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Vox, March 2019

On Monday, after the end of the Mueller investigation, Alabama Rep. Mo Brooks took to the House floor to denounce the probe as “the big lie” — and to link it to what he said was another of history’s greatest lies.

Discussing special counsel Robert Mueller’s nearly two-year investigation into President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign’s ties with Russia, Brooks said, “socialist Democrats and their fake news allies … have perpetrated the biggest political lie, con, scam, and fraud in American history.”

Brooks went on, saying, “In that vein, I quote from another socialist who mastered big lie propaganda to a maximum, and deadly, effect.” And then, after reading a long quote about how “broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature,” Brooks got to his big conclusion:

“Who is this big lie master? That quote was in 1925 by a member of Germany’s National Socialist German Workers’ Party—that’s right, Germany’s socialist party—more commonly known as the Nazis. The author was socialist Adolf Hitler, in his book Mein Kampf.”

And Brooks was somehow not alone in making the “Nazis were socialists” argument in Congress this week. Rep. Louis Gohmert did the same, during a House Judiciary Committee meeting about a GOP resolution on the Mueller probe in which he said the Justice Department could, in the future, enable “another socialist like Hitler to come along.”

There are many, many, many things wrong with Rep. Brooks’s and Rep. Gohmer’s understanding of Nazism, from a basic misunderstanding of Nazism and Nazi ideology to what I term the ‘Americanization’ of Nazism: an effort to put Nazi Germany somewhere on the American political axis, where it very much does not belong.

But one of their core assumptions — “Nazis were socialists” — has become one of the biggest memes within a swath of the American Right. And it is woefully, almost hilariously incorrect.

Nazism, socialism, and history

From January 30, 1933, to May 2, 1945, Germany was under the control of the National Socialist German Workers Party (in German, the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei — Nazi for short). Founded in 1920, the Nazi Party steadily gained power within German electoral politics, leading to then-President Paul von Hindenberg appointing Adolf Hitler as chancellor of Germany in 1933. (Counter to some popular beliefs, Hitler was never “elected” either chancellor or to his ultimate role as führer.)

Nazism arose in a very specific — and very German — political environment. To begin with, Germany had a long history of socialist and Marxist political organizing even before the First World War, which launched in 1914. (So no, Rep. Brooks, the Nazi Party was not the “socialist” party of Germany — that would have been the Social Democratic Party, or perhaps the Communist Party of Germany.)

And following the end of the First World War — and more importantly, Germany’s loss in the war and, thus, the end of the German empire — German politics became incredibly contentious, even deadly. Communists and Freikorps — World War One veterans who became a right-wing militia of sorts during the 1920s — at times even battled in the streets. In 1919, for example, 15,000 Germans died in nine days of fighting between left-wing groups and right-wing groups on the streets of Berlin.

Into that environment stepped Adolf Hitler, a failed artist from Braunau am Inn, Austria, who recognized the unique vulnerabilities of not just the German political system but the German populace itself, a populace that had just lost 19 percent of its male population to the war and was still enduring massive food shortages nationwide. He joined what was then called the German Workers Party (DAP) in 1919. The party renamed itself the NSDAP in 1920, and Hitler became party chairman in 1921.

But despite joining what would be called the *“*National Socialist” German workers party, Adolf Hitler was not a socialist. Far from it. In fact, in July 1921, Hitler briefly left the NSDAP because an affiliate of the party in Augsburg signed an agreement with the German Socialist Party in that city, only returning when he had been largely given control of the party itself.

Whatever interest Hitler had in socialism was not based on an understanding of socialism that we might have today — a movement that would supplant capitalism in which the working class would seize power over the state and the means of production. He repeatedly pushed back efforts by economically left-leaning elements of the party to enact socialist reforms, saying in a 1926 conference in Bamberg (organized by Nazi Party leaders over the very question of the party’s ideological underpinnings) that any effort to take the homes and estates of German princes would move the party toward communism and that he would never do anything to assist “communist-inspired movements.” He prohibited the formation of Nazi trade unions, and by 1929 he outright rejected any efforts by Nazis who argued in favor of socialistic ideas or projects in their entirety. ...
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