Reprints and Permissions. By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. Since he had solved for all time the enigma of history, as he imagined, National Socialism was unique. The elements might be at once diverse and familiar, but the mix was his. Hitler's mind, it has often been noticed, was in many ways backward-looking: not medievalising, on the whole, like Victorian socialists such as Ruskin and William Morris, but fascinated by a far remoter past of heroic virtue.
It is now widely forgotten that much the same could be said of Marx and Engels. It is the issue of race, above all, that for half a century has prevented National Socialism from being seen as socialist. The proletariat may have no fatherland, as Lenin said. But there were still, in Marx's view, races that would have to be exterminated. That is a view he published in January-February in an article by Engels called "The Hungarian Struggle" in Marx's journal the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, and the point was recalled by socialists down to the rise of Hitler. It is now becoming possible to believe that Auschwitz was socialist-inspired.
The Marxist theory of history required and demanded genocide for reasons implicit in its claim that feudalism was already giving place to capitalism, which must in its turn be superseded by socialism. Entire races would be left behind after a workers' revolution, feudal remnants in a socialist age; and since they could not advance two steps at a time, they would have to be killed.
One could say that, in this respect, the same National Socialists who already had jeopardized the reputation of German science made it possible for the leading. Journal of Contemporary History, 11 (), The Social Bases of the. National Socialist Vote. Thomas Childers. In the forty-six years since the NSDAP .
They were racial trash, as Engels called them, and fit only for the dung-heap of history. That brutal view, which a generation later was to be fortified by the new pseudo-science of eugenics, was by the last years of the century a familiar part of the socialist tradition, though it is understandable that since the liberation of Auschwitz in January socialists have been eager to forget it. But there is plenty of evidence in the writings of HG Wells, Jack London, Havelock Ellis, the Webbs and others to the effect that socialist commentators did not flinch from drastic measures. The idea of ethnic cleansing was orthodox socialism for a century and more.
So the socialist intelligentsia of the western world entered the First World War publicly committed to racial purity and white domination and no less committed to violence. Socialism offered them a blank cheque, and its licence to kill included genocide. In , in a preface to On the Rocks, for example, Bernard Shaw publicly welcomed the exterminatory principle which the Soviet Union had already adopted.
Socialists could now take pride in a state that had at last found the courage to act, though some still felt that such action should be kept a secret. In Beatrice Webb remarked at a tea-party what "very bad stage management" it had been to allow a party of British visitors to the Ukraine to see cattle-trucks full of starving "enemies of the state" at a local station. The claim that Hitler cannot really have been a socialist because he advocated and practised genocide suggests a monumental failure, then, in the historical memory.
Only socialists in that age advocated or practised genocide, at least in Europe, and from the first years of his political career Hitler was proudly aware of the fact. Addressing his own party, the NSDAP, in Munich in August , he pledged his faith in socialist-racialism: "If we are socialists, then we must definitely be anti-semites - and the opposite, in that case, is Materialism and Mammonism, which we seek to oppose. Hitler went on: "How, as a socialist, can you not be an anti-semite?
In an age when the socialist tradition of genocide was familiar, that would have sounded merely absurd. The tradition, what is more, was unique. In the European century that began in the s from Engels's article of down to the death of Hitler, everyone who advocated genocide called himself a socialist, and no exception has been found.
The first reactions to National Socialism outside Germany are now largely forgotten. They were highly confused, for the rise of fascism had caught the European left by surprise.
There was nothing in Marxist scripture to predict it and must have seemed entirely natural to feel baffled. Where had it all come from? Harold Nicolson, a democratic socialist, and after a Member of the House of Commons, conscientiously studied a pile of pamphlets in his hotel room in Rome in January and decided judiciously that fascism Italian-style was a kind of militarised socialism; though it destroyed liberty, he concluded in his diary, "it is certainly a socialist experiment in that it destroys individuality".
The Moscow view that fascism was the last phase of capitalism, though already proposed, was not yet widely heard. Richard remarked in a BBC talk that many students in Nazi Germany believed they were "digging the foundations of a new German socialism". By the outbreak of civil war in Spain, in , sides had been taken, and by then most western intellectuals were certain that Stalin was left and Hitler was right.
That sudden shift of view has not been explained, and perhaps cannot be explained, except on grounds of argumentative convenience. Single binary oppositions - cops-and-robbers or cowboys-and-indians - are always satisfying. The Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was seen by hardly anybody as an attempt to restore the unity of socialism. A wit at the British Foreign Office is said to have remarked that all the "Isms" were now "Wasms", and the general view was that nothing more than a cynical marriage of convenience had taken place.
By the outbreak of world war in the idea that Hitler was any sort of socialist was almost wholly dead. One may salute here an odd but eminent exception. Writing as a committed socialist just after the fall of France in , in The Lion and the Unicorn, Orwell saw the disaster as a "physical debunking of capitalism", it showed once and for all that "a planned economy is stronger than a planless one", though he was in no doubt that Hitler's victory was a tragedy for France and for mankind. The planned economy had long stood at the head of socialist demands; and National Socialism, Orwell argued, had taken from socialism "just such features as will make it efficient for war purposes".
Hitler had already come close to socialising Germany. Orwell believed that Hitler would go down in history as "the man who made the City of London laugh on the wrong side of its face" by forcing financiers to see that planning works and that an economic free-for-all does not. At its height, Hitler's appeal transcended party division. Shortly before they fell out in the summer of , Hitler uttered sentiments in front of Otto Wagener, which were published after his death in as a biography by an unrepentant Nazi.
Wagener's Hitler: Memoirs of a Confidant, composed in a British prisoner-of-war camp, did not appear until in the original German, and arrived in English, without much acclaim, as recently as Hitler's remembered talk offers a vision of a future that draws together many of the strands that once made utopian socialism irresistibly appealing to an age bred out of economic depression and cataclysmic wars; it mingles, as Victorian socialism had done before it, an intense economic radicalism with a romantic enthusiasm for a vanished age before capitalism had degraded heroism into sordid greed and threatened the traditional institutions of the family and the tribe.
Socialism, Hitler told Wagener shortly after he seized power, was not a recent invention of the human spirit, and when he read the New Testament he was often reminded of socialism in the words of Jesus. The trouble was that the long ages of Christianity had failed to act on the Master's teachings.
Mary and Mary Magdalen, Hitler went on in a surprising flight of imagination, had found an empty tomb, and it would be the task of National Socialism to give body at long last to the sayings of a great teacher: "We are the first to exhume these teachings. As for communists, he opposed them because they created mere herds, Soviet-style, without individual life, and his own ideal was "the socialism of nations" rather than the international socialism of Marx and Lenin. The one and only problem of the age, he told Wagener, was to liberate labour and replace the rule of capital over labour with the rule of labour over capital.
These are highly socialist sentiments, and if Wagener reports his master faithfully they leave no doubt about the conclusion: that Hitler was an unorthodox Marxist who knew his sources and knew just how unorthodox the way in which he handled them was. He was a dissident socialist. His programme was at once nostalgic and radical. It proposed to accomplish something that Christians had failed to act on and that communists before him had attempted and bungled.
That was the National Socialist vision. It was seductive, at once traditional and new.
Like all so- cialist views it was ultimately moral, and its economic and racial policies were seen as founded on universal moral laws. By the time such conversations saw the light of print, regrettably, the world had put such matters far behind it, and it was less than ever ready to listen to the sayings of a crank or a clown. That is a pity. The crank, after all, had once offered a vision of the future that had made a Victorian doctrine of history look exciting to millions.
Now that socialism is a discarded idea, such excitement is no doubt hard to recapture.