On Reading an Evil Book: Reflections on Mein Kampf
by Daniel O'Neil | March 3, 2015
Hitler wrote Mein Kampf at the fortress-prison at Landsberg am Lech, a roughly Abingdon-sized town in the Bavarian countryside west of Munich. He had been incarcerated there for his ill-starred attempt to overthrow the Bavarian government in 1923, and, feeling the need to at once set his doctrine down on paper and at the same time defray some of his legal expenses, he set about dictating his memoir-manifesto to Rudolf Hess.
Even before Mein Kampf was published, members of Hitler’s inner circle expressed their doubts about the book’s literary merits. Ernst Hanfstaengl, the son of a major publisher, said his family wanted nothing to do with it. Otto Strasser, another close associate, described the book’s draft as a “veritable chaos of banalities, schoolboy reminiscences, subjective judgements, and personal hatred”.
Mein Kampf was also met with mixed reviews in the English-speaking press. The Scotsman’s reviewer described it as having “hardly a dull chapter”, and the Adelaide Advertiser called it “an amazing book”, later going on to serialise it. By contrast, the London Times described it (rather generously) as “not always coherent”, while historian S.H. Roberts dismissed it as “confused taradiddle”.
Churchill thought it “turgid, verbose, shapeless”. Even Hitler’s comrade-in-arms Mussolini panned the Führer’s book as a “fat, boring tome” that he had never managed to finish. In one of his bizarre wartime radio broadcasts from Rome, Ezra Pound, while admitting he was “behindhand in readin’ Mein Kampf”, told his American and British listeners that in Hitler’s book they would see history “keenly analyzed”, and might find in its pages an admirable “political system in which you can’t pass the buck”.
Bernard Shaw was also unnervingly enthusiastic: “epoch-making”, he gushed, a book that belongs on the shelf alongside Das Kapital and The Wealth of Nations, written by a man “who can teach us a lot”. “Of course he’s mad on some points, but who isn’t?” Shaw’s indulgent sympathy for dictators did not, it seem, stop with his apologia for Stalin.
Mein Kampf is in some respects not unlike a work of particularly salacious pornography. It’s hardly a book one wants to be seen reading on a train, and when I requested it from the library stack, there was a moment of discomfort, during which the librarian felt compelled to assure me that she didn’t think I was a Nazi. Yet its author’s generally uncontested status as history’s most evil man serves to cast a certain pall of mystique over the book. Writers have found that they can titillate audiences simply by invoking Mein Kampf’s name – consider, for instance, the stir Karl Ove Knausgård caused by giving his recent autobiographical saga the title My Struggle (Min Kamp in the original Norwegian). It is part of the grisly cultural inheritance that gave birth to what Saul Friedländer describes as Nazi kitsch, in which the Third Reich, in all sorts of popular cultural forms, become associated with “fascination, terror, and ecstasy”, an exciting, transgressive “frisson”.
But what does the reader of Mein Kampf actually encounter between its swastika-embossed covers? Muddle, in a word; poisonous muddle, in two. Even an aspiring fascist hoping for a stirring, intellectually coherent master statement of the Führer’s doctrine would be disappointed by Mein Kampf: ludicrously bloated and astonishingly self-indulgent, Hitler’s memoir instead stands as an unintended testament to the perils of the unedited autobiography. The reader is struck first by the book’s totally unjustifiable length: in its original two-volume German-language edition, Mein Kampf runs to almost 800 pages. Then there is the total lack of structure: the “Providence” that purportedly guides Hitler along a preordained trajectory from provincial obscurity to world-historical greatness takes a winding road indeed. This is the perverse, self-aggrandising Bildungsroman of a noxiously bigoted pub bore: plodding autobiographical narrative will be interrupted by hectoring lectures on, say, the value of propaganda or the failings of the Austro-Hungarian parliament, only to veer back to plodding autobiography immediately afterwards. (One can almost hear the ‘Now, where was I?’.)
Hitler presents his hatred of the Jews as a rational doctrine bitterly arrived at by reason, against the instincts of his heart. In a particularly bizarre passage, he claims to have been unconvinced by the first anti-Semitic pamphlets he encountered in Vienna, with their cheap arguments and tawdry rhetoric. “From a feeble cosmopolitan”, he writes, “I became a fanatical anti-Semite.” The Damascene moment as presented in Mein Kampf comes in the form of a nauseating fantasy-encounter with a shade-like Jew in Vienna’s Innere Stadt (“Is this a Jew?”, before correcting himself and turning to the ‘real’ question: “Is this a German?”). Vienna is in this respect his political alembic: he arrives a fresh-faced, down-at-the-heel country lad, and leaves it a fully-fledged anti-Semitic demagogue. Yet the path to power was anything but smooth: at every turn, he confronted the fools, the deceivers, and the traitors who would attempt to thwart him. An episode from Hitler’s period as a corporal during the First World War captures this well: during a period of recuperation in a military hospital in Germany, Hitler is horrified to find a young officer boasting that he had deliberately injured himself on a tangle of barbed wire in order to avoid returning to the front. “This poisonous wretch went so far as to flaunt his cowardice as the product of a valour greater than that of the honourable soldiers dying hero’s deaths”, Hitler fumes. When he patriotically reports this malingerer to the nurses, he is laughed off. Hitler, his skin already “crawling with disgust”, becomes apoplectic: the infirmary’s administration “must have known exactly who and what he was, and indeed did know. Yet nothing happened”.
Hitler does not write so much as rave: one almost feels compelled wipe the spittle from Mein Kampf’s frenzied, hate-filled pages. His prose is disfigured by the sort of Wagnerian histrionics he so tiresomely employed in his speeches: Hitler declares, for instance, that he was not merely born in a small town in Upper Austria, but rather, that “destiny elected Braunau am Inn to be my birthplace”. Similarly, when war breaks out in 1914, Hitler recalls that he “sank to [his] knees and thanked Heaven with an overflowing heart for the good fortune to have been allowed to live in these times”.
Particularly in early chapters, a picture emerges of a strange and rather unlikeable man, awkward around women and without any real friends, whose idea of human interaction was to lounge about the dosshouses and cafés of Vienna and Munich, periodically launch into vituperative monologues on whatever topic happened to take his fancy at that particular moment. We see what Ian Kershaw called the “emptiness of the private person” beneath all the rhetoric.
The Hitler of Mein Kampf, Hitler even at his most stylised and most self-curated, is ultimately an example of what Nabokov called the “total type” of philistine, the man who consisted of nothing but “pseudo-ideals” and petty prejudices. After the passage detailing the encounter with the spectral Jew in Vienna, Hitler’ perceived ultimate consummation of his burgeoning race-hatred, I would choose as the second key passage Hitler’s lesson on the value and utility of reading. Lesser mortals, Hitler complains, have not mastered the knack of assimilating printed information as well as he:
They lack the art of separating the valuable in a book from the valueless, that they may then keep the one in their heads forever, and…to not lug the other around like so much useless ballast. Reading is not an end unto itself, but rather a means to an end.
Such is the total philistinism of Adolf Hitler. He conceives of himself and his mission in world-historical terms, but in truth he is more like a parody of the parochial Austrian anti-Semite of the early twentieth-century. Adolf Hitler, the man, the Führer, the cipher.
As befits its bizarre and unpleasant contents, Mein Kampf has a rather tortured publication history. Even before the war the book was at the centre of some unpleasant legal wrangles: one American translator sued another for copyright infringement in 1938, and Hitler’s publishers sued a third American translator the following year. In an ironic twist, one of Mein Kampf’s British publishers had to cease production of the book when its author’s own air force destroyed the original printers’ plates in 1942.
The right to print and distribute Mein Kampf was part of the unsavoury farrago of intellectual property that the state of Bavaria acquired at the close of the Second World War, when it took control of Franz Eher Nachfolger, hitherto the official publishing house of the Nazi party. Since that time, the Bavarian government have jealously guarded their copyright, frequently sending their intellectual property lawyers forth to block publication of the book, even in translation. However, these proprietorial rights are time-limited. In accordance with modern German copyright law, copyright may be held for seventy years after the author’s death, and for Adolf Hitler, we reach that point at the end of 2015. Theoretically, from New Year’s Day, 2016, anyone, no matter how malign their agenda, will be free to publish and distribute the book.
I do not believe that the vomiting forth of Mein Kampf into the public domain in the near future puts us in any danger of a neo-Nazi revival, or that Mein Kampf has any power today to endanger our society. The lapse of the book’s copyright will likely make little impact on the size of its readership, which is at any rate miniscule. It is difficult to ascertain precisely how widely read Mein Kampf was even during Hitler’s 12 years of supremacy in Germany: though it came to function as a sort of secular bible of the Nazi movement, and a copy of the book was given to every newly-married couple, anecdotal evidence suggests that relatively few outside the Party faithful took the time to actually read it. It is also not as if getting hold of the book is even particularly difficult at present. Buying a physical copy may be nigh-impossible in Germany, but curious Germans may access the full, unexpurgated text of Mein Kampf in PDF format elsewhere online at the click of a button.
I sympathise with some of the arguments of those who would see it banned. But we cannot afford to imbue Hitler’s ideas with the seductive allure of the forbidden. Prohibition fuels the persecution fantasies of extremists: it allows them to imagine themselves oppressed, to strike a pose of moral righteousness. We must open it up to the light of day, and allow Mein Kampf to reveal itself for what it is: a sad, badly-written work of interest only to the historian. In Christian Hartmann’s words, Mein Kampf is a “rusty grenade”, and it is the task of the conscientious reader to “remove the detonator”.
Image by Brock Davis