Almost two decades have passed since the end of the cold war, and living in a unipolar world dominated by the US has begun to change the way scholars view the history of twentieth-century Europe. For someone in his mid-thirties, like the British historian Adam Tooze, the rise of America to the superpower status it has enjoyed for most of his adult life is the fundamental fact of the last century as well as the present one. Already in the decade from 1924 to 1935, the total national income of the US averaged three times more than that of Great Britain, nearly four times more than that of Germany, and around five times more than that of France or the Soviet Union. Disparities in living standards were less marked, but still striking. Over the same period, British per capita Gross Domestic Product was running at 89 percent of the comparable US figure, French at 72 percent, German at 63 percent, and Soviet at 25 percent.
European contemporaries were very much aware of these facts; and none more so than Adolf Hitler. Already in his unpublished “Second Book,” written in 1928, he was declaring that “the European, even without being fully conscious of it, applies the conditions of American life as the yardstick for his life.” For Hitler, who read the Wild West novels of Karl May during his childhood and adolescence, it seemed obvious that America had achieved its industrial advantage and high standard of living through its conquest of the West and its extermination of the Native American population. If Germany, as Europe’s leading power, did not do something similar, the “threatened global hegemony of the North American continent” would degrade all the European powers to the level of “Switzerland and Holland.” Far from being the revival of some medieval dream of conquest sparked by the example of the Teutonic Knights, Hitler’s drive to conquer Eastern Europe was based on a very modern model, a model of colonization, enslavement, and extermination that had its parallels in the creation of European empires in Africa and Australia, or the nineteenth-century Russian conquest of Central Asia and Siberia.
Here, for Hitler, lay the key to Germany’s achievement of European dominance:
In future, the only state that will be able to stand up to North America will be the one that has understood how…to raise the value of its people in racial terms and to bring them into the state-form most appropriate for this purpose.
That state form, of course, was the dictatorship of the Third Reich, and as soon as Hitler came to power, he threw off the shackles of the peace settlement concluded at the end of World War I, which had restricted Germany’s army to a maximum of 100,000 men and banned the construction of tanks, airplanes, battleships, and other essential instruments of modern warfare.
Adam Tooze, whose work so far has focused on the emergence of economic statistics in early-twentieth-century Germany, gathers much economic data…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.