display | more...

At the risk of aging myself, I've been using the Internet in one form or another since 1993. For all the negative things I could say about my dad, he was never a technophobe. Growing up, ours was pretty much always the first (and sometimes only) household among my friends and relatives to have whatever the latest new thing was. Now, granted, Internet access was not exactly "brand new" in 1993 (and indeed, my dad had been using BBSes for years before that) but I was definitely the only 8 year old I knew who used CompuServe. As the years went on and we moved from CompuServe to Prodigy to AOL and finally a local ISP, I was speeding down the information superhighway on my way to the World Wide Web circa 1995 or 1996. It was there that I learned at the tender age of 10 or 11 that everyone is a Nazi and liking or agreeing with anything makes you a Nazi too.

Or, at the very least, that's what it seemed like. It was only several years later that I would learn of Godwin's law, which is the premise that the longer any Internet conversation goes on, the likelihood of someone invoking the Nazis (or Adolf Hitler specifically) reaches a certainty. This can be seen most obviously in what passes for political discourse on the Internet, but it can also be observed in discussions about popular culture, sports, or really anything else that people can talk about online. In other words, everything.

This is annoying enough on its own, but one particularly grating meme you see a lot is an argument put forth by conservative Internet tough guys who claim that Nazism is/was a left-wing ideology. Typically, they'll cite a policy enacted during the Third Reich that resembles a policy enacted or proposed by someone in the current day that they consider left-wing. They'll also point out the fact that the full name of the Nazi Party was the National Socialist German Workers' Party and smugly point out that the name of the organization has the word "Socialist" in it, so AH HA checkmate, libs!

Before I get too deeply into this, I want to make it clear that I do not consider myself a liberal or a leftist. I don't want to get into my own personal leanings too deeply, but two things I value politically (and personally) are honesty and consistency. I don't like intellectual dishonesty or the it's-ok-when-my-guy-does-it mindset. The second phenomenon doesn't really play into this, but the first one definitely does. Just so there is no confusion or ambiguity, I want to say plainly up front that the argument that Nazism was a left-wing ideology is either ignorant or intellectually dishonest.

Some years ago, I wrote about the Doctrine of Fascism, mainly in response to the frequent misuse of the word that dates back to the time of George Orwell. Fascism is a very specific set of political and economic philosophies and very few people actually subscribe to that ideology. In almost all modern usages of "fascism" in a polemic context, more accurate words would be "oppression," "discrimination," "injustice," or "authoritarianism."

Now to be fair, most people don't really know anything about fascism other than the fact that Fascist Italy was allied with Nazi Germany. Some people consider Nazism to be a subset of Fascism, but I don't think that's really accurate; they were instead both subsets of what we can call anti-liberal, anti-communist authoritarianism. Now when I say "liberal," I don't mean it in the Barack Obama sense of the word, I mean it in the classical European understanding of representative democracy with free (or relatively free) markets. Between World War I and World War II, the governments of many countries in Europe subscribed to this anti-liberal, anti-communist authoritarianism even if they to some extent maintained the outward trappings of democratic processes and procedures. Aside from Germany and Italy, other examples included Austria, Romania, Portugal, Spain, Hungary, Greece, and Poland. This doesn't even count the countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America that also subscribed to anti-liberal, anti-communist authoritarianism both during that time period and well after it.

Nomenclature

In any case, I'm getting off-track. If we're going to investigate the claim that Nazism is a left-wing ideology, I think we need to look at some of the evidence for why this is allegedly the case. The most commonly presented argument is in the proper name of the Nazi party: the National Socialist German Workers' Party. Why would they have the word "socialist" in their name if they weren't socialists? QED, Nazis are leftists. Let's apply that rationale to a few other examples and see what happens.

The official name for what most people call North Korea is the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK). Well, the DPRK is in fact located in the region that we call "Korea," so that's accurate. There are also these entities we call "people" there. But...that's about it. A "democracy" requires the consent and participation of the population in making and enacting legislation or other governmental actions. A "republic" is a country that is led by an elected head of state or head of government; in other words, a republic is not an inherited monarchy. The DPRK is a totalitarian dictatorship, meaning that one ruler controls all aspects of the state without requiring the input or approval of voters or the voters' elected representatives. Voting is compulsory in North Korea, but there is only one candidate for each office, meaning that there are no competitive elections. The first leader of the DPRK was Kim il Sung, who was succeeded by his son Kim Jong Il, who was in turn succeeded by his own son Kim Jong Un. The concentration of executive power in one office that lasts for life and can apparently only be held by a family member of the prior office-holder is, by all known definitions of the term, an inherited monarchy. Nobody outside of North Korea (except for a few edgy morons on various social media platforms) would suggest that the country could in any way be considered a "Democratic People's Republic."

How about the Republic of Ireland and the Islamic Republic of Iran? Well, they have the word "Republic" in their names, so both countries must have governments laid out along the lines put forth by the Republican party of the United States, right? There's a country in Africa called the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and that's a really specific name, so the state ideology there must be derivative of the political party created by Thomas Jefferson in the 19th century called the Democratic Republican party.

You get the point. People can call their countries and their parties whatever they'd like and they don't necessarily have to line up with the commonly understood meanings of the words they use. But part of the confusion surrounding the political orientation of the Nazis -- and we'll just say it's confusion and not a disingenuous effort to call them something they're not -- comes from the translation of the party's name from German into English. The German name for the Nazi Party was the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterparteii (NSDAP). We call them Nazis because in German, the first two syllables of the ungainly word "Nationalsozialistische" are pronounced "Nazi." It's like calling communists "commies" or the British Liberal Democrats "lib dems." But beyond pronunciation, it is significant that there is no space or hyphenation between "National" and "sozialistische." Hitler and his chief ideologues perceived their movement as being entirely new and distinct from existing parties and philosophies. The name, therefore, is not meant to imply that they were the nationwide Socialist party of Germany but rather that they had an entirely new concept that would more accurately be rendered in English as Nationalsocialism.

(As a brief digression, it is worth noting that there were multiple parties on both the left and the right in Germany during the Weimar era that used the words "Socialist" or "Social" in their name in some way. This was due partly to multiple schisms within the main socialist party in Germany: the Social Democratic Party of Germany, abbreviated in German as SPD. The SPD routinely won a plurality of the votes for the Reichstag in the years between 1890 and 1932, so the use of the word by parties not directly affiliated with the SPD or socialism in general was an attempt by these other parties to secure voters through a familiar brand name.)

Citizenship

The easiest way to understand Nazism is to read Hitler's Mein Kampf. The only problem is that the book is nearly 800 pages in its unabridged form and it's not exactly an interesting read. Instead, it would be quicker to read the election manifesto that Hitler created in 1920 -- known as the 25 Point Plan or the 25 Points -- and see to what extent the tenets laid down there match up to a contemporary understanding of both left- and right-wing politics. I won't go through all 25 points (since even that would be tedious), but you can read them here if you feel so inclined. Several items build upon the same concept (e.g. primarily the idea of citizenship) and others are specific to Germany immediately after World War I (e.g., the second point is the repudiation of the hated Treaty of Versailles). So let's briefly survey some of these points and see what they have to say.

Several of the points in the program deal with redefining what it means to be a citizen of the Reich. Essentially all modern political parties (left and right) understand citizenship to be something that is conferred upon a person by virtue of their connection to the territory controlled and/or administered by a particular sovereign state. In most conceptions of citizenship, this entails being born within the confines of a particular country's borders, being born abroad to at least one parent who is a citizen of that country, marrying someone who is a citizen of that country, or having citizenship granted to them by the government of that country after having productively lived there for some time.

The Nazis' theory of citizenship was almost entirely divorced from all of these commonly held notions. What your passport says is unimportant; the real determining factor of citizenship is one's status as a member of the Volksgemeinschaft. "Volksgemeinschaft" can be roughly translated as "ethnic community." By 1920, ethnic Germans represented substantial minorities in European countries like Poland, Romania, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and the Soviet Union, not to mention the millions of people of German descent who lived in the Americas. Despite the fact that these people had never set foot in Germany and their families had been in these other countries for several generations, the Nazis believed that they were fully entitled to all the rights extended to Germans living within the territory of Germany proper by virtue of belonging to the Volksgemeinschaft. Membership in the Volksgemeinschaft was an immutable characteristic; you were either born into it or you were not. Likewise, being born in Germany did not necessarily grant a person citizenship; Jews are specifically mentioned in the 25 Points as being excluded from the Volksgemeinschaft regardless of how long their families have resided within the territory of the Reich. People who are not members of the Volksgemeinschaft therefore cannot become citizens and they can only stay in Germany unless and until their presence becomes injurious to the state, at which point they will either have to leave or they will be forcibly removed.

By contrast, the two most important contemporary left-wing parties in Germany -- the aforementioned SPD and the Green Party -- have long advocated for more inclusive interpretations of German citizenship laws, which remain some of the most restrictive in the world. They have proposed expanded dual citizenship, birthright citizenship (i.e., being born in Germany automatically grants German citizenship), and a more open naturalization process that would grant citizenship (or at least all the benefits of citizenship) to foreign nationals after 5 or 10 years of residency. The Spanish Socialist Workers' Party -- the current ruling party in Spain -- states that all immigrants living in Spain should be granted citizenship, that more visas ought to be granted to highly skilled immigrants, and that immigrants shouldn't have to pass a test demonstrating proficiency in the Spanish language to move to Spain. The Democratic Party in the United States supports liberalizing the naturalization process for illegal immigrants/undocumented workers, depending on your inclination. These positions are fairly representative of modern leftist views on immigration and citizenship. I note that I was unable to find any left-wing party programs that require membership in a Volksgemeinschaft as a prerequisite to citizenship.

Land

The 25 Points also make a few references to land and land reform. It is necessary to delve into some history before we get into dissecting these points. In the wake of World War I, all of the great continental European empires collapsed, resulting in the creation of several new countries. A key principle established after the war was that individual ethnic groups within Europe should possess the right of national self-determination, that is, an ethnic group should be allowed to have its own internationally recognized state if it wants one. Additionally, a region in country A that is inhabited by chiefly by people with an ethnic connection to country B should be allowed to join country B if they so choose. This was meant to support groups like the Latvians, Lithuanians, and Estonians who were historically concentrated in specific areas but had been ruled over by foreigners with little or no say in their own day-to-day lives. It was about righting historical wrongs.

The Nazis believed that Germans were entitled to a similar right of self-determination and that all Germans should be united in one Reich. The word "Reich" is usually rendered in English as "empire," but "realm" is closer to the meaning that the word is meant to convey. Germany did not come into existence as a unified political entity until 1871, before which "Germany" was merely a word that referred to a jumble of independent duchies, kingdoms, and free cities where the people spoke German. There was a great yearning even before then for all Germans to live together in their own country, but there were disagreements about what role Austria would play in the state that would go on to become Germany. The debate centered on religion, language, ethnicity, and the rivalry between Austria and Prussia, the other leading German empire at the time. In the end, Austria was excluded from the new Germany, but German nationalists on both sides of the border were dissatisfied with this outcome because it left the Reich fundamentally incomplete.

The very first point of the 25 Points calls for the creation of a "Greater Germany" (GroƟdeutschland), citing the right of national self-determination mentioned above. However, while this would presumably mean the incorporation of Austria into the Reich -- something banned by post-World War I treaties -- Hitler was very careful not to mention any location in particular. The reason for this, of course, was that he wanted to use this rationale to acquire all territory within Europe with a historical German presence, which would have encompassed more than half the continent. Another of the points states that Germany ought to have "colonies for the sustenance of our people and colonization for our superfluous population" and later on "land reform suitable to our needs." The Nazis were absolutely obsessed with the idea of grabbing as much land as possible in furtherance of a concept known as Lebensraum, literally "living space."

The problem is that there is a finite amount of territory in Europe that could be considered "German." If half the continent isn't enough space, and you still need more land in the form of colonies, then the only way to get it is to take land that you have absolutely no legitimate claim to. Since sovereign states do not make it a habit to give themselves away as colonial possessions, you would have to wage a war of aggression to make that happen. Land reform (that is to say, the redistribution of land ownership in a more equitable fashion) is a traditionally leftist policy, true, but it's not usually predicated on the idea of conquering neighboring countries.

Money

To be certain, some of the 25 Points do come across as left-wing in orientation. However, as in the case of land reform, there is something distinctly non-left-wing underpinning the reasons behind these points. For example, the 7th point says that it's the main responsibility of the state to ensure that employment opportunities exist for its citizens. That does sound pretty left-wing until we get to the second part that says if there aren't enough jobs to go around for citizens, then all non-citizens need to be removed from the Reich. The physical expulsion of otherwise productive members of society because of their race is not found in most left-wing political programs. There are several other references to economics such as prohibitions against "debt slavery," war profiteering, and usury (the latter of which would be punishable by the death penalty). The Nazis (among many, many others) considered these economic crimes to be the almost exclusive purview of Jews and they believed that essentially all Jews engaged in these behaviors.

Interestingly, the 16th point refers to the creation and maintenance of "a healthy middle class." While the term "middle class" is ambiguous in most usages, the Nazis at this time associated the concept with what we might call "small business," and could refer equally to owners of small businesses and those employed by small businesses. By contrast, the middle class occupies an extremely precarious position in most left-wing understandings of the term. In the Soviet Union, for example, the people inhabiting the economic strata that most closely corresponded to the Nazi conception of the middle class would have been considered "class enemies." Individuals fitting this economic profile were liable to physical liquidation (examine, for example, the fate of the so-called kulaks during this era). The further left one goes, the less positive significance one attaches to any class other than the proletariat. Having said that, though, most contemporary mainstream left-wing and right-wing political parties in the Western world (and beyond) at least pay lip service to the middle class and its interests.

Summary

So far, we've examined the early ideology of the NSDAP. While parts of the 25 points seem to have leftist origins if not intentions, I don't think it is possible to regard these parts of the program as being anything other than populism designed to appeal to a public wracked with anxiety after the disaster of the first World War. We've looked at how some policy goals seem to be left-wing on the surface but have decidedly non-leftist ideas underpinning them. Consider, for example, that Iran is second only to Thailand in the number of gender reassignment surgeries per year. This is not because Iran is a left-wing utopia protective of LGBTQ rights, but rather because homosexuality is punishable by death in that country, and gays/lesbians are forced to undergo these procedures to avoid being killed since they would then ostensibly become "straight" after compulsory sex changes. In the next writeup -- the content of which is basically already done, but excluded from here because this would verge on 12,000 words -- we'll look at the actual policies enacted by the Nazis and see how they stack up against left-wing ideas.