Hayek on the Nazis

In a previous post, I gave a short overview on the history behind Hayek’s Road to Serfdom. Now I’m going to start with the main point of this series, to see whether or not Hayek’s history on Germany and Nazism is accurate. While Hayek’s book is a work of political philosophy, he makes various historical claims on Nazi Germany to support his case, claims that I think are very wrong. If in fact they are wrong, this would raise several implications about the rest of Hayek’s book. But before I analyze the history leading up to the creation of the Third Reich, it is necessary to go over what Hayek actually said about Nazi Germany.

Just like his writings prior to The Road to SerfdomHayek started his book by trying to connect Nazism and National Socialism to a wider stream of ideas that have pervaded German history and culture. We need to only look at the title of the first chapter of RtS, “The Abandoned Road” to see this. Hayek talked about how much of the western world has departed from its 19th century roots of classical liberalism and is now moving towards socialism. While focusing specifically on Germany, Hayek claimed that this process took root as early as 1870:

By about 1870 the reign of these ideas had probably reached its easternmost expansion. From then onwards it began to retreat and a different set of ideas, not really new but very old, began to advance from the East. England lost her intellectual leadership in the political and social sphere and became an importer of ideas. For the next sixty years Germany became the centre from which the ideas destined to govern the world in the twentieth century spread east and west. Whether it was Hegel or Marx, List or Schmoller, Sombart or Mannheim, whether it was socialism in its more radical form or merely “organization” or “planning” of a less radical king, Germany ideas were everyone readily imported and German institutions imitated. Although most of the new ideas, and particularly socialism, did not originate in Germany, it was Germany that they were perfected and during the last quarter of the nineteenth and the first quarter of the twentieth century they reached their fullest development.

Within this period of history, Hayek looked to National Socialism as a decisive step in the destruction of liberalism in Germany and “of that civilization which modern man had built from the age of the Renaissance and which was above all an individualist civilization.” While German socialists were one of the main political opponents of the Nazis, all this proves is that practically all German citizens were socialists and that liberalism was truly a dead political movement in Germany. How Hayek gets to this point is a little odd, but he elaborates more later in the book (1).

Throughout RtS Hayek compared some of the perceived similarities between socialism and Nazism on topics such as political philosophy, government, economics, etc. Some of the more direct and explicit comparisons include:

1.  The “moral” state, i.e. a state which uses institutions which imposes on its members a set of moral standards and views (Hayek 1944: 80).

2.  A contempt for the Rule of Law (Hayek 1944: 82).

3.  The dominance of politics and government over economics, i.e. economic forces need to work for the government as opposed to some other ends. (Hayek 1944: 117)

4. Their instruments of indoctrination (Hayek 1944: 117-118)

5. That activities must be justified from the standpoint of the collective. “There must be no spontaneous, unguided activity” (Hayek 1944: 166).

Hayek made other comparison’s throughout the book, but I don’t need cover all of them.

Arguably the most important chapter of RtS, at least from a historical standpoint, is Chapter 12, “The Socialist Roots of Nazism”, which relies heavily on Rohan Butler’s book, The Roots of National Socialism. Here Hayek argued that many of the policies that were pursued by the German ruling class (prior to the rise of Nazism) were not opposed to socialism and Marxism per se, but only to the liberal elements contained in them e.g. internationalism and democracy. Hayek goes through a list of German thinkers to support his claim above. He quoted German intellectuals such as Werner Sombart, Johann Plenge, Paul Lensch, and Moeller van den Bruck to trace the evolution of German history, as well as the evolution of socialist thought, and tried to connect it to the wider movement of National Socialism. Hayek concluded the chapter with this message:

Fight against liberalism in all its forms, liberalism that had defeated Germany, was the common idea which united socialists and conservatives in one common front. At first it was mainly in the German Youth Movement, almost entirely socialist in inspiration and outlook, where these ideas were most readily accepted and the fusion of socialism and nationalism completed. In the later ‘twenties and till the advent to power of Hitler a circle of young men gathered round the journal Die Tat and led by Ferdinand Fried became the chief exponent of this tradition in the intellectual sphere. Fried’s Ende des Kapitalismus is perhaps the most characteristic product of this group of Edelnazis, as they were known in Germany, and is particularly disquieting because of its resemblance to so much of the literature which we see in England to-day, where we can watch the same drawing together of the socialists of the Left and the Right, and nearly the same contempt of all that is liberal in the old sense. “Conservative Socialism” (and, in other circles, “Religious Socialism”) was the slogan under which a large number of writers prepared the atmosphere in which “National-Socialism” succeeded. It is “conservative socialism” which is the dominant trend in this country now. Had the war against the Western powers “with the weapons of the spirit and of economic organisation” not almost succeeded before the real war began?

To summarize, Hayek used his knowledge of German history and the evolution of socialist thought in Germany to trace a long path of intellectual history and eventually connect it to the political movement known as “National Socialism”. He then compared the views of Nazism and socialism on various issues (e.g. political philosophy, government, economics, etc…) and concluded that there are enough parallels to claim that socialism and Nazism are basically the same thing. And from all of this you get the rest of Hayek’s arguments on the flaws of socialism and the dangers it poses to individual liberty and Western Society. When put together this is a pretty sophisticated view (especially when we consider the time period that this book was written) on not only the history of Germany, but also the origins and roots of Nazism. Unfortunately, I think there are some severe problems with this take on German history.


1.For example, he claims that many of the leaders of fascist movement in Germany, Italy, and other European countries started out as socialists (the names he gives are Mussolini, Pierre Laval, and Vidkun Quisling).


1. Hayek, Friedrich A. Von. The Road to Serfdom. Chicago, IL: U of Chicago, 1944. Print.



Filed under History, Home, Politics

3 responses to “Hayek on the Nazis

  1. Another enjoyable post, but the first paragraph misleads on the rest of the post a little. Just a small point for future posts. Also, review posts are tough. I try them all the time, but they are hard. It’s like a long build up in a movie without an action seen. It just ends and waits…

    Anyways, back to the substance.

    Let me put the qualifier that history (especially German history) and history of political thought are not my area of “expertise.” Not that I really have any expertise, but I am more familiar with Hayek’s work on business cycles, information, and spontaneous orders.

    That being said- I do think your look into the actual history is important. The political dynamics of 140 years ago seems obscure and hard to follow. It is easy to read RtS without looking into the historical claims. I know I have very little evidence to rebuff Hayek. If the history is wrong, the grand story is less compelling.

    I think Hayek’s point was that Nazism does not just spring out of the air. A society does not go from liberalism to Nazism without a very general change of opinion. This change does not mean that everyone becomes Nazis, but many people must become sympathetic to Nazism. Hayek is working to show how all of these different strands of though have a common opponent, liberalism. It’s a convincing argument to me and I read you as accepting it. “liberalism was truly dead as a political movement in Germany.”

    I think you are two quick to accept that socialists and National socialists being political opponents somehow guarantees they were ideological opponents. I think the argument is likely the reverse. True ideological opponents are rarely powerful political opponents unless a society is greatly divided.

    There is too much influence from the median voter for the division to exist. In Germany, these two strands of socialism were fighting over the same supporters. They are fighting over a big chunk of the German population, who were against liberalism. The parties didn’t need to fight over liberals since they will never win them and they are small.

    The same idea holds today in American politics. Republicans and Democrats are not true ideological opponents. They are rather similar and fight over the same group of people. They don’t fight over socialists, anarchists (left or right), communists, or whatever. Reps and Dems have common ideological opponents despite being political opponents. I can’t imagine a situation where anarchists are a real political opponent of these parties.

    Hayek is talking about huge differences in ideology, between socialism and liberalism, not just political differences. Ideological differences guarantee political differences. The reverse is not true.

    Again, this is not my field so feel free to ignore anything Is say 🙂

    • Thanks for the feedback!

      Hayek has a pretty specific argument on why and how the Nazi’s came to power, and that’s where I think he gets it very wrong. It’s not really about the ideological differences between socialism and National Socialism. While there are some ideological differences (some very important ones that Hayek doesn’t cover), I’m willing to admit that there are also some similarities too. But that doesn’t explain why so many people supported National Socialism.

      As you say,”Hayek is working to show how all of these different strands of though have a common opponent, liberalism.“, and that’s pretty much correct. Hayek is tracing the history of political and economic thought in Germany, showing how it was hostile to liberalism, and how that led to the rise of Nazism. However, I think this mechanism does a bad job of explaining:

      1. How the Nazis came to power
      2. Why they had so much popular appeal among the German citizens

      Many people (including Hayek) forget that most Germans that were politically involved were not socialists. There was the Social Democrat Party, The Centre Party, the German Liberal Party (which was very powerful prior to World War I), and other political parties. All of these parties, although not strictly classical liberal by any means, held several political positions that would fall within the range of classical liberal thought (a very wide spectrum of thought). So these people were not outright against liberalism and who certainly didn’t support socialism. Yet Hitler could not have gained political power as fast as he did without votes from these people. How did Hitler mobilize this “rainbow coalition”? That’s where Hayek falls short. So my problem with Hayek’s thesis is that he never really shows how the intellectual history of Germany (that was hostile to liberalism) lead to “the majority of the German was hostile to liberalism which lead to the rise of Nazism.”

  2. Pingback: On the Similarities between F.A. Hayek and William L. Shirer | Irrepressible Thought

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