The term “Nazi” is one of the most over-used terms heard in political dialogue.
Thank you for reading this essay. It is part of an ongoing series titled Old Friends and this is the first contribution on FA Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom.
But it must be said that here again the main influence which destroyed the belief in the universality and unity of human reason was Marx’ teaching of the class-conditioned nature of our thinking, of the difference between bourgeois and proletarian logic, which needed only to be applied to other social groups such as nations or races, to supply the weapon now used against rationalism as such.
— FA Hayek
The term “Nazi” is one of the most over-used terms heard in political dialogue. The term is used so frequently that it has been assigned it’s own law. A BBC article referred to this phenomenon as Godwin’s Law: “a rule that, over time, all internet debates will end up with one participant comparing another to Adolf Hitler, or the Nazis.” It was referring to Mike Godwin, a US lawyer, who observed this pattern in Usenet groups during the 1990’s. Before there was the Internet as we know it today, there was a collage of chat and news groups accessible through dial-up modems. To no ones surprise, the pattern has persisted with the evolution of social media, The View, most major news media, and in political debate. It is used interchangeably with “Fascist.” But for the purposes of this discussion, we will stick with “Nazi.” It is a term used freely, a cheap attempt to discredit someone. It is, in most respects, a description of anyone who is libertarian or conservative. The irony is that the critics are themselves possibly more reflective of the Nazi ideology and the techniques used by the Nazi state than their adversaries.
But what exactly is a Nazi? To find out, why not refer to an inside source? F.A. Hayek, an Austrian economist, had observed the rise of the Nazi party while residing in his home country of Austria. As a guest professor, he would present a lecture in 1933 in London that would shock his students and many of his colleagues. He came out decidedly against socialism. This was at a time where almost all professors at prestige universities advanced socialism. His primary premise was that people needed to see the Nazi’s literally as they claim to be: national socialists. The reaction was strong, but his observation was accurate. The intelligentsia and the political elite in Britain had this idea in their head that Nazism was a capitalist-inspired movement against socialism. They logically came to this conclusion because of the tie between German industrialists and Hitler and their hatred of the Soviet Union. Even the director of the London School of Economics, where Hayek taught, held to that school of thought. Hayek responded by sending him a memorandum. The memorandum turned into a journal article, the article into the book The Road to Serfdom.1 The rest is history.
If I were teaching economics today, The Road to Serfdom would be on the short-list of reading requirements. In my journey, I would be exposed to Adam Smith, Samuelson, Keynes, Galbraith and Friedman. Hayek, for some odd reason, was overlooked. Yet over and over again I would see references to this man’s work. It was in the 1990’s that I first read the book. His insight into socialism and how it has invariably resulted in the degradation of human liberty is remarkably accurate.
In the memorandum he sent to the department chair he would begin to articulate the calculus of socialism, collectivism, coercion, and the disdain of liberalism. He would contend that “the inherent logic of collectivism makes it impossible to confine it to a limited sphere.”2 Socialism is inherently oppressive because simply through the process of implementing a plan, it assumes a consensus of beliefs and ideas. A plan will not work unless everyone conforms to the plan. (Modern day example of that are union closed-shops, the controversy around the COVID pandemic, and the firings and censorship stemming from critical race theory).
If you think being labeled a Nazi these days is a nuisance, consider what it was like to question the common narrative during World War II! Because of the war, Germans were all Nazis, and reduced to being a race of particularly vicious people. In advancing this propaganda, people were forgetting the important aspects of Nazism that had been derived from their history, an historical pattern that unfortunately was reflective of almost all Western societies. Hayek would point out that elements of German National Socialism was borrowed from a Scot (Thomas Carlyle) and an Englishman (HS Chamberlain). It was this progression of ideas and policies that culminated with the emergence of people at the top who would advance such evil. It is these same ideas that exist in Western societies today that can be used as a foundation of totalitarianism.3
Contained within The Road to Serfdom is a chapter titled “The Socialist Roots of Nazism.” This would be, in essence, the memorandum he sent to his department chair and that evolved into an article on the subject. Seated as the twelfth chapter in the book, he precedes the subject with numerous discussions that lay the foundation of what he is about to say. But they all point to one important truth: Nazis were socialists. The evidence is abundantly clear on that matter.
I think it is important for the reader to understand what Hayek was pointing to. We (which includes myself) have a proclivity to assign to Nazi’s the thinking of Hitler. That is no doubt an important consideration. But what Hayek was addressing was how the machinery of national socialism captured the nation in all aspects. It was pervasive. It was not alien to German society, as if it was radically disassociated from Germany’s past. It was the culmination of ideas and policies that had its beginning under the Kaiser.
So when someone calls you a “Nazi”, the first response is “Are you saying I am a socialist?” I am sure that people would respond with some confusion. “No, what I am saying is you are the same kind of person who would justify the systematic murder of millions of Jews and eastern Europeans.” Even in my political travels, I have yet to bump into an American who would endorse such evil. So what is a person implying if they call me a “Nazi?” Is it the advancement of brown shirts to bully opponents? Is it because I am white? Or, heaven forbid, is it because of my German name? It is an exercise worth conducting to challenge an accuser to explain exactly what they mean. Because, in history and in truth, a Nazi is a socialist. That is where this discussion must begin.
“Once one accepts the premises from which it starts, there is no escape from its logic. It is simply collectivism freed from all traces of an individualist tradition which might hamper its realization.”4
The Socialist Roots of Nazism
Most Americans have only a shallow understanding of German history. Even I, a student of history and rather well-read on European history, failed to appreciate how socialism was actively engaged in the 19th century as the German state evolved. It surprises people that the first social security system emerged during the regime of Otto von Bismark, a strong-willed and rather authoritarian chancellor of the German Reich under three different kaisers. Socialism was advanced in regards to how it enhanced nationalism, that government policy strategically evolved to benefit all Germans. Germany had a mature labor union movement by 1914. If there was anything peculiar about politics in Germany during the early 20th century it was the absence of a strong liberal party; that is, a party that stood for individual rights and liberty. Almost all parties advanced socialism to one degree or another.
The doctrines which had guided the ruling elements in Germany for the past generation were opposed not to the socialism in Marxism but to the liberal elements contained in it, its internationalism and its democracy. And as it became increasingly clear that it was just these elements which formed obstacles to the realization of socialism, the socialists of the Left approached more and more to those of the Right. It was the union of the anticapitalist forces of the Right and of the Left, the fusion of radical and conservative socialism, which drove out from Germany everything that was liberal.5
Hayek earned my respect when he noted both the international and the democratic aspect of Marxism. In my reading of Marx and Engels, I had to remind myself of the time in which they lived, rather than interpreting their writings through the lens of Marx, Lenin or Castro. Internationalism, of course, stirred up the same reactions as globalism does today. Germany only evolved into a national union in the late 19th century. Their national identity as a people was the most vital thing they held onto. So they had no interest in the international aspects of Marxism. But what frustrated Marx and almost all proponents of socialism was that it was not happening fast enough through liberal institutions. The logic was impeccable. Concepts of individual liberties were inconsistent with collectivism. To succeed, they would have to supplant liberal standards of law and institutions.
The Old Socialists
Hayek proceeded to build his case proving the close tie between socialism and nationalism in Germany’s history.6
No doubt the defeat of Germany in 1918 affected the alchemy of nationalism and socialism. But this one fundamental truth was clear, that National Socialism had as its ideological foundation the teachings of the “old socialists.7
Hayek then reviewed what these “old socialists” propounded. First, there was Werner Sombart, a Marxist who evolved to the National Socialist position. The “German War” was
… the inevitable conflict between the commercial civilization of England and the heroic culture of Germany. His contempt for the ‘commercial’ views of the English … is unlimited. Nothing is more contemptible … than the universal striving after the happiness of the individual.
Sombart made these assertions in 1915!8. One of the myths we repeatedly hear is that it was the socialists in Germany who opposed the war. It is rather peculiar that this particular socialist championed the cause. Also noted is the disdain socialists had for the “commercialism” of the English, a theme we hear to this day when it is asserted that the Great War was pushed by munition manufacturers. It is also the seed of envy and disdain that socialists have of corporations and successful people.
What is alarming is Sombart’s view of the State. Hayek would note:
The ‘German idea of the state,’ … is that the state is neither founded nor formed by individuals, nor an aggregate of individuals, nor is its purpose to serve any interest of individuals. It is the Volksgemeinschaft9 in which the individual has no rights but only duties. Claims of the individual are always an outcome of the commercial spirit. ‘The ideas of 1789’ – liberty, equality, fraternity – are characteristically commercial ideals which have no other purpose but to secure certain advantages to individuals.
Hayek would summarize Sombart’s views by stating, “There is a life higher than the individual life, the life of the people and the life of the state, and it is the purpose of the individual to sacrifice himself for that higher life.”10
Another source Hayek quoted was Johann Plenge who wrote two important books on socialism in 1911 and 1916 advancing organizational socialism. As Hayek would state, “Organization is to him … the essence of socialism.” What is fascinating to note is that Plenge was critical of Marxism because it still clung to liberal ideas such as freedom and democracy, an interesting assertion when considering that it was the same debate happening at the same time between the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks prior to the 1917 Revolution in Russia. Marx himself would struggle with this issue as he saw over and over again that socialism was not going to “evolve”. It may require implementation through force. In the view of Plenge, the Great War of 1914 was a struggle between classical liberalism which upholds individualism, with an advanced economic system that combines socialism with organization. On writing about the war, he would state, “In us is the twentieth century. However the war may end, we are the exemplary people. Our ideas will determine the aims of the life of humanity.”11
Like Sombart, he points to the war of 1914 as “the first realization of a socialist society and its spirit the first active …. appearance of a socialist spirit.” What follows is something most all of us can attest, the effects of war on the national psyche.
The needs of the war have established the socialist idea in German economic life, and thus the defense of our nation produced for humanity the idea of 1914, the idea of the German organization, the people’s community (Volksgemeinschaft) of national socialism.12
We also sense this whenever the US engages in war. The difference is one of degree, where the German wanted to embrace “the people’s community (Volksgemeinschaft) of national socialism.” In the US, there was this drive to return back to “normalcy,” a life that focuses on the individual, not the state. At least in part, because aspects of socialism were embraced after the second world war.
By 1918, Plenge would be more explicit about how socialism was to be implemented. “It is high time to recognize the fact that socialism must be power policy, because it is to be organization. Socialism has to win power: it must never blindly destroy power. “13
Hayek would then cite Wilhelm Ostwald, chemist and Nobel Prize winner in 1909.
Germany wants to organize Europe. …we, or perhaps the German race, have discovered the significance of organization. While the other nations still live under the regime of individualism, we have already achieved that of organization.14
Paul Lensch – a prominent socialist economist, would state “…our conceptions of Liberalism, Democracy, and so forth, are derived from the ideas of English Individualism, according to which a state with a weak government is a liberal state, and every restriction upon the freedom of the individual is conceived as the product of autocracy and militarism.”
Lensch would further state,
This class of people, who unconsciously reason from English standards… Their political notions of ‘freedom’ and ‘civic right’, of constitutionalism and parliamentarianism, are derived from that individualistic conception of the world … What has to be done now is to get rid of these inherited political ideas and to assist the growth of a new conception of State and Society.15
Hayek would then move on to Moeller van den Bruck, who would declare in 1933
There are no liberals in Germany today; there are young revolutionaries, there are young conservatives. But who would be a liberal? … Liberalism is a philosophy of life from which German youth now turns with nausea, with wrath, with quite peculiar scorn, for there is none more foreign, more repugnant, more opposed to its philosophy. German youth today recognizes the liberal as the archenemy. 16
So Hayek has laid out his argument. Nazism is a continuation of socialist trends in Germany, that individual liberties (classical liberalism) are disdained, that socialism is extended to other spheres such as organization, which in turn means the efficient operation of the State.
The Betrayal of Academia
One of the most amazing things Hayek wrote about Nazism is contained in his “Memorandum in 1933”, and repeated later in The Road to Serfdom. This demonstrates the frightening trends we observe today in the universities of the West, and affirms the ideological foundation of the Left. It begins by attacking reason itself because it is nothing but an artifact of liberalism.
But it must be said that here again the main influence which destroyed the belief in the universality and unity of human reason was Marx’ teaching of the class-conditioned nature of our thinking, of the difference between bourgeois and proletarian logic, which needed only to be applied to other social groups such as nations or races, to supply the weapon now used against rationalism as such. How completely this Marxian idea has permeated German thought can be seen from the fact that, during the past few years, it has actually been promoted, as ‘sociology of knowledge” to the rank of a new branch of learning. It is obvious that, from this intellectual relativism, which denied the existence of truths which could be recognized independently of race, nation, or class, there was only a step to the position which puts sentiment above rational thinking.17
When we view today the highly irrational extensions of Critical Race Theory, you can see how this line of thinking continues to this day. CRT has as its foundation Marxism. Academic standards such as mathematics, science and merit-based advancement (grades) are all aspects of racism. Yet it is alarming that where Marxism is strongest is in our educational institutions. It is nothing new.
The way in which, in the end, with few exceptions, her scholars and scientists put themselves readily at the service of the new rulers is one of the most depressing and shameful spectacles in the whole history of the rise of National Socialism. It is well known that particularly the scientists and engineers, who had so loudly claimed to be leaders on the march to a new and better world, submitted more readily than almost any other class to the new tyranny.18
The mechanics was simple – those who objected were fired. Some disappeared. Anyone with sense fled.19
Incredible parallels with modern events was observed by Hayek in the 1930’s in regards to science and mathematics.
Totalitarian control of opinion extends … to subjects which at first seem to have no political significance. Sometimes it is difficult to explain why particular doctrines should be officially proscribed or why others should be encouraged… The theory of relativity is represented as a “Semitic attack on the foundation of Christian and Nordic physics,” or is opposed “because it is ‘in conflict with dialectical materialism and Marxist dogma …’” Nor does it make much difference whether certain theorems of mathematical statistics are attacked because they ‘form part of the class struggle on the ideological frontier and are a product of the historical role of mathematics as the servant of the bourgeoisie.’20
It is entirely in keeping with the whole spirit of totalitarianism that it condemns any human activity done for its own sake and without ulterior purpose. Science for science’s sake, art for art’s sake, are equally abhorrent to the Nazis, our socialist intellectuals and the communists. Every activity must derive its justification from a conscious social purpose.21
Perhaps the most alarming fact is that contempt for intellectual liberty is not a thing which arises only once the totalitarian system is established but one which can be found everywhere among intellectuals who have embraced a collectivist faith and who are acclaimed as intellectual leaders even in countries still under a liberal regime.22
Remarkable, if not prophetic. No wonder Hayek would flea Austria at the first opportunity. Academia in Germany was lost.
More on the Subject
What had occurred by 1933 was that for all purposes all Germans were socialists. There was no significant faction in the Weimar Republic that stood for liberalism. “The conflict in existence between the National Socialist “Right” and the “Left” in Germany is the kind of conflict that will always arise between rival socialist factions.”23
Hayek would repeat the theme throughout The Road to Serfdom that the primary enemy of National Socialism was Liberal Individualism, not Communism. He would affirm through multiple sources the connection between Marxism and National Socialism.
He would add two more references.
“Marxism has led to Fascism and National Socialism, because, in all essentials, it is Facism and National Socialism.”24
Even Hitler would state that “basically National Socialism and Marxism are the same.”25
Eduard Heimann would assert that if there was anything clear about Hitler, it was his disdain for liberalism. [A position shared by both a Marxist and a socialist].
The state ceases to be a piece of utilitarian machinery intended to help individuals in the fullest development of their individual personality and becomes a ‘moral’ institution – where ‘moral’ is not used in contrast to immoral but describes an institution which imposes on its members its views on all moral questions, whether these views be moral or highly immoral. In this sense the Nazi or any other collectivist state is ‘moral,’ while the liberal state is not.26
Once you admit that the individual is merely a means to serve the ends of the higher entity called society or the nation, most of those features of totalitarian regimes which horrify us follow of necessity. From the collectivist standpoint intolerance and brutal suppression of dissent, the complete disregard of the life and happiness of the individual, are essential and unavoidable consequences of this basic premise, and the collectivist can admit this and the same time claim that his system is superior to the one in which the ‘selfish’ interests of the individual are allowed to obstruct the full realization of the ends the community pursues.27
So Are You a Nazi?
So we return to the question of whether you are or are not a Nazi whenever someone says you are. Hayek provides several guideposts to help us answer that question. Are you a socialist? Do you believe that the collective supersedes the individual? To be truthful, there are circumstances when we tend to favor some socialism (like the Alaska Marine Highway or Social Security). And we recognize there is some virtue in collective action (responding to natural disasters). But as a governing principle? Is this philosophy appropriate for the corporation or the university?
Best to ask the opposite questions. Is the world best served by individuals acting in liberty? Are ideas to be shared and debated without consequence? Is rationalism valued? Is science and education valued? Is it best that the power of the State be restricted? If your instinctive response is to answer these questions in the affirmative, then you are definitely not a Nazi because you are not, fundamentally, a socialist.
We need to guard ourselves against the danger of restricting the term “Nazi” to very bad people who do great evil in the world, without appreciating the mechanism and ideological foundation by which they justified their rule. Their history is shrouded in socialism. Their rule in the 30’s would be the admiration of the world, a stellar example of state-directed economic revival. Organized, efficient. Yet lurking within was the ideology that enshrined the collective and denigrated the individual.
“Is it ever OK to call someone a Nazi?”, BBC News, by Andrew MacFarlane, July 14, 2010
“NBC basically saying Republicans are Nazis”, Daily Mail, by Harriet Alexander, May 2, 2022.
1The Road to Serfdom, FA Hayek, University of Chicago Press, 2007, p. 5
2Hayek, p. 6
3Hayek, p. 61
4Hayek, p. 181
5Hayek, p. 182. Emphasis added.
6Hayek, p. 182
7Hayek, pp. 182,183
8Hayek, p. 183
9Volksgemeinschaft can be translated as “people’s community,” but under the Nazi’s it morphed into “racially pure community.” p. 183, n8
10Hayek, p. 184. Emphasis added.
11Hayek, p. 185
12Citing 1789 and 1914, by Johann Plenge, J Springer, Berlin, 1911, p.82
13Hayek, p. 186, citing a socialist journal Die Glocke, but editors have not located the source of the quote. Emphasis added.
14Hayek, p. 188, citing Three Years of World Revolution, Paul Lensch, Constable and Co, Ltd, London, 1918, pp. 25-26
15Hayek, p. 188, citing Lensch, p. 208. Emphasis added.
16Hayek, p. 191, citing Sozialismus und Aussenpolitik, Arthur Moeller van den Bruck, WG Korn, Breslau, pp. 100-102.
17Hayek, pp. 246, 247. Emphasis added.
18Hayek, pp. 200, 201. Emphasis added.
19Hayek, p.201, referencing The Spirit and Structure of German Fascism, Robert A. Brady, V. Gollancz, London, 1937, pp. 76-77.
21Hayek, p. 177
22Hayek, p. 178
23Hayek, p. 62
24Hayek, p. 79, citing “Unto Caesar,” The Manchester Guardian, by FA Voight, p. 95
25Hayek, p. 81, citing “The Rediscovery of Liberalism,” Social Research, by Eduard Heimann, Vol. 8, November 1941, p. 479.
26Hayek, p. 115
27Hayek, p. 168
© Copyright 2022 to Eric Niewoehner