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.
Joseph Goebbels, who would eventually become Reich Minister of Propaganda once the Nazi Party seized control of Germany, wrote in his diary about Hitler’s rejection of socialism at that 1926 meeting, “I feel as if someone had knocked me on the head ... my heart aches so much. ... A horrible night! Surely one of the greatest disappointments of my life.”
Rather, Hitler viewed socialism as a political organizing mechanism for the German people more broadly: a way of creating a “people’s community” — the volksgemeinschaft — that would bring everyday Germans (and businesspeople) together not based on their class but on their race and ethnicity. Thus, he would use the unifying aspects of “National Socialism” to get everyday Germans on board with the Nazi program while simultaneously negotiating with powerful businesses and the Junkers, industrialists and nobility, who would ultimately help Hitler gain total power over the German state.
What Hitler actually thought about “socialism”
The best example of Hitler’s own views on socialism are evident in a debate he had over two days in May 1930 with then-party member Otto Strasser. Strasser and his brother Gregor, who was an avowed socialist of sorts, were a part of the Nazi Party’s left wing, arguing in favor of political socialism as an essential ingredient in Nazism.
But Hitler did not agree. When Strasser argues for “revolutionary socialism,” Hitler dismisses the idea, arguing that workers are too simple to ever understand socialism:
“Your socialism is Marxism pure and simple. You see, the great mass of workers only wants bread and circuses. Ideas are not accessible to them and we cannot hope to win them over. We attach ourselves to the fringe, the race of lords, which did not grow through a miserabilist doctrine and knows by the virtue of its own character that it is called to rule, and rule without weakness over the masses of beings.”
And when Strasser calls for the return of 41 percent of private property to the state and dismisses the role of private property in an industrialized economy, Hitler tells him that will not only ruin “the entire nation” but also “end all progress of humanity.”
In fact, Hitler dismisses even the idea of challenging the status of capitalism, telling Strasser that his socialism is actually Marxism and making the argument that powerful businessmen were powerful because they were evolutionarily superior to their employees. Thus, Hitler argues, a “workers council” taking charge of a company would only get in the way.
“Our great heads of industry are not concerned with the accumulation of wealth and the good life, rather they are concerned with responsibility and power. They have acquired this right by natural selection: they are members of the higher race. But you would surround them with a council of incompetents, who have no notion of anything. No economic leader can accept that.”
Strasser then asks him directly what he would do with powerful steel and arms manufacturer Krupp, known today as ThyssenKrupp. Would Hitler permit the company to stay as big and powerful as it was in 1930?
“Of course. Do you think I’m stupid enough to destroy the economy? The state will only intervene if people do not act in the interest of the nation. There is no need for dispossession or participation in all the decisions. The state will intervene strongly when it must, pushed by superior motives, without regards to particular interests.”
In this debate, Hitler isn’t making the case for socialism, much to Strasser’s dismay. He is making the case for fascism — in his view, not just an ideal system to organize government, but the only real option. “A system that rests on anything other than authority downwards and responsibility upwards cannot really make decisions,” he tells Strasser.
“Fascism offers us a model that we can absolutely replicate! As it is in the case of Fascism, the entrepreneurs and the workers of our National Socialist state sit side by side, equal in rights, the state strongly intervenes in the case of conflict to impose its decision and end economic disputes that put the life of the nation in danger.”
The concept of the “people’s community” undergirded much of the National Socialist project. Much like the basic idea of fascism, a word that stems from the Italian word for a bundle of rods tied together tightly, National Socialism was intended to tie Germany together under one leader — Hitler, the führer — with “subversive elements” like Jews, LGBT people, Roma, and, yes, socialists and Communists, removed by force.
In a 1923 interview with pro-Nazi writer George Sylvester Viereck, Hitler said, “In my scheme of the German state, there will be no room for the alien, no use for the wastrel, for the usurer or speculator, or anyone incapable of productive work.”
In Hitler’s version of National Socialism, socialism was “Aryan” and focused on the “commonwealth” of everyday Germans — a group of people he unites as one based entirely on their race. In that same interview with Viereck, Hitler added:
“Socialism is the science of dealing with the common wealth. Communism is not Socialism. Marxism is not Socialism. The Marxians have stolen the term and confused its meaning. I shall take Socialism away from the Socialists.
Socialism, unlike Marxism, does not repudiate private property. Unlike Marxism, it involves no negation of personality, and unlike Marxism, it is patriotic... We are not internationalists. Our socialism is national. We demand the fulfillment of the just claims of the productive classes by the state on the basis of race solidarity. To us state and race are one.”
Both Otto Strasser and his brother Gregor paid the price for challenging Hitler and advocating for socialism within the Nazi party. Gregor was murdered during the Night of Long Knives in 1934, a mass purge of the left wing of the Nazi Party in which between 85 and 200 people were killed as part of an effort, in Hitler’s words, to prevent a “socialist revolution.” Otto Strasser fled Germany, ultimately seeking refuge in Canada.
Nazism wasn’t a socialist project. Nazism was a rejection of the basic tenets of socialism entirely, in favor of a state built on race and racial classifications.
On “the big lie” and Mein Kampf
It’s that fact that those who attempt to arbiter (whether in good faith or in very, very bad faith) the socialist bona fides of the Nazi Party program seem to forget: Hitler’s politics were based on a foundation of racism and anti-Semitism, first and foremost. He would then combine that with his belief in the führerprinzip — the “leader principle” — which held that one supreme leader (Hitler) was the ultimate authority and “supreme judge” over the German people. This was the backbone of the Nazi Party, one that would ultimately lead Nazi Germany on the road toward mass murder.
And that brings us to Rep. Brooks and his use of “the big lie” and why that was so problematic.
First and foremost, the term “big lie,” which Brooks (and many others) have used to describe propaganda generally, was used by Hitler to refer to a very specific “lie.” In Mein Kampf, Hitler’s 1925 autobiography-cum-manifesto, he lays out that supposed myth: that Germany’s loss in the First World War was due to military failures, specifically of Erich Ludendorff, who served as quartermaster general of the German Army, and not to the influence of Jews. This is a reference to the “stab-in-the-back” myth that argued “subversive” elements (namely Jews) had been responsible for Germany’s loss in World War I, by “stabbing” German soldiers fighting in France and elsewhere “in the back” with treacherous machinations on the home front.
In fact, just a few lines up from the section Brooks quoted, Hitler writes on the real enemy who perpetuated the big lie:
“But it remained for the Jews, with their unqualified capacity for falsehood, and their fighting comrades, the Marxists, to impute responsibility for the downfall precisely to the man who alone had shown a superhuman will and energy in his effort to prevent the catastrophe which he had foreseen and to save the nation from that hour of complete overthrow and shame.”
It is impossible to extricate Hitler’s understanding of the idea of the “big lie” — a propaganda technique which argues that telling people “colossal untruths,” in Hitler’s words, is more effective than using small lies — from his argument that Jews are not only behind the “big lie” about Ludendorff, but that they are themselves a “big lie.”
From time immemorial, however, the Jews have known better than any others how falsehood and calumny can be exploited. Is not their very existence founded on one great lie, namely, that they are a religious community, whereas in reality they are a race? And what a race! One of the greatest thinkers that mankind has produced has branded the Jews for all time with a statement which is profoundly and exactly true. He called the Jew “The Great Master of Lies”. Those who do not realize the truth of that statement, or do not wish to believe it, will never be able to lend a hand in helping Truth to prevail.
(It’s also worth remembering that Mein Kampf, like all manifestos, was written with the intent of being shared widely, and is not a diary of Hitler’s innermost thinking.)
So Hitler wasn’t making an argument about American politics when he coined the term “the big lie.” He was making an argument about Jews, one that argued “international Jewry” was responsible for the failures of the First World War, and one that would ultimately lead to the horrors of the Holocaust.
Nazism was a real political entity, not a political cudgel
No American political party can be compared to the Nazi Party that controlled Germany for 12 years. Nazism has no American corollary. American liberalism is not at all like Nazism, and neither, for that matter, is American conservatism. Nazism arose in Germany, gained power in Germany, held power in Germany, and would ultimately fall at the end of the Second World War in Germany.
Nazism aligned itself with industrialists and corporations that would ultimately utilize Nazi slave laborers and patent the chemicals used in Nazi death camps to kill millions of men, women, and children. The word “socialist” doesn’t change that, just as the word “Democratic” does not make the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea — North Korea — a democracy.
So no, Hitler wasn’t a socialist. Nazism wasn’t a socialist project. And comparing American Democrats to Nazis is not just incorrect, but wrong, just as it is when American Democrats and liberals directly compare Donald Trump to Adolf Hitler. Nazism was a political project built on anti-Semitism, racism, and dictatorial verve, one that took place in a specific country and at a specific moment in history. We forget that fact at our own risk.