There is only one problem: This argument is untrue. Although the Nazis did pursue a level of government intervention in the economy that would shock doctrinaire free marketeers, their “socialism” was at best a secondary element in their appeal. Indeed, most supporters of Nazism embraced the party precisely because they saw it as an enemy of and an alternative to the political left. A closer look at the connection between Nazism and socialism can help us better understand both ideologies in their historical contexts and their significance for contemporary politics.
The Nazi regime had little to do with socialism, despite it being prominently included in the name of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party. The NSDAP, from Hitler on down, struggled with the political implications of having socialism in the party name. Some early Nazi leaders, such as Gregor and Otto Strasser, appealed to working-class resentments, hoping to wean German workers away from their attachment to existing socialist and communist parties. The NSDAP’s 1920 party program, the 25 points, included passages denouncing banks, department stores and “interest slavery,” which suggested a quasi-Marxist rejection of free markets. But these were also typical criticisms in the anti-Semitic playbook, which provided a clue that the party’s overriding ideological goal wasn’t a fundamental challenge to private property.
Instead of controlling the means of production or redistributing wealth to build a utopian society, the Nazis focused on safeguarding a social and racial hierarchy. They promised solidarity for members of the Volksgemeinschaft (“racial community”) even as they denied rights to those outside the charmed circle.
Additionally, while the Nazis tried to appeal to voters across the spectrum, the party’s founders and initial base were small-business men and artisans, not the industrial proletariat of Marxist lore. Their first notable electoral successes were in small towns and Protestant rural areas in present-day Thuringia and Saxony, among voters suspicious of cosmopolitan, secular cities who associated both “socialism” and “capitalism” with Jews and foreigners.
This fear of social revolution and a sense that democracy, with its cacophony of voices and the need for compromises, would threaten their preferred social hierarchy gave Nazism its appeal with these voters — even if it meant sacrificing democracy. While Communists abetted the destruction of German democracy, seeing it as a way to eventually produce the revolution they wanted, the only German political party that consistently resisted Nazi arguments, the Social Democratic Party (SPD), offered another sign of the discontinuity between socialism and Nazism.
Those outside Germany who embraced Nazi ideas were also generally anti-leftists. When Frenchmen murmured “Better Hitler than [Socialist Party Leader and Prime Minister Léon] Blum,” they were well aware what National Socialism represented, and it was most emphatically not “socialism.” When many of those same Frenchmen set up the puppet Vichy government in 1940, they did so under the banner of “Travail, famille, patrie,” (Work, family fatherland), happy to use state resources to support their idea of authentic Frenchmen — even as they criticized capitalism for providing benefits to people they didn’t view as French.
Unlike much of the European left, many conservatives proved willing to work with Nazis — something they later regretted — an association that tainted postwar European conservatism. When it came time to rebuild European politics after the war, therefore, it fell to center-left parties such as Labour in Britain, the Socialists in France and the SPD in Germany, which abandoned rigid Marxist doctrines, alongside the new center-right movement of Christian Democracy, which rejected traditional nationalism, to take up the challenge. This was the hour of the welfare state, supported by social and Christian Democrats, which encouraged social solidarity within a democratic and capitalist framework.
Despite this reality, linking socialism and Nazism to critique leftist ideas became a political weapon in the post-World War II period, perhaps unsurprisingly given that the Cold War followed directly on the heels of World War II. Scholars as diverse as Zbigniew Brzezinski and Hannah Arendt used the larger concept of “totalitarianism” to fuse the two. This formula made it easier for Americans to slip comfortably from considering the Soviet Union a wartime ally to recognizing it as an existential threat. Totalitarianism emphasized the structural similarities and violent practices of Nazi and Stalinist regimes.
This concept, however, proved controversial as an explanation of the origins or subsequent appeal of either communism or Nazism/fascism. Although Hitler and Stalin had cooperated in an effort to conquer Eastern Europe in 1939 to 1941, this was more a marriage of convenience than a byproduct of ideological synergy. Indeed, the two sides eventually fought a genocidal war against each other.
Austrian economist and future Nobel laureate Friedrich von Hayek added an extra layer to the conversation about socialism and Nazism with his 1943 bestseller, “The Road to Serfdom.” As a staunch free marketeer, Hayek was appalled by the rise of economic planning in democratic states, embodied by Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Hayek warned that any government intervention in the market eroded freedom, eventually leading to some form of dictatorship.
Hayek was enormously influential across the globe within the rising conservative movement during the second half of the 20th century. He advised future leaders such as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, and his book became foundational for the right. Hayek’s assertion that all government interventions in the economy led to totalitarianism continues to animate popular works such as D’Souza’s “The Big Lie,” reinforcing the idea that the welfare state is a gateway drug to genocide.
But while these ideas may make sense to free market purists, the history shows that it was the parties that arose in reaction to the Nazi horrors that built such welfare states. Denouncing their programs as “socialism” or warning of a tie between the two is nothing less than historical and political sophistry that attempts to turn effect into cause and victim into victimizer.
Historical analogies have a useful purpose to simplify and clarify, but they work best when used carefully. As manifest problems with global capitalism, as well as political gridlock, encourage a new hunger for fundamental political transformation, it is especially important that we understand the tragic decisions of the 1930s and their consequences in their full context, rather than simply transposing words from the past onto the debates of the present.
National Socialism preserved private property, while also putting the entire resources of society at the service of an expansionist and racist national vision, which included the conquest and murderous subjugation of other peoples. It makes no sense to think that the sole, or even the primary, negative aspect of this regime was the fact that it used state power to allocate financial resources. It makes as little sense to suggest that using state power to allocate some financial resources today will automatically result in the same dire consequences.
Historical “gotcha” threatens to reduce our political conversations to meaninglessness, and we should resist it. Debates over the proper role of the state in protecting citizens against the negative exigencies of the market are necessarily complex. Finding the proper balance of interests within a democratic political order depends on the measurement of results, not on the power of magic words to devalue competing ideas.