Jaffa’s Hitlerian Defense of Lincoln


In his book, A New Birth of Freedom, Harry Jaffa begins the second chapter with a quotation of Adolph Hitler taken from a book authored by Hermann Rauschning in which Hitler supposedly said that after the Southern states were conquered in America “the beginnings of a great new social order based on the principle of slavery and inequality were destroyed . . .” He later (page 503, note 10) makes the incredibly vulgar and tasteless comment that his old intellectual nemesis, the late Mel Bradford, agreed with Hitler. How charming that Jaffa would put such a thing in print for the family and friends of the quintessential Southern gentleman/scholar, the late Professor Bradford, to see.

Jaffa is blissfully unaware that there is much doubt that Hitler ever said this, and he addressed the same slimy remark to me in a recent debate I had with him at The Independent Institute in Oakland, California. At the time, I didn’t think such gutter language was worth commenting on other than to say, “Well, I guess we now know where Harry gets all these crazy ideas about political philosophy.” Besides, the comment drew jeers and boos from the audience and was a blow to his credibility. Why interfere with the man when he is busy placing his own foot in his mouth?

But on second thought, I recalled that Hitler himself was rather a fan of highly centralized government and a fierce opponent of state sovereignty, just like Jaffa. This of course is not to compare these men; Hitler was the devil come to earth. I am only suggesting that Jaffa’s smart aleck remark is historically backwards: Hitler was a consolidationist, just like Jaffa. Hitler understood all too well that the surest way to establish dictatorial government was to concentrate power at the center; Jaffa has never learned this lesson.

Jaffa has spent a lifetime expounding upon Lincoln’s rendition of constitutional history that was first invented by Joseph Story and Daniel Webster—that the Union preceded the states, as opposed to the view (the correct one, in my opinion) that the sovereign states formed the government as their agent by adopting the Constitution. (St. George Tucker’s View of the Constitution of the United States is the best exposition of the latter view; Jaffa’s book is the best of the former view).

On page 566 of the 1999 Mariner/Houghton Mifflin edition of Mein Kampf Hitler clearly expresses the Lincoln/Jaffa view: “[T]he individual states of the American Union . . . could not have possessed any state sovereignty of their own. For it was not these states that formed the Union, on the contrary it was the Union which formed a great part of such so-called states.”

This is consistent with the argument put forth in Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address (March 4, 1861) where he said: “[T]he Union is much older than the Constitution. It was formed in fact, by the Articles of Association in 1774. It was matured and continued by the Declaration of Independence . . . by the Articles of Confederation in 1778 . . . and establishing the Constitution. . . . It follows from these views that no State, upon its own mere motion, can lawfully get out of the Union . . .” Jaffa has spent a lifetime repeating this theory.

Hitler (p. 567) mocked what he called “so-called sovereign states” in Germany because they stood in the way of a centralized Reich with their “impotence” and “fragmentation.” Such impotence and fragmentation of government was purposely designed by some of the American founders precisely because they wanted to limit the powers of the central government.

Hitler praises Otto von Bismarck for proving “the greatness of his statesmanship” by gradually diminishing the sovereignty of the German states and centralizing governmental power in Germany. This was a most welcome development, Hitler wrote, since the power of the central state in Germany was supposedly threatened by “the struggle between federalism and centralization so shrewdly propagated by the Jews in 1919-20-21 and afterward . . .” (p. 565). Federalism is “a league of sovereign states which ban together of their own free will, on the strength of their sovereignty” to cede some (but not all) of their sovereignty to form “the common federation” (p. 566). Hitler was violently opposed to such a system.

But Bismarck did not go nearly far enough in destroying states’ rights, said Hitler. “And so today this state, for the sake of its own existence, is obliged to curtail the sovereign rights of the individual provinces more and more, not only out of general material considerations, but from ideal considerations as well” (p. 572). Thus, a rule “basic for us National Socialists is derived: A powerful national Reich . . .” (emphasis in original, p. 572).

Moreover, Hitler wrote, the centralization of governmental power and the destruction of states’ rights as a check on that power was inevitable throughout the world: “Certainly all the states in the world are moving toward a certain unification in their inner organization. And in this Germany will be no exception. Today it is an absurdity to speak of a ‘state sovereignty’ of individual provinces . . .” (p. 572).

Hitler ridiculed the advocates of states’ rights and federalism in the Germany of his time by saying, “the cry for the elimination of centralization is really nothing more than a party machination without any serious thought behind it” and reveals “the inner hypocrisy of these so-called federalistic circles. The federative state idea, like religion in part, is only an instrument for their often unclean party interests” (p. 573).

The National Socialists, moreover, would totally eliminate states’ rights altogether: “Since for us the state as such is only a form, but the essential is its content, the nation, the people, it is clear that everything else must be subordinated to its sovereign interests. In particular we cannot grant to any individual state within the nation and the state representing it state sovereignty and sovereignty in point of political power” (p. 575).

“The mischief of individual federated states . . . must cease and will some day cease,” Hitler ominously warned (p. 575). The “lesson for the future” is that “The importance of the individual states will in the future no longer lie in the fields of state power and policy . . .” (p. 575).

And finally:

“National Socialism as a matter of principle, must lay claim to the right to force its principles on the whole German nation without consideration of previous federated state boundaries, and to educate in its ideas and conceptions. Just as the churches do not feel bound and limited by political boundaries, no more does the National Socialist idea feel limited by the individual state territories of our fatherland. The National Socialist doctrine is not the servant of individual federated states, but shall some day become the master of the German nation. It must determine and reorder the life of a people, and must, therefore, imperiously claim the right to pass over [state] boundaries drawn by a development we have rejected” (p. 578).

Jaffa’s quotation of Hitler from the Rauschning book is of dubious validity. If he wanted to learn of Hitler’s actual views of states’ rights he should have gone to the original source: Mein Kampf. There he would have found a body of ideas with which he is intimately familiar and in total agreement with.

Thomas J. DiLorenzo is a Research Fellow at The Independent Institute, and Professor of Economics at Loyola College in Maryland.