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Hitler’s impact: Catalysing Europe’s fall and USA’s rise to power

Published on 03 September 2015
Updated on 08 March 2024

George Friedman is the CEO of the renowned private intelligence corporation Stratfor, and he specialises in the analysis of international conflicts. His credentials notably include studying the potential for a USA–Japan conflict after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and co-authoring The Coming War with Japan. This year, he has written the article titled Pondering Hitler’s Legacy, claiming that he is now in a position to ‘extract the real meaning of the man’. In the following, I shall discuss the three changes that, according to Friedman, Hitler brought about. I shall also use the term ‘swerve’ rather than ‘legacy,’ which suggests benevolent intentionality.

A liminary consideration

History flows as a sequence of events without clear beginnings. Analysts often construct narratives by selecting a starting event from which all consequences are presumed to flow. In doing so, they are likely to confuse post hoc reasoning with propter hoc causation. In this article, the seminal event identified as the source of all ensuing consequences is Hitler’s invasion of Poland, which indeed initiated hostilities in Europe in 1939. However, the narrative could be framed quite differently. It could be argued that through the Treaty of Non-Aggression Between Germany and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics of 23 August 1939, formally known as the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, Stalin duped Hitler into advancing west, thereby setting the stage for a potential global communist revolution (in this scenario, it would be considered ‘Stalin’s legacy’). Furthermore, there is some evidence to suggest that Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union occurred just as the Soviet Union was preparing to advance towards Berlin. I mention this in good spirit, aiming to highlight the challenges in fully understanding ‘what truly happened’ – echoing Leopold von Ranke’s aspiration to accurately document history.

Vyacheslav Molotov signs the pact as Joachim von Ribbentrop (centre) and Joseph Stalin watch.
Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov signs the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, as Nazi Germany’s foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin watch (The Guardian).

The end of European empires

‘[Hitler] destroyed Europe’s hegemony over much of the world and its influence over the rest.’ According to Friedman, Europe was exhausted after fighting Hitler and relinquished its role in world affairs. There is good reason to question this assertion.

In many historians’ view, Europe’s hegemony came to an end after WWI, which exhausted the European powers economically, financially, and, worst of all, humanly. The USA rescued the Allies from defeat in the field just in the nick of time (the Germans had developed ways to break through the lines of trenches). Throughout the war, the USA (while neutral) bankrolled the fight and delivered both food and weapons to the Allied Powers, becoming, in the process, the economic and financial centre of the world. The 1920s witnessed the concealed shift of economic and financial policymaking from London to New York. It was a period of uncertainty which led to the Great Depression.

Under the impact of Woodrow Wilson’s 14 Points of 1918, old-style European imperialism came to an end at Versailles (and surrounding peace sites). German colonies were not handed over to the winners as a prize of war: the winners got them in the framework of League of Nations (LoN) mandates included eventual independence for the domains. It was a signal to the world that colonialism was on the wane. Even at the Treaty of Sèvres in 1920, where the USA was absent because it was not involved in a war against the Porte, LoN mandates were issued, e.g. on Palestine. China’s long march to world power began on 5 May 1919 when the content of the Versailles peace treaties became known in Peking. Even tiny and distant Samoa rebelled against New Zealand’s LoN mandate in 1929. In Delhi, the Raj was busy during the 30s fanning communal flames to justify hanging on.

Three British officers pose with an artillery company of the Nigeria Regiment of the Royal West African Frontier Force, 1918.
Three British officers pose with an artillery company of the Nigeria Regiment of the Royal West African Frontier Force, 1918 (The Guardian).

More profoundly, the European empire system had always stood on wobbly feet. First of all, the empires had been mostly a hodgepodge proconsular affair rather than a centrally planned drive. Ambitious generals at the periphery ignored instructions of the centre for restraint (and often common sense, as in Afghanistan in 1839). Each time, they painted ever wider portions of the world map in red or blue, hoping their military success would validate their disobedience. This is nothing different from what Sulla or Caesar did in Roman times, and even Alexander was a pro-consul of himself, having left his kingdom in the hands of his scheming mother. The economic promise of modern empires never quite materialised, and the colonies were always strapped for cash (though private fortunes were, of course, made) and run on a shoestring. ‘Breaking’ is the easy part of the adage ‘You break it, you own it.’

WWI brought about a professionalisation of the states’ bureaucracy in the Allied states and a belated realisation that running an empire was complex, demanding, and far from a self-financing proposition. The centre half-heartedly tried its hand at the task of consolidating the empire rashly cobbled together by the periphery. As multicultural constructs, empires tend to be unstable. Imperial consolidation goes hand in hand with forging an integrating ideology. Constantine picked Christianity, and so did the Spanish and Portuguese in the Americas. The Soviets tried communism, and the French the Mission Civilisatrice de la France (now Francophonie). Nothing of the sort was at hand for Britain or Japan. In any case, the mayonnaise did not take anywhere. As a result, by 1940, some major parts of the world’s imperial system were already breaking up. But that was not all: Russia’s more ruthless imperial system lasted until 1991.

European religious attendance

The second claim is a tortured non-sequitur bordering on slander of the Enlightenment:

It was not Hitler who destroyed the European metaphysical sensibility. In many ways, it destroyed itself from the inside, with a radical scepticism derived from the Enlightenment that turned on itself. But Hitler provided a coup de grace to that sensibility by appropriating figures like Friedrich Nietzsche and Richard Wagner to his own political ends, thereby legitimizing not only them but also the tradition from which they emerged.

Nietzsche and Wagner were not children of the Enlightenment but rather bastards of idealism, which entered the sceptical world of Enlightenment with Rousseau. One could argue that the main difference between the American and the French Declaration of Human Rights is the emergence of the concept of a transcendent ‘nation’ in the latter, with Robespierre as its incarnation. Napoleon rode with a copy of Werther in his pack, not Descartes or Spinoza. From there, the path to nationalism and the totalitarian state (Social Darwinism was another bastard picked up on the way) was set.

Be that as it may, any collapse of the ‘vulgar Enlightenment’ after WWII should have brought Europeans back to their ‘metaphysical sensibility,’ rather than vaccinating them against it, as Friedman suggests. Indeed, both in WWI and WWII, the horror of the slaughter erased the traditional religious trope: ‘War is God’s punishment for the world’s sins’ and replaced it with ‘War is fulfilling God’s hidden design.’ Unsurprisingly, the USA, with its tradition of manifest destiny, was the only country that could be easily convinced. In contrast, Europe reverted to tired consequentialism, or being a region of shopkeepers, although even this characterisation would be only half-true. The demise of philosophical idealism truly came only with the collapse of communism.

The train wreck that Hitler made of Europe resulted in a secularism that affected not only Christianity but also all attempts to recreate the depth of European culture. One might surmise that Friedman laments Europe’s refusal to declare Christianity as the source of its ‘deep culture’, thereby echoing the ‘clash of civilizations’ trope. The author delves deep into the murky waters of cultural history, emerging thoroughly mired. This approach to writing history is marked by a distinct attitude.

Pope Pius XII addresses a crowd in Rome in 1943 after a US bombing raid (The Guardian).
Pope Pius XII addresses a crowd in Rome in 1943 after a US bombing raid (The Guardian).

The power of the United States

On the face of it, next to attacking the Soviet Union, Hitler’s declaration of war on the USA was his greatest blunder. Both giants were spoiling for a fight with him, and he gave them the opportunity. He succumbed. A believer in the survival of the fittest nation, Hitler committed suicide and tried to take his country with him.

Still, the Führer unwittingly succeeded in one of his primary goals: the destruction of totalitarian communism. Admittedly, the Soviet Union survived WWII, but just barely. Exhausted, it fell into imperial ways, exploiting Eastern Europe to its benefit rather than reviving the modernising élan of the inter-year wars. After history had played itself out, the USA was the only one left standing.

The power of the USA had already consolidated by the end of WWI. One could argue, somewhat contentiously, that the USA gained power because it outsourced its imperial wars to others: to the Allied Powers in WWI and mainly to the Soviet Union in WWII. The USA practiced military Keynesianism (with apologies to the economist). More pertinently, it could leverage its enormous natural resources and the labor of its millions of (European) immigrants. The supremacy of the USA was not a gift from Hitler; it was the emergence of a giant into its own right.

‘Hitler had little respect for the US’, Friedman opines. A fan of the German Wild-West author Karl May (a favourite of German children), Hitler argued from the analogy that Germany had to ‘go East’ to become a power akin to the USA. Hitler knew full well about the strength of the USA, so its eventual ascendancy would not have surprised him.

Hitler announces the declaration of war against the United States to the Reichstag on 11 December 1941 (Wikipedia).
Hitler announces the declaration of war against the United States to the Reichstag on 11 December 1941 (Wikipedia).

A final point to ponder

The author’s grand finale reminds me of the French political gadfly, Jean Baudrillard, at his most orgasmic insights: ‘Hitler destroyed the dams that Europe had built around itself,’ and ‘Hitler drew the Americans into the heart of Europe, leaving Europeans completely vulnerable to the emerging, and quite strange, modes of thought that a nation holding shopkeepers in great regard can produce.’ Through the breached dam rushed the USA:

The United States redefined European culture. As I have written in Flashpoints: The Emerging Crisis in Europe, it was not Coca-Cola but the computer that was the carrier of American culture. The computer had nothing to do with metaphysics or with the truth or beauty. It had to do with the narrowest form of instrumental reason: It simply got things done, and in doing so, it justified its existence. The computer dominated the world — and Europe — and with it came a mode of thinking, contained in programming, that was so radically different from what European culture consisted of as to almost be from another planet. Of course, Europeans helped found the culture, but they bequeathed it to their heir, the United States. Paradoxically, the United States remains the most religious of countries, with church attendance at its height. Religiosity and instrumental reason are compatible in the United States — a point to ponder.

I am pondering: Is the author pandering?

This post was first published on DeepDip.

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