Hitler’s views on the British Empire to 1924

Hitler never visited Britain or any part of the British Empire[*]. He knew essentially no English, though this did not stop him holding the opinions that “the English language lacks the ability to express thoughts that surpass the order of concrete things”, and that English spelling was hopelessly unphonetic[1]. According to a Swedish businessman, Birger Dahlerus, who worked with Göring in an effort to prevent the Second World War, Hitler was “a man whose real knowledge of Britain was nil”[2]. In Mein Kampf, he says that, as a young boy, he thought that, in the international world of the future, “the English could supply the merchants, the Germans the administrative officials, and the Jews would [be] the owners”. As mentioned above, he followed the Boer War, which took place from his tenth to his thirteenth years, and played games with his friends based on the exploits of the Boers. The first time that that he felt he had to decide whether to support the British Empire or not, he supported its enemies, though this is hardly surprising, as most of the German-speaking press and public were viciously Anglophobic throughout the conflict[†],[3].

When the First World War broke out, Hitler volunteered to serve in the Bavarian army. From the start, he seems to have regarded Britain as Germany’s main enemy, though this could have been because his regiment spent most of the war facing British and Imperial troops, rather than the French and Belgians. On 20 October 1914, the young Private Hitler wrote to his landlady in Munich. “Tonight, the 20th, we are going on a 4 day train journey, probably to Belgium. I am tremendously excited. … I hope we shall get to England”[4]. On 5 February 1915, during a heavy battle, Hitler wrote to an acquaintance in Munich, describing how he looked forward to an attack on the British lines, “… tomorrow we attack the English. At last! All of us rejoiced”[5]. Later in the letter, he described with obvious relish how he was amongst “dead and wounded Englishmen… Again and again one of our shells landed in the English trench. They poured out like ants from an ant heap, and then we attacked…Many came out with their hands up. Those who did not surrender were mowed down”[6]. Hitler fought mostly against the British during the First World War. His position as a Meldegänger, or dispatch runner, was relatively privileged, though it was not free from danger. His job was to carry messages from the regimental headquarters to the front line. He was, therefore, attached to regimental headquarters, which means he was spared the worst of the mud and squalor of the trenches[7]. As a dispatch runner in his regiment, he was also much more likely to survive the war. According to Thomas Weber, one in four of those who served in his regiment were killed, and 80 per cent were casualties, while all of the dispatch runners at regimental HQ survived the war[8].

Hitler was not, however, out of danger entirely. He was involved in four of the critical battles of the First World War[‡], each time fighting mostly against British or Imperial forces. He was seriously wounded twice, both times by the British army. On the first occasion, in October 1916, a shell burst in his dugout and injured him in the left thigh. He spent two months in a Red Cross hospital in Berlin as a result. His stay in Berlin corresponded with the early part of what the Germans came to know as the Turnip Winter (Kohlrubenwinter), when for weeks at a time, wheat was unavailable for making bread, and turnips were substituted. He would doubtless have realised that this was the result of the British blockade, though it may not have occurred to him that his future enemy, Churchill, had led the Admiralty which ran the blockade in the early days of the war.

Hitler was injured for the second time, as noted above, when he was caught in a British mustard gas attack in October 1918. He suffered temporary blindness, and was hospitalised for the remaining month of the war. This may have been important: he missed the dire last month of the war, when the Allies finally began to rout the German army. It may have been more difficult to believe that the Jews had betrayed the Germans if he had been fighting at the time. This, however, is conjecture, and may be wide of the mark. Hitler had a remarkable ability to close his mind to facts which did not suit his prejudices.

Inevitably, the war years affected him deeply. His armaments minister and courtier, Speer, later recalled that the “bravery and determination of the British forces had won Hitler’s respect, though he would make fun of the peculiarities of the British army. He claimed, ironically, that the British were in the habit of stopping their artillery barrages at tea time, so that he, a messenger, could run his errands safely at that hour”[9]. Heavy Teutonic jokes aside, Hitler clearly had considerable respect for “England” (as he generally referred to Great Britain or the British Empire) in a number of ways. Once he became Germany’s dictator, he continually tried to conclude an alliance, or at least some form of understanding, with the island nation. “If I had a choice between Italy and England”, he told another courtier in 1936, “I would naturally go with the English … I know the Englishmen from the last war, they are hard fellows”[10]. His opinion of British troops apparently deteriorated during the Second World War, however: Speer recalls Hitler clinging “to the end to his preconceived opinion that the troops of the Western countries were poor fighting material”[11].

After the Armistice, Hitler remained with the Army. He was stationed in Munich, which offered an ideal setting for a rabble-rousing orator to make his mark. The city had been famous for its advanced intellectual life and tolerant atmosphere before the First World War. In the six months to April 1919, however, it had experienced perhaps the most turbulent time of any European city in history. It had lived under monarchy; extreme socialism; social democracy; Anarchism; Bolshevism; and finally a brutal counter-revolutionary dictatorship which executed at least a thousand people, and probably many more. This unhealthy, indeed murderous, political atmosphere nurtured a poisonous weed: Hitler began giving speeches to crowds of varying sizes. By 1921, his orations were drawing crowds of thousands of people. On 3 February, he spoke to an audience of 6,000 people on “Future or Ruin”, denouncing the Treaty of Versailles. Three days later, he appeared (with other speakers) in front of a crowd of 20,000 in Munich’s central square, the Odeonsplatz. He seems to have bombed somewhat at the latter meeting, however[12]. During the early 1920’s, the most certain way to please a German crowd was not to attack the Jews or the Bolsheviks directly, but to attack the Treaty of Versailles, and this Hitler did repeatedly. In these speeches, a repeated theme was that England and France were attempting to reduce Germany to slavery, and that the Treaty of Versailles should be renounced. In 1920 and 1921, Hitler supported what became known in Germany as the Rapallo policy of alliance with Russia against the Western European powers. By December 1922, however, the outline of the foreign policy he was to try to follow for the next twenty years had formed in his mind. He was arguing that Germany should not work against England’s interests. Instead, it should attack Russia with England’s help, to gain living-space in the east. Then Germany should deal with France[13].

Hitler had, therefore, already begun to look on Britain more favourably than he had during, and just after, the First World War by the end of 1922. It seems, however, that the French and Belgian occupation of the Ruhr in January 1923 caused a further change in Hitler’s attitude towards Britain. Germany had defaulted on reparations payments due under the Treaty of Versailles, arguing that the amounts assessed were unreasonable. The French (and the Belgians) attempted to enforce repayments by occupying the industrial Ruhr area of Germany, but, as Churchill predicted the Germans reacted with passive resistance and strikes. The occupiers only succeeded in causing the collapse of the German economy, and withdrew their troops in 1925. The British did not support the French action – as noted above, Churchill was one of those who argued that Britain should oppose the French occupation “vehemently”. “I am strongly of the opinion that the Ruhr business will turn out ill for France,” he wrote to his brother in January 1923[14]. Hitler’s attitude towards France remained irreconcilably hostile, as this extract from a speech in May 1923 shows: “France does not want reparations; it wants the destruction of Germany, the fulfilment of an age-old dream; a Europe dominated by France”. Towards Britain, however, his mood apparently continued to mellow. He made a speech in April, which deserves quotation at length for the light it casts on the distinction he began to make between Britain and France:

“Before the war two States, Germany and France, had to live side by side but only under arms. It is true that the War of 1870-1 meant for Germany the close of an enmity which had endured for centuries, but in France a passionate hatred against Germany was fostered by every means: by propaganda in the press, in school textbooks, in theatres, in the cinemas… All the Jewish papers throughout France agitated against Berlin. Here again to seek and to exploit grounds for a conflict is the clearly recognizable effort of world Jewry.

The conflict of interests between Germany and England lay in the economic sphere. Up till 1850 England’s position as a World Power was undisputed. British engineers, British trade conquered the world. Germany, owing to greater industry and increased capacity, began to be a dangerous rival. In a short time those firms which in Germany were in English hands pass into the possession of German industrialists. German industry expands vastly and the products of that industry even in the London market drive out British goods.

The protective measure, the stamp ‘Made in Germany’, has the opposite effect from that desired: this ‘protective stamp’ becomes a highly effective advertisement. The German economic success was not created in Essen alone but by a man who knew that behind economics must stand power, for power alone makes an economic position secure. This power was born upon the battlefields of 1870-71, not in the atmosphere of parliamentary chatter. Forty thousand dead[§] have rendered possible the life of forty millions. When England, in the face of such a Germany as this, threatened to be brought to her knees, then she used the last weapon in the armoury of international rivalry – violence. Press propaganda on an imposing scale was started as a preparatory measure.

But who is the chief of the whole British press concerned with world trade? One name crystallizes itself out of the rest: Northcliffe – a Jew![**] . . . A campaign of provocation is carried on with assertions, libels, and promises such as only a Jew can devise, such as only Jewish newspapers would have the effrontery to put before an Aryan people. And then at last 1914: they egg people on: ‘Ah, poor violated Belgium! Up! To the rescue of the small nations – for the honour of humanity!’ The same lies, the same provocation throughout the entire world! And the success of that provocation the German people can trace grievously enough!”

Insofar as it is possible to dredge any meaning out of this rambling and inaccurate rant, Hitler seems to have thought that France and Germany were natural enemies. Anglo-German rivalry, however, was economic, and therefore perhaps avoidable. Writing in 1924-25, after the occupation of the Ruhr, Hitler discourses at some length in Mein Kampf, on what he thought Germany’s policy towards England should be. Because his views as stated there are of such crucial importance in understanding the course of events in Europe in the 1930’s, when Churchill began to take notice of, and then oppose, Hitler’s policies in Germany, it is appropriate to summarise them here in some detail, despite Hitler’s rambling and repetitive style.

Hitler argued that “the English nation will have to be considered the most valuable ally in the world as long as its leadership and the spirit of its broad masses justify us in expecting that brutality and perseverance which is determined to fight a battle once begun to a victorious end, with every means and without consideration of time and sacrifices; and what is more, the military armament existing at any given moment does not need to stand in any proportion to that of other states”[15]. He regretted that Germany had not pursued this policy prior to 1914. He saw that Britain’s traditional policy was one of maintaining a European balance of power, which had led her to confront France under Napoleon, and then Germany in the First World War. The defeat of Germany in 1918, however, had meant that France was the supreme power on the continent, so that Britain’s balance of power policy had failed. England, therefore, was now a natural ally for Germany, and an enemy for France[16].

Hitler argued that it should be possible to counteract the legacy of hatred towards Germany which wartime propaganda had left, but that the “devastating Jewish influence” would make this very difficult. England’s “racially unjustifiable” alliance with Japan was a natural response to her commercial rivalry with the United States, which was growing into a “new master of the world”[††]. Jews in England had become insubordinate, and the struggle against the world Jewish menace must therefore begin there[17]. Germany was small in relation to the British Empire, and even the French Empire, as well as the USA, Russia and China[18]. England would fight to the death to retain her Indian empire, and Germans had learned how hard it was to beat England. (Years later, he gave the British politician Lord Halifax his views on the best way to achieve this. “Shoot Gandhi”, he said, and if that was not enough, “shoot a dozen leading members of Congress … until order is established”)[19]. Egypt, too, would remain British. Germany should not try to take advantage of turbulence in the British Empire, and link its destiny with racially inferior oppressed peoples. An alliance with Russia against England and France was no substitute for an alliance with England. An alliance with England and Italy would give Germany the initiative in Europe[20]. Finally, and crucially, France, in occupying the Ruhr, had alienated England, and this represented an opportunity for Germany[21].

Hitler’s attitude is foreshadowed in that book, written after the French occupation of the Ruhr. Before that date, he laid more stress on his view of the British Empire as Germany’s enemy, and Britain’s complicity with France in imposing what he regarded as the “ruinous” Treaty of Versailles on Germany. However, after the French occupation of the Ruhr, which particularly offended the Germans by using French colonial troops, he began to regard Britain as a potential ally, though he thought that gaining its friendship would be difficult. It is remarkable how, up to two decades later, Hitler’s views had changed very little since the publication of Mein Kampf. He was to retain this opinion of Britain until he realised that it would not grant him the free hand in Eastern Europe which he craved, and even then, he repeatedly stressed his ambition to come to terms with Britain. During the Second World War, the last pre-war British ambassador to Berlin, Sir Neville Henderson, wrote that Hitler “combined … admiration for the British race with envy of their achievements and hatred of their opposition to Germany’s excessive aspirations”[22]. He repeatedly remarked to Albert Speer that the English were “our brothers. Why fight our brothers?”[23] He made many similar remarks to other colleagues. There is little evidence that he understood British society, politics or institutions, beyond a cursory knowledge of Parliamentary procedure, and he based many of his ideas on false information. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that his policy towards Britain ended up being a complete failure.

[*] In 2011, a historian put forward the theory that Hitler spent several months in Liverpool in 1912/13, but the idea has not gained widespread acceptance.

[†] Franklin Roosevelt, US President and Churchill’s most important ally during the Second World War, also supported the Boers, and, according to one of the Americans present, welcomed a tired Churchill to Washington in 1941 by “needling [him] for having been on the wrong side in the Boer war” – Percy Chubb, quoted in Road to Victory, Martin Gilbert, p.27.

[‡] The First Battle of Ypres in 1914, the Battle of the Somme in 1916, the Third Battle of Ypres in 1917 and Kaiserschlacht in early 1918.

[§] Prussian casualties in the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian war were 44,681 killed and 89,732 wounded, according to Michael Clodfelter: Warfare and armed conflicts: a statistical reference to casualty and other figures, 1500-2000.

[**] Alfred Harmsworth, Lord Northcliffe, owner of The Times and the Daily Mail and one of the most colourful characters in the English political scene at this time, was not a Jew, nor were any of the other press barons in Britain in the early twentieth century.

[††] Here, Hitler was completely wrong, as Britain had ended the alliance with Japan after heavy American pressure in 1922.

[1] Hitler’s Table Talk, p.357-8

[2] The Last Attempt, Birger Dahlerus, p.60

[3] Hitler, 1889-1936, Hubris, Professor Ian Kershaw, p.15

[4] Hitler’s Letters, Werner Maser, p.25

[5] Hitler’s Letters, Werner Maser, p.75

[6] Hitler’s Letters, Werner Maser, p.82

[7] On this, see Chapter 5 of Hitler’s First War, Thomas Weber

[8] Hitler’s First War, p.222-3

[9] Inside the Third Reich, Albert Speer, p.180

[10] Friedrich Wiedemann, quoted in Hitler’s First War, Thomas Weber, p.328

[11] Inside the Third Reich, Albert Speer, p.418

[12] Hitler, 1889-1936, Hubris, Professor Ian Kershaw, p.157

[13] Hitler, Saemtliche Aufzeichnungen 1905-1924, Eberhard Jaeckel and Axel Kuhn, quoted in Hitler, 1889-1936, Hubris, Professor Ian Kershaw, p.247

[14] The Churchill Documents, Volume 11, The Exchequer Years, Martin Gilbert, p.15

[15] Mein Kampf, p.302

[16] Mein Kampf, p.558-566

[17] Mein Kampf, p.578-585

[18] Mein Kampf, p.588

[19] The Inner Circle, Yvonne Kirkpatrick, p.96

[20] Mein Kampf, p.601-607

[21] Mein Kampf, p.617

[22] Failure of a Mission, Sir Neville Henderson, p.266

[23] Albert Speer: His Battle with the Truth, Gitta Sereny, p.218

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