National Socialism

views updated May 21 2018

National Socialism

Sources of support

Causes of Nazism

Nazi doctrine and policies


National Socialism started as a political movement in Germany in 1919. Its official name was the “Nazionalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei” (National Socialist German Workers’ Party); it soon became popularly known as the Nazi party, and its followers were called Nazis. When Adolf Hitler joined the party, Nazism consisted of a little group of unimportant malcontents in Munich. Yet within fourteen years it became the greatest mass movement in German history, including in its ranks members of all groups of German society, from unemployed workers of the Lumpenproletariat to members of the imperial family of the Hohenzollerns and of several of the royal houses of the German states. By 1932 the Nazi vote had mounted to fourteen million; in the March 1933 election, the last in which opposing parties participated, seventeen million Germans (or 44 per cent of the electorate) freely voted for the Nazi party, not to speak of several more millions who voted for nationalist and militarist policies that were barely distinguishable from Nazi objectives. Thus well over half the German electorate voted for an antidemocratic, totalitarian, imperialistic program. After the elections, only the Social Democrats attempted to resist Nazism in the Reichstag (the Communists had not been allowed to take their seats in the Reichstag). Even the Roman Catholic (and generally democratic) Center party gave Hitler the dictatorial powers he asked for in the Reichstag on March 23, 1933. This was the only case of a modern totalitarian regime that was set up by a majority of the electorate and approved by the parliamentary body of the nation.

Once in power, the Nazi regime lived up to its promises. First, concentration camps were set up for political opponents. Very soon the political offenders were a small minority in the concentration camps; the large majority consisted not of persons who had committed a wrong but who (like the Jews) belonged to the wrong group. Later, during World War n, large numbers of civilians in the occupied countries were put into concentration camps, because they too belonged to a “wrong”social or political group.

Politically, the Nazis quickly effected complete uniformity (Gleichschaltung). All other parties, including the ultraconservatives, were liquidated within a few months of the Nazi seizure of power. Newspapers were either Nazified or, when they had an established liberal-democratic reputation, were abolished (as, for example, the Vossiche Zeitung and the Berliner Tageblatt). Education, from kindergarten to university, was put under strict party and government control, and the statesponsored Hitler Youth replaced all existing youth organizations. All labor unions, whatever their political sympathies, were outlawed and replaced by the government-sponsored Labor Front, incorporating both labor and management in one organization. The Christian churches were persecuted if they dared to resist the anti-Christian, racist policies of Nazi mass murders. Christianity was attacked as a Jewish contrivance to weaken the military spirit of the Germans, and attempts were made to substitute a new religion, “German Faith,” for Christianity. More extreme Nazis even went so far as to re-establish old Germanic, pre-Christian paganism as the only religion fit for the new Nazi Germany. Finally, even the traditional structure of the family was attacked. Children were encouraged to inform on their parents and unmarried women to breed a new Herrenrasse (master race) out of wedlock.

The Nazi regime introduced military conscription in 1935, militarized the Rhineland in 1936 in violation of treaty provisions, annexed Austria in 1938 and Czechoslovakia in 1939, and started World War n by the invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939. In the summer of 1940, France was vanquished, and Great Britain alone resisted the weight of Nazi power. In possession of virtually the whole European continent, Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941 and declared war on the United States in December 1941.

Nazi Germany lost the war and surrendered unconditionally in 1945. Yet before going to defeat, the Nazis had accomplished one major objective: over six million European Jews—men, women, and children—were murdered in the gas chambers of Auschwitz and other extermination camps specially set up for wholesale killing. This extermination of the Jews in occupied Europe was called, in official Nazi language, “the final solution of the Jewish question.”

Sources of support

Of all the social classes in Germany before 1933, the urban working class was proportionately least affected by the appeal of Nazism. Membership statistics of 1933 indicate that manual workers were substantially underrepresented in the Nazi party, whereas white-collar workers and middle-class persons were greatly overrepresented in relation to the total German population. Urban workers largely followed the Social Democratic party. Neither Communist nor Nazi attempts to win the allegiance of German urban workers for totalitarian programs succeeded before 1933. Yet, while the German urban workers did not want Nazism, they did little to resist its coming into power or its operations once it was in power. The deeply ingrained respect for authority in most Germans made resistance difficult. Moreover, the Nazis managed to abolish unemployment by embarking on a war economy from the outset, as a result of which unemployment turned into full employment and even a shortage of labor. Many workers were willing to trade the loss of individual liberty and free labor unions for the gain of full employment and social security. As a result, the mass of the German workers acquiesced in the other Nazi policies, including the policies of imperialist expansion through aggressive war. The urban workers (unlike those of other countries under Fascist rule, such as Italy) played only a very minor part in whatever resistance groups existed in Nazi Germany.

The lower middle class—particularly the salariat —supplied the numerically strongest element of popular support for Nazism. Many persons in this class dreaded the prospect of joining the proletariat and looked to the Nazi movement for the saving of their traditional status and prestige. The salaried employee is jealous of Big Business, into whose higher echelons he would like to rise via the ladder of management, and he also fears Big Labor, into whose proletarian world he disdains to sink. Nazism very astutely played on these fears and anxieties by attacking both the “interest slavery of finance capitalism” and the “un-German” character of “Marxist Bolshevism.” Logically, propaganda directed against both capital and labor may seem self-contradictory, but its very inconsistency both reflected and appealed to the political confusion of the salaried class. Furthermore, Nazism promised them the identification with the “superior” Nordic master race. This racialism had a most impressive appeal to those groups of salaried persons—teachers and government employees— who were traditionally permeated with nationalist and racist ideas even before Nazism appeared.

As to the numerically less significant, but socially and economically important upper class of industrialists and big landowners, the support received from this group by the Nazi party even before 1933 was of great impact. On January 27, 1932, Hitler addressed the Industry Club in Düsseldorf, the center of Germany’s heavy industry; his success in winning over the leaders of heavy industry was impressive. Most notable among active supporters of Nazism before 1933 were such world-famous German industrial figures as Fritz Thyssen and the Krupp family. While looking down upon the Nazi leadership as a group of plebeian upstarts without the breeding and background of gentlemen, German industrialists and big landowners supported Nazism for two main reasons: first, the Nazis promised the abolition of free labor unions, and second, the industrialists understood that the remilitarization of Germany coupled with an aggressive foreign policy would be profitable for business. The support of the steel industry was particularly significant. Already during the Second Reich, the friendship between the Kaiser and the Krupp family pointed to the intimate ties between German heavy industry and militarism. The alliance between the steel industry and Nazism before 1933 was but a renewal of these historical ties between industry and a German government with an antisocialist, antidemocratic, and imperialistic policy. During World War n, German heavy industry profited from its ties with the Nazi regime, since it was the main beneficiary of the labor of millions of foreign workers deported to Germany.

Another group that was crucial in the rise of Nazism was the military, traditionally of great social importance in the fabric of German society and government. Even in strong and well-established democratic states, the professional military class tends to overestimate the virtues of discipline and national unity. Where democracy is weak, as it was in Germany during the Weimar Republic, the professional bias of the military class becomes a political menace. The top military leaders of Germany knew, before and after 1933, that a high percentage of Nazi leaders were criminals or psychopaths, yet they supported the Nazi movement as a step toward the desired militarization of Germany. Of the two greatest German military leaders of World War i, General Ludendorff and Field Marshal von Hindenburg, the former embraced Nazism in the early 1920s and the latter collaborated with it until his death in 1934. Yet it should be pointed out that, toward the end of World War II, high military leaders played an important role in attempts to overthrow the Nazi regime. These plots culminated in the attempt against Hitler’s life on July 20, 1944, an attempt that failed. It is noteworthy that the German generals did not hatch any resistance plans against Nazism when the war went well for Germany; only when defeat became a certainty did they try to save what could be saved of German power by overthrowing the Nazi regime.

In analyzing the sources of support for Nazism among the German people, the most important lesson is not which particular social group proved itself most vulnerable to the Nazi virus—although this is an important lesson and has broad political implications outside Germany as well. A phenomenon of even more general consequence is demonstrated by the success of Nazism before coming to power and its popularity among the German people: an antidemocratic, totalitarian movement can be based on mass support.

From the late seventeenth to the early twentieth century, the conventional wisdom of enlightened and liberal political thought automatically assumed that political oppression was due solely to the malevolence of a small minority of political oligarchs lording it over the mass of the “good” people. The assumption, which was hardly ever challenged, was that the mass of the people naturally desired freedom above everything else; once the obstacles to this natural desire—kings, aristocrats, men of privilege—were removed, a reign of liberty and democracy would inevitably follow. The experience of Nazism, both before and after 1933, demolished this illusion once and for all. The main reason why conventional political analysis failed to come to grips with the paradoxical phenomenon of the mass basis of modern totalitarianism lay in its exclusive concern with totalitarian leaders rather than totalitarian followers, the latter being seen merely as innocent victims of their evil leaders. In the light of the knowledge gained by modern psychology and psychoanalysis, Erich Fromm (1941) has shown the psychodynamic and sociological factors that underlie the “totalitarian flight from freedom” and that have made modern man feel isolated, powerless, and irrational. These forces are potentially operative everywhere, but in Germany their potential was most fully and most disastrously realized.

Causes of Nazism

Many interpretations of the nature of Nazism have either gone back too far into ancient history or have confined themselves too much to the immediate past. Whatever characteristics the Germanic peoples may have possessed in the days of Tacitus, there have been too many historical changes since then to deduce Nazism from German antiquity. Similarly, a movement of such farreaching impact on the whole world can hardly be adequately explained by such specific recent events as the Versailles Treaty of 1919 or the economic depression of 1929-1932. Defeat in war does not necessarily end in a totalitarian nihilism of the Nazi type, as is evidenced by Germany’s own defeat in World War n, which did not again produce Nazism. Similarly, the impact of the depression has been exaggerated, if it is to serve as the main cause of explaining the rise and triumph of Nazism. There is no doubt that the inflation of the early 1920s and the depression that began in 1929 had a deleterious effect on German democratic institutions. But economic depression is, in itself, no necessary general cause of fascist totalitarianism. There is a relation between economic depression and accelerated social change, but it is of a different kind: like war, economic depressions do not create new major social and political trends, but tend to accelerate the rate of development of existing trends. In fundamentally democratic nations (like the United States, Australia, New Zealand, or the countries of northwestern Europe), the depression of 1929 produced neither fascism nor communism but advanced the cause of democracy on the economic, social, political, and cultural fronts. Conversely, where the roots of democracy are frail and where the dominant social attitude is strongly suffused with authoritarian elements, a depression may easily accelerate such authoritarian trends, as happened not only in Germany in the 1930s but also in Japan, Brazil, Poland, and other nations.

Closely related to the depression theory as the major cause of Nazism is the essentially Marxian interpretation of Nazism as the logical outgrowth of monopoly capitalism. While it cannot be denied that monopolistic capitalism was a major force in German life from the time of the establishment of the Second Reich in 1870 and that on the whole its political influence was harmful to the development of a liberal society and a democratic government, this theory cannot explain why monopoly capitalism produced Nazism in Germany and not in Britain and the United States. In purely economic terms, the depression in these major citadels of world capitalism in the early 1930s was not substantially different from that in Germany. The differentiating factor was not the relative degree of the severity of economic crisis but the difference in political ideas and institutions that circumscribed the behavior of political decision makers.

If Nazism was more than a reaction to the German defeat in World War I or to the depression, it can be explained only by the persistence of a powerful antiliberal tradition—perhaps the dominant German tradition—in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Hegel, Adam Müller, Paul de Lagarde, Julius Langbehn, Heinrich von Treitschke, and Moeller van den Bruck are but a few of the more important figures in the development of a social philosophy that opposed the concepts of power, authoritarianism, nationalism, racism, and imperialism to the ideas of natural law, liberty, universalism, equality, and peace. Romanticism was, from the beginning of the nineteenth century onward, perhaps the single strongest movement in German thought. Whereas in other countries (like France and England) romanticism was largely confined to the literary imagination as a protest against the limiting tradition of the measure and orderliness of classicism, in Germany it became a systematic philosophy with elaborate and coherent views on man, society, law, and the state.

The German Romantics, in their theory of the state, put forward an organistic conception based on blood and community, in which the individual occupied a relatively minor role; and they rejected the Western liberal theory of the state based on a social contract, in which the individual had natural rights preceding the state. In economics, the German Romantics assailed the free-market economy of capitalism as “soulless egotism” and urged the revival of the medieval closed economy regulated in every detail by the community. The most typical German Romantics, like Adam Müller, did not attack this or that particular point of the Western tradition in ethics, politics, and economics. They fought, instead, against the humanistic and rational Western tradition as a whole.

There is not a single element in the Nazi doctrine as developed by its leaders and apologists that does not have a long—and frequently dominant—tradition in the century and a half preceding the rise of Nazism. It is true that such ideas were not expressed only in Germany. Count de Gobineau expressed racist theories in France, around the middle of the nineteenth century, and Carlyle expressed antiliberal and racist doctrines in England in the second half of the same century. Yet the important thing is that such prophets of authoritarianism and racialism did not obtain significant followings in their native countries, whereas their writings became enormously popular in Germany. The case of Houston Stewart Chamberlain is even more indicative of this phenomenon. Born an Englishman, he settled in Germany and became a German citizen. His Foundations of the Nineteenth Century (1899) became one of the most popular books in pre-Nazi Germany, yet made no impact on his native country. From anti-Semitism to imperialism, there is little in the Nazi doctrine that cannot be found in Chamberlain’s writings.

Conversely, there was also, before the rise of Nazism, a liberal and humanistic tradition in Germany, characterized by such lofty figures as Lessing, Kant, Humboldt, and Goethe. Yet this tradition never became dominant and was more influential in the academy than in the councils of policy makers. In 1848 and in 1918, the liberal elements of German society started a new orientation toward Western ideals in government and society, but in both cases the authoritarian and militaristic elements in German life squelched such attempts through violence and terror.

Nazi doctrine and policies

Nazi doctrine and policy were, however, more than a mere revival of traditional antiliberal ideas and institutions in German life. In Nazism, these antiliberal attitudes and institutions were carried to their extreme. Whereas philosophical and political romantic thought in Germany had reacted against the excesses of rationalism, Nazi ideologists, like Alfred Rosenberg, rejected the principle of Western rationalism itself, charging, for example, that Socrates was the first “Social Democrat” in Europe and the originator of the disease of rationalism, because he established the principle of trying to settle vital issues through argument and debate. Similarly, whereas in the pre-Nazi German intellectual tradition particular points of Christianity were criticized or assailed, official Nazi ideology rejected Christianity in toto as a devilish Jewish plot to weaken Germanic vigor and military manliness. In addition, Nazism had the dynamic of a popular mass movement, whereas antidemocratic and antiliberal ideas and policies in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries still recognized some restraints of traditional religion and morality. The tragedy of pre-Nazi German politics lay in the fact that the masses were sufficiently drawn into politics to become highly conscious of political programs and movements, but not sufficiently involved to build up a sustained democratic experience. In this sense, Nazism was the response of a politically “semiliterate” people: not illiterate enough to stay out of politics and not literate enough to have learned the important lessons of politics through self-government.

The potentially dangerous tendencies in pre-Nazi German ideas and policies were carried forward to the most extreme point of nihilism, rejecting all traditional Western moral and religious concepts about the nature of man and his inalienable dignity as a human personality. This nihilism came out most clearly in the use of terror and murder as an official state policy of extreme totalitarianism. Nazi concentration camps and gas chambers were more than incidental phenomena in the total process of Nazism. They were of its very essence, for it was in those camps that man was destroyed as a moral being and reduced to a mere number, tattooed on his body. Such camps were not set up primarily to punish ordinary or political criminals. Most of its victims, such as the Jews, were not even accused of having done anything wrong. The purpose of the concentration and extermination camps was to show to the entire population under Nazi control that every person was potentially an inmate, since personal guilt had little or nothing to do with such a punishment. The ultimate purpose of such camps was to demonstrate that man’s soul, his dignity, and his self-respect can be reduced to dirt and ashes, and that no one was exempt from such fate if it so pleased the Nazi rulers. If killing had been the main objective of the camps, such killing could have been accomplished with more efficiency and without the suffering and the degradation that accompanied it. In the scheme of Nazi totalitarian nihilism, the degradation of man was not the incidental by-product of murder, but murder was the by-product of the systematic process of degradation. The aim of Nazi nihilism was to transform a human into a nonhuman and to restrict the quality of being human to those who were acceptable to the Nazi rulers.

This policy was also carried out in foreign affairs. Thus, when Czechoslovakia was taken over in 1939, Nazi legislation referred to its population as Germans and “other inhabitants.” In the eyes of the Nazis, the Czechs were not merely defeated by superior German arms but had ceased to exist as a nation, just as the inmate of a concentration or extermination camp was nothing more than a number in the files, without any human personality or individuality. Nazi plans for the Poles and Russians were the same: not only to conquer them militarily but to transform both nations into “nonnations,” slaves of the higher German Kultur. Eventually, a similar fate was also foreseen for the other nations to be subdued and then destroyed as national entities.

Historically, Nazism may have left two important legacies. First, it is conceivable that the experience of Nazism has irretrievably destroyed the authoritarian, antidemocratic, antiliberal, and militaristic tradition in German society, because Nazism demonstrated to what extent the potential of that tradition could be realized in destroying the very foundations of civilization. Second, Nazism has left a broader legacy for all mankind. Whatever psychological malformation of behavior occurs in one human being may potentially occur in any other. The same applies to whole nations. The lesson of Nazism is not only how low Germans could fall, but how far any nation can fall once critical rationalism, moral restraints, and constitutional government have been substantially weakened or destroyed.

William Ebenstein

[Directly related are the entriesAnti-Semitism; Dictatorship; Fascism; Totalitarianism. Other relevant material may be found inMilitarism; Nationalism; Personality, Political; Radicalism; and in the biographies ofSchmittandTreitschke.]


Baumont, Maurice (editor) 1955 The Third Reich. A study published under the auspices of the International Council for Philosophy and Humanistic Studies, with the assistance of UNESCO. New York: Praeger. → Written by 28 European and American scholars, this massive volume of 900 pages is characterized by a broad variety of viewpoints and a wealth of material on the background and record of Nazism.

Butler, Rohan D’olier (1941) 1942 The Roots of National Socialism (1783-1933). New York: Dutton.

Chamberlain, Houston Stewart (1899) 1910 Foundations of the Nineteenth Century. New York and London: John Lane. → First published in German.

Cohen, Elie A. (1952) 1954 Human Behaviour in the Concentration Camp. London: Cape. → First published in Dutch with a summary in English.

Dicks, Henry V. 1950 Personality Traits and National Socialist Ideology. Human Relations 3:111-154.

Ebenstein, William 1943 The Nazi State. New York: Farrar.

Fromm, Erich (1941) 1960 Escape From Freedom. New York: Holt.

Gerth, Hans 1940 The Nazi Party: Its Leadership and Composition. American Journal of Sociology 45:517-541.

Hilberg, Raul 1961 The Destruction of the European Jews. Chicago: Quadrangle Books; London: W. H. Allen.

Mosse, George L. 1964 The Crisis of German Ideology: Intellectual Origins of the Third Reich. New York: Grosset.

Neumann, Franz Leopold (1942) 1963 Behemoth: The Structure and Practice of National Socialism, 1933-1944. 2d ed. New York: Octagon Books.

Rauschning, Hermann (1938) 1940 The Revolution of Nihilism: Warning to the West. New York: Alliance Book Corporation; London: Heinemann. → First published in German at Zurich. The London edition was published as Germany’s Revolution of Destruction.

Shirer, William L. 1960 The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Taylor, Telford 1952 Sword and Swastika: Generals and Nazis in the Third Reich. New York: Simon & Schuster.


views updated May 23 2018








Nazism is a convenient abbreviation for the ideology of National Socialism, which flourished, principally in Germany, in the period 1920 to 1945. In this context, National meant nationalist, and Socialism a doctrine that preached equality between all members of the nation. The National Socialist German Workers Party was founded on January 5, 1919, in Munich, Bavaria, as the German Workers Party. Its official program, adopted on February 24, 1920, signaled the change of name and announced its aims: uniting all ethnic Germans in a single state; acquiring new land, or living space, for Germans to rule; revoking the 1919 peace settlement that had reduced Germanys territory, restricted its armed forces in size and equipment, and imposed a huge financial penalty on Germany; replacing democratic institutions by a dictatorship; and denying Jewish Germans fundamental civil rights.


The Nazis synthesized a variety of strands of extremist political thought that had developed in Germany and Austria in the late nineteenth century. Racist anti-Semitism had evolved out of old traditions of Christian anti-Semitism during the economic depression of the 1870s, as demagogues drew upon new racial theories to argue that supposedly Jewish characteristics were racially inherited, independently of religious adherence. In this view, the Jews were a parasitic, conspiratorial race that undermined German civilization. In the 1890s extreme nationalists in Germany began to argue that the unification of the country achieved in 1871 under Otto von Bismarck (18151898) was incomplete. These pan-Germans demanded the annexation of other German-speaking areas of Europe and the conquest of a colonial empire both within Europe and without. At the same time, Social Darwinists and eugenicists in Germany began to argue that the German, Aryan, race had to be strengthened for this task by improvements in health, an increase in the birth rate (which was starting to decline), and the eliminationby forced sterilization or even killingof the weak, the criminal, the hereditarily unfit, and the disabled.

These ideas were brought together in 1919 by Adolf Hitler (18891945), a former frontline soldier born in Austria. Hitler believed, like other ultranationalists, that Germanys defeat in World War I had been caused by Jewish-led revolutionaries within Germany who had administered a stab in the back to the supposedly undefeated German armies. For Hitler, war and revolution legitimized the use of violence for political ends. The threat of communism, seen by the Nazis as part of the worldwide Jewish conspiracy against Germany, justified for them the use of extreme force in the defense of German racial interests. In 1920 members of the Nazi movement founded a paramilitary wing, which by 1924 had become the Stormtrooper Organization. It was designed to inflict maximum violence on the Nazis opponents. By the mid-1920s the Nazi movement had adopted the leadership principle by which the commands of Hitler, known as the Führer (Leader), were transmitted down through the ranks and had to be obeyed without question.


Nazism owed a good deal to the example and inspiration of Italian Fascism, from which it borrowed the Fascist salute, the cult of the leader, the use of violence, the glorification of youth, and the relegation of women to the primary function of childbearing. Imitating Benito Mussolinis mythical March on Rome in 1922, which had led to the appointment of the Italian Fascist leader as Italys prime minister, Hitler staged a putsch in the Bavarian capital, Munich, on November 9, 1923, the anniversary of the outbreak of the 1918 German Revolution. He marched on the city center with the intention of taking it over and then marching on the German capital, Berlin, but he had failed to win the support of the army, the police, or business and political elites, and the putsch was dispelled in a hail of gunfire. Hitler was tried for treason and briefly imprisoned.

On his release, Hitler reorganized the Nazi movement and gained new supporters. The movement now focused on winning votes. In the national election of 1928, however, it won only 2.6 percent of the vote. In 1929 the Wall Street crash caused the withdrawal of U.S. loans to German businesses, leading to bank failures and bankruptcies on a huge scale. By July 1932 over a third of the German workforce was unemployed. Those without jobs flocked to the Communist Party, which rapidly increased in strength. Alarmed, the middle classes turned to the Nazis, who seemed the only party ruthless enough to stop a revolution. Campaigning with ceaseless energy, the Nazis also won over many first-time voters, many previously unorganized workers, and numerous Protestant peasants. In the elections of July 1932 the Nazis won 37.4 percent of the vote, becoming Germanys largest party. Only the Catholic Centre Party, the Social Democrats, and the Communists retained significant electoral support in the face of the Nazis popularity.


By this time, democratic government in Germany had collapsed under the strain of social conflict during the Depression, and the country was being led by a succession of men who wanted to destroy the democratic system and impose authoritarian rule in order to defeat the Communists and revive Germanys international fortunes. But they needed popular support. On January 20, 1933, the Nazis were co-opted into a national government headed by Hitler but with a majority of non-Nazi conservatives who hoped to use them for their own ends.

Over the following months Hitler outmaneuvered them completely. On February 28, 1933, following the burning down of the Reichstag (the national parliament building), Hitler persuaded President Paul von Hindenburg to issue a decree suspending civil liberties. Thousands of Communists were arrested and thrown into hastily erected concentration camps, where they were soon joined by many Social Democrats and trade unionists. On March 23, 1933, Hitler persuaded members of the Reichstag by a mixture of threats and promises to pass the Enabling Law, which allowed the cabinet to pass laws without parliamentary or presidential approval. Murder and intimidation forced the remaining political parties to dissolve themselves by the summer of that same year.


Hitler called his state the Third Reich, connecting it to the First Reich (the Holy Roman Empire ), founded by Charlemagne in the year 800 and lasting a thousand years, and the Second Reich (the German Empire ), founded by Bismarck in 1871. Many new laws were introduced, making opposition a capital offense, coordinating the media under the new propaganda ministry, dismissing political opponents and dissenters, and above all, depriving Jewish Germans of their rights and their livelihoods. Hitler began immediately preparing Germany for a war of conquest in the east. In 1936 German troops marched into the Rhineland, an area established as a demilitarized zone by the 1919 peace settlement. In March 1938 Germany annexed the German-speaking state of Austria. Then, in September 1938, using the threat of war, Hitler secured an international agreement to annex the German-speaking part of Czechoslovakia. In March 1939 German troops marched into the rest of the country, making it clear to all that the Nazis were aiming not just to revise the peace settlement, but also to conquer eastern Europe and achieve European domination. When the German army invaded Poland in September 1939, Britain and France declared war.

Nazism had sought before 1939 to drive German Jews out of the country to prevent a repeat of the stab-in-the-back of 1918. After invading Poland, the Nazi administration forced the countrys large Jewish population into ghettos, where many starved. Following the invasion of the Soviet Union, further emigration of Jews from Germany was banned. The Nazi belief in a worldwide Jewish conspiracy to undermine Germany culminated in the conviction that the United Stateswhich entered the war informally in summer 1941 with its decision to supply Germanys enemies with raw materials and armamentswas working with the Soviet Union and Britain to destroy the Third Reich.

By the end of 1941 the decision had been made to transport all European Jews to specially created camps in the occupied parts of eastern Europe where they would be killed, thus inaugurating what later became known as the Holocaust. Many people thought to be undermining the German war effort or the values of Nazismincluding homosexuals, gypsies, Jehovahs Witnesses, African Germans, petty criminals, and asocialswere also exterminated. In addition, up to 200,000 German inmates of mental hospitals and institutions were killed, nearly half of them by gassing, the rest by starvation or lethal injections. Finally, a General Plan for the East envisaged the death by starvation of up to 30 million Slavs, and as a start, at least 3.3 million Soviet prisoners of war were left to die of hunger and disease in German camps.


Nazisms ambition for the racial reordering of Europe could not be fulfilled. The combined strength of the Soviet Union, the British Empire, and the United States inflicted total defeat on Germany, many of whose towns and cities had been destroyed by bombing by the time peace was signed on May 8, 1945. Hitler and many other leading Nazis committed suicide. The others were tried for war crimes by the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg, setting an important precedent. Many were found guilty and executed or sentenced to long terms of imprisonment.

There was no serious resistance to the Allied occupation of Germany; Nazisms support, dependent on the charismatic force of Hitler and seduced by the belief that might is right, vanished when Hitler died and Germany was defeated. The genocidal crimes of Nazism were widely publicized. Since 1945, neo-Nazism has everywhere been a fringe, extremist movement, despite gaining some support in times of economic depression, and neo-Nazis have been forced to deny the reality of the Holocaust, even while claiming that Jews have too much influence in the modern world. Neo-Nazi movements are illegal in many countries, and the major focus of racist extremism today is against racial minorities in postcolonial Europe. White supremacists in the United States and neo-Nazis in Eastern Europe often express admiration for Hitler, but they have to confront the fact that Nazism led to the extermination of millions of Slavs and other Europeans.

SEE ALSO Anti-Semitism; Aryans; Authoritarianism; Civilizations, Clash of; Concentration Camps; Ethnocentrism; Eugenics; Fascism; Genocide; Great Depression; Hitler, Adolf; Holocaust, The; Mussolini, Benito; Nationalism and Nationality; Personality, Cult of; Racism; Totalitarianism; White Supremacy; World War I; World War II


Burleigh, Michael, and Wolfgang Wipperman. 1991. The Racial State: Germany 19331945. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Evans, Richard J. 2003. The Coming of the Third Reich. New York: Penguin.

Evans, Richard J. 2005. The Third Reich in Power. New York: Penguin.

Evans, Richard J. 2008. The Third Reich at War. New York: Penguin.

Kershaw, Ian. 2000. The Nazi Dictatorship: Problems and Perspectives of Interpretation. 4th ed. London: Arnold.

Kershaw, Ian. 2002. Hitler. 2 vols. New York: Penguin.

Richard J. Evans


views updated May 17 2018



Nazism constitutes one of the most studied phenomena of twentieth-century Europe. Philosophers, historians, and sociologists have all theorized on the causes of this multifaceted movement whose concrete dimensions unfolded on various planes. But trying to describe Nazism is like trying to fit the pieces together of a complex puzzle: How to account for a phenomenon whose nature concerned ideology, political militancy, and government practice all at the same time? How to encapsulate in these three poles its militant activism, the reactionary nature of German society, and the regime-driven policy choices that resulted in the Nazi rise to power in 1933? How, finally, to write the history of what began as a völkisch minor mass movement from Munich in the aftermath of World War I that would later grow to encompass all of Europe, from the Pyrenees to the Arctic Circle, from the Caucasus Mountains to the Atlantic Ocean?

Reconstructing the story in chronological order necessarily begins with an image of Nazism as a belief-system open to ever-increasing numbers of militants, who made it their own in extremely diverse ways. Next, attention would need to be drawn to understanding how the militant movements that drew on these ideas were regulated by a fundamentally racist ideology into an organization whose quest for power in Germany was launched in the late 1920s. Only then would an exploration begin of state-sponsored Nazism bent on European conquest, and whose main objective was to build a thousand-year reign out of iron, fire, conquest, domination, and extermination.


The root of Nazism as a belief-system was racial determinism. Nazi racism was determinist because it endowed the factor of biology with the power to create reality; racism served as a filter conditioning its entire outlook. Nazism was a biological grid for reading history, the world, and one's self.

The reference point for this Nazi reading of the world was furnished by the racial theories of Hans F. K. Günther (1891–1968), the Jena anthropologist whose system for describing European phenotypes was adopted by the Nazi Party in the early 1930s, after a series of debates whose intensity is worth noting. Güntherian analysis was made using racial types, which were identifiable based on groupings of both "intellectual and physical" characteristics shared by the individuals belonging to them. After having identified the concept, Günther immediately deduced that it was virtually impossible to pinpoint an actually existing "impervious human group" with a racially pure lineage: "All the peoples of the West," he wrote, "are composed of racially mixed populations in which all, or at least many, of the races of Europe are present in fixed proportions" (pp. 10–11). According to Günther, therefore, the difference between nations was grounded in the combinations that resulted from miscegenation, which produced a clear-cut hierarchical scale: each nation had its strengths and its weaknesses, each people a vocation. The world was thus an aggregate of races whose (conflictual) relations formed the stage of global history. In this sense Nazism would not rest content to merely read the world—it became its own historical tale to tell: a tale of racial conflict and the emergence thereby of the superior race.

Nazi racial fundamentalism produced a historical discourse whose importance has often been grossly underestimated. Indeed even though some historians seek the origins of Nazism in ancient history, the sharply honed analysis the Nazis themselves made of World War I and its consequences has been largely passed over in silence, despite the fact that it constitutes the heart of the Nazi belief-system itself. Nazi racial scientists viewed World War I as an unprecedented demographic catastrophe for Germany. The nation's Nordic racial core was slowly being endangered by neighboring races that comprised the world of enemies exposed by World War I. In this sense, Nazism fashioned itself into an apocalyptic discourse that fostered the spread of anxiety throughout German society about the threat posed by other, hostile races.

Nazism, however, was not destined to remain an anxiety-provoking discourse on history. Clearly its discourse explained Germany's World War I defeat in terms of racial hatred, but it also lent the movement a mission: to finally purge Germany of the scourge of encirclement, to reverse the world order laid out in the Treaty of Versailles (1919), and to forge a new society based on hope and racial fraternity out of the ruins of enemy states organized into a Europe-wide racial empire. Racial fundamentalism, the core of the Nazi belief-system, thus assumed a dual-role in the minds of its activists: on the one hand it mobilized and gave expression to a powerful political anxiety, but it also lent credence to a utopian vision by giving direction to history and making it possible to envision the future of the Thousand-Year Reich . Perhaps it was this transformation of an unspeakable anxiety into an ineffable utopia that explains the sheer force of the belief this ideology engendered in its activists' minds.


The structure of Nazi ideology may be viewed through lenses other than the work of philosophers and historians, although this approach already gave some indication of the extent to which its dogmas were refashioned in numerous and diverse ways by the activist individuals and groups who adhered to the Nazi system of thought. In fact as this dogma was progressively realized, it devolved into a series of diverse militant organizations that played a fundamental part in the evolution of the political role Nazism would eventually assume. Founded in the early 1920s, the National Socialist German Workers Party, or NSDAP, long remained a small movement among thousands of others, in a nebulous underground of völkische groups that testified to both an extreme vitality and a certain form of clandestine practice. Although the NSDAP's emergence as a mass movement drew initially from its reserves among the ethno-nationalist elites, it was nonetheless a watershed event in the evolution of the völkische forces, to which it lent a structure and strategy for the acquisition of power. The NSDAP brought these radical nationalist forces together under the same federal umbrella by driving them to internalize the different elements of the Nazi belief-system, and thereby structured the movement to be able in due course to encompass the whole of German society.

The NSDAP in the early years of its creation remained one small group among many, and the chaotic and futile challenge to power, known as the Munich putsch of 1923, could have spelled total disaster for it. But the method Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) developed, during his time in prison after the putsch, of seeking power through legal means, and the party's electoral successes during the years 1927–1931, rendered the Nazi strategy ever more attractive. Originally conceived as a mass movement, the NSDAP began to spawn local and national institutions headed by general and regional leadership committees, known as Reichsleitung and Gauleitungen respectively, which were run by the party's dignitaries. In Berlin for example, Josef Goebbels forged the party's regional direction and made it into one of the movement's power centers. However at the most local level, the NSDAP nourished a mass of activist functionaries whose recruitment and propaganda work became part and parcel of everyday social life in a host of towns and villages. From 1928 to 1933, Party membership went from 150,000 to 500,000 members. In 1935, the NSDAP numbered 2.5 million and had grown to 5.4 million on the eve of World War II. Although the party remained in certain respects an organ of militant activism in 1933, it soon became a tool for the supervision, management, and mobilization of German society. Before 1933 it had spearheaded the electoral campaigns that served as the Nazis' primary means for acquiring political power. After the Nazis came to power in 1933, the party was transformed into a simple conduit for the transmission of mass mobilization slogans issued by the propaganda ministry. This transformation was also true of the first Nazi paramilitary organization, the SA (Sturmabteilung). Despite the fact that it was the primary means for winning the battle with communists and others in working-class neighborhoods, the SA, which counted more than 500,000 members in 1933 and more than 3 million one year later, grew to a point that it was far too dangerous for the party to leave as it was. The outcome was the massacre of 30 June 1934, marked by the execution of virtually all the leaders of its paramilitary corps. Instead, the SA was transformed into an agency limited primarily to crowd control. Thus in the space of just a few short years during the period of the Nazi rise to power, the militant organizations whose effectiveness had been so legendary at silencing opponents and securing a stage for the party's expression—including through the use of violent combat in the streets—were changed into agencies of supervision, surveillance, and mobilization once that acquisition was complete.

The fact also remains that National Socialism styled itself as a reformist movement, with the goal of creating a racially purified Volksgemeinschaft (racial community) where the "class struggle" would be overcome, and whose core values of brotherhood and mutual aid would be the principles of social interaction. This plan was embodied in a second and relatively more widespread form of activism that went beyond formal membership in the NSDAP. Two groups, the National Socialist Volunteers (Nationalsozialistische Volkswohlfahrt, or NSV) and the National Socialist Winter Aid Society (Winter Hilfswerk, or WHW), along with a multitude of satellite organizations, produced the image of a society that cared for the poor, that came together in corporate entities and, in short, forged a set of social bonds. No doubt the drive toward supervision was a factor in the work of these Nazi organizations. However the fact remains that the large sums collected by NSV campaigns, and the sheer number of its members, demonstrate that this idea of mutual aid and solidarity (put into effect in a society in which racial purity had come to represent an obvious and indispensable prerequisite), went beyond the framework of political adherence, and constituted a locus of activism in its own right whose sources should not be underestimated. By 1939 some 16 million people had already participated in NSV campaigns redistributing nearly 2.5 billion reichsmarks.

Finally there was a third and lasting form of militant activism evident in the National Socialist movement. This form was represented by the SS (Schutzstaffel), founded in 1925. It was an organization that grew rapidly, particularly after the party assumed power in 1933. Nevertheless its leader Heinrich Himmler kept a strong hand on its growth, and issued recruitment guidelines that were both racial and social in nature. Although these criteria were not adhered to strictly, they did serve to preserve an image of the SS as the Third Reich's elite.

Whereas the NSDAP and the SA constituted working class–dominated mass movements, the SS was composed mainly of middle-class and upper-class men. In a way it was a cultural elite; in another respect, it was a body to represent German racial purity. The SS drew, throughout the Third Reich's history, on a reserve of young graduates from the bourgeoisie and middle classes, who were university educated and almost without exception won over by Nazi and völkische views.

Thus Nazi militant activism came to be embodied in a multitude of organizations that each enjoyed a measure of relative success, and that recruited from different elements of the German social body. The NSDAP, the SA, and the corporatist organizations attracted and funneled the working-class and rural masses, drawn to the Nazi discourse of fraternity and solidarity that animated its charity organizations. The incontestable success of these groups indicates the degree to which this version of Nazism reached an audience composed of a much larger fraction of the German population, stretching well beyond the conservative and völkische militant activists.


The NSDAP's formal rise to power on 30 January 1933 was not the result of a legislative victory, but of truly political calculations intended to allow career-members of the Weimar Republic's ministries to remain part of the new regime. The NSDAP had been the largest party in the Reichstag since 1931 in terms of numbers of representatives, and the Conservatives were attempting to limit its influence by associating it with a regime in which the Nazis were not in the majority. Hitler played the part of the inexperienced Führer, and the conservatives thought they had tricked him into playing into their hands. One year later however, anything Germany might have called a potential opposition force had been destroyed, and the NSDAP was the sole arbiter of the instruments of state. Historians of the functionalist school have carefully studied the dynamics of Nazi governmental policies, including the role of the dictator, the charismatic aspect of his domination, the phenomenon of anticipatory obedience it generated, the proliferation of extraordinary institutions, and the Nazi propensity to transform institutions from their traditional functions.

The result of these fundamental elements of Hitlerian state-sponsored governance when taken as a whole is what historians, following Hans Mommsen, have dubbed "cumulative radicalization"—a state practice founded on racial ideology, claiming for itself the mission of regenerating Germany and offering it the space it needed to forge an empire of a thousand years. To move these two axes of development forward however, the Nazis first needed to lift the fatal curse of World War I. Every policy of the new German regime was oriented toward this obsession and its prerequisites.

The first order of business therefore, once the assumption of power was assured and society had been effectively controlled by the militant organizations, was to undo the consequences of the Treaty of Versailles. This task was dependent on the foreign secretary, Joachim von Ribbentrop, and a diplomatic corps staffed by the traditional German elites, although they received almost all their direction from the impulses and opportunism of Hitler himself. From 1935 to 1939 the Nazis remilitarized the Rhineland; annexed Austria, the Sudetenland, and Czechoslovakia without firing a shot; and laid plans to recover the western provinces lost to a reconstituted Poland in 1918. As is well known it was this final episode, this last bluff, that led Britain and France to declare war against Germany. For the Nazis however this was a direct continuation of World War I, a war that drove the Nazi imaginary to its zenith—and the lay of the land in early 1941, after massive victories in the west, suggested indeed that the curse of 1918 had been lifted. Poland and France had been brought to their knees, Paris was occupied, Great Britain seemed to be in no condition to cause any serious harm. The hour appeared to have arrived for the realization of Germany's regeneration, for the utopia itself to be completed.

That meant occupying the eastern territories and invading the Soviet Union (USSR). In the eyes of the Nazi racist fundamentalists, the USSR was the place where the confrontation with the Reich's apocalyptic enemies would take place, because it was there that its racial and political enemies were the most completely fused. It was there as well that the vital space needed for the Nazi Empire's Thousand-Year Reich was to be conquered.

This conjunction of a racialized apocalyptic image of the enemy and utopian war objectives led the Nazi hierarchy to conceive the war with the Soviet Union from the outset as a war of annihilation. For the Nazis, whose occupation policies in the already acquired Polish territories aimed at Germanification, and whose murderous nature was being carried out on the ground every day, the Soviet population would henceforth have to be subjected to wholesale decimation. The demographic catastrophe would be so complete that the Soviet territories would be emptied and made available to Nordic colonization. According to the Wehrmacht's logistical calculations, which agreed with those made by SS demographers and the officers of the Reich Security Main Office (Reichssicherheitshauptamt, or RSHA), "dozens of millions of individuals" would have to be starved to death. Even in its early planning stages, Nazi policies envisaged extermination, and it was in the Soviet Union that the practices used to exhaustively eliminate Jewish populations were first put into effect. Shortly after the invasion of the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941, the Einsatzgruppen, or special killing groups, began massacring Russian Jewish women and children. By December 1941, a sizable portion of these communities had already disappeared behind enormous firing lines such as the one at Babi Yar on the outskirts of Kiev.

The cumulative radicalization of the Nazi regime was marked by the decision Hitler took in 1941, at a date historians still debate, to exterminate all of the Jews of Europe. Following an initial planning phase involving experimentation with different methods of extermination by gas, the Nazi genocidal machine went into full gear in early May 1942. The program culminated at its highest point with the killing of ten thousand Jews per day in the gas chambers of Auschwitz in the summer of 1944. All told, more than five million Jews fell victim to Nazi state-sponsored extermination.

However by the summer of 1944 the situation on the ground had also developed in a way the Nazis had always feared. They were now fighting a war on two fronts: on the west with the United States and Britain, who invaded in June, and on the east, the de facto main front, with the Soviet army, which had already decisively pierced through German lines and was inexorably headed toward its territory. From the Nazi standpoint the accomplishment of a utopia was no longer in question, but what was more likely was the physical disappearance of the Nordic race under the blows of the "Asiatic hordes." Immense waves of apocalyptic thinking and fear engulfed the final months of the Nazi state's existence, months during which the Wehrmacht raised an increasingly hopeless resistance against the advancing Red Army, which was little disposed to spare the German civilian populations it encountered, given the heavy losses it had suffered and the savagery of the Germans' own occupation policies in the East. Instead of the dream of colonizing the territories of the East, there unfolded the nightmare of an exodus of German populations whom the national sanctuary could no longer safeguard.

The nightmare ended on 8 May 1945, with the capitulation of the German armed forces. The Third Reich had been decimated, and its primary leaders were either dead, on the run, or in prison and awaiting trial. In these trials, the Allies judged an ideology of racial determinism, a militant activism with totalitarian aims, and state-sponsored policies of extermination that were without a doubt responsible for the deaths of more than twenty-five million civilians and soldiers, men, women, children, Jews, Slavs, Gypsies, and Western Europeans, by war, famine, and genocide.

See alsoEinsatzgruppen; Fascism; Germany; Goebbels, Josef; Hitler, Adolf; Holocaust; Operation Barbarossa; Totalitarianism; World War II.


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Bartov, Omer. Hitler's Army: Soldiers, Nazis, and War in the Third Reich. Oxford, U.K., 1991.

Bracher, Karl Dietrich. Die deutsche Diktatur: Entstehung, Struktur, Folgen des Nationalsozialismus. Cologne, 1980.

Broszat, Martin. Der Staat Hitlers: Grundlegung und Entwicklung seiner inneren Verfassung. Munich, 1992.

Essner, Cornelia, and Edouard Conte. La quête de la race: Une anthropologie du nazisme. Paris, 1995.

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Günther, Hans F. K. Kleine Rassenkunde des deutschen Volkes. Munich, 1933.

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Christian Ingrao

National Socialism

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NATIONAL SOCIALISM (for short, Nazism ), a movement in Germany patterned after fascism, which grew under Adolf *Hitler's leadership and ruled Germany from 1933 to 1945. The Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, founded on Jan. 5, 1919, changed its name in the summer of 1920 to Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (nsdap) and Hitler, who had been the seventh member of the original party, soon became its undisputed leader (Fuehrer). From then on, the history of National Socialism became virtually identical with Hitler's career.

As an ideology, National Socialism was a mixture of extreme nationalist, racialist ideas and a trend of populist radicalism which never formed a coherent unity. Among its major tenets were biological racialism, social Darwinism–the survival of the fittest–unrestrained antisemitism, anti-Bolshevism, and the quest for Lebensraum–German conquest of living space to the East. It preached a folkish antisemitism, pan-Germanism and the Dolchstosslegende–stab in the back myth–that Germany would have won World War i if it had not been attacked at home by Jews and others. It built itself on the myth of blood and soil and on the notion of Germans as the master race and Germany dominating Europe.

Prior to 1923 the Nazi Party was active mainly in Bavaria, where in November it attempted to overthrow the Weimar Republic in what became known as the Munich Beer Hall Putsch, or Hitler's Putsch. The coup was crushed and Hitler was imprisoned for a surprisingly short period of time; and it was there in Landsberg that he wrote Mein Kampf. The book became the bible of the movement, the platform of the party. Prior to 1928 it was a marginal party of virtually no significance, receiving less than 3% of the vote in 1928. Yet in the interim it organized, attracting more moderate elements along with folkish groups and a core of militant followers that it knew how and when to deploy effectively. The worldwide economic depression of 1929 and 1930 which hit Germany hard added to the dissatisfaction with the Weimar Republic and to the attraction of extremist parties. In September 1930 the Nazi seat total rose to 107 in the 608-seat Reichstag, winning some 6.4 million (18%) of the vote. They improved their performance in the elections of July 31, 1932, when they received 37.3 percent of the vote, which translated into 230 of 608 seats. Yet in the elections of November 6, 1932, the last free elections before Hitler's rise to power, the Nazis received only 33.1 percent of the vote and won 196 seats. Hitler came to power as the head of a coalition government, with conservative elements believing that once in power he would moderate his views due to the responsibilities of office and that he and his followers could be controlled.

Once in power, Hitler moved swiftly against external opposition, establishing concentration camps to house political opponents of the regime, using the pretext of the Reichstag Fire of February 27, 1933, to establish rule by decree, and suspending existing guarantees, and then eliminating the remaining non-Nazi parties. By July 1933 the Nazi Party was the only party in Germany.

In 1934 Hitler decided to act against his opponents within the party, eliminating SA chief Ernst Rohm and other rivals–perceived or real. On August 2, President Von Hindenburg died and Hitler was named head of state as well. After the pressures of 1933–34, the Nazis consolidated power and achieved successes at home and abroad. Unemployment was lowered and Germany was no longer isolated. Hitler's achievements in the realm of foreign policy were indeed impressive to the German people. He had reversed the shame of Versailles, returning Germany to the world stage and rearming its military. From the Nazi perspective the annexation of Austria and the entrance into the Sudentenland were triumphant.

From 1938 onward Nazism became increasingly unrestrained. *Kristallnacht was the eruption of violence against Jews, the letting loose of controlled mob violence. Wartime was the best time to solve certain problems that could not be addressed at other times. Thus, the "*Euthanasia Program," an extreme expression of Social Darwinism and of applied biology, was approved in an order backdated to September 1, 1939, to give it the appearance of a wartime measure. The conquest of territories, the incorporation of lands, and the appeal to ethnic Germans living in other countries, were all expressions of Nazi ideology. Above all, so was the "Final Solution to the Jewish Question," which wanted to eliminate all Jewish blood from the face of the earth and therefore remake the human species.


M. Broszat, German National Socialism 19191945 (1966), incl. bibl. add. bibliography: K.D. Bracher, The German Dictatorship: The Origins, Structure and Effects of National Socialism (1970); G.L. Mosse, The Crisis of German Ideology (1964); idem, Nazism: A Historical and Comparative Analysis of National Socialism (1978, 20062).

[Jozeph Michman (Melkman) /

Michael Berenbaum (2nd ed.)]

national socialism

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national socialism (Nazism) Doctrine of the National Socialist German Workers' (Nazi) Party, 1921–45. It was biologically racist (believing that the ‘Aryan’ race was superior to others; see eugenics), anti-Semitic, nationalistic, anti-communist, anti-democratic and anti-intellectual. It placed power before justice and the interests of the state before the individual. These beliefs were stated by the party's leader, Adolf Hitler, in his book Mein Kampf (1925). See also fascism; nationalism

National Socialism

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National Socialism See FASCISM.


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National Socialism