I’m currently reading William L. Shirer’s famous book, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, and am enjoying it immensely. Even though the book was panned by historians when it was first published, it’s still a wonderful read. It conveys the basic facts of the Third Reich in a fun and informative way. However, upon reading the book, I’ve noticed some striking similarities between the viewpoints of William L Shirer and F.A. Hayek on how a regime like the Third Reich could possibly come to power.
Hayek in The Road to Serfdom used the intellectual history of Germany (as opposed to its economic or social history) to support his main arguments about rise of facism in Nazi Germany. Hayek viewed the rise of Nazism as the culmination of a long historical process of Germany moving away from 19th century English liberalism:
It is significant that this change in the trend of ideas has coincided with a reversal of the direction in which ideas have travelled in space. For over two hundred years English ideas had been spreading eastwards. The rule of freedom which had been achieved in England seemed destined to spread throughout the world. 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 “organisation” or “planning” of a less radical kind, German ideas were everywhere readily imported and German institutions imitated. Although most of the new ideas, and particularly socialism, did not originate in Germany, it was in 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. (Hayek 1944: 21-22)
From this, you get all of Hayek’s points about how the rise of facism simply reflects the socialist tendencies of the European countries that rejected English liberalism, e.g. “the rise of Fascism and Nazism was not a reaction against the socialist trends of the preceding period, but a necessary outcome of those tendencies” (Hayek 1944: 4). Socialism and Nazism are merely two sides of the same coin.
Shirer made a similar argument, but he took a different angle. He put more emphasis on Germany’s (specifically Prussia’s) militarism:
Bismarck’s crowning achievement, the creation of the Second Reich, came on January 18, 1871, when King Wilhelm I of Prussia was proclaimed Emperor of Germany in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. Germany had been unified by Prussian armed force. It was now the greatest power on the Continent; its only rival in Europe was England.
Yet there was a fatal flaw. The German Empire, as Treitschke said, was in reality but an extension of Prussia. ”Prussia,” he emphasized, ”is the dominant factor . . . The will of the Empire can be nothing but the will of the Prussian state.” This was true, and it was to have disastrous consequences for the Germans themselves. From 1871 to 1933 and indeed to Hitler’s end in 1945, the course of German history as a consequence was to run, with the exception of the interim of the Weimar Republic, in a straight line and with utter logic.
Despite the democratic facade put up by the establishment of the Reichstag, whose members were elected by universal manhood suffrage, the German Empire was in reality a militarist autocracy ruled by the King of Prussia, who was also Emperor. The Reichstag possessed few powers; it was little more than a debating society where the representatives of the people let off steam or bargained for shoddy benefits for the classes they represented. The throne had the power – by divine right. (Shirer 1960: 86)
This is known as the Sonderweg or “from Luther to Hitler” thesis and is in several ways similar to Hayek’s argument in RtS. First, let’s be clear that the content of the Sonderweg and Hayek’s RtS is somewhat different. Hayek does not have the same fatalist outlook of Shirer and other historians that support the “from Luther to Hitler” thesis. Secondly, Hayek analyzed a completely different sort of intellectual development, giving more significance to anything the he perceived to be a break from English liberalism and then calling it socialism. While it’s true that Shirer looked at figures such as Hegel, Nietzsche, and other intellectuals that you could say are sympathetic to socialism (although this would be wildly incorrect), he put more emphasis on the militaristic and nationalist roots (e.g. Johann Gottlieb Fichte and Heinrich von Treitschke) of German intellectual thought. He doesn’t really talk about the connection between socialism and Nazism. He often does just the opposite, stressing that Hitler had little interest in economics. However, the character of the two arguments is very similar in their linearity. Both analyzed the same historical period (1871 to 1933) and drew a “straight line” from earlier German intellectual thought to Nazism. Neither person took a serious look at the social and economic dynamics of Germany history and how that could have contributed to the rise of Nazism.
Let me be clear that I’m not hating on Shirer or his book. I still think there’s a lot of good history in there. But there’s a reason his book was heavily criticized by historians when it was first published in 1960. It had a very simplistic thesis that didn’t even reflect the state of historical opinion in the 1960s, a mere 15 years after World War II!
1. Epstein, Klaus. “Shirer’s History of Nazi Germany.” The Review of Politics ROP 23.02 (1961): 230-245.
2. Evans, Richard J. The Coming of the Third Reich. New York: Penguin, 2004. Print.
3. Hayek, Friedrich A. Von. The Road to Serfdom. Chicago, IL: U of Chicago, 1944. Print.
4. Shirer, William L. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich; a History of Nazi Germany. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1960. Print.