Rhodes & Hitler: The Naked Truth

A long, hard look at Cecil John Rhodes

More than a century after his death Cecil John Rhodes remains controversial and bitterly contested. The Rhodes legacy has become hateful for many Africans. Professor Paul Maylam’s book The Cult of Rhodes: Remembering an Imperialist in Africa, recounts all of the myriad ways in which Rhodes has been depicted. In this extract from the book Maylam, references two South African writers who infer that Rhodes and Hitler shared similar characteristics.

Sarah Gertrude Millin, a well-known South African author, published another generally favourable biography, Rhodes, in 1933.

This biography did not reveal Millin’s ambivalence towards Rhodes. Before embarking on a project, she had felt hostile towards him, but in writing the biography she became so “possessed” by him that her antagonism dissipated, only to return later.

For Millin, the rise of Nazi Germany invited a comparison between Rhodes and Adolf Hitler. In her autobiographical work, The Night is Long, she wrote:”…the something that rises in me against Rhodes is the something – unendingly intensified – that rises in me against Germany”. Both men, in her view, had the “quality of bigness” – but she used the word “quality” in a negative sense:” This bigness expresses itself in Hitler, as it did in Rhodes, in the desire for nothing less than the world – for patriotic reasons, according even to their own belief; in fact, to fulfil themselves.” Both men “thought … in quantities”.

They delighted in grandiose architecture and relished mountainous heights emblematic of their soaring power. Millin likened the Jameson Raid to a “Hilterian Putsch”. For both, race was their religion. This was not a critique of Rhodes by a radical observer – Millin’s conservatism would show up later in her support for apartheid and for Ian Smith’s unilateral declaration of independence in Rhodesia. But it does go to show her deep-seated ambivalence towards Rhodes.

Rhodes & Hitler

The similarity between Rhodes and Hitler was taken up by another novelist who would make his name writing on South African themes – Stuart Cloete.

Cloete started working on his portrait of Rhodes in the early 1930s, although it was only published in 1946. His view of Rhodes shaped by the age in which he was writing, Cloete depicted Rhodes in scathing, uncompromising terms, calling him “the prototype of the modern dictator”.

Modern Fascism could, indeed, be said to have begun with Cecil Rhodes. A book could be written, “From Rhodes to Hitler”. He was the first man to organise business politically, his diamond industry was the first great cartel. His was the dream of an èlite, a secret society that ruled whole continents by money controlled by a single source. His hope was for a great British Reich.

There followed a further comparison: “Mussolini’s dream was the pale echo of Rhodes’s; his conquest of Ethiopia and inglorious aping of the conquest of Rhodesia.” Cloete likened Rhodes’ methods to those of Mussolini and Hitler: “Rhodes’s pioneers were, to all intents and purposes, black shirts; his leaders operated outside the law. He intimidated with threats of force, he bought men and parties, he spoke of Nordic superiority.” Late biographers picked up on Cloete’s comparison, John Flint noted that Spengler, whose book, The Decline of the West, came to be an inspirational text for the Nazis, was a great admirer of Rhodes. For the fascists and Nazis, Rhodes would have been a kindred spirit. As Flint put it:

His will to power and love of power for its own sake strikingly anticipated the pretensions of the fascist Leader-Principle. His mystic obsession with his “idea”, which was never clearly enunciated, seemed to anticipate the stress on the Leader’s intuition in later fascism and Nazism. His companies, like the later fascist parties, operated as statues within the formal state.

Admired by Nazis

Rhodes, it seems, was much admired in Nazi Germany. Hitler himself is reported as having said that the British had been unable to maintain a dominant position in the world because they had not paid sufficient heed to Rhodes, the only person who had understood what was required for continuing British supremacy. Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels described Rhodes as “a rare force-man”, atypical of the cautious, hesitant British.

Before the war, an admiring biography of Rhodes by Dagobert von Mikusch had been published in Germany. Von Mikusch was informed by Nazi racial ideology. He defined Anglo-Saxons as a sub-branch of the Germanic race, and saw in Rhodes proof that the Germanic race was “starting to lead the world”. Rhodes depicted as a true German type, a man who grasped the significance of both race and state power, in the spirit of fascism. For Von Mikusch, Rhodes’ belief in Germanic racial superiority was revealed in the terms of his final will, which foresaw lasting peace if Germany, Britain and the USA worked together.

Personal Material Gain

After the outbreak of World War Two, German attitudes to Rhodes became ambivalent. This showed through in Bernhard Voigt’s 1939 biography, Cecil Rhodes: Der Eroberer. Voigt still admired Rhodes’ will to power, but his portrait was not unaffected by the fact that Britain had become Germany’s enemy: Rhodes was deemed to have played a major role in bringing about the South African War in which thousands of Boers, a Germanic type of people, had died; and Rhodes had built up his wealth with the help of Jews. Some Nazi took this further, claiming that Rhodes was not driven by a noble vision of imperialist expansion but rather by the pursuit of material gain.

By the middle of the twentieth century, Rhodes’ image was being severely dented in some circles. The Victorian hero of empire had come to be compared to Britain’s greatest enemies, to fascist tyrants. The man with a charismatic, magnetic personality had been turned into an arrogant, authoritarian, overbearing figure who surrounded himself with sycophants and was intolerant towards anybody with an independent or critical mind. There were suggestions, too, of megalomania.