “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.” ”

If you like more recent historical work, here is Adam Tooze (his book “The Wages of Destruction” was published at about the same time as the articles you mentioned):

“So far-reaching were the regime’s interventions in the German economy –starting with exchange controls and ending with the rationing of all key raw materials and the forced conscription of civilian workers in peacetime– that one is tempted to make comparisons with Stalin’s Soviet Union. […] Most notably, in comparison with the Soviet Union, the Third Reich shrank from a dramatic rationalization of the sectors of its society, peasant agriculture and the craft sector, a measure which might have ‘freed’ millions of additional workers. But given what we now know about the Generalplan Ost and the comprehensive agrarian restructuring that it was supposed to initiate, it seems that this was a matter of timing. The comprehensive restructuring of German society was simply postponed until after the conquest of Lebensraum in the East. If one must therefore concede that the Nazi party, unlike the cadres of Soviet Communism, was not a battle-hardened weapon of class war, by Western European standards it can hardly be faulted for its lack of redistributional energy. Never before, in peacetime, had a sophisticated capitalist economy been redirected so purposefully.”


Alex K. 05.04.15 at 5:59 pm

“dramatic rationalization of the sectors of its society”

should be:

“dramatic rationalization of the most backward sectors of its society”


Carl Caldwell 05.05.15 at 1:59 am

Contributing to a discussion at this point has largely played itself out, but three points nonetheless.

1. From a historian’s viewpoint, it is simply the case that Nazism positioned itself on the right: nationalist, anti-immigrant, blaming a small minority for Germany’s problems, and most important fighting the previous, lost war, again and again and again. The Nazis were viewed as right wing at the time, and saw themselves as such as well.

2. Right wing and economic liberalism were not identical in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s, or in Europe in the 19th century, or in much of the world today. For conservatives from before Maistre, to Maistre, to Barres, economic liberalism was the enemy. For the Prussian High Command, centralized planning was the correct answer to threats from the left as well as from liberalism. To assume that criticism of economic liberalism is therefore “leftist” is to abstract from a particular, and exceptional, moment in US culture.

3. This error is not simply made by some crazy outliers, but has become rather common in discussions in the United States today. That is why the long historical discussion of John Holbo is so important and so welcome.

There is plenty of room for interesting discussion about the overlap of Stalin’s and Goering’s conceptions of planning, etc. These discussions are, however, shifting from the question of the position of the Nazis as a conservative party within the context of Weimar democracy to more theoretical questions about the nature of fascism and planning. In one arena is the question of the self-identification of a political party (and its base); in the other is the more complicated question of how to connect particular policy positions to a political party.


Vanya 05.05.15 at 8:18 am

From a historian’s viewpoint, it is simply the case that Nazism positioned itself on the right: nationalist, anti-immigrant, blaming a small minority for Germany’s problems, and most important fighting the previous, lost war, again and again and again

A nitpick, but “anti-immigrant” is an anachronism in the context of National Socialism. There weren’t a lot of immigrants to Weimar Germany, and immigration wasn’t much of an issue. It would be crazy to call German Jews “immigrants”. The Nazis played on the fear that traditionally ethnic German territories had come under the control of hostile foreign powers (the Sudetenland, Danzig, Kattowitz, Alsace, etc.) and that well-established ethnic minorities within Germany such as Jews or Poles, were planning further dismemberments. Ironically, during the war Nazis actually imported so much foreign labor from France and Eastern Europe (mostly as slave labor, granted) to keep the factories running that Germany in 1945 was almost as ethnically diverse as modern Germany. As an anti-immigration party the Nazis were failures.


Stephen 05.05.15 at 9:19 am

“Nazism positioned itself on the right: nationalist, anti-immigrant, blaming a small minority for Germany’s problems, and most important fighting the previous, lost war, again and again and again.”

But how do these criteria apply to the original Fascists?

Nationalist, certainly.
Anti-immigrant, not that I know of.
Blaming a small minority for Italy’s problems, no. There were Jewish fascists.
Most important fighting the previous lost war, certainly not; Italy didn’t lose WW1.

So by what criteria were Mussolini’s fascists right-wing?


Vanya 05.05.15 at 11:05 am

Italy didn’t lose WWI

As far as many Italians were concerned, they didn’t win either. Italy lost over half a million soldiers in WWI, and as a reward was given one port city, Trieste, by the allies. In the minds of nationalists like D’Annunzio Italy had been completely betrayed – they wanted all of the Habsburg Imperial domains where there were significant Italian speaking populations, including Istria, the Dalmatian coast and notoriously the city of Fiume. Instead those territories were awarded to Yugoslavia. Italian claims to Dalmatia were a major plank in Mussolini’s original program.

Basically Italian fascism was right wing because it allied itself with right wing institutions like the Monarchy, the Church and big business. A party that defends existing privileges has to be considered conservative. In a revolutionary environment where the elites were terrified of Bolsheviks murdering them in their sleep, Mussolini told traditional conservatives, more or less, “support me and I will protect you from the left.”


Igor Belanov 05.05.15 at 11:30 am

And in addition to Vanya’s #60:

The central feature of Fascism was a belief in hierarchy. Mussolini and the PNF, however, were just the political side, as it seemed to them that it was politically where Italy was ‘failing’. Socially, economically and religiously the hierarchies stayed basically the same.

Secondly, the activities of the Fascists before and after the March on Rome were based on smashing the independent organisations of the working class, without providing them with the theoretical ‘leadership’ they were given in Communist states.


js. 05.06.15 at 4:02 am

I almost can’t believe I read this whole thing! But I am very glad I did. Still… part of me is wondering why you have devoted sooooooo much space to showing that the sky is blue (except when it’s cloudy). Still still, some very good stuff here. Like LFC, I liked the Peter Gay riff, and some quotes, the most striking of which:

it’s difficult to understand why anyone doubts the fascist nature of the French Revolution

Wow! Utterly impossibly, this makes ‘Hitler was a pinko’ seem halfway reasonable.


js. 05.06.15 at 4:03 am

“some quotes” s/b “some juicy quotes”.


reason 05.06.15 at 2:54 pm

“A party that defends existing privileges has to be considered conservative.”

If this was used as the definition of right wing – then was Hitler’s regime conservative? It dispossessed rich Jews, dismissed Jewish academics. This is why being careful about definitions is important to making the discussion constructive. I like “a belief in hierarchy” better (but note this MUST be true of any totalitarian regime – Stalin’s included, so perhaps it doesn’t work exactly either – or perhaps Stalin’s regime isn’t really one of the left). So maybe just using left-right doesn’t really work you need both anarchist/totalitarian AND elitist/egalitarian polarities to do any sort of meaningful discussion and trying to project everything on a single axis is the original sin here.


Stephen 05.06.15 at 4:34 pm

Brad Delong suggests five political polarities:


Any advance on five dimensions?


TM 05.06.15 at 5:10 pm

Nazi rhetoric identified both Marxism and political liberalism as ideological enemies. Since Marxism was considered left and liberalism centrist, what else would the Nazis have been if not right-wing? That the Nazis were right-wing extremists was no mystery to anybody at the time and it requires an extraordinary effort of bad faith to pretend that there ever was any doubt in the matter.

Regarding economic policies, among the first priorities implemented by the ruling Nazis was the dismantling of the unions and all other institutions associated with the labor movement (of course the SPD and KPD were also banned after a few months of pretend constitutional government). Above somebody trundled out the claim that the Nazis engaged in Soviet style economic planning, with a quote from 1944 to prove it.
Guess what, every war economy (both in WWI and WWII) engaged to a considerable extent in economic planning (*). That doesn’t make FDR equal Stalin and neither does it make the Nazis left-wing.

(*) The planning effort of the Western allies in WWI was cited by socialists as an example of the effectiveness and desirability of state economic control. Here’s Bertrand Russell: “The system which was gradually built up under the stress of war became, in 1918, in all essentials a complete international Socialism.” (Sceptical Essays, p. 117)


Igor Belanov 05.06.15 at 6:13 pm

Nazism, even more than other ideologies, was very incoherent when it came to putting principles into practice. For one example of its contradictions, take the two aims of keeping women out of work and in the domestic sphere, and rapidly developing Germany’s productive forces to prepare for war. The inability of the Nazis to square the circle of these two principles arguably had an effect on the kinds of war Germany ended up fighting. There is also the inconsistency that Germany was intervening in the economy to promote its armed force, while taking much longer than other belligerents in WWII to direct domestic labour, consumption and finance to a full war economy. It was arguably only this, and the reverses at the front, that led Germany’s traditional ruling class to revolt in July 1944.


engels 05.06.15 at 6:25 pm

The stuff Holbo is painstakingly refuting is just garbage piled on garbage piled on more garbage, as far as I can tell.



AcademicLurker 05.06.15 at 6:57 pm

The stuff Holbo is painstakingly refuting is just garbage piled on garbage piled on more garbage, as far as I can tell.

“I know you are, but what am I?” knocked ’em dead back on the fourth grade playground during recess. Goldberg & Co. are just trying to recapture their glory days.


Stephen 05.06.15 at 8:00 pm

TM: “That the Nazis were right-wing extremists was no mystery to anybody at the time and it requires an extraordinary effort of bad faith to pretend that there ever was any doubt in the matter”.

Unless, of course, you have serious doubts as to whether the simple Manichaean distinction of left = right, right = wrong is adequate to describe the complexities of the real world.

If you have no such doubts, please explain why not.


engels 05.06.15 at 8:07 pm

-It takes an extraordinary effort of bad faith to have a long chin-stroking argument about whether or not polar bears are white.
-Unless of course, you don’t believe that black v. white may not be adequate to describe the complexities of the real world… Zing!


Collin Street 05.06.15 at 8:44 pm

You can actually empirically test the importance left/right distinction, you know: you get a whole bunch of people’s political opinions on all sorts of issues, run regression analyses to see what axes pop out.

It’s been done. You get a huge axis that pretty much straightforwardly maps to conventional left/right and some minor complicating axes.


engels 05.06.15 at 8:53 pm


Stephen 05.07.15 at 8:52 am

Collin, engels

That seems true for the USA, a remarkably bipolar society in at least one sense. This thread, however, deals with the question of whether USAian patterns always apply to the non-trivial proportion of the world outside the US. It’s not clear they do.

engels: are you denying the existence of brown bears, which are neither black nor white? Or pandas which are black in some parts and white in others? Complex world, isn’t it?


TM 05.07.15 at 1:07 pm

Well no Stephen, engels is just saying that polar bears are white. He’s not saying that all bears are either black or white.


Collin Street 05.07.15 at 1:26 pm

This thread, however, deals with the question of whether USAian patterns always apply to the non-trivial proportion of the world outside the US.



Stephen 05.07.15 at 2:22 pm

Krugman’s data aren’t about Australia, though.


stevenjohnson 05.07.15 at 2:56 pm

This discussion is still vitiated by the failure to include the imperialist dimension. All the nations commonly agreed in the thirties and forties to be fascist were engaged in the seizure of territory, usually in the context of previous defeat. Italian fascism is characterized by the invasions of Libya, Ethiopia, Spain, France, Albania/Greece just as much as it is by corporate planning.

Other fascist/quasifascist regimes like the Croatian Ustashe (currently popular transliteration?) Romanian Iron Guard, Hungarian Arrow Cross, all were regimes born of defeat and trying to create new states, commonly resorting to ethnic cleansing a la Turkey as the foundation for a new bourgeois state. The use of imperial troops to suppress the population was a key aspect to the Spanish Civil War. Portuguese fascism was so intimately connect with its remnants of empire that the fall of the fascist regime coincided with the final loss of the empire and you can’t really treat them separately. The Guomindang in China also aped much of fascism by the way, even if this was generously overlooked by their allies.

Lastly, Japan was commonly classed for very good reason with the fascist regimes, precisely because of the extreme importance of mobilization for conquest in the fascist project. Their fuehrerprinzip was the monarchy which was superficially different. And their reliance on illegal violence largely took the form of assassinations. But despite these superficial differences in aesthetic, any defeated or weak regime fighting to mobilize for conquest or defeat of revolution tends to seek the fascist solutions. It was Tsarist Russia that pioneered illegal ethnic violence with their Black Hundreds, just as it was the semi-independent Latin American regimes that pioneered their modern successors, the death squads.


engels 05.07.15 at 6:49 pm

engels: are you denying the existence of brown bears, which are neither black nor white? Or pandas which are black in some parts and white in others?



Stephen 05.07.15 at 8:52 pm

Good. Reality wins again.

But your argument was that disputing how far Nazis were right-wing was like arguing whether polar bears are or are not white.

That is, if I may say so, on first inspection a circular argument. Polar bears do appear white, therefore arguing that they are not is mistaken. Nazis only appear entirely right-wing if you are already persuaded they are such. The whole point of this thread has been to debate how far Nazis were in fact right-wing: and some very reasonable people have argued there were in fact left-wing Nazis, or left-wing aspects of Nazi doctrine.

On second inspection, it isn’t even correct. Take a good look at a polar bear and you will discover that parts of it (paws, nose, mouth) are in fact black. Shave off the fur and you will discover the skin is in fact black …

Like I said, reality is complex. Live with it.


Joseph McCarthy 05.08.15 at 11:20 pm

I agree with the proposition that bringing up hisotrical quotes of one’s policial preferences does not necessarily imply the reality, which is one of the cornerstones of this long argument.

But the same proposition can be used to refute this very article, which argues of Hitler’s right-wingness on the facts such as appealing to lower-middle class and German conservatives (by criticising Marxism). Soviet socialism also appealed to people from varying social realms: engineers, inteligentsia, culture etc. in order to gain support, only later to enslave or execute them when they were no loger useful or submissive enough (similarly as Hitler dumped conservatives).

The leftist traits of nacional-socialist regime are to be found elsewhere than in superficial self-statements and that is their subjugation of the whole society to the ideology, which permeates each corner of the everyday life. The politicization of everyday activities and previously “secular” areas such as childrearing, culture, education, leisure, civil society and associations with mass propaganda to mold individuals into obedient cogs in the machine of regime and the existance and importance of regime as an end in itself. So etatism and collectivism together with violence towards state’s enemies as a forms of totalitarian social control.

Similarly, promising utopia is another similarity between (national-)socialist ideology and the birthplace of the left – French Revolution promising brotherhood, egalitarianism and freedom plus identification of enemies which impede society’s progress toward this.

About nationalisation and planning in nazi economy has already been commented. I would like to add the example of a single, state-governed, national-socialist tourism service company “Kraft durch Freude”. It built a massive megalomanic tourist complex Prora for German *workers* which strikingly resemble social-realism in architecture and implies the egalitarian nature of national-socialism as a place for collective leisure for 20.000 german workers – with no special accomodations for different classes or richer clients.

The only remaining right-wing traits are then reliance on nation as the primary basis for regimes identification and not-advocating egalitarianism and classless society in his political campaigns.


John Holbo 05.09.15 at 5:01 am

Well, I’ve written all my follow-up posts now, so I’ll just sign off to this first thread with a final comment.

The problem with Joseph McCarthy’s comment, just above, seems pretty obvious to me: the Nazis wanted to politicize “childrearing, culture, education, leisure, civil society and associations”. But these have always been political. Mostly, the politics of these matters have been relatively conservative. What comes in with the 20th century – with W.W. I are various totalizations. Whole mobilizations of societies. The fallacy is to assume anyone who wants to totalize values must be doing it in a left-wing way. This is Goldberg’s fallacy, really. He says totalitarianism is a left-wing thing, so when anything gets really out of hand you can blame the left. But this doesn’t really make much sense. What the 20th Century gives us is the birth of totalitarian right-wing politics, as a new option. Somehow totalitarian policies were supposed to recover the original ‘conservative’ values that the left had, allegedly, destroyed.


js. 05.09.15 at 5:41 am

But [childrearing, culture, education, leisure, civil society and associations] have always been political. Mostly, the politics of these matters have been relatively conservative.

This is (a) true, and (b) one of the most understated points I remember being made this year? No seriously, it’s always political (as you said), and before modernity—or even late modernity—it was always conservative, to whatever extent that term applies.

What comes in with the 20th century – with W.W. I are various totalizations.

I hesitate with this “totalizing” business, but let’s set that aside. The point is: what also comes in with the late 19th and early 20th centuries is liberation—not least on these “social” issues, for which the (hard-)left, communist types, etc., are very much responsible (though not necessarily exclusively, in all places). And this seems very relevant to why the Nazis are right-wing.


Joseph McCarthy 05.09.15 at 12:55 pm

First, culture is not in any way a necessarily political phenomenonon. The examples of culture: childrearing, education, leisure, family and social relations, art etc. are by itself not politicized unless you say that every human action is a political action and further that anything that is not Left is conservative. Which is what you basically state: until the Left was born in French Revolution, all culture before (and some after) that time-point was conservative, which is utter nonsense.

Culture is an organically grown phenomenon which humans develop in order to organize their survival and has not necessarily anything to do with power and politics, except in totalitarian regimes. That’s why they are called totalitarian, because of submitting all aspects of individual’s life to political agenda.

Another point that culture is NOT political in itself is the variety of its manifestations. For example, the matriarchal cultures, promiscous and quasi-egalitarian tribal cultures – are they left-wing cultures? No, they are not as they did not require (revolutionary) politics to develop but did so organically.

Secondly, you ignored my argument about utopian advertising as a means to mobilize masses and seizure of power. Left appeals to masses by stating that any individual is entitled to special status in achieving utopia regardless of his actual merit, if only he submits to the ideology, which replaces all other social standards. Furthermore, anyone who does not submit to ideology is a traitor and threat to utopian achievement. This is inherited from Marxist and Hegelian dialectics, which sees everything essentially as a fight between two entities.

On top of that, I was not talking about the total change of values, but about a politicization of culture and society which is a consequence of the implementation of such all-grasping utopia. Leftists infused everyday activities and social relations with politics and didn’t necessarily change any values, they rather rebranded them for their political cause.

Last, although Hitler was not so rigorous in marxist economics as communists, his state control of the economy was indirect and more incentive and subsidy-based (as is for example nowadays).

So appeal to the masses with utopia and its enemies, state control of economy and infusing politics in every aspect of society are a couple of leftists traits to national socialism, which was essentialy what it states: a socialism for (you are good just because you are) an Aryan.


John Holbo 05.09.15 at 1:53 pm

“The examples of culture: childrearing, education, leisure, family and social relations, art etc. are by itself not politicized unless you say that every human action is a political action”

Well, yes. There are reasons conservatives tend to be very concerned that all these things be done the right way, by their lights.

“Secondly, you ignored my argument about utopian advertising as a means to mobilize masses and seizure of power.”

Well, conservatism is also very Utopian in its way. It has its high ideals. It has its lost Golden Ages and its good old days. I realize it is a stock talking point that conservatives know not to try to blueprint Utopia, but I don’t really it’s true. Conservatives are just as likely to live with their heads in some cloud as anyone else.

“Last, although Hitler was not so rigorous in marxist economics as communists, his state control of the economy”

State control of the economy – total mobilization of the whole state, really reaches a new level with W.W. I. Most of the governments that got in early with that project actually had rather ‘conservative’ governments – Britain, France, Germany, pre-Revolutionary Russia. I don’t think it would make sense to argue that, therefore, totalitarianism is an especially conservative value. Do you? Why then, should your argument be good either?

Comments on this entry are closed.