Nazism is usually presented as a negative moral exemplar without any rational analysis. Nazism is also linked to the theory of evolution, again, without any rational analysis. Nazism is often referred to as “Darwinian’’, although what this means is never spelled out. Certain ideas that were incorporated into Nazism, such as eugenics, are now considered evil because of their association with Nazism. Any use of evolutionary theory to understand human nature and/or solve social problems is equated with Nazism and rejected as evil. This places some very important ideas off-limits to discussion and debate.

In this essay, I am going to analyze and critique the Nazi worldview from a “Darwinian” perspective. I will also critique the popular moral narrative about the Nazis and WWII.

In the modern Western mythos, Hitler is the epitome of evil. He is simply portrayed as an evil person motivated by hatred. The Allies are presented as morally good, and their victory in WWII is portrayed as a victory of good over evil. As a mythical narrative, the story of WWII illustrates a moral principle and serves the function of social cohesion. We are the good guys and they were the bad guys. We won and they lost.

However, the myth of WWII does not hold up to basic scrutiny. Hitler was not a monster. He was a human being with a different worldview. Nazism was not that different from the beliefs of most people in the Allied nations at the time. Both sides in WWII did things that most ordinary people would consider to be evil today, if those actions were presented outside the familiar moral narrative of WWII.

What was Nazism really? Was it a special kind of evil that captured the minds of Germans for some strange and inexplicable reason?

To understand Nazism, you need to understand its central concept: the “Volk’’. The Volk was the German people, viewed as a kind of organism. The metaphor of a people as an organism was part of a vitalist strain in social and historical thought that originated in the 19th century and seems to have been strongest in Germany. The human population was viewed as composed of “peoples’’. A people, such as the German Volk, was viewed as analogous to an organism. In this view, a people was a coherent whole that had its own history, developed according to its own plan, and had its own purpose or destiny. The nation-state was the political corollary of the concept of a people. To act as a unit, a people had to constitute itself into a political structure that could act effectively in the world as a unit. That structure was the nation-state.

The metaphor of a people as an organism is deeply flawed. It projects the properties of an individual onto a collective. It involves the fallacy of composition in viewing the whole as essentially the same as its parts. A collective does not have the properties of an individual. A collective of individuals can be organized into a society, but a society is not held together by shared genes or by some mystical essence. A society is held together by a power structure (a system of incentives) that gives it both coherence and agency. The biological raison d’etre of the individual is not to perpetuate a collective or society. It is simply to reproduce. Does a collective have a biological raison d’etre? No, not really.

The vitalist metaphor is persuasive, however. The ordinary person can understand the metaphor of a people as a kind of composite person. And it is easy for the individual to identify with this composite person of which he is a part, and to view his interests as similar or identical to its interests, as they are metaphorically conceived. The vitalist conception of a people, or nation, proved to be useful in organizing individuals toward political ends. It provided a justification for society that ordinary people could understand and relate to emotionally: one that was simple and moral, rather than complicated and causal/functional. It could be used to motivate and organize large collectives toward social change.

Nationalism can be defined as a type of political ideology that:

  • Is centered on the definition of the collective.
  • Idealizes and personifies that collective.
  • Dismisses other concerns as secondary or unimportant.

Nationalism is a form of identity politics, and it usually arises either as a separatist movement within a larger society, or as a reaction to an external threat.

After WWI, Germany was not exactly in either of those situations, but in a situation that combined aspects of both. The German people were not united under a single government. Germany and Austria had suffered a humiliating defeat in WWI. Lands with majority German populations were occupied by foreign powers. Germany did not have a stable government or a generally accepted political ideology after the collapse of the monarchy. People either feared or hoped for a communist revolution like the one that had just seized power in Russia. There was a large Jewish minority that had disproportionate economic and political power. Given those conditions, it was not surprising that Germany turned toward nationalism.

Nazism has to be understood as a nationalist ideology situated in a specific time and place. In the Nazi worldview, the proper collective was the Volk: the German people. The concept of the Volk referred to a common ancestry and character out of which the German culture had sprung. The existence and importance of the Volk was taken for granted as self-evident, in the same way that “all men are created equal” is taken for granted as self-evident in the US Declaration of Independence.

In the Nazi worldview, the purpose of the German state was to organize the Volk into a unified whole and to secure the soil necessary for its perpetuation and expansion. That soil had to be acquired, of course, at the expense of other peoples. This was regarded as the moral right of a people and a nation. The struggle between peoples for perpetuation and expansion was seen as the driving force of history, a natural and inevitable process. In this view, the Volk was the ultimate source of value. Both the individual and the state were expected to serve the interests of the Volk.

There is an apparent moral inconsistency here. Altruism was expected at the level of the individual, but not at the level of the collective. Individuals were expected to sacrifice their interests for the greater good of the Volk, but the Volk was expected to act selfishly in its struggle for existence against other peoples. This inconsistency is resolved by the belief that the Volk, rather than the individual, is the intrinsic source of value. Individuals were viewed metaphorically as cells within an organism, with their purpose being the good of the organism. Individuals not acting for the good of the Volk were viewed as “cancer’’ or “parasites”. In either case, they had to be purged from the body. (As a child, Hitler watched his mother die from cancer, and that probably affected his view of the world.) Competition was the moral norm of nature, and thus morally acceptable between nations, but altruism was the moral norm within the body of the nation.

Nazism provided a worldview that was functionally complete and reasonably coherent, as long as one did not question its basic assumptions. The individual belonged to a greater whole from which he derived his identity and purpose. He could take pride in the accomplishments of his people. The state existed as a means of organizing the mass of the people toward its perpetuation and expansion. History was a struggle between peoples. The strongest would survive and the rest would perish. Culture was a manifestation of the inner character of the people, and also a means of unifying them into a coherent entity. There were other components of Nazi ideology, such as its opposition to democracy and its ambivalence towards capitalism and individual profit. But the crux of Nazism was the concept of the Volk. The Volk was the ultimate source of value and identity for both the individual and the state.

One of the natural implications of this view is that individuals who do not belong to the Volk are potential enemies. To Hitler, since the Jews were a different people, their interests would naturally be at odds with those of the Volk. The Jewish people would be expected to form their own social structures and to perpetuate and expand themselves at the expense of the Volk. The Jews were not only outsiders, they were insider-outsiders. They lived inside Germany and were associated with political movements viewed as harmful to Germany, including communism and social democracy. The Jews were viewed as a separate and hostile people using deception to undermine Germany from within. This view fit easily into the Nazi worldview. It made sense if you accepted the premises of Nazism.

If you try to understand the Nazi worldview, you see that it was not radically different from the ordinary worldview of many other places and times. Nazism was irrational, but not more irrational than the modern Western worldview.

Is Nazism Darwinian at all? Yes, in two important ways:

  1. Nazism accepts the existence of innate differences between individuals, populations and the sexes.
  2. Nazism accepts that life is intrinsically competitive: a struggle to exist in which there are winners and losers.

In those two ways, Nazism is biologically realistic, and more so than the humanist worldview of the modern West. Overall, however, it is more idealistic than realistic.

Was Nazism the epitome of evil?

The idea that the Nazis were uniquely evil, according to the modern Western conception of good and evil, is absurd.

The Allies in WWII deliberately killed civilians in cold blood, just as the Nazis did. The fire-bombings of Dresden and Tokyo, and the atomic-bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are well known examples. The pilot who dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima knew that he was killing defenseless men, women, children and babies, just as the man sending Jews to concentration camps knew what he was doing. Both did what they were told to do by their societies, and both probably believed that their actions were morally good.

Hitler’s concentration camps were based on two historical examples: the concentration camps used by the British during the Boer War and the Indian Reservations created by Americans. Concentration camps were not unique to the Nazis, even during WWII. The Russians put captured German soldiers into camps where most died. The Americans put Japanese-Americans into concentration camps based purely on their racial and ethnic identity. Would the interned Japanese have survived WWII if Japanese troops had invaded the US mainland, bombed major cities, and disrupted the US economy to the point that US citizens were going hungry? I doubt it.

By modern Western standards, the Nazis were more evil than the Allies only because they had a different ideology. Nazis are considered evil because they were “racist” and (in the modern mythos) the allies weren’t racist. The Nazi killing of civilians is considered a horrible “crime against humanity” that must be remembered forever, while the Allied killing of civilians is excused and swept under the rug. That the British and Americans ceased killing once they had won the war was due to the fact that, in their worldview, they had already achieved their objectives and there was nothing to be gained by further killing of Germans. (The Russians went on a bit of a killing, raping and looting spree.)

The Allies and the Nazis both justified their actions as necessary to achieve ends that they claimed to be good. While spouting moralistic propaganda, both sides succeeded in demonstrating the selfish and violent nature of both individuals and societies.

It is time we moved both Nazism and WWII from the domain of myth and propaganda to the domain of history. Nazism was a nationalist movement that arose in Germany after WWI for historical reasons, had some minor accomplishments, started a catastrophic war, and lost. It was based on an idealistic conception of human nature that is not implied by evolutionary theory.


  1. Following your logic, there's no difference between a witch hunt and the rule of law.

    In a witch hunt, your neighbour wants your apartment, and tells the authorities that you may have said something bad about God / The Communist Party / etc. You quickly end up tortured and killed, no evidence required, and the neighbour gets your apartment.

    However, how is that different from a country where the individual is innocent until proven guilty? In both countries, troublemakers should be punished by the State. In both countries, the State has a monopoly on violence. So, (following your logic) they're morally equivalent.

    This type of false equivalence is all you're using here.

    There's a huge difference between a systemic communist or nazi genocide and the killing of a relatively small number of civilians in war to achieve some other goal. (The victims of the bombings were far less than the victims of all other bombings in Japan so far). The two collectivist systems, communism and nazism filled the 20th century with corpses, using similar reasoning - the commies were killing based on "class" privilege (which was a definition that can be expanded arbitrarily and indefinitely, so it resulted in way way more corpses), and the nazis killed based on a more rigid and clear definition. And you are basically saying that the US would have done the same, because we're all tribal selfish murderers. Yeah-no, it wouldn't have.

    Nazis copied the death camp from the commies, where such death camps already existed. To compare these death camps to some US camps is like... I don't know, comparing a prisoner bench with an electric chair because both are designed with sitting on them in mind, so there isn't a significant difference... Right?

    All armies kill civilians, but to place a moral equivalence between the unruly Red Army and its unrastrained (actually top down encouraged) rape, looting, torture and murder with the American one would also be inaccurate. (The fact that the Russians were great at maximizing their own losses also contributed to the way they behaved.)

    Different civilization carry out even war crimes differently, or at least in different proportion. American bombs are preferable to hordes of Russian orcs. Even if the outcome is "the same" - getting killed, getting killed by a higher civilization is often preferable to getting killed by barbarians / enslaved animals that have never been anything else.

    This is not necessarily a moral difference, it's a pragmatic difference and my grandma, if she were alive could tell you about it, since she could experience in practice both American bombings, and German and Russian armies going through.

    1. I don't see how that (witch-hunt vs. rule of law) is an analogy to what I'm saying. There is no rule of law in war. There was indiscriminate killing on both sides. There was an internal suspension of the internal rule of law on both sides. (You think the US constitution allows for US citizens to be put in concentration camps because they are Japanese?) The US and Britain didn't kill a relatively small number of civilians. They deliberately killed millions of civilians. At the time, people in the US and Britain were not going hungry or suffering any major deprivation. Yes, I'm sure they would have abandoned their principles further if they had been hungry, as people always do.

      Find me an example in history of people behaving "nobly and morally" on a large scale when they are hungry. The level of "morality" of a people is predicted fairly well by their level of hunger. Yes, it is better to be conquered by a "higher civilization" than a lower one, but only if "higher civilization" means that they aren't hungry and desperate for land. Basically, if you are going to be conquered, you want to be conquered by people who are rich, monogamous, and live far away.

      The Nazi concentration camps were based on the camps used by the British in the Boer war:

      For most of human history, systematic genocide was normal. Tribal warfare is small-scale systematic genocide. It usually kills off a larger percentage of the population in each generation than the death tolls from WW1 and WW2 combined. (Russia might have reached levels close to that if you throw in the internal death toll from communism.) In spite of all its stupid ideologies, the 20th century wasn't exceptionally violent. It was exceptionally peaceful.

      The point of this article is not to claim some kind of "moral equivalence". The point is to understand Nazism honestly as an ideology and historical event. In particular, I am arguing that Nazism is not a logical consequence of "Darwinism" (aka "biological realism"), but is based on a flawed conception of human nature.

    2. War is not the only thing that was going on at the time. I always have "tribal warfare" and clans of monkeys in the back of my mind, when I'm reading about different atrocities. But even though ideology almost always supports and encourages "tribal warfare", ideology itself matters a lot.

      Different societies live according to different values. These values may generate wealth or misery, life or death on a massive scale for their own members. Jews were "enemies" in a way, similar to the class / race / sex neo-marxist division you have there emerging the First World. But a division that was worse, again, like the difference between a chair and an electric chair.

      I agree Nazis are not uniquely evil. I also know that they weren't the only ones (or even the most efficient ones) at carrying out genocides on a massive scale. Humans are genocidal in general, I know that too. I believe we're on the same page here. But you have to ask yourself where you'd prefer to be a citizen. Even if morality, good and evil are meaningless, inadequate concepts for you.

    3. I would prefer to be a citizen in a society of high IQ, well fed people, with basically liberal values, a free market, eugenic reproduction control, respect for the environment, and a cultural value of advancing human knowledge and agency. I would like humanity to go beyond war and tribalism forever. Of course that describes no existing society :(

  2. The original Barbarossa plan (which anticipated a quick two week victory at the Soviet borders) included the starvation and eventual brick-by-brick erazing of both Moscow and Leningrad with a combined population of 5 million. Moscow in particular was to be replaced with an artificial lake symbolizing the utter destruction of East Slavic civilization. These cities were important economic and transportational hubs with lots of valuable workforce. How does this sound like anything other than batshit crazy and pure fucking evil?

    1. The Allies glassed Dresden and nuked two Japanese cities, while starving civilian populations. The Soviets annihilated a large percentage of the Russian population after the revolution. The Chinese communists slaughtered and starved millions. Etc, etc.

      People have always slaughtered each other in large numbers. That's the point of war. It's about killing, raping, and looting. Ideally, we could create a global civilization that brings an end to war, but we haven't gotten there yet, and we've been fighting wars for all of history.

      Each side in a war claims that it is "good", the other side is "evil", its atrocities are justified by the ends, but the atrocities of the other side are not justified, blah, blah, blah.


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