Understanding Nazi Ideology
The Genesis and Impact of a Political Faith
Carl Müller Frøland, trans. John Irons
McFarland, Jefferson, North Carolina, 2020, 348 pages
Book Review published on: June 19, 2020
May marks the seventy-fifth anniversary of Victory in Europe Day, celebrating the Allies’ triumph over, among others, Adolf Hitler’s notorious Third Reich and the scourge of his national socialist, or Nazi party. In the aftermath of World War II, the Nuremberg trials brought to the world’s attention the loathsome ideology of Nazi Germany that underpinned some of the most criminal wartime acts of the twentieth century, to include the genocide of European Jews, euthanasia, forced sterilization, and mass starvation of its conquered subjects. In a new book, author Carl Müller Frøland effectively dissects the ideology of Hitler’s brand of national socialism, linking it backward to its philosophical roots in German Romanticism, as well as forward to its implementation and practice by the Third Reich once established in 1933. The author undertakes his detailed analysis without bias or value judgment, arguing that Nazism must not be seen as an historical aberration but in light of the German experience up to the time. The result is a challenging yet stimulating examination that clarifies the meaning of Nazism given its historical context.
In Understanding Nazi Ideology, Frøland seeks to “normalize” the study of Nazism “without any distracting value judgments” (p. 13). As such, he approaches his subject in an objective manner, dividing the book into seven parts. The first three sections are arguably the most difficult but the most vital; the author traces the ideological roots of Nazism from a number of schools and theoretical constructs. Among the most important are the concepts of the “organic” and “dynamic” from the period of German Romanticism, which stems from the late eighteenth century. At the risk of gross oversimplification, the former refers to the individual’s importance in forming a living, collective “whole” with greater society, while the latter refers to the nation always moving forward, sparked on by a sense of will, purpose, and community. Frøland next encapsulates the work of multiple German thinkers, including Paul de Lagarde, Arthur Schopenhauer, and Friedrich Nietzsche, among many others, to describe the intellectual environment pervading Germany preceding the rise of Hitler and Nazism. The author does not pass judgment on the morality or validity of these ideas—however heinous they may appear to the reader—which include the rise of nationalism, the importance of “blood and soil,” glorification of war, social Darwinism, eugenics (race-based biology), superiority of the Nordic races, and pronounced anti-Semitism.
The next four sections of the book are a bit more accessible, as Frøland focuses on the ideological basis for Nazism, as conceived by Hitler, and as practiced by the Third Reich once firmly in power. The author clearly shows that much of what Hitler wrote in his manifesto Mein Kampf (My Struggle) was not original and broadly reflects the German universe of ideas stemming as far back as the Romantic period. Among these concepts, as capitalized upon by the Third Reich, include the need for Germany to recreate itself with a Nietzsche-like “superman” at the helm, to eliminate all enemies threatening the purity of the Aryan race, and to establish a greater Germanic empire, based on the ideals of community and oneness with the natural world. These, in turn, find their roots in the “organic” and “dynamic” elements of German Romanticism, which is reflective of Frøland’s ability to show clear connections between the philosophy of the Third Reich and the intellectual movements that preceded it. In the end, the author effectively categorizes national socialism not as an historical aberration but as a “hybrid ideology” (p. 118) consisting of multiple elements—even from liberalism and communism, which were schools of thought that Nazism despised. Frøland’s other characterizations of national socialism as a political ideology and a “political religion” are among the book’s strengths.
There are some minor issues with readability in Understanding Nazi Ideology. Some may find the author’s use of the “historic present tense” disconcerting. Additionally, because the author distills and compares multiple schools of thought, then applies them to the Nazi party’s own ideology in theory and practice, there is a tendency for concepts to be repeated multiple times throughout the book, including the final section summarizing the tenets of national socialism. This leads to a final observation that the book would benefit from an overarching ending linking its disparate parts together. It ends somewhat abruptly, without a holistic, encompassing conclusion to an otherwise intellectually satisfying, if complex, work.
Understanding Nazi Ideology is recommended for specialists and would be ideal as a graduate-level text. Because of its in-depth analysis of the complex ideas underpinning national socialism, it will appeal to those already familiar with its subject and is perhaps less suitable for the novice or general reader. Frøland goes far beyond his stated goal of introducing readers to “the Nazi universe of ideas” (p. 14), effectively providing new insight and conceptual ways of thinking about Nazism and its place in twentieth-century political thought. For those interested in an objective, unbiased view of the historical roots of Nazism, the author has provided a valuable service.
Book Review written by: Mark Montesclaros, Fort Gordon, Georgia