Ludwig von Mises and Ayn Rand held very different views about the origins of Nazism, and in this article I am going to describe these differences. My aim is limited to that. I’m not going to assess these arguments. Rand’s explanation for the rise of Nazism is found in Leonard Peikoff’s 1982 book The Ominous Parallels. Although Rand didn’t write the book, she fully endorsed it, and if you compare the book’s style with that of Peikoff’s other books, you will find it hard to resist the feeling that she revised the text.
Mentioning this book brings back a memory. I wrote a very negative review of it in Inquiry magazine with the editorial guidance of the late and great Ralph Raico. This review became the second most controversial review I’ve ever written. But my purpose here is not to renew the attack on Peikoff but rather to present Rand’s account of Nazism and compare it to Mises’s account. With that purpose in mind, I’d like first to quote a passage from my old review that summarizes Peikoff’s position:
According to Peikoff, if one seeks a fundamental explanation for the rise of Hitler, one must consult the science of fundamentals, that is, philosophy. Ludwig Feuerbach once said, “Man is what he eats.” Peikoff has a different view—to him, man is what he believes about metaphysics, the theory of knowledge, and ethics. And it is because most Germans had distorted ideas on these fundamental subjects that they were unable to see the obvious flaws in the nostrums peddled by Hitler. The main reason, in turn, for their mistaken ideas was the malignant influence of Germany’s foremost philosopher—Immanuel Kant.
Peikoff does not put all the blame for Nazism on Kant; other philosophers, like Plato and Hegel, must take their share of responsibility. But, however implausible it may at first sight have seemed, I was not exaggerating in stating that Peikoff regards the mild-mannered sage of Königsberg as a proto-Nazi. Peikoff goes so far as to say of life in the Nazi concentration camps: “It was the universe that had been hinted at, elaborated, cherished, fought for, and made respectable by a long line of champions. It was the theory and the dream created by all the anti-Aristotelians of Western history.” The reader who has gotten as far as this point in the book will have no doubt as to the identity of the chief anti-Aristotelian.
What is so bad about Kant? According to Peikoff, Kant downgraded the physical world to which we gain access through our senses as a mere “phenomenal” realm. It was nothing but an appearance as compared with the “noumenal” world, which only faith, not logic, could grasp. In ethics, Kant spurned individual happiness as a matter of no moral worth; instead, persons were to subordinate themselves entirely to a duty that bore no relation to their interests as human beings.
These doctrines, Peikoff holds, paved the way for Hitler. The Nazis rejected reason—Kant taught that reason can teach us nothing of the world beyond mere appearance. Hitler’s movement demanded that individuals sacrifice themselves for the common good—again, a theme straight out of Kant’s ethics. So pervasive was Kant’s influence. Peikoff argues, that no important group in the Weimar Republic dissented from the baleful doctrines of irrationalism, altruism, and collectivism. The decadent expressionist artists of the left shared the same Kantian irrationalist assumptions as their right-wing detractors. No one in Weimar Germany had the intellectual resources to mount an effective resistance to Hitler, hence his triumph in 1933.
When Mises wrote Omnipotent Government in 1944, he was of course unaware of Peikoff’s book, which came out long after his death. But some of his comments directly address the central theme of Peikoff’s case:
It has been asserted again and again that Nazism is the logical outcome of German idealistic philosophy. This too is an error. German philosophical ideas played an important role in the evolution of Nazism. But the character and extent of these influences have been grossly misrepresented. Kant’s moral teachings, and his concept of the categorical imperative, have nothing at all to do with Prussianism or with Nazism….Kant advocated eternal peace between nations. The Nazis praise war “as the eternal shape of higher human existence” and their ideal is “to live always in a state of war.” (Omnipotent Government, p. 140)
Mises criticized George Santayana as the leading defender of the view that blamed the Nazis on German philosophy. Santayana, though seldom studied today, was an important philosopher of the first half of the twentieth century, and Mises takes him very seriously:
The popularity of the opinion that German nationalism is the outcome of the ideas of German philosophy is mainly due to the authority of George Santayana….According to Santayana the main source of German nationalism is egotism. Egotism should “not be confused with the natural egoism or self-assertion proper to every living creature.” Egotism “assumes, if it does not assert, that the source of one’s being and power lies in oneself, that will and logic are by right omnipotent, and that nothing should control the mind or the conscience except the mind or the conscience itself.[”] But egotism, if we are prepared to use the term as defined above by Santayana, is the starting point of the utilitarian philosophy of Adam Smith, Ricardo, Bentham, and the two Mills, father and son. Yet, these British scholars did not derive from their first principle conclusions of a Nazi character. Theirs is a philosophy of liberalism, democratic government, social coöperation, good will and peace among nations. Neither egoism nor egotism is the essential feature of German nationalism, but rather its ideas concerning the means through which the supreme good is to be attained. German nationalists are convinced that there is an insoluble conflict between the interests of the individual nations and those of a world-embracing community of all nations. This is also is not an idea of German origin. It is a very old opinion. It prevailed up to the age of enlightenment, when the above-mentioned British philosophers developed the fundamentally new concept of the harmony of the—rightly understood—interests of all individuals and of all nations, peoples, and races….This identification of the effects of peaceful human coöperation and the mutual exchange of commodities and services with the effects of war and destruction is the main vice of the Nazi doctrines. Nazism is neither simple egoism nor simple egotism; it is misguided egoism and egotism. It is a relapse into errors long ago refuted, a return to Mercantilism and a revival of ideas described as militarism by Herbert Spencer. It is, in short, the abandonment of the liberal philosophy, today generally despised as the philosophy of Manchester and laissez faire. And its ideas are, in this respect, unfortunately not limited to Germany. The contribution of German philosophy to the ascendancy of Nazi ideas had a character very different from that generally ascribed to it. German philosophy always rejected the teachings of utilitarian ethics and the sociology of human coöperation. German political science never grasped the meaning of social coöperation and division of labor. With the exception of Feuerbach all German philosophers scorned utilitarianism as a mean system of ethics. For them the basis of ethics was intuition. A mystical voice in his soul makes man know what is right and what is wrong. The moral law is a restraint imposed upon man for the sake of other people’s or society’s interests. They did not realize that each individual serves his own—rightly understood, i.e., long-run—interests better by complying with the moral code and by displaying attitudes which further society than by indulging in activities detrimental to society. Thus they never understood the theory of the harmony of interests and the merely temporary character of the sacrifice which man makes in renouncing some immediate gain lest he endanger the existence of society. In their eyes there is an insoluble conflict between the individual’s aims and those of society. They did not see that the individual must practice morality for his own, not for somebody else’s or for the state’s or society’s welfare. The ethics of the German philosophers are heteronomous. Some mystical entity orders man to behave morally, that is, to renounce his selfishness for the advantage of a higher, nobler, and more powerful being, society. (Omnipotent Government, pp. 142–43)
Now we can see the contrast between the two explanations of Nazism. According to Rand and Peikoff, German philosophers, especially Kant, had a wrong theory of concepts. Because how you form concepts is fundamental, if you get this wrong, everything less fundamental is bound to go wrong as well. Mises says that the failure to understand the benefits of trade and cooperation in a free market system was the problem. People who didn’t understand these benefits thought that a nation needed to seize resources and territory from other nations to enable its people to survive and prosper. Hitler carried out in a ruthless and consistent way the policies that many others in Germany supported.
Santayana’s criticism of German philosophy differs from Peikoff’s, although he also thinks that the German idealists were subjectivists who didn’t take adequate note of reality. But it is clear how Mises would respond to Peikoff. He doesn’t accept Peikoff’s interpretation of Kant, but that isn’t for our purposes the most important issue. Rather, for Mises philosophical ideas aren’t basic. Most people aim to satisfy their material interests, and wrong ideas about this led to Nazism.
Although my aim is to explain the two interpretations rather than to evaluate them, I’ll sneak in a few comments. Those who have read my review of Peikoff will expect me to say that Mises was right and Peikoff was completely wrong. But that isn’t my opinion. German philosophy did play a role in the rise of Nazism, but I don’t think Peikoff has a correct account of this. A full understanding of the rise of Nazism requires attention both to philosophy and economics, and other things as well.