I have had a long-standing fascination with World War II because, as I see it, the conflict marked an unprecedented turning-point in human civilization. It was the quintessential ‘good vs. evil’ story on a scale that had never been seen before and, through the incredible sacrifice and dedication of the soldiers of the Allied Powers, the good guys ultimately won. We have never come closer to the forces of evil ruling the face of the Earth.
Every element of the story is interesting to me: The individual story of Adolf Hitler. How the Nazi movement rose to power and how the outcome of World War I and the catastrophic economic policies of the Weimar Republic made it possible. The terrible European policies of appeasement that emboldened Hitler’s megalomania. How the Nazis embarked on the ‘final solution’—the senseless murder of millions of innocent Jews—with the silent assent of an otherwise perfectly civilized people. The technological developments made on both sides during the war in aviation and weaponry—including atomic weapons.
It’s tempting, when faced with the incredible evil that surrounds the World War II story, to ignore it and focus on other things. For many, it’s not pleasant to think of how a liberal democratic republic like Weimar Germany—not much different, really, than our own American republic—gave birth to an evil, murderous dictatorship. It’s not pleasant to think of millions of people carted away into camps and murdered because of their race and religion. It’s hard to imagine that an emaciated, pacified, vanquished nation can turn, in less than a decade, into a military powerhouse that threatens the entirety of Europe. It’s easier to learn the basics from a distance and, in blissful ignorance, imagine that nothing like that can ever happen again.
I, however, keep feeling drawn to it. I find myself, in idle moments, reading about World War II technology, history, and minutia. When I was becoming a Catholic and needed to find a patron saint, the Holy Spirit kept leading me to St. Maximilian Kolbe—a Priest who volunteered to take the place of a Jewish man who had been randomly selected by the Nazis to die at Auschwitz. I just keep coming back to it, in part because I want to understand exactly how it happened so I can do everything in my power to make sure it never happens again. I am also drawn to stories of courage, honor, and morality—like St. Maximilian Kolbe’s—in the face of pure evil.
In all of my studies and reading about World War II, there is one essential piece of literature I had neglected to read . . . Mein Kamph by Adolf Hitler.
I have long believed that, to fully understand something, you have to go to the source. You can’t really understand Judaism if you haven’t read the Tanakh. You can’t really understand Christianity if you haven’t read both the Tanakh (i.e., the Old Testament) and the New Testament. You can’t really understand Islam if you haven’t read the Qur’an. These things don’t get you all the way there, since they invariably require additional study of supporting works, traditions, and histories, but I would argue that all those supporting works, traditions, and histories only serve to augment the source material. (And yes, lest anybody accuse me of not practicing what I preach, I have read reputable English translations of the Tanakh, New Testament, and Qur’an in their entireties.)
In keeping with my interest in World War II and my belief that you have to start with the source material of any ideology, I really should have read Mein Kamph years ago. The National Socialist movement—Nazism—predated the book, but Hitler’s seminal work quickly became regarded as the ‘Nazi bible.’ So, armed with my Kindle and a desire to gain new insights into what the heck Hitler was thinking and what underpinned his obviously insane ideology, I bought the Ralph Manheim translation of Mein Kamph and dove in.
It is tempting—and all too easy—to dismiss Mein Kamph (a title that means ‘my struggle’) as an overly-long, narcissistic, angry rant. This is how a great many reviewers characterize it, between snipes about its dry, boring prose, but it’s not really an accurate description. Oh yes, there is plenty of narcissism and anger in it, and it is overly long, but we do ourselves a disservice if we think that’s all Mein Kamph is. This is a book that defined a movement that took over a country and, eventually, most of Europe. The people who dedicated themselves to Nazism didn’t do so in service of an overly-long, narcissistic, angry book . . . they did so in service of an idea they believed in. Only after the ‘true believers’ had reached a critical mass were others brought into the movement by force or by fear—and by then it was already too late to stop them. If we blow-off Mein Kamph without an honest evaluation, if we kid ourselves into believing its ideology is something only mindless rubes could ever fall for, if we’re only looking out for angry, narcissistic rants coming from a guy with a funny mustache, then we are doomed to miss our opportunity to stop the next Mein Kamph and the next Nazism before it is too late.
So after slogging though the ‘Nazi bible,’ here is my honest evaluation. Adolf Hitler was obviously a madman. He misdirected his semi-valid anger and frustration about the state of his beloved Germany squarely at the Jewish people. His claims that there was a Jewish boogyman hiding around every corner undermining civilization were utterly irrational and, if you hope to find some kind of reason for them in Mein Kamph, you won’t. There isn’t one. He posits that the Jews are behind every societal ill, but gives no evidence—not even poor or false evidence—to support his claims. He does explain in the autobiographical section of the book that he was not always anti-semitic, but provides only very sparse detail for why, while living in Vienna, he came to see the Jews as the primary enemy of Germany and of civilization.
And yet, despite this, the book is surprisingly well put-together and articulates the ideas and goals of the Nazi party very clearly. I know it is blasphemous to say so, but there are even nuggets of truth and logic throughout.
His argument that each race is relatively better or worse than other races is a trite oversimplification, certainly, but at the same time it is a proven, scientific truth that the various races have different relative strengths and weaknesses (e.g., different propensities to certain diseases). Morally, this is no reason to discriminate against or mis-treat people on the basis of race . . . but if you have no morality besides the modern, enlightened relativism of ‘whatever seems right to me,’ then why wouldn’t you? Darwinism, taken to its logical conclusion as applied to humans and absent any religious morality, would posit that if races did not intermix stronger races would eventually supplant the weaker races. Hitler’s belief that the German ‘Aryan’ race was the genetic superior was without any logical basis—despite his efforts to argue the contrary—but if it had been true, his argument that they should not intermix with lesser races and that they should eventually take over the world had a perverse, cold, scientific logic to it.
Hitler’s critique of the failings of Marxism (and of the labor unions) were surprisingly prescient and accurate. His argument that schools should foster patriotism [nationalism, in this case] and that all adult males should serve in the military through conscription are debatable, but valid. More frighteningly, his opinions on the weaknesses of liberal democracies (like our own) generally ring true. He repeatedly condemns the governance-by-committee that he saw in the parliament of Weimar Germany that led to compromise and half-measures instead of decisive action. He proposed that the people were best served by powerful individual leaders who are advised by committees, not ruled by them. This aligns nicely with the old adage that the most efficient and effective government is the benevolent dictatorship; of course, the second part of the adage is that it’s a terribly dangerous form of government because you can never guarantee that the benevolent dictator’s successors will be benevolent.
Echoes of Hitler’s ideas about the nature of power and authority in government can be heard in our own well-meaning political observers . . . myself included, at times. Any time you hear somebody decrying ‘gridlock’ in Washington, or criticizing our government for not acting fast enough on their pet issues, or complaining about the government catering to the ‘masses’ at the expense of what’s ‘right,’ well, those are the very things that Hitler criticized about democratic republics—and there’s some validity in those arguments. Democracy is not intended to be efficient. If you want an efficient government, you don’t really want a democracy. Indeed, the Weimar Republic—in its efforts to serve too many masters—ended up completely decimating its own national economy with government over-spending and money printing. Sound familiar?
All-in-all, Mein Kamph reinforced most of my preconceived notions about Adolf Hitler—he was both absolutely insane and evil, yet, though we would prefer not to admit it, he was in some ways quite brilliant. Reading the book, I was surprised at how relatively-rarely I found myself saying, ‘this guy is nuts.’ On average, it came across more as a semi-scholarly work of political opinion not all that different from any other such book. If you could somehow excise the mad, irrational anti-semitism, it would feel like almost any other work of political theory—such as the Communist Manifesto, or The Prince, or Leviathan (each of which I have also read). And yet, at moments you least expect it, there comes an outburst of utter lunacy that debases the validity of his otherwise sound arguments.
I was struck by how quickly Hitler would switch from logical, cogent arguments to blind, irrational slander of the Jewish people. Imagine if, after this even-keeled review you’ve been reading, I added, “Hitler’s madness was obviously because of his German blood, and the decrepit German race trained him from birth to lie and deceive the people.” That’s how out-of-place it seemed. There were probably a hundred of places where I was being pulled along with a perfectly valid argument against Marxism, for example, only to be blind-sided almost as an afterthought with an unexplained and unverified declaration that, clearly, Marxism was an evil plan being forced on us by the Jews. I was tempted to laugh out loud at the utter absurdity . . . but the knowledge that this absurdity had led to the slaughter of six million Jews stopped me cold.
Reading Mein Kamph will not make you into a neo-Nazi unless you are extremely gullible, especially considering that anybody taking the time to read this massive tome probably has some kind of knowledge and interest in World War II. But if you lacked historic context, or hadn’t grown up on our modern ideals of racial equality, or lacked any other moral compass, or were especially impressionable . . . well . . . you can kind-of understand why somebody might have fallen for it. That is what is most horrifying and frightening about Mein Kamph . . . it has a certain indefinable aire of believability about it, even though, as a modern reader, you know what unspeakable evil it eventually led to.
That, in my opinion, is the biggest reason to read it . . . to see how perfectly sane so much of it seems. The next madman to come along—and there will be more madmen—won’t look like Adolf Hitler. He won’t be a German with a funny mustache. He probably won’t scapegoat the Jews; he’ll scapegoat the Americans or the Swedes or the Chinese or the Catholics or the Hindus. Or maybe he’ll scapegoat a political party, or even a particular political position, or a particular leader. The next madman won’t be a blazing narcissist or a hyperactive ideologue; he’ll seem perfectly reasonable at the time.
If you’re only looking for the cartoon caricatures of Hitler and Nazism you have in your head, you will never see the next madman coming in time to stop him.