Hitler’s American Dream

The dictator modeled his racial campaign after another conquest of land and people—America’s Manifest Destiny.

Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo. Photo byLVCE and painting by John Gast/Wikipedia Commons.

Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo. Photo by LVCE and painting by John Gast/Wikipedia Commons.

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Adapted from Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning by Timothy Snyder. Published by Tim Duggan Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.

Adolf Hitler believed that the racial struggle for survival was a German campaign for dignity, and the restraints were not only biological but British. The world political economy of the 1920s and 1930s was, as Hitler understood, structured by British naval power. British advocacy of free trade, he believed, was political cover for British domination of the world. A prosperous Germany required exchange with the British world, but this trade pattern could be supplemented, thought Hitler, by the conquest of a land empire that would even the scales between London and Berlin. Once it had gained the appropriate colonies, Germany could preserve its industrial excellence while shifting its dependence for food from the British-controlled sea lanes to its own imperial hinterland.

It was reassuring to Hitler that such an alteration of the world order, such a reglobalization, had been achieved before, in recent memory. For generations of German imperialists, and for Hitler himself, the exemplary land empire was the United States of America.

America taught Hitler that need blurred into desire, and that desire arose from comparison. Ideas of how life should be lived escaped measures such as survival, security, and even comfort as standards of living became comparative, and as comparisons became international. “Through modern technology and the communication it enables,” wrote Hitler, “international relations between peoples have become so effortless and intimate that Europeans—often without realizing it—take the circumstances of American life as the benchmark for their own lives.”

Globalization led Hitler to the American dream. In American idiom, this notion that the standard of living was relative, based upon the perceived success of others, was called “keeping up with the Joneses.” Behind every imaginary German racial warrior stood an imaginary German woman who wanted ever more. In his more strident moments, Hitler urged Germans to be more like ants and finches, thinking only of survival and reproduction. Yet his own scarcely hidden fear was a very human one, perhaps even a very male one: the German housewife. It was she who raised the bar of the natural struggle ever higher. Before the First World War, when Hitler was a young man, German colonial rhetoric had played on the double meaning of the word Wirtschaft: both a household and an economy. German women had been instructed to equate comfort and empire. And since comfort was always relative, the political justification for colonies was inexhaustible. If the German housewife’s point of reference was Mrs. Jones rather than Frau Jonas, then Germans needed an empire comparable to the American one.

If German prosperity would always be relative, then final success could never be achieved. “The prospects for the German people are bleak,” wrote an aggrieved Hitler. That complaint was followed by this clarification: “Neither the current living space nor that achieved through a restoration of the borders of 1914 permits us to lead a life comparable to that of the American people.” At the least, the struggle would continue as long as the United States existed, and that would be a long time. Hitler saw America as the coming world power, and the core American population as a “world class people” that was “younger and healthier than the Germans” who had remained in Europe.

While Hitler was writing Mein Kampf (My Struggle), he learned of the word Lebensraum (living space) and turned it to his own purposes. In his writings and speeches, it expressed the whole range of meaning that he attached to the natural struggle, from an unceasing racial fight for physical survival all the way to an endless war for the subjective sense of having the highest standard of living in the world. The term Lebensraum came into the German language as the equivalent of the French word biotope, or “habitat.” In a social rather than biological context it can mean something else: household comfort, something close to “living room.” The containment of these two meanings in a single word furthered Hitler’s circular idea: Nature was nothing more than society, society nothing more than nature. Thus there was no difference between an animal struggle for physical existence and the preference of families for nicer lives. Each was about Lebensraum.

The 20th century was to bring endless war for relative comfort. Robert Ley, one of Hitler’s early Nazi comrades, defined Lebensraum as “more culture, more beauty—these the race must have, or it will perish.” Hitler’s propagandist Joseph Goebbels defined the purpose of a war of extermination as “a big breakfast, a big lunch, and a big dinner.” Tens of millions of people would have to starve, but not so that Germans could survive in the physical sense of the word. Tens of millions of people would have to starve so that Germans could strive for a standard of living second to none.

“One thing the Americans have and which we lack,” complained Hitler, “is the sense of vast open spaces.” He was repeating what German colonialists had said for decades. By the time Germany had unified in 1871, the world had already been colonized by other European powers. Germany’s defeat in the First World War cost it the few overseas possessions it had gained. So where, in the 20th century, were the lands open for German conquest? Where was Germany’s frontier, its Manifest Destiny?

All that remained was the home continent. “For Germany,” wrote Hitler, “the only possibility of a sound agrarian policy was the acquisition of land within Europe itself.” To be sure, there was no place near Germany that was uninhabited or even underpopulated. The crucial thing was to imagine that European “spaces” were, in fact, “open.” Racism was the idea that turned populated lands into potential colonies, and the source mythologies for racists arose from the recent colonization of North America and Africa. The conquest and exploitation of these continents by Europeans formed the literary imagination of Europeans of Hitler’s generation. Like millions of other children born in the 1880s and 1890s, Hitler played at African wars and read Karl May’s novels of the American West. Hitler said that May had opened his “eyes to the world.”

In the late 19th century, Germans tended to see the fate of Native Americans as a natural precedent for the fate of native Africans under their control. One colony was German East Africa—today Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania, and a bit of Mozambique—where Berlin assumed responsibility in 1891. During an uprising in 1905, the Maji Maji Rebellion, the Germans applied starvation tactics, killing at least 75,000 people. A second colony was German Southwest Africa, today Namibia, where about 3,000 German colonists controlled about 70 percent of the land. An uprising there in 1904 led the Germans to deny the native Herero and Nama populations access to water until they fell “victim to the nature of their own country,” as the official military history put it. The Germans imprisoned survivors in a camp on an island. The Herero population was reduced from some 80,000 to about 15,000; that of the Nama from about 20,000 to about 10,000. For the German general who pursued these policies, the historical justice was self-evident. “The natives must give way,” he said. “Look at America.” The German governor of the region compared Southwest Africa to Nevada, Wyoming, and Colorado. The civilian head of the German colonial office saw matters much the same way: “The history of the colonization of the United States, clearly the biggest colonial endeavor the world has ever known, had as its first act the complete annihilation of its native peoples.” He understood the need for an “annihilation operation.” The German state geologist called for a “Final Solution to the native question.”

A famous German novel of the war in German Southwest Africa united, as would Hitler, the idea of a racial struggle with that of divine justice. The killing of “blacks” was “the justice of the Lord” because the world belonged to “the most vigorous.” Like most Europeans, Hitler was a racist about Africans. Yet Hitler’s racism was not that of a European looking down at Africans. He saw the entire world as an “Africa,” and everyone, including Europeans, in racial terms. Racism, after all, was a claim to judge who was fully human. Even neighboring societies, which might seem not so different from the German, might be defined as racially different. When Hitler wrote in My Struggle that Germany’s only opportunity for colonization was Europe, he discarded the possibility of a return to Africa. The search for racial inferiors to dominate required no long voyages by sea, since they were present in Eastern Europe as well.

In the 19th century, after all, the major arena of German colonialism had been not mysterious Africa but neighboring Poland. Prussia had gained territory inhabited by Poles in the partitions of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the late 18th century. Formerly Polish lands were thus part of the unified Germany that Prussia created in 1871. Poles made up about 7 percent of the German population, and in eastern regions were a majority. They were subjected first to Bismarck’s Kulturkampf, a campaign against Roman Catholicism whose major object was the elimination of Polish national identity, and then to state-subsidized internal colonization campaigns. German colonial literature about Poland, including best-sellers, portrayed the Poles as “black.” The Polish peasants had dark faces and referred to Germans as “white.” Polish aristocrats, fey and useless, were endowed with black hair and eyes. So were the beautiful Polish women, seductresses who, in these stories, almost invariably led naïve German men to racial self-degradation and doom.

After the First World War, it was more practical to consider a return to Eastern Europe than to Africa. Here, as in so many other cases, Hitler drew vague sentiments to remorselessly tight conclusions. He presented as racial inferiors the largest cultural group in Europe, Germany’s eastern neighbors, the Slavs.

“The Slavs are born as a slavish mass,” wrote Hitler, “crying out for their master.” He meant primarily the Ukrainians, who inhabited a stretch of very fertile land, as well as their neighbors—Russians, Belarusians, and Poles. “I need the Ukraine,” he stated, “in order that no one is able to starve us again, like in the last war.” The conquest of Ukraine would guarantee “a way of life for our people through the allocation of Lebensraum for the next hundred years.” This was a matter of natural justice: “It is inconceivable that a higher people should painfully exist on a soil too narrow for it, whilst amorphous masses, which contribute nothing to civilization, occupy infinite tracts of a soil that is one of the richest in the world.” Erich Koch, chosen by Hitler to rule Ukraine, made the point about the inferiority of Ukrainians with a certain simplicity: “If I find a Ukrainian who is worthy to sit with me at table, I must have him shot.” Even in the racial murder threats, the dining room was the backdrop.

When German occupation came in 1941, Ukrainians themselves made the connection to Africa and America. A Ukrainian woman, literate and reflective in a way that Nazi racism could not have contemplated, recorded in her diary: “We are like slaves. Often the book Uncle Tom’s Cabin comes to mind. Once we shed tears over those Negroes, now obviously we ourselves are experiencing the same thing.”

Hitler maintained that in a direct confrontation, the Jewish threat could be eliminated. The destruction of Soviet Jews would cause the Soviet Union to “immediately break up.” The Slavs would fight “like Indians,” with the same result. Then, in the East, “a similar process will repeat itself for the second time, as in the conquest of America.” A second America could be created in Europe, after Germans learned to see other Europeans as they saw indigenous Americans or Africans, and learned to regard Europe’s largest state as a fragile Jewish colony.

In this racist collage, Europeans were interspersed with Africans and Native Americans. Hitler compressed all of imperial history and a total racism into a very short formulation: “Our Mississippi must be the Volga, and not the Niger.” The Mississippi was not only the river that runs from north to south through the middle of the United States. It was also the line beyond which Thomas Jefferson wanted all Indians expelled. “Who,” asked Hitler, “remembers the Red Indians?” For Hitler, Africa was the source of the imperial references but not the actual site of empire; Eastern Europe was that actual site, and it was to be remade just as North America had been remade. The destruction of Soviet Jews would mean the removal of Jewish power, which would allow the creation of an eastern empire, which would mean the replay of American frontier history in Eastern Europe.

Adapted from Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning Copyright © 2015 by Timothy Snyder. Published by Tim Duggan Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.