In group theory, a nilpotent group is a group having a special property that makes it "almost" abelian, through repeated application of the commutator operation, [x,y] = x-1y-1xy. Nilpotent groups arise in Galois theory, as well as in the classification of groups. They also appear prominently in the classification of Lie groups.

Table of contents
1 Definition
2 Examples
3 Properties


We start by defining the lower central series of a group G as a series of groups G = A0, A1, A2, ..., Ai, ..., where each Ai+1 = [Ai, G], the subgroup of G generated by all commutators [x,y] with x in Ai and y in G. Thus, A1 = [G,G] = G1, the commutator subgroup of G; A2 = [G1, G], etc.

If G is abelian, then [G,G] = E, the trivial subgroup. As an extension of this idea, we call a group G nilpotent if there is some natural number n such that An is trivial. If n is the smallest natural number such that An is trivial, then we say that G is nilpotent of class n. Every abelian group is nilpotent of class 1. If a group is nilpotent of class at most m, then it is sometimes called a nil-m group.

For a justification of the term nilpotent, start with a nilpotent group G, an element g of G and define a function f : GG by f(x) = [x,g]. Then this function is nilpotent in the sense that there exists a natural number n such that fn, the n-th iteration of f, sends every element x of G to the identity element.

An equivalent definition of a nilpotent group is arrived at by way of the upper central series of G, which is a sequence of groups E = Z0, Z1, Z2, ..., Zi, ..., where each successive group is defined by:

Zi+1 = {x in G : [x,y] in Zi for all y in G}

In this case, Z1 is the center of G, and for each successive group, the factor group Zi+1/Zi is the center of G/Zi. For an abelian group, Z1 is simply G; a group is called nilpotent of class n if Zn = G for a minimal n.

These two definitions are equivalent: the lower central series reaches the trivial subgroup E if and only if the upper central series reaches G; furthermore, the minimial index n for which this happens is the same in both cases.


As noted above, every abelian group is nilpotent.

For a small non-abelian example, consider the quaternion group Q8. It has center {1, -1} of order 2, and its lower central series is {1}, {1, -1}, Q8; so it is nilpotent of class 2. In fact, every direct sum of finite p-groupss is nilpotent.


Since each successive factor group Zi+1/Zi is abelian, and the series is finite, every nilpotent group is a solvable group with a relatively simple structure.

Every subgroup of a nilpotent group of class n is nilpotent of class at most n; in addition, if f is a homomorphism of a nilpotent group of class n, then the image of f is nilpotent of class at most n.

The following statements are equivalent for finite groups, revealing some useful properties of nilpotency:

  • G is a nilpotent group.
  • If H is a proper normal subgroup of G, then H is a proper normal subgroup of N(H) (the normalizer of H in G)
  • Every maximal proper subgroup of G is normal.
  • G is the direct sum of its Sylow subgroupss.

The last statement can be extended to infinite groups: If G is a nilpotent group, then every Sylow subgroup Gp of G is normal, and the direct sum of these Sylow subgroups is the subgroup of all elements of finite order in G (see torsion subgroup).