Among the almost uniformly liberal historians of Nazi Germany, Rainer Zitelmann stands apart. After a youthful phase of left-wing politics, he has been a lifelong conservative, a staunch defender of capitalism who once had his car torched by the far-left. Though he holds doctorates in history and sociology, much of his distinguished career has been spent not in universities but in publishing, public relations, and journalism. Zitelmann is, in the self-description of the greatest scholar of the Spanish Civil War, Hugh Thomas, “an historian in private practice.” His work embraces not only the study of German history, but that of wealth creation.
In his popular books about the psychology of the super-rich and attitudes toward the wealthy, Zitelmann investigates a group of people who have seldom received objective analysis. The rich, it seems, really are different: nonconformist, intuitive, competitive, with the resilience to survive setbacks. Some of these character traits that mark out the billionaires serve them well, but also intimidate others. Using opinion surveys, Zitelmann has demonstrated that the Americans and British tend to treat these contrarian individuals with pragmatism and even admiration, rather than the “social envy” and hostility that predominate elsewhere. He shows that the proportion of social enviers is much higher in France, Germany, Spain, and Italy. It may or may not be coincidence that over the past century the latter countries have also shown a stronger proclivity for the politics of the extreme Left and Right, especially in the shape of charismatic leaders who present themselves as tribunes of the people crusading against plutocratic elites.
All of this is by way of background to Zitelmann’s magnum opus: his intellectual biography of Hitler. This book itself has a history. It first appeared in 1987 in German under the title Hitler: der Selbstverständnis eines Revolutionärs (“the self-understanding of a revolutionary”), then in English in 1999 as Hitler: The Politics of Seduction, but is now republished in a revised edition with a new title: Hitler’s National Socialism.
This new edition is prefaced by a long and valuable essay on the recent historiography of Hitler, covering most of the huge literature that has appeared on the subject since this book first appeared some 35 years ago. Zitelmann insists that his book is not a biography, but a study of Hitler’s ideas. And so it is: if what you want is another compilation of trivia about the dictator’s private life or speculation about his psychology, read one of the many other Hitler books. If, however, you want to understand his political philosophy and his social vision, what he believed and what he didn’t believe, then this book is for you.
Part of the trouble in grasping what Hitler thought he was doing lies in that ubiquitous yet misleading word: “Nazi.” The definition of this word has become so elastic that it can now be debased to signify more or less the opposite of its original meaning. Most notoriously, Vladimir Putin uses it to describe the elected government of Ukraine, led by a Jewish and emphatically anti-Nazi President, Volodymyr Zelensky.
Many people who use the epithet do not know that “Nazi” is an acronym for Nazionalsozialist, or National Socialist, and that the full name of Hitler’s movement was “National Socialist German Workers’ Party.” Understandably, headline-writers preferred the shortened version, “Nazi”; especially in the English-speaking world, it caught on very early. In German-speaking countries “Nazi” is, however, less common at least in formal discourse than the longer term “National Socialist.” The use of “Nazi” instead has obscured, especially in the US and UK, the identity of Hitler’s party: not only nationalist (usually seen as right-wing) but also socialist (i.e. left-wing).
Of course, this is a contradictory identity and Hitler personified that contradiction. The Nazis, like Hitler himself, were sui generis. Drawing support from across the class spectrum, from urban and rural areas, the National Socialists were anything but a conventional party, such as the Social Democrats on the centre-left, or the various liberal and conservative parties on the Right. Hitler, the unconventional leader of this mostly youthful movement, challenged the leadership of the Weimar Republic, which was animated by progressive ideas still alien to a defeated nation with an incomplete grasp of democracy.
In 1933, the republic without republicans fell prey to the ultra-reactionary, authoritarian cabal around a geriatric field marshal, then head of state. That cabal handed power to a coalition led by what had become the largest party in the Reichstag: the Nazis.
What Zitelmann does here is to explain exactly what Hitler was offering that enabled him to appeal to such a broad cross-section of Germans. It was a kind of political alchemy that reconciled radical, even revolutionary fervour with the all-powerful German attachment to tradition, along with the Kadavergehorsamkeit (“corpse-like obedience”) that often came with it.
Hitler, Zitelmann argues, drew support from the extremes of Left and Right but he belonged to neither. Instead, he was a social Darwinist, who ruthlessly exploited both labour and capital to revolutionise Germany and prepare it for a war of racial conquest. His propaganda borrowed shamelessly from the Communists and Social Democrats, with considerable success: about 40 per cent of his voters were working class. But he also needed the bourgeoisie and others on the Right first to fund his party and to gain office and then to consolidate power and accelerate rearmament.
Throughout his career, Zitelmann insists, Hitler was an anti-capitalist and he became more so during wartime, when he increasingly came to admire Stalin’s command economy as a far superior system than that of the West. The book is a tour de force of critical exegesis, ranging across the vast corpus of the dictator’s speeches, orders, correspondence, “table talk,” and other documents to grasp what he meant by National Socialism. What emerges is an ideology of remarkable consistency, more coherent and sophisticated than most historians have hitherto been willing to concede.
Unlike some other Nazis, such as Rosenberg and Himmler, Hitler was not interested in pagan myths, still less an anti-modern romantic, but loved the latest technology. In early 1933, Heinz Guderian, later the creator of the Wehrmacht’s panzer divisions, was won over by the new Chancellor’s enthusiasm for tanks, aircraft, and motorised warfare.
Hitler despised the reactionaries who had helped bring him to power but later turned against him. After the 1944 July plot, he regretted that he had not, like Stalin, liquidated the old elites and replaced them with a Nazi “historic minority.” However, he exacted a brutal revenge, and they played a much less important role after 1945. The Nazi social revolution dramatically increased social mobility, making possible the postwar “German economic miracle.”
Zitelmann shows that just as Hitler’s social objective was to create an egalitarian but racially homogeneous “national community,” so his economic aim was to create an autarkic empire, based on conquered Lebensraum in Ukraine. This would do away, not with industrial capital, but with the need for Grosskapital (“big capital”), based on interest and stock markets. He saw industrial capital as national, but “loan capital” as international and hence as Jewish. His eliminationist anti-Semitism was complex, but at its core was his unshakeable prejudice against Jews as rootless cosmopolitans.
Zitelmann’s Hitler is not the familiar one, but a totalitarian technocrat who envisaged a “German socialist” society. Despite launching a war of extermination against the Soviet Union, he came to believe that Stalin had transformed a “Jewish dictatorship” into a nationalist, anti-capitalist, and anti-Semitic state. Zitelmann even argues that, as the tide of war turned against him, Hitler “no longer believed in the thesis of ‘Jewish Bolshevism’ that German propaganda kept repeating.” His distrust of democracy, rooted in his contempt for “the masses,” meant that the Jews had to remain the main enemy even though in private he admired Communism. He envisaged an increasingly planned economy and although he preserved the legal form of private ownership, he required entrepreneurs to be representatives of the state.
Historians have tended to concentrate on the racist core of Hitler’s ideology. But Hitler, driven by social Darwinism, believed racial appearance was much less important than moral characteristics, such as courage and ruthlessness. Zitelmann’s contribution is to focus attention on Hitler’s social and economic programs: these enabled him to win over millions of social democrats and communists. Without understanding Hitler’s National Socialism, it is hard to explain how he was able to gain and maintain the overwhelming support of the German nation for his ever more destructive war almost to the bitter end. Not all socialists are Nazis, but all Nazis are socialists.
One of the consequences of the fact that the academy has been in denial about the socialist dimension of Hitler’s world view is that his critique of the market economy has been incorporated into present-day populism. In the National Interest, Zitelmannargues that the Alternative for Germany (AFD) began as a party of free-market critics of the corporatist state, but has morphed into a platform for the anti-capitalist Right, especially in the former communist East. Its success in establishing itself as a permanent part of the German political landscape over a decade and a half under Angela Merkel’s rule shows what happens when centre-right parties fail to make the case for economic as well as political freedom. Unless democratic politicians are vigilant in defence of our liberties, the spectre of Hitler’s National Socialism will continue to haunt Europe.