How "socialist" was national socialism?
By Alberto Mingardi
How “socialist” was National Socialism? In The Road to Serfdom, Friedrich Hayek considers “The Socialist Roots of Nazism.” Bruce Caldwell has written extensively on the circumstances at the time Hayek was writing what today is his most renowned work. Hayek wanted to refute the view, which gained dominance in the Thirties, that German Nazism was in essence a kind of capitalist reaction against rising socialism. The “socialism” bit in “National socialism” was seldom considered relevant.
Hayek was wary that prominent British thinkers thought Nazism was simply “vile” and, thus, had little to do with a noble set of ideas such as socialism. Instead, he saw a radical reaction to the “old” liberal system and the rule of law. Hayek’s contention remains controversial. See for example this recent article by Robert J. Granieri, who argues that
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.
Granieri argues that, on the contrary, “it was the parties that arose in reaction to the Nazi horrors that built such welfare states”. I think there is something there, though the dynamic is a little bit more complex. On the one hand, authoritarian regimes certainly contribute to the development of the basic structure of welfare/interventionist states as we know them. Consider the case I know best, Italy. Fascism developed the Italian social security system, aimed at a comprehensive restructuring of the relationships between factors of production in a “corporatist” fashion, and nationalized banks and businesses. The second feature of the regime did not survive its end (though one may argue that its legacy has long impacted the Italian economy). But some version of social security and nationalized banks and companies did. In recent years, works such as Wolfgang Schivelbusch’s Three New Deals: Reflections on Roosevelt’s America, Mussolini’s Italy, and Hitler’s Germany, 1933-1939 explored this issue.
John Lukacs, a distinguished historian of Nazism who highlighted the fact that the most salient characteristic of Hitler and his regime was Nationalism (“it was a national mentality, and not class-consciousness, that attracted people to Hitler”), pointed out that “Hitler was not the inventor of National Socialism, but he recognized the compatibility – and indeed, the marriageability – of two great movements”. “It was not only that for him nationalism was the dominant partner in the marriage; he was convinced that modern populist nationalism can – and indeed must – be socialistic” (quotations from The Hitler of History).
A new book by Robert Gellately, Hitler’s True Believers, explores this point.
Hayek is mentioned as a writer who “saw National Socialism as part of a broader collectivist movement in many parts of Europe”. Gellately points out that The Road to Serfdom “looked only briefly and selectively at the intellectual roots of national socialism” and that “Hayek used the charge of ‘socialism’ as a kind of libertarian indictment against Nazism”. Yet Gellatelly’s book explores the matter thoroughly and points out that “Germany on the eve of Hitler’s appointment as chancellor in January 1933 continued to have a socialist-oriented political culture”. “Almost without exception, the Nazis emphasized all kinds of socialist attitudes, to be sure a socialism ‘cleansed’ of international Marxism and communism”. The book explores the ideological roots of Nazism, which of course are not confined to socialist sentiments but include them. Stressing the socialism bit in national socialism is ironically considered in the Anglo-Saxon world as an “ultra-right wing attitude”. It is kind of funny, because in Italy right-wingers used to argue that “fascism was not really that bad” by pointing out that it anticipated several features of welfare states. Ideologies are often a highly complex cocktail and Gellately’s book is an important contribution to better understand the ingredients of the awful, Nazi one.