Does the Recent Scholarship on 'Mein Kampf' Risk Giving It More Legitimacy Than It Deserves?
Fringe bohemians and academic dropouts can produce great beauty and brilliance, in addition to great horrors. So what’s the point?
For almost 70 years, Adolf Hitler’s autobiography-cum-manifesto Mein Kampf was banned in Germany (this, of course, did not prevent its circulation). In 2015, an authorized edition of the book was permitted into print, heavily annotated with scholarly critique. Its publication has opened the door to other critical analyses, of which Albrecht Koschorke’s On Hitler’s Mein Kampf: The Poetics of National Socialism is a recent example. The work of a German literature professor, it seeks to understand the book’s historical appeal through an analysis of its narrative strategies.
Koschorke aims to be critical: his work is peppered with all the expected dismissals of the book and its adherents as ‘ridiculous’, ‘fanatical’, ‘irrational’, and so forth. But there's a profound danger in even a critical fetishization of Mein Kampf (this was one of the concerns with its being banned for so long in the first place). What if our efforts to critically analyze the book’s appeal -- to defuse its strange, fetishistic power, so to speak -- wind up giving it more legitimacy than it deserves? What if its terrible lure has nothing to do with its content, but from its fetish object status as a material product of a regime that produced either fanatical love or horrified rejection?
After all, what matters in the end is not the material productions of a terrible and tyrannical regime (like this book), but the psychology which sustained Nazism in power. Arguably, the slogans and literature of Nazism are as incidental to the underlying psychology of Nazism as the technologies and jurisprudence of slavery and colonialism were to their sustained support under regimes like the British Empire and early United States. The human mind is capable of rationalizing base emotions in tremendously complex ways; doesn’t true change require us to tackle those base emotions, rather than spend time debating our way through the justifications they produce?
Yes, Nazi narrative techniques help illustrate the workings of the Nazi mind. But they no more help us understand the allure of fascism than an analysis of colonial European jurisprudence on slavery helps us understand the root causes of racism.
There's a sense among many that we can glean some essential insight into the workings of fascism by understanding the magical allure of Hitler’s book. But perhaps it’s the other way around: that the essential allure to Hitler’s book was simply the already magical appeal of fascism. What if Hitler had been a poet instead? Would we analyze his taboo stanzas at length, searching for some secret revelation to let us understand why a horrible genocide happened? If he had been a successful artist, leaving behind portraits, would we search in their brush-strokes for an insight into the workings of the fascist mind? What if Hitler had signed tissues instead of disseminating a book? Would those tissues be held in the same cult status by his followers; would we examine their woven texture and aesthetic appeal for an understanding of the fascist mind?
Of course, Koschorke has a point: a book differs from tissues; it provides grist for the intellectual mill; ideas which can be used to produce endless new ideas and theories and justifications for the actions taken in their name. Ultimately, Koschorke’s thoughtful study makes some useful and insightful points, but it also muddles down some awkward paths.
On the awkward side is the typecasting of radical socio-political movements. “Radical political movements feed on an intellectual precariat of bohemians and academic dropouts, throwing together various elements that they have found in the neurotic overproduction of private mythologies,” he writes. Koschorke lumps right and left ideologies in together here (it’s not clear whether this is his goal, but then that’s part of the problem); contrasting the fringe of all sides against the solid centrism of the status quo. This critique of fringe bohemians who are rejected by mainstream society and are scrabbling for legitimacy through radical pronouncements could describe equally well not just Hitler, but other fringe bohemian academic dropouts/deviants as well: Socrates, Benjamin Franklin, John Lennon, Ho Chi Minh. Fringe bohemians and academic dropouts can produce great beauty and brilliance, in addition to great horrors. So what’s the point?
There is, in fact, something grotesque about reducing an analysis of Mein Kampf to its rhetorical and narrative techniques. The anti-Semitism of Mein Kampf, its triumphal militarism, and much else about it is repellent. But some of its rhetorical techniques are simply basic and universal and employed by a range of social movements, some of them toward positive ends. It's not the rhetorical and narrative methods, per se, that we should be concerned about: it’s the ends toward which they were applied.
Indeed, many of its rhetorical techniques can be seen across the political spectrum. The “performative empowerment”; the “ability to enjoy language that wields force” --
these can be seen not just on the right but on the left as well; among Black Panthers and decolonization movements, anti-apartheid activists, feminists, Indigenous rights activists. Performing empowerment and embracing forceful language is an essential emancipatory tool. It’s not the use of such techniques that we should be concerned about, but the use toward which they are put.
Koschorke makes statements like “as a rule, marginal groups think they are not adequately represented in the sphere of prevailing social rationality. Accordingly, they reach for forms of expression that count as largely irrational in the eyes of majoritarian society.” What’s the purpose of this statement? Is it intended as a broad put-down of marginal groups? (Including, say, Indigenous rights activists and feminists?) Or is it intended to treat Nazis and fascists as sociologically similar to those other groups in their public enactments, thereby lending them greater credibility (whether the author intends to or not)? We must be careful in how we indict Hitler. Nazism and fascism are very specific evils; being marginal is not.
The lure of Hitler’s work, suggests Koschorke, comes from the fact he offers opportunity for the broad public to participate -- “by describing social ills in a way that appeals to the target audience’s needs and instincts… by offering the prospect of rising from insignificance and becoming a member of a community that is in the process of constituting itself in full self-awareness.” But this is the promise of all emancipatory movements, and it blurs the distinction between fascism and progressive emancipatory movements of the left. There is a key distinction between Nazi fascism on the one hand, and emancipatory movements like socialism, Black Lives Matter, or Indigenous Rights movements on the other. The difference is quite simply this: that one ideology is grounded in domination, hatred and violence; the other seeks emancipation, equity, and bare survival. These distinctions are crucial, and they are lost when we concentrate too myopically on the rhetorical and narrative devices of fascism.
Perhaps the best analysis of Mein Kampf was that produced before it was ever banned in the first place. George Orwell reviewed it for the New English Weekly magazine in 1940, and his critique is still the best. (Orwell was one of those radicals whose concerns about Nazis were long brushed off as marginal... until they weren't.) He, too, noted that it was the opportunism afforded by fascism which appealed -- this is why the early British publishers of the book in the '30s tried to tone down its ferocity to make it appealing for audiences in the UK and America. The establishment forces in the capitalist, democratic west still loved Hitler -- “he had crushed the German labour movement, and for that the property-owning classes were willing to forgive him almost anything,” writes Orwell.
Hitler’s advantage, warned Orwell, also came from the fact that he understood human psychology on a visceral level much better than the western establishment did, and particularly “the falsity of the hedonistic attitude to life.”
“Nearly all Western thought,” wrote Orwell, “has assumed tacitly that human beings desire nothing beyond ease, security and avoidance of pain… [Hitler] knows that human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene, birth-control and, in general, common sense; they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice, not to mention drums, flags and loyalty-parades.”
“However [bad] they may be as economic theories, Fascism and Nazism are psychologically far sounder than any hedonistic conception of life,” warned Orwell. “Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a more grudging way, have said to people ‘I offer you a good time,’ Hitler has said to them ‘I offer you struggle, danger and death,’ and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet.”
Do not underrate the emotional appeal of fascism, warned Orwell. It's that psychological appeal of fascism that matters, and risks being lost in any preeminent focus on its rhetorical forms. Hitler’s terrible achievement, Orwell seems to suggest, did not come from his managing to make marginal ideas appealing to the mainstream. It came from his tapping into the most base and terrible ideas in the already existing mainstream, and stoking them toward terrible ends.
Criticisms aside, there are good insights to be found in Koschorke’s work too, and they lie largely in the way some of his observations lend themselves to understanding the politics of our present day. A key rhetorical technique of Hitler’s Mein Kampf, and of ‘National Socialism’ (Nazism) in general, is the way in which it sought to colonize the language of its opponents, and thereby steal their appeal. “Social problems, he [Hitler] writes, cannot be solved by condescending acts of charity,” explains Koschorke. “Instead, it is a matter of taking on, and from the ground up, ‘basic deficiencies in the organization of our economic and cultural life.’ [Hitler’s] demands --
starting with the improvement of living conditions and institutions -- agree with many contemporary demands for social reform.” Hitler appealed to both left and right, trying to steal support from his left-wing opponents right out from under them by using their very own language (even though he quickly embraced hyper-capitalism once in power).
Similar rhetorical techniques can be seen in the election which propelled US President Donald Trump to power -- his attack on free trade (normally a stomping-ground of the radical left) and demands for protectionism and jobs were left-ish slogans that resounded with many who might have otherwise voted on the left, despite the fact his agenda was fundamentally one of the far-right.
Also, and importantly, “fanaticization does not necessarily arise from genuine conviction,” observes Koschorke. Many leading Nazis thought Hitler was an intellectually inferior buffoon (many leading Republicans overtly think the same about Trump), and that Nazi political theory was nonsense, but they thought they could use him and his mass appeal toward their own ends.
Similarly, the vague and vacuous political theory in Mein Kampf actually proved appealing for many political theorists, who felt that here was an opportunity for them to make a name for themselves by filling in the gaps and contributing to its greater coherence. On a similar level, perhaps, one witnesses in the disastrous and incoherent workings of contemporary neoliberal capitalism a persistent desire on the part of academics and corporate leaders to be the ones to resolve its contradictions, and win everlasting fame and fortune as a result. Incoherence and contradictions are not a barrier when it comes to the ability of an idea to attract otherwise intelligent people; they can even be an incentive.
Indeed, this leads to perhaps the most important point. In the end, it was not intellectuals or stolid centrist anti-radical opinion that mobilized the world against Hitler; it was other radicals, more of the same “intellectual precariat of bohemians and academic dropouts”, only this time it was the ones on the left. The radical left, combined with then-discredited buffoons like Winston Churchill, managed through great struggle to raise adequate resistance and alarm to the rise of fascism so that when war finally erupted, the enemies of fascism had a fighting chance.
If there’s a lesson to be learned from the legacy of mid-20th century fascism, it’s that the dominant, legitimized forms of intellectual centrism did not defeat fascism, and may even have fed its growth. It was the equally resolute radicals on the left who took action against it that helped mobilize the world to stop it. Immersing oneself in the rhetoric of fascism risks losing oneself in an indifference to its visceral appeal and its dangerous potential, as well as its qualitative difference from the equally radical emancipation movements that oppose it.