Παρασκευή, 11 Νοεμβρίου 2016

Struggling with reality | On reading Mein Kampf


On October 29, 1945, the Allied Control Council in Germany issued a decree dissolving the organizations of the National Socialist Party including its leading press agency and publishing house, the Franz Eher Nachfolger GmbH. Since the headquarters of the firm was in Munich, the property of the Eher Verlag was transferred to the Free State of Bavaria, which also assumed legal succession and trusteeship of its assets. A provisional court in Munich (Spruchkammer) initiated criminal proceedings against Max Amann, who had amassed a considerable fortune as the head of Nazi Germany’s largest publishing enterprise, sentencing him to ten years imprisonment. In 1948, all copyrights were transferred to the Bavarian State Ministry of Finance, including the copyright to Mein Kampf, which belonged to the literary estate of Adolf Hitler. Since German copyright law stipulates that all rights revert to the public domain seventy years after the death of the author, the copyright to Mein Kampf expired on December 31, 2015. Mein Kampf was never actually banned in the Federal Republic of Germany; it was sold in second-hand bookshops, was obtain­able in libraries, and in recent years has been readily available on the internet. Only the publication of the book was proscribed.
In 2010, as the expiry date approached, the Bavarian government sanctioned and contributed half a million euros for a critical and scholarly edition painstakingly prepared by the venerable Institute for Contemporary History (IfZ) in Munich. However, in 2013, protests by members of the Central Council of Jews in Germany gave the Bavarian government pause; how could it ban neo-Nazi rallies and at the same time underwrite Hitler’s “bible”? The Institute assured the nervous politicians that the IfZ and not the state of Bavaria bore sole responsibility for the critical edition. Consequently, only this edition can be legally published and disseminated in Germany. All competing editions are banned under a law proscribing “popular incitement”. The Bavarian justice minister, Wolfgang Bausback, insisted “that we will continue to do everything we can to prevent the dissemination of this inhuman collection of ideas”. Yet this arrangement has not yet been challenged in the courts and a right-wing Leipzig publisher has already tested the waters by producing a facsimile of a 1943 edition.
The heft and price of the new Mein Kampf is the best guarantee that it will not become a must-read in racist and extreme nationalist circles. The initial print run of 4,000 copies sold out in days, however, with 15,000 subscribers still awaiting delivery. Sales reached 14,000, securing it a second place on Der Spiegel’s bestseller list. In other words, Mein Kampf, so long out of print, has become a celebrity book, eagerly acquired by bibliophiles and comparable to prestige editions of Shakespeare or historical-critical editions of the Leitfiguren of the German intellectual pantheon. Released from the poison cabinet, Mein Kampf has become a desirable commodity.
The critical edition is a sober affair, comprising nearly 2,000 pages with over 3,700 notes in two imposing large-format volumes. The interlaced annotations by a first-rate research team are in reality a second book. The purpose, the Institute’s Director, Andreas Wirsching, writes in the foreword, is the “demystification” of “the most comprehensive and in a sense the most intimate testimony of a dictator whose policies and whose crimes completely changed the world”. The annotations doggedly track Hitler’s biographical elisions, document his sources, correct his countless factual errors, and puncture his exaggerations. Flagging up scores of malapropisms, the editors dissect Mein Kampf’s style with a nod to Victor Klemperer’s brilliant reflections on the positive connotation given to words like “ruthless”, “brutal”, and “fanatical”, in his famous LTI: The language of the Third Reich (1947).
Scholarly diligence aside, the edition is also intended for a broad public. Hitler’s book, Wirsching notes, is a symbol that appeals to emotions. Therefore the editors have adopted a mode of presentation designed to “break through” and “end the potential effect of this symbol for all time”. Moreover, since Mein Kampf was conceived and promoted as prognostication and prophecy, it inevitably raises the question: was it a “draft of what he later did?” To what extent did Mein Kampf prefigure and anticipate Hitler’s Third Reich and its crimes? To measure the text by its actual effects, they emphasize, is “precisely the aim of this edition with its commentary”. If not entirely at cross-purposes, scholarly scruples and political intentions are not entirely compatible. Can a mythologized symbol be neutralized by a phalanx of annotations, however erudite? Can Hitler’s typical diatribes on how Jews are the “great masters as liars” be demystified with a long commentary on Arthur Schopenhauer and his appropriation by Dietrich Eckart in 1918? As the Hitler biographer Peter Longerich has observed, the method of “surrounding the text with an army of footnotes that would stand watch like a sentinel over the scandalous writ” is only partially realizable. It can also be argued that the annotations – often more than twice as long as the passages they refer to – dignify Hitler’s “world view” by embedding his anti-Semitic clichés in well- established intellectual traditions, however perverse they may have been.
As is well known, Mein Kampf was initially composed in 1923–4 during the nine months Hitler spent in Landsberg prison serving his reduced (from five years) sentence for high treason. Contrary to popular myth, the first version was not dictated but typed. Prison authorities observed him working diligently on the manuscript for several hours each day. Hitler had already outlined some of its main themes in a series of newspaper articles and accumulated a substantial library supplied by a parade of admiring visitors. He later called Landsberg my “university at state expense”. The editors, however, give the unmatriculated Hitler low marks, calling Mein Kampf a “swamp of lies, distortions, innuendoes, half-truths and real facts”. A typical example is Hitler’s claim that during the Weimar Republic “no one” took any interest in the war guilt clause in the Versailles Treaty whereas, from 1918 on, German governments expended considerable resources to refute the accusation.
Anticipating its imminent completion – the original title was “4½ Years of Struggle, Against Stupidity and Cowardice” – the Eher Verlag announced its publication in June 1924. But Hitler failed to keep to successive deadlines, a difficulty compounded by the conditions of his probation and the Bavarian government’s ban on the NSDAP and his public utterances. It finally appeared in July 1925 as Mein Kampf: A reckoning, the first of two volumes. In all likelihood, the more aggressive title was dropped so as not to endanger Hitler’s efforts to lift the ban on his public appearances. The second and more programmatic volume, prepared in his Obersalzburg retreat with the aid of a secretary, followed in December 1926. Until the electoral breakthrough of the National Socialist Party in September 1930, Mein Kampf registered lacklustre sales. A 1930 popular edition (Volksausgabe) combining the two volumes then went through multiple printings, reaching a total of 12.4 million copies by 1944.
Mein Kampf was neither ignored nor was it merely decorative, as the myth of the book would later have it. It was rarely quoted and apart from minor alterations it remained largely unchanged over the years. Tellingly, there were no authorized abridged versions or compendia of its most quotable passages. Albrecht Koschorke usefully identified the tension between the book as content and as gesture, between intellectual incoherence and its status as the symbolic artefact of the Führer cult. As the totemic expression of the identity of thought and person, of Hitler’s singular path to racial and national awakening, its authority was ritualistic, immune to any demystifying critique of its content. In short, it never became the canonical statement of National Socialist doctrine. It was more suitable and more profitable as a present, for example, the “Marriage Edition” given at civil ceremonies to all newly wed couples at state expense. Nonetheless, in his new biography, Volker Ullrich rightly observes that “it must be assumed that convinced National Socialists read at least major parts of it”, and the fact that it was borrowed frequently from libraries also speaks to a genuine popular interest.
To call Mein Kampf “an unusually egocentric book”, as do the IfZ editors, is an understatement. It is worth recalling that its author, who subsequently gave his profession as “political writer”, was, at the time, a washed-up local demagogue who led a disastrous coup d’état and landed in jail. Mein Kampf turns this dismal state of affairs into the story of a “great historical personality”, a great theorist, organizer and leader – Hitler remarks on the rarity of this combination – capable of moving the masses.
As a life story, Mein Kampf is “highly selective”, relying on categories like “fate” and “destiny” to explain the peripatetic career of the young Hitler. As the editors point out, there is little truth in Hitler’s self-description as the impoverished, “unrecognized genius” who, as in the classical German novel of self-discovery, emerges from a “struggle within his soul”. In fact, it is unlikely that Hitler was actually poor, a labourer, ever read a novel, or underwent a political conversion in Vienna. Though cursorily discussed – perhaps because of his ambiguous status as an Austrian citizen in the German army – his wartime experience as a decorated soldier and his stint as a military education officer in the tumultuous political atmosphere of post-war Munich were far more decisive. In a revealing allusion to Ernst Jünger’s Battle as Inner Experience (1922), Hitler recalled the war as “his greatest inner experience”. In 1926, he wrote to Jünger to tell him that “he had read all of his works”.
Though not exactly exploring uncharted territory, the editors provide an illuminating excavation of the political context and sources of what Hitler called his “profession of political faith”. Mein Kampf took shape as Hitler was engaged in a struggle for supremacy with his political rivals in Munich’s right-wing völkisch camp. There he met his earliest ideological mentors, Dietrich Eckart, Gottfried Feder and Wilhelm Frick, all of whom confirmed his unshakeable conviction that a “world view is never able to coexist with any other”.
Although only a handful of manuscript pages exist and since references are largely absent, the sources for Hitler’s “wisdom” cannot, with one or two exceptions, be entirely authenticated. Among those, most important is Feder’s The German State on National and Social Foundations (1923), for which Hitler wrote a foreword, calling it the “catechism” of the National Socialist movement. Hitler also drew heavily on Alfred Rosenberg’s writings – he chose Rosenberg to replace him as party leader during his incarceration – especially his Traces of the Jews through the Ages (1920) with its emphasis on the destructive role of Jewish financiers. He borrowed liberally from the “classical” authors of the völkisch-nationalist milieu – Houston Stewart Chamberlain, Heinrich Class, Theodor Fritsch, Julius Langbehn, Paul de Lagarde – though without acknowledgement. Henry Ford’s The International Jew: The world’s foremost problem (1920), the editors emphasize, exerted a formative influence on the intellectual world of National Socialism in the early 1920s. Hitler called Ford an “inspiration” and kept his photograph above his desk.
Mein Kampf, however, cannot simply be reduced to Hitler’s influences before 1933, nor indeed to the circumstances of its composition in 1924. The editors demonstrate that Hitler’s intellectual universe comprised four basic ideas: space, race, violence and dictatorship. A healthy, life-sustaining natural relationship between the size and growth of the population and the size and productivity of its territory, Hitler repeatedly insists, is the core principle of geopolitics. All future wars will be a struggle for existence in which humanitarian considerations are inconsequential. Whether Hitler actually envisioned such a war to revise the hated Versailles order remains, the editors remark, “mostly unclear or undeveloped”. Not so, his ruminations on racial eugenics and, even more so, his anti-Semitism: “The Jewish race is everywhere and at all times the incarnation of evil”. Here the rhetoric of extermination and elimination is abundant. The “astonishing” parallels between Hitler’s early text and his subsequent politics are not confined to his anti-Semitism. The 1933 “Law for the Protection against Hereditarily Diseased Offspring”, resulting in the compulsory sterilization of some 400,000 people, is directly prefigured in Hitler’s insistence that the state employ “the most modern methods” against those determined to be “incapable of procreation”.
The critical edition of Mein Kampf does not offer new insights into Hitler’s character, a theme which is at the centre of Volker Ullrich’s massive three-volume (two have already appeared in German) biography. Ullrich justifies his undertaking on the grounds that previous Hitler biographers have been naive, accepting at face value his apparent lack of an inner life. Ian Kershaw, for example, noted “the emptiness of [Hitler’s] existence outside the realm of politics”. Rather than accept this self-styled image, Ullrich argues that “we need to look behind the curtain that separated Hitler’s public persona and role from the human being”. Hitler, Ullrich argues, was not only a gifted orator. He was also “an extraordinarily talented actor”. He once called himself “the greatest actor in Europe”, and had “an undeniable ability to don different masks to suit various occasions and to inhabit changing roles”. This flexibility in drawing on a wide repertoire of roles accounts for the perplexing and contradictory personae that his acquaintances and intimates later remarked on. At the same time, Ullrich insists that he never wavered from the ideological fixations that he had adopted in the early 1920s. First and foremost in this outlook was his fanatical anti-Semitism, which saw the removal of Jews from German society as an absolute necessity. “Indeed, in Mein Kampf Hitler had spelled out with exemplary clarity everything he intended to do if he was ever given power.” The temptation to see Mein Kampf as a blueprint for Nazi policies is a scholarly quagmire that unwittingly affirms Hitler’s claim to have been a prophet. This sort of judgement is wisely tempered by the editors of the critical edition: “It would be much too simple to construct a direct road to Auschwitz from Hitler’s hateful sermons. But it would be even more problematic to simply ignore such a connection”.

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