“Nazi” is a term which is thrown around a lot these days. White nationalists are particularly liable to be labelled as such, but many other groups which identify politically with the right are also prone to the accusation. Libertarians and classically liberal conservatives are no exception, even though ideologies based on freedom and individualism are diametrical opposites to the collectivist creed which is central to Nazism. As a retort to the slander thrown at them from the left, right wingers have started throwing the opposite insult: that Nazis were in fact socialists; after all, “Nazi” is short for National Socialist German Workers’ Party: the clue is in the name. This in turn has outraged the left, who refuse to recognise any parallels between themselves and an ideology which has come to stand for hate and intolerance, but which of course, as any ideology, was much more than that. The question, then, is: what is the truth? Were, and are, the Nazis socialists?
Ludwig von Mises was one of the first to draw the parallels between the policies of socialism and Nazism, in his seminal work Human Action, published in 1940. Mises noted how, despite nominal private ownership of the means of production, it was the German government which exercised all the substantive powers of ownership: deciding what to produce, when, in what quantities, to whom it was distributed and at what price. From when they first came to power in 1933, the Nazis had used inflation of the money supply to finance an explosion in public spending, most significantly rearmament. Having at least taken some lessons from the hyper-inflation of the Weimar Republic, they used wage and price controls as a means of controlling nominal inflation, but as such price fixing naturally leads to shortages across the economy, they needed to increase state control over production. Mises termed this centralised control de facto government ownership of the means of production, and identified it as a fundamental trait of the collectivist principles which socialism embraces.
And the Nazi leaders in Germany had many other things in common with their socialist counterparts in the USSR. A key tenet of Nazi ideology, which Hitler himself was very occupied by early in his life, was the creation of a classless society with equal right for all citizens (although of course it meant citizens of Aryan blood only) and “social justice”, which was in essence a commitment to an extensive welfare system, the Nationalsozialistische Volkswohlfahrt, meaning “National Socialist People’s Welfare”. The Nazis, just like the communists, regarded the bourgeoisie world as obsolete and railed against the wealthy classes of the capitalist West. They were committed to equality as a political objective, and the distinct subordination of the individual to the collective is integral to Nazi ideology, just as it is in other egalitarian ideologies.
So, there are many similarities, but it doesn’t immediately follow that the Nazis were socialists in the traditional sense of what we have now come to think of as socialism. Mises himself clearly identified a difference between the Nazi policies which he termed “socialism of the German pattern”, and “socialism of the Bolshevik pattern” which was practiced in the Soviet Union. This referred mainly to the contrast between the outright nationalisation of industry in communist Russia and the previously mentioned de facto government ownership of the means of production in Germany, but the differences go further than that and while both were totalitarian regimes and had common roots, many of their manifest policies were very different – not least the Nazis’ systemic anti-Semitism which ended in the Holocaust.
The Nazis don’t look much like modern day social democrats either, but it is worth taking into account that outright socialist parties across the world at that time did not advocate an all-encompassing welfare state as we know it today, and which has become a key mark of modern social democratic states. For example, the Beveridge Report, which laid the founding stones for the welfare state in Britain, was only published in 1942, and envisaged a much smaller role for the state in taking care of the people than is practically the case today. The world has simply moved on; on this and many other issues, both economic and social. This historical relativism is of course what many modern-day leftists recognise themselves when they identify as “progressives”, in line with a Hegelian view of historical progress from ignorance towards enlightenment, peace and prosperity: you should not expect a 1930ies socialist to have the same ideas of practical politics as one who has had the benefit of living and learning from another 80 years of history.
So, back to the question: were the Nazis socialists? An informed answer is that present day socialists are broadly right when they claim that they are not the blood brothers of the Nazis, but the starting points for both ideologies are strikingly similar and the differences lie mainly in practical policies. It is however even more self-evident that the state controlled economy which the Nazi party presided over is so very far removed from a capitalist, free market system, that any accusation of capitalism being somehow equivalent with Nazism is, frankly, ludicrous. Nazis are adherers to a collectivist creed; they have a lot more in common with the left than with the libertarian, free market right.