For or Against? Attitudes Towards Capitalism in German and Italian Fascism

TO evaluate the main features of Fascist Italy and National Socialist Germany, one must examine each regime in terms of its original principles. Capitalism is essentially concerned with the economic sphere, and for this reason the Hitlerian and Mussolinian systems must be studied in accordance with their theoretical and practical approaches towards industry, agriculture and business. If, however, there is no evidence to support the existence of a uniquely independent ‘fascist’ system in either Germany or Italy, it will be necessary to determine exactly which form of economics was adopted by each regime.

In the case of the NSDAP, Gottfried Feder’s Twenty-Five Points were already in existence when Hitler first joined the Party in 1919, and the same programme was declared official in Munich on 25 February 1920.[1] These principles do contain a strong element of Socialism, or at the very least the NSDAP’s own interpretation of it. However, despite the early rhetoric these socialistic elements were never put into practice, something which will be examined in due course.

In Italy, Mussolini’s Fascist Party also attempted to formulate a synthesis of Nationalist and socialist ideas which, given Mussolini’s past, is hardly surprising. At the turn of the century, many Italian intellectuals had been won over to Syndicalism, which at that time was an economic doctrine principally developed by Georges Sorel in order to transcend the boundaries of Marxian Socialism and ‘determine whether there exists a mechanism capable of guaranteeing the development of morality’.[2] In fact Syndicalism sought to combine Marxism and populism by transferring the means of production from private industrialists to workers’ unions. After a decade of decline, however, Syndicalism was revived by the emerging Fascist Party to help defeat the growing menace of Communism and was consequently promoted as a distinct economic policy in its own right. Indeed, David D. Roberts has suggested that Syndicalism embodied the ‘anti-political, totalitarian corporativism which was in many ways the major thrust of Fascism’.[3] If Germany and Italy adhered to specific theoretical programmes, therefore, we must examine them in terms of whether such concepts were applied in the fields of industry, agriculture and business.

Firstly, the Twenty-Five Points promised to involve German workers in a form of ‘profit-sharing for all’,[4] with Feder particularly keen to stress that the ‘sharing of profits from a man’s own work is a demand so natural and socially so just, that nothing can be advanced against it as a principle’.[5] This may well be so, but whilst his Party claimed to support the nationalisation of the great industries6 which it considered ‘ripe for socialisation’[7] in an attempt to win the hearts and minds of the German electorate, economic decentralisation was ‘soon abandoned, and Hitler adopted more empirical policies’.[8] Noted for its great opportunism, the NSDAP had tried to take advantage of the public’s support for autarkic economics, something which had its roots in Germany’s characteristic opposition to foreign control. The Wall Street Crash had led to the withdrawal of American investment, and many Germans had become rather suspicious of the hidden forces which could dictate German financial policy from overseas. Furthermore, once the German proletariat had been conveniently persuaded to mobilise itself in ‘the general interest as a member of the national community’,[9] the main concern for their industrial masters was the accumulation of vast profit at their expense. The financial role of Big Business will be examined in due course but, needless to say, once the NSDAP had risen to power in 1933 nationalisation did not replace those companies and trusts which, according to Feder, had served ‘the greed of Capitalism’.[10] Hitler’s own disregard for economics and the State’s lack of initiative when faced with a dictator unwilling to make economic decisions, led inevitably to the growth of large private companies. By September 1936, Hermann Göring had replaced Hjalmar Schacht as German Economic Minister and set up a ‘total war’ economy. His new Four-Year Plan was designed ‘to make Germany self-sufficient in four years, so that a wartime blockade would not stifle it’.[11] As a result, huge factories like the Hermann Göring Works began to make synthetic rubber, textiles, fuels and other products extracted from raw materials. Nationalisation and the economic self-determination of German workers had been sacrificed in the interests of a form of competitive divisiveness not entirely unrelated to British or American Capitalism. But whilst the theoretical tenets of NSDAP ideology seemed to possess a rather unique economic stance, the industrial practicalities of what passed for National Socialism certainly did not accord with a distinctive or sui generis economic system of its own.

Mussolini’s brand of Syndicalism also claimed to advance the economic liberation of industrial workers, and, in an article by Agostino Lanzillo in the pages of Il popolo d’Italia in May 1919, it was suggested that Syndicalism’s commitment to a form of representation based upon economic groups would lead to ‘the authentic representation of the legitimate interests and the organic forces of the country’.[12] Indeed, Syndicalism was allegedly designed to ‘minimise industrial strife and mobilise productive potential in the interests of the whole community’.[13] By 1925 Mussolini had embarked upon his quest to create the Corporate State, abolishing trade unions and employers’ organisations and establishing twenty-two corporations, each containing delegates from the ranks of the workers and their employers. By 1929 Mussolini had announced to the world that ‘the former antagonism between capital and labour was at an end: both sides of industry were working together with complete parity of rights and duties’.[14] At best, this was an exaggeration, for Mussolini had made certain that his own Fascist Party members kept a firm eye on factory workers whilst delegates did not really have any say in matters relating to wages and price levels. In addition, many Party officials got the best jobs and used their position ‘to line their own pockets’,[15] although employers, ‘whilst grateful for the forcible submission of labour, were always strong enough to avoid being centrally organised by official appointees’.[16] So whilst claiming to be anti-Capitalist due to its superficial alteration of the relationship between employers and employees, Italian Fascism was fundamentally very similar to existing economic doctrines found elsewhere on the Right of the political spectrum.

Turning to the agricultural sphere, despite their alleged commitment to land-reform and its concomitant ‘confiscation without compensation of land for communal purposes; abolition of interest on land loans, and prevention of all speculation in land’,[17] the NSDAP’s Twenty-Five Points were fairly vague with regard to agricultural issues. But on January 25th, 1930, Gottfried Feder published an extensive report concerning the Party’s opposition to the taxing of the peasantry, foreign imports, Jewish intervention between the producer and the consumer, and high prices. In place of the prevailing system, the NSDAP proposed that inheritance be abolished and that land be controlled by the peasantry and held in trust for future generations, involving fixed social classes which would be firmly rooted to the soil. By 1933 the position of the German peasantry had become extremely precarious, but thus far the Party’s Minister of Agriculture – Walther Darré – had not made any real attempt to bring an end to their suffering. Agricultural labourers had been unfairly divided into three rival classes: ‘peasants whose holdings are so small as to be unviable; middle and great peasants who are tenant-farmers; and great land-owners who run their estates on purely Capitalist lines’.[18] In addition, the creation of the Labour Front was seen by outsiders as ‘the fullest possible exploitation of the working capacities of the German population on behalf of the business enterprise’.[20] Similarly, in March 1935 Robert Ley cynically announced that ‘we could not offer the working masses any material benefits, for Germany was poor and in a state of confusion and misery. New rates of wages and similar things were out of the question’.[20] Hence it was necessary to ‘suppress the materialism’[21] which gave rise to demands for improved standards of living, and ‘instead divert the gaze of the workers to the ideal values of the nation’.[22] So it seems fairly certain that National Socialists did not attempt to implement a unique economic system of their own, but simply ignored the pledges contained in Feder’s Twenty-Five Points in order to combine the doctrinal features of Nationalism and Capitalism for their own ends.

By 1925, Mussolini had become concerned at the amount of public expenditure directed towards the importation of agricultural produce from abroad. As a result he launched the ‘battle for wheat’, ceremoniously bestowing upon those farmers producing the most wheat a series of patronising awards. But whilst wheat production doubled by 1939, the extra land that had been set aside for this purpose led inevitably to a reduction in other crops. In 1926 the so-called ‘battle for land’ had seen Italian swamps and marshland converted into farmland, although such measures were more designed to boost the Italian economy than provide decent employment for agricultural labourers. Many argue that the Fascist Party’s efforts to reclaim land was nothing more than a publicity stunt, with Mussolini himself ‘stripping to the waist’[23] in an attempt to appear semi-human. If studied in a purely statistical context, it is rather difficult to ascertain just how efficient Fascist agriculture really was. However, due to the fact that Mussolini went to great lengths to hide the true effects of his policies,[24] it seems fairly safe to assume that if Fascism had really created a formidable climate of rural development Il Duce would inevitably have used this as a convenient propaganda tool. In Fascist Italy, blowing one’s own trumpet was part of everyday life. Silence, therefore, indicates a degree of failure. But the real reason why Italian and German Fascists did not significantly implement their original economic principles has much to do with vested interests. Mussolini had been funded by bankers, industrialists and landowners and it is hardly surprising, therefore, that so few of his economic policies were actually put into practice. In fact Mussolini himself declared that it was necessary to ‘create exceptionally favourable conditions for the Capitalist economy’,[25] and, according to Denis Mack Smith, although Mussolini claimed to detest the wealthy classes he never forced them to conform with his regime and such elements offered little more than ‘a purely formal adherence’[26] to his Fascist government. Thus, far from representing a distinctly unique form of economics, by tolerating the preferences of its financial backers and serving their interests alone the Fascist Party was merely perpetuating Capitalism from behind a nationalistic facade.

Similarly, Hitler had been financed by a group of wealthy German industrialists and large business conglomerates like I.G. Farben. By 1919 ‘Krupp was already giving financial aid to one of the reactionary political groups which sowed the seed of the present Nazi ideology’[27] and, by 1924, ‘other prominent industrialists and financiers, among them Fritz Thysson, Albert Vogler, Adolf Kirdorf, and Kurt von Schröder, were secretly giving substantial sums to the Nazis’.[28] Indeed, in his autobiography Thysson himself readily admits that ‘Hitler’s monarchistic attitude of those days brought to his Party a large following among industrial circles’.[29] There is also evidence relating to the fact that Hitler was secretly funded by a clique of New York businessmen, including representatives of the Ford Motor Company and the Rockefeller Chase Bank[30] which, in light of the more recent ‘arms for Iraq’ scandal, does not seem totally implausible. Indeed, whilst the Twenty-Five Points made it perfectly clear that ‘self-enrichment at the expense of the nation, shall be punished with death’[31], the subsequent German Rearmament Programme and the Nazi regime’s sudden desire to restore the ‘primacy of politics’ and establish ‘a politically independent and energetic State leadership which was no longer forced to take into account the selfish, short-sighted wishes of special interests’[32] when it came to economic decision-making, led to what many political analysts regard as an incredible paradox. Tim Mason believes that whilst large industrial entities had supported National Socialism due to their inherent self-interest, they eventually found themselves bound ‘to a government on whose aims, inasmuch as they were subject to control at all, they had virtually no influence’.[33] It is certainly a fact that once Hjalmar Schacht had retired in 1939 the freedom to make independent decisions was severely curbed by the inauguration of Albert Speer as chief mediator between Nazi Führer and Nazi State, but I tend to disagree with Mason’s assertion; which, incidentally, is compatible with those Nazi apologists who mistakenly claim that Hitler merely used German Capitalists for his own ends. Why would such powerful and wealthy individuals finance a man who, on paper at least, intended to dismantle large industrial concerns? As for the groundless assertion that Hitler suddenly rendered his Capitalistic allies powerless in an effort to redress the German economy in the face of a huge labour shortage, Richard Grunberger’s simile likening German business during the Third Reich to ‘the conductor of a runaway bus who has no control over the actions of the driver but keeps collecting the passengers’ fares right up until the final crash’,[34] seems very apt indeed. Equally so, David Schönbaum is wrong to suggest that German industry was somehow subordinate to the NSDAP and ‘if it recovered, it recovered on Nazi terms’.[35] Unfortunately, wealth has always been a determining factor behind political power and Hitler was undoubtedly a willing tool of Capitalism.

It is also worth noting that Otto Strasser, a leading member of the NSDAP who dared to criticise Hitler’s betrayal of the Party’s original economic principles, was eventually forced to flee for his life after resigning in 1930. In order to understand the very nature of the NSDAP’s economic system, it is perhaps well worth remembering that in answer to Strasser’s defence of genuine National Socialism, Hitler replied

“your kind of socialism is nothing but Marxism. The mass of the working class want nothing but bread and games. They will never understand the meaning of an ideal, and we cannot hope to win them over to one.” [36]

As Hitler continued, an economic system must ‘select from a new master-class men who will not allow themselves to be guided (…) by the morality of pity. Those who rule must know that they have the right to rule because they belong to a superior race. They must maintain that right and ruthlessly consolidate it’.[37] Indeed, Hitler’s assertion that the weaker members of society must inevitably go to the wall is a fundamental mainstay of orthodox Capitalism.

Finally, whilst the original programmes of both the German NSDAP and Italian Fascist Party had been openly anti-Capitalist in nature – endorsing a form of industrial and agricultural Socialism – when Hitler and Mussolini realised that huge financial contributions could greatly assist them in the fulfilment of their aims and objectives, both eagerly betrayed the socialistic tenets of their respective manifestos and capitulated to their purported Big Business adversaries. Despite the intellectual clarity and foresight reflected in their original principles, Fascism and National Socialism never created a distinct economic system in a truly practical sense. Furthermore, whilst such regimes were never laissez-faire in accordance with orthodox Capitalism, the overall objectives of their respective economies were definitely capital-intensive. Fascism and National Socialism, then, may have adopted anti-Capitalist phraseology but were classic examples of how Capitalism can regenerate itself in the face of an acute economic crisis and the constant threat of genuine revolutionary upheaval.


1. Gottfried Feder, The Programme of the NSDAP and its General Conceptions, B. P. Publications, 1980, p. 18.
2. Georges Sorel, ‘Avenir socialiste des syndicats’ in Materiaux d’une theorie du proletariat, Marcel Riviere, 1919, p. 127.
3. David D. Roberts, The Syndicalist Tradition and Italian Fascism, Manchester University Press, 1979, p. 11.
4. Feder, op. cit., p. 47.
5. Ibid.
6. Ibid., p. 19.
7. Ibid., p. 41.
8. Eugen Weber, Varieties of Fascism, Van Nostrand, 1975, p. 84.
9. Feder, op. cit., p. 25.
10. Ibid., p 42.
11. William L Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, Book Club Associates, 1970, p. 261.
12. Roberts, op. cit., p. 173.
13. Denis Mack Smith, Mussolini, Wiedenfeld & Nicolson, 1982, p. 118.
14. Ibid., p. 119.
15. Josh Brooman, Italy and Mussolini, Longman Group, 1985, p. 25.
16. Mack Smith, op. cit., p. 119.
17. Feder, op. cit., p. 19.
18. Otto Strasser, Germany Tomorrow, Jonathan Cape, 1940, p. 156.
19. Robert A Brady, The Spirit and Structure of German Fascism, Victor Gollancz, 1937, p. 124.
20. Robert Ley, ‘Kraft durch Freude in Abschrift’ in Jahrebericht der N. S. Gemeinschaft, Berlin, 1936, p. 3.
21. Ibid.
22. Ibid.
23. Brooman, op. cit., p. 24.
24. Mack Smith, op. cit., p. 123.
25. Benito Mussolini, Vita di Sandro e di Arnaldo, Milan, 1934, p. 178.
26. G Gorla, L’Italia nella seconda guerra mondiale: memorie di un milanese, ministro del re nel governo di Mussolini, Milan, 1959, p. 213.
27. US Kilgore Committee, Elimination of German Resources, Washington Government Printing Office, 1945, p. 648.
28. Ibid.
29. Fritz Thysson, I Paid Hitler, Hodder & Stoughton, 1941, p. 142.
30. Anthony Sutton, Wall Street and the Rise of Hitler, Bloomfield Books, 1976, pp. 149-161.
31. Feder, op. cit., p. 42.
32. T. W. Mason, ‘The Primacy of Politics – Politics and Economics in National Socialist Germany’ in S. J. Woolf (ed.), The Nature of Fascism, Wiedenfeld & Nicolson, 1968, p. 168.
33. Ibid., p. 189.
34. Richard Grunberger, A Social History of the Third Reich, Penguin, 1974, p. 238.
35. David Schönbaum, Hitler’s Social Revolution: Class and Status in Nazi Germany 1933-39, Wiedenfeld & Nicolson, 1967, p. 158.
36. Otto Strasser, Hitler and I, Jonathan Cape, 1940, p. 117.
37. Ibid, p. 118.

Recommended Reading:

A. James Gregor, Italian Fascism and Developmental Dictatorship, Princeton University Press, 1979.

Walter Laqueur (ed), Fascism: A Reader’s Guide, Pelican, 1979.

Franz Neumann, Behemoth: The Structure and Practice of National Socialism, Victor Gollancz, 1942.

Jeremy Noakes & Geoffrey Pridham, Documents on Nazism 1919-1945, Jonathan Cape, 1974.

Otto Strasser, History in My Time, Jonathan Cape, 1941.

Douglas Reed, Nemesis: The Story of Otto Strasser, Jonathan Cape, 1940.

Arthur Scheitzer, Big Business in the Third Reich, Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1964.


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