A Brief History
On February 24, 1920, the Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (“German Workers’ Party,” or DAP) changed its name to the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (“National Socialist German Workers’ Party”, or Nazi Party), with the word “Socialist” being added by the party’s executive committee, over Adolf Hitler’s objections, in order to help appeal to left-wing workers. Today, History and Headlines takes a look at a frequently asked question, “Were the Nazis actually socialists?” Does their very name mean anything? With their official party’s name being National Socialist German Workers’ Party, in English, or more precisely Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei in the original German, one could easily infer that as the name implies, the Nazi party espouses a “socialist” platform and philosophy. But is this designation indeed the case?
Before we can answer the question, we have to agree upon a definition of what socialism is and who socialists are. Today we hear the word socialist thrown around as an accusation in American politics with varying degrees of accuracy and inaccuracy, so it is best to understand what that particular form of governance really is. We find the Merriam-Webster Dictionary definition to be as follows:
Definition of socialism
1: any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods
2a: a system of society or group living in which there is no private property
b: a system or condition of society in which the means of production are owned and controlled by the state
3: a stage of society in Marxist theory transitional between capitalism and communism and distinguished by unequal distribution of goods and pay according to work done
Reading this dictionary definition, we can quickly ascertain that a critical element in the definition of socialism is that private property and private commercial industry is non-existent, that all property is of the collective of the people and all industry is owned by the state, or in effect by the population at large instead of private shareholders or owners. The writings of Karl Marx are the foundation for what the academic understanding of socialism is, and those writings can easily be consulted in order to clear up any misunderstandings of the definition and description of a socialist state.
Another way of looking at the definition and common understanding of what socialism is can be derived by examining how people today understand the concept in a colloquial way. In this manner, we have a more liberal definition of socialism, or at least in socialist tendencies, based on not the ironbound rigid prohibition against private property, but a more composite society where both private property and capitalism exists in a framework also characterized by massive government programs that take the traditional role formerly filled by private enterprise. Such endeavors would include “socialized” medicine, where all the citizens of a country or other political division would have government provided health care and or insurance, and government monopolies on vital services such as utilities. The greater extent of government ownership of production of energy, natural resources, hard goods, and services, as well as government being intricately involved in rules and regulations governing other aspects of daily life are an indication of the level of “socialism” present in the system being examined.
We hear references to Scandinavian countries as being allegedly “socialist” because of their high levels of government provided services and constraints on their people, including education, health care, work rules, retirement/pensions and heavy taxation to pay for all this government provided largesse. Yet these countries, as most other industrialized nations, also have a thriving private industry base. Other countries, now numbering in the extreme few, cling to communist ideals of socialism, including China, Vietnam, and Cuba, although China especially has demonstrated a serious breach of communist doctrine by opening up a certain level of capitalist activity. Few if any countries today can measure up to the strict dictionary definition of socialism, though we seem happy enough to refer to many European model nations as “socialist” and of course label the few remaining communist nations as socialists.
By our colloquial definition, the United States is called by some observers to be a “socialist” country, while in fact we retain a vast array of private property ownership and privately owned businesses, with no national universal health care or retirement system. Oh wait! We do have Social Security, a partial retirement fund, and Medicare/Medicaid, a program of health insurance coverage for elderly and poor people. Yet we also have no national government owned electric company or government monopoly on natural resources. (You may note that many countries have “nationalized” their oil and other natural resources, taking those resources out of the hands of private enterprise.) Although many other government programs, such as work regulations, Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards, the Environmental Protection Agency, and even seemingly “normal” services such as police and fire protection, maintenance of streets and highways, and many other aspects of daily life can all be and ARE often described as “socialist” programs, we do not generally consider the United States to be a “socialist” country, at least not yet!
So where in this continuum of capitalism/free rein vs. socialism does the Third Reich land? Certainly under the Nazi rule (from 1933 to 1945) the German government became intrusive into the lives of their population in a major way. Trade unions, a bastion of freedom for the working class, were banned in Nazi Germany, with the state taking over the role of “looking out for the welfare of the workers.” Of course, this premise was a sham, with the government using working people as if they were serfs from an earlier day, slave labor forced to work for substandard wages on government projects. This sort of nationalism of the workers can be construed to be a hallmark of socialism. Much has been made politically over the fact that the Germans were the ones who first instituted a form of Social Security, supposedly a model followed by the United States. Government projects, construction, industrial and social, became a large part of everyday life for the German population, and democracy became a casualty to National Socialism, as the Nazis often called their system.
One could easily ask, “How can the people truly own their own government in the absence of real democracy?” We believe this question is indeed legitimate. Furthermore, German industrial concerns in private ownership remained throughout the Nazi period, even in the darkest days of World War II as the country was collapsing. Profits making certain capitalist rich and richer never went out of style in Nazi Germany! Enormous capitalist firms such as Daimler-Benz, Porsche, Krupp (defunct as of 1999), Henschel (which became wholly consumed by Mercedes-Benz in the 1990’s), Hugo Boss, Messerschmitt (absorbed in corporate mergers in 1989), Focke-Wulf (absorbed in mergers in 1954), Volkswagen (which now owns at least 8 car manufacturing companies including German and foreign companies, as well as motorcycle and heavy vehicle manufacturers), Bayer and IG Farben (officially liquidated in 2012, though some of its subsidiaries such as Bayer remain in business) among others survived the war to continue as industrial powerhouses after Second World War and the Nazi era had ended.
In fact, one of the criticisms of the German war effort during World War II was that the national government did not nationalize all industry and take production out of private hands. The Germans and their “National Socialist” government failed to go the extra mile to truly socialize the war production effort, while private investors and entrepreneurs continued to reap great wealth. While the post-war banking industry was largely controlled by the central government bank, initially the Bank deutscher Länder (BdL) and later the Bündesbank, the Nazi era bankers were to a great extend intimately involved in the operations of the new national banking system.
Thus, we can safely answer our topic question, “Were the Nazis actually Socialists?” in the negative. No, they were not socialists, although the Nazi government of Germany certainly did take greater than previous control of many aspects of everyday life for the German people, the wide-ranging continuation of capitalist investment, contracts, production and trade are antithetical to what we would consider “socialism.” Like many countries today, Nazi Germany was really more of a composite society with aspects of capitalism and private ownership and intrusive government involvement in the workings of society, though we would hesitate to compare the Third Reich to the modern United States or countries of the European Union!
Question for students (and subscribers): Was the Third Reich actually a socialist society? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Fritzsche, Peter. Hitler’s First Hundred Days: When Germans Embraced the Third Reich. Basic Books, 2020
Shirer, William. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. RosettaBooks, 2011.
The featured image in this article, photographs by Berlin-George of a German NSDAP Donation Token from 1932’s Free State of Prussia elections, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.
You can also watch a video version of this article on YouTube.