Don’t ever call Hitler a socialist

By branding political extremists “socialists” or “conservatives” we allow them the entry into the mainstream that they crave.

Hitler wasn’t a socialist. I’ve never spoken to him about it, obviously, but I think I’m on safe ground here.

In the past week, a debate began chugging along merrily following the suspension of Rachel Frosh from the Tory party candidates’ list. Frosh’s crime was to retweet the kind invitation “Dear Socialists, embrace your inner Nazism”, followed by a link to Adolf channelling his inner Keir Hardie: “We are Socialists, we are enemies of today’s capitalistic economic system,” the wannabe dictator said in 1927. Cue lots of excited blogging about how Hitler has spent the past 80 years giving the right a bad name, when he was just a poor man’s Nye Bevan.

“There is an accepted mainstream view that the origins of Nazism lie in socialism, or that they have common roots,” Frosh wrote in a piece for one right-wing website. Her definition of the “accepted mainstream” turned out to be something about Hayek written on Wikipedia.

“I believe Nazisim [sic] and Fascism to have far more in common with socialism than conservatism,” wrote the blogger Iain Dale. “The clue is the phrase ‘National Socialism’.” On which basis, the German Democratic Republic was presumably a flourishing democracy.

According to the Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan, “Almost everyone in those days accepted that Fascism had emerged from the revolutionary left.” Which is true, so long as you ignore what happened to Hitler’s old comrades during the Night of the Long Knives.

Anyone who has studied Hitler’s rise to power knows he was no socialist. He was an opportunist, even a political schizophrenic. Which served him well, because in a Weimar Republic struggling – and failing catastrophically – to come to terms with military humiliation, a crisis of national identity and an economic implosion, ideology was a moveable feast. Indeed, it was so moveable, it opened the door to Hitler’s rise to power. “Who cares what he thinks?” Germany said to herself. “He’ll do for now.”

Pin the ideology on the Führer is a fun game. Actually, it’s quite a tasteless game. But we can all play it. “The government will not protect the economic interests of the German people by the circuitous method of an economic bureaucracy to be organised by the state, but by the utmost furtherance of private initiative and by the recognition of the rights of property,” Hitler told the Reichstag in 1933. Not exactly the words of a man about to break into a rendition of “The Red Flag”.

But does it matter? Yes, it does, actually. Hitler wasn’t a socialist, nor was he a conservative. He was a political mutation. And to try to place him anywhere on the conventional political spectrum is not just to abuse history but to play a dangerous game with the future.

Hitler has gone but his progeny are very much alive. In Hungary, they are calling for a register of Jews to be drawn up. One, a mass murderer, is languishing in a Norwegian jail. A few are pushing their leaflets through the front doors on east London housing estates.

There is one thing political extremists crave more than anything else and that is entry to the mainstream – and by branding such people “socialists” or “conservatives” we unlatch the door and pull back the bolt.

Hitler was Hitler, a grotesque one-off. Or he will be, if we avoid bestowing unnecessary respectability on those who dream of following him.

 

Nazi German dictator Adolf Hitler addresses members of the Hitler Youth Movement at Nuremberg. Photograph: Getty Images

This article first appeared in the 04 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The fall of Pistorius

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What Donald Trump could learn from Ronald Reagan

Reagan’s candidacy was built on more than his celebrity. Trump not only lacks experience as an elected official, he isn’t part of any organised political movement.

“No one remembers who came in second.” That wisdom, frequently dispensed by the US presidential candidate Donald Trump, came back to haunt him this week. Trump’s loss in the Iowa Republican caucuses to the Texas senator Ted Cruz, barely beating Senator Marco Rubio of Florida for second place, was the first crack in a campaign that has defied all expectations.

It has been a campaign built on Trump’s celebrity. Over the past eight months, his broad name recognition, larger-than-life personality and media savvy have produced a theatrical candidacy that has transfixed even those he repels. The question now is whether that celebrity will be enough – whether a man so obsessed with being “Number One” can bounce back from defeat.

Iowa isn’t everything, after all. It didn’t back the eventual Republican nominee in 2008 or 2012. Nor, for that matter, in 1980, when another “celebrity” candidate was in the mix. That was the year Iowa picked George H W Bush over Ronald Reagan – the former actor whom seasoned journalists dismissed as much for his right-wing views as for his “B-movie” repertoire. But Reagan regrouped, romped to victory in the New Hampshire primary and rode a wave of popular support all the way to the White House.

Trump might hope to replicate that success and has made a point of pushing the Reagan analogy more generally. Yet it is a comparison that exposes Trump’s weaknesses and his strengths.

Both men were once Democrats who came later in life to the Republican Party, projecting toughness, certainty and unabashed patriotism. Trump has even adopted Reagan’s 1980 campaign promise to “make America great again”. Like Reagan, he has shown he can appeal to evangelicals despite question marks over his religious conviction and divorces. In his ability to deflect criticism, too, Trump has shown himself as adept as Reagan – if by defiance rather than by charm – and redefined what it means to be “Teflon” in the age of Twitter.

That defiance, however, points to a huge difference in tone between Reagan’s candidacy and Trump’s. Reagan’s vision was a positive, optimistic one, even as he castigated “big government” and the perceived decline of US power. Reagan’s America was meant to be “a city upon a hill” offering a shining example of liberty to the world – in rhetoric at least. Trump’s vision is of an America closed off from the world. His rhetoric invokes fear as often as it does freedom.

On a personal level, Reagan avoided the vituperative attacks that have been the hallmark of Trump’s campaign, even as he took on the then“establishment” of the Republican Party – a moderate, urban, east coast elite. In his first run for the nomination, in 1976, Reagan even challenged an incumbent Republican president, Gerald Ford, and came close to defeating him. But he mounted the challenge on policy grounds, advocating the so-called “Eleventh Commandment”: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” Trump, as the TV debates between the Republican presidential candidates made clear, does not subscribe to the same precept.

More importantly, Reagan in 1976 and 1980 was the leader of a resurgent conservative movement, with deep wells of political experience. He had been president of the Screen Actors Guild in the late 1940s, waging a campaign to root out communist infiltrators. He had gone on to work for General Electric in the 1950s as a TV pitchman and after-dinner speaker, honing a business message that resonated beyond the “rubber chicken circuit”.

In 1964 he grabbed headlines with a televised speech on behalf of the Republican presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater – a bright spot in Goldwater’s otherwise ignominious campaign. Two years later he was elected governor of California – serving for eight years as chief executive of the nation’s most populous state. He built a conservative record on welfare reform, law and order, and business regulation that he pushed on to the federal agenda when he ran for president.

All this is to say that Reagan’s candidacy was built on more than his celebrity. By contrast, Trump not only lacks experience as an elected official, he isn’t part of any organised political movement – which enhanced his “outsider” status, perhaps, but not his ground game. So far, he has run on opportunism, tapping in to popular frustration, channelled through a media megaphone.

In Iowa, this wasn’t enough. To win the nomination he will have to do much more to build his organisation. He will be hoping that in the primaries to come, voters do remember who came in second. 

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war