Sending Mein Kampf Back to School
Important literature can't be kept under wraps forever. A case in point is Mein Kampf. The German state of Bavaria, which holds the German copyright, has blocked the book's publication within Hitler's homeland; as recently as 2010, the state went to court to prevent an unauthorized academic edition. But in 2015, 70 years after the author's death, Bavaria's copyright will expire. So, the state has announced plans to fund two new editions, the first in German since 1945, including critical commentary. The aim, say Bavarian authorities, is to "demystify" Mein Kampf and make other editions "commercially unattractive."
The recent announcement was welcomed by, among others, representatives of Germany's Jews, who would prefer to see Mein Kampf remain under careful state control.
Like most classics, Mein Kampf is often cited but rarely read, especially by those who pass judgment on it; but the book deserves careful study. It was published in two volumes in 1925 and 1926, after Hitler emerged from the Bavarian prison in which he wrote it after his failed 1923 Beer Hall Putsch. The work presents his life story, education, philosophy, and plans. Its structure is immensely clever, beginning with a very modest snapshot of Hitler's family and early life. Through this device Hitler poses as the German Everyman.
The book then maps Hitler's struggles—as a child, artist, soldier, and revolutionary—onto the struggles of the German nation, whose corrupt leaders have failed its pure, if naïve, people. Hitler's life becomes Germany's life. "The Goddess of Fate," Hitler addresses Germany, "clutched me in her hands and often threatened to smash me; but the will grew stronger as the obstacles increased, and finally the will triumphed." The purely literary merits of such declarations are few, but the emotional appeal to the German masses of 1925—or, Bavaria fears, 2012—is apparent.
What is needed, the book explains, is to uplift and "nationalize the people." But as a struggling artist in Vienna, Hitler came to see the obstacles: His "eyes were opened to two perils, the names of which I scarcely knew hitherto and had no notion whatsoever of their terrible significance for the existence of the German people": Marxism and Judaism. Even more fundamentally, social democracy, finance, capitalism and Communism, the press—all these corruptions stemmed from "the life which the Jew lives as a parasite thriving on the substance of other nations and States." The book, initially taut, then becomes baggier, suitable mostly for dipping in and out rather than reading through; but it remains saturated with a pure anti-Semitism that even the most episodic reader could not miss.
One of the book's virtues, so to speak, is honesty. "The art of leadership," it explains, "as displayed by really great popular leaders in all ages, consists in consolidating the attention of the people against a single adversary and taking care that nothing will split up that attention into sections." Hitler makes clear from the beginning who that single adversary will be. No one who had persevered through the first 100 pages should have had any doubt about his beliefs or intentions; and no one reading it after Hitler's appointment as Chancellor of Germany on January 30, 1933 should have doubted that the book's racialized, anti-Semitic, anti-democratic program would become state policy.
In his so-called ‘‘Second Book,'' written in 1928 but not published in his lifetime, Hitler laid out concisely his vision for a national socialist foreign policy, based not on industry and trade but on the expansionist pursuit of Lebensraum. The Second Book is a policy statement, not a personal one, and perhaps for that reason was unavailable until 1961 (thanks to the discovery of a typescript among materials seized by the U.S. government). Yet whereas credulous readers of Mein Kampf insisted until 1939 that that book was not to be taken seriously, the Second Book leaves no doubt of Hitler's aims.
Does Mein Kampf remain too dangerous for uncontrolled publication? The question is in one sense academic: Copies can be downloaded from the Arctic to the Kalahari, and the book is a bestseller in the Muslim world. In fact, the problem may be that the book is not read enough—or, at least, not read enough in the right places. Its current Amazon ranking is a relatively high 16,946, which suggests that it is indeed being read. But Mein Kampf is largely invisible in public discussions of fascism, history or anything else. It is once again not being taken seriously.
Why isn't Mein Kampf taught prominently in American schools? Several explanations occur. The first is the fear that the book's overt racism would be offensive—or, paradoxically, that it would radicalize students. True, today's students are otherwise saturated in school with anti-racist messages; but when Tom Sawyer is bowdlerized to shelter children from a single word (and teachers and administrators from parental outrage), Mein Kampf is unlikely to make many middle school or high school reading lists.
But perhaps there is a more pernicious reason. If we admit that Mein Kampf is clearly murderous literature and that it must be taught so that we can condemn it, what other books are we obliged to teach in the same way? What about Communist, socialist, or Islamist literature—like Mao's Little Red Book, which inspired even more killing than Mein Kampf, or Sayyid Qutb's Milestones? Educators may not wish to start down this slippery slope—which is not just a pity but a disgrace, because it contributes to a worldview that does not take words at their face value.
Ignoring the details of Hitler's message—or Stalin's or Mao's—waters down the critically important specificity of historical experiences into generalized and empty laments for "all victims of genocide." It furthers, for example, the dejudaization of the Holocaust. Reminders of precisely how the Holocaust was different, in intent and execution, are most unwanted. Reminders of how the current Chinese communist regime is heir to Mao's slaughter of tens of millions are equally unwelcome. By celebrating all victims, we celebrate none and forget all.
Putting Mein Kampf back in the schools raises a final, even more unwanted issue: the question of evil, a question that schools, including Jewish ones, may be unequipped to address. They ask students to seek historical explanations rooted in politics, culture, economics, or the irrational. But if students were to look for evil in Mein Kampf, they would actually find it; and, in recognizing it, they might be persuaded to look for it elsewhere. That, perhaps, is the most compelling reason why the book should be taught.
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