Conservatives and liberals keep claiming that the Nazis were socialists. What the economic policy of the Nazis really looked like is explained by historian Ishay Landa in a JACOBIN interview.
The fact that the Nazis called themselves socialists still causes confusion today. Recently, the discussion flared up again as to whether the Nazis were leftists or rightists.
In 2021, the Israeli historian Ishay Landa published the book The Apprentice and His Master. Liberal Tradition and Fascism, a comprehensive study on the question of what economic interests the Nazis were actually pursuing. In an interview with JACOBIN, he explains what the term "socialism" meant to Hitler, how his political and economic views were connected and why we can see the dangers of economic liberalism in Elon Musk.
In your book you examine the economic policies and ideology of the National Socialists. Were their policies actually socialist?
No, of course they were not socialists. It's true that the Nazis occasionally used the term affirmatively. Some people cynically interpret this as proof: "They were socialists because they called themselves socialists!" But they were extremely anti-socialist in every actual sense of the word.
So why did they use the word "socialism" at all?
We need to understand the context in which they used the term. Today, right-wing politicians no longer use the term. And why? Because today socialism is largely discredited. But back then, the anti-communists faced the challenge of gaining access to socialist strongholds and convincing as many working class voters as possible. So they had to present their policies as if they were in the interests of the working class. The trick was to profit from the popularity of socialism because it was seen as the force of the future, but at the same time to distance themselves from its content as much as possible.
If the Nazis only called themselves socialists for strategic reasons, what did their economic policy actually look like?
In any case, it was very strongly capitalist. The Nazis placed great emphasis on private property and free competition. It is true that they intervened in the free market, but it was also a time of general collapse of capitalist systems. Almost all states intervened in the market at that time, and they did so to save the capitalist system from itself. This has nothing to do with socialist sentiments - it was pro-capitalist. In a way, there is a parallel with the way big banks were bailed out by the states after the financial crisis broke out. Of course, that too did not follow socialist intentions in any way. It was merely an attempt to stabilise the system a bit.
But don't capitalists always want as much freedom as possible?
No, the state interventions at that time were done in agreement with industry. The capitalists even demanded it, because free market policies are not always in the interest of capitalists. They sometimes need the state to help the free market along by intervening. So the interventions were not forced on the economy by the fascists - it was a consensual development that reflected demands from the industrial sector. The aim was essentially to steer the system in favour of big business.
How does the political ideology of the Nazis relate to this attempt to stabilise the system?
Hitler is often accused of subordinating economic interests to his political views, which is true to some extent. But what exactly were his political views? If we try to think about Hitler's most fanatical obsessions - for example, Social Darwinism, eugenics or even his anti-Semitism - it may seem that they can only be understood in isolation from economic considerations. However, if we look more closely at each of these elements, we see that they had an indispensable economic basis.
Social Darwinism is actually a form of hypercapitalism. It takes over from capitalism the focus on competition as a fight of all against all. And the Nazis said, "Well, that's nature." This was not a break with capitalism, but an escalation of economic views. Capitalism, according to the Nazis, is simply part of nature. So it is not just a question of political domination, but of naturalising economic contradictions. Hitler then said that it is above all the Jew who is trying to play a trick on nature in order to make the struggle for survival superfluous. The will to change the economy made Jewry insidious from the Nazi point of view.
But isn't this very positive view of free competition and the struggle of all against all precisely the hallmark of economic liberalism?
Hitler didn't invent all this, of course; it was part of the mainstream. One could hear very similar statements about the need for ruthless competition in mainstream liberal economics of the time. That someone like Hitler could become the "leader" of a major industrial nation was, after all, the culmination of certain broad views about economics and about political agency. Hitler followed the wishes of the industrialists in his response - this is what made him so attractive to large sections of the middle classes. The National Socialists seemed to free the economy from unnecessary burdens of political and humanistic sensitivity.
Through eugenics, for example?
Exactly, even the murder of people with physical, mental and psychological disabilities was directly linked to economic concerns - through it, the economy was to be freed from people who were considered a burden. The National Socialist language was very economic and calculating in this respect. For example, a typical propaganda poster read: "60,000 Reichsmark is the lifetime cost of this hereditary sick person to the Volksgemeinschaft. Volkgenosse, that is also your money". Even the Shoah has this connection to economic issues. For in Nazi ideology, Jews are seen as the ultimate obstacle. Obstacle to what? For capitalism. They are seen as the backbone of Marxism.
So for the Nazis, Marxism is essentially a Jewish conspiracy against the capitalist economy - and thus against the natural order. Of course, the Shoah was the result of many factors and the culmination of various Nazi fears, obsessions and hatreds. But this socio-economic factor should not be forgotten.
But why were the Nazis able to call Marxism a great evil that must be eradicated, while they used socialism as a very positive slogan for their movement?
By the term "socialism" they do not mean anything that we would even remotely recognise as socialist, but their policy of interfering with the free market for the benefit of the capitalists. By the term "Marxism", on the other hand, they meant social democracy and the protection of basic workers' rights. In Mein Kampf Hitler says that his world view was completed the moment he realised that the Jews were the masterminds of social democracy. It was simply a very convenient - if cynical - way of separating the terms and ascribing a completely new meaning to them.
If this is so clear, why have there been these debates recently in Germany about a supposedly socialist policy of the Nazis?
Well, this is actually not so new, but has a long history. Already in the time of fascism there were some attempts to portray the Nazis as socialists, for example by Ludwig von Mises. But in general, the attempt to establish a direct link between Marxism and National Socialism was a minority position. From the 1980s onwards, there was a turning point when a revisionist current began in fascism studies. It tried to link fascism much more strongly with the political left. This happened at a time when neoliberalism was beginning to replace the welfare state. This made this ideological move very practical. They said, "The Nazis actually stood for an authoritarian form of socialism!" Attacking social policy thus became an anti-fascist act.
So turning Nazis into socialists is also a tool to impose anti-working class policies?
That's right. When did intellectuals start writing books accusing the Nazis of having implemented socialist economic policies? When did they start accusing the Nazis of having helped the masses at the expense of the bourgeoisie? Exactly at the time when the politicians tried to impose neoliberal reforms of the labour market. So the writing of history is linked to economic realities. So politicians used these theories to support their attacks on the welfare state. Götz Aly said in one of his interviews at the time that it was the task of the Red-Green government under Gerhard Schröder to finally put an end to the "Volksgemeinschaft". Thus, by liberalising the economy, the last remnants of National Socialism are being removed from German life. This thinking shows how current political fashions are linked to the question of how we perceive the past.
But did liberals ever come to terms with the fact that Hitler was partly pushing their own political programme?
There was never an honest and direct confrontation. In the post-war years there was a consensus that the state had to improve the situation of workers in moderation - even within liberalism. If there was a liberal admission of guilt, it was made on the premise that Nazi policies had not been real liberalism. Their liberalism had been half-baked and had not lived up to its democratic responsibility.
Later, however, there was a radical change. Suddenly, liberals were much more inclined to say: "National Socialism was socialist. And if you fight against socialism and create a market that is as free as possible from any political interference, you are a good anti-fascist." That was the much more lasting phase of the liberal confrontation with the past.
Business-friendly policies can also be implemented by linking social and economic liberalisation. Do you think that economic liberalism is actually always accompanied by social progress?
I think we should make a strict distinction between the economic impact of liberalism and the political impact. In the beginning, they sometimes went hand in hand. But at a certain stage, there was a split between the economic and the political aspect. Liberals then had to decide which was more important to them. Are they economic liberals because they want to defend private property, class society, and the free market at all costs, or do they want liberal democracy to actually deliver on its promise of freedom and self-determination for all people? This contradiction has not been resolved so far. Because in the end, one has to choose a side.
Why can't we have both?
The conventional wisdom is that liberalism always goes hand in hand with political and individual freedoms, which is sometimes true. What is forgotten, however, is that liberalism from the beginning not only opened up political possibilities, but at the same time severely restricted them. What liberalism had to make clear from the beginning was: "Private property is inviolable". Because that is the basis of the political order.
So you cannot tax the rich without their consent. If you do, you already give them a good reason to rebel and use violence against the masses. Liberal politics thus had a dictatorial option inscribed in it from the start. And so it became the main task of politics to protect property. But of course that is a very narrow definition of what politics can or should do. And we still suffer from that today. In a Western democracy, you can do many things - but you should never touch private property.
So there is something in the basic structure of economic liberalism that actually hinders people's freedom?
Capitalism is essentially an anti-democratic economic structure: it means, above all, free domination over workers. Capitalism is hierarchical and not egalitarian. Moreover, there is a massive concentration of wealth, which raises a crucial debate: How can we redistribute it? Classical liberalism says, "Don't do anything to change the situation." But that creates huge obstacles to political freedom and political opportunity. Because if you want to stop people from touching property, democracy has to be strictly limited. So the liberal view is to say to the masses, "Don't try to be too logical when you think about democracy! Don't try to take democracy at its word! It only creates a lot of trouble!"
And in no case try to improve the economic situation for anyone but the bourgeoisie.
Exactly. And this is a very topical problem: Elon Musk is a real grab bag for what we are discussing here because he is quite open and blatant about it. Recently he said that Americans are trying to avoid hard work and that they should take the Chinese workers as an example. This is a very clear statement, because of course he means that Chinese workers have no way of democratically resisting bad conditions. He says that the democratic system is far too lenient and that we need a much stricter system to discipline workers, to make them work hard and accept low wages - a system like we see in China.
Musk has also recently announced that he will support the Republicans. This is despite the fact that Donald Trump, who is a kind of neo-fascist, still plays a central role in the party.
This is exactly the kind of thing that shows that a dictatorial way out is built into liberal thinking. I am by no means saying that all liberals would advocate such a thing. But it is very difficult to reconcile economic and political liberalism. Instead, there are political liberals who choose a different path economically, or vacillate between the two poles without ever really being able to resolve the fundamental conflict. Thus, to a certain extent, socialism is itself a child of political liberalism. Marx and Engels started out as political liberals and never abandoned the basic ideas of liberalism: Freedom and democratic participation for all. They merely developed their concept further because they realised that under capitalism the chances of realising a genuine democratic project were very limited.