What is Nazism?

Nathaniël Kunkeler

  • Nazism is a political ideology rooted in the nineteenth-century German racialist (völkisch) movement, emerging in the context of Germany’s defeat in WW1, the counter-revolutionary movement, and the rise of fascism in Europe.
  • It was heavily defined by the Hitler regime and its genocidal campaign in WW2: authoritarian, activist, violent, antisemitic, murderously radical.
  • Nazism is an extremist and at times terrorist fringe phenomenon in the postwar period, but has effectively exploited political and technological developments to exercise some influence.

Key definition

With its vivid and extremely violent history, Nazism is a highly mutable phenomenon, which like fascism resists precise definition. In no part has Nazism been consistently the same everywhere, but core concepts like racial community, antisemitism, and violent masculinity have proven to be the most prevalent aspects.


Nazism, properly termed National Socialism, was the ideology of the German Nazi party, the Nationalsozialistischer Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (NSDAP, National Socialist German Workers’ Party). The term ‘Nazi’ (Nationalsozialist) was an insult coined by opponents, hence Nazism. Originally the Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, founded in 1919 and led by Anton Drexler, the small Bavarian party ended up under Adolf Hitler who would come to define it under his dictatorial charismatic leadership.[1] The NSDAP emerged in the immediate aftermath of Germany’s defeat in WW1, and the development a new right-wing politics in Europe after the Russian Revolution of 1917, and ostensibly combined a worker-oriented politics with a rejection of conventional socialist internationalism. Instead, the NSDAP emerged directly from the German völkisch milieu – a scene of radical racist nationalism that originated in the Nineteenth Century.[2] The NSDAP also rejected core Marxist concepts like the class struggle, proclaiming the utopian Volksgemeinschaft (lit. national community), a cross-class racial community.

National Socialism spread beyond Germany’s borders already in the 1920s, initially as a junior alternative to Italy’s model of fascism.  In 1924, for example, the National Socialist Freedom League was established by the Furugård brothers in Sweden,[3] though it was only with what has been termed the ‘second wave’ of fascism in the 1930s that German National Socialism became the primary source of inspiration for the new wave of right-wing politics rather than Fascist Italy. By the mid-30s there were numerous new (and old) fascist groups that now termed themselves National Socialist, most – though not all – placing racist ideology and antisemitism front and centre of their politics.

When Hitler seized power in 1933, he established a concrete model of National Socialist rule that would be an abiding source of inspiration down to the present day. The aesthetics of the regime, and its use of political spectacle, ensured that the imagery of a dynamic, disciplined, and youthful military masculinity would be one of national socialism’s primary myths and selling points. At the same time, the June 1934 massacre of left-wing opponents within the National Socialist movement, particularly from the paramilitary Sturmabteilung (SA), cemented its reputation for brute violence and gangsterism, and put an end to its flirtation with social revolution. Other developments like the 1935 Nuremberg Laws which legally excluded Jews from German civic life or the even internally controversial 1938 pogroms which seriously harmed the state’s reputation, demonstrated that National Socialism’s radical and uncivil drive for political taboo-breaking had not been dulled by the experience of state government.

Ultimately it was the events of WW2, triggered by Hitler’s invasion of Poland in September 1939, which defined National Socialism for future generations. The sheer brutality of military conquest as Nazi Germany sought to vastly expand the borders of the Reich and the violence with which it sought to establish its dominance in Europe perhaps appalled contemporaries most, in what has been understood as a transfer of the murderousness of colonialism to European territory.[4] The Nazi military campaign also radicalised the regime’s political goals for the Volksgemeinschaft, and in 1939-41 culminated in the Holocaust, a concerted effort to physically exterminate perceived national enemies, principally Jews, but also disabled people, Roma, Sinti, and homosexuals.[5] There was extensive collaboration of local groups and national authorities across Europe – for instance Dutch police helped the German occupiers identify Jews directly, while members of the indigenous fascist movement participated in razzias and deportations.[6] The genocide claimed some eleven million victims, itself only a portion of the number the Nazi leadership intended to kill in the establishment of the so-called New Order, mainly in plans of deliberate mass starvation.[7]

Different conceptualisations

One of the most prevalent initial understandings of National Socialism after 1945, particularly in the West, was as a nihilistic force, emphasising its thuggish politics, cult of violence, and anti-intellectualism. On the other hand, Marxist scholars had since the 1920s argued that it was a form of fascism, and as such the terroristic defence of capitalist rule against the revolutionary working classes.[8] This is not unrelated to the main debate in the understanding of Nazism after WW2: whether to understand it as part of a broader development in European history, particularly as a sub-category of fascism, or as something sui generis, that was particular to Germany’s so-called special path in historical development. Proponents of the former cite supposed fascist commonalities like the cult of violence, ultra-nationalism, aestheticization of politics, and charismatic leadership, while the latter believe features like antisemitism and biological racism, and Nazi Germany’s campaign of genocide mark it out as historically unique.


Perhaps surprisingly this has not stopped scholars, and media more generally, from identifying a distinct neo-Nazism in the postwar period. Nazi Germany’s total defeat in WW2 and the subsequent denazification process in the West by no means completely removed Nazi veterans from power in postwar societies, while many others were recruited by Western powers in the Cold War struggle against communism. But the events of the war, and the Holocaust in particular, did put National Socialist ideology completely beyond the pale, even more so than fascism, such that groups describing themselves as National Socialist were wilfully associating themselves with mass violence and genocide, and automatically relegated to remaining fringe phenomena, if they were tolerated at all. Nevertheless the ideas and myths of National Socialism proved to have considerable staying power, as Hitler’s regime’s own imagery continued to play a key role in defining postwar understandings of it. In the 1950s and 60s groups like the American Nazi Party, the British National Socialist Movement, and the World Union of National Socialists emerged.[9] While utterly irrelevant to mainstream politics, they provided a framework for continued political activity. Neo-Nazism produced virtually no new ideas (starting from an already appalling intellectual calibre), but did see innovations in terms of political tactics, ranging from the terrorism of the 70s in the US in particular, to the construction of the neo-Nazi skinhead scene, starting in the UK in the late 1970s before spreading globally, with a significant degree of Americanisation along the way.

It is these metamorphoses, particularly since the 1990s, which have proved crucial in allowing neo-Nazism too put punch well above its weight, even as the actual number of neo-Nazi activists has remained very low. Through avoiding the highly divisive racial theory of interwar National Socialism, e.g. the treatment of Slavic populations as subhuman, neo-Nazism has made a place for itself in a much broader White Power movement with ideas, while avidly using the internet to grow a global, if highly fissiparous, network.[10] Race, antisemitism, and violent authoritarian solutions remain key to neo-Nazism, but it has also mobilised around new issues such as immigration, feminism, and LGBTQ rights. The retention of media interest, successful exploitation of the internet and social media in particular, has taken neo-Nazism some way away from political irrelevance after decades. It remains a fringe subcultural phenomenon, neo-Nazism now also surfaces in more prominent political contexts – most notably in the case of the American Trump movement, where neo-Nazi supporters can happily rub shoulders with both other extremists and more mainstream right-wingers.[11]


[1] Ian Kershaw, Hitler: 1889-1936, Hubris (London: Norton, 2000), i.

[2] Richard J. Evans, The Coming of the Third Reich: How the Nazis Destroyed Democracy and Seized Power in Germany (London: Penguin, 2004).

[3] Eric Wärenstam, Fascismen Och Nazismen i Sverige 1920-1940: Studier i Den Svenska Nationalsocialismens, Fascismens Och Antisemitismens Organisationer, Ideologier Och Propaganda under Mellankrigsåren (Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell, 1970).

[4] Matthew P. Fitzpatrick, ‘The Pre-History of the Holocaust? The Sonderweg and Historikerstreit Debates and the Abject Colonial Past’, Central European History, 41.3 (2008), 477–503.

[5] Christian Gerlach, The Extermination of the European Jews (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016).

[6] Mark Mazower, Hitler’s Empire: Nazi Rule in Occupied Europe (London: Penguin, 2009).

[7] Christopher R. Browning, The Origins of the Final Solution: The Evolution of Nazi Jewish Policy, September 1939-March 1942 (Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 2004); Adam Tooze, The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy (London: Penguin, 2007).

[8] Fascism, ed. by Roger Griffin (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995).

[9] Paul Jackson, ‘Dreaming of a National Socialist World: The World Union of National Socialists (WUNS) and the Recurring Vision of Transnational Neo-Nazism’, 8, 2019, 275–306.

[10] Kyle Burke, ‘“It’s a White Fight and We’ve Got to Win It”: Culture, Violence, and the Transatlantic Far Right since the 1970s’, in Global White Nationalism: From Apartheid to Trump (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2020).

Published Dec. 2, 2021 3:12 PM - Last modified Dec. 2, 2021 3:19 PM