White nationalists have been seeking (and finding) attention frequently this year, in the form of widely publicized protests and rallies. But for all the attention focused on this new wave of Nazi imitators, the original Nazi party, which unleashed chaos on the world in the early decades of the twentieth century, is still shrouded in myths. Here are five of the most persistent.
In his biography of Henry Kissinger, historian Niall Ferguson notes that “old man Thyssen” — that is, German steel magnate Fritz Thyssen — “bankrolled Hitler.” Businessmen such as Thyssen using their financial assets to assist the Nazis was “the mechanism by which Hitler was funded to come to power,” according to John Loftus, a former U.S. attorney who prosecuted Nazi war criminals.
But the Nazis were neither “financed” nor “bankrolled” by big corporate donors. During its rise to power, the Nazi Party did receive some money from corporate sources — including Thyssen and, briefly, industrialist Ernst von Borsig — but business leaders mostly remained at arm’s length. After all, Nazi economic policy was slippery: pro-business ideas swathed in socialist language. The party’s program, the Twenty-Five Points, called for the nationalization of corporations and trusts, revenue sharing, and the end of “interest slavery.” Capitalism, the Nazis charged, “enslaves human beings under the slogan of progress, technology, rationalization, standardization, etc.”
The party largely depended on grass-roots sources of funding (membership dues, subscriptions to the party press, admission to events and so forth). The Nazi propaganda machine — the dances, the “German evenings,” the concerts, the speeches — was also a moneymaking operation, as is made clear in entries in Joseph Goebbels’s diary.
Once in power, however, the Nazis did receive funding from corporate sources, as business leaders were given fat contracts for armaments production and construction projects. The regime also seized Jews’ assets, from valuable art to private savings and investments. And it took control of Jewish-owned companies in what the Nazis called the “Aryanization” of the economy.
“Although Adolf Hitler intended the 1936 Berlin Games to be a showcase for the Nazi ideology of Aryan racial supremacy,” the History Channel wrote in 2013, “it was a black man who left the biggest imprint on that year’s Games.” Such retellings of Owens’s stunning four-gold-medal win are common: “Owens shattered the myth the Nazis so desperately craved to display,” CNN claimed in 2015 . “80 years ago, Owens destroyed the Olympics’ racial hierarchy and humiliated Hitler,” the news site Splinter declared a year later.
Yet while the public (especially in the United States) focused on Owens, the Germans actually won the Olympic medal count , surpassing the favored Americans. Germany walked away with 33 gold medals to America’s 24, 26 silver to America’s 20, and 30 bronze to America’s 12.
Hitler took great pride in hosting the Olympics, and for him the event was a roaring success — even according to Owens, who told the press : “When I passed the Chancellor, he arose, waved his hand to me, and I waved back to him. I think the writers showed bad taste in criticizing the man of the hour in Germany.”
“Sixty-five million Germans yielded to the blandishments and magnetism of this slender man . . . whose fervor and demagogy swept everything before him with outstretched arms as the savior and regenerator of the Fatherland,” the New York Times wrote in May 1945. That Hitler ascended because of his hateful, racist rhetoric is now so much a part of his legend that, according to one German writer, it is taught in the country’s schools: “Germans have internalized that the reason why Adolf Hitler was able to rise to power was that no one stood up for the Jews.”
It’s true that Nazi racism, especially rabid anti-Semitism, was always on the surface. Hitler was an ideological fanatic, and his ideology attracted a small but intensely loyal core of supporters during the party’s early years — 3 to 6 percent of the electorate during its first obscure decade. Even in regional elections throughout the 1920s, the Nazis’ share of the electorate never reached 10 percent.
The truth is that Hitler rose on the strength of his skill as a political strategist, more than anything else. The Nazi Party’s propaganda staff became masters of negative campaigning, launching vicious assaults on the establishment parties and the “system” they supported. They were convinced that details didn’t matter; indeed, Nazi claims were often outright lies. The Nazis also promised everything to everybody, pledging higher sale prices for farmers and lower food prices for workers in the cities. The contradictions abounded, and opposing parties never tired of pointing them out.
Such criticism did not faze the Nazis in the least. They either ignored it or railed that this sort of whining was what was wrong with German politics. Hitler understood that there are times when desperate, angry people want two and two to be five, and he swore that the Nazis would make it so. After the onset of the Great Depression, the party saw its vote totals jump dramatically in 1930, then rocket to 38 percent in July 1932 — a huge increase over its early, more strictly fanatical days.
In 2010, Wisconsin state senatorial candidate Dane Deutsch sparked controversy by tweeting: “Hitler and Lincoln were both strong leaders. Lincoln’s character made him the greater leader whose legacy and leadership still lives on!” Echoing his sentiment, a 2016 Los Angeles Times op-ed held that, like Russian President Vladimir Putin, “Hitler was a strong leader with good poll numbers too.”
But Hitler was, in reality, a vacillating, indecisive leader who drove his lieutenants, and later his military, to exasperation with his long delays and shifting, often contradictory decisions. His closest advisers complained frequently about his inability to make a clear call. In 1935, for example, Hitler announced the Nuremberg Laws, which, among other sinister things, made Jews noncitizens. But who was to be considered a Jew? Would a half-Jewish person, for instance, count? Party and state officials argued for months about this, but despite their pleas for a solution from their Führer, Hitler refused to clarify the situation.
Making matters worse, Hitler’s decisions were rarely committed to paper; instead, he preferred issuing vague verbal orders that contributed mightily to the confusion around his stances. Once he had finally decided on a course of action, nothing could change his mind — but reaching that decision was often a long, circuitous, frustrating process.
Since World War II, the Nazi regime has gone down in popular culture as, among other things, a paragon of brutal, mechanistic optimization. Novels refer to “Nazi-like organization,” newspaper articles to “Nazi-like discipline” and encyclopedia entries to “Nazi-like efficiency.” Perhaps bolstered by an overall impression of Germans as methodical, orderly people, we tend to imagine that the Third Reich embodied these characteristics to the nth degree.
In fact, the regime was, according even to the memoir of Hitler’s minister of armaments and munitions, Albert Speer , more like organized chaos. Offices and agencies of party and state often overlapped or were given identical responsibilities, creating confusion. There were, for example, five different military, state and party agencies charged with leadership of the war economy. Hitler was also fond of creating ad hoc bodies to operate alongside (but often in conflict with) established party or state agencies.
Hitler explained this approach to governing by claiming that in this situation, “the strongest gets the job done.”