The doctrines of Nazism swept the developed world long before the Nazis took power.
[Excerpt from Omnipotent Government: The Rise of Total State and Total War (1944), chapter 7]
Hitler and his clique conquered Germany by brutal violence, by murder and crime. But the doctrines of Nazism had got hold of the German mind long before then. Persuasion, not violence, had converted the immense majority of the nation to the tenets of militant nationalism.
If Hitler had not succeeded in winning the race for dictatorship, somebody else would have won it. There were plenty of candidates whom he had to eclipse: Kapp, General Ludendorff, Captain Ehrhardt, Major Papst, Forstrat Escherich, Strasser, and many more. Hitler had no inhibitions and thus he defeated his better instructed or more scrupulous competitors.
Nazism conquered Germany because it never encountered any adequate intellectual resistance. It would have conquered the whole world if, after the fall of France, Great Britain and the United States had not begun to fight it seriously.
The contemporary criticism of the Nazi program failed to serve the purpose. People were busy dealing with the mere accessories of the Nazi doctrine. They never entered into a full discussion of the essence of National Socialist teachings. The reason is obvious. The fundamental tenets of the Nazi ideology do not differ from the generally accepted social and economic ideologies. The difference concerns only the application of these ideologies to the special problems of Germany.
These are the dogmas of present-day “unorthodox” orthodoxy:
- Capitalism is an unfair system of exploitation. It injures the immense majority for the benefit of a small minority. Private ownership of the means of production hinders the full utilization of natural resources and of technical improvements. Profits and interest are tributes which the masses are forced to pay to a class of idle parasites. Capitalism is the cause of poverty and must result in war.
- It is therefore the foremost duty of popular government to substitute government control of business for the management of capitalists and entrepreneurs.
- Price ceilings and minimum wage rates, whether directly enforced by the administration or indirectly by giving a free hand to trade-unions, are an adequate means for improving the lot of the consumers and permanently raising the standard of living of all wage earners. They are steps on the way toward entirely emancipating the masses (by the final establishment of socialism) from the yoke of capital. (We may note incidentally that Marx in his later years violently opposed these propositions. Present-day Marxism, however, endorses them fully.)
- Easy money policy, i.e., credit expansion, is a useful method of lightening the burdens imposed by capital upon the masses and making a country more prosperous. It has nothing to do with the periodical recurrence of economic depression. Economic crises are an evil inherent in unhampered capitalism.
- All those who deny the foregoing statements and assert that capitalism best serves the masses and that the only effective method of permanently improving the economic conditions of all strata of society is progressive accumulation of new capital are ill-intentioned and narrow-minded apologists of the selfish class interests of the exploiters. A return to laissez faire, free trade, the gold standard, and economic freedom is out of the question. Mankind will fortunately never go back to the ideas and policies of the nineteenth century and the Victorian age. (Let us note incidentally that both both Marxism and trade-unionism have the fairest claim to the epithets “nineteenth-century” and “Victorian.”)
- The advantage derived from foreign trade lies exclusively in exporting. Imports are bad and should be prevented as much as possible. The happiest situation in which a nation can find itself is where it need not depend on any imports from abroad. (The “progressives,” it is true, are not enthusiastic about this dogma and sometimes even reject it as a nationalist error; however, their political acts are thoroughly dictated by it.)
With regard to these dogmas there is no difference between present-day British liberals and the British labor party on the one hand and the Nazis on the other. It does not matter that the British call these principles an outgrowth of liberalism and economic democracy while the Germans, on better grounds, call them antiliberal and antidemocratic. It is not much more important that in Germany nobody is free to utter dissenting views, while in Great Britain a dissenter is only laughed at as a fool and slighted.
We do not need to deal here with the refutation of the fallacies in these six dogmas. This is the task of treatises expounding the basic problems of economic theory. It is a task that has already been fulfilled. We need only emphasize that whoever lacks the courage or the insight to attack these premises is not in a position to find fault with the conclusions drawn from them by the Nazis.
The Nazis also desire government control of business. They also seek autarky for their own nation. The distinctive mark of their policies is that they refuse to acquiesce in the disadvantages which the acceptance of the same system by other nations would impose upon them. They are not prepared to be forever “imprisoned,” as they say, within a comparatively overpopulated area in which the productivity of labor is lower than in other countries.
Both the German and foreign adversaries of Nazism were defeated in the intellectual battle against it because they were enmeshed in the same intransigent and intolerant dogmatism. The British Left and the American progressives want all-round control of business for their own countries. They admire the Soviet methods of economic management.
In rejecting German totalitarianism they contradict themselves. The German intellectuals saw in Great Britain’s abandonment of free trade and of the gold standard a proof of the superiority of German doctrines and methods. Now they see that the Anglo-Saxons imitate their own system of economic management in nearly every respect. They hear eminent citizens of these countries declare that their nations will cling to these policies in the postwar period. Why should not the Nazis be convinced, in the face of all this, that they were the pioneers of a new and better economic and social order?
The chiefs of the Nazi party and their Storm Troopers are sadistic gangsters. But the German intellectuals and German labor tolerated their rule because they agreed with the basic social, economic, and political doctrines of Nazism. Whoever wanted to fight Nazism as such, before the outbreak of the present war and in order to avoid it (and not merely to oust the scum which happens to hold office in present-day Germany), would have had to change the minds of the German people. This was beyond the power of the supporters of etatism.
It is useless to search the Nazi doctrines for contradictions and inconsistencies. They are indeed self-contradictory and inconsistent; but their basic faults are those common to all brands of present-day etatism.
One of the most common objections raised against the Nazis concerned the alleged inconsistency of their population policy. It is contradictory, people used to say, to complain, on the one hand, of the comparative overpopulation of Germany and ask for more Lebensraum and to try, on the other hand, to increase the birth rate. Yet there was in the eyes of the Nazis no inconsistency in these attitudes. The only remedy for the evil of overpopulation that they knew was provided by the fact that the Germans were numerous enough to wage a war for more space, while the small nations laboring under the same evil of comparative overpopulation were too weak to save themselves. The more soldiers Germany could levy, the easier it would be to free the nation from the curse of overpopulation. The underlying doctrine was faulty; but one who did not attack the whole doctrine could not convincingly find fault with the endeavors to rear as much cannon fodder as possible.
One reason why the objections raised to the despotism of the Nazis and the atrocities they committed had so little effect is that many of the critics themselves were inclined to excuse the Soviet methods. Hence the German nationalists could claim that their adversaries—both German and foreign—were being unfair to the Nazis in denouncing them for practices which they judged more mildly in the Russians. And they called it cant and hypocrisy when the Anglo-Saxons attacked their racial doctrines. Do the British and the Americans themselves, they retorted, observe the principle of equality of all races?
The foreign critics condemn the Nazi system as capitalist. In this age of fanatical anticapitalism and enthusiastic support of socialism no reproach seems to discredit a government more thoroughly in the eyes of fashionable opinion than the qualification pro-capitalistic. But this is one charge against the Nazis that is unfounded. We have seen in a previous chapter that the Zwangswirtschaft is a socialist system of all-round government control of business.
It is true that there are still profits in Germany. Some enterprises even make much higher profits than in the last years of the Weimar regime. But the significance of this fact is quite different from what the critics believe. There is strict control of private spending.
No German capitalist or entrepreneur (shop manager) or any one else is free to spend money on his consumption than the government considers adequate to his rank and position in the service of the nation. The surplus must be deposited with the banks or invested in domestic bonds or in the stock of German corporations wholly controlled by the government.
Hoarding of money or banknotes is strictly forbidden and punished as high treason. Even before the war there were no imports of luxury goods from abroad, and their domestic production has long since been discontinued. Nobody is free to buy more food and clothing than the allotted ration. Rents are frozen; furniture and all other goods are unattainable.
Travel abroad is permitted only on government errands. Until a short time ago a limited amount of foreign exchange was allotted to tourists who wanted to spend a holiday in Switzerland or Italy. The Nazi government was anxious not to arouse the anger of its then Italian friends by preventing its citizens from visiting Italy.
The case with Switzerland was different. The Swiss Government, yielding to the demands of one of the most important branches of its economic system, insisted that a part of the payment for German exports to Switzerland should be balanced by the outlays of German tourists. As the total amount of German exports to Switzerland and of Swiss exports to Germany was fixed by a bilateral exchange agreement, it was of no concern to Germany how the Swiss distributed the surplus. The sum allotted to German tourists traveling in Switzerland was deducted from that destined for the repayment of German debts to Swiss banks. Thus the stockholders of the Swiss banks paid the expenses incurred by German tourists.
German corporations are not free to distribute their profits to the shareholders. The amount of the dividends is strictly limited according to a highly complicated legal technique. It has been asserted that this does not constitute a serious check, as the corporations are free to water the stock. This is an error. They are free to increase their nominal stock only out of profits made and declared and taxed as such in previous years but not distributed to the shareholders.
As all private consumption is strictly limited and controlled by the government, and as all unconsumed income must be invested, which means virtually lent to the government, high profits are nothing but a subtle method of taxation.
The consumer has to pay high prices and business is nominally profitable. But the greater the profits are, the more the government funds are swelled. The government gets the money either as taxes or as loans. And everybody must be aware that these loans will one day be repudiated.
For many years German business has not been in a position to replace its equipment. At the end of the war the assets of corporations and private firms will consist mainly of worn-out machinery and various doubtful claims against the government. Warring Germany lives on its capital stock, i.e., on the capital nominally and seemingly owned by its capitalists.
The Nazis interpret the attitudes of other nations with regard to the problem of raw materials as an acknowledgment of the fairness of their own claims. The League of Nations has established that the present state of affairs is unsatisfactory and hurts the interests of those nations calling themselves have-nots.
The fourth point of the Atlantic Declaration of August 14, 1941, in which the chiefs of the governments of the United Kingdom and of the United States made known “certain common principles in the national policies of their respective countries on which they base their hope for a better future of the world,” reads as follows: “They will endeavor, with due respect for their existing obligations, to further the enjoyment by all States, great or small, victor or vanquished, of access, on equal terms, to the trade and to the raw materials of the world which are needed for their economic prosperity.”
The Roman Catholic Church is, in a world war, above the fighting parties. There are Catholics in both camps. The Pope is in a position to view the conflict with impartiality. It was, therefore, in the eyes of the Nazis very significant when the Pope discovered the root causes of the war in “that cold and calculating egoism which tends to hoard the economic resources and materials destined for the use of all to such an extent that the nations less favored by nature are not permitted access to them,” and further declared that he saw “admitted the necessity of a participation of all in the natural riches of the earth even on the part of those nations which in the fulfillment of this principle belong to the category of givers and not to that of receivers.”
Well, say the Nazis, everybody admits that our grievances are reasonable. And, they add, in this world which seeks autarky of totalitarian nations, the only way to redress them is to redistribute territorial sovereignty. It was often contended that the dangers of autarky which the Nazis feared were still far away, that Germany could still expand its export trade, and that its per capita income continued to increase. Such objections did not impress the Germans. They wanted to realize economic equality, i.e., a productivity of German labor as high as that of any other nation.
The wage earners of the Anglo-Saxon countries too, they objected, enjoy today a much higher standard of living than in the past. Nevertheless, the “progressives” do not consider this fact a justification of capitalism, but approve of labor’s claims for higher wages and the abolition of the wages system. It is unfair, said the Nazis, to object to the German claims when nobody objects to those of Anglo-Saxon labor.
The weakest argument brought forward against the Nazi doctrine was the pacifist slogan: War does not settle anything. For it cannot be denied that the present state of territorial sovereignty and political organization is the outcome of wars fought in the past. The sword freed France from the rule of the English kings and made it an independent nation, converted America and Australia into white men’s countries, and secured the autonomy of the American republics. Bloody battles made France and Belgium predominantly Catholic and Northern Germany and the Netherlands predominantly Protestant. Civil wars safeguarded the unity of the United States and of Switzerland.
Two efficacious and irrefutable objections could well have been raised against the plans of German aggression. One is that the Germans themselves had contributed as much as they could to the state of affairs that they considered so deplorable. The other is that war is incompatible with the international division of labor. But “progressives” and nationalists were not in a position to challenge Nazism on these grounds. They were not themselves concerned with the maintenance of the international division of labor; they advocated government control of business which must necessarily lead toward protectionism and finally toward autarky.
The fallacious doctrines of Nazism cannot withstand the criticism of sound economics, today disparaged as orthodox. But whoever clings to the dogmas of popular neo-Mercantilism and advocates government control of business is impotent to refute them. Fabian and Keynesian “unorthodoxy” resulted in a confused acceptance of the tenets of Nazism. Its application in practical policies frustrated all endeavors to form a common front of all nations menaced by the aspirations of Nazism.
Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973) taught in Vienna and New York and served as a close adviser to the Foundation for Economic Education. He is considered the leading theorist of the Austrian School of the 20th century.