This week, Marvel revealed that Steve Rogers is, and possibly always has been, an agent of Hydra. Laying aside questions of how this retcon would fit into 75 years of published adventures and any likely explanations that there is more to this than meets the eye, many readers have raised concerns about turning Captain America, a character birthed by Jewish creators partially as a reaction to National Socialism, into a “Nazi.”
But would Steve Rogers be a Nazi even if he genuinely was a Hydra sleeper agent? The history of Hydra is long and somewhat convoluted in current continuity. There’s no denying that the organization has creative roots as a neo-Nazi group, but in modern Marvel continuity, Hydra’s roots predate real-world Nazism, with a philosophy based much more in science fiction than in historical prejudices.
In creative terms, Hydra was created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1965 as a rival organization to S.H.I.E.L.D. While their Nazi inspirations were very evident in their earliest appearances, as various writers delved into their backstory, the Nazi connection dwindled until, even in early stories, Hydra was revealed as an organization with its roots in Imperialist Japan. Their last remaining connection to outright Nazism, Baron von Strucker, was even shown to be a fugitive who allied his version of Hydra with Germany's Third Reich in a grab for power before betraying them. Fleeing with the Red Skull, Strucker quickly abandoned the much more fanatical villain to join forces with a Japanese criminal organization also using the Hydra name.
Though Strucker remained a constant part of Hydra until recent years, his ideology became less about Aryan supremacy and more about his own thirst for power. Later stories further retconned and clarified Strucker’s origins and motivations, placing him as the head of Hydra locked in a war with S.H.I.E.L.D. and other super-spy groups. An element of fascism remained at Hydra’s core, but it was no longer driven by white supremacy and racial hatred – how could it be, when many of its agents were non-white, with roots in a Japanese criminal enterprise?
But Hydra as a Japanese crime syndicate isn’t where the evil organization’s story begins. According to Jonathan Hickman's S.H.I.E.L.D. mini-series, which explored the secret history of the Marvel Universe, Hydra’s roots go back to “The Order of the Spear,” a secret organization of geniuses that were infiltrated by an alien race bent on conquering Earth (something the Marvel Cinematic Universe has mirrored, to a degree.) They were opposed by a group called “The Order of the Shield.” See where this is headed? Over the centuries, the Order of the Spear grew and changed, eventually becoming the nascent Hydra – an organization that was revived in the early 20th Century in Imperialist Japan with ideals based on world domination inherited from their ancient alien masters.
In current comic books, Hydra has splintered into two groups: one led by Baron Zemo, who has been leading a much more Darwinist version of the secret society based on survival of whomever Hydra deems the fittest (usually its own members) - and one led by the Red Skull who, for the first time in modern continuity, has introduced a philosophy of neo-Nazism and white supremacy into Hydra.
Of course in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which many people fueling the social media outrage are likely more familiar with, Hydra was first introduced as the Nazi party's super-science division, but even they separated from the Nazis entirely and became even more extreme under the leadership of the Red Skull. The modern movie Hydra has also transcended their Nazi roots – and the TV show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. later revealed that, like in comic books, the MCU version of Hydra has roots that extend back centuries and to alien influence.
But Steve Rogers was subverted starting in the 1920’s, according to the flashbacks taken at face value in Captain America: Steve Rogers #1 – the same time National Socialism was taking root in Germany, prior to Hitler’s rise to power as Chancellor, and his ascent as Fuhrer. According to what we currently know about Hydra (and this is open to a retcon, of course), this would predate even Strucker’s version of Hydra’s ties to Nazi Germany – ties that were a product of an alliance of convenience, rather than an extension of Nazi idealism.
In short, while Hydra’s real world roots may be planted in the idea of neo-Nazi terrorists, for most of their history, they’ve been run of the mill supervillain fascists – whose later origins go back even further, tying them to alien invaders rather than race warriors and real world tyrants. There’s always the chance that Marvel will once again retcon Hydra’s history, but as it stands, with the information currently available, there’s little chance Steve Rogers is a Nazi, even if he genuinely is an agent of Hydra ... and that's a big 'if.'