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Hitler: Only the World Was Enough: its originality and intelligence command attention

Review: a thoroughly thought-provoking and stimulating biography which all historians of the Third Reich will have to take seriously

The Tangle in Europe: figures representing England, the US, Italy and France pulling on a ball of yarn with Hitler inside. Illustration: Garretto/Condé Nast via Getty Images
Hitler: Only the World Was Enough
Hitler: Only the World Was Enough
Author: Brendan Simms
ISBN-13: 978-1846142475
Publisher: Allen Lane
Guideline Price: £30

Hitler, more Hitler, ever more Hitler. No sooner has Peter Longerich’s huge biography of the dictator hit the book stores this summer, when along comes another following rapidly in its wake. Brendan Simms’s latest contribution will doubtless be compared with its immediate predecessor.

What distinguishes them both is a central idea that drives the narrative: for Longerich, the argument that Hitler dominated everything that happened in the Third Reich, no “weak dictator” he; for Simms, whose Hitler is also the key playmaker in the dictatorship, the conventional view that Hitler’s chief enemy was “Jewish-Bolshevism” is overturned in favour of the British Empire and the United States as the real target of his long-term strategy. The war against the Soviet Union was the means to an end: vast new resources of materials and manpower to be mobilised against the capitalist West in a final struggle to secure Germany its rightful place as a global power.

This is a bold assertion running against much of the mainstream history, but it is presented with an astonishing range of evidence (some of it new or hitherto overlooked) to support a sophisticated analysis. If many Hitler books are scarcely worth the effort of reading, this one commands attention through its originality and sheer intelligence. The biography itself is now well known, though there are nuggets of fresh information to be found here. Instead Simms wants to explore much more fully the idea world that Hitler inhabited. It is Hitler’s intentions rather than the achievements that interest him and this is where the meat of the argument lies.

Simms’s Hitler is obsessed with the sheer power and resources enjoyed by the “Anglo-Saxon” powers, including the vast territorial empire that gave Britain easy access to much of the world’s riches. His jealous admiration for the Anglo-Saxons was joined to a powerful resentment that they were responsible for emasculating Germany in the Versailles Treaty and denying Germany the chance to achieve parity on a global scale. This did not necessarily mean war at some point, but it did place a premium on two things: achieving greater “living space” to gain the resources that Germany’s limited geographical position dictated and using positive eugenics to ensure that the German race came to match the successful Anglo-Saxons.


He was never sure, Simms argues, that the German people were quite up to scratch racially, which is why the dictatorship spent so much time checking genealogies, encouraging healthy Germans to produce as many children as possible, and screening the peoples of the occupied East to find those with enough “Aryan” characteristics to make them honorary Germans.

He might have added that this ambivalence was true of the leadership too. Hitler hated to be seen wearing glasses, while Himmler, who did sport round-rimmed spectacles, ordered that SS men had to have perfect eyesight. If Hitler was worried about the racial robustness of the Germans, he only had to look at his own entourage to have those doubts confirmed. In the end, it is well known, he blamed the German people for their own defeat in 1945.

The shift from hatred of “Jewish-Bolshevism” to competition with the Anglo-Saxons opens up another of the principal arguments that runs throughout the book. For Simms, Hitler’s antagonistic attitude to Western capitalism was the real root of his visceral anti-Semitism. The Jewish world conspiracy that he fantasised about from the start of his political career was sustained, on this reading, by the bizarre conspiracy theory that Jews in London or on Wall Street pulled the wires of the world order to boost Anglo-Saxon wealth and power and to strangle the efforts of the Germans to achieve their birthright.

The menacing speech on January 30th, 1939, when Hitler told the Reichstag that if another world war came, the Jews would be annihilated, makes more sense from this perspective. So too the decision after the declaration of war on America that the Jews of Europe would all perish as punishment for plunging Germany again into a genuine world war.

Some of this perspective is not new. The argument that the course of the war and the genocide were inextricably entangled in Hitler’s wider view of a Jewish world conspiracy was common many years ago. In between, historians came to disregard much of what Hitler said in favour of the argument that anti-Semitism was driven by other Jew-haters in the Party, or grew out of the dilemmas of occupation policy in the conquered East.

Simms brings the argument back full circle to suggest that we have to understand Hitler’s world-view, formed in the 1920s in his years of political apprenticeship, as a constant throughout his subsequent career. Anti-capitalism not anti-Marxism was the true origin of his belief that the Jews had to be destroyed. When or in what way is not Simms’ main concern. The intention lies with Hitler all along. Only when Germany was face to face in 1941 with the entire Anglo-Saxon enemy and its vast economic resources were the Jews truly doomed.

These are persuasive arguments, pursued relentlessly throughout the text. But they do raise problems. Simms’s insistence that the “East” was not central to Hitler’s concerns about the global order is surely overstated. Hitler’s object was to create a territorial empire, one way or another, carved out of central Europe and a Eurasian hinterland, rich in raw materials, land and forced labour. This was a vast project in itself, not some appendix to a struggle with the West. For those who took part, the colonial ambitions in the East were what mattered; deportation, resettlement, expropriation, mass murder, spatial planning, were not mere adjuncts to a global re-ordering but essential elements in securing German domination of the East as a counterpoint to the broad territorial possessions of the Anglo-Saxons.

For millions of Germans in the 1930s the “East” was an alluring prospect since there was nowhere else to go. “Russia will be our India,” Hitler told his dinner guests in 1942. Simms is right to argue that with this new colonial empire, Germany could turn round to the West to stake Germany’s claim to global status, but the creation of the “fantasy empire” was itself the key.

There is also the question of the wider context. Simms does not ignore this, but his account is very Hitler-centred. Alongside Hitler’s ambitions against the Anglo-Saxon West were those of Mussolini’s Italy or militarist Japan (and one might add the anti-imperialism of Chiang Kai-Shek’s China). Hitler was not alone in his fantasies of a future new order. The broader global crisis gave him opportunities that he could exploit as it did to the other aggressor powers, but he was more consequence than cause of the crisis.

Placing Hitler’s intentions at the centre gives him too much credit and plays down too much the role of thousands of others in the dictatorship. Circumstances mattered a great deal. If the invasion of France had failed in 1940 how different the history would have been. Hitler’s word became deed in many cases only through exceptional good fortune. His intentions in the end foundered completely, but so too did those of his Axis allies. The common denominator here was a willingness to underestimate the determination and capacity of the Anglo-Saxon world to fight to the end and to overestimate the weaknesses of communism, whose contribution to the defeat of Hitler deserves greater recognition than it gets here.

No doubt Simms expects to be argued with. This is a thoroughly thought-provoking and stimulating biography which all historians of the Third Reich will have to take seriously. It also raises for our own age the spectre of intentions turned into a spoiled reality. Beware the politicians with global fantasies and the people who endorse them.

Richard Overy has written and edited more than 30 books, including Why the Allies Won, Russia’s War, The Twilight Years, 1939, and The Bombers and the Bombed. He is a professor of history at the University of Exeter