A Holocaust Of Words: Review Of Mein Kampf
Copyright © by Thomas Healy, 1/26/07
Mein Kampf is one of the most remarkable and disturbing books of the twentieth century. It was perhaps the only book that really mattered during the Third Reich, becoming something of a secular bible of National Socialism. Millions of households kept a copy of it on their bookshelves, and it was frequently presented as a gift at weddings and graduations. It is a book that continues to deserve scrutiny because it constitutes the vision of Adolf Hitler. It contains the basic elements of his ideology, most of his plans, and much of his character.
Hitler began to work on it in the summer of 1924 while serving a prison sentence for his attempt to overthrow the government in the abortive Beer Hall Putsch in Munich. Initially, he had planned to resume work on his autobiography, which was to be called "A Reckoning," but soon his ambition widened and he decided to write a fiercely tendentious account, changing the title to "Four and a Half Years of Struggle Against Lies, Stupidity, and Cowardice." Subsequently, on the advice of his publisher, this cumbersome title was changed again to Mein Kampf (My Struggle), with the subtitle "A Reckoning," thereby reflecting the separate purposes of the project.
It is a tedious and difficult book. The style is turgid and inflammatory, the arguments confusing and redundant, the tone harsh and hysterical. Often it reads like a speech. And Hitler, to be sure, was a compelling orator who regarded " the magic power of the spoken word" as superior to the written word in communicating with masses of people. Consequently, it is wrongly assumed by many readers that he dictated the whole book. It is true that the writing was something of a collaborative effort between Hitler and other members of the Nazi Party who were also incarcerated because of the failed putsch. He not only wrote down ideas for the manuscript in his diary, but also dictated some of them to his chauffeur then to his secretary Rudolf Hess. Hess mainly served him as an adviser, though, helping him to formulate some of his ideas in prose. But at first Hitler himself typed out the manuscript with two fingers on the typewriter loaned to him by the warden of the prison. He would often read the finished sections to the other Nazi prisoners at their regular gatherings on Saturday evening, soliciting their critical comments.
The autobiographical passages of Mein Kampf are sparse, exaggerated, and at times misleading. The story of the rise of an obscure and impoverished painter of watercolors in Austria to the revolutionary figure at the time of the putsch in Munich is indeed a remarkable one. Hitler, however, was not interested in writing a thorough account of his formative years, partly because they were a period of terrible disappointments and severe destitution. He regarded such details as irrelevant, if not inimical, to a book devoted to portraying himself as a great revolutionary leader.
Hitler primarily was interested in cultivating the myth of his destiny as the savior of the German people. Throughout the book he wrote of the role of the genius who is destined to lead a great people, even though they may not appreciate him at first, out of the predicament of their current troubles. "From ... millions of men ... one man must step forward," he maintained. This rare leader, he believed, is "the politician" who "is wedded to the theoretician." Plainly, he regarded himself as such a person, selected by providence to revive the German people after their defeat in the First World War.
Mein Kampf is less a disclosure of the personal history of Adolf Hitler than it is of his astonishingly ruthless character. Early in the book, describing his recovery from injuries suffered in combat, he admitted that during those long nights in the hospital "hatred grew in me." Revenge is indeed the dominant theme of the book. It permeates the writing, throughout both volumes Hitler expressed his hatred for his adversaries. He disdained nearly all social classes, races, faiths, and countries. He was someone consumed with vengeance, resolved to punish those he believed were responsible for the devastating military defeat of Germany.
In time, Hitler came to regret writing Mein Kampf, admitting he had reservations about the style but not the content. Often the autobiographer discloses something different from what he set out to disclose. It is possible that Hitler realized he had betrayed himself in his writing, inadvertently letting slip the mask he had hoped to present to the reader. He had intended to convey a portrait of himself as a man of genius, a great heroic leader ready to rescue his people, but instead he was revealed as a mean, petty, brutal, vindictive man who would let nothing stand in the way of his ambitions.
It is often contended that National Socialism was completely devoid of any ideas, a nihilist movement whose adherents craved nothing more than sheer power. It was, however, interested in more than the acquisition of the instruments of power. And the substantive content of National Socialism is to be found in the pages of Mein Kampf.
Hitler wandered from one subject to another in his book. He expressed his opinions on the theater, education, the techniques of effective propaganda, economics, trade unions, the art of reading, history, literature, marriage, syphilis, Marxism, the necessity of a strong leader for Germany, and the responsibility for the loss of the First World War. Mein Kampf is the work of a visionary, not a politician, written to articulate Hitler's view of life, or "weltanschauung," rather than the detailed charter of a political party. The two basic elements of his vision are discussed at length in each volume; they constitute the essence of the National Socialist ideology from which Hitler and his most fervent supporters never deviated.
One is the doctrine of racial struggle, which is the cornerstone of his philosophy and which he regarded as the "iron logic of Nature." He believed in the survival of the fittest, insisting adamantly that races must struggle or else they will be doomed to extinction. "Mankind has grown great in eternal struggle," he wrote, "and only in eternal peace does it perish." He deemed the Aryans to be the master race, "forever kindling anew that fire of knowledge which illumined the night of silent mysteries and thus caused man to climb the path to mastery over the other beings of this earth." Yet he was concerned about the threat of other races who attempted "to raise themselves up" and approach the level of their masters. Specifically, he warned against the danger of what he regarded as the promiscuous mingling with other races. "Blood mixture and the resultant drop in the racial level is the sole cause of the dying out of old cultures," he argued. The salvation of Germany, he believed, would only come about when it had restored its racial integrity.
The principal objects of his racial hatred were the Slavs, and especially the Jews, whom he blamed for all of the indignities suffered by the German nation. Jews indeed became the convenience scapegoat for everything Hitler disdained. The anti-Semitism he embraced as a young man in Vienna became so virulent that by the time he wrote Mein Kampf he came to regard Jews "as a parasite on other peoples," foreshadowing his eventual remedy of massive extermination for this perceived biological problem.
The other central element of Hitler's vision was the geopolitical concept of "lebensraum" or living space for the German people. "Only an adequately large space on this earth assures a nation of freedom of existence." The larger a nation in terms of geography, according to Hitler, the larger its influence in international affairs. He was convinced that the greatness of a nation was connected with territorial expansion, asserting that "what is refused to amicable methods, it is up to the fist to take." The need for living space in Europe for the expanding German population, he wrote bluntly, "could be obtained by and large only at the expense Russia, and this meant that the new Reich must again set itself on the march along the road of the Teutonic Knights of old, to obtain by the German sword sod for the German plow and daily bread for the nation."
Hitler, unlike many German statesmen in the twenties, was not content with demanding the rescission of the Treaty of Versailles and the restoration of the borders of 1914. He deemed such borders as "a political absurdity of such proportions and consequences as to make it seem a crime." His foreign policy aims were grand and expansionist. He declared that Germany first must defeat France, its "inexorable mortal enemy," so that it would have a free hand to "turn our gaze toward the land in the east." It did not satisfy his ambitions of historical greatness for Germany to become the dominant power in central Europe. Instead, he believed Germany should be the dominant power on the entire continent, unabashedly insisting that it be prepared to wage war against Russia, if necessary, to acquire additional land and soil for the German people.
Adolf Hitler was not an innovative thinker. The ideas he proposed in Mein Kampf did not originate with him but derived from theories and arguments then current in Europe. He, however, embraced them as if they were his own, avidly extrapolating from them his perverse and frightening propositions.
An axiom of contemporary politics is that citizens should not pay attention to what politicians say but to what they do. The currency of political language is often cheap, stale, hollow, repetitive, and untrustworthy; offered more to pacify and reassure its audience than to inform. Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that early readers of Mein Kampf did not take the pronouncements of Hitler seriously, dismissing them as the inflammatory rantings of another brash and embittered politician. But what remains so startling about this book is that Hitler meant what he said, as he demonstrated so brutally once he gained power in Germany. Words, even in politics, sometimes have consequences, which is why Mein Kampf continues to matter to this day, reminding us how terrible those consequences were for people who declined to take the words of this extraordinary figure seriously.
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