Studies of Adolf Hitler continue to roll off the presses, and although this lengthy tome does not provide many new biographical details, it makes far-reaching claims about the Nazi leader’s political strategy. Brendan Simms maintains that throughout Hitler’s career, his foreign and domestic policy calculations centred on the US, the UK and global capitalism, as opposed to the Soviet Union, the Jews and the threat of communism. He became an enemy of the British and Americans on the Western Front during the First World War. In July 1918, his regiment took some American prisoners, he led two of them back to headquarters, and that event allegedly became a seminal experience in his life, reinforced a year later when the victorious powers presented the hated Versailles Treaty for Germany’s signature.
In fact, Hitler said little about those POWs, and the significance of this event is easily exaggerated. What raises questions about the priority of Anglo-America in Hitler’s subsequent thinking is that, already in 1919, the US did not join the League of Nations nor ratify the Versailles Treaty. Instead, it retreated into isolationism, a stance it maintained for 20 years. Hitler also waxed and waned about the UK, particularly how to win it over as a “natural ally”. Politically, however, apart from damning the peace settlement, he hardly oversold the Anglo-American menace, and it became a major issue only closer to the war in 1939.
Simms claims that Hitler’s phobia towards Anglo-America preceded his antisemitism, but how can we disentangle his cluster of emerging hatreds using the paper-thin evidence that survives? A better place to look for his budding ideology is the well-known “Gemlich letter” he wrote on 16 September 1919. It seethes with racial antisemitism. Thereafter, Hitler spoke in public obsessively and murderously about the Jews and soon about “living space” available only in the Soviet Union. Verbal attacks on the Jews became common fare in Nazi discourses, whose tragic consequences came during the Second World War.
What Simms terms his deliberate “Hitler-centric” and “context light” approach leaves the distinct impression that Hitler was an ever-present, hands-on leader in the Third Reich, whereas most specialists have long insisted otherwise. What comes across here is the notion that “Nazism” was synonymous with “Hitlerism”, a point made 50 years ago and rejected by most historians ever since. As important as the leader undoubtedly was, we need to take care not to over-personalise the story. It becomes tempting to credit him for matters that others prepared long before.
A strength of the book is its emphasis on Hitler’s apprehension about the quantity and quality of the German people, and that concern partly informed his strategic calculations. Yet Simms overstates his case in suggesting that since 1945 too much attention has been devoted to the mass murder of the Jews and other “race enemies”, and not enough to “positive eugenics”, by which he means Hitler’s efforts to raise Germans “to the level of their British and American rivals”. As it is, the book’s protracted argument tends to lose sight of German society. Its political culture fades into insignificance, as do all the other historical actors, including important ones such as Heinrich Himmler and Joseph Goebbels.
Robert Gellately is Earl Ray Beck professor of history at Florida State University. His most recent book, as editor, is The Oxford Illustrated History of the Third Reich (2018).
Hitler: Only the World Was Enough
By Brendan Simms
Allen Lane, 704pp, £30.00
Published 5 September 2019
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