The Internet has a lot of useful things, but as we all know, it has a lot of nonsense as well. While that indeed is obvious, even reasonable people can—from time to time—get lost in trying to determine which is which.
A common theme we see on social media is the mistaken belief that Nazis fall on the right end of the American political spectrum. A great many sites attempt to correct this information, but generally fall into two categories: outlandish rebuttals that resemble spittle-flecked rants, or overly long and bone-dry lectures featuring just a little too much German to be quickly understood. This brief essay attempts to provide a quietly analytical resource for people of all political opinions but presented in a simple and straightforward manner.
Were the Nazis on the Left or Right?
If you are an American, the Nazis were technically on the political left, for reasons we will explore in a moment.
If you are from Europe or Asia, the answer depends on your sociopolitical outlook. We’ll explore that, too, in a moment.
Were Nazis Socialist?
The word “Nazi” is an abbreviation for the full name of the party: Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, which means the National-Socialist German Workers’ Party. The Nazis embraced socialism and placed it prominently in their name. Were you to ask a Nazi of 1922, 1934, or 1945 if he or she were a socialist, that person would agree immediately.
Yes, Nazis were socialist, and repeatedly and insistently said so.
A fair amount of retroactive spinning has landed in the last few years that attempts to question this. Even the Snopes.com page spends a good portion of its answer wiggling out of this simple explanation. The problem with a lot of this 21st Century analysis is that it uses current definitions of socialism to dispute the idea, rather than using the ideas in use at the time. Socialism and communism were not new ideas in the 1920s, but they were a lot better understood then, than 100 years later.
And more interestingly, most of the current explanations attempt to explain why today’s socialism is not the same socialism embraced by Nazism, instead of asking the more pressing question: why did the Nazis call themselves socialists? We will address this more in a little while.
Aren’t Nationalists Associated With The American Right?
Nationalism—the idea that the country comes first, before party—is frequently used by both the right and left in this country. Roosevelt certainly liked the idea of putting the country’s needs first, as did Trump in his 2016 campaign. But while the Nazis undoubtedly felt similarly about Germany, that’s not the root of the word they used!
Instead, the Nazis wanted to nationalize their socialism (as a verb), in the way that some governments have nationalized industries, healthcare, and education. The Nazis were the outgrowth of some local labor movements that banded together and nationalized their organization.
The fact they were ardent nationalists certainly helped popularize the idea that nationalism is a bad thing, but it is essential to remember that both ends of the political spectrum use nationalism, and generally for good. As the Nazi’s version of nationalism became unquestionably horrific, politicians in this country were quick to push the idea that “nationalism” is bad, to any degree.
This isn’t unique to either side: just as Democrats attack Republicans for nationalism about immigration, so too will Republicans recoil from Democrats’ talking points about nationalizing healthcare.
In short—the word nationalism is neither good nor bad, and neither attributable to the Left or Right by itself.
Does National Socialism Mean The Same Thing As Modern Socialism?
Earlier, we mentioned that a lot of contemporary sources paint complicated pictures, attempting to separate socialism from what the Nazis were doing. Many of these sources are journalists and reporters and aren’t historians or economists. The latter group are pretty well agreed that the Nazis were socialists.
But—and here is the issue—it’s the 21st Century who define socialism incorrectly. For a huge number of people in the world today, socialism refers to a democratically-elected welfare state, such as Denmark, or Britain’s Labour party, or Greece. These governments are in fact capitalist with structures implemented along socialist lines. As a result, modern writers frequently attempt to redefine what socialism is, rather than clarify how the Nazis viewed it.
The list of things that made the Nazis socialist is quite lengthy: they had socialized medicine, education, a centrally managed military with law enforcement powers, nationalized industry, restrictions on free trade, free speech, and association, central economic planning with price and wage controls, government-run media (including newspapers, radio, movies, and even television), a strong welfare state, and on and on .
Many European governments have these things, too. If that makes them socialist, then fine; however, you cannot have these things and dismiss the Nazis as socialists without seriously stretching the ideas of Marx and Engels.
If Nazis Were Socialist, Why Did Nazis Hate Communists?
Sooner or later, the discussion comes down to this question. Nazis engaged in a bloody battle against German communists; the Soviet Union, as well, battled the Nazis to an even more hellish level. The reason, many people believe, is because the Nazis were capitalist and therefore hated communists, and vice-versa.
The Nazis and German communists were each made up of socialists, although with a few differences. Both were opposed to the free-trade and libertarian principles of the Weimar Republic, and both recruited heavily from the same disaffected population of people hurt by the worldwide depression. They were two flavors of socialism, in head-to-head competition.
Due to the seeming success of the Soviet Union, the Nazis were often on the losing side of recruitment, and quickly stepped up an aggressive policy of discouraging the disaffected population from joining the communists. In 1927, the Communists had superior numbers in the German government, but were still forced to share power with the Nazis. On February 11th of that year, the Nazis staged a presentation in the Communist Party’s meeting hall, and provoked the communists in the audience. Nazi thugs in the crowd injured more than 200 of the communists, starting a long history of violence between the two groups; the Nazis, however, won the public relations campaign and saw their numbers swell.
As an interesting side note, the Soviets were instrumental in promoting the idea that, whatever Nazism is, it isn’t socialism. The premise that Nazis can’t be socialist because they attack communists goes back as far as 1928, with the Communist International declaration that non-communist socialists (that is, the Nazis) were effectively capitalist, as a direct result of the violence in 1927.
The Nazis hated the communists all right, but not because they were anti-socialist; they hated the communists because the communists had more power in government until the Nazis used violence against them.
So Why Do People Put Them On The Right?
Many Europeans place the Nazis on the Right, but not because they don’t know their history; they put them on the Right because this term has a different meaning in different places!
In America, the “Right” tends to be socially and fiscally conservative, which means classically liberal (or libertarian). The “Left” views government as having a major interest in protecting and improving the lives of its people, which means liberally progressive. This distinction is rapidly spreading through Europe, as well.
In traditional European political thought, dating back to the French Revolution, the Right tended to favor the establishment (the monarchy), and the Left promoted limited government. This notion spread rapidly through Europe. “Left” versus “Right” depended on the physical location in which you sat in Parliament.
Hence, the term “Right” tended to favor beliefs of a strong, central executive power, while the term “Left” was associated with a classically liberal worldview. Often, Americans tend to think of this European model as reversed, but it really is not. Many Europeans still using this model put the Nazis on the Right due to fascist control and would place Americans as a whole on the Left because of the Constitution.
The terms “Right” and “Left” became current in America in the 20th Century but we apply them quite differently than mid-20th-Century political historians. A socialist in America is invariably placed on the Left; a libertarian is on the Right.
When Americans began seeing Nazis referred to as being on the Right in European analyses, the assumption was made that Nazis, as fascists, must be like conservative Republicans. In fact, regardless of what one thinks of conservatives or Republicans, the Nazis would certainly have opposed them, and would have found much more common ground with the American Left. But before liberals become outraged, read the next question!
Why Does This Matter?
In some respects, it doesn’t matter at all: the Nazis were their own thing, and whether they met the goals of Marx or Engels or anyone else is immaterial—the Nazis had a peculiar and distinct ideology that was so perverted that any approach they took was a bad one.
However, reasonable people do not want to be associated with Nazis; as a result, the faster you can distance yourself from Nazism, the better. Fortunately, the only people who want to be associated with Nazis are, well, Nazis. Unfortunately, political groups mistakenly want to go further than this and associate their political rivals with Nazis. As a result, Americans on the Right and Left are quick to point a finger at the other side and declare them to be Nazis on a tiresomely daily basis.
Unless the other side is made up of actual Nazis, this probably is a bonehead approach to political expression. Keep this in mind: the Nazis would hate the American Right, and they would just as surely hate the American Left. Hate them. To the point of trying to kill them equally, which indeed happened between 1941 and 1945.
But while it’s politically wrong to misuse the term either way, it’s especially wrong (technically and historically) to refer to the American Right as Nazis. It reveals a profound lack of historical knowledge and misunderstanding of socioeconomic theory.