Mein Kampf is a political manifesto disguised as an autobiography; a truth-despising polemic disguised as one man’s journey through jungles of illusion towards the truth; a hodgepodge of ideas from diverse sources presented as the self-education of one man who now wants to illuminate a nation. The ideas of this book, and the movement to which it belongs, have shaped politics and psychology over the last century; in turn, most of its ideas long predate Nazism. These ideas I will examine, individually, in a forthcoming series; this article will confine itself to a book review.
Mein Kampf’s most salient characteristic is its rambling: a considerable achievement, given the egregiousness of the book’s contents. Book One, particularly, is so excessively meandering that the chapter titles – e.g. “Childhood Home,” “Years of learning and suffering in Vienna” – read like polite suggestions, which Adolf Hitler sternly refuses. The book’s original title, rejected by publishers – though clumsier, would’ve been more apt: 4.5 Years of Struggle Against Lies, Stupidity, and Cowardice. The book’s actual publication title, My Struggle, suggests an autobiography. which it is not.
Mein Kampf offers little insight into Hitler’s life or personality besides his political beliefs and career. He disposes of his family summarily: characterising his father as a respectable, self-made, stern man; his mother as ‘devoted to her family.’ We learn almost nothing of Hitler’s attitude to school, or of his WW1 service. Rather, he uses episodes of his life merely as settings in which to develop his political views. Most of Book I’s chapters take the following implicit form: “This is when and how I learned to see through the lies with which They fill our heads. Now I’m showing you.”
Chief among Hitler’s views are:
(a) Communists are ruining Germany.
(b) The Jews have formed an international conspiracy: which has monpolised the press, world finance, and the arts: their ultimate aim being world takeover. “The Jew” is actually an ethnic group, who has disguised himself as a religion, in order to infilitrate every nation on earth. (Honouring racist traditions, Hitler speaks of “the Jew” in the singular masculine.) Mein Kampf‘s “the Jew” is a homogenous, craven, conspiring entity: who somehow manages to reconcile in his person superior intellect (“the Jew is by no means intellectually our inferior”), a willingness to betray each other as well as their unsuspecting nation-state hosts, and a global conspiracy visible only to the perceptive Hitler.
(c) Over the course of the book, “the Communist” and “the Jew” merge into “the Communist Jew” – a global citizen loyal to no extant nation, loyal only to the world communist nation he is working to create.
(d) Democracy is ineffective (an idea popular with many thinkers from antiquity on).
(e) Germany must recover her lost glory, and realise her destiny as a world power.
(f) To this end, Germany must ruthlessly employ any available means (including propaganda and population restructuring; war is hinted at ominously at the book’s very end). And every citizen must subjugate himself/herself to the state.
Here are some of Hitler’s notable corollary views:
(g) Education should focus on history, civics, the arts, and physical training – with science & technology relegated to optional higher education. An odd stance for a man who was to lead a belligerent modern state, and who frequently invokes (appallingly pseudo-)science to justify his racist views. Hitler wants all German children to be trained to become healthy and strong. Part of this prescription involves the bizarre recommendation for casting off ‘excess clothing,’ and letting children feel a little chilly in the summer. Hitler wants everyone in shorts, keeping warm with ceaseless parading. (More parading = less thinking. We needn’t look back 90 years to identify iterations of this prescription.)
(h) Modern art is degenerate. (Again, a view popular with sizeable numbers of people in any generation in the last several millennia.) Modern art corrupts the morals of our youth. Interestingly, the Third Reich organised exhibitions of ‘degenerate art.’ Presumably to teach the public to recognise it. Embarrassingly, the exhibition was very popular.
(i) History as taught in schools is a mass of useless facts and names.
(j) Most avid readers swallow books whole, rather than reading critically, and learning from what they read.
(k) Upper-class citizens have become alienated from their people, and therefore make ineffectual politicians. They don’t speak to the people. They make bad speakers in general: being more fluent with the pen than with the larynx.
These views falling into the category of bizarre rather than vile, you’ll likely recognise some of these in someone you know – or in yourself. Several of these views are debatable at worse, well-founded at best.
Of particular contemporary relevance are Hitler’s views on: propaganda; the ideal organisation of a revolutionary political movement; and the respective roles of the spoken vs. the written word in politics. (TL;DR: Only the spoken word has real influence with the people; the written word influences only the educated minority.) These views remain of interest to 21st-century political students and advertises. For instance, Hitler’s views on propaganda, in a nutshell:
‘A propagandist must articulate an extremely simple view, which contains one grain of truth. Use minimal text. Repeat this one simple story in endless variations, which differ from each other superficially. They must differ superficially, for people don’t like realising that they’re being manipulated. Bombard your audience with many repetitions of each of these variations. Sooner or later, they will believe your story. The bigger the lie, the more fervently it will eventually be believed.’
This prescription turns human insight into a prescription for mass manipulation. This prescription is an eerily accurate characterisation of modern marketing – and of conspiracy theories.
Most of Book I is devoted to developing these ideas. Book II is devoted to outlining their implementation within a political movement.
Hitler was a lifelong avid reader, a student of history; and an observer of European politics of several decades leading up to 1925-26. (No doubt he also had the advantage, while writing the book, of his prison library, and of his amanuenses’ independent literacy.) To support his claims in Mein Kampf, Hitler mobilises a dizzying range of sources, including: ancient Roman myth; German myth and literature; German history from the 1800s on; the aims and achievements of early-19th-century Viennese political leaders across the spectrum, from G. R. von Schonerer (a pan-Germanist; an extreme anti-Semite) to Karl Lueger (of the right-wing Christian Social Party); European political philosophers including H. S. Chamberlain; and contemporary science (spectacularly distorted through Hitler’s ideology). My translation of Mein Kampf, by Michael Ford, has generous in-text annotations succinctly & unobtrusively explaining references likely to be unfamiliar to non-European 21st-century readers.
Hitler’s Foreword belligerently declares that he is preaching to the choir: to “strong-hearted supporters of the Movement.” But Mein Kampf’s relentless display of Hitler’s erudition suggests that the book is targeted, in fact, at another audience: specifically, at the upper-class, liberal, deracinated Germans that the book attacks at every opportunity. The very fact that Hitler wrote such a long, tedious book belies his declarations about his intended audience: given Hitler’s insistence that working-class people don’t read: that, with the rabble, even a political pamphlet has value primarily as a hook to draw them to a political meeting: there to be recruited by a speech.
Mein Kampf’s claims are not only immoral – perhaps even more reprehensibly, given Hitler’s continual appeals to science and to reason, they are scientifically unfounded. This – and the rambling style – notwithstanding, the book conveys a disturbing sense of the appeal that national socialism made to many contemporary Germans and Europeans (and of the appeal that jingoism, racism, and extremism continue to make to many of us across the world today). Hitler is clearly convinced that he is right; he expends enormous effort, and marshalls armfuls of pseudoevidence, to support his claims. Whether he is claiming that WW1 was lost because Communists and Jews conspired to undermine the home front; or that some races are superior to others – Mein Kampf, belying its own Foreword, is clearly targeted at readers not already sold on Nazism. And, in this enterprise, Hitler can be startlingly effective.
To be honest, I – a millennial living in India, virtually unfamiliar with modern European history – was beginning, under the sheer weight and vehemence of Hitler’s rhetoric – which often sounds reasonable, the disagreeable conclusions (e.g. “Jews want to take over the world”) presented as if arrived at after painful moral scruple, impartial examination, and thorough evidence-sifting on Hitler’s part – to wonder, ‘Mightn’t there be a grain of truth in this? After all, anti-Semitism has a long, thriving history. Maybe this chap was onto something with his talk of a Jewish-Communist intenational conspiracy? There do seem to be a lot of Jewish intellectuals, writers, and filmmakers…’
Having started out by laughing at the book’s claims, eventually I began to havie, and to suppress, such doubts. Then, I reached Hitler’s views on a topic I do have the competence to judge: the biology of race.
Drawing on the pseudoscientific ideas of social Darwinism (also used by the British to justify their domination of my ancestors and of many other peoples) and the ‘great chain of being’ – Hitler argues that (a) some human races are superior to others; and (b) interbreeding weakens, renders sterile, and finally destroys the superior race.
Of biology and evolution, if not of European history, I know enough to see that Hitler’s claims here are utter rubbish. The very idea that races are separable is rubbish, given humankind’s long history of intermingling. It is inbreeding rather than interbreeding that increases the likelihood of some disorders (autosomal recessive single-gene disorders). And, on most traits of interest, there’s high variation between individuals within a group, whereas inter-group differences are low or null. Hitler’s views on race are so clearly bullshit that I felt ashamed of having even transiently entertained the possibility that, vile as his politics was, he might possibly have been on to something somewhere in one of his other claims.
At this remove of space and time, and to a politically unsophisticated reader like me, Hitler’s arguments seem reasonable (a) until he discusses a topic you are competent to evaluate; and (b) because Hitler mines rich veins of prejudice and misconception whose roots far predate national socialism.
What explains the continuing appeal of extremism in the 21st century is what explains why Nazism rose to begin with: extremist movements systematically exploit flaws in human psychology. Regardless of education or intelligence, we are all prone to mistake the conviction with which someone presents an argument for the argument’s validity (a point which Hitler himself makes, when analysing his public speaking strategies); we find one-sided arguments more convincing than more moderate or nuanced arguments; we are prone to xenophobia, ethnocentrism, and conspiracy theories; we (including seminal thinkers like Plato) are likely to have mixed views about the effectiveness of democracies; we favour simple stories which propose one cause as explaining a range of ills (e.g. a story that offers ‘the Bolshevik Jew’ to explain ‘everything that’s wrong with Germany today’).
Nazism exploited these universal human flaws, as well as mining a number of preexisting prejudices. These flaws continue to be a part of human psychology; many of these specific prejudices also persist in the 21st century (e.g. racism; anti-Communist feeling; ideas on the proper division of labour between the sexes; ambitions for national glory; an unflinching conviction that one is right both rationally and morally, and that one’s opponents are hopelessly wrong).
I like to think that I would’ve examined these ideas before buying into them. But perhaps I wouldn’t have had the intelligence or inclination to do so. Perhaps I would’ve simply added this (mis)belief to the repertoire of equally unexamined, if less-problematic, misbeliefs that many of us carry around. (Think urban myths and WhatsApp messages.) How many ideas do we accept every day without question? For there isn’t always someone standing over our shoulder saying: “No, this idea is morally and factually wrong,” or: “No, this is an unfashionable belief.” My willingness to entertain the possibility that some of Mein Kampf‘s ideas might contain a grain of truth were a humbling experience. I was forced to recognise in myself the same kind of person that can cheer for an extremist religious government once its power is established; the same kind of educated person who can become radicalised. I was forced to recognise in myself the (im)moral majority.
Forewarned is forearmed.
I had the time and the ability to examine some of this book’s beliefs, find them wrong – and thus to resist the seductions of extremism. Many of our fellow-humans lack that time and ability – and also have opportunities to do great damage based on their sincere but incorrect beliefs. This is what makes a book like Mein Kampf worth reading collectively and critically. And the unexpected appeal of Mein Kampf‘s unscientific-seeming ideas is what makes it imperative for every democracy (spurning Hitler’s anti-science education stance) to train every child and adult to think critically. Moral education alone will not suffice: many Nazis and their supporters were convinced that their actions were for the greater good of their beloved nation. Many Britishers really believed that colonising non-whites was their noble, if onerous, human duty.
This is what makes Mein Kampf vital reading for citizens in democracies today. Rambling it is, and rubbish too – but it is also a mirror in which we should confront and challenge the voices lurking inside us that can, so easily – as history has repeatedly shown – succumb to and support violent extremism.