Two New Biographies Show How Anti-Capitalism, Conspiracism, and Fear of Contagion Shaped Hitler’s Anti-Semitism

March 17, 2020 | Andrew Stuttaford
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Reviewing two recent books on the life of Adolf Hitler, one by the German historian Peter Longerich and the other by the English historian Brendan Simms, Andrew Stuttaford examines their insights into the origins of their subject’s antipathy toward Jews:

Longerich does not duck a discussion of Hitler’s personality when looking for the source of the pathological anti-Semitism that came to define his life and ended six million others’. “Environmental” considerations are not enough. The answer, argues Longerich, is not to be found in Hitler’s vagabond youth in Vienna, a city in which “anti-Semitism was a fixture of everyday life” (and, for that matter, politics). . . . The best explanation, believes Longerich, lies in the shame Hitler felt at Germany’s defeat in [World War I], a shame that could not be softened by a resumption of career, friendship, and family life, of which this eccentric loner had very little.

Unable to accept the real reasons Germany had lost, Hitler, a fantasist since his adolescence, took refuge in a dreamworld of conspiracy theory in which Jews were allocated a uniquely malevolent role.

A letter from September 1919 is the earliest surviving text in which Hitler sets out his views on the “Jewish question.” Central to it is Hitler’s argument that Jews were (in Longerich’s words) behind “the unscrupulous and amoral greed of finance capital. . . . Anti-Semitism (and not the socialism of the left) was the key to removing this exploitative system.” The same letter also attracts Simms’s attention. He sees Hitler’s anti-Semitism as being “profoundly anti-capitalistic rather than anti-Communist in origin,” so much so, indeed, that, to Hitler, Bolshevism itself was little more than an instrument of Jewish capital.

But such conspiracism reads more like the symptoms of a psychosis than its cause. The same can be said of Hitler’s reference to Jews in the letter as the “racial tuberculosis of the peoples,” language (cited by Simms and Longerich) that suggests that Hitler’s obsession was already well in place, and already contained the seeds of mass murder: a disease, after all, should be eliminated.

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