It was a moment of immense disenchantment when Alfred Rosenberg, self-proclaimed theorist of Nazism, discovered at the Nuremberg trials that his book The Myth of the Twentieth Century had remained largely unread by followers of the Nazi movement. According to the Nuremberg Diary of the American psychologist G. M. Gilbert, Rosenberg’s attorney had questioned the former Hitler Youth head Baldur von Schirach whether he had read the work. Shirach’s negative response infuriated Rosenberg who, in Gilbert’s words, ‘scolded his attorney for having asked such a stupid question’.
With hindsight, this story is not overly surprising: Rosenberg’s book, a rambling and incoherent tome of some seven hundred pages, was openly mocked by Goebbels and Göring, while Hitler, who never read it, stated that it was ‘not to be regarded as an expression of the official doctrine of the party’. But Rosenberg’s error was greater than mere egotism. For a man who prided himself on his intellectualism, he had conspicuously failed to understand the very essence of the movement in which he was so deeply implicated. Its ideology was not one of rational principles and empirical moorings, with an authoritative canon of works to which its leaders deferred, but was based instead upon arational, quasi-religious elements: emotion, collective will and charisma.
Uncovering the stigma
Given this, it is perhaps surprising that Adolf Hitler’s own work, Mein Kampf, retains such a stigma in Germany today. The history of the book is well-known: sentenced to five years in Landsberg prison for the failed 1923 ‘Beer Hall Putsch’ in Munich (though pardoned and released after one), Hitler spent his time dictating the first part of a biography-cum-manifesto to Rudolf Hess. It was released in two volumes between 1925 and 1926, originally for a pricey 24 Reichsmarks, but remained confined to small circles of National Socialist diehards until that party’s electoral breakthroughs in the early 1930s. Precise sales figures are unclear, but in August of 1933 – seven months after Hitler’s ascension to the Chancellorship – the Nazi publishing house Eher Verlag claimed to have printed one million copies, a figure that increased radically during the course of the Third Reich, when copies were distributed as wedding gifts by regional authorities. The eventual figure may have been more than 12 million.
A series of loose and incomplete translations appeared overseas, variously translated as ‘My Struggle’ and ‘My Battle’, until a complete edition was issued by Hurst and Blackett and Houghton Mifflin in 1939, after the annexation of Austria and the Sudeten crisis, and in time for the outbreak of war in Europe. Internationally, it was publicised chiefly as an autobiography rather than a work of political or social theory (indeed, some critics attacked the original translations for ‘toning down’ or ‘softening’ the vilest passages, including many of the fierce and vile anti-Semitic rants that penetrate the book). Ignored too were certain sections in which Hitler expounded his hunger for Lebensraum (‘living space’), arguing for example that ‘political frontiers must not keep us away from the frontiers of eternal right’, to which end he had originally pointed to the Slavic lands to Germany’s east. From the very outset, Jewish groups, particularly in America, protested the publication of English-language editions of Mein Kampf.
After the war, these protests continued in the context of Mein Kampf’s reissuing, and have recently stirred up again. The present occasion, as has widely been reported, is the expiration of official copyright of the book. Held since the Second World War with the Bavarian state, copyright officially expired on December 31 2015, seventy years after the death of Hitler. Much has recently been written about the meaning of this for German culture and its ongoing battle with the legacy of the Third Reich. Some voices have argued in favour of extending the ban on German publication. Others have advocated instead the publication of an authoritative, fully-annotated, scholarly edition. As it stands, only one annotated, scholarly edition of the book has been permitted, with all other versions remaining banned under laws of sedition. In preparation for this, Munich’s Institute for Contemporary History, under the leadership of Dr. Christian Hartmann, has been preparing such an edition for some years. It was released in January of this year, in two dull-grey volumes totalling almost 2000 pages and containing some 3500 footnotes. The re-release took place despite the Bavarian Government’s sudden withdrawal of support for the project in 2012, following protests by Jewish groups.
The criticisms raised by these objectors were self-evident enough: no number of annotations and footnotes, still less the tortuous prose and seemingly extemporised structure, can disguise the fact that the worldview expressed in Mein Kampf has as its very core a cold vision of conquest, war, subjugation and mass death. It revolves around the interminable struggle between races of people. In Hitler’s view, the state expresses the power of a particular race. It is thus not bound by dynastic or political boundaries. The state’s active role, moreover, is to guarantee the racial purity of the nation, and to lead the struggle against other races.
An inverted moral universe
This struggle constitutes the permanent condition of mankind. To us, the vision of Mein Kampf is thus of an inverted moral universe, where ideas of the good, the just and the natural bear no resemblance to our philosophical categories. But the book does not read like a standard work of political theory. Combining philosophy, biography, history, even eschatology and prophecy, it is threaded by a curious notion of time, in which Hitler the sage seems to view himself as both the embodiment and harbinger of a new age: ‘It has turned out fortunate for me today’, reads its notorious opening sentence, ‘that destiny appointed Braunau-on-the-Inn to be my birthplace’. From the outset, biography combines with fatalist fantasy. ‘Utopian’ might not be the right description of Hitler’s end goal, at least not in any conventional sense. A central theme of Mein Kampf is national rebirth in the face of degenerate liberalism and internationalism. Yet the dominant, racially pure Germany to result from the struggle would not have transcended any global order, but would itself engage in the eternal and cyclical struggle of races. If there is any theoretical unity to be found in Mein Kampf, it is an expression of this idea. In this sense, its real purpose was descriptive, not prescriptive.
Still, if the book can be viewed in any way as a coherent political program, then it remains one largely confined to the specific context of its composition. Hitler’s racial worldview pivots on a pathological obsession with the Jews, who are the subjects of countless vitriolic, spiteful and fanciful passages. They are responsible not only for Marxism and Bolshevism, but also for the despised Weimar Democracy, the ‘stab in the back’, the Versailles Treaty, and countless other intrigues. Mein Kampf tracks Hitler’s thoughts about the supposedly degenerate culture of Weimar Germany, but also about political tactics to be used against the parliamentary democracy he so vehemently despised. Hitler writes at length about propaganda and emotional appeal, as well as ‘the nature and organisation’ of paramilitary activity. As he put it in his preface to the first volume:
In this work I turn not to strangers but to those followers of the Movement whose hearts belong to it and who wish to study it more profoundly. I know that fewer people are won over by the written word than by the spoken word and that every great movement on this earth owes its growth to great speakers and not to great writers.
This alone would seem sufficient to classify Mein Kampf as a relic, significant as a historical document but hardly relevant to the political realities of today. Indeed, it would still be completely possible to grasp the historical essence of National Socialism without engaging deeply with Mein Kampf. In 1938, even its author seemed to betray a sense of embarrassment about the book he had composed fourteen years prior, and sought to distance himself somewhat from it, even if the main objectives it outlined by no means contradicted those he pursued when in power.
The spectre of Mein Kampf
In post-war memory, however, the spectre of Mein Kampf has continued to exert a formidable symbolic power. In part, this arose from the prevalent Western European view that Nazi Germany was a product of its dictator’s will. Evidenced reading of Mein Kampf, for instance, was sometimes used at Nuremberg to ascertain whether the accused held knowledge of Hitler’s expansionist aims. But in Germany, the book was quickly erased from the symbolic fundament of the post-war order. This was part of a wider process of symbolic denazification. Immediately after the war, street names were changed, monuments were destroyed and key Nazi sites were razed, while other symbols and rituals, such as the Nazi salute, the ‘Horst Wessel Song’ and the Hakenkreuz, have long since remained illegal. The term ‘taboo’ in German political discourse has a deeply impregnated resonance in relation to all of these Nazi artefacts, and to Mein Kampf perhaps most of all.
This is all straightforward enough. But there was also a darker, therapeutic aspect to the book’s suppression; namely, that it assisted many to convince themselves that the crimes of the Third Reich were those of Hitler and his henchmen alone. The convenience of this alibi became central to the cultural frictions of the 1970s, when the ghastly realities of the Third Reich finally began to enter the historical imaginations of West Germans. In an unprecedented eruption of inter-generational tensions, artists like the director Rainer Werner Fassbinder and the painter/sculptor Anselm Kiefer confronted the guilty silence that had greeted the Third Reich since 1945, while the term ‘Vergangenheitsbewältigung’ (‘coming to terms with the past’) entered the historical and political discourse of the entire West. Since then, the historical line between ‘suppression’ and ‘moving on’ has remained interminably blurred.
Reading between the lines
This raises two fundamental questions: how should we view the role of Mein Kampf within the historical phenomenon of National Socialism; and what should we do with the book today? These questions would remain somewhat distinct, were it not for the years of silence engendered by previous answers to the first question having an enormous bearing on our answers to the second.
In recent years, freed from the Cold War constraints of limiting concepts like ‘totalitarianism’, historians have again directed their attention to the ideological basis of the Nazi regime, taking seriously its political goals and philosophy. Most influentially, Sir Ian Kershaw’s studies have demonstrated how the ideological features of National Socialism drove the operation of the Nazi regime even in the absence of authoritative programmatic texts. Far from the traditional ‘totalitarian’ caricature of top-down imposition, party functionaries both high and low in fact took it upon themselves to turn into practice the Führer’s vision: the ideas expressed within Mein Kampf had an important role to play in ascertaining what this vision entailed.
Within this historiographical framework, as Neil Gregor points out in his informative 2014 book How to Read Hitler, the paucity of documents issuing from the Führer’s hand has enhanced the scholarly importance attached to Mein Kampf, even more so than Hitler’s Second Book which, unpublished in its author’s lifetime, lacked the capacity to serve as a general reference point. Paradoxically enough, then, the restoration of Mein Kampf within the scholarly apparatus of National Socialism has in fact been a product of a renewed focus upon agency at the system’s lowest levels.
So what to do with Mein Kampf today, in an era where confronting and ‘dealing with’ the past has not only come to signify generational maturity, but is also considered as an index of democratic health? What positive consequences might issue from a re-engagement with Mein Kampf? The new scholarly edition will now constitute the standard edition for students, but what purpose should we attach to the study of it? Some voices have raised the possibility of compulsory study of the book in German schools – is this a good idea?
Certainly, familiarity with the ideology of National Socialism is essential to any fundamental understanding of the Third Reich, and is indeed necessary if one subscribes to the view that we study the past to prepare for the future. But studying Mein Kampf as a book rather than a bearer of a distinct ideology (or indeed as a text, reflecting Hitler’s direct and indirect political reference points) risks unbalancing once more the study of the Third Reich into an obsession with only its most senior operatives. At the other end of the spectrum, it seems somewhat self-defeating to force students to study Mein Kampf in schools and universities solely to gain an understanding of its peripheral importance after 1933. So is there any point?
An unhealthy obsession
The arguments from both sides seem clear enough. On the one hand, banning the book outright risks conferring upon it a certain mystique, a power completely disproportionate both to the quality of the work itself and its direct role in the vast crimes of Nazism. In the present day, the initiative for the book’s legacy is better left with scholars than with neo-Nazi movements in the dark corners of the internet. Conversely, regardless of its direct historical importance within National Socialism, the book still embodies and advocates the ideology that drove the invasions, the mass shootings, the starvations and the gas chambers. Its words are those of a man who brought untold suffering into the world, the reverberations of which are felt as strongly today as ever. Banning the book would not have discouraged neo-Nazis, nor would it have prevented sensible people from reading it. But this is somewhat beside the point. Rather, a ban would serve as a symbolic act, displaying the fundamental commitment of the German state to the unique historical responsibility it bears.
But for all the good that I believe will issue from the new critical edition of Mein Kampf, the remarkable amount of attention the issue has generated contains huge risks in itself. As Mark Siemons has recently written in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, ‘the new edition is not a scholarly publication like any other, but rather a political act, with a yet-unknown outcome’. Public interest in the new edition was such that advance orders outnumbered the initial print run by some four hundred percent. But the debate surrounding the new edition’s release has emphasised a great problem: we must navigate between the Scylla of correctly understanding Mein Kampf and its message through education and scholarship, and the Charybdis of overstating its importance in the development of a murderous regime. Stigma assists us with neither, but obsession – however well-intentioned – is equally as unhealthy.