As Europe lost confidence in the feudal-monarchial system that had ruled for centuries, liberalism offered a political alternative. Its great legacy was making people conscious of their individual human rights, regardless of birth, and their right to representation in government. To many, the democratic concept became synonymous with liberty itself. Hitler gained power in Germany in 1933 through constitutional means, yet campaigned to eradicate democracy. The National Socialists interpreted individual freedom differently, in a way which they argued was more realistic for Germany’s circumstances.
National Socialist propagandists publicly acknowledged the contribution of liberalism. Writing in Die SA (The S.A.), the weekly magazine of the party’s storm troops, Dr. Theo Rehm cited liberalism’s decisive role in leading Germany into the modern age: “Thanks to the triumph of liberal thinking, the middle class and other social strata experienced a major spiritual and economic impetus. Many valuable elements that would otherwise have lain fallow and undiscovered were unleashed to the benefit of all and put into action. It should also not be forgotten that after the wars of liberation (against Napoleon), the best representatives of German liberalism stood at the vanguard of the struggle for Germany’s unity against the interests of the egocentric princely dynasties."6
Rehm nevertheless condemned the basic premise of liberalism: “The absolute freedom of liberalism will ultimately jeopardize the benefits of community life for people in a state. Attempting to place the individual ahead of the nation is wrong. . . . For the individual to live, the nation first must itself live; this requires that one cannot do what he wants, but must align himself with the common interests of the people and accordingly accept limitations and sacrifices."7
Hitler advocated an organic state form. Like a biological organism, the government organizes society so that every component performs an individual function for the common good. No single stratum elevates itself to the detriment of the others. The organism prospers as an entity. In this way, so does each individual person or class. Society works in harmony, healthy and strongly unified against external influences or intrusion. As defined in the periodical Germanisches Leitheft (Germanic Guidelines), “Every individual element within the Reich preserves its independent character, yet nonetheless subordinates itself to its role in the community."8 In Hitler’s words from a November 1930 speech, “Proper is what serves the entire community and not the individual. . . . The whole is paramount, is essential. Only through it does the individual receive his share in life, and when his share defies the laws of the entity, then human reason dictates that the interest of the whole must precede his interests."9
To organize persons into a cooperative, functional society requires that its members renounce certain personal ambitions for the welfare of others. Mutual concessions signify a willingness to work together. The common goals of society, such as defense, trade, prosperity, companionship, and securing nourishment, people achieve through compromise for the good of all. Hitler believed that a nation disregarding this will not survive. He declared in an address in April 1937, “This state came into being, and all states come into being, through overcoming interests of pure personal will and individual selfishness. Democracy steers recklessly toward placing the individual in the center of everything. In the long run, it is impossible to escape the crisis such a conflict will produce."10
In Die SA, Rehm warned that without controls, the free reign of personal ambition leads to abuse: “In as much as liberalism was once of service in promoting the value of individual initiative and qualities of leadership, its ideals of freedom and personality have degenerated into the concept of downright arbitrary conduct in personal life, but even more so in economic and commercial life."11
An article in the May 1937 Der Schulungsbrief (Instructional Essays), a monthly ideological journal, discussed liberalism’s naïve faith in “the natural goodness of the free personality.” The author, Eberhard Kaütter, explained the logic of how this applies to business life in a democracy: “Liberalism assumes that one must simply leave economic arrangements to the individual active in commerce as he pursues his interests undisturbed.... The liberal social principle is based on the expectation that the liberation of the individual, in harmony with the free play of forces, will lead to independently formed and fair economic conditions and social order."12
The German Institute for the Science of Labor concluded in its 1940/41 yearbook that liberal economic policies bring about “the destruction of any orderly society,” since persons in commerce “are released from every political and social responsibility."13Germanisches Leitheft saw in the free play of forces an unbridled pursuit of personal wealth that contradicts the spirit of an organized society: “There is no longer a sacred moral bonding of the individual person to a community, and no bond of person to person through honor or personal trust. There is no mutual connection or relationship among them beyond purely material, self-seeking interests; that is, acquiring money."14
The journalist Giselher Wirsing cited the United States, the paragon of capitalist free enterprise, as an example of how liberal economic policies gradually create social imbalance with crass discrepancies between want and abundance: “Even in America herself, Americanism no longer spreads prosperity and improves the standard of living of the broad masses, but only maintains the lifestyle of the privileged upper class."15A German study on the depression-era United States, Was will Roosevelt? (What Does Roosevelt Want?), added this: “So in the USA, one finds along with dazzling displays of wealth in extravagant, parvenu luxury, unimaginable poverty and social depravity. ... In the richest country in the world, the vaunted paradise of democracy, tens of thousands of American families endure the most meager existence. Millions of children and other citizens are underfed."16
Hitler’s own voice on the subject from a July, 1930 speech reaffirmed his contention that a community stands or falls as one: “Our nation cannot continue to exist as a nation unless every part is healthy. I cannot imagine a future for our people, when on one side I see well-fed citizens walking around, while on the other wander emaciated laborers."17 His interpretation of an organically regulated state, and liberal democracy’s emphasis on individual liberty, naturally require different perceptions as to the role of government. The June 1937 edition of Der Schulungsbriefoffered this analysis: “Since liberalism believes in the sanctity and limitless reasoning power of the individual, it denies the state’s right to rule and its duty to direct society. To liberalism, the state is nothing more than the personification of every unjust use of force. It therefore seeks to reduce the authority of the state in every way."18 Die SA summarized that “according to liberal perception, the state has no other task than that of a night watchman, namely to protect the life and property of the individual."19
As for the parliamentary system of representative government, the same publication condemned it as follows: “The demand of the people to participate in government was justifiable and understandable in the new age, when politics was no longer purely an affair of the ruling dynasties. The damaging influence and weakness of the parliamentary form of government soon became apparent. . . . The participation of the people exists only on paper. In reality, career politicians get regularly elected to parliament though various parties they founded. They have made a novel occupation out of this activity. They focus not on the welfare of the people and of the state, but on their personal interests or certain financial circles standing behind them."20
Hitler argued that the absence of sufficient state controls in a democracy enables the wealthy class to manipulate the economy, the press and elected representatives for its own gain. A widening gulf between poverty and affluence develops, gradually dragging the working class to ruin. Addressing Berlin armaments workers in December 1940, he claimed that the public’s voice in democratic systems is an illusion: “In these countries, money in fact rules. That ultimately means a group of a few hundred persons who possess enormous fortunes. As a result of the singular construction of the state, this group is more or less totally independent and free. . . . Free enterprise this group understands as the freedom not only to amass capital, but especially to use it freely; that is, free from state or national supervision.
“So one might imagine that in these countries of freedom and wealth, unheard-of public prosperity exists. ... On the contrary, in those countries class distinctions are the most crass one could think of: unimaginable poverty on one hand and equally unimaginable riches on the other. These are the lands that control the treasures of the earth, and their workers live in miserable dumps. ... In these lands of so-called democracy, the people are never the primary consideration. Paramount is the existence of those few who pull the strings in a democracy, the several hundred major capitalists. The broad masses don't interest them in the least, except during elections."21
Die SA discussed another fault of parliamentary systems particularly irksome to Hitler: “There is practically no responsibility in a democracy. The anonymity of the majority of the moment decides. Government ministers are subject to it, but there is no opportunity to hold this majority responsible. As a result, the door is open to political carelessness and negligence, to corruption and fiscal mismanagement. The history of democracies mostly represents a history of scandals."22 According to Was will Roosevelt?, “Corruption has spread so much that...no American citizen gets upset anymore over incidents of shameless corruption in civil service, because mismanagement is regarded as a natural phenomenon of government."23 Hitler once recalled how a visit in his youth to the Austrian parliament revealed “the obvious lack of responsibility in a single person."24Germanisches Leitheft stated, “Absence of responsibility is the most striking indication of a lack of morality."25
Democracy failed because it was a product of liberalism. Focus on the individual led to “self-idolatry and renunciation of the community, the unraveling of healthy, orderly natural life,” according to the German army brochure Wofür kämpfen wir? (What do we fight for?). “The inordinate value placed on material possessions from the economic standpoint formed social classes and fractured the community. Not those of good character enjoyed greater respect, but the rich. . . . Labor no longer served as a means to elevate the worth of the community, but purely one’s own interests. Commerce developed independently of the people and the state, into an entity whose only purpose was to pile up fortunes."26 The periodical NS Briefe (NS Essays) summarized, “Freedom cannot be made identical to arbitrariness, lack of restraint and egoistic inconsideration."27
Hitler regarded liberalism’s de-emphasis on communal responsibility as an obstacle to national unity. He endorsed the words of the statesman Niccolò Machiavelli: “It is not the well-being of the individual, but the well-being of all that makes us great."28 Hitler took the rein of government in hand in a liberal political climate. To overcome the liberal ideal, which for many was freedom personified, he introduced an alternative state form. It created opportunities for self-development, but also instructed Germans in obedience. In so doing, Hitler eventually achieved the parity between individual liberty and state authority long contemplated by the German intellectual movement of the previous century.