Karl Marx (at left) and one of his disciples
THE JEWS WERE “the veriest scum of Europe.” They had got “their economic fangs in the carcass of their prey.” They were a “small international oligarchy” whose “real strength is underestimated” and many of whom had changed their names to sound non-Jewish “after true parasitic fashion.” These words, written in 1902, might have come from a source book for the race theory of world domination adopted and refined by Adolf Hitler in the 1920s and ’30s. Did they?
Hitler surrounded himself with books while writing Mein Kampf in prison in 1923-24 and when living in Munich before and afterwards. His mentor, Dietrich Eckart of the German Workers’ Party, lent books to him.1 His friend Reinhold Hanisch said Hitler was always lounging about reading newspapers and magazines. Hitler inflated his desultory browsing in Vienna before the war into a time of “intense intellectual development,” of reading “enormously and thoroughly.”2 His roommate Gustl Kubizek said “books were his world.” He surrounded himself with “piles of books” and “always had a book with him wherever he went.”3 Ian Kershaw writes that “Whatever Hitler read during his Vienna years, and … we cannot be sure what that was[,] there is no reason to doubt that Hitler did read extensively … as he later claimed.”4
In prison he read “above all, history,” according to Hugh Trevor-Roper, whose essay, “The Mind of Hitler,” was intended as a corrective to the wishful-thinking that Hitler was a mere charlatan and demagogue. National Socialism was assuredly a creed for morons — and yet with a prestigious intellectual lineage in the likes of Gobineau, Le Bon, Comte, Nietzsche, Carlyle, and others. Hitler made notes in some of his surviving books, including ex-Social Democrat Berthold Otto’s The Future Socialist-Monarchist State, a 1910 work that he was quite taken with.
Alan Bullock, the first great English biographer, belittled the pseudo-philosophers with whom Hitler identified himself,5 doubting that Hitler “had read either so widely or so deeply as Mr. Trevor-Roper appears to think.”6 As the mishmash of ideas from books, pamphlets, newspapers, operas, and speeches indicates, wrote the great conservative German biographer, Joachim Fest, the Vienna years were characterized more by lethargy, mired in an “almost narcotized dullness.”
Hitler had long since imbibed anti-Semitism from his history teacher, Dr. Leopold Pötsch, and drank deeper in Vienna from Georg von Schönerer, Karl Lueger, and others.7 Later he embraced Wagner’s fantastical operas, his anti-Semitic writings and also those of Theodor Fritsch — and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and Foundations of the Nineteenth Century, the “avowed and recognisable basis of his racial doctrines,” according to Trevor-Roper.8 Foundations was written by that most notorious of Social Darwinists, Houston Stewart Chamberlain, Hitler’s Anglo-German hero and mentor (and Wagner’s son-in-law), born in Hampshire, a “renegade Englishman” and “Teutomaniac” German racial supremacist.9 Hitler was especially fond of Chamberlain’s biography of the composer.
" Engels wrote that if ‘entire reactionary peoples’ were ‘to disappear from the earth, that too is progress.’ "
HITLER READ MARX and did not deny his debt to “Marxist methods,” having “evolved the plan … of a coup d’etat from within” based on Schopenhauer’s doctrine of the will and Lenin’s concept of the vanguard.10 He “learned his most lasting lessons from Marxism,” writes Fest. The “energy” he poured into National Socialism in the 1920s “testifies to the effects of the Marxist model upon him.” As Hitler said: “I have learned a great deal from Marxism. I admit that without hesitation.” Not the “boring social theory” or “conception of history” or other “absurd nonsense” but the “methods.”11
Come to that, Lenin’s chief inspiration for Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism (1917) was, as is well-known, the work of another slightly renegade Englishman, J.A. Hobson, whose Imperialism: A Study attributed the Boer War and the “new” British Imperialism to a conspiracy of international Jewish financiers. Thanks to Lenin, Hobson’s book achieved far more notoriety than it might otherwise have. The quotations at the opening of this article were from Hobson’s book, published in 1902. While the war in South Africa raged, Hitler like other Austrian youths in Linz took the side of the Boers and acted out their “heroic exploits” as they were reported in the pro-Boer press.12
But when he was older did Hitler read Hobson, that most prominent of pro-Boer pamphleteers? Houston Stewart Chamberlain was a fanatical pro-Boer and denounced the Boers’ “extermination” by a British government controlled by greed, the “gold-oligarchy,” and the Jews. In this he was, according to a biographer, “echoing a considerable section of German opinion which saw in English policies an example of Jewish financial manipulation.”13
Given the propinquity between Chamberlain and Hobson, I have sometimes wondered idly whether Hitler read Hobson. If this seems a strange notion it first crossed my mind in 1993, when I was 22 and was writing about British Liberal and Radical anti-imperialists’ anti-Semitic tendency in my Master’s thesis. Everyone else read Hobson. Even Sir Wilfrid Laurier owned a copy printed in 1906, now in the National Library in Ottawa. If Laurier owned it, and Lenin and much of the international left were inspired by it, why not Hitler?
HOBSON'S BOOK WAS described by historian Robin Winks as “the single most important investigation of the causes of imperialism.” Hobson’s economics anticipated Keynes’ General Theory. And Hobson is well enough remembered today that Jeremy Corbyn, the ex-leader of Britain’s Labour Party, felt moved to write a foreword to a new edition as a backbencher in 2011. Hobson, he wrote, “was revered by Marxists, and quoted by Lenin” for his “brilliant” and “very controversial” analysis.14 That got Corbyn into big trouble when the introduction was rediscovered (not to say exposed) in 2019 by The Times. Corbyn hastened to distance himself from Hobson’s anti-Jewish bent. Given the left’s longstanding veneration for Hobson for having inspired Lenin (whom they openly or secretly admire), as well as for his post-Christian and anti-capitalist “heretical outlook” and “fearless and ruthless” style,15 men and women of the left have a big circle to square, as reflected in a little flurry of recriminations last year in The Guardian and on left-wing blogs.16
Lib-Left anti-Semitism is an old and persistent problem, dating back to John Burns, who also blamed the Jews for the war in South Africa. A trade-unionist and Radical who became a Liberal MP, Burns wrote: “wherever we examine, there is the financial Jew, operating, directing, inspiring the agencies that have led to this war.”17
The Corbyn-Hobson dust-up is a reminder that the naked truth of socialist racism is under-exposed — for the obvious reason that many academic historians sympathize with Marx and other socialists as the good guys of history. To take one example, the Booker Prize-winning novelist Howard Jacobson wrote a long piece for The New Statesman called “Jews and the Money Myth” (Apr. 17, 2019), without mentioning Marx’s racism, of which more below.
HOBSON WROTE IN Imperialism that control of South Africa was falling “into the hands of a small group of international financiers, chiefly German in origin and Jewish in race.” Britain’s Army was really “fighting in order to place a small international oligarchy of mine-owners and speculators in power in Pretoria … whose trade is finance, and whose trade interests are not chiefly British.”18 It was not so much “capitalistic imperialism” that angered Hobson as that “a single and peculiar race” lay at the centre of it.19
Britain’s Jewish-led imperialism was “the largest, plainest instance history presents of the social parasitic process” acting “to fasten economic suckers into foreign bodies so as to drain them of their wealth.” And yet, “nature is not mocked.” Its laws would “doom the parasite to atrophy, decay, and final extinction.”20
Hobson’s “non-economic” ideas — his preoccupation with the presence of Jews among the financial elite — were explored before by John Allett of York University in “New Liberalism, Old Prejudices” in the spring 1987 number of Jewish Social Studies.21 Allett found that Hobson, writing under the pseudonym “Lucian” in 1918, had mocked Johannesberg as the “New Jerusalem” and the “Golden City,” and had taken potshots at the contemporary Zionist movement.22
The 1938 edition of Imperialism was issued after a well-publicized succession of gradually more restrictive laws in Germany against Jews, and social and economic harassment, culminating in the Nuremberg Laws. As I wrote in my master’s thesis in 1993, even though the book was “entirely revised and reset,” the Hobson of 1938 still obsessed that
[no] great war could be undertaken by any European state, or a great State loan subscribed, if the house of Rothschild and its connections set their face against it. … There is not a war, a revolution, an anarchist assassination, or any other public shock, which is not gainful to these men; they are harpies who suck their gains from every sudden disturbance of public credit.23
Some Hobson admirers, including academic biographers, have solved the embarrassment of Hobson’s Jew problem simply by omitting or downplaying these passages.24 But Hobson cannot be let off so easily, and he proposed even worse ideas.
In Imperialism he also called for a new global order ruled by an “organically” and “rationally” evolved “experimental and progressive federation” led by the “civilized” nations. Indeed to bring about this new order might require some eugenics — what Hobson called a “rational stirpiculture [methodical breeding] in the wider social interest” that might, in turn, “require a repression of the spread of degenerate or unprogressive races,” such as the “black and yellow.”25
Though Hobson can be excused for not having foreseen the Holocaust (he died in 1940), or the consequences of some of his speculation about eugenics, his musings coincide precisely with the utopian temptation of numerous intellectuals that prepared the way for totalitarian social engineering, as Oxford professor John Carey catalogued in his classic account of British intellectual precursors of Hitlerism, The Intellectuals and the Masses: Pride and Prejudice among the Literary Intelligentsia 1880-1939, published in 1992. Professor Angus McLaren revealed similar tendencies in Canadian progressive thought in Our Own Master Race: Eugenics in Canada, 1885-1945, published in 1990.
THOUGH IT IS frequently overlooked — because many assume that racism and fascism pertain only to the right — the concept of genocide was implicit in Marx and Engels. That fact was well-understood long ago by European scholars but less so in the English-speaking world. The connection was controversially rebooted in the 1980s by the conservative German historian Ernst Nolte, who argued that Marx’s revolutionary program to liquidate the bourgeoisie, executed by Lenin and Stalin, was the essential precursor, the forerunner, to Hitler’s plan to eradicate the Jews. Lenin and Trotsky’s Red Terror brutalized all parties and all levels of society. But the Bolsheviks also targeted discrete racial and economic groups, as in the “de-Cossackization” of 1919-20, the “dekulakization” of 1930-32, and the Ukrainian terror-famine, followed by several national deportations and ethnic-cleansings during the war, as Robert Conquest recounted in The Nation-Killers (1970).
George Watson, a Cambridge don, traced the origin of genocide directly to Marx and Engels’ works. He alleged that when Engels, in an 1849 article about the Hungarian crisis in Marx’s Neue Rheinische Zeitung, described certain minority peoples as “Völkerabfall” this should be understood to mean “ethnic trash,” riff-raff to be exterminated in the name of progress. “Until its complete extermination, or loss of national status,” Engels wrote, “this racial trash always becomes the most fanatical bearer there is of counter-revolution.” Thus if “entire reactionary peoples” were “to disappear from the earth,” Engels wrote, “that too is progress.” And after all, did not Marx greet the appearance of Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” in 1859 in political terms, calling the Origin of Species “the scientific foundation of the historical class war”? (But he would, wouldn’t he?)
Marx and Engels’ defenders say Völkerabfall should be read as “residual peoples,” a more anodyne translation, and that Engels was referring to counter-revolutionary Royalist or Catholic minorities such as Jacobites, Bretons, and Basques; or to the South Slavs, Czechs, and Slovaks. Watson half-conceded the point, but he found these examples so peculiar that he believed Engels must have really meant the Jews.26
In remarks that today sound like a typical anti-Semitic rant, and echo later in Hobson, Marx wrote in “Zur Judenfrage” that “the worldly religion of the Jews” was “the petty haggling of the hawker,” their “worldly God … money.” By the “power of money,” he wrote in the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher in 1844, “the Jews have emancipated themselves by turning Christians into Jews.”27 Such quotes are dismissed by some as simply reflecting the attitudes of the times. But they echo down the ages, as when Marx wrote in 1856, again in words that sound like Hobson’s later conclusions: “We find every tyrant backed by a Jew, as is every Pope by a Jesuit. In truth, … the practicability of war [would be] out of the question, if there were not an army of Jesuits to smother thought and a handful of Jews to ransack pockets.”28
IF MARX AND ENGELS’ anti-Semitism was after the fashion of their time, and stemmed from their own personal complexes,29 still, the renowned scholar of anti-Semitism, Robert S. Wistrich (1945-2015), could see a cover-up, what he called “the sins of omission … by many Western scholars” regarding the “prejudices of Marx and Engels.”30
Just as intriguing, I think, as to the origins of 20th century genocide, is George Watson’s challenge to scholars to prove that genocide did not originate on the left: could anyone
quote a genocidal remark by anyone not calling himself a socialist in the European century that began with the Communist Manifesto of 1848. If none can be found, then genocide would look more than just an optional element in socialist thought in its classic age. It would look like a distinctive element.31
That genocide came from the left, he implied, was an inescapable conclusion.
Nolte and others developed their argument for the “originality” of Bolshevism by pointing out that Stalin’s minions used “gas trucks” first, in the late 1930s, and obviously that the Gulag Archipelago predated Nazi concentration camps. But others pointed out that the Armenian genocide by the Turks makes a more convincing precursor for the Final Solution.32
It would seem that part of Watson’s motivation in tracing Hitler to Marx was to goad and bait the Marxists; give them a taste of their own medicine. Watson was a convinced Liberal who left £950,000 to the Liberal Democrat Party. He was surely an eccentric, an interesting scholar but I think on the fringes. I visited him once at St. John’s College in 1993; he offered tea in barely-rinsed cups with a brown ring of old tea round the inside. And if memory serves, when I asked him, he thought there was little reason to think that Hitler had read Hobson. I forgot about it for quite a while.
WHETHER HITLER HAD access to a copy of Imperialism during the Vienna or Munich years we will likely never know. The definitive German account of Hitler’s library — the surviving books from his collection gathered up by the 101st Airborne Division in 1945, now in the Library of Congress or at Brown, Stanford, and elsewhere — was compiled by Philipp Gassert and Daniel S. Mattern in 2001. This is not a guide to the books that Hitler actually read during his formative period, but those he owned later in life, many of them gifts that indeed he never read. “Authors whom we know Hitler devoured, like Karl May, are absent,” they found.33
Claiming that he had “discovered” the lost collection “in storage,” in “Hitler’s Forgotten Library” in The Atlantic (May 2003) Timothy W. Ryback seems to have perused the same collection, two years after Gassert and Mattern. Expanding this article into a book, Hitler’s Private Library in 2008, Ryback does not find any works by Hobson, who is not mentioned anywhere, though Houston Stewart Chamberlain is of course there.
Then again, Ryback mentions no books by Marx or Lenin either.34 But Hitler lived (and read whatever he read) in the vast and deep shadow of Marx and Lenin — in Vienna he even lived “a few blocks away,” Fest writes,35 from where Lenin had lived — though Kershaw insists Hitler didn’t bother reading the Communists’ “theoretical writings.”36 (As for style, Hitler regarded Mussolini as the greater literary talent.37 The brown-shirted S.A., whom some call “Brown Bolsheviks,” styled Hitler as “the German Lenin.”38)
RECENTLY I GOT around to searching (online) the Austrian State Archives, which offers scanned card catalogues of various libraries in Wien up to 1923-24. There were books from all over the world but I could find no index card for “Hobson,” nothing between “Hlubek” and “Hoburg.” The Vienna Hof Library does have a 1919 edition of Lenin’s Sozialismus und Krieg but only a 1951 edition of Was Tun? or What is to Be Done, originally published in 1902 which, according to Marxists.org, was circulating in German almost immediately; Hitler surely read it in due course.39
I also asked the Münchner Stadtbibliothek (by email) if they had a copy of J.A. Hobson’s Der Imperialismus in the 1920s. The answer from Munich was that, while the Deutschen Nationalbibliothek does now have the German translation of 1968 in the catalogue, the pre-war listings of Munich’s library “sind im Krieg leider verbrannt” — were “unfortunately burned during the war.”
The Library of Congress, as Ryback has recounted, has 1,200 of Hitler’s books, but most were collected later in life and more than half were weeded out by librarians if they did not have a Hitler name-plate or annotations.40 Others besides Gassert and Mattern had already sifted through, such as Ambrus Miskolczy, whose book, Hitler’s Library, taxonomizes which books Hitler made pencil marks in, and Jehuda L. Wallach as long ago as 1992 in “Adolf Hitlers Privatbibliothek.”41
I can present no proof that Hitler read or even knew of Hobson. There is only the coincidence, casual but interesting, between Hobson, fellow pro-Boer Houston Stewart Chamberlain, and Hitler’s complementary but uncertain reading list adumbrated by the pall of Marx, Mussolini, and Lenin. There is nothing in the Table Talk.
It’s far from being a major lacuna in any case: Hitler did not need Hobson when he had so many other sources from which to build his maniacal case for eliminating the Jews in the struggle for world domination that he was master-minding for the German Völk. If gentle reader happens to know of such evidence, do kindly get in touch.
- Bullock, Hitler: A Study in Tyranny, Penguin 1962, p. 79.
- Fest, Hitler, Vintage, 1975, p. 51.
- Cf. Timothy W. Ryback, “Hitler’s Forgotten Library,” The Atlantic, May 2003.
- Kershaw, Hitler 1889-1936: Hubris, 1998, p. 41.
- Bullock, p. 80.
- Adam Sisman, Hugh Trevor-Roper: The Biography, p. 215, citing Bullock in The Observer in 1953.
- Fest, pp. 38, 42-3.
- “The Mind of Hitler,” online edition, xxxiv.
- G.G. Field, “Houston Stewart Chamberlain: Prophet of Bayreuth,” Columbia University Ph.D. thesis, 1972.
- “The Mind of Hitler,” xxxv.
- Fest, pp. 125-6.
- Kershaw, p. 15.
- Field, pp. 484, 487-8.
- Corbyn, “Internationalist at Work,” Spokesman Books, pdf version, online.
- Jules Townshend, J.A. Hobson, 1990, pp. 3-4.
- Daniel Finkelstein, “Corbyn’s praise for deeply antisemitic book,” The Times, Apr. 30, 2019; Miles Taylor, “Imperialism: a look at the book behind the Corbyn furore,” The Guardian, May 1, 2019; Jonathan Freedland, “Jeremy Corbyn is either blind to antisemitism — or he just doesn’t care,” May 1, 2019; Aaron Ackerley, “Old Prejudices, New Debates: J.A. Hobson and Anti-Semitism,” History Matters blog (U. Sheffield), May 16, 2019; David Feldman, “Labour can expel antisemites — but that won’t ‘root out’ antisemitism in our culture,” The Guardian, Apr. 8.
- Claire Hirshfield, “The Anglo-Boer War and the issue of Jewish culpability,” Journal of Contemporary History, 15:4 (1980), p. 626.
- Hobson, War in South Africa, pp. 189, 194, 197.
- Hobson, Imperialism, p. 64.
- Ibid., 1st ed. p. 389 (3rd ed. p. 367).
- Jewish Social Studies, xlix, Spring 1987, p. 99.
- Lucian, 1920: Dips into the Near Future, quoted by Allett, p. 110.
- Imperialism, 3rd ed., pp. 57-8.
- Townshend ignores it. Colin Holmes, “J.A. Hobson and the Jews,” in Immigrants and Minorities in British Society, 1978, deflects by saying “other English anti-semites were more virulent,” p. 148.
- Imperialism, pp. 201-2.
- “Was Hitler a Marxist?” Encounter, Dec. 1984.
- Cf. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/jewish-question/
- “The Russian Loan,” New York Times, Jan. 4, 1856, in The Eastern Question, Google Books.
- Robert S. Wistrich, Revolutionary Jews from Marx to Trotsky, Harrap, 1976.
- “Marxian ‘Racism’?” letter, Encounter, Nov. 1975, pp. 94-5.
- “Marx and genocide,” letter, Times Literary Supplement, Aug. 23, 1981, p. 13.
- Charles S. Maier, The Unmasterable Past: History, Holocaust, and German National Identity, 1988, p. 72.
- Geoffrey J. Giles, Review of The Hitler Library: A Bibliography by Philipp Gassert, Daniel S. Mattern, German Studies Review, 26:3 (Oct. 2003), pp. 673-74.
- Hitler’s Private Library, ebook, Location 1005.
- At 34 Schleissheimer Strasse, Fest, p. 59.
- Hubris, p. 84. Lenin lived at 106 Schleissheimer: Fest, p. 59.
- Ryback, ebook Location 1349 and 1351.
- Ambrus Miskolczy, Hitler’s Library, Budapest, 2003, p. 102; Location 121 of the ebook.
- Ryback, The Atlantic, May 2003.
- Zeitgeschichte, Jan.-Feb. 1992, Vol.19 (1-2), pp. 29-50.