In a column earlier this month for the Daily Mail, conservative commentator Peter Hitchens lamented that “no one seems to know” that the Nazis were “very left-wing.” He cites evidence like the high taxes the German middle class had to pay to support the war effort and the fact that the Nazis and the Soviets held an “amicable prisoner swap” during their short-lived pact in 1939.
None of this comes within ten thousand miles of establishing his conclusion. It’s worth spelling out why not, given that Hitchens is arguing for a conclusion common on the Right. At least he’s trying to make a historical case, instead of replying on the usual semantic argument that the Nazis called themselves “National Socialists” so they must have been socialists. (To see what’s wrong with that one, ask yourself whether the German Democratic Republic was a democracy.)
The Nazis imposed strictly socially conservative values on German society. Under their rule, workers who tried to organize for better conditions on the job were brutally repressed while politically connected capitalists grew fabulously wealthy from state contracts. And the German left was exterminated en masse.
None of that means that mainstream conservatives are Nazis. But it does make it absurd to deny that Adolf Hitler belonged to the extreme right.
The History Hitchens Includes
A column announcing that “the Nazis were leftists, actually” is the kind of thing I’d expect from Ben Shapiro or Charlie Kirk, not Peter Hitchens. However alien I might find his deeply conservative worldview — Hitchens, the brother of former leftist Christopher, thinks atheism breeds immorality and worries about the dangers of legal cannabis — I expect someone as smart as him to do better than that.
But here’s a complete list of the facts he uses to bolster his case:
- According to Julia Boyd’s book Travelers in the Third Reich, many affluent German professionals you’d expect to enthusiastically support a right-wing government bitterly complained about the Nazis in private conversations.
- The Nazis were, “like all bad left-wing causes,” supported by many college students.
- Many ex-Communists renounced the KPD (the German Communist Party) and became supporters of the new regime.
- Hitler and Joseph Stalin were allies during the period between the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and the 1941 Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union.
- When the pact was signed, the two sides held a joint parade and a prisoner swap.
- Everyone in pictures from the prisoner swap looks happy.
- The Nazis imposed high taxes on the middle class.
- The Nazis imposed ideological indoctrination in the schools and encouraged children to turn against dissident — for example, socialist or communist — parents.
…and that’s it.
To state the painfully obvious: plenty of governments universally regarded as right-wing have been harshly criticized by a great many middle-class professionals. And every right-wing dictatorship that’s ever existed has been supported by pro-regime student groups.
The very first line of Martin Niemöller’s famous lamentation about not speaking out against the Nazi regime until it was too late was, “First, they came for the communists. . . .” Under those circumstances, of course many ex-Communists either got swept up in the patriotic hysteria or simply went over to the Nazis out of fear. The existence of such defectors isn’t remarkable. The remarkable part is that many Communists did keep their nerve.
Hitler and Stalin’s brief pact was widely regarded by leftists around the world as a shocking betrayal of socialist principles. If that agreement is evidence of Hitler’s left-wing credentials, surely the fact that Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were mortal enemies for several years before the reversal is evidence that he wasn’t in fact left-wing. The same could be said of how Hitler used the lull of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact to prepare for an all-out invasion of the Soviet Union — and that the Soviet Union paid a greater sacrifice in lost lives than any of its allies to defeat Hitler and the Nazis.
Of course a government preparing for global war imposed high taxes. Taxes also went up under the wartime government of Winston Churchill in the UK. (Though perhaps Churchill was a closet leftist, too — after all, he also entered an alliance with Stalin in 1941!)
Hitchens apparently thinks governments indoctrinating schoolchildren is inherently left-wing. Historically, the proposition that education should teach students critical thinking skills so they can make up their own minds about controversial issues has found many of its most enthusiastic supporters on the Left. Even so, I could grant Hitchens that imposing ideological indoctrination would be evidence of leftism — if the ideology students were being indoctrinated into was left-wing. But the Nazis’ indoctrination was all about patriotism, nationalism, racial superiority, and conventional gender roles.
The History He Leaves Out
Perhaps knowing that these bits of information don’t add up to much, Hitchens offers up the far more dubious idea that the Nazis were fundamentally hostile to religion — and the outright falsehood that they were hostile to the family.
On religion, as Peter’s late brother, Christopher, liked to point out, there was quite a bit of collaboration between the Nazi regime and both the Catholic Church and major Protestant denominations. Prayers for the Führer were routinely said during church services, and Hitler often appealed to Christian imagery in his speeches. Nazi soldiers had “Gott Mitt Uns” (God With Us) emblazoned on their belt buckles.
It’s true the Nazis feared both Catholic and major Protestant churches as one of the only alternative centers of power remaining in an increasingly Nazified society, that they often sought to assert greater control over the churches, and that officially sanctioned versions of Christian theology were often Nazified to the point where any standard-issue Christian abroad would see them as heretical. But if a government is “anti-religion” if it engages in a power struggle with church officials and insists on beliefs that Christians elsewhere would regard as heretical, then King Henry VIII, who founded the Church of England, was also “anti-religion.”
And even when we turn from the policies of the Nazi regime to the beliefs of those high-ranking Nazis who preferred “Völkisch” paganism to Christianity, it’s hard to see what this has to do with the Nazis being “very left-wing.” Historically, various socialist and communist governments have taken attitudes toward religion ranging from disastrous attempts to impose atheism to a sensible adherence to the separation between church and state — but I’ve never heard of one that wanted to replace Christianity with the worship of Odin.
Finally, when it comes to the family, Peter Hitchens simply has no case. “Very left-wing” governments have no monopoly on the grotesque tactic of encouraging children to inform on anti-regime parents. And as for the Nazis’ attitude toward family relationships in general, they were so “left-wing” they revived a slogan from the era of Kaiser Wilhelm about the proper role of women — “Kinder, Küche, Kirche” (children, kitchen, church) — and systematically excluded women from public life. Gay people were sent to death camps.
Hitler and Stalin
Any time the Nazis did something that contemporary conservatives generally oppose — like increasing taxes — Hitchens takes this as evidence that they couldn’t have been right-wing. Oddly, he doesn’t apply this methodology in the other direction. The Left cares deeply about racial equality, but he argues that the Nazis’ fanatical embrace of an ideology of racial superiority — and indeed, the Third Reich’s outright extermination of Jewish and Roma people — doesn’t count as evidence that the Nazis weren’t left-wing. But why not?
Hitchens writes that Stalin was also an antisemite and that some of the purges against supposed counterrevolutionaries particularly targeted Jews. In the same spirit, he’s argued in exchanges with historians who objected to his Daily Mail article that the Nazis’ extermination of German Communists doesn’t substantiate the claim that the Nazis were “very left-wing” because Stalin also killed lots of Communists.
He also repeats two standard right-wing attempts to smear socialists more generally as antisemitic — he says that Marx was an antisemite, and he insinuates that leftists who speak out against Israel’s brutal oppression of the Palestinians are antisemitic. I’ve responded to these claims elsewhere. But what about the comparisons between Hitler and Stalin?
One obvious point is that killing Communists who were accused (often falsely) of opposition to Stalin is a far cry from Hitler killing people because they were Communists. The Spanish Inquisition killed many Spanish Christians, but Christianity wasn’t illegal in sixteenth-century Spain.
And a far more important point is that Stalin’s consolidation of power in the Soviet Union represented a conservative turn — at least by the standards of a state that had emerged from a successful socialist revolution. Leon Trotsky’s son, Leon Sedov, vividly summed up what this looked like:
Revolutionary internationalism gives way to the cult of the fatherland in the strictest sense. And the fatherland means, above all, the authorities. Ranks, decorations and titles have been reintroduced. The officer caste headed by the marshals has been reestablished. The old communist workers are pushed into the background; the working class is divided into different layers.
Commenting on this passage, Alex Skopic notes that if anything, Sedov is considerably understating the last point. The revolution had originally promised workers’ control of factories. By the 1930s, Stalin had enacted criminal penalties for “absenteeism.”
Along with autocratic workplaces, the Stalin era witnessed a revival of anti-Jewish prejudice (Stalin himself was a bigot) and the prohibition of abortion and homosexuality, both of which had been legalized in the immediate aftermath of the revolution. Would Peter Hitchens regard this as evidence that there’s nothing conservative about opposition to abortion or same-sex marriage? I seriously doubt it.
Christopher Hitchens’s Judgment
Even after his politics moved right, Christopher Hitchens was too intellectually honest to compare leftists to fascists.
In 2002, his close friend Martin Amis published a book about Stalin called Koba the Dread arguing that Stalin should be condemned just as severely as Hitler and that everyone in the West who supported the Russian Revolution deserved denunciation. Writing in an open letter to Amis published in the Guardian, Christopher Hitchens pointed out that this “attempted syllogism” would suggest that, for example, many of the “hard left” types who worked with Martin Luther King Jr were the moral equivalent of Nazis.
His response to Amis nicely doubles as a response to his brother’s attempt to transfer Hitler from the far right to the far left:
My provisional critique of this ahistorical reasoning would fit into three short italicised sentences. Don’t. Be. Silly.