Friday, 9 November 2018

The Nazis and socialism

Various shades of conservatism on both sides of the Atlantic are reawakening to the dangers of something called ‘socialism’. Last month the Trump White House published an assessment of the ‘Opportunity Costs of Socialism’, sternly warning that a pick-up truck is much more expensive in Scandinavia than the US. Coincidentally, it has become a right-wing trope – erupting somewhere on social media every couple of weeks – to point out that the Nazis were really socialists. So not only will socialism crash the economy and make pick-up trucks prohibitively expensive, it also shares as its intellectual kin the most barbaric, genocidal regime in history. All told, better stick with mass exploitation and craven submission to corporate power.

It’s very easy to type five words on a keyboard, no matter how ignorant. But this particular meme has gone a lot further. Last month, senior Conservative MEP Syed Kamall claimed in the European Parliament that Nazism was “a strain of socialism” and a “left-wing ideology”. So I think now it’s high time to take a considered trawl through the historical evidence and sift fact from fiction.

What’s in a Name?

The case that the Nazis were really socialists usually starts and finishes on the fact that they called themselves ‘National Socialists’. Adolf Hitler was the 11th member of an entity called the German Workers’ Party, which changed its name in 1920 to the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP). But its reason for including the word ‘socialist’ was to appeal to working class Germans to whom it had considerable allure – this was only a year after the aborted German Revolution. Still, according to historian, (Samuel W. Mitcham in Why Hitler: The Genesis of the Nazi Reich, p 68), “Hitler did not like the addition of the term ‘Socialist’ but acquiesced because the executive committee thought it might be helpful in attracting workers from the left.”

What is true is that the NSDAP had a socialist wing – or at least a wing that believed in widespread nationalisation. But this faction – represented by Gregor Strasser and initially Josef Goebbels – was decisively defeated in the mid-1920s, when the Nazis were electorally insignificant and years before they came remotely close to power. The occasion was a referendum* on whether to transfer the landed estates of German royalty and princes to the Weimar Republic (the country was a monarchy until 1918). The Social Democrats and Communists were in favour and Strasser and his followers thought the Nazis should be too. He called a meeting of the Northern German Nazis to make sure the party was behind the expropriation drive and to put in place a new, more radical economic programme. According to William L Shirer in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich:

Hitler was furious. Several of these former rulers had kicked in with contributions to the party. Moreover, a number of big industrialists were beginning to become financially interested in Hitler’s reborn movement precisely because it promised to be effective in combating the Communists, the Socialists and the trade unions. If Strasser and Goebbels got away with their plans, Hitler’s sources of income would immediately dry up. [160-161]

So in February 1926, Hitler called another conference in Bamberg, Southern Germany, which was packed with his supporters. “And at the Fuehrer’s insistence they [Strasser and Goebbels] were forced to capitulate and abandon their programme”.

So the Nazis decisively ended their dalliance with anything resembling ‘socialism’ in 1926.

Some recalcitrant members remained, however. One such was Gregor Strasser’s brother, Otto, who supported nationalization of industry and some strikes called by socialist-supporting trade unions. But, in May 1930, Hitler insisted he recant, accusing him of indulging in ‘democracy and liberalism’. When he refused, he was expelled from the NSDAP.

Otto Strasser responded by forming a ‘Union of Revolutionary National Socialists’, known as the Black Front, which took part in national elections. Tellingly, however, this ‘left-wing’ Nazi rival to the main Nazi movement failed dent Hitler’s support in any way.

The following year, 1931, Hitler began a concerted attempt to court influential business owners who could provide the movement with vital funds. According to Walther Funk, the intermediary between Hitler and business, “The Fuehrer personally stressed time and again during talks with me and industrial leaders to whom I had introduced him, that he was an enemy of the state economy and of the so-called ‘planned economy’ and that he considered free enterprise and competition as absolutely necessary in order to gain the highest possible production.”   

Supporters included Emil Kirdorf, a “union-hating coal baron” from the Ruhr, to whom the Nazis gave a state funeral when he died in 1938, the steel magnate Fritz Thyssen, directors of pharmaceutical conglomerate, I.G. Farben, and several banks. Among the backers were companies that still prosper today such as Deutsche Bank and insurance giant, Allianz.

However, according to Shirer, the identity of these people was a secret, “kept from all but the inner circle around the Leader. The party had to play both sides of the tracks. It had to allow Strasser, Goebbels and the crank Feder to beguile the masses with the cry that the National Socialists were truly ‘socialists’ and against the money barons. On the other hand, money to keep the party going to had to be wheedled out of those who had an ample supply of it.” (181)

In February 1933 – after he had been appointed Chancellor but before Germany’s last multi-party elections the following month – Hitler called a private meeting of well-known industrialists, telling the invited audience that “private enterprise cannot be maintained in the age of democracy; it is conceivable only if the people have a sound idea of authority and personality” (Shirer, p 238). He promised to “eliminate Marxism”. He collected three million marks in donations.

The lesson is that not only were Nazis not socialists but, had they been socialist in any genuine way, they would have remained a complete irrelevancy. In much the same fashion as its precursor, Italian Fascism, German National Socialism had to expunge its socialist side (or confine it to mere rhetoric) in order to win the support of the powerful and get anywhere near power. All that followed – the creation of totalitarian state, the Second World War, the Holocaust – stemmed from the fact that the Nazis were not socialists.

The Nazis in power

When in power, the National Socialists remained true to their (private) word. Hitler abolished trade unions, collective bargaining and the right to strike. A law, known as the ‘Charter of Labour’, was introduced in 1934. According to Shirer, the charter:

… put the worker in his place and raised the employer to his old position of absolute master – subject, of course, to interference by the all-powerful state. The employer became the ‘leader of the enterprise’, the employees the ‘following’ or Gefolgschaft. Paragraph Two of the law set down that ‘the leader of the enterprise makes the decisions for the employees and labourers in matters concerning the enterprise’. And just as in ancient times the lord was supposed to be responsible for the welfare of his subjects so, under Nazi law, was the employer made ‘responsible for the well-being of the employees and labourers’. In return, the law said ‘employees and labourers owe him faithfulness’ – that is, they were to work hard and long, and no back talk or grumbling, even about wages. (327)

Wages were set by ‘labour trustees’ who were appointed by the Labour Front, the organisation that had replaced trade unions. “In practice,” writes Shirer, “they set the rates according to the wishes of the employer – there was no provision for workers even to be consulted on such matters”. Hitler declared himself against annual increases in wage rates – wages were to rise only if performance did.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, the German worker share in the national income fell from 56.9% in 1932 (before the Nazis took power) to 53.6% in 1938. Simultaneously, the share going to capital and business rose from 17.4% to 26.6% (Shirer 328). Nazi anti-capitalism is a complete fiction:

All the propagandists in the Third Reich from Hitler on down were accustomed to rant in their public speeches against the bourgeois and the capitalist and proclaim their solidarity with the worker. But the sober duty of the official statistics, which perhaps few German bothered to make, revealed that the much maligned capitalists, not the workers, benefited the most from Nazi policies. (329)

As the economy became more directed towards war, labour conscription was introduced and workers who left their job or didn’t turn up for work with good reason were fined or imprisoned.

It should be pointed out that, though capitalism was strengthened not overthrown under the Third Reich, the Nazi stance towards the working class actually mimicked in many respects practices under the Communist totalitarian governments. Under Stalin’s Five Year Plan in the Soviet Union, for example, factories kept records of workers’ absenteeism, lateness and shoddy work. “If the worker’s record was poor,” wrote American journalist Eugene Lyons, “he was accused of trying to sabotage the Five Year Plan and if found guilty could be shot or sent to work as forced labour on the Baltic Sea Canal or the Siberian Railway.”

However, what both had in common was an unwavering hostility to an independent labour movement. In many ways, what Nazism was fixated against was workers’ control or syndicalism, which was still a palpable threat in those days – the Spanish Revolution, with its worker-controlled factories, restaurants and barber shops, happened in 1936 – and industrial democracy was implicit in collective labour action such as general strikes. Robert Ley, head of the Nazi Labour Front, proclaimed, “We are all soldiers of labour, amongst whom some command and the others obey. Obedience and responsibility have to count amongst us again … We can’t all be on the captain’s bridge, because then there would be nobody to raise the sails and pull the ropes.”

Nazism and Capitalism

What is still quite startling about Nazism is the degree to which profit-making and capital accumulation were inserted in the very heart of a state-controlled war economy. Nazi extermination camps were privately insured and, as Hannah Arendt pointed out in Eichmann in Jerusalem, famous firms such as I.G. Farben, Krupp and Siemens-Schuckert had plants in the vicinity of Auschwitz and other death camps in which they ‘employed’ slave workers. “Cooperation between the S.S. and the businessmen was excellent,” Arendt noted … “As for working conditions, the idea was clearly to kill through labor … at least 25,000 of the approximately 35,000 Jews who worked for one of the I.G. Farben plants died.” (p 79)

So entwined was the relationship between the Nazis and business, that the Nazis instituted the first privatisation programme in history (sadly that accolade does not belong to Augusto Pinochet or Margaret Thatcher). They called it ‘reprivatisation’ and sold public ownership in a number of firms in the mid-1930s – in sectors such as banking, steel, mining, ship-building and railways. The motivation was both to raise money and to solidify support among business leaders.

No, the Nazis were not socialists. But they did diverge from today’s liberal-capitalist orthodoxy in significant ways. I will examine how in part two of this post.

*The referendum did take place in June 1926. The NSDAP, purged of left-wing ideas, proposed that Jewish immigrants, rather than the princes, be expropriated. Actually, a very large majority voted in favour of expropriation but because of a boycott and a ruling that 50% of the population had to support the ‘yes’ option for it to be valid, nothing happened.

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