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Nazi history: Hitler's world views reexamined in biography

With "Hitler: A Global Biography," historian Brendan Simms emphasizes the dictator's obsession with Anglo-American capitalism as a motivation for his destructive rule.

Surely, there are plenty enough books about Adolf Hitler in the world. Many biographies about Hitler have been published by renowned historians.

Most recently, Brendan Simms, a professor of the history of international relations at the University of Cambridge, has also ventured into the subject. While Hitler: A Global Biography was published in English last autumn, the nearly 1,000-page German translation was released on March 9.

The publication of a new, major Hitler biography is always an event in Germany. One week before its publication, German weekly magazine Der Spiegel published an interview with the Irish author and historian, in which Brendan Simms summarizes his main thesis: Hitler's driving force in domestic and foreign policy was born out of a love-hate relationship with "Anglo-America." It was not the fear of communism and the Soviet Union that led him to war and destruction, but rather the struggle with Great Britain and the United States and the fear of international capitalism.

Cambridge Professor Brendan Simms

Author and professor Brendan Simms

Hitler's experiences during the years 1914-1918 were formative in this respect: "Admiration and respect arose from his experiences in the war. Hitler repeatedly referred to the toughness of the British, as he had experienced it at the front," Simms writes.

According to Simms, even Hitler's anti-Semitism did not arise primarily from a deep hatred of Jews, but secondarily, from a competition with "world capitalism" based in the US, where Jews were sitting in positions of power. 

The German translation is out today, March 9

The German translation is out today, March 9

Many Hitler biographies — many different aspects

Several well-researched Hitler biographies have offered different perspectives in recent years.

One work remains an absolute standard: British author Ian Kershaw's two-volume Hitler biography published in 1998 and 2000, in which the historian focuses primarily on the interaction between Hitler and the German people. According to Kershaw, Hitler was able to act in this way because the Germans laid the foundation for National Socialist ideology on their own initiative.

Before and after Ian Kershaw's publications, various other biographers from Germany and abroad focused on different aspects of this chapter of history.

In 1973, German journalist Joachim Fest addressed the subject of Hitler, writing an over 1,000-page tome that became a bestseller and was long considered a standard work. It was later shown that Fest had made some serious errors in his research, partly because he had relied heavily on the statements of Albert Speer, Hitler's chief architect and minister of armaments and war production. The Holocaust was only marginally addressed by Fest.

However, journalist and historian Sven Felix Kellerhof still ranked Fest's book among the "seven most important Hitler biographies" last year. "Some non-fiction books can become classics — that is the case when, even though their content is outdated, they are still worth reading," Kellerhof said. Many critics considered Fest's book to be of great literary value.

How Hitler and his politics are to be interpreted has long been the subject of dispute between two camps of historians. The so-called "internationalists" see Hitler as a decisive, strong leader whose thinking and ideology had a decisive influence on what happened in the years between 1933 and 1945. On the other hand, the so-called "structuralists" are more interested in the cooperation and opposition of competing groups within the Nazi system than in Hitler's political weight.

Hitler: A Global Biography bookcover

The English original came out last fall

Several groups of historians are still debating the image of Hitler

How National Socialism could function at all under Hitler and his collaborators was the subject of further, controversial interpretations. For instance, different scholars have looked into Hitler's psychological stability.

And then along came Brendan Simms' book Hitler: A Global Biography. Following its publication in English, the reactions were mixed.

The Guardian criticized the overly strong focus on the main thesis that Hitler had acted solely due to his obsession with Great Britain and the US.

History News Network criticized the Irish historian's assumption that Hitler was "mentally stable," acting as a "rational" person: "Simms accepts him as a person driven by an ideology with a clearly defined intellectual superstructure, and not as a deeply insecure, narcissistic sociopath."

National Review was a little more gracious, writing that Simms' focus on Hitler's obsession with the US went a little too far, but that the book was worth reading despite all its shortcomings. It added that it was more of a contribution to a debate than a final interpretation of the figure of Adolf Hitler. It is not, as Simms himself admits, "the whole Hitler."

A possible reassessment of history

And indeed, Brendan Simms writes at the beginning of his work that "the present book (...) in many respects does not measure up to its predecessors." It is "clearly not the first significant work on its subject, nor will it be the last." That sounds modest. Only a little later, however, the author writes confidently that based on his assertions, "Hitler's biography, and perhaps the history of the Third Reich more generally, need to be fundamentally rethought."

Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill

Hitler's chief adversaries — in Simms' view: Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill

Simms returns, again and again, almost religiously, to Hitler's fixation on Anglo-Saxon politics, society and culture, but there are also other striking aspects in his interpretation of history. In his view, France, but also the Soviet Union, play only a subordinate role in the historical developments of this time because Hitler did not regard these nations as competitors. According to the historian, for a long time, Hitler didn't even view the Soviet Union as a threat.

A reinterpretation of Hitler's perception of Germans

Simms pushes a further point home as well. He believes that Hitler had a very negative view of his own people, even after 1933: "He continued to not think much of the German people as whole. He was painfully aware of their poverty and ignorance," the historian writes. Even two years before the outbreak of the war, Hitler realized the competition with Anglo-America — with regard to the living standards of the nations — was lost. "In May 1937, Hitler basically admitted defeat," Simms writes.

But Hitler's relationship to the Anglo-American realm was also highly contradictory. For example, Simms writes that in earlier years the German politician had expressed himself nearly enviously: "A main subject of his interest was the United States, which he began to regard, perhaps even more so than the British Empire, as a model state."

This had to do primarily with Hitler's view of the Americans' alleged geographical advantages. And also because the country was a nation full of German expatriates. That's why, Simms writes, Hitler was pushing for new "living space" for Germans in the eastern part of the European continent.

For a long time, Hitler had "only" aimed to establish Germany as a major power in Europe, but no more, Simms noted. He wanted to create a counterweight to the US as a world power. "Hitler's goal was not world domination, but survival of the nation."

Simms concludes: "Hitler's entire strategy had ultimately consisted, right up to the end, in using the threat of Bolshevism to exert political influence on Germany, Europe and, above all, Anglo-America." That's a bold thesis. It is likely to be of interest for historians from now on, and not only in Germany.

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