• Politics
  • Hitler’s little-known American Dream


Hitler’s little-known American Dream

We speak to Cambridge historian Brendan Simms on his controversial biography that explores how the dictator’s fraught obsession with the US shaped the Third Reich.

Image for Hitler’s little-known American Dream

We speak to Cambridge historian Brendan Simms on his controversial biography that explores how Adolf Hitler’s fraught obsession with the US shaped the Third Reich. Photo: Bundesarchiv

Published last October as a self-proclaimed “radically revisionist” study of the dictator, Simms’ Hitler: A Global Biography claims that, unlike previously posited, Hitler’s “principal obsession” was not Bolshevism and the communist threat in the East, but international capitalism and the Anglo-American world in the West. It was this fixation with Anglo-America that ruled his reality – from German cultural programmes to the invasion of the Soviet Union, and even the Final Solution.

How did you become aware of Hitler’s fascination with America? Was it a gradual realisation or was there a specific piece of research that jumped out at you?

It was more of a gradual realisation that was then punctuated by eureka moments in the archives. Research is normally an iterative process. You do a bit of research then you do some thinking, then you do a bit of research. It’s a sort of a chicken and egg situation really. But most of what Hitler said has been printed in some form or another. In the course of my reading all of his published writings and speeches, from his youth till his death in 1945, it became absolutely obvious that ‘Anglo-America’ – that’s my phrase, Hitler tended to refer to them as the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ – was the biggest kid on the block, his main focus, his main enemy, the partner he would have liked. The biggest element of his reality. Once that was clear, I began to look in the archives for things others might have missed. So, for example, his encounter with American troops during the Second Battle of the Marne in 1918.

Why was this encounter with American troops in the First World War so formative for him?

To understand that, you have to understand that one aspect of Anglo-America that impresses and alarms Hitler is what he regards as its racial quality. He sees the Anglo-Saxons as the original master race in the world. In Hitler’s view – and I stress always, in his view – the two Anglo-Saxon powers, and particularly the United States, have been reinforced over hundreds of years by what he calls the ‘best elements’ of the rest of Europe. Germany, in particular, has been weak and divided and has therefore lost a huge proportion of its most vital population to emigration. These Germans, Hitler claims, go to the United States and ‘fertilise’ it. In times of war, those Germans come back as enemy soldiers, as Americans.

He describes on a number of occasions in the 1920s this moment when he first encounters these American soldiers. And he says, ‘They’re all tall, blonde and blue-eyed; they are the descendants of the Germans who left principally in the 19th century.’ I went to the archives and searched the records of his regiment, and there, indeed, I found the document that says, ‘Private Hitler dropped off two American prisoners at brigade headquarters today.’ So whatever else he made up – and he made up a lot of things – this was actually true. No other biographer has spotted this, nobody has talked about it at all.

In the book you talk about Hitler’s envy for America’s Lebensraum. What it is about the American Dream that so fascinated and terrified him?

Hitler regarded the United States as a limitless space. If you have space, you can unfold as a race, so it’s absolutely key to racial development. He sees the Anglo-Saxons as having walked off with most of the world, through the British Empire, for example. Germans, so his argument runs, don’t have space and are unable to feed their population, therefore their best and most dynamic elements had to leave. And when they get to the US, they buy into an American model of modernisation. People have cars, there are national parks in which they can recharge their batteries – they have prosperity. So, the Americans have pretty much everything.

The one thing the US don’t have, in Hitler’s view, is culture. He refers on a number of occasions to jazz as an instrument of cultural degeneracy.

The one thing they don’t have, in Hitler’s view, is culture. He refers on a number of occasions to jazz as an instrument of cultural degeneracy, and historians have tended to focus on those passages and deduce from that a general contempt for the United States and a discounting of its power, which in my view is completely wrong. Hitler had a very high regard for American industrial, military and, as he would call it, racial power.

You also mention “positive eugenics”. What is that exactly?

This is a term from the study of eugenics; it’s important to note that it doesn’t mean a good form of eugenics, it’s simply a rough and ready distinction that scholars use to differentiate between bringing out the so-called ‘higher value elements’ within a race, and negative eugenics, which is the removal of the so-called negative elements. Strikingly, Hitler sees the superiority of the German people really as an aspiration rather than as a reality in the 1920s.

Image for Hitler’s little-known American Dream

Published in 2019 as a self-proclaimed “radically revisionist” study of the dictator, Hitler: A Global Biography claims Hitler’s “principal obsession” was international capitalism and the Anglo-American world in the West.

He’s profoundly concerned by Germany’s internal divisions and the loss of its most dynamic elements to America. His view of the German people is affectionate, yes, but he doesn’t really think the German people, as it actually exists in the twenties, is yet the master race. He wants to bring the German people up to a level that is capable of taking on the British and the Americans.

Of course, there is a temporal aspect here; the longer the timeframe, the more likely you are to put your emphasis on positive eugenics, because you simply have the process of evolutionary improvement, as he would see it. If you’re running out of time, you might need to emphasise negative eugenics, because you can kill people much more quickly. The general timeline of the Third Reich is of a ratcheting up of negative eugenics, in the context of the war and of Hitler’s understanding of the approaching conflict with the United States.

How does Hitler’s Final Solution fit into this wider picture?

The link is really two-fold – or several-fold. Hitler saw Jews as hostages for what he calls the ‘good behaviour’ of the US. He signals a clear warning on a number of occasions that if America enters the war, he will punish the Jews. Then, after the start of open hostilities with the US, he tells Goebbels, ‘Well, I warned them, the war is here and now the Jews must pay the price.’

Hitler made a distinction between Central and Western European Jewry and Eastern European or Soviet Jewry; he regarded the former as hostages for the good behaviour of President Roosevelt, and he saw the latter as enemy combatants to be shot in the course of Operation Barbarossa. Hitler also saw the Jews as being instrumental in manipulating Anglo-America to confront him, because he considered them the architects of international capitalism.

Other scholars before you have established a clear link between the US and Nazi Germany in the way Hitler took inspiration from eugenicist ideas and policies from the US…

Yes, he did in at least in two ways. One was he was very impressed with the 1924 American Immigration Act which excluded Slavs and Jews from Eastern Europe and privileged ‘Nordic elements’ for Western and Northern Europe. He asked, ‘why can’t we do this as well in Germany, instead of importing inferior elements form the East?’

Hitler was fascinated and horrified by the way Germans who left Germany for the US became Americans. Whereas if they went East – to Russia –they stayed German.

Secondly he was very fond of American racial theorist Madison Grant, who, interestingly, thought that Germans weren’t part of the great Nordic race, whereas the US were, and Hitler actually agreed with him. His book The Passing of the Great Race: Or, The Racial Basis of European History, published in 1916, made a great impression on Hitler. 

The fascination was intricate and went both ways, as expressed through a character like Edgar “Putzi” Hanfstaengl, that Bavarian-born aristocrat educated at Harvard who was to join Hitler in Munich and become his confidant and first financial support in the 1920s. Can you tell us more about that ‘Putzi’ as he was known.

Putzi Hanfstaengl is probably the only man who knew both Franklin D. Roosevelt and Hitler personally. He had a great influence on Hitler’s beginnings, when he came back to Bavaria to support him in the early 1920s. Then, in the late 1930s, the two men fell out and he went back to the US and would later advise the Americans on how to deal with Nazi Germany. Being part-American, part-German, he represented this kind of ambivalence Hitler had towards the US: Hitler was fascinated and horrified by the way Germans who left Germany for the US became Americans. Whereas if they went East – to Russia, they stayed German. He was terrified by the assimilation power of America.

So your “revisionist” approach is to do with the way you see America as Hitler’s focal reference. But why do you think other historians have focused on the Soviet Union and Bolshevism instead?

I think that although we’re trained not to do so as historians, it’s our natural instinct to think teleologically. Because so much of what happened in the 1940s was to do with the Soviet Union, particularly with Operation Barbarossa, with the murder of Eastern European and Soviet Jews, and because of the fact that Stalin played such an important role – although in my view not as important a role as has subsequently been asserted – this has caused us to read the history backwards to an extent; to read this as a preoccupation with the Soviet Union.

Whereas, in my view, Hitler’s preoccupation with the Soviet Union was really driven by his contest with the Anglo-Saxon powers. He sees the Soviet Union not as the main threat in and of itself – he regards Bolshevism as a ‘disease’ that weakens you in the face of Anglo-American power – but as the area of colonisation for Germans, as a source of raw materials. Colonising the Soviet Union would enable Hitler to outlast Anglo-America. That’s the framework in which Operation Barbarossa should primarily be seen.

In your book, you map out Hitler’s paradoxical attitudes towards capitalism. Can you elucidate his distinction between national capitalism and international capitalism?

Hitler regarded international capitalism as the principal threat and the distorting force in world history because it subjugates national economies, particularly targeting pre-war Germany out of jealousy and economic competitiveness. He wasn’t an anti-capitalist in a national sense; his relationship with German capitalists like Krupp, Thyssen and Mannesmann was actually quite good. But what he can’t abide are the Rothschilds and JP Morgan. He talked about Jewish and non-Jewish international capitalism, and he saw international capitalism as also being run by the Anglo-Americans.

Image for Hitler’s little-known American Dream

Brendan Simms is a Professor of the History of International Relations in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge. Photo: Supplied

Is this why prominent historians like former Regius Professor Richard J. Evans have accused you of making an argument in favour of the American alt-right by essentially painting Hitler as left-wing?

Overall, I think the book was well received. But I suppose his was one of the loudest critical voices. In some leftist circles, the idea that Hitler’s hatred of international capitalism was the overall framing context for his actions didn’t go down very well. I think there was also an issue around the fact that, if you were to change the names and some of the backgrounds, you’d find many of the arguments Hitler was making coming out of the mouths of UK Labour Party activists who’ve been accused of anti-Semitism today, for instance. I was seen by Evans as making essentially a conservative argument against the Corbynite Labour Party. That wasn’t articulated very clearly in the Guardian review, but by arguing that I was a feeder for the alt-right, that was what he was getting at.

Are you saying that Hitler’s rejection of and fight against capitalism isn’t that far removed from some radical left-wing positions today?

Hitler definitely is one of those who rebels against the Anglo-Saxon and international capitalist domination of the world. That’s part of the reason why so many people found the book uncomfortable. They’re accustomed to think of themselves as resistors against ‘the thing’, you know, this kind of world establishment which Anglo-America undoubtedly represented at the time. Add to that the fact that so many elements of what we now call the Global South joined in on that campaign, from India, the Middle East and so on. That is, I think, the overarching framework within which Hitler should be understood. And that’s an uncomfortable way of looking at it.

In your view, where does America sit in Germany’s cultural imagination prior to Hitler, and after him?

That’s a really interesting question. If I can insert an auto-biographical reflection here, which I think also speaks to your question about why people haven’t seen this before, my German grandfather fought in the Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front in the Second World War. I knew him quite well, so the Eastern Front loomed very large in my consciousness, with all the stories around Stalingrad and Leningrad. Then in my grandmother’s father’s family, three of the four brothers had emigrated to the United States.

In fact, my grandmother’s cousin returned as an American soldier after the war to Germany and later became an American diplomat. So, for most Germans historically, the US connections were really strong. Almost everyone had family who’d gone to the US, and it loomed very large in the political and popular consciousness at the time. Before that, the US was omnipresent in the 1920s in terms of cinema, music, consumerism, economics and emigration. It’s the model that Hitler was trying to beat, or if not beat, then indeed match. And that’s what Hitler was trying to offer in the 1930s: German consumerism, Autobahns, radios, even Coca-Cola franchises. It was the German Dream.