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The Literature of Oppression: Part 3

There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them.”


Ray Bradbury makes a valid point: if you’re not going to read a book, you may as well burn it.  And yet, we should probably realise that this is disingenuous – the Ayatollah Khomeini didn’t burn as many copies of The Satanic Verses as he could simply because he knew he’d never get round to reading it himself.  No, if there is a ‘criminal’ element of book burning, it lies in denying a book to other people.  It is a crime that has been committed around the world and throughout history with stunning regularity, from the multiple destruction of the libraries at Alexandria, to the raids carried out earlier this year on the manuscripts of Timbuktu.  There is no doubting that in all of these incidents, the burning of books was undertaken and encouraged, at least to some extent, in order to prevent a wider population from being influenced by the ideas contained in them.  As a result, book burning is a classic sign of despotism, whether religious, political or otherwise.

It is strange, therefore, to encounter a head of state bearing all the hallmarks of a dictator who nonetheless champions reading as a virtue to be encouraged.  In a speech in 2009, Hugo Chávez told the assembled masses to “read, read, read, read.”  This was not, as some may suspect, a cunning exercise in reverse psychology on a national scale, no, Chávez meant it.  In fact, he meant it so genuinely that he introduced a “Revolutionary Reading Plan”, with a prescribed reading list containing not just Marx and Lenin, but also Oscar Wilde and Edgar Allen Poe – two writers who almost certainly featured prominently in the Nazi bonfire that was part of the “Action Against the Un-German Spirit”.  Furthermore, it is universally recognised that Chávez himself was well read, and in any case he frequently participated in book clubs and writers’ meetings.  At first glance, this is difficult to square with the undemocratic style of his leadership, and in particular his repression of freedom of speech in Venezuela.

Upon closer inspection of the “Revolutionary Reading Plan”, however, it starts to become clear that this was not an attempt to help people develop their own independence of thought and personal taste.  For example, part of the Plan involved sending colour-coordinated book squadrons out onto the streets to “help” people with their choice of literature.  Of these, the most feared presumably was the black squadron, assigned to the fourth and final stage in the reader’s education, whose stated purpose was “the sharing of textual tools for cultural resistance against the ideological cultural attacks of the imperialists”.  With alarming speed we have descended from the wonderful prose of Don Quixote (Chávez was a big fan), to the clichéd slogans peddled by almost every marxist dictatorship to have graced the planet.

So what do the writers of South America make of this? Nobel-prize winner Mario Vargas-Llosa has been fairly forthright: “Hugo Chávez represents the worst of caudillismo” (the original caudillo being General Franco, himself no stranger to the destruction of literature, and, tragically, writers).  Gabriel García Márquez, who knew Chávez, is more circumspect, recognising at the outset of his rise to power the powerful contradictions of his character and ideological outlook:

One to whom inveterate luck has granted the chance to save his country.  The other, an illusionist, who could go down in history as just another despot.”

The Editors

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.

* * *

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 Hitlering 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.

* * *

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.

The Literature of Oppression: Part 1

I know many books which have bored their readers, but I know of none which has done real evil.

So said Voltaire in the eighteenth century.  Since then, the world has seen the publication of Mao’s Little Red Book, Qaddafi’s Green Book and Hitler’s Mein Kampf, three books which might be considered as a sort of grotesque canon of totalitarian literature, covering as they do both extremes of the political spectrum, with rogue state oppression somewhere in the middle.  All three were published in the twentieth century, the century in which totalitarian ideology somehow managed to evade reason and irreversibly scar the face of human history.

“[Our purpose is] to ensure that literature and art fit well into the whole revolutionary machine as a component part, that they operate as powerful weapons for uniting and educating the people and for attacking and destroying the enemy, and that they help the people fight the enemy with one heart and one mind.”

The above quotation from Mao’s Little Red Book provides a singularly perverse view of the function of literature and art in society.  It is not often that books are seen as weapons that can be wielded by the forces of oppression, but unfortunately art is an inherently malleable thing, only as benign and constructive as the artist chooses it to be.  As such, we can hardly be surprised if on occasion literature is co-opted by the forces of darkness and used as a tool to further the totalitarian policies of oppressive regimes, all the more so since propaganda is a key element of any dictatorship.  Ultimately, there is no denying that books have been complicit to a certain extent in some of the worst atrocities committed by human beings.

And yet the hideous number of deaths caused by the regimes of twentieth century tyrants does not necessarily refute Voltaire’s point; a book in and of itself can do no harm, unless the reader is of a particularly frail and sensitive disposition.  Of course, that a book is unable to commit genocide of its own volition does not settle the debate over the potential harm caused by books either, in vaguely the same way that a rifle being unable to commit murder on its own does not settle the debate over US gun control (see the laughable simplicity of the NRA’s slogan “guns don’t kill people, people kill people”).  One could argue that Mein Kampf, which is still banned in numerous countries, including Austria and Russia, continues to incite racially aggravated violence across the world, from Greece to Colombia.

Interestingly, Mein Kampf was never banned in Germany, but its publication has been restricted since the end of the Second World War by the state of Bavaria, which owns the copyright to it.  This copyright expires in 2016, seventy years after Hitler’s death, and Bavaria plans to publish an annotated edition of the book before this happens, in an attempt to educate new readers and make it “commercially unattractive” to publish in the future.  The latter may be optimistic, but perhaps this is the best way to proceed.  After all, to ban books, however offensive or inflammatory the content, is to fall into the totalitarian’s trap.  In view of this, the Literature of Oppression series aims to look at some of the worst books ever published by oppressive regimes, not, we hope you will agree, in an attempt to stoke anger or resentment, but in order better to understand the influence they continue to exert, whether or not that influence is still enforced down the barrel of a gun.

The Editors