Nazism and Neoliberal Mythmaking, Part II: The State as Killer


In the first part of this series we laid out how those who wanted political power in post-war Western Germany sought out a myth with which they could at once wipe of the Nazi past and push their ideological line. As we saw the ordoliberals were the ones who were successful in gaining power over the German myth-machine. They claimed that Nazism was simply the natural outgrowth of rampant statism gone wild – a mythic interpretation shared by their ideological cousins and fellow Mont Pelerin Society members, the Austrian school. We now examine in detail the relationship between Nazism and the state.

Nazism as Anti-Statism

In the minds of many today, on both the right and the left, Nazism is associated with a big totalitarian state. On this the Austrians, the ordoliberals and Western Marxists agree. Yet in practice Nazism destroyed or at least vastly reduced the state’s power and this was quite well recognised at the time. Hitler and the Nazis saw modern state-forms – both liberal and socialist – as being entirely degenerate. They believed that these state-forms were, in a way, not ‘natural’ enough in that they alienated people from their true Essence and Destiny – not to mention their race and their kin. Hitler himself put forward quite explicitly the idea that a state must exist in Nazi society but that it also must be wholly subordinate to other goals. In his chapter on the state in Mein Kampf he writes:

The State is only a means to an end. Its end and its purpose is to preserve and promote a community of human beings who are physically as well as spiritually kindred. Above all, it must preserve the existence of the race, thereby providing the indispensable condition for the free development of all the forces dormant in this race. A great part of these faculties will always have to be employed in the first place to maintain the physical existence of the race. (pp306)

 We see here, of course, the germs for the extermination programs that were carried out by the Nazis when they came to power. However, at the same time we see that for the Nazis the state is a wholly secondary concern – a “means to an end”, as Hitler says. The goal of the Nazis was not to ensure that the state reached into every crack and crevice of German society and take it over, as is the typical modern day characterisation of what so-called totalitarianism is supposedly all about, but instead the state was seen by the Nazis as something that needs to be wholly subordinated to the peoples’ community – the Volksgemeinschaft.

Although people today do not generally recognise this aspect of Nazism, the first generation ordoliberals had lived through the period of Nazism and tarried with the stated goals of Nazism in a far more sustained manner than your average lazy Austrian or neoliberal ideologue does today. They understood what the Nazis were aiming at but they claimed that they had achieved exactly the opposite. The ordoliberals recognised that the Nazis wanted to completely subordinate the state but they claimed that the economic planning that Nazism required led to the necessity of a massive totalitarian state which was all-encompassing. The French philosopher Michel Foucault in his lecture series The Birth of Biopolitics which is essential reading for anyone interested in the origins of neoliberalism, ordoliberalism and Austrianism, summarises the argument as such:

Deciphering the situation [that Nazism aimed at subordinating or even destroying the state], the ordoliberals reply: Don’t be deceived. The state is apparently disappearing; it has apparently been subordinated and reduced. Nonetheless it remains the case that if the state is subordinated in this way, it is quite simply because the traditional forms of the nineteenth century state cannot stand up to this new demand for state control that the economic policy of the Third Reich calls for. In fact… you will need a super-state to make it work. (pp112)

The ordoliberals reasoned that Nazism’s reduction of the state was precisely what gave rise to the totalitarian super-state that invaded every aspect of peoples’ lives. No longer was the state confined to the courtroom or the bureaucracy, but now leisure activities would be organised by the state and mass state rallies would play the same role as team sports plays in other societies. The ordoliberals then made the further claim that when the state began to extend its reach in democratic society – as, for instance, in Keynesian economic planning – those that held power would suddenly begin to feel a surging desire for infinite power and the state’s tentacles would weave their way through all of society and finally, presumably, a Hitler would spontaneously sprout at the head.

Not only does this, to repeat, not square with the actual history of the Nazis’ rise to power, but it also completely misunderstands the nature of the rise of Nazism. Nazism did in fact succeed in subordinating and reducing the state and it was certainly not born because of state expansion. Under Nazism the state became a completely peripheral entity – a means of administration and not an end, just as Hitler had written. It was not what was important at all in the mobilisation of Nazi society. Rather the Führer, the Party, the Volk and the Volkgemeinschaft were the real players and this was precisely what the Nazis wanted.

The Führer, the Party, the Volkgemeinschaft and the Volk

The Führer – the leader, Hitler – was the direct embodiment of the will of the Volk – the people. It was through him that they could properly form into a Volksgemeinschaft – a peoples’ community. The Party was a sort of administrative bureaucracy that carried out the will of the Führer which, of course, was also by definition the will of the Volk. The Party manipulated the levers of the state which played a purely passive, functional role in carrying of the will of the Führer. This was how Nazism ruled – literally. This was not some vague, emotionally charged Nazi rhetoric deployed to cover up the formation of a super-state. This was the underlying structure of Nazi society as theorised by the Nazis and as reflected in their practice of governance.

The growth of the state under Nazism, to the extent that it was much more significant than Western war democracies, was a mere effect. The state had no real autonomy of its own – and this was by design and can, as shown above, be found in Hitler’s own writings on the topic. To make the case that the real essence of Nazism was the growth of a super-state and all the other elements – the Führer, the Party, the Volk and the Volksgemeinschaft – were just peripheral outcomes of this is like saying that guns kill people rather than that people kill people with guns. And that is precisely what the ordoliberals and the Austrians would go on to say – not that Nazism killed people and encouraged barbarism as a matter of ideology, but that the state in the abstract, which is not even an inanimate object but a concept, killed people and encouraged barbarism. This is, in philosophy, known as the reification fallacy.

The gun analogy is both provocative and instructive because it is rather obvious to thinking people that banning guns likely does lead to lower gun deaths. It does not, of course, follow that guns kill people but rather that people may be more inclined to kill others if they have an easy, detached and somewhat romanticised way of dispatching their target to the hereafter. The same, however, cannot be said of the argument that the state kills people. Why? Well, let us think about this in some depth. Those who claim that legalising guns may lead to more killings are implicitly calling for banning guns. In such a circumstance people living in a given country will then find it much more difficult to gain access to guns and thus will presumably be less inclined to kill people.

Implicit in this argument is the idea that we can ban guns through a state apparatus. We can use the power of the state to ensure that violent people who desire to kill others cannot get access to guns. The argument when it comes to Nazism is entirely different as the Nazis sought to gain control over the state itself and subordinate it to their will. Thus even if we regulate the state as we might regulate firearms, if Nazi or other nefarious types ever gained power they would simply reverse this. Our would-be gun murderer, on the other hand, has no such recourse.

The causality is thus entirely different and so too are the implications. First of all, as we have stressed already, the growth in the state did not historically lead to Nazism – the causes were entirely different. Secondly, the idea that minimising a state will reduce the risk of Nazism, just as minimising the ownership of firearms will reduce gun murders, is a complete misunderstanding of the problem. Thirdly, the Nazis themselves only saw the state as a vessel for their program which had nothing to do with the spread of the state, but rather the realisation of the will of the Volk and the realisation of the Volksgemeinschaft through the figure of the Führer. It is to the reality of this last point that we turn in the third and final part of this series.


About pilkingtonphil

Philip Pilkington is a London-based economist and member of the Political Economy Research Group (PERG) at Kingston University. You can follow him on Twitter at @pilkingtonphil.
This entry was posted in Economic Policy, Economic Theory, Philosophy, Politics, Psychology. Bookmark the permalink.

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