Last year was the centenary of the establishment of the Nazi Party in Germany. In 1920, Adolf Hitler wasn’t yet the party’s leader, but he was one of its leading figures. Another five years would pass for the public to become aware of his thoughts and plans, as set forth in his book “Mein Kampf” (“My Struggle”). Its original title was “My Struggle: Four and a Half Years of Struggle against Lies, Stupidity and Cowardice.” Is the time ripe for a new look at and reassessment of this book?
“Mein Kampf” is considered one of the most influential books of the 20th century. In many countries, Israel among them, it’s considered dangerous, but elsewhere it has actually garnered appreciation today. Although it was translated into many languages already in the 1930s, no Hebrew translation of its two volumes exists. The book is viewed as “tainted,” a hate tract rife with gutter language, written by a young politician and frustrated artist. Still, a series of studies published in recent years, as well as popular literature and articles in the press, offer a new, realistic vantage point on it that’s unrelated to a neo-Nazi or far-right worldview.
The appearance of the scholarly annotated edition of the work in Germany five years ago stirred a furor, not least because the researchers, some of whom were involved in the publication, tried to justify the project by calling for the book’s historicization. The new German edition is part of the “young Hitler wave” that has been prominent in the world of research in the past decade, particularly in Germany. New biographies and articles have been reexamining the path followed by the young politician, from his service in World War I until his release from Landsberg Prison at the end of 1924.
“Mein Kampf” is notorious for being lengthy, clumsy and difficult to read. Other than translators, and researchers and editors of the academic editions – including the editors of the abridged Hebrew edition that appeared many years ago (“Chapters from ‘My Struggle,’” edited by Moshe Zimmermann and Oded Heilbronner, Akademon Publishers) – few people have read the entire book, or even most of it, according to the research. Hitler himself noted in his introduction that the book was aimed not at the general public but at Nazi Party faithful; he added that most people are lazy and impatient and don’t bother to read books unless they meet their expectations. In the Third Reich, too, the vast majority of Germans didn’t read the book. The comment that “After all, in ‘Mein Kampf’ Hitler claimed that…” was widespread in Germany, and during wartime also among its enemies, but as noted, few of those who uttered it had taken the trouble to read the whole book. It’s probably safe to say that today, too, young neo-Nazis read it very selectively.
The first volume of “Mein Kampf” appeared in the summer of 1925, in what was a particularly turbulent period. The Weimar Republic was in its first years and in dire straits, even seeming to be on the brink of collapse. One of the small, far-right groups that despised the republic was the Nazi Party, officially known as the National Socialist German Workers Party, headed by Hitler, whose activity was based in Bavaria. Following the party’s failed putsch attempt, in Munich in November 1923, he served about eight months in Landsberg Prison in Bavaria. Probably he knew that after his release he would be forbidden from speaking in public, which until then had been the main source of his political power. Political writing was meant to be a substitute. Apparently the “respite” from politics that was foisted on him enabled him to reprocess ideas he had harbored even before the putsch into a relatively solid worldview, which he continued to advocate until his suicide in 1945.
During this period, Hitler devised a new strategy for rehabilitating the party, his status in it and how he would go about toppling the republic. Gradually he started to see himself as a future führer (leader) of Germany. He planned to have the party run in the different elections held in the country during the 1920s and early ‘30s, which would result in his appointment as chancellor. He understood the mistake he had made in trying to overthrow the German army, and henceforth strove to cooperate with the military. Finally, Hitler chose to differentiate his relatively small party from the rest of the far right, to avoid cooperation with other groups and to emphasize its distinctive features.
In addition to addressing political and national questions, the first volume of “Mein Kampf” is intended to help cultivate the myth around its author’s image. The autobiographical elements are structured to show Hitler as a natural-born ideologist, politician and artist: his tragic life story in Vienna and Munich, his heroism in the war and his entry into politics as a rank-and-file member of the German Workers Party. His aim was to depict himself as a simple but intelligent person, a war hero who was willy-nilly caught up in political life and whose whole desire was to save Germany from the Jews and the communists.
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Volume 1 of “Mein Kampf” was written in patchwork fashion. Hitler dictated parts of it to his secretary, Rudolf Hess, and to other confidants. It contains long articles and speeches published before the putsch, particularly in the party organ the Völkischer Beobachter (People’s Observer). Historian Thomas Weber maintains that some sections were written in 1923 by a radical-conservative journalist named Victor von Koerber, who set down what Hitler told him or formulated in writing ideas that the latter provided to him orally.
In the summer of 1925, when the first volume was published, the reestablished Nazi Party was at a nadir and drew little attention in Germany. The book cost 12 marks, a hefty sum at a time when a loaf of bread sold for 1.30 marks. But “Mein Kampf” was an immediate, huge success, selling 10,000 copies on its publication. The haste to get the book into shops might explain the sloppy (some might say lack of) editing, the absence of a guiding theme throughout the book, the multiple contradictions and the clumsy wording – all of which made reading it a chore. The repetitive style of certain chapters look like an attempt by Hitler to apply the principles of spoken propaganda to the written word. When delivering propaganda orally, he maintained, it’s essential to repeat key words and sentences over and over.
The second volume, written during 1925, at Hitler’s home in the Bavarian town of Berchtesgaden and published a year and a half after the first book, was a commercial failure. In contrast to its predecessor, which set forth a life story (half invented), the second volume advanced a political worldview. The book contains dozens of speeches that Hitler had delivered before his imprisonment, and it also develops ideas its author had floated in the first volume, many of them relating to foreign policy. This volume is more coherent than the first, and the influence of Dietrich Eckart, Hitler’s ideological mentor, who died in 1923 and to whom the book is dedicated, is apparent in many of the chapters.
At the time, Hitler’s leadership was still in danger, and not all the party’s members and supporters approved of his political-social vision. Moreover, the situation in the German republic had stabilized, the agreement with the Soviet Union (Treaty of Rapallo, 1922) was being observed, and the United States turned out to be Weimar’s close ally. The election of Paul von Hindenburg as president in 1925 bolstered the strength of the conservative right, and the extreme right had to reinvent itself.
In its two volumes, “Mein Kampf” was supposed to reestablish Hitler’s leadership, which started in 1921 but was challenged while he was imprisoned, this time as a führer with a vision – that is, a leader by supreme grace not bound to any authority – and to show the Völkisch (ethno-nationalist) German right wing the truth: The republic’s flimsy racial and social foundations would not allow it to sustain itself over time.
Hitler sought to depict himself as a simple but intelligent person, a war hero who was willy-nilly caught up in political life and whose whole desire was to save Germany from the Jews and the communists.
Is “Mein Kampf” a dangerous book, then? Armin Mohler’s 1950 study “The Conservative Revolution in Germany” shows that Hitler’s book was part of a wave in the decade following World War I of autobiographies and political essays written by leading members of all the political camps in Germany. Figures on the extreme right published dozens of books explaining why Germany had lost the war, and laying out what could be corrected and the path to deliverance. Their language was often crass, offensive and pernicious. Examples are the books by veteran Nazis such as Alfred Rosenberg (“Immorality in the Talmud”), Artur Dinter (“The Sins of the Time”) and Ernst Graf zu Reventlow (“Für Christen, Nichtchristen, Antichristen,” published only in German).
In fact, a proper reading of “Mein Kampf” can provide a clear, substantive picture of Hitler’s worldview. Some sections offer a lucid, fundamental, far-right interpretation of recent historical events: the war, the defeat, the establishment of the Weimar Republic. The book expounds (albeit in crude language) on Hitler’s opposition to the popular demand voiced during the 1920s to have Germany return to its eve-of-war boundaries on the basis of the right of self-determination for all the peoples living within its historical borders.
It is clear today that one cardinal reason for the eruption of World War I was the national divisions in Europe and the fact that in various parts of the continent different national groups were intermixed. Like others in the German right, Hitler promised to correct this historic “wrong.” His objections to German colonialism in Africa are also based on arguments familiar today to many historians who indirectly justify his approach.
As an obsessive reader of political and historical literature, Hitler knew well the writings of, among others, Marx, Victor Adler, Lenin and Gustave Le Bon, and of course the works of such well-known racist antisemites as Count Gobineau, Houston Chamberlain, Hans Guenther and many others. His great interest in mobilizing the masses and taking control of the street was influenced both by Vienna mayor Karl Lueger, on the right, whom he admired from the period of his residence in the Austrian capital, and also by the communists, with whom he apparently had a brief fling in Munich in the months following World War I. Chapters like “Propaganda and Organization” and “Word-Concept and Organization” read as though they were written by Lenin or Le Bon, author of “Psychology of Crowds.” Guidelines for the rehabilitation of the Nazi Party after the failed putsch are also put forward as an orderly, clear plan of action driven by two basic tactics: recruitment of supporters and loyalists by means of political propaganda rallies, and control over the relations between the party’s leaders and its base – for example, via the political information that was to be made available to supporters i to cement their loyalty to the leadership.
The Jewish question
And now to the Jewish question. Historian Ian Kershaw is right when he asserts that “we do not know for certain why, nor even when, Hitler turned into a manic and obsessive antisemite.” In “Mein Kampf” itself it’s difficult to find the origins of the Holocaust, or even inklings of it. Hitler and the heads of his party did argue that the exposure of “12,000 or 15,000 Hebrews” to poison gas in the war would have saved the lives of millions of Germans – a comment that was interpreted in different ways. The famous Chapter 11 of the first volume, “People and Race,” is sometimes read with a shudder because of its harsh depictions of the Jews, and was later quoted by Josef Goebbels and by the SS newspaper The Black Corps. However, such sentiments were standard fare among certain segments of the German and European public at the time and were not unique to Hitler.
In any event, as contemporary critical writings have showed, until 1930 and in large measure until 1933, there was no great admiration for the book, but the number of its readers grew together with the party’s electoral strength. By 1933, about a quarter of a million copies of the popular edition had been sold. There were those who said unabashedly that the book was unreadable, and Hitler made a number of revisions for the readers’ benefit. In the 1932 edition, on the eve of his ascension to power, when interest in the Nazi Party grew internationally – he amplified the chapters dealing with foreign policy and in particular stressed his call for an alliance with Britain.
Of course, the picture changed following the establishment of the Third Reich. In 1933, the book was published for the first time in English, in the U.K., in an abridged edition, with a blurb that described Hitler as “a remarkable character, whose intense belief in his ideals won over a mighty nation.” A full American edition of the two volumes, published in 1939 by Houghton and Mifflin, before Kristallnacht, adopted an ambivalent approach. The editors made a point of stating their opposition to the violent ideas contained in the book, especially to its race theory, but described Hitler as having held from boyhood “a passionate belief that Germany must obtain a larger place in the sun… and set out to mobilize the whole nation for a new advance.” They add that the repetitions in the book reflect the personality of the author, and assert that “Mein Kampf” is, “above all, a book of feeling.”
A proper reading of “Mein Kampf” can provide a clear, substantive picture of Hitler’s worldview.
During the era of the Third Reich, multiple editions of the book were published in Germany – more than a thousand. The difficulty in estimating their number is due to the contradictory data issued by Eher, the official publishing house of the Nazi Party, headed by Hitler’s “friend” Max Amann. The last edition appeared in December 1944, when the end of the Nazi regime loomed clearly. By then, more than 12 million unabridged copies had been sold in the Third Reich.
Following Germany’s defeat, sale of the book was banned, first by the occupying powers, and from 1949 on by the governments of both East and West Germany, though public and academic libraries acquired the (pre-1944) version with no limitations. Outside Germany and Austria, it was freely available. In Scandinavia and Britain the book enjoyed a resurgence of popularity in the 1970s, possibly because of the growing strength of a fascist far right. It’s worth recalling David Bowie’s short-lived fondness for Hitler and possibly his book in the 1970s. Today the book is available in bookstores, libraries and academic institutions, as well as on internet sites and in discussion groups around the world.
Starting in 2016, more than 70 years after “Mein Kampf” was banned in Germany, it again became available for purchase in bookstores there. A new annotated, critical edition, published by the Munich-based Institute for Contemporary History, consists of about a thousand pages of the original text and another thousand pages of notes and commentaries by the institute’s researchers.
The publication of the new German edition involved political and moral battles. It was a joint project of the Institute for Contemporary History and the government of the Free State of Bavaria, which had been granted the copyright by the American occupation forces in the region immediately following the war. However, in 2010, the Bavarian government dropped its support for the project for what it termed “moral” reasons, and the institute continued the work with its own funding and with support from academic bodies in Germany.
Hasn’t the time come to follow in Germany’s footsteps, and make available to Hebrew readers a translation of the full text with annotations to make it accessible to them? Not for a forgiving or understanding reading, but for a reading that relates to the book as a historical text.
Prof. Oded Heilbronner is a senior lecturer at the Shenkar College of Engineering, Art and Design, and also teaches at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya .