Why Hitler Was a Man of the Left
Was Hitler really “right wing”? The German-British publicist Sebastian Haffner, who wrote one of the most notable essays on Adolf Hitler, has pointed out that the only opposition which could really have become dangerous for Hitler came from the Right: “From its vantage, Hitler was on the left. This makes us stop and think. Hitler can certainly not be so readily sorted into the extreme right of the political spectrum as many people are in the habit of doing.”
Indeed, the only effective opposition to Hitler, represented by conservative and in part also monarchist forces such as Ludwig Beck, Franz Halder, Hans Oster, Erwin von Witzleben, Carl Friedrich Goerdeler, Johannes Popitz, Count Peter Yorck von Wartenburg, and Ulrich von Hassell, stood to his right. The German-British sociologist Ralf Dahrendorf has pointed out the dilemma of German resistance to Hitler, which, while certainly having been highly moral, still did not mark a step forward on the road of German society to a constitution of liberty:
What is even worse is that it was Hitler who effected that transformation of German society which alone made the constitution of liberty possible, while the resistance to his regime appeared in the name of a society which could serve as a base for nothing but an authoritarian regime.
The assassination attempt on Hitler on July 20, 1944, and the persecutions set off by its failure, meant, said Dahrendorf, “the end of a political élite.”
Before joining the German Workers’ Party (later the NSDAP), Hitler was on the left of the political spectrum, as we know today. From the very beginning of his political activities Hitler had to contend with the Right’s accusation that he was a “Bolshevist” or Communist, just as he had to contend with the Left’s accusation that he was a lackey of monopoly capitalism. In a programmatic speech which Hitler gave on August 13, 1920, he took exception to the accusation that he was a Communist. On the one hand, he complained, people were saying: “If you advocate what is in your program, you are a Communist”; on the other hand, he was being denounced as an “arch reactionary” and a “militarily completely contaminated retrograde.”
Hitler never described himself as being a right-wing politician, but always criticized both left-wing and right-wing political movements and parties to the same degree. The following passages from the report on a speech Hitler gave on October 26, 1920, for example, are typical:
Now Hitler turned to the right and left. The national right lacked a social concept, the social left a national one. He admonished the right-wing parties: if you want to be national, then climb down to your people and away with all this class conceit! To the left he called: you who have declared your solidarity with the whole world, first show your solidarity with your own national comrades, become Germans first! … You who are truly revolutionaries; come over to us and fight with us for our whole nation! Your place is not over there as drovers for international capital, but with us, with your nation!
In a letter written on September 6, 1921, to the leader of the Hanover district group of the NSDAP, Hitler declared that the party was not being built up by mergers with other national-popular groupings but by gaining the forces of the extreme Left and extreme Right: “What we need is to attract powerful masses, preferably from the extreme left and extreme right wing.”
When he was recalling the time of struggle in his monologues to his inner circle on November 30, 1941, he said: “My party at the time consisted of ninety percent of people from the left. I could only use people who had fought.” This was certainly an exaggeration, but we know from recent analyses of the NSDAP membership lists by political scientist Jürgen W. Falter that 40 percent of the National Socialist Workers’ Party’s members were indeed workers. The same is true for the party’s voters.
Hitler did not regard himself as being either on the left or on the right, but wanted to overcome both extremes—not by being in the “middle,” however, but by forming a new extreme in which both were abolished. On May 26, 1944, he said:
In those days the definitions of both terms were diametrically opposed to each other. Then one was on the right side of the barricade and the other on the left, and I went right in between these two fighters, in other words climbed up on the barricade itself, and therefore was naturally shot at by both. I attempted to define a new term under the motto that in the end, nationalism and socialism are the same under one condition, namely that the nation moves into the center of all desire…. In those days I had heavy battles both from the left as well as from the right.
We know, however, that Hitler did not proceed against the Left in the same way as he did against the Right. Some dedicated monarchists were also delivered into the concentration camps in certain cases, and some conservative bourgeois forces, such as Franz von Papen’s associates Herbert von Bose and Edgar Julius Jung, were shot along with the SA leaders on June 30, 1934. In the balance, however, it is incontestable that the Communists and the Social Democrats had to bear the greater sacrifices.
This has nothing to do with Hitler’s preference for the Right, however—quite the opposite. He regarded the right-wing and bourgeois forces as being cowardly, weak, without energy, and incapable of any resistance, whereas he assumed the Left to have the brave, courageous, determined, and therefore dangerous forces. And for him these were more appealing than the conservative elements, which he despised and basically no longer took seriously as opponents.
This mistaken ideological assessment was to be avenged, however, because it was not the Communists who became a danger for Hitler. He had convinced many of them to become fervent adherents of National Socialism. Others offered resistance, but they never posed a threat to Hitler’s rule. The actual dangers came from other forces, from conservatives such as Carl Friedrich Goerdeler, Ulrich von Hassell, and Johannes Popitz, who can only be described as extreme reactionaries, and from monarchists like Hans Oster and Wilhelm Canaris. At least from 1938 onward, these forces engaged in a systematic conspiracy and opposition that was by no means doomed to failure from the beginning.
It was only toward the end of his life, when he appreciated the total and irreversible failure of the Third Reich, that Hitler recognized that it had been a mistake to proceed one-sidedly against the forces on the left and to spare those on the right. At a conference of the gau leaders on February 24, 1945, he said, as his adjutant Nicolaus von Below reports, “We liquidated the left-wing class fighters, but unfortunately we forgot in the meantime to also launch the blow against the right. That is our great sin of omission.” As we know from numerous remarks to his inner circle, Hitler admired Joseph Stalin because he had consistently acted against the old elites. And his admiration for Stalin was accompanied by an increasing admiration of the state planned economy in the Soviet Union, which, in Hitler’s view, was far superior to the liberal market economy.
In view of his failure, Hitler searched for an explanation for his defeat and recognized that his alliance with the bourgeois and right-wing forces—without which he would, however, never have come to power—was irreconcilable in the long run with the radical revolutionary policies he had conceived. And he had not “forgotten” to launch “the blow against the right,” but, based on his ideological premises, had simply not believed it to be necessary—at least until the assassination attempt of July 20, 1944—to proceed against his opponents on the right, whom he despised as being weak, lacking in energy, and cowardly. In view of the war plans Hitler was pursuing, moreover, proceeding against the Right, which played an important role in business, the military, and the civil service, would hardly have been possible, particularly since he would thereby have provoked a dangerous “war on two fronts” in domestic politics.
Resignedly, Hitler stated in his political testament:
Since we lacked the élite we had envisaged, we had to make do with the human material to hand. The results are what you would expect! Because the mental concept did not agree with the practical possibilities of implementing it, the war policy of a revolutionary state such as the Third Reich necessarily became the policy of reactionary petit bourgeois.