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Hitler’s long shadow

By the turn of the millennium, it seemed that the Führer and Nazism had not just been comprehensively defeated but safely buried. But now, as globalisation fragments and national populists rise, we are not so sure.

When I studied in West Germany in the late 1980s, Hitler and the Second World War were omnipresent. The trials of prominent war criminals and mass murderers often dominated the headlines, although there were many who felt not enough were brought to justice. Public figures such as the Austrian president and former UN secretary general Kurt Waldheim had their Nazi pasts exposed. Even minor gains on the extreme right were the subject of agonised debate. Commentators regularly repeated Bertolt Brecht’s famous warning that the “bitch” of fascism was “still in heat”. “How often will we go on defeating Hitler,” the German publicist Arno Plack asked in exasperation. It is to him we owe the phrase “Hitler’s long shadow” – a shadow that has only lengthened since Plack first coined it some 30 years ago.

This shadow also hung over the continuing “German Question” at the heart of Europe. The post-1945 order and the Cold War between East and West were to a large degree a product of the war. Nato and the European Economic Community were primarily established to square the geopolitical circle of how to contain Germany, while simultaneously mobilising her in order to deter the Soviet Union.

Interpretations of the Nazi past, and of Hitler, played a crucial role in these discourses. Did German history, as AJP Taylor put it at one extreme, end up with Hitler as inevitably as a river flows into the sea? Or was he, to quote the other extreme, merely an “aberration”, an “industrial accident”? Was Hitler “master in the Third Reich” or was he a “weak dictator”, dependent on the complicity of wide sections of German society. Was Nazi policy driven, as the “intentionalists” claimed, by Hitler’s will, or, as the “structuralists” believed, by the interplay of the various party and state agencies? Was the violent disruption of the European and global system caused by Germany the result of deeper structural factors, such as the sheer size of the country and its central location, or was it primarily the product of its “behavioural” flaws?

The answers to these questions mattered, and matter, deeply, not just to historians, but to the public. If Hitler’s power had been absolute, then that more or less absolved the German people, and almost made them victims. With Hitler long dead, the implication was, Germany could be safely reunited. On the other hand, if German society was deeply involved in the Third Reich, then the removal of Hitler alone was not enough; he needed to be defeated over and over again. If the roots of the disturbance were to be found in deep flaws in early 20th-century German society, then the comprehensive transformations it had experienced since then suggested that the problem had been solved. But if they also had some more profound, essentially unchanged, geopolitical causes, then there was still considerable cause for concern.

These debates continued through the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and what Francis Fukuyama famously proclaimed as “the end of history”. The unification of Germany provoked a surge in anxiety. The Irish politician and historian Conor Cruise O’Brien predicted startlingly, and absurdly, that there would soon be a statue of Hitler in every major German town. Instead, the Germans deepened their engagement with the Nazi past. For example, the famous “Wehrmacht Exhibition” in Hamburg in the middle of the decade made the wider public aware of the extent to which the German army, not just the SS, had been complicit in war crimes and genocide.

By the turn of millennium, though, it seemed as if Hitler had been not just comprehensively defeated but safely buried. Germany unified without, apparently, upending the European balance; Europe itself seemed to be unifying inexorably. Ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia was eventually ended, with German help. The Luftwaffe once more flew over the Balkans, something that had seemed unimaginable even ten years earlier. Communism remained safely interred with the dead eastern bloc. “Globalisation” was knitting us all together, not merely economically, but also culturally and emotionally. Anti-Semitism appeared a thing of the past. Ian Kershaw’s landmark biography of Hitler, a satisfying synthesis of “structure” and “intention”, the second volume of which appeared in 2000, also drew a scholarly line under the dictator. History really did appear to have ended.

Twenty years on, we are not so sure. Since 2008, the financial crisis has sent globalisation into retreat. The EU is fragmenting as Brexit looms, and fissures open up not just between north and south but east and west. The German question has returned, albeit in different form. Democracy is also in retreat. Populist parties of the right and left are growing across Europe. In the United States, Donald Trump refers to far-right protestors at Charlottesville as “very fine people”. In Russia, Vladimir Putin thrives on a blend of nationalism, fascism and neo-Bolshevism. Moscow and Beijing challenge the power of the West. Conspiratorial anti-Semitism is back with a vengeance as people seek explanations for economic dislocation, the strength of international capitalism, the power of Israel and the “Jewish Lobby”, or some other grievance. Hitler unfortunately no longer looks as remote or as strange as he did two decades ago. To be sure, no contemporary development maps easily on to the Nazi past, and we should beware of facile analogies, but we now have reason enough to take a fresh look at Hitler and the global dynamics to which he was reacting.

This means digging deeper than the specifically German layer exposed by Kershaw’s classic account, and refined by the recent excellent biographies by Volker Ullrich and Peter Longerich. The importance they demonstrated of the continuities of German history, Hitler’s relationship with the structures of German society and government, and the character of his rule, is not in doubt. But beneath this layer we find a more universal story, not so much about the human condition or the nature of power, but about the world system and discourses of race and global inequality.


Formative years: Hitler’s (pictured far right) encounter during the First World War with American soldiers he believed had German heritage was pivotal​. Credit: Chronicle/Alamy

To see this, we must clear away the sediment of decades of understanding, because some of the most important things we think we know about Hitler are wrong. Based in part on new sources, my new biography overturns much of the long-accepted wisdom about Hitler. His main preoccupation throughout his career, I argue, was not the Soviet Union and Bolshevism, but Anglo-America and capitalism, fear of which drove his anti-Semitism. Far from putting the German people on a racial pedestal, Hitler was in fact deeply pessimistic, some would say realistic, about their weakness in the face of their “Anglo-Saxon” rivals.

Hitler did not arrive in the world (in 1889) with these views, and there was little in his Austrian youth to suggest the future Führer. What we know about him before 1914 is closer to a sketch than a full portrait. To be sure, his artistic interests were already well established; his hostility to the Habsburg empire, which influenced his move to Munich in 1913, was a matter of record. There was no sign whatever, though, of the ideas and ambitions to come. This is not surprising. What Hitler experienced in Habsburg Linz and Vienna may well have shaped his later views on domestic politics, and on race and culture. But he had not yet seen anything, and not taken in much of what was going on outside of the Habsburg empire and its German ally. There is no surviving contemporary evidence that he was much aware either of France, or the Russian empire, or the British empire, or the United States.

That was about to change, though. If the Hitler of 1914 had as yet left almost no mark on the world, the world was about to make its mark on him.

Hitler responded to the outbreak of war by volunteering to fight in the German (technically, the Bavarian) army. The main enemy, Hitler believed, lay across the Channel. His very first surviving letter after he joined up, announces his hope that he “would get to England”, presumably as part of an invading force. Strikingly, Hitler did not target the Tsarist empire to the east, even though it was at this point menacing East Prussia. Throughout the war, indeed, he made only a single (surviving) reference to the eastern front. Nor did he single out the French – long considered to be Germany’s “hereditary enemy”.

Not long after, Hitler encountered the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) at Flanders. With the exception of some of the officers, none of Hitler’s immediate comrades were regulars. The BEF, by contrast, were experienced soldiers, many of whom had seen action before, and most of them were better and quicker shots than their German adversaries. Hitler’s regiment suffered horrendous casualties, leaving him with a strong sense of “English” fighting qualities.

In February 1915, he reflected on the domestic and strategic situation of Germany. He lamented the loss of life in a struggle against an “international world of enemies”, and expressed the hope not only that “Germany’s external enemy” would be crushed but also that her “inner internationalism” would disintegrate. It is possible that the latter phrase was inspired by anti-Semitism, or it may have been a swipe against the transnational loyalties of German Catholics and members of the Social Democrat party. At all events, it was the first surviving sign of his hostility to most things “international”.

Then, in mid July 1918, the List Regiment ran into their first Americans at the Second Battle of the Marne. They were forced to beat a hasty retreat, but not before taking some prisoners. Two of them were dropped off by Hitler at Brigade Headquarters, a seminal event in his life.

The way in which Hitler remembered and interpreted the war was central to the development of his world-view. His encounter with “the English”, left him in awe of the British empire. Over the next 25 years or so, he would repeatedly come back to the “toughness” of the British. He explained this through the superior racial qualities of the “Anglo-Saxon” Britons, developed over hundreds of years of struggle and empire-building. Hitler, who was otherwise adamantly opposed to democracy, even admired the Westminster parliament, which he regarded as a leadership selection process far superior to the alleged Babel of German and Austrian parliamentarianism.

Even more intense was the fear and admiration that Hitler felt towards the United States, which he generally referred to as “the American union”. He was impressed by the sheer size and wealth of the country, and its modernity, as expressed by automobiles and other consumer products. Above all, Hitler regarded America as the model of settler colonialism and racial perfection, in which the dominant Anglo-Saxons “anglicised” later “high value” European arrivals, while excluding “lower value” elements through restrictive immigration laws. These sentiments clearly outweighed the cultural contempt he also expressed about jazz and other aspects of American popular culture (usually in the context of their deleterious effects on Germany, rather than the United States).

By contrast, Hitler had a much more sceptical view of the German people. Unlike the Anglo-Saxons, they had a historical tendency to fragment: regionally, religiously, socially and politically. The Reformation, the religious wars and especially the Treaty of Westphalia, which ended the Thirty Years War in 1648, epitomised this weakness for Hitler. Most of all, he was exercised by the massive emigration from 19th-century Germany, a product of her fragmentation and poverty, but also a cause of it. Hitler lamented how these migrants served to “fertilise” rival powers, and how their children came back to fight the Reich in the First World War.

This is the context within which he repeatedly came back to his encounter with the Americans in 1918, claiming that the prisoners he guarded had been tall, blond and blue-eyed offspring of German emigrants. During the Second World War, he spoke of the threat of German-American engineers and soldiers on a number of occasions. None of this is addressed by Hitler’s existing biographers, and yet it is critical to understanding his policies.

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Hitler’s preoccupation with Anglo-America sat alongside and interacted with his obsession with international capitalism. He did not necessarily object to capitalism per se, although it sometimes sounded that way. What Hitler called “national capitalism”, by which he meant heavy industrial combines such as Krupps, was acceptable so long as it defended national over international interests. International finance capitalism, though, was anathema to him, because it was based on the subjugation of economies and peoples to a transnational elite. Surveying the German predicament after defeat in 1918, he described the Reich as a victim of “colonisation” by Anglo-American and international “high finance capital”. These had, in his view, reduced Germans to “slaves” working on “plantations” run by foreign “overseers”. Later, during the Second World War, he cast Germany as one of the “have-not” powers, one of the global proletariat, so to speak, trying to secure a more just distribution of resources – including the right to enslave others – from the global “haves”, that is the British empire and the United States.

This antagonism to international capitalism was the primary motor of Hitler’s anti-Semitism. His first documented attack on the Jews in 1919 was on the basis of their supposed worship of the “power of money”. Hitler also believed that Jewish lobbies were responsible for the false political and racial consciousness in Britain and the United States, which prevented those countries from seeing their essential kinship with the Reich. This was the origin of Hitler’s later frequently stated belief that “world Jewry” should be taken “hostage” in order to ensure the good behaviour of the British, and particularly, the US government.

Strikingly, fear of the Soviet Union and communism played a much smaller role in Hitler’s thinking than one might imagine. He saw Bolshevism as a disease that had knocked Russia out of the war in 1917, and then undermined German resistance a year later. He did not fear a Soviet invasion, not even after the victory of the Reds in the Russian Civil War. Instead, Hitler fretted that communism would destroy the last vestiges of German sovereignty. “The threatened Bolshevik flood is not so much to be feared as the result of Bolshevik victories on the battlefields,” he warned, “as rather as a result of a planned subversion of our own people” that would ultimately deliver them up to “international high finance”.

Capitalism and communism were not simply two equal sides of the anti-Semitic coin for Hitler. Bolshevism was clearly a subordinate force. Its function in the Anglo-American plutocratic system was to undermine the national economies of independent states and make them ripe for takeover by the forces of international capitalism. Hitler never really deviated from this view, right down to his Last Will and Testament in April 1945, which made no mention of either communism or the Soviet Union, but inveighed instead against the real villains: “international money and finance conspirators”, who treated the “peoples of Europe” like “blocks of shares”.

 Hitler did not believe that salvation lay in “Europe”, unlike Count Coudenhove Kalergi’s Pan-Europa Union, formed in 1923, and elements of the National Socialist left such as the Strasser brothers and even Goebbels. He trenchantly entitled the ninth chapter of his unpublished second book “Neither border policy nor economic policy nor Pan-Europa”. Hitler’s objection was not to the idea of containing the United States as such, but to the desirability and practicality of doing so through European integration.

He rejected the various “mechanistic” calculations of combined European economic and demographic potential arrayed against the US. The United States was made up of “millions of people of the highest racial value” – some of the best blood from Europe – while the old continent was left with the inferior residue. This, in Hitler’s reading, was the result of European susceptibility to “Western democracy”, “cowardly pacifism”, Jewish subversion, and “bastardisation and niggerification”.

“The idea of resisting this Nordic state [the US],” he continued, “with a Pan-Europa made up of Mongols, Slavs, Germans, Latins, etc”, in other words an entity dominated by “anyone but Germanic elements”, was a “utopia”. Pan-Europa, in short, could be no more than a “merger under Jewish protectorate at Jewish instigation”, and would “never create a structure which would be able to stand up to the American union”.

Instead, Hitler’s solution to the perceived German predicament fell into two parts. First of all, he called for a programme of racial transformation within Germany, which eliminated “harmful” elements, especially the Jews, and encouraged the “elevation” of the racial “high value” strands in the German Volk. Secondly, Hitler demanded the acquisition of Lebensraum in the east, which would provide the land and resources to offer a comparable living standard to the United States, and thus end the debilitating emigration of the nation’s best and brightest. It would also make Germany “blockade-proof” in the event of a renewed round of warfare with Anglo-America.

If Hitler’s relationship with the British empire and the United States was ultimately antagonistic, it was also admiring and entangled. He long hoped for a British alliance and he never ceased to exalt the supposed racial qualities of the “Anglo-Saxons” on both sides of the Atlantic, and to believe that they represented Germany’s “better” racial half. The original for the Lebensraum project was the British empire and in particular the American colonisation of the West. Hitler and the Third Reich were thus a reaction not to the Russian Revolution but to the dominance of Anglo-America and global capitalism.


Present parallels: members of a US neo-Nazi group hold a burning swastika at a rally in Georgia. Credit: Spencer Platt/Getty

After he came to power in 1933, the British empire and the United States remained the focal point of Hitler’s policies. His entire domestic programme – such as the provision of affordable radios, the launch of the Volkswagen and the general quest for prosperity – was designed to match the living standards offered by the American Dream. The struggle against Britain and America for control of what he called the “trophy” of the “world” eventually forced Hitler to go to war against them both, and then to extend the theatre of operations ever more widely. The quest for Lebensraum led to conflict with Britain over Poland, which in turn “required” him to occupy much of Scandinavia, France, the Low Countries, the Balkans and North Africa, and drove the attack on Russia.

Hitler set out to make Germany a world power, not to achieve global domination, but each gain seemed to require another. By 1941-42, when he was directing operations on three continents, and across the seven seas, it seemed as if only the world would be enough for Hitler. But the prize eluded him: the trophy was lifted once more by the Anglo-Americans, with substantial help from their Soviet allies, of course.

With the exception of a relatively short period in 1941-42, Hitler’s main focus throughout the war, both strategically and in terms of resource allocation, remained the Western powers, even as he battered at the gates of Moscow and Stalingrad. Likewise, his war on the Jews was primarily driven not by his hostility to the Soviet Union, though this played an important part in his thinking, but by the desire to deter and then to punish the British empire and, especially, the United States.

Hitler, of course, proved no more successful against his own “world of enemies” than the Reich had been during the First World War. On this occasion, though, death and destruction were visited on the civilian population long before the front line reached Germany, by means of a relentless campaign of aerial terror. For all the Führer’s great architectural visions, the face of German cities after 1945 owed much more to the destruction wrought by Arthur Harris of RAF Bomber Command than Adolf Hitler. In 1938, Hitler joked that the building work at the new Imperial Chancellery made the area look like the forest of Houthulst in Flanders after four years of British bombardment during the last war. By 1945, three years of bombing by the RAF and USAAF had reduced not only the Chancellery but huge stretches of urban Germany to a similar condition. In the First World War, and immediately afterwards, the British empire and the United States had starved and pauperised the Reich; in the Second World War, they pulverised it. The mills of the Anglo-Americans ground slowly, but they ground exceeding small.

Hitler’s career was thus ultimately a catastrophic failure. None of his objectives were met, and although he appeared to come close to triumph on a number of occasions, in the reality the dice were too heavily loaded against him. Hitler knew this very well, but he also believed that even if the chances of success were no more than a few per cent, it was worth the attempt. Refusal even to try to escape Germany’s predicament at the heart of Europe, he argued, would mean guaranteed death without any hope of renewal. A bold strike against the global hegemon, by contrast, might just come off, and if it did not, then a glorious choreographed defeat would provide the basis for national regeneration at a later date.

Hitler made five key judgements throughout his career. Firstly, he was preoccupied by the power of “the Jews”. This he wildly exaggerated, to the extent that the centrality of anti-Semitism in his world-view can only be described as paranoid. Second, he largely discounted the Soviet Union, whose strength he hugely underestimated – a miscalculation that came back to haunt him. Third, he was convinced of the overwhelming power of Anglo-America. This, as we have seen, he got exactly right. Fourth, he believed that the Germans he actually ruled – as opposed to the people he planned to breed – were too weak and fragmented to prevail against the “Anglo-Saxons” whom he considered the global master race. This also turned out to be accurate. And fifth and finally, Hitler had predicted that the Reich would be a “world power” or “nothing”, and here too he was vindicated, even if this was something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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Through a terrible irony, Hitler made the very same mistakes that he was determined to avoid after his searching inquest into the causes of the German defeat in 1918. He wanted more than anything else to avoid another struggle with the children of German emigrants, or a production battle with the “German engineers” on the far side of the Atlantic, and yet his Reich faced General Carl Spaatz’s USAAF bombers in the air and Dwight Eisenhower’s coalition armies on the ground. Both men were the descendants of German emigrants, as were many who served under them. Thanks to Hitler’s policies, the sons of Germany returned once more to confront the Fatherland. If in 1917-18, they chastised the Reich with whips, in 1941-45 they scourged it with scorpions. History repeated itself, the first time as defeat, the second time as annihilation.

What does all this mean for us today? The answer is nothing and everything. Nothing, in that there are no straightforward lessons to draw or parallels to make. We are as likely to find Hitler in the rhetoric of an anti-globalisation protestor, as in the broadsides of the alt-right; among the “wretched of the Earth” as among white supremacists; in an Islamist as much as in an Islamophobe; and in many other people and places besides. And everything, in that conspiratorial anti-Semitism, global distributional struggles, migration and the power of international capitalism are all issues as salient today as when Hitler started talking about them so destructively exactly 100 years ago. His long shadow is therefore still with us, and we will have to go on defeating him for some time to come. 

Brendan Simms’s “Hitler: Only the World Was Enough” is published on 5 September by Allen Lane

This article appears in the 30 August 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The long shadow of Hitler