The term National Socialism refers to a political movement and ideology born out of a series of tumultuous events in German history that culminated in the appointment of Adolf Hitler as Chancellor in 1933. National Socialism, also referred to as Nazism, was at its core ultraconservative, hypernationalistic, anticapitalist, antiliberal, anticommunist, anti-Semitic, and militaristic. On the political spectrum, Nazism is generally, although not always, understood to be a variant of fascism and thus a movement of the extreme right. Fascism itself is a revolutionary political philosophy and movement that grew in popularity in several European countries after World War I, exalting the nation above all else and calling for a strong authoritarian figure to fix the problems of the state, especially the rising tide of communism. The first fascist government to appear was that of Benito Mussolini in Italy in 1922. Italian fascism had a profound influence on Hitler. Both ideologically and practically, however, Nazism was far more extreme because of the overwhelming importance of racism in the movement. In fact, the political philosophy of Nazism is so deeply enmeshed in its fanatically devout ideology that many have dubbed it a political religion.
Although some scholars have sought to locate the origins of National Socialist thought in the sixteenth century or even earlier, Nazism was both a product of modernity and a peculiarly German phenomenon. Compared with other European countries, Germany is quite young, having unified its 300-odd independent states into the second German Empire only in 1871. The formation of a large economic and military power with imperialist ambitions in central Europe at the end of the nineteenth century significantly altered the balance of power on the continent and ended with one of the most deadly and destructive events in world history, World War I (1914–18). Germany's defeat in that war by the allied forces of Britain, France, and the United States had profound effects. The Versailles Peace Treaty blamed Germany solely for the war, forced it to pay hefty reparations, confiscated large swaths of land, and demilitarized it. This punitive outcome left many in that country humiliated and bitter, perhaps none more so than Adolf Hitler.
Adolf Hitler was born to Alois and Klara Hitler (née Pölzl) in the small Austrian village Braunau am Inn in 1889. His middle-class childhood included both considerable conflict with his authoritarian father and utter devotion to his mother, whose death from cancer in 1907 scarred the young man deeply. Hitler's father died in 1903 after suffering a pleural hemorrhage. Much to his parents’ dismay, Hitler did not want to follow in his father's footsteps and become a civil servant but fancied himself a painter. This dream led the provincial young man to Vienna in 1908, where he spent five years that became critical in the formation of his worldview. Rejected twice by the Viennese Academy of Art and living on a meager orphan's pension, Hitler found himself painting postcards for spare change and living in a homeless shelter. Thus, the cosmopolitan capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire that produced artistic and intellectual giants like Sigmund Freud and Gustav Mahler was not the Vienna that Hitler knew. He was surrounded by dejected vagabonds like himself who blamed their plight on everyone else. Hitler grew to hate much about the city and the empire in which he lived. He was a voracious reader and consumed large quantities of both the obscure crackpot theories that swirled around Vienna's underbelly and more popular political ideas. The anti-Slavism and Pan-Germanism of Austrian politician Georg von Schönerer, the anti-Semitic demagogy of Vienna's Mayor Karl Lueger, and the theories of Aryan superiority from cult leader and former Cistercian monk Jörg Lanz von Liebenfels all influenced the young Hitler. It would, however, be incorrect to assume that his political worldview was already cemented at that time. There is little evidence to suggest, for example, that the trademark rabid anti-Semitism of the more mature Hitler was already in place. But that would soon change.
At the age of 24, Hitler avoided mandatory military service in Austria by moving to Munich, Germany. Fed up with the Habsburg monarchy, ineffective parliaments, and multiculturalism and “race mixing,” Hitler could not bear the thought of serving in Austria. His arrival in Germany in 1913 signaled a new sense of belonging, but his bohemian life still seemed aimless. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand (the heir to the Austrian throne) in Sarajevo in June 1919 changed Hitler's situation by triggering the outbreak of World War I. The ensuing wave of German nationalism and patriotism swept Hitler up, and he volunteered to fight with the Bavarian infantry. His life now had meaning. He served as a message runner and was injured twice, earning the Iron Cross First and Second Class for valor. Lying in his hospital bed in Pasewalk, Germany, in November 1918 recovering from what new research suggests was probably psychosomatic blindness and not a mustard gas attack as he often claimed, Hitler first learned of Germany's defeat, the abdication of the Kaiser (German for “emperor”), the naval mutinies, and the subsequent revolution, which threatened to turn the country communist. It was at that exact moment, Hitler later claimed, that he decided to enter into politics.
The dissolution of the monarchy in Germany brought the Social Democratic Party (SPD) to power in 1919, beginning the country's first experiment with democracy. The Weimar Republic (1919–33), so called because its constitution was crafted there to avoid the revolutionary mayhem in the capital of Berlin, was by no means doomed to failure from the outset. It did, however, face severe political, economic, and social turmoil. Having been created in haste and seemingly foisted on Germans, the Weimar government soon became wildly unpopular with the majority, not least because it had negotiated the humiliating terms of what became known as the “Versailles Diktat.” Such an environment made the perfect breeding ground for conspiracy theories of the radical right, and none was more intoxicating or dangerous than the stab-in-the-back legend. According to the myth, the German military had not been defeated on the battlefield but had been, like the Teutonic hero Siegfried in the medieval German epic “The Song of the Nibelungs,” stabbed from behind by a traitorous foe. In this case, German defeat was alleged to have been stage-managed by internal civilian enemies, namely Jews, communists, and Social Democrats. Although untrue, the stab-in-the-back legend found much popular appeal as it squarely placed the burden of defeat in World War I on the shoulders of the Weimar Republic and Jews. Hitler, who labeled the supposed traitors the “November criminals,” believed in the conspiracy wholeheartedly, and it too had a profound effect on his political thought.
Without money, a vocation, or job prospects, Hitler remained in the army after the war and worked as an informant. Ordered to infiltrate a fledgling political group in Munich called the German Workers’ Party, Hitler, to his surprise, liked much of what he heard at the meetings. On September 12, 1919, Hitler caught the notice of Party founder Anton Drexler when he spoke out for the first time during a meeting at the Sterneckerbräu (beer hall). Spurred on by his military superiors, Hitler soon became the fifty-fifth member of the Party and its most prominent speaker. Hitler soon realized he had found his calling and by 1920 left the army for politics. That same year the party was renamed the National Socialist German Worker's Party (NSDAP), and the beer-hall rabble-rouser quickly moved to the top because of his oratorical abilities. Unlike so many stodgy politicians of the time, Hitler used emotion to connect with his audiences. Simplicity of language, repetition, and clearly stated, unequivocal positions were part and parcel of his success. His speeches began slowly and quietly to draw the crowds in but increasingly intensified. Carefully choreographed gestures, a quickening pace, and an ever louder voice would bring audiences to a frenetic state at his climactic conclusion. His difficult childhood, war experience, and disdain for the Weimar Republic, all well-rehearsed topics in his speeches, led many to believe that he was one of them and understood their predicament.
Outside of Bavaria, Hitler and the NSDAP were little known until catapulted into the headlines with an abortive coup attempt in November 1923. In an act known as the Beer-Hall Putsch, Hitler and a large band of Nazis stormed a meeting at the Bürgerbräukeller in Munich proclaiming the creation of a new government with well-known war hero General Erich Ludendorff. This attempt to topple the Bavarian government was met the next day by a hail of police bullets on Munich's Odeonsplatz. Hitler escaped unharmed, but 16 Nazis and 3 policemen died. Tried for high treason, Hitler was allowed by sympathetic judges to use the trial as a public stage for his political intentions. Casting himself as the patriotic, would-be savior of Germany, Hitler received the minimum five-year sentence but was paroled after eight months in Landsberg prison. Hitler later remarked that his incarceration was his “university paid for by the state” as it allowed him time to catch up on reading and write his turgid, rambling, and often illogical autobiography/political treatise Mein Kampf (“My Struggle”). What is more, Hitler learned a vital political lesson from the failed putsch; he would have to come to power not by force but through normal channels with support of the masses and the backing of powerful sectors in German society.
National Socialism was always much more a social and political movement than a sophisticated, well-organized political ideology. Even the success of Alfred Rosenberg's The Myth of the Twentieth Century, which was published in 1930 and attempted to provide a theoretical basis for Nazism, remains qualified. Although a best seller from the official Party ideologue, it seems to have been widely owned but little read. Hitler himself found it incomprehensible and never finished it. Nonetheless, from the extant sources, it is possible to list a set of more or less coherent thoughts that made up Nazi ideology. At its core was a racial, Social Darwinist understanding of history. Human races as well as nations, it was believed, were locked in a struggle for survival, and only the most powerful and ruthless would survive. At one time there had been a clear hierarchy of races, but because of miscegenation, this was no longer the case. Such interbreeding caused the decline of the once great (mythic) Aryan German race. If Germany was to become a great world power again, it would need to purge society of all enemies and their influence. It would not be an overstatement to suggest that the utmost prerogative of National Socialism was to create a “racial state.”
The foundation on which Nazism stood was the German Volk (“nation” or “people”). Germans were to put their nation and racial comrades above all else, especially themselves. National Socialism sought to create a harmonious national/racial community referred to as the Volksgemeinschaft. This community of pure-blooded Germans would work together in a classless society under the leadership of a single, strong leader (Führer) for the betterment of the collective. Paramount to the regeneration of Germany was the eradication of “aliens,” above all the ultimate nemesis of Nazism, the Jews. Unlike Aryans, Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf, Jews were the “destroyers of civilization” and were “parasitical.” Although less than one percent of the population in Germany, the Jewish “race” was blamed for everything wrong with Germany and everything the Nazis did not like, from communism and modern art to democracy and capitalism. Immediately after the seizure of power, Nazi legislation such as the Civil Service Act (1933) and Nuremberg Laws (1935) began to strip German Jews of jobs, property, citizenship, and civil rights.
The Nazi consolidation of political power after 1933 was referred to by the legal term Gleichschaltung (literally coordination or synchronization), and its main goal was to bring all aspects of German society under the regime's heel. State governments became wholly subordinate to the national government. Professional and civic organizations were dissolved or converted to Nazified versions of their former selves. The army and the legal and educational systems were “coordinated,” often willingly, in short order. Labor unions and political parties were banned. Interestingly, the first concentration camp, at Dachau (just outside of Munich), was opened in March 1933, not to house Jews but to deal with the massive wave of arrests of communists made by police. Although highly critical of free-market capitalism, the Nazi government made no sweeping economic changes and no real attempt to establish a corporatist state. Although there was certainly far more government regulation and oversight, profitable business practices often bolstered the regime's political objectives, thus making radical economic change unnecessary.
Another central tenet of Nazism was the belief in the need for Lebensraum (“living space”) in Eastern Europe. The third demand in the NSDAP's official party platform demanded new territories for the “nourishment of our people and settling of our surplus population.” The inability of Germany to feed itself off its own land was deemed to be a major cause of its defeat in World War I. The loss of colonies after Versailles only poured salt on wounds. Such a goal could be achieved only by force, and in the mid-1930s, Germany began a massive rearmament campaign followed by the invasion of Poland in 1939 and the beginning of World War II. After swiftly defeating the Poles and their French allies, Nazi Germany set its sights on the Soviet Union in June 1941, despite the nonaggression pact that had been signed by Hitler and Stalin in 1939. The Soviet Union, and the resources of the Ukrainian “breadbasket” in particular, were a sort of holy grail in Hitler's quest for living space. Once conquered, the Slavs of Eastern Europe, who were considered Untermenschen (“subhumans”) in Nazi ideology, would become slave laborers for their new Aryan masters.
It is clear, then, that at its core Nazism's political philosophy was undergirded by hatred and violence. Even in the tumultuous years after World War I, however, the radical stance of the NSDAP did not resonate with Germans. In 1928, the NSDAP received less than three percent of the vote. Only after the bottom dropped out of the world economy with the Great Depression beginning in 1929 did Nazism's promises of bread, work, and the return of the respected, powerful German empire receive notice. Yet the Nazi Party never received a majority vote in national elections. Hitler was the appointed, not the elected, chancellor of a conservative coalition wherein it was believed he could be easily manipulated and controlled. But he was underestimated.
The inevitable outcome of Nazism was World War II, an incomparable event in history with perhaps more than 60 million dead, including the 6 million Jews murdered in the German Holocaust. Despite its horrifically violent and genocidal past, National Socialism is not dead. Neo-Nazism, the attempt by hate groups to revive in part or whole German National Socialism after 1945, has sprung up across the globe. Often linked to white supremacist or skinhead movements, neo-Nazis uncritically mimic the ideas of Hitler, applying them to present conditions. As shown by the racially driven “kebab” murders of the National Socialist Underground in Germany during the first years of the twenty-first century, vigilance is required to make certain that the terrorist activities of present-day fascists remain the infrequent actions of the lunatic fringe.
See also Communism, Varieties of; Darwinism and Social Darwinism; Fascism; Franco, Francisco; German Political Thought; Ideology; Race and Racism; Revolution; Totalitarianism; Twentieth-Century Political Thought; War and Political Thought
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