Weird Interent ideas: the Nazis were leftists? No, not in any way that makes sense

In my last post I somehow ended up at one odd end of the political spectrum. Here I’ve got to go to a different spot to look at a classic thing that gets repeatedly asserted on the Internet by some libertarians and conservatives: Nazis were somehow left wing or socialists.

The idea isn’t a new one and in its most respectable and well argued form, the idea dates back to at least 1945 and Friedrich Hayek’s book “The Road to Serfdom“. Of course Hayek doesn’t say anything quite as crass and stupid as the Nazis being left wing but he does make an extended argument about how leftish policies enabled the Nazi rise to power. It is an intelligent and well argued book. It is also wrong in a neatly demonstrable way – the book was published in Britain just as a Labour government came into power and implemented en-masse a range of economic measures and social policy that pretty much fit the template of what Hayek was warning about (and then some). The Nazis (or anything similar) didn’t take over and when a more stridently authoritarian minded, politically centralizing, nationalistic, militaristic and somewhat-scary regime did come to power it was Margret Thatcher’s Friedman/Hayek inspired version of the Conservative Party and not Nazis. Horrible as many found the Thatcher years, equating them to the Nazis is not a tenable argument. Parliamentary democracy survived and much of Thatcher’s reactionary social policy ended up working backwards (particularly in the area of LGBTI rights).

So Hayek -worth a read. Enough of him. We aren’t dealing with arguments that sophisticated.

So what are the Nazis-are-leftists arguments like? Well they come in different versions:

  • The name of the Nazi party had “socialist” in it. Based on a truth: “national socialism” was the name of the ideology and ‘socialist’ appeared in various iterations of the party name.
  • Various arguments of a form were a special definition of socialist/nazi/fascist is used e.g. government with a special relationship with government.
  • The Nazis followed socialist economic policy. It is again true that they nationalized many industries (notably steel production).
  • The Nazis enacted pro-union, pro-worker laws and imposed pro-worker employment conditions on businesses. Also factually true(ish).
  • Mussolini and other fascists and Nazis started off as communists or socialists.
  • Various Nazis openly declared themselves to be socialists in some general sense. Sort of.
  • The Nazi party, particularly in its early years overtly modeled itself on other left wing parties.

I’ve tried to rank those arguments from silliness to more substantial. Now with all such argument there  are some specific counter-arguments and there are some more general counter-arguments. However a key thing to understand is something I touched on in one of the Petunias posts – left v right is best looked at in terms of correspondence between multiple issues in the context of a specific time and place. For example  in Britain in the 1930s anti-Empire v pro-Empire was a left right split but these days only a fringe person on the right in the UK would think that it makes sense for the UK to essentially own other countries. Similarly British Conservatives are pro-monarchy whereas US Republicans are, well, republicans. So you can’t just pick a single issue that works as a left-right marker (proxy) in one place and use it in the same way in another. That isn’t some post-modern claim about the relativity of truth, it is just a basic empirical claim about how that kind of evidence works.

So specific arguments first:

  • The name of the Nazi party had “socialist” in it. An argument that is so silly it hurts. Christian Scientists aren’t scientists. The Republican Party don’t spend their days campaigning against monarchy. Australia’s major conservative party is the Liberal Party (the Coriolis effect may be to blame). I could go on.The Nazis put the word in their name for many reasons (see below) but as the term wasn’t pejorative and was being used in the sense of the German word as used in post WW1 Germany. That this argument is stupid doesn’t mean the overall claim is wrong – as part of a more general argument it might help on balance of probabilities. However it is usually trotted out as a truism.
  • Various arguments of a form were a special definition of socialist/nazi/fascist is used e.g. government with a special relationship with government. I’ve not seen one of these recently and sometimes used to say that somebody like Tony Blar is really a Nazi. Goes something like a a balance between socialism and business, so does Tony Blair hence Tony Blair is a nazi. No, Blair is a smug git but not a Nazi.
  • The Nazis followed socialist economic policy. It is again true that they nationalized many industries (notably steel production). Now we have some actual potatoes. This argument I’ve seen more often from libertarians or libertarian minded conservatives. It is stronger because it rests on a thought out model. Essentially re-imagine left and right as a spectrum of state control of the economy at one end (Stalinism) and the anarchy at the other and libertarians are not quite anarchists but well to the right and the Nazis would be on the left. Well people are entitled to make up their own models of ideology but that isn’t how left-v-right is usually used. More relevantly in the 1930s almost all major political parties in Europe believed in some degree of central economic planning. It was an economic truism – one disputed by some important economists but still a common enough view across the spectrum.* Basically while a Stalinist-v-libertarain ideological axis can be a useful typology it isn’t what is usually meant by left and right and it doesn’t model associated groupings of ideologies well. Even in the US conservatives vary wildly in terms of the level of economic intervention they will adopt and in specific cases (farm subsidies, road building) are very much in favor of government economic intervention).
  • The Nazis enacted pro-union, pro-worker laws and imposed pro-worker employment conditions on businesses. The Nazis did push many populist laws aimed at apparently improving the lot of the German working classes (at least the ones they regarded as racially pure) but they were also vehemently opposed to FREE trade unions. The free association of labour was not something they supported. However, it is fair to point out that Stalin didn’t support free trade unions either. So maybe half a point. I don’t think this argument stands up to full scrutiny but it isn’t a trivial one but it isn’t much a slam-dunk either. Right wing populist movements of many stripes have been advocated some pro-worker policies and even traditional conservatives advance protection policies using pro-worker arguments.
  • Mussolini and other facsists and Nazis started off as communists or socialists. And some neo-conservatives started out as Trotskyists. Individuals wander around ideologies and parties.
  • Various Nazis openly declared themselves to be socialists in some general sense. Similar to a combination of several of the above. You can take this either as a cyncial attempt to capture working class support (particularly in the early days of the Nazis) or a genuine concern for the plight of German workers (well, again, at least the German workers that the Nazis thought were sufficiently German).
  • The Nazi party, particularly in its early years overtly modeled itself on other left wing parties. Now this one has some importance to it. The Nazis were organizationally more like the German Social Democrats and Communists than other German parties. They organised as a mass movement and had sub-units in trade unions etc. This was, in part, a transition in modern politics towards political parties as mass-movements. Of course in this way the Nazis also resembled populist parties of left and right and resembled some populist grouping in US politics. The resemblance tells us nothing about ideology and a lot about how politics changed during the twentieth century in the face of increased suffrage and urbanization.

What about more general counter-arguments?

The Nazis grew out of a range of anti-left groupings that arose during the revolutionary period in the immediate aftermath of WW2. Notably the Friekorps quasi-militias that acted as counter-revolutionaries (and ideologically ranged from left of center to right wing). The nazis, like similar fascist movements organized in a quasi-military model and fetishized the military life as not only being more honorable but also as a model of society. While it is certainly not the case that anybody who admires military discipline is a fascist it is a far more common trope of the right than the left. Further the roots of the Nazi party as a generally anti-left grouping is important. The Nazis were just fighting communists as part of an internecine conflict between left wing groups (those kinds of conflicts did occur particularly SDP v Communists) but as a broad and general antipathy to all of the left. Everyone on the left was an enemy. When the Nazis achieved full totalitarian power, left wingers of all stripes were targeted for death and concentration camps.

The most singular feature of the Nazi ideology was extreme and genocidal anti-semitism. This anti-semitism was specifically tied to the Nazis demonizing of the left. The supposed threat they claimed from Jewish people was always conflated with the threat of Communism and the left. Yes, there was standard wordl-capatlist conspiracy theories thrown into the mix as well with common anti-semtici tropes about banking but even this was part of the communist conspiracy. No, that doesn’t make a lot of sense but it is important to remember that Nazi ideology DOESN’T MAKE SENSE. there are limits to the logical implications we can follow when looking at the internal cohesion of the Nazi ideas.

While the Nazi ideology is difficult to make logical conclusions about because it makes no actual sense, the rest of German politics was more conventional. There were extreme left (Communist party most noticeably – backed by the USSR), a more moderate but very left (by today’s standards) social-democrats, a center and a right. the right had a broad array of varying kinds of conservatives including regional parties (recall that Germany was a relatively new country) and religious parties (for example Catholics). Naturally all parties were rivals with each other. The SDP would fight the Communists (sometimes literally) and conservative parties would fight each other (rhetorically). As discussed above the Nazis did target parts of Germany’s working class, so there was a degree of the Nazis, SDP and Communists sharing some of the same electoral space. However in modern times and even in the 1930s, right wing populism has targeted working class voters specifically on the same kinds of issues the Nazis were – fear of immigrants and fear of foreign competition [and no, campaigning on those issues doesn’t make somebody a Nazi – it is just a commonality and ALL ideologies have commonalities]. OK I need a paragraph break to draw breath…

…Yet importantly German party politics did split left and right. There isn’t any great mystery here. Political parties were described this way and a left-right axis was conventionally understood at the time. After WW2 and German democracy was re-established in West Germany the left-right axis continued and the surviving parties followed the same pattern (e.g. German SDP being the main left party etc). This means the question of were the Nazis left or right is actually easily settled – what side of that axis did people AT THE TIME think they were. Who ended up alging with whom? The answer is not surprising. the Nazis, as perceived at the time, were a party of the right. In the end they came to power with support and alliances with more conventionally right wing parties.

Otto Wels

There is one vote, one vote that is most emblematic of this. Yes, it is in a sense a single data point but one of such profound significance that it cannot be ignored. When Hitler became chancellor he did not at that point have the sweeping dictatorial powers that would allow him to follow his monstrous policies. To gain those power he needed the Reichstag (German parliament) to vote him special powers which it did using an Enabling Act. Under a degree of duress from the Nazis’ paramilitary supporters and amidst fear of Communists in the wake of the Riechstag fire, Hitler was voted the powers he wanted. There had been some internal disagreement about the act among the center parties but lttle among the non-Nazi right. With many Communists in gaol as part of a crackdown, the left was primarily the SDP. In the end only the SDP voted against Hitler. This was the last opportunity that anybody had to stop the awful events that happened by constitutional democratic non-violent means.

There was only one substantial speech against the enabling act: Otto Wels, the leader of the SDP. Like any politician he was a man of flaws and contradictions. However I’ll end this post with a substantial excerpt of his speech as it touches on many of the points above – the Nazis, their use of the word “socialism” but also the defiance of one man against an awful tyranny.

The government may protect itself against raw excesses of polemics; it may rigorously prevent incitements to acts of violence and acts of violence in and of themselves. This may happen, if it is done toward all sides evenly and impartially, and if one foregoes treating defeated opponents as though they were proscribed. Freedom and life can be taken from us, but not our honor.

After the persecutions that the Social Democratic Party has suffered recently, no one will reasonably demand or expect that it vote for the Enabling Act proposed here. The elections of March 5 have given the governing parties the majority and thus the possibility of governing in strict adherence to the words and meaning of the constitution. Where such a possibility exists, there is also an obligation to take it. Criticism is salutary and necessary. Never before, since there has been a German Reichstag, has the control of public affairs by the elected representatives of the people been eliminated to such an extent as is happening now, and is supposed to happen even more through the new Enabling Act. Such omnipotence of the government must have all the more serious repercussions inasmuch as the press, too, lacks any freedom of expression.
Ladies and gentlemen! The situation that prevails in Germany today is often described in glaring colors. But as always in such cases, there is no lack of exaggeration. As far as my party is concerned, I declare here: we have neither asked for intervention in Paris, nor moved millions to Prague, nor spread exaggerated news abroad. It would be easier to stand up to such exaggerations if the kind of reporting that separates truth from falsehood were possible at home. It would be even better if we could attest in good conscience that full protection in justice has been restored for all. That, gentlemen, is up to you.

The gentlemen of the National Socialist party call the movement they have unleashed a national revolution, not a National Socialist one. So far, the relationship of their revolution to socialism has been limited to the attempt to destroy the social democratic movement, which for more than two generations has been the bearer of socialist ideas and will remain so. If the gentlemen of the National Socialist Party wanted to perform socialist acts, they would not need an Enabling Law. They would be assured of an overwhelming majority in this house. Every motion submitted by them in the interest of workers, farmers, white-collar employees, civil servants, or the middle class could expect to be approved, if not unanimously, then certainly with an enormous majority.

And yet, they first want to eliminate the Reichstag in order to continue their revolution. But the destruction of that which exists does not make a revolution. The people are expecting positive accomplishments. They are waiting for effective measures against the terrible economic misery that exists not only in Germany but in the whole world. We Social Democrats bore the responsibility in the most difficult of times and for that we had stones cast at us. Our accomplishments for the reconstruction of the state and the economy, for the liberation of occupied territories, will stand the test of history. We have established equal justice for all and a social labor law. We have helped to create a Germany in which the path to leadership of the state is open not only to princes and barons, but also to men from the working class. You cannot back away from that without relinquishing your own leader. The attempt to turn back the wheel of history will be futile. We Social Democrats know that one cannot undo the facts of power politics with mere legal protests. We see the power-political fact of your present rule. But the people’s sense of justice is also a political power, and we shall not cease to appeal to this sense of justice.

The Weimar Constitution is not a socialist constitution. But we stand by the principles enshrined in, the principles of a state based on the rule of law, of equal rights, of social justice. In this historic hour, we German Social Democrats solemnly pledge ourselves to the principles of humanity and justice, of freedom and socialism. No Enabling Act gives you the power to destroy ideas that are eternal and indestructible. After all, you yourselves have professed your adherence to Socialism. The Socialist Law has not destroyed social democracy. German social democracy will draw new strength also from the latest persecutions.

[* or, to quote Hayek: “‘Conservative socialism’ was the slogan under which a large number of writers prepared the atmosphere in which National Socialism succeeded.”]



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