If the term “statism” designates concentration of power in the state at the expense of individual liberty, then Nazism in politics was a form of statism. In principle, it did not represent a new approach to government; it was a continuation of the political absolutism—the absolute monarchies, the oligarchies, the theocracies, the random tyrannies—which has characterized most of human history.
In degree, however, the total state does differ from its predecessors: it represents statism pressed to its limits, in theory and in practice, devouring the last remnants of the individual. Although previous dictators (and many today, e.g., in Latin America) often preached the unlimited power of the state, they were on the whole unable to enforce such power. As a rule, citizens of such countries had a kind of partial “freedom,” not a freedom-on-principle, but at least a freedom-by-default.
Even the latter was effectively absent in Nazi Germany. The efficiency of the government in dominating its subjects, the all-encompassing character of its coercion, the complete mass regimentation on a scale involving millions of men—and, one might add, the enormity of the slaughter, the planned, systematic mass slaughter, in peacetime, initiated by a government against its own citizens—these are the insignia of twentieth-century totalitarianism (Nazi and communist), which are without parallel in recorded history. In the totalitarian regimes, as the Germans found out after only a few months of Hitler’s rule, every detail of life is prescribed, or proscribed. There is no longer any distinction between private matters and public matters. “There are to be no more private Germans,” said Friedrich Sieburg, a Nazi writer; “each is to attain significance only by his service to the state, and to find complete self-fulfillment in this service.” “The only person who is still a private individual in Germany,” boasted Robert Ley, a member of the Nazi hierarchy, after several years of Nazi rule, “is somebody who is asleep.”
In place of the despised “private individuals,” the Germans heard daily or hourly about a different kind of entity, a supreme entity, whose will, it was said, is what determines the course and actions of the state: the nation, the whole, the group. Over and over, the Germans heard the idea that underlies the advocacy of omnipotent government, the idea that totalitarians of every kind stress as the justification of their total states: collectivism.
Collectivism is the theory that the group (the collective) has primacy over the individual. Collectivism holds that, in human affairs, the collective—society, the community, the nation, the proletariat, the race, etc.—is the unit of reality and the standard of value. On this view, the individual has reality only as part of the group, and value only insofar as he serves it; on his own he has no political rights; he is to be sacrificed for the group whenever it—or its representative, the state—deems this desirable.
Excerpted from The Cause of Hitler’s Germany by Leonard Peikoff.