A “friend” of mine just wrote “Hitler’s Mein Kampf is a conservative favorite” in a comment to a facebook post of mine. As a conservative and a Jew, I am upset and angered by this comment. Furthermore, as somebody who has studied conservatism and Nazism, I am perplexed by people’s ignorance and/or stupidity.
In a first, I am going to post an entire section from my book, The Path to Tyranny: A History of Free Society’s Descent into Tyranny. (The bracketed numbers are the citations which are not included here.) Of course, it helps to read the previous sections showing how Germany got to where it was in the late 1920s and also the previous chapters which explain some of the terminology, including what is meant by socialism and fascism.
Throughout the 1920s, the Nazis were a non-entity in German politics. In the May 1928 federal election, the National Socialist German Workers Party received just 2.6 percent of the vote. Within four years, the Nazis would become Germany’s largest political party. After another year, Adolf Hitler would become dictator of Germany and all other political parties would be banned. This remarkable rise to power came about through the skilled use of populist rhetoric, including promises of wealth, equality, and national rebirth. The German people, disillusioned with the failures of the center-left coalitions of the 1920s, were swayed by this new party that promised the benefits of both left-wing socialism and right-wing authoritarianism and nationalism.
As the name implies, the National Socialist German Workers Party was founded primarily to promote socialism in Germany. National Socialism originally stood for partial collectivism aimed primarily at large industrial corporations, leading financial institutions, and wealthy landowners, as detailed in the party’s Twenty-Five Points of 1920. The Twenty-Five Points included the following socialist demands:
- “Every citizen shall have the possibility of living decently and earning a livelihood.”
- “All unearned income, and all income that does not arise from work, be abolished.”
- “Total confiscation of all war profits.”
- “Nationalization of all trusts.”
- “Profit-sharing in large industries.”
- “Increase in old-age pensions.”
- “Communalization of large stores which will be rented cheaply to small tradespeople.”
- “A law to expropriate the owners without compensation of any land needed for the common purpose.”
- “The abolition of ground rents, and the prohibition of all speculation in land.”
- “Usurers, profiteers, etc., are to be punished with death, regardless of creed or race.”
- “The State must assume the responsibility of organizing thoroughly the entire cultural system of the people.”
- “Specially talented children of poor parents, whatever their station or occupation, be educated at the expense of the State.”
- “COMMON GOOD BEFORE INDIVIDUAL GOOD.”
Many today believe that the Nazis were capitalists, despite the evidence of Nazism’s socialist roots and agenda. Jacques Ellul, a leader of the French Resistance in World War II, philosopher, and law professor, writes, “The dogmatic and elementary interpretation of Nazism as having been conceived by capitalists to counter communism, and a bourgeois tool in the class struggle, has gained incredibly broad acceptance as a self-evident fact, despite its contradiction of fact. Even after his alliance with certain capitalists, Hitler controlled them as much as they did him.” In 1927, Hitler said, “We are socialists, we are enemies of today’s capitalistic economic system for the exploitation of the economically weak, with its unfair salaries, with its unseemly evaluation of a human being according to wealth and property instead of responsibility and performance, and we are determined to destroy this system under all conditions.”
The Nazis failed to draw left-wing support away from the Social Democratic Party and the Communist Party, so they toned down their socialist economic propaganda beginning in 1927, though they continued to believe in government control of the economy. The Nazis adopted the “third way” style of the Italian Fascists by supporting partial socialism with some government ownership of business and heavy regulation of large businesses, but limited regulation of small businesses and individuals. In 1931, Hitler said, “I want everyone to keep the property he has acquired for himself according to the principle: common good takes precedence over self-interest. But the state must retain control and each property owner should consider himself an agent of the state… The Third Reich will always retain its right to control the owners of property.” Hitler claimed that property could be privately owned but, in reality, the individual would not retain control over it. By controlling “the owners of property,” the state obviously controls the property as well. As Stanley Payne, the eminent authority on fascism writes, Hitler “boasted that there was no need to nationalize the economy since he had nationalized the entire population.” As late as 1941, Hitler declared, “basically National Socialism and Marxism are the same.”
Though Hitler and the Nazis remained committed to socialism throughout, in theory and in practice, their new toned-down “third way” socialism found support among the middle class, who feared the radical left but were still enchanted by the utopian promises of socialism. The new Nazi economic platform also found support among the land-owning farmers. Whereas the Twenty-Five Points vowed to take land away from its owners without compensation “for the common purpose,” by 1930 the Nazis had dropped that proposal and were offering aid to the land owning peasant farmers and praising the peasants as the defenders of German morality and tradition. The Nazis also promised high prices and ready markets for the farmer’s agricultural products and extolled the virtues of “blood and soil” and the “agricultural estate.”
Considering the working class was already aligned with the Marxist parties, Hitler and the Nazis focused their campaign on the middle class, who were also suffering under the weak economy. The new strategy resulted in gains in state elections and increased campaign donations. The Nazis also sought the support of the industrialists, a natural ally when they started presenting themselves as the alternative to the communists and other radical left-wing socialists. Many industrialists were wary of the new, unstable, violent, and radical Nazis, yet some industrialists still gave the Nazis much needed financial support in the 1920s, though they also supported the much larger and less radical conservative German National People’s Party. As the Nazis attracted larger shares of the vote in elections and especially after Hitler became Chancellor, the industrialists gave much more money to the Nazis, partly to help the Nazis defeat the communists, but also to win their favor after their inevitable political victory.
The Nazi agenda went well beyond promises of economic prosperity. The Nazis also promoted German nationalism and Aryan superiority, which helped lift the spirits of many native Germans after the humiliating defeat in World War I, the disastrous hyperinflation of the early 1920s, and the economic depression that began in 1929. Point four of the Twenty-Five Points detailed the Nazis’ German exclusivity: “Only those who are our fellow countrymen can become citizens. Only those who have German blood, regardless of creed, can be our countrymen. Hence no Jew can be a countryman.” Although this anti-Semitism became a centerpiece of the Nazi agenda once in power, it was not instrumental in the Nazis’ rise to power because they toned down their anti-Semitic propaganda during their election campaigns. Thus, the rising fortune of the Nazis had little to do with any anti-Semitic rhetoric, though everybody voting for the Nazis understood their hatred of the Jews, given that it was part of the Twenty-Five Points and was a centerpiece of Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Nevertheless, by promoting Aryan superiority and blaming the Jews, capitalists, republicans, and other liberals for Germany’s problems, German nationalism became the centerpiece of the Nazi agenda and enabled the Nazis to attract members from all economic and social classes.
Like their fascist cousins in Italy, the Nazis also took a pro-military position. After World War I, the Weimar republic did not support the military, even refusing to build a monument to the war dead or issue a commemorative medal. Of course, this upset many veterans and families of the war dead, and the Nazis pursued these disaffected Germans by favoring a strong military, reoccupation of territory lost in the war, and expansion of Germany to include all German-speaking people. The Nazis claimed “National Socialism means peace,” arguing that only a strong Germany can defend against an invasion by France or the Soviet Union. Like the Fascists in Italy, the Nazis were always seen in their military uniform. When Hitler met Mussolini for the first time in 1934, Hitler wore civilian clothing at the insistence of his advisors, whereas Mussolini was dressed in his military uniform. Hitler appeared weak next to Mussolini and he vowed never to make that mistake again. From then on, Hitler was always in uniform when making public appearances.
The Nazis managed to exceed the Italian Fascists in their development of a myth culture, with their ever-present swastika and promotion of the old German folk traditions and rituals. The Nazis also exalted Hitler, well beyond what the Italians did with Mussolini. Many Nazis saw Hitler as a Christ or a Messiah who will save Germany from Jews, foreigners, capitalists, and communists. For example, in 1941, the Nazi newspaper Volkischer Beobachter announced, “The Fuhrer is the highest synthesis of his race… He embodies the universalism of Goethe, the depth of Kant, the dynamism of Hegel, the patriotism of Fichte, the genius of Frederick II, the realism of Bismarck as well as the tumultuous inspiration of Wagner, the perspicacity of Spengler.” Thus, their youth organization was not called the German Youth or even the Nazi Youth, but the Hitler Youth. Hitler became the infallible god of the Nazis and of Germany.
By adapting their agenda to meet the desires of the people and courting unaffiliated groups, the Nazis drew support from various geographic areas and several economic and social classes. Their focus on nationalism, a strong military, authoritarian leadership, and “third way” socialism, with promises of economic prosperity and equality, enabled the Nazis to win over industrialists on the right, peasants on the left, and many in the center, especially World War I veterans. By organizing this coalition of disparate interests, the National Socialists quickly grew from a political non-entity into Germany’s dominant political party.
* This was an excerpt from The Path to Tyranny: A History of Free Society’s Descent into Tyranny.