There was a lot said last week about the reëmergence, in Germany, of Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” (“My Struggle”)—which just became legal to publish and sell there, for the first time since the end of the Second World War, albeit in a heavily hedged “scholarly” edition. Did providing a public place for the autobiographical testament of the Nazi dictator, written when he was briefly imprisoned in Bavaria, in the nineteen-twenties, in some way legitimize it, people asked, even if the text was surrounded by a trench work of scholarly addenda designed to italicize its lies and manias?
I read “Mein Kampf” right through for the first time last year, while working on a piece about Timothy Snyder’s history of the Holocaust as it happened in the Slavic and Baltic states during the Second World War. (Snyder reads Hitler in a somewhat original and provocative way, derived in part from his reading of “Mein Kampf.”) I read it in the first English translation, from 1933, with the German version alongside, online, and a crib of graduate-school German grammar nearby. (I’ve since reread sections, in Ralph Manheim’s later translation.) The question of what to do with “Mein Kampf” is, in some sense, independent of the book’s contents—buying it is a symbolic act before it’s any kind of intellectual one, and you can argue that it’s worth banning on those grounds alone. A good opposing case can be made on similarly symbolic grounds: that making it public in Germany is a way of robbing it of the glamour of the forbidden.
However that may be, the striking thing about the text as a text is that it is not so much diabolical or sinister as creepy. It is the last book in the world that you would expect a nascent Fascist dictator to write. Most of us—and most politicians in particular, even those who belong to extremist movements—try to draw a reasonably charismatic picture of our histories and ourselves. We want to look appealing. An evil force may emerge and temporarily defeat the narrator, but that force is usually placed against a childhood of a purer folk existence, now defiled. That’s the way most politicians’ campaign memoirs still work, for instance.
Hitler, whom we suspect of being an embittered, envious, traumatized loser, presents himself as . . . an embittered, envious, traumatized loser. The weirdness of this is especially evident in the earlier autobiographical chapters. His resentments are ever-present. His father was dense, mean, unforgiving, and opaque. (“My father forbade me to nourish the slightest hope of ever being allowed to study art. I went one step further and declared that if that was the case I would stop studying altogether. As a result of such ‘pronouncements,’ of course, I drew the short end; the old man began the relentless enforcement of his authority.”) His schoolmates were combative, his schoolmasters unappreciative. The petty rancor and unassuaged disappointments of a resentment-filled life burn on every page, in ways one would think might be more demoralizing than inspiring to potential followers. His embittered account of his final rejection at Vienna’s Academy of Fine Arts is typical:
I had set out with a pile of drawings, convinced that it would be child's play to pass the examination. At the Realschule I had been by far the best in my class at drawing, and since then my ability had developed amazingly; my own satisfaction caused me to take a joyful pride in hoping for the best. . . . I was in the fair city for the second time, waiting with burning impatience, but also with confident self-assurance, for the result of my entrance examination. I was so convinced that I would be successful that when I received my rejection, it struck me as a bolt from the blue. Yet that is what happened. When I presented myself to the rector, requesting an explanation for my non-acceptance at the Academy's school of painting, that gentleman assured me that the drawings I had submitted incontrovertibly showed my unfitness for painting.
The triviality of the injury and the length and intensity with which it’s recalled—in a book intended, after all, to attract fanatical followers to a fanatical cause—would seem to be more unsettling than seductive. And many similar passages of equally irrelevant self-pity follow. His description of his hunger while footloose in Vienna is pointillist.
Mussolini’s autobiography, to take the obvious comparison, though ghostwritten—by a former American Ambassador to Italy, apparently!—nonetheless reflects his sense of the best self to put forward; the youthful memories are more predictably of a concord between the young Italian and the national landscape he inhabits. (The Masons play the same role for Mussolini that the Jews did for Hitler: the cosmopolitan force interrupting the natural harmony between the people and their home, the blood and the birthplace.) Mussolini’s is a Fascist dictator’s memoir written as you would expect a Fascist dictator to write it. To be sure, Hitler is writing at the bottom of the ascent and Mussolini at the top, but the temperamental difference is arresting nonetheless.
Indeed, strangely, the "lesser" Fascist and extreme right-wing European figures of the period are closer to the idealized image of a national savior than Hitler even pretends to be. Corneliu Codreanu, in Romania, for instance—who was, hard to believe, an even more violent anti-Semite than Hitler—was a model of the charismatic national leader, providing a mystical religious turn as well. Even Oswald Mosley, in England—for all that P. G. Wodehouse nicely mocked him in his figure of Roderick Spode—had many of the traits of a genuinely popular, charismatic figure, worryingly so. Hitler’s self-presentation has none of that polished charisma. He is a victim and a sufferer first and last—a poor soldier who is gassed, a failed artist who is desperately hungry and mocked by all. The creepiness extends toward his fanatical fear of impurity—his obsession with syphilis is itself pathological—and his cult of strong bodies. Pathos is the weirdly strong emotion, almost the strongest emotion, in the memoir.
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