The person of Hitler is a very interesting one. How could one man be responsible for one of the greatest conflicts this world has ever seen? One answer: he had an idea. Hitler (at least he claimed) read many books of influential German philosophers like Kant, Nietzsche, Hegel and even Marx. He used the writings of these people to gain intellectual prestige and to ground his ideology of Nazism in the writings of famous philosophers. The most unbelievable part is the amount of German (and outside) intellectuals who agreed with the vision of Hitler and actually supported him, even though Jewish friends and mentors were being cast out or killed. How was this possible? This is something I want to find out in a new series on this blog: Hitler’s Philosophy. By looking into the many ideas and histories of famous philosophers, we might find a clue of what Hitler did that made him rise to power. If we can figure that out, then we have a better chance at seeing it rise up again in the present.
The first question we can ask ourselves is: What is fascism? This ideology has grasped many extreme right-wing people, even today. But what is it exactly? Is it just racism or anti-Semitism? Is it authoritarian? These are some of the questions that rise up when we think about fascism. Let’s look a bit deeper.
Before we start though, I want to make a distinction between fascism and Nazism, which I will use kind of synonymously because I am talking mainly about Hitler’s ideas and not about other fascist movements like Italy or Romania, although I will mention them when necessary. Nazism is basically fascism together with racism or anti-Semitism. When you’re a fascist, that does not necessarily mean that you are anti-Semitic. Mussolini had many Jews in his fascist party when it just started. Like I said, I will use these two terms quite interchangeably, but knowing the distinction can be valuable.
Fascism is a relatively new ideology and has its foundation date on March 23, 1919 in Milan where Mussolini created his fascist party. The name fascism comes from the Latin word fasces which was a bundle of wooden rods tied together, and sometimes has an axe tied within it. It was an old Roman symbol for authority. This symbol is also the perfect representation of what fascism holds. The whole function of the wooden rods is to support the axe. The followers of the fascist leader are there to support him, as he is the most important. Fascism is really authoritarian in the sense that one leader should have all the power. This is a direct answer to democracy.
One common complaint about democracy was that when the average person is allowed to vote, that there will be a dictatorship of the majority and because the majority of the people don’t know anything of politics or how to govern a country, the country would degenerate quickly. There was need of an elite to govern the people. It is ironic that it was (mostly) the democratic vote that got Hitler in power in 1933.
Fascism is characteristically atheistic and because of that philosophers like Adorno and Horkheimer have written that fascism was actually a radicalization of the ideas of Enlightenment and modernization. Fascists believed that there was no God and that Darwin actually explained that there was a supreme race among human beings, those proponing eugenics. For Horkheimer and Adorno, fascism was the proof they needed that we should all find better ideals than the ideals of the Enlightenment. In my opinion, this is far from the truth. Instead of radical rationalization as Horkheimer and Adorno claim that fascism is, fascism is actually quite an irrational ideology. The leader plays on the emotions of its subjects rather than their reason. Claiming that eugenics was scientific, while it wasn’t, is not something much different than what Marx did when he called his analysis of socialism scientific, which it also wasn’t. Rather than rationalize for themselves, every subject should just put his faith in the supreme leader. The leader was always right; no matter what you might think. In this way, they didn’t step away from religion. They just created a new God.
Fascism, as we might have guessed, is extremely nationalistic. Hitler is famous for creating movies directed by Leni Riefenstahl in order to promote his ideology of Nazism. The important idea here is to create a beautiful story where one certain people is oppressed by another, while the suppressed people are actually better than the suppressors. For Hitler, it looked like this. The German people were in economic turmoil because of the Great Recession, and many had no money or jobs. The Jews were the one suppressing them, as they were the ones with money. Thus, the German people should rise up and go against the Jewish oppressors. Reminds me of a certain Marx(ist) as well.
Now that you have an enemy, the only thing you need to do is kill the competition. The biggest competition came from the socialists/communists. They were making headway with the average worker. But these activists weren’t particular nationalistic. Marxists didn’t like the boundaries of the state, they were a revolutionary party for the whole world, which is shown in the last sentence of the Communist Manifest: “Proletariat of all countries unite!” But this was a disadvantage that the socialists had. The workers who were a bit more nationalistic joined the fascist parties and quickly became much larger than any socialist party.
Another political group were the conservatives, who didn’t really like the fascist; especially because they were atheists. But when faced with a choice between the socialists and the fascists they eventually joined forces with the fascists in order to be able to govern. It is rather their inactivity that made fascism rise as well.
Fascists are also anti-capitalistic. Mainly because fascism came from a disillusionment of socialism. Fascists didn’t feel represented by socialists and thus turned to fascism. Mussolini was in his early life member of the socialist party, and Hitler named his own party the NSDAP or the National Socialistic German Workers Party. In this way, fascists have quite some things in common with socialistic viewpoints. Fascism also had critique on capitalism and wanted to abolish it (in Nazi Germany because capitalism was seen as something inherently Jewish). But as with all who come in power, they then see the economic growth that capitalism can bring than just use it for their own gain. Using the idea that capitalism is bad when others use, they then incorporate capitalism in their own system.
In many ways fascism is a reactive ideology. It just a reaction to a bad situation for certain people. It doesn’t have the intellectual baggage that Marxism or liberalism has. This explains the need of Hitler to provide an intellectual basis for his ideology of Nazism. He dug deep into the philosophical literature, in search for anti-Semitism, authoritarianism and eugenics. It’s sad to say that he could find this without looking too hard and by bending the ideas of the philosophers a bit to his will. In what comes we will look into the ideas that Hitler used in order to legitimize his crusade and how he was able to put many intellectuals in his spell.