Is there any other nation so completely identified with one man as Germany with Adolf Hitler? We don’t necessarily think of Napoleon when we think of a Frenchman or Mussolini when we think of an Italian. Winston Churchill, a bombastic liberal imperialist and wildly overrated military leader, has earned his place in history mainly because of his opposition to the Nazis. That American historians regularly conduct poll about who was the “greatest president” is proof that there is no one representative American head of state. When we imagine the typical German, on the other hand, we don’t conjure up Luther or Goethe, Beethoven, Mozart, Karl Marx, or Frederick the Great. Adolf Hitler has taken the entire history of a great nation, and swallowed it whole.
The American misconception that Hitler was “Austrian not German” points to some of the reasons why. Unlike the British or the French, the Germans do not have a nation state with a history that goes back to the Middle Ages. The Prussian Reich that Bismarck founded in 1870, and which was destroyed in 1918, is only one of many political entities that have, at one time or another, represented the German people. To argue that Hitler wasn’t a “real German” because he was born in Braunau am Inn instead of Berlin or Königsberg is simply another way of fetishizing the dead Prussian state, the ghost of which haunts the late German dictator’s well-known but infrequently studied autobiography.
Mein Kampf is not a well-written book. If anybody needed a good editor it was Adolf Hitler. Getting through all 525 pages of James Murphy’s unabridged translation felt a little bit like fighting the Battle of Stalingrad. Hitler doesn’t argue. He simply asserts, a style of writing best taken in small doses, not gulped down in long turgid paragraphs written by a man determined to make us sit through the history of every thought that’s ever come into his brain without explaining why we should care. Nevertheless critics like George Orwell who spend time criticizing Mein Kampf’s literary inadequacies miss a point that Hitler makes over and over again in the book itself. He knows he’s a shitty writer. He doesn’t care. Unlike many of his critics, he also understands that there’s a difference between “literacy” and the ability to read and write. Most Germans in 1925 could read and write. Very few were “literate.” The typical citizen, even in an advanced first world country like Germany or the United States, responds, not to the written word, but to the spoken word, not to logic, but to personal charisma and the ability to create an aura of power and authority.
In other words, think of Mein Kampf the way you’d think of the screenplay to a movie. The words are only a small part of what makes the entire production. In 1925, José Ortega y Gasset announced the death of the traditional bourgeois novel. That same year, Adolf Hitler proclaimed the death of the traditional, literate, bourgeois politician. If you can get through the bad writing, Mein Kampf is a cogent analysis of the politics of a post-literate society, well-worth looking at, if only because so little has changed. Barack Obama and Ronald Reagan have replaced Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln even as Star Wars and Lady Gaga have replaced Charles Dickens and Herman Melville. If you think you’re ever going to see anything like the Gettysburg Address or the Declaration of Independence again in your lifetime, think again. Turn on the TV instead. Look at a meme on Facebook, or go to a rap concert. Adolf Hitler figured out the way our brains work all the way back in 1925. It’s just too bad he used his insights for evil, and not good.
Adolf Hitler was born in 1889 to a lower-middle-class family in Braunau am Inn, a small city in the northwest corner of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His father, an authoritarian government employee wanted his son to follow him into the civil service. Hitler himself, convinced he had real artistic talent, wanted to be a painter. In 1907, after both his parents had died, the 16-year-old Hitler moved to Vienna, and quickly descended into the underclass. Like any would-be artist or writer, the young Hitler got through his semi-homeless days as a casual laborer thinking of his future success. His sense of identity fell apart in 1908 when he was rejected by the Vienna Academy of Art on the grounds that he was “clearly unfit for painting.” His personal disintegration reflected the political disintegration of the sprawling, multi-ethnic Habsburg Empire, a mostly Slavic state governed by an elite minority of Germans and Hungarians. I don’t think Hitler mentions the Hungarian people in Mein Kampf, not even once, but his hatred of Slavs, of Czechs, Slovaks, Serbians, Poles, and Russians becomes an obsession.
In 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated by a Serbian nationalist, and Hitler, baffled that a Slavic nationalist would murder the pro-Slavic crown prince of the Habsburg Empire, crossed the border into the German Empire to volunteer for military service. Terrified that he would be drafted into the Austro-Hungarian Army, and quite possibly have to serve in a multi-ethnic regiment, he was overjoyed when he was accepted into Kaiser Wilhelm’s Army, and sent to the western front to fight the French. For many men of Hitler’s generation, the trenches of northern France, the Battles of Ypres and Verdun, were the definition of hell on earth. Hitler, on the other hand thrived. The Imperial German Army and the powerful, majority German Hohenzollern Reich replaced the disintegrating multi-ethnic Habsburg Empire even as the idea of being a soldier replaced the idea of being a painter. Hitler’s sense of identity became so tied up with fate of the German Empire that in 1918, after German offensive against Paris was turned back — largely because of fresh troops from the United States — and the Hohenzollern monarchy fell apart, he took it as hard as he would have taken the loss of his arms or legs. What’s more, since the French, British, and American armies never pushed their way into Germany and occupied Berlin, He was convinced that the Imperial German Army would have won the war had it not been for a “stab in the back” by Jewish Marxists.
Like hundreds of thousands of other demobilized veterans, Hitler went back to Germany to swell the ranks of a newly emerging radical right. What finally distinguished him from the crowd of so many radical German nationalists was his instinctive understanding of the way propaganda works, his eccentric yet powerful reading of German history, and, quite frankly, his genius. To read Mein Kampf, to plow through hundreds of pages of turgid, badly written prose, is to realize that Adolf Hitler was essentially a brilliant advertising man who put himself in the service of a radically authoritarian political ideology. Had he been born in the United States sometime in the 1930s, he might have ended up as just another Don Draper, a Madison Avenue advertising executive selling Lucky Strikes and Coca Cola instead of anti-Semitism and mass murder. Instead, he was born in Europe in 1889. As if to fulfill his youthful dream of becoming an architect, wound up building a totalitarian state on the smoldering ruins of the Habsburg and Hohenzollern Empires.
As I read Mein Kampf, I tried to look at it from the point of view of someone reading the book in 1925, not 2016, someone who had not yet witnessed the Second World War and the Holocaust. Going through the autobiography of one of the greatest mass murderers in human history felt a bit like reading hard core pornography, something vaguely shameful, but fascinating, if only because of its forbidden quality. So I resisted the impulse to loudly and moralistically condemn the book in order to prove that I’m not a Nazi, to declare that I don’t have any latent fascist or anti-Semitic biases. Instead, the question I kept asking myself was “is the ideology in Mein Kampf harmful in and of itself or was it simply a reflection of the violence that came out of the First World War?” I also kept noting the disturbing similarity between Mein Kampf and the views of a lot of contemporary 9/11 conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones, even as I reminded myself that no 9/11 conspiracy theorist has ever committed mass murder or started a world war. The conclusion I came away with was that everybody should read the book at least once, if only to be able to see through the propaganda on the radical right.
There are about 5 or 6 basic tenants to the Nazi worldview:
In 1914, on the eve of the First World War, the largest political party in the German Reichstag was the Social Democrats. It’s important to remember that the German Social Democrats in 1914 were not simply liberals by another name like Bernie Sanders or the British Labor Party. Instead, they were a genuinely revolutionary movement officially devoted to the teachings of Karl Marx. That made it all the more shocking, therefore, when their leadership decided to support the monarchy and vote yes on declaring war against the British, French and Russians. Marxist Leninism, a more radical, and anti-parliamentary, version of social democracy came to the mainstream during the First World War, largely as a protest against the more orthodox German and French socialist surrender to militarism and nationalism. Trotsky and Lenin were allowed free passage into Russia by the German government precisely because of their anti-war views, to give them the opportunity to take Russia out of the war and free up German troops on the eastern front to join the offensive against France. Sending Trotsky and Lenin into Russia worked, but it was too little, too late. In 1918, the German monarchy, which had been starved by the Royal Navy’s blockade, and which was now facing the United States in addition to the British and the French, collapsed. The same Social Democrats who voted for the war credits in 1914, now led the German Revolution against the Kaiser. In October of 1918, Germany was an empire. In November of 1918, it was a democratic republic. Sadly for the fate of Europe, however, the vindictive French government, still resenting their defeat 50 years before in the Franco Prussian War, decided to push for a hard peace, for the return of Alsace and Lorraine, and for massive reparations that would make it difficult, if not impossible for the Weimar Republic to establish itself over the long term.
For Adolf Hitler, and for many radical German nationalists like him, the Social Democrats who led the German Revolution in 1918 were nothing more than front men for an international Jewish conspiracy. Marxism, for Hitler, was not only Judaism by another name, but a dagger aimed at the heart of the German nation itself. History was governed, not by economic forces, but by an eternal, and largely ahistorical struggle between the “Aryan” and the “Jew.” Other peoples, Slavs, blacks, Asians, the French, and even the majority Germans, were a mongrelized, easily manipulated, and degenerate mass, raw material to be fought over by the creative Aryan and the destructive Jew, the Christ and Satan of Hitler’s atheist theology. The disagreement I have with most reviews of Mein Kampf, from Adam Gopnik’s clueless and snobbish article in the New Yorker to Kenneth Burke’s classic examination of Hitler’s rhetoric as a demonic appropriation of Roman Catholicism is that they deny just how sincerely Hitler believed in what he was saying. Hitler wasn’t simply the low-class malcontent of Adam Gopnik or conscious propagandist of Kenneth Burke. He was a man of his age, a Social Darwinist who built an entire world view out of a distorted reading of natural selection and the idea of the death of God, and then built an army to put his ideology into practice.
Hitler’s fundamental insight was the idea that the only way to defeat a revolutionary ideology was with another revolutionary ideology, that the German bourgeoisie was too tame and conservative to defend its class interests against revolutionary socialism. What won Hitler the support of the German ruling class, in spite of his pretension to being anti-capitalist, was that he replaced the Marxist emphasis on economics, the idea that capitalism produced its own gravedigger in the form of the revolutionary proletariat, with a radical right wing nationalism and an ahistorical, biological essentialism. For Hitler, Germany was not a political entity like the Habsburg Empire or the Hohenzollern Reich. It was not defined by the German language, but by “blood.” The idea of forcing Poles, Czechs, and Serbians to speak German, to assimilate into a traditional Germany way of life, was horrifying. A Pole or a Czech, even if he spoke German and worshipped at a Lutheran church, was still a Pole or a Czech, a biological inferior species who degraded the German race as a whole. Human beings did not have souls, did not stand apart from or above nature in any way. For Hitler, the idea that we can master nature is Jewish, and Marxist propaganda. Like any other animal, humans are locked into a biological process that they do not control. Different races, like different species, cannot and should not interbreed. A Pole or a Czech having children with an Aryan is like a pig having a litter with a goat, an abomination of nature orchestrated by the demonic Jew.
To reduce humans to just another animal makes the idea of genocide inevitable. Whether or not someone has the power to kill 6 million Jews or not, the argument Hitler makes in Mein Kampf is that it’s his duty to try. What makes Hitler different from just another racist, anti-Semite, or conspiracy theorist is the radical break with the Judeo-Christian (and Islamic) assumption that we have souls, that we cannot be reduced to our “blood.” For the capitalist ruling class of the 1920s and 1930s, who also believed that humans could be reduced to objects, to “hands” or “human capital,” Hitler’s ideology was a useful weapon to use against revolutionary Marxism. It still is. Whether in the form of the radical French proletariat of the Paris Commune of 1871, the German Social Democratic masses of 1918, or the third world refugees of 2016 desperately streaming into fortress Europe, a class society always produces its own gravediggers. A revolutionary conservative reaction is never far behind.