Book review: Hitler: Only the World Was Enough, by Brendan Simms (Allen Lane, 2019)

“Those who come hither are generally the most stupid of their own nation … Unless the stream of their importation could be turned from this to other colonies … they will very soon outnumber us.”

So complained Benjamin Franklin from Philadelphia in 1753. The target of his ire was the Germans, who were migrating across the Atlantic “in droves”, diluting the liberty-loving Anglo-Saxon stock of the American colonies.

More than 150 years later, German emigration to the United States would, for very different reasons, be mourned by a very different political thinker. In contrast to Franklin, Adolf Hitler believed that it was the very ablest of the German race who had been lured to America, pushing their European homeland into a state of demographic degeneration. Hitler concluded that the only remedy was a vast eastward expansion of German lands in order to compete with the resources and quality of life of the United States.

This is the thesis of the historian Brendan Simms, whose fascinating new biography of Hitler argues that the guiding principle of the German dictator’s thought was neither antisemitism nor anti-communism, but in fact a steadfast obsession with the United States and Great Britain.

Hitler, Simms claims, first incubated this obsession as a lance corporal on the Western Front during the First World War. In the months and years that followed, the Anglo-American world came to colonise his imagination, manifesting itself there as a source of both wonder and fear. The vast territories that the British and the Americans had amassed, and on which the Anglo-Saxon was nourished, were, Hitler came to believe, the model on which a regenerated Germany could reclaim its global status. With Lebensraum attained in Europe’s east, a program of “positive” and “negative” eugenics would ensure the enduring quality of the German race. In short, Hitler saw the Anglo-American world as posing an existential threat. Germany was faced with a simple choice: compete or perish.

In an era when the West is again riven by clashes between nationalism and internationalism and between masses and elites, we are irresistibly drawn once again to the lessons of Weimar’s tragedy.

This entire world view, Simms argues, evolved from Hitler’s elemental distrust of the “internationalism” he believed had crushed Germany from within and without in 1918. The author presents his thesis that anti-capitalism – not anti-communism – was Hitler’s central preoccupation, as a challenge to prevailing views. And it is not hard to see why. After all, until the end of the First World War, the new Bolshevik Republic had shared a long border with the German Empire. Germany itself was brimming with Lenin’s admirers, a select few of whom even briefly captured power in Hitler’s Munich during the hazy early months of 1919. The Anglo-American world, one might think, hardly posed a comparable threat.

But for Simms, this is precisely the point. According to Hitler, the Anglo-American world did not need to menace and manipulate Germany through hard power alone. Instead, it exerted its enormous power in two subtler, though no less detrimental ways: by luring generations of the highest-quality German emigrants with its promises of liberty and luxury, and through the more insidious abstraction of global finance. While the former severely weakened Germany, the latter aimed to destroy it altogether. For this reason, it was Hitler’s hatred of “international high finance” that formed the ideological core of all that followed. His anti-capitalism begat his antisemitism begat his anti-Bolshevism begat his anti-Slavism. Even the Holocaust and Operation Barbarossa were conducted with a view to the West.

Adolf Hitler addresses a Nazi rally in 1933 in Dortmund, Germany (Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

As this overview suggests, “biography” may be a misnomer for Simms’ book. Hitler: Only the World was Enough is not, strictly speaking, a study of Hitler’s life. Nor does it offer an analysis of his power. Rather, it is an exploration of a Weltanschauung and the political conditions that shaped it.

The specificity of Simms’ focus leaves a number of important questions unanswered. For one, it means that the study lacks an explanation of how – and indeed whether – Hitler’s ideas mattered. In other words, how attuned were Hitler’s underlings and followers to the contents of the vision they were supposed to construct? Was Nazism in practice a very different beast to that which existed inside the Führer’s head?

Then there is the solipsism with which Simms’ Hitler navigates the world. The assumption always seems to be that Hitler derived his geopolitical views from his own experiences and his own readings of events. There is precious little about the influence on his thought of writers, mentors, or contemporaries.

Finally, there can be a tendency to overstate the ease with which one can identify an “essence” of Hitler’s thought. Hitler wrote and spoke on a variety of topics, varying his emphases according to his audiences. He was an ideologue, to be sure, but he was also a great opportunist. It is therefore difficult to distinguish changes in political tactics from changes in his fundamental convictions. Even in his most private moments, Hitler could be a remarkably inconsistent thinker; indeed, his vagueness may have been a key part of his appeal.

Nevertheless, Hitler: Only the World was Enough is an impressive and intriguing work. It makes a convincing – if sometimes exaggerated – case that Hitler’s fixation on “Anglo-America” shaped the ideological contours within which “space” could become his “answer to everything’, with all the horrific consequences this entailed. The idea that America was of fundamental importance to Hitler’s world view is not itself a new argument. But by drawing our attention to the centrality of historical emigration to Hitler’s racial vision of a Great Germany, Simms adds a new dimension to our understanding of the thinking that drove history’s most notorious figure. Crisply written and well-researched, there is much in this book that enlightens and stimulates.

But there is also much in this book that provokes. Many will resist its conclusions with vigour. Indeed, a preliminary article Simms published in 2014 led the conservative German newspaper Die Welt to wonder if his arguments may trigger a new Historikerstreit – the name given to a famously acrimonious dispute in the 1980s about the character of the Nazi regime and the causes of its crimes.

Then as now, the historical stakes are high when it comes to Hitler. Perhaps even more so. In an era when the West is again riven by clashes between nationalism and internationalism and between masses and elites, we are irresistibly drawn once again to the lessons of Weimar’s tragedy. But Hitler’s world was not our own – for all its enduring relevance, it must be grasped on its own terms. And to understand it as such, one could do worse than turning to Simms’ original and penetrating study.