Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Was Keynes anti-Nazi?

What was Keynes' real attitude towards Nazism?

Well, it depends who you ask.

If you ask Lord Skidelsky, the answer is clear: Keynes was unambiguously opposed to Nazism, from the start.

Keynes may have been an anti-Semitic, virulently anti-Communist eugenicist, with a questionable attitude towards democracy -- rather like the Nazis -- but he would not give comfort to totalitarian enemies of liberal society, even to support his own theories.

That's why, writes Skidelsky, even though "Hitler's New Deal" by October 1934 had created new jobs for three million previously unemployed workers, Keynes was keeping a "deafening silence" (Lord Skidelsky's words) on Germany:
"Garraty has noted the similarities between Hitler’s and Roosevelt’s programmes; even their rhetoric, with its invocation of the war spirit, sounded the same. 
"But, whereas Roosevelt was the scion of the American ruling class, Hitler was nurtured on the hatreds of Central Europe and the agony of Germany’s defeat; for him war was the purpose, not the symbol, of the effort to restore Germany’s industrial might.
"Keynes understood this from the start. ‘Germany is at the mercy of unchained irresponsibles,’ he wrote on 15 July 1933." (Skidelsky 1992: 486)
Apparently, Keynes' deafening silence spoke louder than an outright condemnation ever would.

Whatever preferences Keynes may have had for Roosevelt had nothing to do with the latter being the scion of the American ruling class: they were pure expression of Keynes' open anti-Nazism.

To Keynes' deafening silence, Skidelsky adds that quote as evidence of Keynes' manifest anti-Nazi stance.


But you don't need to ask Lord Skidelsky. In a way, you can ask Lord Keynes himself: you can check what he wrote in June, 1933.

If you do, you'll find that Keynes' putative anti-Nazism seems less unambiguous, once we add something Lord Skidelsky strangely left out:
"Germany is at the mercy of unchained irresponsibles -- though it is too soon to judge her." (Keynes, 1933: 756)
The Reichstag burned in February, 1933. The following day, president Hindenburg signed the Reichstag Fire Decree, suspending civil liberties and proscribing the German Communist Party.

In March, the Nazis and their allies gained majority in the Reichstag elections; the Enabling Act (authorising chancellor Hitler to enact federal laws without Reichstag approval) was passed. The Dachau concentration camp opened.

By June 1933, when Keynes' article was published, it was too soon to judge Nazi Germany, for Keynes, unambiguously anti-Nazi from the start (!?)

Further comment on Keynes' essay: Keynes' "National Self-Sufficiency"


Keynes, J.M. 1933. National Self-Sufficiency. The Yale Review, 22(4), June 1933, pp. 755-769. (freely available online)

Skidelsky, R. J. A. 1992. John Maynard Keynes: The Economist as Saviour 1920–1937, Macmillan, London.


  1. I feel this quote from Michael Parenti's "Blackshirts and Reds" is of tangential importance:

    "[The Nazi party] never had a majority of the people on their side. To the extent that they had any kind of reliable base, it generally was among the more affluent members of society. In addition, elements of the petty bourgeoisie and many lumpenproletariats served as strong-arm party thugs, organized into the SA storm troopers. But the great majority of the organized working class supported the Communists or Social Democrats to the very end.

    In the December 1932 election, three candidates ran for president: the conservative incumbent Field Marshal von Hindenburg, the Nazi candidate Adolph Hitler, and the Communist party candidate Ernst Thaelmann. In his campaign, Thaelmann argued that a vote for Hindenburg amounted to a vote for Hitler and that Hitler would lead Germany into war. The bourgeois press, including the Social Democrats, denounced this view as "Moscow inspired." Hindenburg was re-elected while the Nazis dropped approximately two million votes in the Reichstag election as compared to their peak of over 13.7 million.

    True to form, the Social Democrat leaders refused the Communist party's proposal to form an eleventh-hour coalition against Nazism. As in many other countries past and present, so in Germany, the Social Democrats would sooner ally themselves with the reactionary Right than make common cause with the Reds. Meanwhile a number of right-wing parties coalesced behind the Nazis and in January 1933, just weeks after the election, Hindenburg invited Hitler to become chancellor.

  2. Thanks, Hedlund.

    That's a good quote, actually. And you'll see why in a moment.

    The Nazi party was not a monolithic structure that appeared in Germany out of the blue. There were many proto-Nazi associations before the NSDAP was so re-named by Hitler.

    Most if not all of those proto-Nazi groups were popular among the German aristocracy, which, as a class, was furiously against the modernisation of Germany and had their reservations even towards the nascent German bourgeoisie. This was, if anything, more accentuated in the more economically and socially backward Austria, by the way.

    You may have guessed where this leads to: Nietzsche. As a philosopher Nietzsche may have some interest; frankly, I have no interest whatsoever in that. My interest on him is as symptom of a longing for the past, which proto-Nazi manifested.

    Hindenburg himself felt a deep personal contempt for Hitler, as he felt for democracy (it's said that Hindenburg found it humiliating to have to ask voters to vote for him); the Junker aristocracy was with him on that. Hitler, for Hindenburg, was "the Bohemian corporal": a corporal, for Christ's sake, and not even a real German, at that. As unpleasant as Hitler was for Hindenburg and his cronies, they thought he had a virtue: the Bohemian corporal would be easily manipulated by a German Field Marshal.

    The bourgeois, largely intent on aping the aristocracy, wasn't far behind in those beliefs. Hjalmar Schacht -- who was recently hailed as another Internet post Keynesian hero -- by origin was floating somewhere between the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie (father bourgeois, mother Danish aristocrat), and he didn't think much of Hitler, his future boss.

    Perhaps in an oversight in his zeal for making Keynes look good, Skydelsky's own text suggests that whatever reservations Keynes might have harboured towards Hitler, when compared to Roosevelt (and I am not suggesting there weren't any reservations), may have had to do with Keynes' elitism: Roosevelt is one of us, Hitler isn't. Schacht and maybe even Hindenburg could have endorsed that.

    Their rallying behind Hitler wasn't unconditional: it was an unwanted marriage of convenience forced by unhappy circumstances. The same applies to Hitler: his courting of Joachim von Ribbentrop (as handsome as he was hopeless) and Hermann Göring had a lot to do with gaining the acceptance of the aristocracy and bourgeoisie.

    What did those people expect from Hitler and the NSDAP in return for their acceptance? That it acted as a bulwark against Bolshevismus and the rabble. That, even if Hitler could not turn Germany back to the past, he could at least stop it from moving further forward.

    And the Nazis were more than willing to do that.