Germany: Nationalism, Socialism and Nazism

Russell Haggar

Site Owner

Germany: Nationalism, Socialism and Nazism


In his magisterial three volume history of the Third Reich Richard J. Evans states in relation to Bismarck’s foundation of the German Empire in 1871 that, “It was here….that we find the first real moment of German history which it is possible to relate directly to the coming of the Third Reich in1933.”


The key events in the formation of the German Reich in 1871 were the annexation of Schleswig-Holstein, the Prussian defeat of Austria which resulted in the dissolution of the German Confederation of States and its replacement by the North German Confederation from which Austria was excluded and the German defeat of France which resulted in the annexation of Alsace Lorraine. Throughout these events the chief minister of Prussia had been the conservative Junker Otto von Bismarck who would remain as Chancellor of the new German Reich until 1890.


It is widely agreed that Bismarck’s main foreign policy aim as Reich Chancellor was to prevent the development of an alliance between France and Russia which might give France the opportunity to recapture Alsace Lorraine and that he was never especially keen to expand German colonial interests outside Europe.


However  other  major European powers[ most notably the UK, France, and Russia] had seemingly already recognised that colonial expansion was economically necessary to  secure foreign sources of raw materials markets for manufactured exports and politically useful to promote domestic stability: witness for example Disraeli’s efforts to attract working class votes via a policy of one nation social imperialism. Therefore it came as no real surprise when after  a new German Emperor Kaiser Wilhelm the Second ascended the German throne in July 1888 and Bismarck was obliged resigned as Chancellor in 1890,  Germany [which was by now the most wealthy industrial economy in Europe] embarked on a major reorientation of foreign policy known as the Weltpolitik [world politics].


Strident German nationalist pressure groups developed calling for naval expansion as a pre-requisite for colonial expansion, for the strengthening of the German nation through the Germanisation of ethnic minorities living within German borders, for the annexation of territories such as Austria and Czechoslovakia with significant numbers of ethnic Germans and for the colonisation of parts of the Balkans and even of Russia. Furthermore these pressure groups tended to be not only nationalist but also anti-Semitic, anti-democratic and anti-socialist. Thus, for example, one prominent supporter of the Pan- German League, the retired general Konstantin von Gebsattel proposed a fight against Jewish machinations and rabble-rousing by Social Democratic leaders, a Reich that was not parliamentarian, a Kaiser who really ruled rather than being just a figurehead and conducted an aggressive foreign policy with an armoured fist and a franchise which restricted the influence of the masses to a minimum. [Quoted from Richard Evans; The Coming of the Third Reich 2003.]


Also among some nationalist supporters there existed a profound nostalgia for the era of Bismarck but based on a distorted view of Bismarck’s character and political achievements. Bismarck had indeed been a dominant political figure whose policies were crucial to the formation of the German Reich and who had also tried hard to contain the growth of socialism partly by a law which made all Socialist Party activities outside Parliament illegal and partly via expansion of the German Welfare state in an attempt to wean the working classes away from socialism. Now the nationalists claimed that what was need was a new Bismarck, a new political strong man yet they neglected to emphasise that Bismarck was also a politician of extreme subtlety who wished to use diplomacy to maintain the balance of power in Europe to Germany’s advantage. However in the difficult times of the 1920s and 1930s Hitler would be able to add a populist dimension to all of these pre-1st World War conservative nationalist arguments and use them in his rise to political power.  As the historian William Carr states “Many of Hitler’s ideas were probably derived from Pan-German League pamphlets.”[A History of Germany 1815- 1990: William Carr 1991]


Greater impetus for the strategy of colonial expansion was given in several European nations [not only in Germany] by the application of theories of Social Darwinism to the conduct of foreign policy. In “The Origin of Species” [1859] the British scientist Charles Darwin [1809- 1882] had developed a theory of evolution designed to explain the diversity of species found on Earth in terms of the various mutations of different species in response to the environmental circumstances which they faced. Evolution occurred via processes of natural selection whereby the survival or extinction of different species depended upon their abilities to evolve; that is: to adapt in accordance with their environmental circumstances.


Darwin applied his ideas only to the natural world but he was of course soon involved in religious controversy because of his rejection of the biblical description of creation. Also his ideas were increasingly adapted [especially by the UK sociologist Herbert Spencer {1820-1903}] to provide apparent intellectual support for unregulated laissez faire and for expansionary ultra-nationalism although Spencer himself opposed the international growth of militarism in the late C19th.


Whereas Darwin had argued that only those species which adapted and evolved in response to their environmental circumstances would survive, the Social Darwinists argued that human life itself should be seen as an unavoidable struggle for survival.




In the Social Darwinist view nations’ foreign policies should also be determined on the assumption that entire nations are locked in inevitable rivalry. As the historian William Carr expresses it, “Natural selection applied to relations between states as much as to animal kingdoms: the struggle for markets and raw materials  and the urge to expand overseas were interpreted as outward signs of a deep uneasy struggle “red in tooth and claw” where the right of the strongest was law. In this age of “national mission” Germany was well to the fore determined to play a role overseas commensurate with her economic and military might. As Bernhard von Bulow

[German Imperial Chancellor 1990-1909] observed in a speech in 1897: “we do not want to put anyone in the shade but we do demand our place in the sun.”


Social Darwinist theories coalesced with theories of scientific racism and with the development of the Eugenics movement and with theories of so-called scientific racism. If international politics amounted to a struggle for survival and human progress depended upon the survival of the fittest and the elimination of the unfit the implication according to eugenicists was that everything possible should be done to prepare the nation’s population stock for the struggles which would inevitably lie ahead. Consequently Sir Francis Galton [who was actually Charles Darwin’s cousin,] became a founder of the British Eugenics Movement which aimed to breed a superior race of people by encouraging the fittest to breed and discouraging, by sterilisation if necessary the procreation of weaker, less talented and sickly types. Compulsory sterilisation programmes were actually introduced in the USA and in some Scandinavian countries in the early C20th but they were introduced on a much larger scale in Nazi Germany and accompanied also by programmes of involuntary euthanasia.


In general theories of so-called “scientific racism” the “fit” were the white “Race” and the “unfit” were the coloured “races” whose different physical characteristics were associated with allegedly inferior cultural and intellectual qualities. More particularly in the German version of racial ideology the world’s population could be divided into three racial categories: the Aryan German master race who were “the founders of the culture”, the intermediate races which were “bearers of culture” and the Jews who were described as “the destroyers of culture pitted in an unending struggle against the noble and creative Aryans.” Within this overall racial framework the Nazis also regarded the Slavs and the coloured peoples as inferior races and their negative assessment of the Slavic races was used to legitimise nationalist demands for Lebensraum in the East to promote the growth of the Aryan Race via the exploitation of the Slavs. Anti-Semitic prejudices were common throughout Europe the late C19th and early C20th and there is no reason to believe that anti-Semitism was more widespread in Germany than in other European countries. Consequently even Hitler was sometimes careful not to over-emphasise his extreme anti-Semitic prejudices for fear that they would reduce rather than increase his electoral support although ultimately once he attained power he was able to give full rein to his anti-Semitism and to his anti-Slavism with awful consequences.


There was initially widespread support in Germany for the First World War especially among nationalists who hoped that their aspirations for territorial expansion would be realised but such hopes soon turned to frustration once Germany was defeated. Since there had been strict censorship in Germany of the military developments of the war the German people were surprised by Germany’s defeat and misled also by the perpetuation of the so-called Dolchstoss myth [the dagger stab in the back] according to which military defeat had occurred despite the bravest efforts of the German generals and their military forces as a result of traitorous activities at home of Communist and Social Democratic politicians and activists who had never fully supported the war.


Now followed the further insults of what many Germans saw as the grossly unfair punitive conditions of the Versailles Treaty in which Germany was obliged in a “dictated peace” to accept responsibility for the war, to cede large amounts of German territory to France and to Poland, to make huge financial reparations to the victorious allies and to accept strict limitations on its military expenditures.


One of the most significant ideological themes of the National Socialist Party was the need for national unity, national economic and military expansion and the overturning of the provisions of the Versailles Treaty. German expansionism was to be achieved initially via diplomatic measures to discontinue the provisions of the Versailles Treaty followed by the incorporation of Austria and the Czech Sudetenland into the new Third German Reich on the grounds that many ethnic Germans lived in these territories but in Mein Kampf and elsewhere Hitler claimed that he sought no conflict with the UK and was content to see the UK retain control over a large foreign empire. Meanwhile both the UK and France appeared content to follow a policy of appeasement in response to Hitler’s annexation of Austria and the Sudetenland but

when Hitler embarked on the invasion of Poland the commitments of the UK and France to the defence of Poland meant that war with Nazi Germany was inevitable. Hitler had never made any secret of his hatred of Bolshevism [which he claimed was part of an international Jewish conspiracy] and the necessity for the German Reich capture greater Lebensraum in the East but this did not prevent him from negotiating a non-aggression pact with the USSR in 1939 although both he and Joseph Stalin both probably realised that war between Germany and the USSR was ultimately inevitable and the German armies duly invaded the USSR in 1941.


We have now seen that both the Italian Fascists and the German Nazis had commitments to ultra-nationalism which were always likely to lead both countries into imperialist wars. However we must also note that German nationalism contained a far stronger racist and anti-Semitic dimension; that German nationalism led to eugenicists policies which were not followed in Italy; that Germany was much more economically powerful than Italy; that it had stronger military intentions; that it had much greater imperialist objectives than Italy;  that Hitler‘s overall control over the German state in general and the German military in particular was far greater than Mussolini’s control of the Italian state and military ; and that Hitler  was far more determined than Mussolini  to increase and strengthen his armed forces.   These points explain why the dire consequences of German Nazism were on a scale far greater than those of Italian Fascism.


Nazism and Socialism

[The line of argument adopted here is very similar to that used in the analogous document on Italian Fascism and Socialism. There was a mildly socialist aspect to original Italian Fascist ideology but the socialist elements of fascist ideology were gradually watered down and no real socialist policies were actually introduced. The socialist elements of original Nazi ideology were even weaker and again no real socialist policies were introduced. ]


The full official name of the Nazi Party was the National Socialist German Workers’ Party reflecting the important fascist claim that fascist ideology contains a syncretic combination of both nationalism and socialism. However it has been shown elsewhere that there are very fundamental differences in the fascist and socialist conceptions of human nature and it is clear also that the socialist dimension of Nazism is  limited in ideological terms and even more limited in terms of practical party policies..


There were some socialists involved in the formation and early leadership of the Nazi Party most notably Gottfried Feder and Gregor and Otto Strasser and the Nazis were originally critical of the ways in which large scale landowning, agricultural, industrial and commercial interests operating under laissez faire restricted the opportunities of small scale farmers and business owners while they simultaneously exploited the working classes and in this context the Nazi emphasis on the creation of an integrated national community could have been interpreted, by some people at least, in broadly socialist terms. That is: it could have been assumed that if all were to participate in a national community all were to enjoy better living standards and more equal opportunities.


The 25 Point Programme of the Nazi Party published in 1920 did also contain several vaguely socialist proposals such as “the total confiscation of war profits”, “a division of the profits of all heavy industries” and “an expansion on a large scale of old age welfare” and, once the Nazis came to power they did introduce economic policies to reduce mass unemployment [mainly via the building of the Autobahns and military rearmament], policies to improve working conditions and policies to increase state control of industrial production, for example under the terms of Hermann Goering’s  4 Year Plans which were deliberately modelled upon the Soviet 5 Year Plans introduced by Stalin.


However despite these traces of socialist ideology and policy it is generally agreed that National Socialism was a profoundly anti-socialist movement. Hitler himself never showed any commitment  to socialist ideology; the Nazi criticisms of the activities of large capitalist organisations often and easily degenerated into criticisms of specifically Jewish business interests; arguments in support of an organic national community are arguments that have been voiced much more often by conservatives than socialists who focus much more obviously upon the need for the abolition of specific class inequalities which they believe to be an inevitable outcome of capitalism; the original 1920 Nazi Party programme focussed much more on “race”, nationalism and the objective of abrogation of the Versailles Treaty than upon socialist issues and socialist elements within the party leadership were soon marginalised by Hitler and his supporters as they sought to gain political support among conservative political leaders, business and military elites and to increase their electoral support among the middle and lower middle classes.


In comparing the ideologies of National Socialism and Socialism we may note first of all that there are profound differences in National Socialist and Socialist perceptions of human nature. [At this point I repeat verbatim previous relevant information on fascism, socialism and human nature. We need to emphasise the much greater significance of Racism in Nazi views of human nature.]


Andrew Heywood has defined human nature as "the inmutable [i.e. unchangeable] character of all human beings " and suggested that the three major disputes about human nature surround the relative importance of heredity and environment , the relative importance of rationality and irrationality and the relative importance of self-interested competitiveness and altruistic cooperation as determinants of human nature and human behaviour. Differing political ideologies offer differing perspectives on the characteristics of human nature and there are clearly very major differences between the fascist and the socialist accounts of human nature.

Fascists provide an essentially pessimistic account of human nature  in which there is a major distinction between the inevitably genetically superior political elite [and, in particular, the Leader] and the remaining masses; the politically elite are intellectually superior and alone have the talents to determine the national interest; the genetically inferior and primarily irrational masses are governed mainly by irrational emotions and passions, can be easily manipulated and are best suited to obey without question the directions of the political elite and although in the fascist political system a "new fascist man" can eventually be created he will be required to "Believe: Obey: Fight." rather than to think for himself.

Fascist doctrines are also in several respects racist. The Italian Fascists justified their plans for colonialist expansion into parts of the Balkans and Africa in terms of their racial superiority relative to the Slavs and the Africans and also be come more anti-Semitic as their alliance with Hitler hardened while the Nazis of course believed that the Aryan Germans were the master race superior to all others and especially superior to the Jews whom they persecuted mercilessly Of course racism and anti-Semitism were not confined to fascist countries and, unfortunately, are still widespread. Fascists claim also that individuals are essentially competitive rather than collaborative and that both individuals and nations are locked in a social Darwinist struggle for the survival of the fittest which justifies the use of violence against domestic political opponents and war in order to achieve foreign policy goals. Indeed many fascists argued that individuals could reach their full potential only through actual physical involvement in violent struggle against domestic and international opponents.

[ Contrastingly socialists argue that individual talents, attitudes and values are influenced heavily by the nature of the societies in which they exist and that although human beings can sometimes be influenced by their passions and emotions that they all have a capacity for rational thought which can be nurtured and increased in an appropriate environment. They would argue also that individuals are not inevitably self-interested and competitive but that these widely observed character traits develop because individuals have been socialised to accept these self- interested and competitive values on which capitalist societies depend for their survival. Instead socialists would tend to argue that individuals have a natural impulse to cooperation and community spirit  which can be developed further if societies were organised along more equal ,less competitive, socialist lines where individuals would be prepared to work hard not for their own narrow self-interest but in order to contribute to the good of society as a whole while the organisation of work would be more efficient  if it were organised on principles of cooperation rather than competition. And finally socialism is an internationalist creed which opposes racism in all its forms and hope for a world in which national and international political disputes can be solved by negotiation and compromise rather than resort to force and violence which demeans humanity rather than allows it to develop its full potential as some fascists suggest. ]




The rest of the comparison may be explained under the following main headings all of which have been discussed fairly fully in the document on Italian Fascism.


Explain that Nazism was strongly anti-Marxist


Explain that it would be necessary to investigate the extent to which Nazi policies did improve the relative living standards of the working classes. The Italians claimed that this could be achieved by corporatist methods but the Nazis had little to say about corporatism. We need a little detail on the methods which were supposed to improve the relative living standards of the working classes.


We then need to compare Italian Fascist and variants of elite theory and totalitarianism and to compare each with evolutionary and revolutionary socialist ideology. In particular there is something in the Nazi variant of totalitarianism called ““coordination”. We shall have to discuss this.




We now need about 1-2 hours each on Racism, Totalitarianism, Conservatism and the overall comparison of Italian Fascism and German Nazism. Could all be finished by end of next week?