Professor of the history of international relations at the University of Cambridge, Brendan Simms’ previous books include Britain’s Europe: A Thousand Years of Conflict and Cooperation (2017) and Unfinest Hour: Britain and the Destruction of Bosnia (2001), which was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize. Here he talks to BBC History Magazine staff writer Ellie Cawthorne
Ellie Cawthorne: Why did you think that a new biography of Hitler was needed?
Brendan Simms: Because I think that some of the most important things that we think we know about Hitler are actually not true. Primarily, I argue that Hitler saw his main enemies not to be communism and the Soviet Union, but actually Anglo-American capitalism. That’s a fairly fundamental point, which I think has been missed in the previous literature.
I also argue that, in the beginning, Hitler wasn’t actually aiming for world domination. Instead, he began with a concept of international parity – he wanted to establish a role for Germany among the other great world powers. But the way in which events unfolded made it imperative, from his point of view, to seek something like global domination because he thought that was the only way he could make the world safe for Germany. As circumstances changed and he realised he was going to have to take the war to the Anglo-Saxon powers, he became ever-more ambitious. Not so much out of greed as out of fear. Fear was the overarching sentiment.
Can you tell us more about Hitler’s attitude towards Britain and the US, and where this idea came from?
Its roots go back to the First World War, which was decisive for the development of Hitler’s worldview in two important respects. Firstly, he spent most of the war fighting the British empire, and emerged out of the conflict with a very strong sense of the toughness of the British. His enduring impression was that they were the enemy that had really done for the German Reich.
The other important encounter was with the US, specifically with American prisoners in the summer of 1918. At this point, the German army was on its final desperate push to try to defeat the British and the French on the western front before US troops arrived in force. Hitler was given two American soldiers to escort back to brigade headquarters. He subsequently interpreted this as an encounter with German emigrants, deducing a particular worldview about what had gone wrong with the Reich over the 19th century and early 20th century. He argued that it was the pay-off for hundreds of years of demographic haemorrhaging of the highest-value German blood to fertilise the territory of the enemy.
This profound sense of anxiety around emigration and being at war with your own racial stock was an idea to which he returned. It’s quite an irony, of course, that in provoking war, Hitler actually brought about the very thing that he most feared: in Dwight Eisenhower, the supreme Allied commander, and General Spaatz, commander of the US Strategic Air Forces in Europe, you did indeed have German-Americans coming back to clobber the Fatherland.
Hitler (right) pictured with comrades in 1916. His experience in the First World War shaped his later worldview, argues Brendan Simms. (Photo by Popperfoto via Getty Images/Getty Images)
How did these concerns about emigration shape Hitler’s policies?
After 1933, he engaged in a couple of pretty high-profile ‘recoveries’ of people who had emigrated to the US: former regimental comrades who were brought back with considerable fanfare. The narrative was clear: do not be seduced by the American dream. In the late 1930s, he even briefly experimented with a really quite grotesque plan for an international ‘exchange’ of German-Americans for German Jews.
The emigration argument was also the underpinning of the project of lebensraum – or ‘living space’ – in the east. When it came to plans for settling the eastern territories, Hitler specifically called the areas around the Volga the ‘Mississippi’ of the German Reich, and stated that he hoped to settle these areas not only with the demographic overflow from Europe but also with returning German-Americans. While the project of lebensraum is well known, its connection to emigration has not been discussed before.
You argue that as well as feeling threatened by Britain and America, Hitler also admired them. How so?
His admiration for the British empire, as a project of colonisation overseas, is well known. But what is less known is that he also had a particular admiration for settler colonialism in the United States, which he saw as a model for Germany’s eastern expansion.
Hitler admired these countries as repositories of racial value. He saw them as being constructed around an extremely strong Anglo-Saxon spine, reinforced by waves of European – particularly German – migration. In the 1920s, Hitler was very explicit about the fact that he found the US culturally and economically attractive. You can add to that an admiration for the technological advances and consumerism seen in the US, and the system of national parks. In fact, there were only a small number of areas of US life he didn’t admire.
I think Hitler’s feelings of fear and admiration for Britain and the US are difficult to disentangle. Initially, his experience of the First World War – strengthened by the experience of the punitive peace settlement and exacerbated by everything that happened in German domestic politics in the early 1920s – led to fear. That fear then produced admiration, which led to his attempt at a rapprochement with Britain and America. But when that admiration was repulsed, it triggered hatred, anxiety and a sense of rejection, which in turn increased his fear. It was a vicious circle.
Hitler’s ideology is generally seen as stressing the racial strength of German people. However, you suggest that he was equally driven by insecurity about German weakness.
Hitler had a profound sense of Germany’s demographic and racial weakness. He saw it as a fragmented polity, a country that had been historically divided between Protestants and Catholics ever since the Reformation, as well as being divided by class, ideology and, above all, regionalism. In particular, he was deeply concerned by the phenomenon of Bavarian separatism. For example, his attempted coup in the Munich putsch of 1923 was as much a move against Bavarian separatism as it was against the central German government.
Compare this idea of a weak and fragmented German Reich with Anglo-America, which Hitler saw as a kind of racial paragon, the embodiment of everything that had gone right in racial history. From Hitler’s perspective, these factors were mutually reinforcing – Germany’s demographic and racial weakness in relation to Anglo-America forced the country into a negative spiral.
How did he plan to combat this perceived German inferiority?
One of the key things I want people to take away from the book is that next to his murderous ‘negative eugenics’, Hitler also had a highly problematic concept of ‘positive eugenics’. In his mind, killing millions of Jews and other ‘undesirables’ was only the first step. That alone would not be sufficient to ensure the survival of the German people in a highly competitive world dominated not only by the so-called ‘world Jewry’, but also the Anglo-Saxon powers.
As such, the idea of ‘racial elevation’ was absolutely critical to Hitler. Essentially, his argument was that the attraction of Anglo-America was one of living standards. In other words, Germans needed to match the ‘American dream’. They should have access to travel, mod cons, radios, autobahns. Standard of living was also inextricably intertwined in his mind with the idea of lebensraum. He believed that once Germany had expanded east, Germans would then, over decades and centuries, be able to elevate their living standards to the level of Anglo-America.
In Hitler’s thinking, there was always a tension between timelines. On the one hand, he was always in a hurry due to circumstances – because his life was short, because Germany was in a dire situation. But on the other hand, he saw himself as part of a centuries’ long project of which he would only witness the beginning.
You argue that you can’t understand Hitler’s anti-Semitism without understanding his anti-capitalism. Why?
Although it’s somewhat paradoxical, Hitler regarded Anglo-America not only as the repository of high racial value, but also as the protagonist of international capitalism, dominated by the Jews. He saw high finance as the real ruler of the world, a force that had enslaved Germany and reduced it to the status of a colony.
The contradiction is that, while he argued that the presence of Jews corrupted and enfeebled states, for some reason it didn’t seem to corrupt or enfeeble Britain or the US, except in so far as it induced what he regarded as a form of ‘false consciousness’. In other words, these states didn’t recognise that their true community of interest was with, not opposed to, the German Reich.
How does this new reading alter the way that we should think about Nazi-Soviet relations?
There was a clear hierarchy of enemies in Hitler’s mind, and the threat posed by the Soviet Union and communism was by no means as serious as the threat posed by the British empire or the United States. You can see this in the distribution of German resources during the Second World War, which runs contrary to many things you might read about the overall importance of the eastern front. By the end of 1943 at the latest, the majority of the German war effort was dedicated to fighting the so-called ‘Anglo-Saxons’, and in 1944–45 the preponderance was greater still. The western allies absorbed the larger share of Hitler’s intellectual and rhetorical bandwidth, right to the very end.
I also believe that the attack on the Soviet Union in 1941, and the quest for lebensraum in the east, was not primarily driven by concern about communism, but concern about Anglo-America. The east was simply a convenient, closely located area that could be easily controlled. Overseas expansion wouldn’t work because the British and Americans controlled the seas. In that sense, the attack on the Soviet Union was nothing personal from the point of view of opposing communism. Rather, Hitler saw communism as an opportunity. The fact that the Soviet Union was afflicted with the virus of communism, he said, would make it easier to conquer.
When you cut through Hitler’s polemics and propaganda, what kind of man do you find?
I think it’s very hard to say anything conclusively about his personality because so much of it was artifice. His image was carefully curated from quite an early stage. Famously, he practised gestures in front of the mirror and took lessons on how to present himself in public. So it’s difficult to tell what you’re getting in terms of the real Hitler. Hitler was obviously politically psychopathic, there’s no question about that, but in so far as I could grasp him, he was clearly not psychopathic in any narrowly medical sense. He was able to relate normally to other people, and was not afraid to unburden himself, to unbutton, with people he knew.
The crucial point is that I don’t think there’s anything in Hitler the man that tells you anything that’s particularly useful about Hitler the politician. So, while a biographer might be able to get a bit of a sense of Hitler’s personality, that’s not my primary preoccupation. What I’m most interested in are his policies, and the ideas that informed them.
BOOK Hitler: Only the World Was Enough by Brendan Simms (Allen Lane, 704 pages, £30)
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This article was first published in the September 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine