Jews in front of Swastikas
To what extent did Hitler's anti-Semitism start of as literal loathing of Jews? David Silverman/Getty Images

By 1920 Adolf Hitler was undoubtedly an anti-Semite, but how deep did his loathing of Jews go? Was his extreme and biologised anti-Semitic rhetoric meant in a metaphorical or in a literal sense?

His central preoccupation at this point was how to respond to Western power and capitalism. He would always pay lip service to explaining how Germany had to stand up to France. Yet his real preoccupation lay with British and American power and Anglosphere capitalism.

For many of Hitler's contemporaries, anti-Semitism was literal in character and translated into direct action against Jews. For others, it was metaphorical, or its core was literal but some of its more extreme expressions were metaphorical.

Examining these possibilities can help us determine how Hitler understood his own Judeophobia, and how others interpreted it.

Mainstream anti-Jewish hatred in Munich was not universally applied to all Jews. A prime example of this was the anti-Semitism of Richard Wagner's English-born son-in-law, Houston Stewart Chamberlain.

Chamberlain's anti-Semitism is of the utmost importance as there are strong echoes of his works in Hitler's speeches and writings. Hitler himself would identify Chamberlain as a major influence in the development of his own personal anti-Semitism.

Even though Chamberlain's central category in his writing was "race", his primary preoccupation was with Judaism, not with Jews. For Chamberlain, race was not a biological category. Rather, he advocated that the creation of a new "pure" race would allow civilisation to advance.

For Chamberlain, that new kind of race would be defined by a common adherence to a set of ideas, rather than by common biological features. Indeed, as Chamberlain had made clear in a letter to one of his associates, he thought that "the Jew is entirely an artificial product".

In his letter dated August 7, 1898, Chamberlain argued that "it is possible to be a Jew without being a Jew; and that one need not necessarily be a 'Jew' while being Jewish". Chamberlain did not really think that Jews — that is, people one might encounter — were the real problem. "The truth is that the 'Jewish danger' is much deeper, and the Jew is not in fact responsible for it: we ourselves created it and we must overcome it."

In other words, to Chamberlain, despite using racial terminology, being Jewish meant adhering to a set of ideas that could infuse Jews and non-Jews alike. His ultimate goal was to purge these supposedly harmful ideas from the world.

Chamberlain was far from being the only person to view his racial anti-Semitism as metaphorical in character. Many people who were, or would become, extremely close to Hitler shared Chamberlain's views.

The question that naturally follows is, given the echoes of Chamberlain in Hitler's writings and speeches, did Hitler view his own anti-Semitism as being similar in character to that of Chamberlain? It is plausible to argue that Hitler initially spoke metaphorically, or, more likely, that he himself had not quite made up his mind as to whether his anti-Semitism was literal or metaphorical.

In his speeches, he sometimes seemed to agree with Chamberlain's belief that one can be a Jew without being a Jew and that the ultimate anti-Semitic goal was to fight the Jewish spirit. For instance, as a guest speaker at an event of the German Völkisch Protection and Defiance Federation on 7 January 1920, he said to the applause of his audience: "The greatest villain is not the Jew, but he who makes himself available to the Jew. We fight the Jew because he impedes the fight against capitalism. We have inflicted our great misery for the most part on ourselves."

By the summer of 1920 there was little indication that Hitler had fully made up his mind about the nature of his anti-Semitism or formulated his preferred anti-Jewish endgame. At this time he was using anti-Semitism as a tool to target Anglo-American capitalism and to make sense of the ills of the world, as part of a tradition been invented 2,500 years earlier on the banks of the river Nile.

The extreme rhetoric of his nascent anti-Semitism has to be seen in the context of the difficulties Hitler and the National Socialist German Workers' Party (NSDAP) faced in the spring of 1920. At a time when the party simply failed to make itself adequately heard, Hitler had to find a way to make himself and his party stand out in the busy marketplace of right-wing politics. His brand of anti-Semitism became his instrument for distinguishing himself from the many other anti-Semitic speakers and politicians in Munich.

Hitler managed to make a splash in the city by offering a more radical and cohesive variant of extremist anti-Semitism. The more he presented his stance as an all-or-nothing proposition, the more he insisted that every compromise was a rotten one, the more extremely his anti-Semitism was expressed, the more he increased his chance of getting heard.

It was a desire to get heard and to be distinctive that fanned the radicalisation of his anti-Semitism. At the time, his goal for the NSDAP was not to get majority support; it was simply for the party to be more distinctive than its competitors on the extreme right.

To that end, he seems to have adjusted his anti-Semitic rhetoric in a trial-and-error fashion, developing further those ideas and slogans that received the most cheering from receptive audiences — and the most booing from the left, thereby setting off a self-reinforcing cycle of radicalisation of his anti-Semitic rhetoric.

Very soon, however, Hitler would make the leap from metaphorical anti-Semitism to a literal kind and would formulate his preferred 'final solution'.

Thomas Weber is the author of Becoming Hitler: The Making of a Nazi, out next week with Oxford University Press in the UK and Basic Books in North America.