By Zach Hagadone
There’s been a curious trend in the letters to the editor I’ve been receiving lately: people trying to claim that the Nazis were “actually” liberals and that the Democratic Party is the second coming of the Third Reich.
Here is a snippet from one:
“Truth be told a good portion of the Democrats’ use of the Nazi slur is projection. Hitler was anti-capitalist, pro-abortion and said at rallies ‘above all I am a socialist.’ He was obsessed with race, nationalized education and took over the German media which he used to demonize his political opponents. I have to ask, which party does this sound like today?”
Another letter trod similar ground, in addition to calling the Nazis “secular humanists” (they were not, officially espousing a muddle of völkisch mysticism and “ethnotheism,” with Hitler often appealing to a spiritual force he called “providence”).
Elsewhere, in a painfully obtuse effort to align Nazi economic policy with “socialism,” that letter also somehow managed to completely reverse the historical record on the party’s supposed “nationalization” of industry. Beginning in the mid-1930s, the Nazis actually reprivatized a huge number of industrial sectors that had been nationalized by the Weimar Republic in response to the global depression. In this way, Hitler’s government was acting more conservatively than any other Western power of the day. (There’s a salient article on that in the 2009 edition of The Economic History Review.)
In summation, that letter-writer, too, concluded with a vague rhetorical question suggesting that it was the Democrats, rather than the Republicans, who “actually” most deserve the “Nazi” tarring.
When I receive these kinds of letters, the first thing my mind does is boggle at how stunning they are in their oversimplification, intellectual dishonesty, disingenuousness and outright misinformation. The second thing I do is recoil in terror that the very definition of Nazism is somehow now up for debate. This is profoundly dangerous, especially in North Idaho.
So here is the simplest answer I can offer to the questions posed by these and similar letter-writers:
“This sounds like someone who is trying desperately to twist history away from the fact that the Nazis were a right-wing totalitarian movement in order to clear the way for espousing right-wing totalitarian ideas without the political baggage.”
To borrow a phrase, it’s a deflection by way of a “projection.”
For one thing, calling Hitler “anti-capitalist” is a gross misinterpretation. The Nazi Party relied heavily on the financial backing of the largest corporations in Germany (and several in the U.S., prior to the war). Far from “anti-capitalist,” the party concocted a blend of capitalism and a planned economy, into what U.S. government observers in the 1940s wrote “defie[d] classification,” though which was decidedly neither “socialist” nor “state capitalist” in that it retained private property and enterprise, and eschewed state-ownership.
Ultimately, the Nazis’ economic thinking was opportunistic. It was to the industrial titans of Germany that Hitler owed the bankroll critical to the party’s first successes, and their bottom lines did not suffer under the Reich (Bayer, IBM, I.G. Farben, Ford Motor Company, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, Shell, Siemens and Volkswagen are all no worse for wear for being deeply aligned with the Nazi Party).
As for Hitler’s much-repeated claim that “above all I am a socialist,” it is known from his own writings — and the writings of subordinates including Joseph Goebbles — that the use of the term “socialist” in the party’s rhetoric was a ploy to capture the support of working class people who otherwise would have been swayed to left-wing parties.
As the editors of Reshaping Capitalism in Weimar and Nazi Germany put it, “This attractive blend of anticapitalist rhetoric and largely capitalist practice helped secure backing for the Third Reich and sustain its ferocious dynamic.”
As for Hitler’s “pro-abortion” stance, he and the party were only “pro-abortion” in the most abhorrent mangling of the concept possible: certain people deemed “undesireable” to the regime were to be forcibly eliminated by any means, including pre-birth. For those people deemed “desirable,” however, abortion was illegal starting in 1932 and, by 1943, those found guilty of performing an illegal abortion faced the death penalty.
These letter-writers’ attempt to leverage the Nazi’s “racial hygiene” policies for their own present-day partisan ends can only be done with the ugliest and most insulting of intentions.
There are a number of other, equally spurious claims made in letters such as these — too many to debunk in this space and, frankly, it’s horrifying that this exercise must be undertaken at all. Yet here we are, and apparently this brand of sinister revisionism is so prevalent that no less than the editors of the Encyclopedia Britannica felt it necessary to address the “canard,” writing, “Were the Nazis socialists? No, not in any meaningful way, and certainly not after 1934.”
I don’t know where these people are getting this stuff — Dinesh D’Souza? Jonah Goldberg? They clearly aren’t coming up with it on their own — but, for the record: the Nazis were not liberals, the Democratic Party is not the Nazis and, for that matter, the Republican Party is not the Nazi Party. However, Nazis are as Nazis do, and if that’s somehow uncomfortable or inconvenient for you, well, you may need to think hard about why that is.
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