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Hitler and America

Historian Klaus P. Fischer seeks to understand more deeply how Hitler viewed America, the nation that was central to Germany's defeat. He reveals Hitler's split-minded image of America, consisting of two contrary mental representations: America and Amerika.

Hitler and America

Klaus P. Fischer

2011 | 368 pages | Cloth $55.00
History / Political Science
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Table of Contents

Chapter 1. Hitler's Split Image of America
Chapter 2. Hitler Takes Risks and America Legislates Itself into Neutrality: 1933-1937
Chapter 3. Hitler's Year: 1938
Chapter 4. Hitler's War against the West: 1939-1941
Chapter 5. The World Will Hold Its Breath: 1941
Chapter 6. The Tide of War Shifts in Favor of Hitler's Opponents
Chapter 7. Prospects for a Separate Peace in 1943
Chapter 8. Hitler and the "Unnatural Alliance": 1944-1945
Chapter 9. "This War against America Is a Tragedy"
Conclusion: Hitler and the End of a Greater Reich


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


A book about Hitler and America? The brief title calls for an explanation. Half a dozen books have been written about Hitler and the United States, most of them dealing with German-American foreign policy between 1933 (the year Hitler came to power) and 1941 (the year he declared war on the United States). Diplomatic relations between Germany and the United States between 1933 and 1941 should, of course, play an important role in any discussion of Hitler and America, but not at the expense of exploring the origins and development of Hitler's views. Many things in America during the 1930s caught his attention and influenced his decisions. They include American isolationism; the activities of Nazi sympathizers in America, especially the German-American Bund; American public opinion; American Jewish reactions to anti-Semitic events in Germany; and American-German business connections. Did Hitler have rigid prejudices against the United States that he never modified? Or did his perceptions change over time? Historians who have dealt with the subject of Hitler and the United States have often argued that Hitler was either ignorant or misinformed about America.

I hope that mine may be a fresh approach to this subject. It is now more than sixty years ago that Hitler committed suicide in his bunker beneath the Reich chancellery, sufficient time to permit us to assess his intentions with a greater degree of clarity than was possible a generation ago. The vast amount of material now available may be sufficient to fill out the record on almost any aspect of World War II. It is highly unlikely that many "new" documents will be found. What may be valuable now are reconsiderations of certain crucial issues.

One of these issues is Hitler's view of America and its role in world affairs. Most historians have argued that Hitler did not pay any attention to the United States in the 1930s, that if he thought of America at all, he did so through the prism of his ideology, which necessarily compromised his vision. Many have claimed that Hitler felt contempt for Americans because they were a mongrel people, incapable of higher culture or great creative achievements. Yet Hitler had considerable respect for the industrial power of the United States and its people's capacity for work. Whatever his distorted perceptions may have been, it is wrong to think that Hitler paid no attention to the United States. Indeed, he was better informed about political developments in America than has been customarily assumed.

Hitler did not want a war with either Britain or the United States; he believed that he could achieve his continental ambitions without drawing them into a direct confrontation. He hoped that his reach for hegemony in Europe would not have to lead to the loss of empire for the British. What did he think America would do if he dragged Britain and France—America's allies in World War I—into a general European war? Hitler hoped that the United States, militarily unprepared and officially neutral, would not intervene before he won his, necessarily short, European war. People close to Hitler said that he had everything calculated beforehand (hat jede Möglichkeit von vornherein einkalkuliert). He did have a very astute judgment of his opponents and a fine sense of timing. Yet a major (and perhaps the prime) cause of his defeat was the power of the United States. Another cause was the greater tenacity of the Russian soldier as compared to the German soldier; yet another was the staying power of the British. In fighting against the three greatest powers in the world, Hitler had overextended himself, but—like Frederick the Great—he still hoped that the unnatural American-Russian-British alliance ranged against him would break up sooner or later. Hitler's efforts to split this unnatural alliance have received insufficient treatment by historians. In 1934 Hitler's chief deputy, Rudolf Hess, told a cheering mass of party members at Nuremberg that Germany was Hitler, and Hitler was Germany. This accolade was an extreme expression of faith in the führer's leadership. Yet many Germans believed that Hitler embodied the will of the nation and that his decisions reflected their true interests. The recent German historian Klaus Hildebrand declared that "one must not speak of National Socialism but of Hitlerism." If Hildebrand intends this to mean that the movement we associate with National Socialism is unthinkable without Hitler, he is wrong. Ideas about National Socialism existed well before Hitler ever became active in politics. What Hitler did was to give voice to beliefs, frustrations, hopes, and grievances in a way that no German politician had been able to before (or has been able to since). His ability to appeal to a large number of Germans and to persuade them that they could become a great power became reality in 1940. Hitler needed the Germans for the fulfillment of his conception of German greatness, but the Germans did not really need him to be great. The Germans are an old people with a long historical memory, which more often than not has failed them when they have given in to one of their main weaknesses, that of rendering unconditional loyalty to their leaders. Yet they have survived even the worst of them, including Hitler, who admitted on one occasion, "A man once told me: 'listen, if you do that Germany will be ruined in six weeks.' I said: 'The German people once survived the wars with the Romans. The German people survived the people's migrations (Völkerwanderung). The German people survived the great wars of the early and later Middle Ages. The German people survived the wars of religion of the modern age. The German people survived the Napoleonic wars, the wars of liberation, even a world war and a revolution—they will also survive me.'"

When Hitler purportedly said that either Germany would be a world power or there would be no Germany, he was almost but fortunately not quite right. The German people gave him their support to the very end—a remarkable loyalty if one considers the extent of the suffering he had visited upon his nation by that time. This subject of German loyalty to Hitler has still not been sufficiently explained, least by the Germans themselves. Here my purpose is to remind the reader that for a long time Hitler justly saw himself as speaking for the majority of the German people. The notion of Hitler as an unpopular tyrant is misleading. The majority of the German people cheered him on during his triumphs, and they stood by him, for the most part, to the very end.

When Hitler spoke for Germany he therefore spoke with the support of his people in a way that few leaders of other nations could claim. But if Hitler spoke for the Germans, was there anyone who spoke with the same force and credibility for the United States? The title of this book, after all, is Hitler and America. Did Franklin D. Roosevelt speak for America with the same popular support that Hitler did in Germany? Roosevelt was elected to the presidency four times, a unique event in America before or since, but his powers were not like Hitler's. Roosevelt faced considerable opposition in Congress and among isolationists throughout the nation. The economic crisis, which had brought him into office, went on in varying degrees of intensity well into the early 1940s, restricting a more active foreign policy backed by great military power. He was also fenced in by strict neutrality laws that were carefully monitored by vocal isolationists who did not want the United States militarily involved in any shape or form in Europe.

Thus, when Roosevelt spoke, he did so in very careful terms, aware as he was of various strong countercurrents in the form of popular opinion, congressional opposition, press criticism, or even dissension within his own administration. Hitler obviously had a freer hand than Roosevelt had. Still, Roosevelt must be considered the most important voice of the United States during this twelve-year period, but not at the expense of other voices or forces in America. For this reason alone, the book is not principally about Hitler versus Roosevelt, even though their contrast is unavoidable.

Hitler was well aware of the importance of Congress and of American political parties. He knew the machinery of democracy; after all, his rise to power took place within the democratic multiparty system of the Weimar Republic. Following his failed coup in Munich in 1923, which resulted in his imprisonment at Landsberg, he decided to reestablish his party and destroy the Weimar Republic using its own weapon of majority rule. He had plenty of time while he was in prison to plot his strategy. After 1924 the mission of the party was to exploit the methods of democracy to destroy democracy. This obliged Hitler, among other things, to monitor public opinion carefully, because one of the surest ways to power in a democratic system was to capture the hearts and minds of the people. Hitler knew that Americans were particularly susceptible to public opinion, which could be manipulated by the press and other mass media.

Although Hitler knew little about the American media, suspecting that it was under the control of Jewish interests, he realized its importance in influencing public policy. He was particularly interested in isolationist sentiments in America, and he thought about ways and means by which Germany could reinforce the isolationists. This interest has a direct bearing on this book, namely, what were the things about America that Hitler really wanted to know? The question he probably asked himself was, "How might the United States become a serious obstacle to the expansion of German power in Europe?" He thought that U.S. involvement in Europe was highly unlikely as long as its political and economic interests were not directly threatened. Hitler knew that the United States had tipped the scales in favor of the allied powers in World War I. Would history repeat itself? What could he do to keep America out of European affairs?

Throughout the 1920s, long before Hitler became chancellor, the United States was in relative isolation. The Senate had refused to ratify the Versailles treaty and join the League of Nations, thereby depriving that institution of the support it needed to enforce the peace settlement and prevent future wars. It had fallen to the Western democracies, chiefly Britain and France, to support and enforce the peace settlement that just about every German politician wanted to revise or undermine. British and French statesmen knew that in case of conflict with Germany over the provisions of the Versailles treaty, they could expect little save moral support from the United States. Some historians have concluded that Hitler knew this and decided that he could ignore the United States. Yet behind the Western democracies—at least potentially—loomed the American giant. Americans were always interested in supporting the cause of democracy in Europe. At what point would the United States take a more active role in Europe? Hitler knew that this depended on how German hegemony in Europe would develop. Once France was defeated, what would England do? Perhaps negotiate with him.

As this book illustrates, Hitler tried to calculate when the United States would take concrete actions such as supplying his opponents with armaments or even direct military intervention. He turned to certain people who could tell him the truth about America. Hitler had few trusted advisers who could furnish reliable information about what he called the "gigantic American State Colossus." Of his early followers, only two had firsthand knowledge of the United States: Kurt Lüdecke and Ernst "Putzi" Hanfstaengl. Lüdecke was a footloose and opportunistic young follower who had gone to America in 1924 to drum up wealthy donors for the party. Hanfstaengl was the son of a well-to-do Munich art dealer who had established a branch of the Munich business on Fifth Avenue in New York. Hanfstaengl's father sent him to Harvard, where he met Franklin Roosevelt, and then encouraged him to manage the New York branch of the family business. Putzi Hanfstaengl's role in serving Hitler and freely offering advice on America is treated at length in the following pages. Hitler had several other America "experts" he periodically consulted after becoming chancellor: his commanding officer in the List regiment in World War I, Fritz Wiedemann, who spent time in America in the l930s; Colin Ross, the well-known German globetrotter and author of popular travel books; and General Friedrich von Bötticher, the only German military attaché who served in Washington, D.C., from 1933 to 1941. There were others who periodically informed Hitler about America, including Joachim Ribbentrop, his foreign minister, and various diplomatic officials, notably Hans Luther, Hans Dieckhoff, Ernst von Weizsäcker, and Hans Thomsen.

Compared to Franklin Roosevelt,who had firsthand knowledge and experience of Germany and Europe, Hitler was at a considerable disadvantage. He had limited travel experience and spoke no foreign languages. Whatever travels Hitler undertook were dictated by political, or later military, circumstances. In early 1933 Roosevelt invited Hitler to America to discuss economic issues. Hitler declined, sending his economic minister, Hjalmar Schacht, in his place. It is interesting to speculate what these two leaders would have discovered about each other and how this might have changed their relationship. Often Hitler deliberately avoided face-to-face meetings with his major adversaries. Perhaps this is why he did not go to Washington or later to Moscow. He also deliberately turned down a meeting with Winston Churchill that Hanfstaengl had arranged in Munich in 1932. Hitler had a tendency to refrain from contact with people who held opposing views. The company of first-rate intellects made him uneasy; it brought out insecurities that stemmed from his obscure social origins in Austria. He frequently compensated for these insecurities through aggressive posturing or displays of his technical knowledge. Historians have had no trouble collecting many strange statements made by Hitler, including some about America and Americans. But this should not blind us to his brilliant political skills, including his ability to think and act pragmatically. He was far more unpredictable than historians have reported. Ernst Weizsäcker, state secretary in the Foreign Office, said that it was difficult to "see through" Hitler (schwer zu durchschauen) because he had an astonishing gift for dissimulation, making it difficult to tell whether he believed his own rhetoric or merely played a role, which he varied to fit particular people or occasions. Historians must be extremely careful when trying to distinguish between rhetoric and conviction, between Hitler's visionary idealism and his brutal realism. In the case of America, he often employed the worst distortions, calling the United States a feeble country with a loud mouth while at the same time referring to it as an industrial colossus worthy of being imitated. He could belittle America in the vilest terms while at the same time eagerly looking at the latest photos from America, watching American films, and amusing himself with Mickey Mouse cartoons.

I intend to provide a more detailed and balanced account of Hitler's view of the United States than the few older accounts we have on this subject. So many Hitler studies leave us feeling uncertain about the man's character and convictions. Often the more we probe, the more elusive Hitler seems to become. He once told his close entourage that if he succeeded in his great plans, his name would be praised throughout the ages, but if he failed, his name would be cursed. Since the first possibility did not occur, we do not know whether it would have resulted in the apotheosis of the führer. It is highly unlikely. The fact that he failed led to exactly the outcome he feared; his name has not only been cursed but is associated with the embodiment of evil in history. Historians are unlikely to revise the stereotype that reduces Hitler to a villainous character in a cheap melodrama. For the sake of historical accuracy, however, it is important to steer clear of the snare of reductionism, of reducing all of Hitler's actions to some common demonic denominator. No one is evil personified, except the devil, and even if someone were, it would not follow that such a person could not be extraordinarily gifted or brilliant. For historians, a degree of detachment, open-mindedness, and the awareness of existential contingencies are necessary elements in viewing the past.

Hitler was not a noble character. He was malignantly destructive. For this reason, Joachim Fest, citing an ancient dictum, denied that Hitler was a great hero, because repulsive moral beings are unfit to be called either great or heroic. Although Hitler may not have been a hero, he was a political genius who fundamentally shaped the twentieth century. His grandiose visions of establishing a Greater German Reich almost came to fruition in 1941. His hope was to match the industrial power of the United States, for in all other respects he thought that Germany was already superior. How he planned to do so, and what he thought of the United States, its people, leadership, culture, and way of life, is the subject of the following story. In this regard, it is important to mention that the book has deliberately been cast in narrative form because of my strong conviction that history is a storytelling art form rather than a social science that must imitate the natural sciences. All too many books about history nowadays are little more than retrospective sociology, front-loaded with theories and academic fads that are outmoded as soon as the books roll off the presses. I have a story to tell about Hitler and America, and I invite the reader to follow me through the narrative with as little distraction as possible. I believe that the narrative itself has cognitive value. Readers can make up their minds from the story itself, from the way I have cast it and from the explanations embedded in it. My own position about Hitler's split image of America/Amerika serves as a guiding theme and is summarized at length in the conclusion. Along the way, readers will find surprising and even disturbing material about Hitler, Roosevelt, and the German-American relationship.

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