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The Myth: Adolf Hitler, instigator of World War II in Europe and driving force behind the Holocaust, was a socialist.
The Truth: Hitler hated socialism and communism and worked to destroy these ideologies. Nazism, confused as it was, was based on race, and fundamentally different from class-focused socialism.
Hitler as Conservative Weapon
Twenty-first-century commentators like to attack left-leaning policies by calling them socialist, and occasionally follow this up by explaining how Hitler, the mass murdering dictator around whom the twentieth century pivoted, was a socialist himself. There's no way anyone can, or ever should, defend Hitler, and so things like health-care reform are equated with something terrible, a Nazi regime which sought to conquer an empire and commit several genocides. The problem is, this is a distortion of history.
Hitler as the Scourge of Socialism
Richard Evans, in his magisterial three-volume history of Nazi Germany, is quite clear on whether Hitler was a socialist: “… it would be wrong to see Nazism as a form of, or an outgrowth of, socialism.” (The Coming of the Third Reich, Evans, p. 173). Not only was Hitler not a socialist himself, nor a communist, but he actually hated these ideologies and did his utmost to eradicate them. At first this involved organizing bands of thugs to attack socialists in the street, but grew into invading Russia, in part to enslave the population and earn 'living' room for Germans, and in part to wipe out communism and 'Bolshevism'.
The key element here is what Hitler did, believed and tried to create. Nazism, confused as it was, was fundamentally an ideology built around race, while socialism was entirely different: built around class. Hitler aimed to unite the right and left, including workers and their bosses, into a new German nation based on the racial identity of those in it. Socialism, in contrast, was a class struggle, aiming to build a workers state, whatever race the worker was from. Nazism drew on a range of pan-German theories, which wanted to blend Aryan workers and Aryan magnates into a super Aryan state, which would involve the eradication of class focused socialism, as well as Judaism and other ideas deemed non-German.
When Hitler came to power he attempted to dismantle trade unions and the shell that remained loyal to him; he supported the actions of leading industrialists, actions far removed from socialism which tends to want the opposite. Hitler used the fear of socialism and communism as a way of terrifying middle and upper-class Germans into supporting him. Workers were targeted with slightly different propaganda, but these were promises simply to earn support, to get into power, and then to remake the workers along with everyone else into a racial state. There was to be no dictatorship of the proletariat as in socialism; there was just to be the dictatorship of the Fuhrer.
The belief that Hitler was a socialist seems to have emerged from two sources: the name of his political party, the National Socialist German Worker's Party, or Nazi Party, and the early presence of socialists in it.
The National Socialist German Worker's Party
While it does look like a very socialist name, the problem is that 'National Socialism' is not socialism, but a different, fascist ideology. Hitler had originally joined when the party was called the German Worker's Party, and he was there as a spy to keep an eye on it. It was not, as the name suggested, a devotedly left-wing group, but one Hitler thought had potential, and as Hitler's oratory became popular the party grew and Hitler became a leading figure.
At this point 'National Socialism' was a confused mishmash of ideas with multiple proponents, arguing for nationalism, anti-Semitism, and yes, some socialism. The party records don't record the name change, but it's generally believed a decision was taken to rename the party to attract people, and partly to forge links with other 'national socialist' parties. The meetings began to be advertised on red banners and posters, hoping for socialists to come in and then be confronted, sometimes violently: the party was aiming to attract as much attention and notoriety as possible. But the name was not Socialism, but National Socialism and as the 20s and 30s progressed, this became an ideology Hitler would expound upon at length and which, as he took control, ceased to have anything to do with socialism.
'National Socialism' and Nazism
Hitler's National Socialism, and quickly the only National Socialism which mattered, wished to promote those of 'pure' German blood, removing citizenship for Jews and aliens, and promoted eugenics, including the execution of the disabled and mentally ill. National Socialism did promote equality among Germans who passed their racist criteria, and submitted the individual to the will of the state, but did so as a right-wing racial movement which sought a nation of healthy Aryans living in a thousand year Reich, which would be achieved through war. In Nazi theory, a new, unified class was to be formed instead of religious, political and class divides, but this was to be done by rejecting ideologies such as liberalism, capitalism, and socialism, and instead pursue a different idea, of the Volksgemeinschaft (people's community), built on war and race, 'blood and soil', and German heritage. Race was to be the heart of Nazism, as opposed to class-focused socialism.
Before 1934 some in the party did promote anti-capitalist and socialist ideas, such as profit-sharing, nationalization and old-age benefits, but these were merely tolerated by Hitler as he gathered support, dropped once he secured power and often later executed, such as Gregor Strasser. There was no socialist redistribution of wealth or land under Hitler-although some property changed hands thanks to looting and invasion-and while both industrialists and workers were courted, it was the former who benefitted and the latter who found themselves the target of empty rhetoric. Indeed, Hitler became convinced that socialism was intimately connected to his even more long-standing hatred-the Jews-and thus hated it even more. Socialists were the first to be locked up in concentration camps.
It's worth pointing out that all aspects of Nazism had forerunners in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and Hitler tended to cobble his ideology together from them; some historians think that 'ideology' gives Hitler too much credit for something which can be hard to pin down. He knew how to take things which made the socialists popular and apply them to give his party a boost. But historian Neil Gregor, in his introduction to a discussion of Nazism which includes many experts, says:
“As with other fascist ideologies and movements, it subscribed to an ideology of national renewal, rebirth, and rejuvenation manifesting itself in extreme populist radical nationalism, militarism, and-in contradistinction to many other forms of fascism, extreme biological racism… the movement understood itself to be, and indeed was, a new form of political movement… the anti-Socialist, anti-liberal, and radical nationalist tenets of Nazi ideology applied particularly to the sentiments of a middle class disorientated by the domestic and international upheavals in the inter-war period.” (Neil Gregor, Nazism, Oxford, 2000 p 4-5.)
Intriguingly, despite this being one of the most clear-cut articles on this site, it has been by far the most controversial, while statements on the origins of World War I and other actual historical controversies have passed by. This is a sign of the way modern political commentators still like to invoke the spirit of Hitler to try to make points.