Adolf Hitler and his followers in the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP) expressed a strong commitment to values and ideas. Under Hitler’s leadership, the NSDAP developed its own ideology that informed both its methods and objectives. They called this ideology National Socialism; today it is more commonly referred to as Nazism. This page discusses the evolution of Nazi ideology
To outsiders, Nazism seems to have been fundamentally ideological. While Nazism undoubtedly shared common ideas and prejudices, Nazi ideology itself was relatively fluid. It changed over time as conditions and situations required. It could also be broad, general or even vague.
The Nazi Party published very few clear and definitive expressions of its ideology. Two of the best-known articulations of Nazi ideology were the NSDAP’s 25 Points (drafted in 1920) and Hitler’s rambling memoir Mein Kampf (1924).
In many respects, Nazi ideology was defined by Hitler himself. It was contained in his speeches, policy statements and orders. It changed frequently over time, as Hitler’s objectives changed, and was often confusing or contradictory.
Nazism was one of three radical ideologies to appear in Europe after World War I.
Fascism, often dubbed the ‘older brother’ of Nazism, took shape in Italy during the war. Devised largely by Benito Mussolini, fascism rejected socialism and democracy in favour of an authoritarian political and economic system, dominated by a single leader.
Soviet socialism, a left-wing ideology with elements of totalitarianism, emerged in Russia after the 1917 revolution. It began as a movement to overthrow capitalism and replace it with a ‘workers’ dictatorship’. In the end, Russia ended up in the hands of Hitler’s rival dictator, Joseph Stalin, who cared little about the lives or well-being of workers.
Nazism had some similarities to both – but it was also a distinctly national phenomenon, drawing on ideas, events and traditions peculiar to Germany. National Socialism was developed by hardline nationalists whose only interest was the future of Germany and German-speaking Aryan people. As a consequence, they had little interest in creating an international movement, exporting their ideas to other countries or changing the world outside Europe. The restoration of German economic and military supremacy was their chief concern.
The two cornerstone documents of Nazi ideology were the NSDAP’s 25 Points (1920) and Hitler’s autobiography, Mein Kampf (1924). Nazi ideas were also outlined or discussed in many of Hitler’s speeches. None of these sources was constitutional in nature, however. They offered little detail about how Nazi ideas should work in practice.
Hitler seemed to prefer that expressions of Nazi ideology were short, simple and broadly framed. At several times in the 1920s, Hitler resisted proposals to expand or re-draft the party’s 25 Points, declaring them “inviolable”. This was probably a deliberate strategy. If Nazi ideology was outlined vaguely or in general terms, Hitler was free to interpret or re-invent it as he saw fit.
10 principles of Nazi ideology
While Nazi ideology was open to interpretation and changed over time, it held firm to a number of core values and beliefs. The following 10 principles were a consistent feature of Nazi ideology:
The Nazis desired strong government and extensive state power. They believed the Nazi state could not function effectively if it lacked the means to impose its will and enforce its policies. Decisions were to be made by a leader with almost absolute power (a Fuhrer). All political authority and sovereignty rested with this leader, who should be trusted by the people to make important decisions on their behalf (Fuhrerprinzip). No political parties or organisations other than the NSDAP could be tolerated. Other groups with political influence, such as unions or churches, would be either restricted or abolished.
To the Nazis, state power had few limits and extended into all aspects of German political, social and cultural life. They believed it was the government’s duty not just to devise policy but to shape, coordinate and regulate society for the betterment of the nation. A totalitarian government must have the power to control the press and unions, restrict civil liberties, manage education and employ propaganda. Liberal freedoms from government power – such as civil liberties, individual rights and freedoms – were considered irrelevant and subordinate to the interests of the state.
Nazism was chiefly a nationalist ideology. It was concerned only with Germany and its interests: restoring the German economy, achieving economic self-sufficiency, rebuilding its military, acquiring territory and providing for the German people. The Nazis had little interest in forming or improving international relationships, other than to advance German interests. They detested diplomacy and despised multilateral groups like the League of Nations. Hitler and his followers had no intention of honouring or abiding by existing foreign treaties or negotiating new ones, except where it might help fulfil their own objectives.
Hitler and his followers believed that re-arming and expanding Germany’s armed forces was essential for the defence of the nation. Rearmament was carried out in defiance of the restrictions imposed by the Treaty of Versailles. Hitler considered military strength essential for expanding the German state. The organisation and culture of the NSDAP were fundamentally militaristic. This was evidenced by the size and popularity of the party’s paramilitary groups: the Sturmabteilung (SA) and Schutzstaffel (SS).
Hitler and the Nazis dreamed of unifying the German-speaking Aryan peoples of Europe into a greater German state. To achieve this, Hitler believed his regime would need to acquire lebensraum, or ‘living space’, to accommodate the needs of the new Germany. This living space would be seized from the non-Aryan people of eastern Europe, from countries like Czechoslovakia, Poland and Russia. The first step to creating a greater Germany would be to achieve Anschluss: the union of Germany and Austria.
6. A ‘third way’
The horrors of World War I and the Great Depression saw many people reject existing political and economic systems, such as parliamentary democracy and capitalism. Socialism emerged as one alternative – but both Nazism and fascism considered themselves ‘third-way’ ideologies, or alternatives to both democracy and socialism. Hitler was famously hostile to democracy, which he considered a weak and indecisive form of government, too prone to interference and infiltration by destructive forces. He also despised communism, regarding it as a Jewish invention to enslave non-Jewish races.
7. Economic sovereignty
Economic power, prosperity and self-sufficiency were priorities for the NSDAP. The Nazis sought the creation of jobs for unemployed Germans, the restoration of national prosperity, the recovery of industrial production and the rearming of the military. They believed the role of the state was to manage the economy, dictating what should be produced, allocating resources and managing labour. Unemployment would be dealt with by putting the unemployed to work for the benefit of the state. The Nazis had no objection to the private ownership of capital, provided these capitalists were willing to meet government priorities (and provided they were not Jewish).
8. Traditional values
Conservative traditions were a strong feature of Nazi ideology. The Nazis often painted themselves as a new movement but they also promoted traditional values. Hitler frequently spoke of protecting long-standing German values, including Christian beliefs and volkisch connections to the land. He often harked back to the 19th century, when Germany was ruled by men of steel like Otto von Bismarck and German society was relatively untroubled by disruptive influences like socialism, liberalism, democracy and women’s rights.
9. Racial theories
Their dark obsession with race separated Hitler and the Nazis from many other fascist and nationalist groups. The Nazis considered Aryans – those of Nordic heritage, with blonde hair and blue eyes – Europe’s ‘master race’. According to Nazi racial theories, Aryans were physically stronger, intellectually advanced and more culturally gifted than other European races. The Nazis considered races like Jews, Slavs and Romany to be untermensch (‘inferior men’). The Nazis embraced the pseudo-science of eugenics, that claimed society could be improved by adopting policies of ‘genetic hygiene’, such as the compulsory sterilisation or euthanasia of the mentally ill or disabled.
Translating as ‘people’s community’, Volksgemeinschaft did not originate with the Nazis. Instead, it came from the difficult years of World War I. The principle of volksgemeinschaft was that all Germans should unite and work together to reduce differences in class, wealth and standards of living. In reality, the Nazis had no interest in this kind of levelling or social unity – yet volksgemeinschaft figured heavily in NSDAP propaganda. This gave the impression that Nazism was a cohesive and unifying movement.
Right wing or left wing?
Was Nazism a right-wing or left-wing ideology? Conventional understanding suggests Nazism and fascism occupied the far right-wing of the political spectrum, with socialism on the far left. This assessment is based on the idea that the political spectrum is linear, i.e. a straight line, which many suggest is a simplistic representation of political views.
Some historians and political commenters argue that Nazism had more common with Stalinist socialism than true conservatism. Hitler and Stalin were both totalitarian leaders who disposed of political rivals and dissenters. Both regimes placed the needs of the state over those of the individual. Both harnessed and controlled the economy to meet national priorities. Both sought to expand their nations, Hitler to the east, Stalin to the south and the west.
There were some critical differences between Nazism and Stalinism, however, particularly in their economic policy. Private ownership of capital was permitted in Nazi Germany but outlawed in Soviet Russia. Under Hitler, Germany’s industrial moguls became even wealthier while small business owners were frequently praised and encouraged. Privately-owned capital was only seized if it belonged to Jews.
Both dictators sought to revive industrial production but used different approaches. Both had different views and policies with regard to class, race and gender.
French philosopher Jean-Pierre Faye suggests Nazism and Stalinist socialism occupied different ends of a horseshoe (see diagram above). They were opposed to each other ideologically but shared some goals and methods.
A historian’s view:
“Before total war, Nazism was a potpourri. Racialism and nationalism jostled shoulders with the socialistic revolutionary conservatism of many members of the Mittelstand (middle class). Romantic ideas came from right-wing youth groups. Hitler could utter the gospel of anti-capitalism to workers and the gospel of profits to businessmen. It was a rag-bag of inconsistent and incoherent ideas.”
1. The Nazis called their ideology National Socialism while today it is generally referred to as Nazism. Unlike other political ideologies, it was not articulated in much detail but was broadly defined in Mein Kampf and the NSDAP’s 25 Points.
2. At its core, Nazism revolved around an all-powerful leader, a strong state, intense nationalism, a focus on militarism and military strength, the subordination of the individual to national interests and purity of race.
3. Nazism sought to repair German supremacy by restoring the economy, putting the unemployed to work, reviving industrial production, rearming the military and ignoring foreign treaties.
4. The Nazis also harked back to traditional 19th-century values of authoritarian government, social conservatism and Christian beliefs, reinforcing these in rhetoric and propaganda.
5. Though not identical, the Nazis utilised similar methods and approaches to those employed by Stalinist socialism in Russia. This has raised the question whether the two ideologies are as far removed as has previously been claimed.