The Literature of Oppression: Part 2
Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler
Hitler has started to show his face again of late. In Athens last year, two protesters staged a street-play on the occasion of the visit of the German chancellor, Angela Merkel. The play, performed in the shadow of the Acropolis, comprised one short act, and no dialogue. Its thesis was simple enough: Germany (and Dr Merkel) were to be blamed for the economic depression in Greece. One of the actors, a woman, wore a toga and the grimacing mask of Tragedy on her face. The other player, a man, wore the dun-coloured dress-uniform of the Sturmabteilung — the “brownshirts” of Germany in the 1930s — and a red arm-band with a white circle and a black swastika. He had strapped an ample bosom to his chest, which strained at the buttons of his jacket, and (with scant regard for the apparent femininity of his part) he wore a black toothbrush moustache. A crowd had gathered in the street, and the play began. It did not last long. The male protagonist (who was, of course, an unnatural cross of Hitler and Merkel) rent and tore at the clothes of the woman (who was, of course, Greece personified). Then he raped her of all innocence and honour.
At about the same time, across the sea from Greece, Hitler’s face could be seen in Cairo. There, the new Egyptian president, Mohammed Morsi, was being lampooned for assuming legislative power. Protestors carried placards of Morsi with an unkempt fringe of black hair, combed down across his forehead, and the same toothbrush moustache. He was being likened to that most infamous of dictators.
But even before 2012, Hitler could be seen across Cairo. In Tahrir Square, long before it became the battlefield of the Egyptian revolution, young boys would sit on stools with newspapers and magazines for sale, spread out at their feet. They sold books too — cheap paperbacks falling apart at the spines. They either sold classics — The Arabian Nights, or the works of Naguib Mahfouz — or else non-fiction that was wildly nationalist, anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish. This latter category comprised military histories of the Yom Kippur War; biographies of Nasser and Sadat; that debunked anti-Jewish forgery called The Protocols of the Elders of Sion; and, of course, Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf.
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I first tried to read Mein Kampf — and almost everyone who tries will fail to read this book — when I was at school. The Library had bought a new translation, which stood defiantly on the table of new acquisitions, propped up among improving volumes of Kierkegaard and a dog-eared work of Freud. Like a goose-stepping, “Heil Hitler“–ing Obersturmführer of the Waffen SS, jack-boots gleaming with polish, eyes glistening with the wild zeal of Nazism, the book seemed to march off the Library table, out from among the decaying ranks of bourgeois intellectuals.
I told myself that I ought to read Mein Kampf to bolster my understanding of Germany in the 1930s — the topic of my History class that term — but then I was not a diligent student and had never read around my subject before. No, deep down, I think I must have thought it was rebellious: that borrowing Mein Kampf from the Library might trigger a visit by the School Counsellor, or a letter to my parents, or a black mark against my record and a red flag during vetting if I were ever tapped to join the Secret Intelligence Service. A black mark and a red flag. The book did have a good cover — half red, with white lettering, and a black and white photograph of Hitler at a mass rally, or riding in an open-top Daimler. Maybe that was why I read the book. Perhaps I had fallen under the spell cast by Hitler and his architect, Albert Speer; the simple magic of good order, and symbolism, and primal colours. It was a spell under which so many Germans had fallen.
When, at last, I opened the book, I found a scathing introduction written by the translator. The poor chap was trying hard to distance himself from the monstrous Hitler and to pin the awful style of the writing on the German original. Sentences, he said, ran on for whole pages, and narrative would blend with dialogue and philosophy without warning or punctuation. It seemed as though Mein Kampf had never been edited, and had been compiled in no better order than if the portfolio had been dropped and the pages re-arranged as they fell.
At the time, I thought he was probably right, and my efforts to read Mein Kampf were largely thwarted by the impenetrable style. Anyway, there was no alarm triggered when I took out the book from the Library; and it was far too bulky to carry around with me to show off my subversive reading habits. And yet, I now think that that translator was perhaps too harsh. For there are occasional passages of quality — and by ‘quality’ I mean good style, not good content.
Christopher Hitchens was partial to one passage, which he “treasured, in the clotted pages of Mein Kampf, above all others” and which “always [sent him] into a reverie”. To quote Hitchens’ summary of the episode (from his review in Vanity Fair (February 1999) of Ian Kershaw’s Hitler 1889-1936: Hubris):
“As a young, resentful loser hanging around in the Austro-Hungarian empire, Adolf Hitler was forced to seek employment on a construction site. He thought the labor beneath him, and he very much resented being pressed to join a union. The lunchtime chat of his fellows was even more repugnant to his nature: ‘Some of the men went into the nearest public house,’ while ‘I drank my bottle of milk and ate my piece of bread somewhere on the side.’ And when they talked politics, everything was rejected: the nation as an invention of the ‘capitalistic’ classes—how often was I to hear just this word!—; the country as the instrument of the bourgeoisie for the exploitation of the workers; the authority of the law as a means of suppressing the proletariat; the school as an institution for bringing up slaves as well as slave-drivers; religion as a means for doping the people destined for exploitation; morality as a sign of sheepish patience, and so forth. Nothing remained that was not dragged down into the dirt and the filth of the lowest depths.
“It was this, said the young Hitler, which first persuaded him to study ‘book after book, pamphlet after pamphlet,’ and to begin fighting back for race and nation and decency. ‘I argued till finally one day they applied the one means that wins the easiest victory over reason: terror and force. Some of the leaders of the other side gave me the choice of either leaving the job at once or of being thrown from the scaffold.'”
I think Hitchens is right: this is good writing, or at least good story-telling. The simplicity of the lesson is Aesop-like — terror and force lead to victory over reason; the juxtaposition of the laughable working-class debates, fuelled by unhealthy drinking, against Hitler’s own superior intellect, slicing through these irrational arguments with a purity of thought born of his Spartan diet; and of course the wonderful double-meaning of “being thrown from the scaffold” — both the scaffolding at the construction site where Hitler was working, but also the scaffold of public execution, the guillotine and the headsman. It makes us think of the French Revolution, of la Terreur, and of the use of “terror and force” to achieve political victory which was to become Hitler’s mark.
Then there is the Dickensian dream-sequence, that infamous passage of Mein Kampf in which (we are to believe) Hitler came to the realisation of his anti-Semitism. To quote:
“At the time of this bitter struggle, between calm reason and the sentiments in which I had been brought up, the lessons that I learned on the streets of Vienna rendered me invaluable assistance. A time came when I no longer passed blindly along the street of the mighty city, as I had done in the early days, but now with my eyes open not only to study the buildings but also the human beings.
“Once, when passing through the inner City, I suddenly encountered a phenomenon in a long caftan and wearing black side-locks. My first thought was: Is this a Jew? They certainly did not have this appearance in Linz. I watched the man stealthily and cautiously; but the longer I gazed at the strange countenance and examined it feature by feature, the more the question shaped itself in my brain: Is this a German?”
As I read this, I cannot help but think of Eugene Wrayburn’s night-time wanderings through London in Our Mutual Friend, and of the descriptions of Fagin (a Jew) in Oliver Twist (particularly: “As he glided stealthily along, creeping beneath the shelter of the walls and doorways, the hideous old man seemed like some loathsome reptile, engendered in the slime and darkness through which he moved: crawling forth, by night, in search of some rich offal for a meal.”)
To be clear, I vehemently oppose the anti-Semitism of Mein Kampf. Yet I think Hitler has written this passage well. I would go so far as to suggest that this is pure invention, that Hitler never saw a Jew in a long caftan that led him to codify his doctrine of anti-Semitism. Rather, for the propaganda that Mein Kampf surely is, Hitler wanted to create a strange, disconcerting, nightmarish scene. This would help bend the reader to Hitler’s argument. Like a dream (or a nightmare) in the midst of empty sleep, the scene is set within a fierce mental struggle, and in between blindness and open eyes; the sight of the Jew is a “phenomenon”; we walk with Hitler through the mysterious streets of the old city of Vienna (I always think that it must be night-time); we see the strangeness of the Jew, his unfamiliar visage and costume; and Hitler himself acts oddly, voyeuristically, watching “stealthily and cautiously” from the shadows. In short, I think Hitler invented this passage to present the archetypal villain of Mein Kampf — the Jew — much as Dickens did Fagin in Oliver Twist. And for all the hateful purpose of this passage, I think that Hitler has written it well.
So, we may loathe Mein Kampf for its vitriolic content, but I think that we are perhaps too hasty to reject this book on literary grounds. Mein Kampf is typically associated with phrases like “an insight into Evil” and “the workings of a madman’s mind”. Such epithets may be true — but the writing itself is not always bad. Nor should we be surprised, with hindsight, that Hitler could write well to achieve his goals. We know that Hitler was (in his own way) a fantastically successful orator. On the other hand, we do not know who wrote those rousing speeches, that made matrons swoon and brought grown men to their knees in tears. Nor can we say for certain who coined the slogans and the one-liners that codified Nazism and made so many Germans embrace its tenets. Mein Kampf, however, is unquestionably Hitler’s writing. It is rough, in sore need of editing, and written in a pompous style. We should also remember that it was written by a dosshouse misfit, a cashiered corporal sitting in prison in Bavaria after joining a handful of washed-up old generals on the fringe of a failed Putsch. How much more surprising, then, that the book should have these flashes of quality.
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A few years ago, I was walking through Tahrir Square. Then, there was no talk of revolution in Egypt. The square was empty of tents and protesters, just a busy roundabout with tramps asleep on the grass and the newspaper-sellers sitting on their stools. Stopping to buy a paper, I also picked up one of the copies of Mein Kampf (called Kifahy in Arabic). It cost me 2 Egyptian pounds, or 20 pence. I sat down in a café and opened the book again. Five or six years had passed since I had tried to read it at school. This time, there was no apologetic introduction. The cover was simple and plain, with a swastika and a blurred photograph of Hitler. The ink smudged and the thin paper almost tore as I turned the page.
I read the first few lines and thought about them. Yes — Hitler may have been mad, and he was certainly a monster. Written from a Munich gaol cell by a man with no apparent future, his belief in his own destiny should by all rights be called delusion. It would be ten years until Hitler came to power, and fifteen until he united Germany with Austria, completing the Anschluss long hoped for by many of his compatriots. Knowing that in hindsight, knowing that Hitler’s dream was to come true, the opening of Mein Kampf is chilling. But it is also a very good opening to a book:
“It has turned out fortunate for me to-day that destiny appointed Braunau-on-the-Inn to be my birthplace. For that little town is situated just on the frontier between those two States the reunion of which seems, at least to us of the younger generation, a task to which we should devote our lives and in the pursuit of which every possible means should be employed.”
George Richards is a writer covering Middle Eastern affairs. He recently travelled overland from Istanbul to Alexandria, researching the state of Christianity during the Arab Spring.