Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Nazis: Left or Right?

Self described Nazis are, sadly, in the news at the moment. When people who actively identify as neo-Nazis (or their close kin among white supremacists who don't quite want to own that title) make the news, there's a sort of guilt by association blame game that goes on. Commentators on the left make sure to identify neo-Nazis as "right wing" and thus suggest that this means that the neo-Nazis have simply taken the beliefs of the Christian Coalition or the Chamber of Commerce to their logical conclusion. Then someone on the right inevitably replies, "Ah, but the Nazis were actually a party of the left. After all, it was called 'National Socialism'." Since knowing that Nazi was a shorthand for "Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei" (National Socialist German Workers Party) is already displaying more knowledge about them than the average bear, this tends to cause conversation to trail off. Is this a fair claim, however? Were the Nazis a party of the left or the right?

As is so often the case with historical questions, the answer is a bit complicated. I recently read Ian Kershaw's massive two volume biography of Hitler, which goes into a lot of detail not only about the dictator's personal history but the development of his party. Since I think the more detailed history of the rise of the Nazis is interesting not just as a matter of past events but in order to understand how it might (and might now) serve in analyzing current events, I'll provide a quick overview here. If you want the more detailed version, I definitely recommend Kershaw.

Often, you hear people say that they wish we had more options than the two tired old parties. Germany between the wars had a huge number of options, and understanding how they related to one another can be difficult for modern Americans.

The true Left in German politics was split between the Social Democratic Party (SPD) which had been the largest party during the initial formation of the Weimar Republic after Germany's defeat in World War One and which continued to be one of the major parties throughout the inter-war period, and the Communist Party (KPD) which was aligned with the Soviet Union. These two parties did not get along. In the immediate aftermath of World War One, communists had staged violent revolutions and tried to institute soviet style people's republics in several cities around Germany. With the help of the army and of paramilitary nationalist militias, the new government of the republic, whose president from 1919-1925 was SPD leader Friedrich Ebert, put down these communist uprisings after brutal fighting that at times saw machine guns and artillery being used in city streets. The relations between the communists and socialists did not improve, as Moscow directed its satellite parties not to align with "social fascists" as they labeled the social democrats. (Shortly after the Nazis came to power in Germany, Stalin would come to regret this approach and instead encouraged communist parties to form "popular front" coalitions with other left wing parties and then try to co-opt the coalitions from the inside.)

The socialists and communists came in second and third respectively to the Nazis in the July 1932 German federal election.

The political center was inhabited by the Catholic Centre Party, a sort of Catholic unity party which dated back to efforts under the German Empire to fight back against Bismark's Kulturkampf. The Centre party supported specifically Catholic concerns such as protecting the existence of religious schools and seeking a concordat between the German Republican and the Vatican, but also was one of the parties most committed to the stable government of the republic. In this regard, it allied often with the Social Democrats and the German Democratic Party (a secular centrist party which in a sign of how badly things were trending had nearly faded from existence by the 1932 election.) It supported paying off the reparations imposed in the Versailles Treaty and Germany continuing on as a republic (rather than reverting to a monarchy or authoritarian state as the more extreme right desired or undergoing a people's revolution as the communists advocated.)

The largest party of the German right was the German National People's Party. This party drew support from large land owners and industrialists, but also a broad array of nationalists and those with pan-German sentiments. It opposed paying the reparations in the Versailles treaty. Significant factions opposed the Republic as a whole and wanted a return of the German monarchy. The party also had a significant anti-Semitic element. Jews were, from its foundation in 1918, forbidden from joining that party.

So how did the Nazi party fit into the mix of parties?

When first formed in 1919-1920, the Nazi Party combined the anti-Semitism and German nationalism of the right with anti-business and pro-welfare state policies of the left. It also opposed both the democratic state that Germany currently had, but also the old monarchy, supporting instead a new authoritarian form of government. As time went on, some of the anti-business elements of the Nazi platform were downplayed or converted into anti-Semitic rhetoric, as Hitler consistently identified banking and big big business with Jews. Thus, the Nazi party did combine elements of ideology from the German interwar Left and Right.

However, when we look at where the Nazis drew their electoral support in their sudden rise to popularity from 1928 to 1932, we see that parties of the left (Socialists and Communists) lost 11% of their voters to the Nazis. The Center parties (Catholic Centre, Bavarian People's Party, German State Party, and German Democratic Party) lost 22% of their voters to the Nazis. Small and regional parties (of which there were many) lost 45% of their voters to the Nazis. While the parties of the right (German National People's Party, German People's Party, Reich Party of the German Middle Class, and Christian-National Peasants' and Farmers' Party) lost a whopping 78% of their voters to the Nazis over those four years.

So were the Nazis a party of the right? In the context of the Weimar Republic, yes. However, it's important when saying that to realize how different the Weimar Republic's political spectrum war from our own. It ranged from communists who favored a violent revolution to establish a worker's state to nationalists who favored overthrowing the republic and replacing it with a monarchy or dictatorship. Our political spectrum in the modern United States is arguably not much wider than the spectrum of views within the Center parties of the Weimar Republic.


Brandon said...

Excellent post. One of the most common errors in talking about Left and Right is assuming that they are stable, when in fact they are relative designations constantly shifting around.

One finds a similar pattern with fascist parties in Italy and elsewhere, I think; one of their early ways of drawing people was by claiming to be neither Left nor Right -- effectiveness above ideology -- and they opposed both the Communists on the Left and the monarchists on the Right, as well as the various kinds of centrist and regionalist. On the other hand, the fascists also ended up absorbing a considerable portion of the Right.

Felix said...

They are right wing !

Finicky Cat said...


Tito Edwards said...

Flaming Centrists!

Anonymous said...

Good article reflecting the chaos in post WW I Germany as a result of the infamous Versailles Treaty. Narrowly speaking, the only real difference between the communists and the Nazis was that the Nazis preferred to use control of existing organizations, corporations, societies etc to carry out their programs. Communists believe in public ownership of almost all institutions. From a standpoint of brutal efficiency, it would appear that the Nazis were more successful. Western Europe was saved in large measure because they reached too far in invading Russia.