Hitler: only the world was enough

Published in Book Reviews, Book Reviews, Issue 2 (March/April 2020), Reviews, Volume 28

Allen Lane
ISBN 9781846142475

Reviewed by Geoffrey Roberts

If you are going to challenge a cherished historical consensus you need cogent arguments and compelling evidence. Brendan Simms’s challenge to deeply entrenched interpretations of Hitler’s Weltanschauung is plausible and engaging but unconvincing. According to Simms, ‘Hitler’s principal preoccupation throughout his career was Anglo-America and global capitalism rather than the Soviet Union and Bolshevism … The book also rebuts the tenacious belief that the principal driver of Hitler’s world view, and the source of his virulent anti-Semitism, was fear of the Soviet Union or Bolshevism.’ Hitler’s world-view, the book argues, was not formed by the anti-Semitism of Hapsburg Vienna, as many historians contend, but by the future Führer’s experience of the First World War. Hitler fought against the British on the Western Front and felt the full force of US military might in 1918, when Germany’s last great offensive failed and Anglo-American armies surged towards the Reich. After the war Hitler became a convinced anti-Semite but remained obsessed by the power and example of Anglo-America. It was the British and American possession of large territories and populations that were the model for Hitler’s drive for Lebensraum—‘living space’ for Germans that would secure their global presence and place in the world. While Hitler saw Anglo-America as a competitor, it was also a potential collaborator in the struggle against Jews and Bolsheviks. His failure to forge such an alliance Hitler put down to the malign influence of the Jewish world conspiracy—the same one that had led to Germany’s defeat in the First World War.

Hypothesis as opposed to narrative-driven history typically selects evidence that supports the governing argument. While Simms has that tendency, he is too good a historian to omit troubling evidence. Indeed, the book is full of material that could be deployed against his Anglo-America hypothesis. Importantly, Simms mischaracterises the causal model underpinning the ‘tenacious belief’ that he seeks to challenge. The conventional argument is not that Hitler was anti-Semitic because he feared Bolshevism and the Soviet Union. Rather, he feared the Soviet Union because of the threat of the Bolshevisation of the whole world by an international Jewish conspiracy—the same conspiracy that made Britain and the United States prime enemies of Nazi Germany during the Second World War. It is the Jewish question that is fundamental to Hitler’s world-view, not Anglo-American capitalism. This much is clear from reading Mein Kampf, though Simms would like us to focus on Hitler’s unpublished, so-called ‘Second Book’. But Hitler’s pre-Wall Street crash awe of Anglo-American power in the late 1920s is hardly surprising and was widely shared, including by Stalin.

Simms’s hypothesis has raised the hackles of some historians. Writing in the Guardian, Richard Evans dismissed the book as ‘a tract that instrumentalises the past for present-day political purposes’. More sober is Jane Caplan’s evaluation in the Times Literary Supplement that Simms over-argues and thereby weakens his case. According to Caplan, ‘the key to Hitler’s hypernationalist hatred of Jews, plutocrats and Marxists alike was that they all embodied different versions of internationalism’, while in his London Review of Books review Christopher Clark queried Simms’s emphasis on the formative influence of Hitler’s experience of the First World War: ‘that he acquired a set of enduring convictions fairly early seems plausible, but that he fixed them into an unalterable hierarchy and stuck to this order of priorities throughout his life seems much less likely’.

To my mind, Simms’s approach is reminiscent of those who argue that Stalin’s experience of the Russian civil war led to a cataclysmic view of world politics in which the USSR was besieged by internal and external enemies who would inevitably resort to war to crush the Soviet socialist system. While that may have been Stalin’s view in the 1920s, by the 1950s he no longer thought such a war inevitable and saw the global struggle for peace as the way to further revolution.

Most historians would consider Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 to be the crowning—and fateful—moment of Hitler’s grab for world power. For Simms, however, ‘the declaration of war on the United States [in December 1941] was the moment to which Hitler’s career had been building up’. Crucial to Simms’s argument is that Hitler attacked Russia as a way of defeating or containing the main enemy, which was plutocratic Anglo-America. Hitler did not fear Stalin, says Simms, and thought the Soviet system was weak. He envisioned a quick and easy war whose stunning success would force the British to come to terms and would deter the Americans from challenging Germany’s domination of continental Europe. The occupation of European Russia would also secure the resources and living space that Germany needed to counter-balance the power of Anglo-America.

That the potential impact on Britain was part of Hitler’s calculations is well attested, but so too are his fears of the Soviet strategic threat. Stalin did not stand idly by when Germany conquered France in summer 1940. He annexed the Baltic States, expanded into Romania, increased the tempo of his war preparations and strove to draw Bulgaria and Turkey into the Soviet orbit. This was the background to the failed attempt to reset Soviet–German relations in November 1940, when Stalin sent his foreign commissar, Molotov, to Berlin, where Hitler and his foreign minister, Ribbentrop, tried to enlist the Soviets in an anti-British and anti-American alliance.

The idea of organising a continental bloc of Germany, Italy, Japan and the USSR to wage a global struggle against Britain and the United States was mainly Ribbentrop’s. It was a project that chimed with a radical faction in the Nazi movement that, unlike Hitler, really did see Anglo-America as the main enemy and wanted to ally Germany with Russia. Hitler had always resisted such an eastern orientation in German foreign policy, because he saw Russia as a weak ally and as a state controlled by Jews.

Following the signing of the Nazi–Soviet pact in August 1939 Hitler, for pragmatic reasons, modified his view. He even considered the possibility that the Soviet Union, under Stalin’s leadership, was less infested by Jewish influence. But this proved to be a temporary political-ideological tack. As Simms notes, once Hitler had taken the decision to invade Russia in summer 1941, the planned operation became increasingly and explicitly ideological. Neither in conception nor in practice was Operation Barbarossa an ordinary invasion; it was an ideo-racial war of annihilation against the Soviet state, for reasons that Simms identifies: ‘Front and centre here, of course, was Hitler’s preoccupation with the Jews, whom he saw as the directing mind behind both the Soviet Union and the emerging Anglo-American coalition’.

To buttress his contention that the indirect but main target of the Nazi Drang nach Osten was the western powers, Simms combs Hitler’s statements—as he does throughout the book—for indications of his strategic obsession with Britain and the United States. But Ian Kershaw’s summation of Hitler’s mind-set is more convincing:

‘Economic, military, strategic, and ideological motives were not separable in Hitler’s thinking on the Soviet Union. They blended together, and were used by him with different strength at different times in persuading those in his company of the correctness and inevitability of his course of action. The cement holding them in place was … the imperative to destroy once and for all “Jewish Bolshevism”—an aim which would at the same time provide the necessary security in “living space” and give Germany political and military dominance over the continent of Europe.’

Simms is nothing if not persistent, and his treatment of the Second World War is replete with claims that everything Hitler did on the Soviet–German front was a function of the more important duel with the Anglo-Americans. So, for example, the German drive to Stalingrad and the Caucasus in summer 1942 was a war for the oil that would enable Germany to endure a global struggle with Britain and the United States. This is true, but equally and more immediately important was the task of decapitating the Soviet war economy, as Simms himself admits sotto voce.

After their defeat at Stalingrad the Germans were fighting a losing war on their Eastern Front, with little or no hope of turning a tide that was increasingly running against them. In the west there was more scope for manoeuvre and even success. It is not surprising, then, that Hitler immersed himself in directing battles with the Anglo-Americans, which were also taking place much closer to home, not least in the skies above Germany.

While Simms points to the huge resources that Hitler poured into German air defences, by far the greater part of Germany’s military effort took place on the Eastern Front, where the Wehrmacht suffered ten million casualties, including three million dead. At the height of the battle for France in summer 1940 there were still twice as many German troops on the Eastern Front, and the D-Day landings were puny compared to the Red Army’s contemporaneous Operation Bagration, which crippled Army Group Centre, drove the Germans out of Belorussia and swept into Poland. American and British successes in western theatres of operation are inconceivable in the absence of gigantic Soviet military operations such as Bagration. It was the Wehrmacht’s nightmare on the Eastern Front that magnified Hitler’s fears of Anglo-American military power.

Like all books about Hitler, this one ends with the beleaguered Führer committing suicide in his bunker in Berlin at the end of April 1945. Just before his death Hitler composed a testament. Simms comments that, ‘strikingly’, the testament made no mention of communism or the Soviet Union. True, but neither does it mention the struggle against Anglo-America, except to express regret that Germany had been drawn into a Second World War against Britain and the United States. What there is a lot of in Hitler’s testament is anti-Semitism.

Simms concludes his book by restating his main hypothesis that ‘the Anglo-American capitalist world order against which Hitler revolted structured his entire political career … The root of his Jew-hatred, therefore, was primarily to be found in his hostility to global high finance rather than his hatred of the radical left … Hitler and the Third Reich were thus a reaction not to the Russian Revolution but to the dominance of Anglo-America and global capitalism.’ Strikingly, however, nowhere in hundreds of pages of text is Simms able to cite statements that demonstrate that his reconstruction of Hitler’s thought was what the Führer believed to be his Weltanschauung. Simms, it seems, knows Hitler’s mind better than the dictator did himself.

This is not a conventional biography of Hitler. Simms is interested in Hitler’s policies. It was Hitler’s politics that madeth the man and were responsible for his devastating impact on the world, not his personality, however warped that might have been. Simms’s Hitler is rational rather than demonic, bad but not mad. Not until the very last weeks of his life did Hitler lose the run of himself. Simms’s obsession with the Anglo-America hypothesis does not detract too much from his detailed reconstruction of Hitler’s foreign and domestic policies. While the book covers a lot of familiar ground, the author’s fine writing makes it a protracted but pleasurable read.

Geoffrey Roberts is Emeritus Professor of History at University College Cork. His Churchill and Stalin: comrades-in-arms during the Second World War (with Martin Folly and Oleg Rzheshevsky) has been published recently by Pen & Sword.


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