Adolf Hitler, the German leader who initiated World War II and the Holocaust, is one of the most contentious figures in history. Many believe Hitler was a far-right political figure, but some argue he began his career with leftist, socialist-style beliefs and ideals.
Young Adolf Hitler moved from Austria in 1913 to Munich, Germany, where he joined numerous far-right paramilitary forces that echoed his anti-semitic views. The anti-semitic National Socialist German Workers’ Party (abbreviated as NSDAP or Nazis) was founded in Munich in 1919 and Hitler was a member until his death in 1945.
Most know Hitler as one of the most infamous dictators in history, but not many realize that he began his career as a left-wing agitator. In the early 1900s, debates between right and left on how to best organize the state were rampant in German politics. Hitler, as well as the majority of German Socialist organizations, argued that they should only join together with the working class to support the state.
Hitler claimed to be a socialist before he was a Nazi, and this often gets forgotten or ignored. During his rise to power, Hitler worked with, and sometimes mimicked, the characteristic socialist movements of his day.
He often criticized the nation’s capitalist system that had arisen after German unification. Furthermore, he focused on a platform of “national socialism”—a synthesis of socialism and nationalism that pervaded Nazi ideology. During this time, Hitler described himself and his party as socialists, referring to both groups as such in his writing and speeches.
In his 1925 book Mein Kampf, or “My Struggle,” Hitler wrote that he didn’t believe any socialism was better than German socialism, and he regularly repeated his belief in the superiority of his form of socialism throughout the 1920s. This, in fact, was one of the core pillars of Hitler’s political platform, and he continued to call himself a German socialist throughout the late 1920s and 1930s.
Perspectives from Experts
Experts say that at one point in his evolution, Hitler had held genuine beliefs in a brand of socialism, but whether his views leaned left or right is ultimately debatable. According to Peter Limbour, an associate professor of history at the University of Toronto, “Hitler was never an orthodox Marxist and his own twisted version of socialism was a sham…His socialism was really an effective tool for exploiting German workers’ resentments and using them to his own political advantage.”
“It’s true that early on Hitler tried to reach out and align himself with the ideas around socialism,” says Katharine Hare, a faculty fellow at Dublin City University. “But essentially this was a cynical political tactic. In private, Hitler was far more candid about his true beliefs and ideologies.”
Insights and Analysis
Though there is no consensus on what Hitler’s true beliefs were, some argue that the Fuhrer only used socialism as a tool to gain power over the working class. As Daniel Siemens, a professor at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development said recently, “Hitler may well have followed a ‘semi-socialist’ policy for a time…[but] after 1933, Nazi policy was determined to rigidly oppose both the communists and the reform-oriented democratic left, ultimately serving to legitimize the existing capitalist order.”
It can be argued that Hitler’s actual beliefs were hard to pin down and that he adopted many varying political agendas over time, adapting to wherever the majority of public opinion lay. This would explain some of the contradictions we see between his early and later writings, speeches, and policies. Perhaps this is why decades later, it still isn’t clear what Hitler’s stance on socialism truly was.
Socialism and Xenophobia
In 1907, when 13-year-old Adolf Hitler entered his first period of formal education in the Austrian city of Linz, Maria Reitinger, his first teacher, said he was a gentle, hard-working boy who was supportive of his fellow students. She said he was tolerant of all religions, races, and cultures and didn’t need to compete with anyone. But while there is no evidence that the young Hitler was xenophobic, the hate and intolerance he would be associated with began to spread soon afterward.
Locals in Linz began targeting Jews and other minorities, translating theories of racial supremacy into practice. By the time Hitler was 16, he had subscribed to the “Aryan Supremacy” theory, a hateful ideology that has since been widely discredited. Hitler’s primary focus was not socialism, but providing a platform to express his hatred of Jews and other minorities.
Hitler’s Socialism and the Schutzstaffel
The Schutzstaffel, or SS, was one of the Nazi paramilitary forces which carried out Hitler’s mission of racial superiority. Initially a small Bavarian political unit, it has since become synonymous with Nazi terror. After Adolf Hitler rose to power, he reorganized and expanded the SS. It became the ultimate power center within the regime. Under the leadership of Heinrich Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich, the SS developed an ideology of racial superiority, which was wrongfully informed by a version of socialism, designed to legitimize Hitler’s power.
In 1933, regular members of the SS took an oath of loyalty to Hitler personally and to his office as the Fuhrer and Reich Chancellor. Hitler may have referred to himself as a socialist and even echoed socialist rhetoric in some of his policies. But it was a warped, distorted view of what socialism truly meant. In reality, the SS was a far cry from the organized labor and social justice movements of the Socialist International.
Early Period, Youth and Education
Adolf Hitler was born on April 20, 1889 in Braunau am Inn, Austria, to a customs official and a housewife. Hitler came from an Austrian background and was exposed to traditional Austrian values from a young age. His father, Alois Hitler, was a stern and domineering figure, who pushed young Adolf to excel in school and was known to be quite demanding of his son.
The primary and secondary schools Hitler attended were Roman Catholic. Religion had a strong impact on Hitler’s early years and, although some sources suggest that he was a baptized Catholic, others deny it, as his family was non-practicing. Adolf was said to be fascinated by the structure and strictness of the Roman Catholic Church, which shaped his positive view of authority later in life.
Additionally, his father was often praised and admired by political figures, who shared the same far-right ideologies as Hitler would come to espouse. It is believed that, as a result of his father’s influence, young Adolf began to develop anticommunist, authoritarian, and ultimately racist viewpoints.
Hitler’s Transformation Into a Nazi
For a short period during World War I, Adolf Hitler served in a Bavarian regiment of the German army. After the war, he continued to live in Munich, which served as the epicenter of the Nazi movement. He was a passionate and powerful speaker who attracted the attention of a rapidly increasing following.
In the early 1920s, Hitler’s views began to become more extreme and he was appointed leader of the Nazi Party, then called the National Socialist German Worker’s Party (NSDAP) in 1921. At this time, Hitler combined his far-right conservative views with elements of socialism. The Nazi Party quickly grew in popularity and became the majority party in Germany in 1933.
Adolf Hitler’s views had evolved since his early days as a socialist agitator, and they had become increasingly extreme. He wrote of his goals to create a master race, with full control of Germany in his hands. His views, which had grown to become extreme nationalism, championed the idea of a unified country and the destruction of minority populations, be they Jewish, black, or Roma.
Hitler’s Final Years and Legacy
Following Germany’s defeat in World War II, Hitler was widely denounced and his views were condemned around the world. He died in the bunker of his Nazi stronghold in Berlin on April 30, 1945. In the decades since his death, historians have continued to debate the relevance and impact of Hitler’s early political beliefs.
Though it’s impossible to say for certain, it’s clear that Adolf Hitler was not a traditional socialist, and any association of the Fuhrer with socialist ideals is mostly a result of misunderstanding and misdirection. Rather, it seems that Hitler adopted some of the language of socialism and other far-left organizations to further his own agenda. There is little evidence to suggest he ever truly believed in socialism or any other kind of leftist philosophy.