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Manus haec inimica tyrannis.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

My Struggle with "Mein Kampf"

The Nazi party rally grounds in Nuremberg, today
At the end of August and beginning of September, I had the privilege of presenting a paper at a conference devoted to the Third Earl of Shaftesbury (1671-1713) in Nuremberg, Germany, hosted by the Friedrich-Alexander-Universität (Erlangen-Nürnberg). The current Earl of Shaftesbury was in attendance for the entire three days, which I must say was sporting of him, considering that at times he must have found it  painfully boring. I, however, had a wonderful and stimulating time, seeing the sites of such a beautiful city, and meeting with fellow enthusiasts to talk about my favourite philosopher.

I cannot let this opportunity pass without thanking the conference organizer, Patrick Müller, for his invitation and for his gracious hospitality. I am not much of a traveler, and usually after a week away, I am anxious to come home. This time, however, I didn’t want to come home, and at least part of the credit for this must go to Patrick. So Patrick: If you read this, thank you. Other credit is due to the people of Nuremberg, whom, in my admittedly limited interactions with them, I found to be polite, upright, and generous (those who know me will also know that these are about the highest compliments I can bestow upon a people).

On my last day in the city, Patrick took me on a little walking tour of the former Nazi Party rally grounds. Given that Nuremberg was the spiritual heartland of Nazism, it is passing strange that although it was heavily firebombed in the Second World War — over 90% of the Altstadt was destroyed — the Allies somehow managed to leave the Nazi Party’s massive congress hall and rally grounds more or less intact. Thus, there are many reminders of the moral stain of Nazism in an otherwise stupifyingly beautiful city.

The juxtaposition of Nuremberg’s National Socialist past and its decent, generous, cultured citizenry today, left me with a need to learn more, to piece together the quasi-biological puzzle of how today’s Bavarians (or Franconians) could have been generated from such a seemingly different moral species. This is what led me to (re)read Hitler’s Mein Kampf.

If you ever want to feel very uncomfortable, make yourself seen reading this book on the subway. You will get stares. The people doing the staring generally fall into two groups. The first are the people who wonder why it is you would be reading this verboten book. You must have some scholarly reason, or else it’s assigned reading for a course, otherwise you wouldn’t touch it. They are understandably puzzled.

The other group does not wonder, and they are not puzzled. They know — or at least they believe they know — that you’re reading Mein Kampf because you’re a degenerate crypto-Nazi racist of some kind. They do not hide their expression of disgust and hostility. They secretly wish the book could be burned and that you could be quietly shipped off to some place for re-education (or worse). Their gaze is most uncomfortable. The feeling is much akin to that dream that almost all of us have had — you know the one: you are at school or work and you suddenly realize you’re in your pyjamas or are stark naked. Only imagine that instead of being in the nude, you are embarrassed to find yourself wearing an SS uniform and a monocle.

If you can stand up to the withering gaze of ill-wishers, Mein Kampf is worth reading, which is why I was appalled a decade ago when Heather Reisman, founder and CEO of Indigo Books and Music (Canada’s answer to Barnes and Noble), announced that the book would no longer be sold in her stores. It was of course her right to make that decision. But the decision was still a dumb one.

(Incidentally, I was an employee of Indigo at the time, and I’m pretty sure that I personally played an inadvertent role in her decision. But that is a story for another day.)

In any case, the following are a few of my reflections on Hitler’s manifesto.

His Shallowness

Compared to authors of just about any stripe, Hitler’s intellect is clearly in the featherweight class. Yes, he constantly — and self-consciously, in my opinion — refers to his voracious reading habits. And yet, few are the actual books he refers to, and he has seemingly read few if any of the great classics, German or otherwise. On the other hand, he writes often of his consumption of pamphlets and newspapers. But no great intellect can be formed from such ephemeral confections, any more than a healthy body can be built from bubble gum and chocolate bars.

Hitler manipulates a bastardized lexicon of quasi-German Idealism, comprising such terms as “subjective”, “objective”, “will”, “concept”, “freedom”, etc. He clearly has little notion of their original philosophical context. It is as if it took some 150 years for Kant’s ideas to filter down to the very dregs of the German people, to be finally collected into the fetid and overflowing sewers of Hitler’s mind.

His Austrian-ness

I was also struck by repeated reminders that Hitler was Austrian, not German. He considered himself to be German, in the pan-Germanic sense, but his pan-Germanism seems at its core to have been a reaction to his experience as the citizen of a decaying multi-ethnic Hapsburg Empire, in which Germans were perceived to be in political decline relative to the other peoples of the Empire. Hitler’s was a paranoid garrison mentality. Thus his constant nightmares about the “Slavization” or “Czechization” of the German people. He loathed Vienna precisely because of its multiculturalism, something which we in a country like Canada have tentatively learned to celebrate, or at least have learned not to view as an existential threat.

His Anti-Semitism

Which leads to his anti-Semitism. There is little that is original in Hitler’s worldview. As I said, he was an intellectual featherweight, and the main elements of his political fantasies were cobbled together from ideas that were very much part of the Austrian alptraum. To the extent that they could be said to hold together in some kind of a coherent whole, Hitlerian Nazism could be said to be an ideology. But upon reading Mein Kampf, I could not fail to notice the extent to which one of the most conspicuous elements of this ideology, its anti-Semitism, fails to be fully integrated into it. It is there, obviously. And it’s not that it was inconsistent with Nazism. It’s that it seems somehow tacked on, like an extraneous element having less to do with theoretical conviction than with idiosyncratic, personal hatred. Hitler’s anti-semitism is somehow Hitler’s anti-Semitism.

When Hitler describes the growth and development of his anti-Semitism, something doesn’t quite ring true. He claims to have come into it relatively late, as the result of a gradual awakening. To some extent, the Jew represents for Hitler an object case study of all that is wrong with the Other, with all the foreign elements that are infecting the Austrian body politic. Thus, the Jew is somehow both capitalist representative of Manchester liberalism (p. 93) and “the leering grimace of Marxism” (p. 51). Insofar as he is Zionist, the Jew is an ultranationalist. In any case, he is clannish, preferring his own kind, while plotting the destruction of the Austro-Germans among whom he resides. And yet at the same time he is portrayed as inherently nationless, not only through lack of a homeland, but through extreme selfishness, greed, and lack of fellow-feeling. At the same time that Hitler portrays Jews as only concerned with their own kind, he also portrays them as atavistically individualistic, claiming that if they didn’t have Aryans to prey upon, they would claw each other to death. There is more than a little tension in these contrasting portrayals.

How can all these contradictory characteristics be imputed to one people? Unless perhaps the Jew is for Hitler merely the embodiment of all that is not-German and therefore bad. But if that is the case, why is it Jews in particular that are made to play this role? Why not some other people? After all, they made up a relatively small proportion of the Austro-Hungarian population. Why not Slavs instead?

And yet, in Mein Kampf Hitler reserves a hate-filled linguistic violence for the Jews, a venomous diction he rarely if ever deploys on Slavs or Czechs or any other nationality. These latter he at least accords recognizably human motivations: they will destroy the Germans if allowed, but they do so only by playing a game that every self-respecting people must play, the game of survival. And yet, the Jews are somehow outside this brutal game and the odd sort of grudging sportsmanship it entails. They are somehow cheaters rather than players. They are not players because they are not humans. By contrast with how he speaks of Czechs or Russians or the English (he seems to have felt some degree even of admiration for the latter), here is an all-to-common animadversion on the Jews:

“Later I often grew sick to my stomach from the smell of these caftan-wearers. Added to this, there was their unclean dress and their generally unheroic appearance…. Was there any form of filth or profligacy, particularly in cultured life, without at least one Jew involved in it? If you cut even cautiously into such an abscess, you found, like a maggot in a rotting body, often dazzled by the sudden light — a kike!” (p. 57)

Such language betrays a visceral loathing that goes well beyond the putative objectivity of a political ideology. This is personal. It betrays not so much a philosophical conviction as a psychological pathology. Where it comes from, I’m not sure. But I am led to doubt that it was acquired through some passive and gradual process of “education” or intellectual realization.

His Emotional Flatness
 There were two occasions on which Hitler wept (or claims to have wept). The first was when his mother died. This event, which we must remember left Hitler an orphan in his late teens, is dealt with in a sentence or two. One never really gets the impression that he cared all that much — just as one never really gets the impression that he cared that much for his father, despite repeated references to him as “the old gentleman”.

The other occasion was during the First World War, when while recovering in hospital from poison gas, his eyes bandaged, he found out that Germany had surrendered. He claims to have buried his head in his pillow and cried. But his description of this emotionality somehow doesn't ring true. Again, the account seems more than a little contrived. When Hitler claims to cry, one has trouble believing it.

His Egoism

Karl Marx did not write The Communist Manifesto or Das Kapital as intellectual autobiographies. Would the history of communism have been different if he had? I don’t know. But whatever change Marx wanted to make in the world, it wasn’t all about Marx. The overthrow of the bourgeoisie would come from class consciousness, not from how Marx’s personal biography worked itself out.

It was different with Hitler. He rolled up the entire history and destiny of the German people into a little ball, and he called it “my struggle”. As if the cosmic fate of millions turned on his own fate. There is a name for such a person, just as there is a name for someone who believes he can control the weather with his thoughts: we call them “crazy”.

Another name for Hitler’s condition might be Messianism. And indeed, insanity and Messianism do often arrive at the dance as a couple. But the actual Messiah, like Marx, was clearly not as absorbed with his own unique role in history as was Hitler. Jesus offered a message of salvation, which you could take or leave. It was others who imputed to him his special role in human history and eschatology. Hitler, on the other hand, seemed to view his own life story as world history. His “struggle” to become an architect was the German people’s struggle, and every setback in his life, such as failing to get into art school, was the result of some vast conspiracy against the German people. Now, as a grad student I once failed to get a fellowship, and I have had papers rejected for publication. But it would take considerable ego on my part to view this as a vast conspiracy against my nation by some foreign enemy whom it is my special destiny to somehow defeat with the aid of the united will of my people. To think this way is, well, bizarre. It is at least a little bit psychopathic.

I have tended to be suspicious of interpretations of Hitler that make him out to be some kind of unnatural monster, a moral singularity, mostly because I tend to think that there is nothing constructive in such a view; it rather lets the rest of us off the hook for the monstrous characteristics lurking in almost all of our souls, a few rare moral saints notwithstanding. I always thought of Hitler-types as the limiting condition of the less admirable parts of our own characters. In viewing Hitler as a moral singularity, we can comfort ourselves with the analgesic thought that Hitlerism couldn’t happen here, amongst us, because maybe there will never be another Hitler, he being too strange, outlandish, unnatural. Of course, every sane person in her heart of hearts knows that this is bullshit, that Hitler was a human being of some kind. But this not-so-noble lie gives us succour.

However, reading Mein Kampf has led me to think that perhaps there is a grain of truth to that interpretation, that “moral singularity” thesis. There was a certain idiosyncratic pathology to the man. On the other hand, reading the book has also reinforced my belief that there doesn’t seem to have been anything particularly brilliant or charismatic about this little creature. Which unfortunately leaves me back where I started, with the question of how it is that he gained so many followers? And so I still find myself unable to mentally connect the humane Bavarian or German of today with the Nazi of yesteryear.

N.B. In quoting from Mein Kampf, I have used Ralph Manheim's translation (Boston: Mariner Books, 1998).