Myth: Hitler was a leftist.

Fact: Nearly all of Hitler's beliefs placed him on the far right.


Many conservatives accuse Hitler of being a leftist, on the grounds that his party was named "National Socialist." But socialism requires worker ownership and control of the means of production. In Nazi Germany, private capitalist individuals owned the means of production, and they in turn were frequently controlled by the Nazi party and state. True socialism does not advocate such economic dictatorship -- it can only be democratic. Hitler's other political beliefs place him almost always on the far right. He advocated racism over racial tolerance, eugenics over freedom of reproduction, merit over equality, competition over cooperation, power politics and militarism over pacifism, dictatorship over democracy, capitalism over Marxism, realism over idealism, nationalism over internationalism, exclusiveness over inclusiveness, common sense over theory or science, pragmatism over principle, and even held friendly relations with the Church, even though he was an atheist.


To most people, Hitler's beliefs belong to the extreme far right. For example, most conservatives believe in patriotism and a strong military; carry these beliefs far enough, and you arrive at Hitler's warring nationalism. This association has long been something of an embarrassment to the far right. To deflect such criticism, conservatives have recently launched a counter-attack, claiming that Hitler was a socialist, and therefore belongs to the political left, not the right.

The primary basis for this claim is that Hitler was a National Socialist. The word "National" evokes the state, and the word "Socialist" openly identifies itself as such.

However, there is no academic controversy over the status of this term: it was a misnomer. Misnomers are quite common in the history of political labels. Examples include the German Democratic Republic (which was neither) and Vladimir Zhirinovsky's "Liberal Democrat" party (which was also neither). The true question is not whether Hitler called his party "socialist," but whether or not it actually was.

In fact, socialism has never been tried at the national level anywhere in the world. This may surprise some people -- after all, wasn't the Soviet Union socialist? The answer is no. Many nations and political parties have called themselves "socialist," but none have actually tried socialism. To understand why, we should revisit a few basic political terms.

Perhaps the primary concern of any political ideology is who gets to own and control the means the production. This includes factories, farmlands, machinery, etc. Generally there have been three approaches to this question. The first was aristocracy, in which a ruling elite owned the land and productive wealth, and peasants and serfs had to obey their orders in return for their livelihood. The second is capitalism, which has disbanded the ruling elite and allows a much broader range of private individuals to own the means of production. However, this ownership is limited to those who can afford to buy productive wealth; nearly all workers are excluded. The third (and untried) approach is socialism, where everyone owns and controls the means of production, by means of the vote. As you can see, there is a spectrum here, ranging from a few people owning productive wealth at one end, to everyone owning it at the other.

Socialism has been proposed in many forms. The most common is social democracy, where workers vote for their supervisors, as well as their industry representatives to regional or national congresses. Another proposed form is anarcho-socialism, where workers own companies that would operate on a free market, without any central government at all. As you can see, a central planning committee is hardly a necessary feature of socialism. The primary feature is worker ownership of production.

The Soviet Union failed to qualify as socialist because it was a dictatorship over workers -- that is, a type of aristocracy, with a ruling elite in Moscow calling all the shots. Workers cannot own or control anything under a totalitarian government. In variants of socialism that call for a central government, that government is always a strong or even direct democracy… never a dictatorship. It doesn't matter if the dictator claims to be carrying out the will of the people, or calls himself a "socialist" or a "democrat." If the people themselves are not in control, then the system is, by definition, non-democratic and non-socialist.

And what of Nazi Germany? The idea that workers controlled the means of production in Nazi Germany is a bitter joke. It was actually a combination of aristocracy and capitalism. Technically, private businessmen owned and controlled the means of production. The Nazi "Charter of Labor" gave employers complete power over their workers. It established the employer as the "leader of the enterprise," and read: "The leader of the enterprise makes the decisions for the employees and laborers in all matters concerning the enterprise." (1)

The employer, however, was subject to the frequent orders of the ruling Nazi elite. After the Nazis took power in 1933, they quickly established a highly controlled war economy under the direction of Dr. Hjalmar Schacht. Like all war economies, it boomed, making Germany the second nation to recover fully from the Great Depression, in 1936. (The first nation was Sweden, in 1934. Following Keynesian-like policies, the Swedish government spent its way out of the Depression, proving that state economic policies can be successful without resorting to dictatorship or war.)

Prior to the Nazi seizure of power in 1933, worker protests had spread all across Germany in response to the Great Depression. During his drive to power, Hitler exploited this social unrest by promising workers to strengthen their labor unions and increase their standard of living. But these were empty promises; privately, he was reassuring wealthy German businessmen that he would crack down on labor once he achieved power. Historian William Shirer describes the Nazi's dual strategy:

Once in power, Hitler showed his true colors by promptly breaking all his promises to workers. The Nazis abolished trade unions, collective bargaining and the right to strike. An organization called the "Labor Front" replaced the old trade unions, but it was an instrument of the Nazi party and did not represent workers. According to the law that created it, "Its task is to see that every individual should be able… to perform the maximum of work." Workers would indeed greatly boost their productivity under Nazi rule. But they also became exploited. Between 1932 and 1936, workers wages fell, from 20.4 to 19.5 cents an hour for skilled labor, and from 16.1 to 13 cents an hour for unskilled labor. (3) Yet workers did not protest. This was partly because the Nazis had restored order to the economy, but an even bigger reason was that the Nazis would have cracked down on any protest.

There was no part of Nazism, therefore, that even remotely resembled socialism. But what about the political nature of Nazism in general? Did it belong to the left, or to the right? Let's take a closer look:

The politics of Nazism

The political right is popularly associated with the following principles. Of course, it goes without saying that these are generalizations, and not every person on the far right believes in every principle, or disbelieves its opposite. Most people's political beliefs are complex, and cannot be neatly pigeonholed. This is as true of Hitler as anyone. But since the far right is trying peg Hitler as a leftist, it's worth reviewing the tenets popularly associated with the right. These include: Let's review these spectrums one by one, and see where Hitler stood in his own words. Ultimately, Hitler's views are not monolithically conservative -- on a few issues, his views are complex and difficult to label. But as you will see, the vast majority of them belong on the far right:

Individualism over collectivism.

Many conservatives argue that Hitler was a leftist because he subjugated the individual to the state. However, this characterization is wrong, for several reasons.

The first error is in assuming that this is exclusively a liberal trait. Actually, U.S. conservatives take considerable pride in being patriotic Americans, and they deeply honor those who have sacrificed their lives for their country. The Marine Corps is a classic example: as every Marine knows, all sense of individuality is obliterated in the Marines Corps, and one is subject first, foremost and always to the group.

The second error is forgetting that all human beings subscribe to individualism and collectivism. If you believe that you are personally responsible for taking care of yourself, you are an individualist. If you freely belong and contribute to any group -- say, an employing business, church, club, family, nation, or cause -- then you are a collectivist as well. Neither of these traits makes a person inherently "liberal" or "conservative," and to claim that you are an "evil socialist" because you champion a particular group is not a serious argument.

Political scientists therefore do not label people "liberal" or "conservative" on the basis of their individualism or collectivism. Much more important is how they approach their individualism and collectivism. What groups does a person belong to? How is power distributed in the group? Does it practice one-person rule, minority rule, majority rule, or self-rule? Liberals believe in majority rule. Hitler practiced one-person rule. Thus, there is no comparison.

And on that score, conservatives might feel that they are off the hook, too, because they claim to prefer self-rule to one-person rule. But their actions say otherwise. Many of the institutions that conservatives favor are really quite dictatorial: the military, the church, the patriarchal family, the business firm.

Hitler himself downplayed all groups except for the state, which he raised to supreme significance in his writings. However, he did not identify the state as most people do, as a random collection of people in artificially drawn borders. Instead, he identified the German state as its racially pure stock of German or Aryan blood. In Mein Kampf, Hitler freely and interchangeably used the terms "Aryan race," "German culture" and "folkish state." To him they were synonyms, as the quotes below show. There were citizens inside Germany (like Jews) who were not part of Hitler's state, while there were Germans outside Germany (for example, in Austria) who were. But the main point is that Hitler's political philosophy was not really based on "statism" as we know it today. It was actually based on racism -- again, a subject that hits uncomfortably closer to home for conservatives, not liberals.

As Hitler himself wrote: And it was in the service of this racial state that Hitler encourage individuals to sacrifice themselves: Racism or racial segregation over racial tolerance. Eugenics over freedom of reproduction Merit over equality. Competition over cooperation. Power politics and militarism over pacifism.

Allan Bullock, probably the world's greatest Hitler historian, sums up Hitler's political method in one sentence: The following quotes by Hitler portray his rather stunning contempt for pacifism: One-person rule or self-rule over democracy. Capitalism over Marxism.

Bullock writes of Hitler's views on Marxism: As Hitler himself would write: Realism over idealism.

Hitler was hardly an "idealist" in the sense that political scientists use the term. The standard definition of an idealist is someone who believes that cooperation and peaceful coexistence can occur among peoples. A realist, however, is someone who sees the world as an unstable and dangerous place, and prepares for war, if not to deter it, then to survive it. It goes without saying that Hitler was one of the greatest realists of all time. Nonetheless, Hitler had his own twisted utopia, which he described: Nationalism over internationalism. Exclusiveness over inclusiveness. Meat-eating over vegetarianism.

It may seem ridiculous to include this issue in a review of Hitler's politics, but, believe it or not, conservatives on the Internet frequently equate Hitler's vegetarianism with the vegetarianism practised by liberals concerned about the environment and the ethical treatment of animals.

Hitler's vegetarianism had nothing to do with his political beliefs. He became a vegetarian shortly after the death of his girlfriend and half-niece, Geli Raubal. Their relationship was a stormy one, and it ended in her apparent suicide. There were rumors that Hitler had arranged her murder, but Hitler would remain deeply distraught over her loss for the rest of his life. As one historian writes: Hitler's vegetarianism, then, was no more than a phobia, triggered by an association with his niece's death.

Gun ownership over gun control

Perhaps one of the pro-gun lobby's favorite arguments is that if German citizens had had the right to keep and bear arms, Hitler would have never been able to tyrannize the country. And to this effect, pro-gun advocates often quote the following: However, this quote is almost certainly a fraud. There is no reputable record of him ever making it: neither at the Nuremberg rallies, nor in any of his weekly radio addresses. Furthermore, there was no reason for him to even make such a statement; for Germany already had strict gun control as a term of surrender in the Treaty of Versailles. The Allies had wanted to make Germany as impotent as possible, and one of the ways they did that was to disarm its citizenry. Only a handful of local authorities were allowed arms at all, and the few German citizens who did possess weapons were already subject to full gun registration. Seen in this light, the above quote makes no sense whatsoever.

The Firearms Policy Journal (January 1997) writes: On April 12, 1928, five years before Hitler seized power, Germany passed the Law on Firearms and Ammunition. This law substantially tightened restrictions on gun ownership in an effort to curb street violence between Nazis and Communists. The law was ineffectual and poorly enforced. It was not until March 18, 1938 -- five years after Hitler came to power -- that the Nazis passed the German Weapons Law, their first known change in the firearm code. And this law actually relaxed restrictions on citizen firearms.

Common sense over theory or science.

Hitler was notorious for his anti-intellectualism: Pragmatism over principle. Religion over secularism.

Hitler's views on religion were complex. Although ostensibly an atheist, he considered himself a cultural Catholic, and frequently evoked God, the Creator and Providence in his writings. Throughout his life he would remain an envious admirer of the Christian Church and its power over the masses. Here is but one example: Hitler also saw a useful purpose for the Church: Hitler thus advocated freedom of religious belief. Although he would later press churches into the service of Nazism, often at the point of a gun, Hitler did not attempt to impose a state religion or mandate the basic philosophical content of German religions. As long as they did not interfere with his program, he allowed them to continue fuctioning. And this policy was foreshadowed in his writings: Hitler was raised a Catholic, even going to school for two years at the monastery at Lambauch, Austria. As late as 24 he still called himself a Catholic, but somewhere along the way he became an atheist. It is highly doubtful that this was an intellectual decision, as a reading of his disordered thoughts in Mein Kampf will attest. The decision was most likely a pragmatic one, based on power and personal ambition. Bullock reveals an interesting anecdote showing how these considerations worked on the young Hitler. After five years of eking out a miserable existence in Vienna and four years of war, Hitler walked into his first German Worker's Party meeting: Hitler probably realized that a frustrated artist and pipe-dreamer like himself would have no chance of achieving power in the world-wide, 2000-year old Christian Church. It was most likely for this reason that he rejected Christianity and pursued a political life instead. Yet, curiously enough, he never renounced his membership in the Catholic Church, and the Church never excommunicated him. Nor did the Church place his Mein Kampf on the Index of Prohibited Books, in spite of its knowledge of his atrocities. Later the Church would come under intense criticism for its friendly and cooperative relationship with Hitler. A brief review of this history is instructive.

In 1933, the Catholic Center Party cast its large and decisive vote in favor of Hitler's Enabling Bill. This bill essentially gave Chancellor Hitler the sweeping dictatorial powers he was seeking. Historian Guenter Lewy describes a meeting between Hitler and the German Catholic authorities shortly afterwards: As anyone familiar with Christian history knows, the Church has always been a primary source of anti-Semitism. Hitler's anti-Semitism therefore found a receptive audience among Catholic authorities. The Church also had an intense fear and hatred of Russian communism, and Hitler's attack on Russia was the best that could have happened. The Jesuit Michael Serafin wrote: "It cannot be denied that [Pope] Pius XII's closest advisors for some time regarded Hitler's armoured divisions as the right hand of God." (61) As Pope Pius himself would say after Germany conquered Poland: "Let us end this war between brothers and unite our forces against the common enemy of atheism" -- Russia. (62)

Once Hitler assumed power, he signed a Concordat, or agreement, with the Catholic Church. Eugenio Pacelli (the man who would eventually become Pope Pius XII) was the Vatican diplomat who drew up the Concordat, and he considered it a triumph. In return for promises which Hitler increasingly broke, the Church dissolved all Catholic organizations in Germany, including the Catholic Center Party. Bishops were to take an oath of loyalty to the Nazi regime. Clergy were to see to the pastoral care of Germany's armed forces (regardless of what those armed forces did). (63)

The Concordat eliminated all Catholic resistance to Hitler; after this, the German bishops gave Hitler their full and unqualified support. A bishops' conference at Fulda, 1933, resulted in agreement with Hitler's case for extending Lebensraum, or German territory. (64) Bishop Bornewasser told a congregation of Catholic young people at Trier: "With our heads high and with firm steps we have entered the new Reich and are ready to serve it body and soul." (65) Vicar-General Steinman greeted each Berlin mass with the shout, "Heil Hitler!" (66)

Hitler, on the other hand, kept up his attack on the Church. Nazi bands stormed into the few remaining Catholic institutions, beat up Catholic youths and arrested Catholic officials. The Vatican was dismayed, but it did not protest. (67) In some instances, it was hard to tell if the Church supported its own persecution. Hitler muzzled the independent Catholic press (about 400 daily papers in 1933) and subordinated it to Goebbels' Ministry of Propaganda and Enlightenment. Yet soon the Catholic Press was doing more than what the Nazis required of it -- for example, coordinating their Nazi propaganda to prepare the people for the 1940 offensive against the West. (68) Throughout the war, the Catholic press would remain one of the Third Reich's best disseminators of propaganda.

Pacelli became the new Pope Pius XII in 1939, and he immediately improved relations with Hitler. He broke protocol by personally signing a letter in German to Hitler expressing warm hopes of friendly relations. Shortly afterwards, the Church celebrated Hitler's birthday by ringing bells, flying swastika flags from church towers and holding thanksgiving services for the Fuhrer. (69) Ringing church bells to celebrate and affirm the bishops' allegiance to the Reich would become quite common throughout the war; after the German army conquered France, the church bells rang for an entire week, and swastikas flew over the churches for ten days.

But perhaps the greatest failure of Pope Pius XII was his silence over the Holocaust, even though he knew it was in progress. Although there are many heroic stories of Catholics helping Jews survive the Holocaust, they do not include Pope Pius, the Holy See, or the German Catholic authorities. When a reporter asked Pius why he did not protest the liquidation of the Jews, the Pope answered, "Dear friend, do not forget that millions of Catholics are serving in the German armies. Am I to involve them in a conflict of conscience?" (70) As perhaps the world's greatest moral leader, he was charged with precisely that responsibility.

The history of Hitler and the Church reveals a relationship built on mutual distrust and philosophical rejection, but also shared goals, benefits, admiration, envy, friendliness, and ultimate alliance.

Return to Overview


1. William Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1960), p. 263.

2. Ibid., p. 143.

3. Ibid., p. 264.

4. Hitler, quoted in Alan Bullock, Hitler: A Study in Tyranny, abridged edition, (New York: HarperCollins, 1971), p. 228.

5. Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, trans. by Ralph Manheim (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1962), pp. 393-4.

6. Ibid., p. 398.

7. Ibid., p. 297.

8. Ibid., p. 298.

9. Ibid., p. 290.

10. Ibid., pp. 291-2.

11. Ibid., p. 291.

12. Ibid., p. 401.

13. Ibid., p. 402.

14. Ibid., p. 214.

15. Ibid., p. 405.

16. Ibid., p. 404.

17. Ibid., p. 449.

18. Ibid., p. 289.

19. Ibid., p. 516-17.

20. Quoted in Bullock, pp. 11-12.

21. Ibid., p. 230.

22. Hitler, p. 396.

23. Ibid., p. 627.

24. Ibid., p. 288.

25. Ibid., p. 344.

26. Ibid., p. 465.

27. Ibid., p. 81.

28. Ibid., p. 82.

29. Ibid., p. 449.

30. Ibid., p. 60.

31. Ibid., p. 78

32. Ibid., p. 51.

33. Bullock, p. 228-9.

34. Hitler, p. 535.

35. Ibid., p. 155.

36. Quoted in Bullock, p. 102.

37. Hitler, p. 376.

38. Ibid., p. 382.

39. Ibid., p. 65.

40. Ibid., p. 437.

41. Ibid., p. 299.

42. Ibid., p. 338.

43. Ibid., p. 340.

44. Ibid., p. 340.

45. Ibid., p. 284.

46. Ibid., p. 351.

47. The History Place, "The Rise of Adolf Hitler: Success and a Suicide,"

48. Hitler, p. 418.

49. Ibid., p. 429.

50. Ibid., p. 408.

51. Ibid., p. 408.

52. Ibid., p. 346.

53. Ibid., p. 459.

54. Ibid., p. 267.

55. Ibid., p. 116.

56. Ibid., p. 116.

57. Ibid., p. 268.

58. Ibid., p. 563.

59. Bullock, p. 35.

60. Guenter Lewy, The Catholic Church and Nazi Germany (London and New York) 1964, p. 50ff.

61. Friedrich Heer, God's First Love (New York: Weybright and Talley, 1967), p. 320, citing Lewy, pp. 249-250; see also Falconi, Carlo, Il silenzio di Pio XII (Milan) 1965.

62. Heer, p. 319.

63. Lewy, p. 57 ff.

64. Ibid., p. 94 ff.

65. Ibid., p. 100f.

66. Ibid., p. 105.

67. Heer, p. 310.

68. Heer, p. 110.

69. Giovannetti, A., Der Vatikan und der Krieg (Cologne) 1961.

70. Lewy, p. 304.