Volksgemeinschaft: Hitler as Revolutionary
By Stephen Davies
- A Book Review of Hitler: The Politics of Seduction, by Rainer Zitelmann.1
In fact, Zitelmann’s book sets out clearly an important, even central aspect of Hitler’s career and the nature of what he represented that has been largely ignored or misunderstood, sometimes deliberately. In doing this it helps us reach a much clearer understanding of not only Hitler himself and the vision that drove him and which he sought to realise but also the nature of Nazism and its project. As such, it is of much wider and continuing relevance than one might suppose.
The book in fact is not even new. It is a revised and updated republication of a work that came out first some years ago under a different title. It was originally published in German in 1987 and translated into English under the highly misleading title Hitler: The Politics of Seduction. Since then, there have been several further updated German editions but no further English ones, which is why this edition is a substantial update. The one major problem in this edition is the lack of a subject index, but otherwise this is an outstanding work of scholarship.
Zitelmann’s subject is not Hitler’s actual policies other than incidentally. It is Hitler’s ideology or vision—the body of ideas that motivated his politics and career. This is obviously relevant to the question of the actual policies followed after 1933 and also to the question of why people came to support the NSDAP before 1933 and in many cases to join the party and its organisations. The focus is on what Hitler believed, his project or goal, and the kinds of arguments that he made in support of them or to express and articulate his ideas. This is done by examining in detail his speeches, programmatic documents, and his writings—obviously including but not confined to Mein Kampf. The result is a full and well-founded picture of a coherent and thought-out set of beliefs and ideas, and the sentiments associated with them in Hitler’s mind and thinking. The picture given is in striking contrast to the common notion of what motivated Hitler—or of his beliefs and ideology—and as such is controversial. One important argument is that antisemitism is not as central or primary for Hitler as most have assumed and played little or no part in the arguments made by the NSDAP between 1928 and 1933 or in attracting electoral support at that time. Instead, it is presented as being a very important but secondary part of his thinking, something that came as a consequence or corollary of other more foundational ideas, once those primary ideas were combined with a vehement personal prejudice.
An important aspect of the book is that it emphasises that Hitler’s ideas were not static or fixed but evolved and changed over time, although their underlying nature and content remained constant. Zitelmann is at pains to stress that the thinking and ideas set out were Hitler’s and that this should not be taken as a study of the ideology and thinking of the Nazi Party as a whole, although obviously Hitler played a central part in defining those. Some leading figures, such as Goebbels, shared Hitler’s way of thinking but there was a difference between his ideas and those of people such as Rosenberg, Himmler, and Darre (which Hitler himself dismissed as “mysticism”). Something that becomes very clear, and which is in sharp contrast to widely held beliefs, is that Hitler’s ideas were systematic and coherent. They were not simply rationalizations of animus or prejudice or an incoherent collection of ad hoc and ill thought-out notions. That means that, to the extent that his beliefs did shape Nazi policy, there was a definite large-scale and long-term project as opposed to a combination of prejudice and pragmatism (a common view). What though were those ideas and beliefs? Zitelmann identifies three central and mutually supporting elements.
The first is that Hitler saw himself, accurately, as a revolutionary. Clearly it was a revolution of a different kind than that aimed at by Marxists, but it was still politics of a revolutionary kind and as such clearly distinct from the politics of the so-called bourgeois parties (liberals, social democrats, and Christian democrats) and also the conservatives and conventional nationalists. Zitelmann demonstrates that Hitler himself made this distinction, clearly and explicitly differentiating himself from the conservatives and putting the Nazi party, the Communists, and the Italian Fascists as rivals but fellow revolutionary movements, opposed to the constitutional politics of the bourgeois parties. He saw himself as a revolutionary because the political project he envisioned was one of fundamental transformation, a radical reshaping of the German social order, economy, and society. His politics was therefore total—encompassing every area of life, in the same way as communism—and he argued explicitly that this derived from its being a comprehensive weltanschauung (world view). This he explicitly contrasted to the limited and rule bound politics of liberalism and social and Christian democracy, which meant that it was conducted in a different way, one neither bound nor limited by law. The last aspect of this revolutionary approach was that the transformation of society it aimed at involved novelty and the creation of something new and unprecedented. This went along with a fascination, shared by most leading Nazis, with technology and modernism. This was all in marked contrast to the politics of radical reactionaries, such as the so-called conservative Maurras revolutionaries in Germany, and the Action Française in France, who looked to a reactionary politics of restoration and counter-revolution.
What though was the new order that Hitler aimed at creating through a Nazi revolution? Zitelmann draws this out in detail. His aim was the creation of a volksgemeinschaft or people’s community. This was a political and social order in which the existence of different classes was recognized, but conflicts between them were resolved through their common incorporation into a unified collective social and political order. In this order, economic principles were explicitly subordinated to political ones and individualism was deprecated as being decadent and anti-social. A key aspect of this social thinking was hostility to the culture and interests of the bourgeoisie—the capitalist and managerial classes—and a vaunting of the working class as the location of true national identity (reflected in the full name of the Party—National Socialist German Workers’ Party—and its political tactics). A very important aspect of this that Zitelmann explores was an emphasis on social mobility and meritocracy at the expense not only of Jews but the traditional middle and upper classes in general.
One important aspect of the idea of volksgemeinschaft was the use of symbolism and ritual and the explicit incorporation of aesthetic principles into such apparently mundane matters as motorway design. This is often seen as exemplifying the mystical element in Nazi ideology and the way it rejected liberal modernity for an imagined past. Zitelmann argues convincingly that while this may have been true for Rosenberg, Himmler, and Darre, it was not for Hitler. He explicitly rejected quasi-religious practices (dismissing them as “cultish” rather than scientific) and his use of symbolism and ritual was a case of the highly rational and deliberate use of non-rational sentiment. The main point though is that in Zitelmann’s account, Hitler saw the revolutionary politics as creating a new kind of political and social order—radically distinct from individualistic and commercial liberalism—a new kind of state and society. It was also, Zitelmann argues, a new kind of economy.
This final point is the most controversial part of the book. The dominant view of the Third Reich and Hitler’s ideas and policy has it that there was no real coherent economic policy or vision and that the regime did not mark a clear break with capitalism, even in aspiration, never mind practice. There is also the Marxist view that fascism in general—and Nazism in particular—were a form of capitalist politics and political economy, produced by the response of monopoly capitalism to the challenge of communism. This last view is a minority one but still influential, while few take the “socialist” part of the Nazi Party’s full name as being anything but window dressing. Zitelmann takes on this assessment directly. He argues that from Hitler’s writings and speeches we can discern a definite economic philosophy and goal. He argues that this was a synthesis between socialism and nationalism. In this it was actually like the form that Soviet Communism took under Stalin by the end of the 1930s. Through extensive quotes and citations, he shows that Hitler explicitly rejected free markets as the way of organizing and governing an economy and capitalism as both an economic and social system. The usual term to describe capitalism was “plutocracy”, the label used for the Anglo-Saxon countries, but above all the United States.
Hitler rejected Soviet socialism not primarily on economic grounds, rather because of its anti-national elements. He also argued for a form of socialism in which—while there was extensive state ownership of key sectors or individual firms—the bulk of productive assets remained in private ownership. The point was that the employment and disposal of those assets was directly controlled and directed by the collective political process. The socialist aspect of Nazi economic policy and the extent of state intervention in the German economy has received renewed attention recently, due mainly to Adam Tooze’s outstanding work Wages of Destruction,3 but Zitelmann’s older work makes the strongest case for there being a coherent economic philosophy behind this as well as political exigencies. Is it fair to call this socialism? On the “walks like a duck” principle we have to say that it is, unless we beg the question and define socialism in a way that makes this version non-socialist by definition (similar to ones saying that otherwise clearly capitalist societies like the Antebellum South cannot be capitalist because that is defined as excluding slavery). The conclusion we can clearly draw is that Hitler aimed at a socialist order of a kind—one different in important ways from the Marxist-Leninist version but a type of socialism nonetheless.
Having this book available in an updated English translation is tremendously valuable. It uses close reading of the sources to give us a much more accurate and complete picture of Hitler’s worldview and the vision that motivated his politics. It makes it clear that he was another of the anti-liberal, anti-capitalist, and anti-bourgeois revolutionaries who had such a catastrophic impact on world history in the first two thirds of the twentieth century. It helps the reader to better understand the nature of fascism as a political project and the scope and scale of the ambition of leaders like Hitler and others. It was the overthrow of the form modernity had taken because of liberal victories in the nineteenth century and its replacement by a new kind of civilization—still modern in some ways but founded on very different principles. Like Marxism-Leninism, a similar yet distinct kind of project, it ended in failure but had a wide appeal while it lasted.
For more on these topics, see
- “How ‘socialist’ was national socialism?,” by Alberto Mingardi. EconLog, June 22, 2020.
- “The Socialist Economics of Italian Fascism,” by Lawrence K. Samuels. Econlib, July 6, 2015.
- Socialism, by Robert Heilbroner. Concise Encyclopedia of Economics.
- Communism, by Bryan Caplan. Concise Encyclopedia of Economics.
- Fascism, by Richard Sheldon. Concise Encyclopedia of Economics.
- Capitalism, by Robert Hessen. Concise Encyclopedia of Economics.
That is perhaps the most important conclusion of the book and one that Zitelmann does not fully bring out—the extent and depth of the appeal of Hitler’s vision. Today, we are so used to thinking of him as being a near-demonic figure (for good and obvious reasons) that we overlook the way that his worldview had great appeal and still would if it were detached from an association with the specifics of Hitler and German history. One area that is touched on but that must be explored in other works is the way Hitler’s vision worked out in actual politics. This would require something more like an actual biography, which this is not. Zitelmann does make clear though that Hitler managed to be guided by his general worldview throughout his career while at the same time making pragmatic adjustments to advance his ideals—a pragmatic revolutionary in fact. For anyone of a liberal, social democratic, or democratic conservative persuasion this is a clear map of a deeply hostile and dangerous way of thinking about the world and its clarity enables us to be better able to understand its past success and continuing appeal.
 Ian Kershaw, Hitler: 1889-1936 Hubris (W.W. Norton & Company, 1999) and Hitler: 1936-1945 Nemesis (W.W. Norton & Company, 2001).
 Adam Tooze, Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy. Penguin Books, 2008.
*Dr. Stephen Davies is the Head of Education at the IEA. Previously he was program officer at the Institute for Humane Studies (IHS) at George Mason University in Virginia. He joined IHS from the UK where he was Senior Lecturer in the Department of History and Economic History at Manchester Metropolitan University. He has also been a Visiting Scholar at the Social Philosophy and Policy Center at Bowling Green State University, Ohio. A historian, he graduated from St Andrews University in Scotland in 1976 and gained his PhD from the same institution in 1984. He has authored several books, including Empiricism and History (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003) and was co-editor with Nigel Ashford of The Dictionary of Conservative and Libertarian Thought (Routledge, 1991).