Jewish Ideas Daily: Back to school for ‘Mein Kampf’
If we admit that Mein Kampf is clearly murderous literature and that it must be taught so we can condemn it, what other books are we obliged to teach in the same way?
Mein Kampf sells in Poland Photo: Reuters
Important literature can’t be kept under wraps forever. A case in point
is Mein Kampf. The German state of Bavaria, which holds the German copyright,
has blocked the book’s publication within Hitler’s homeland; as recently as
2010, the state went to court to prevent an unauthorized academic edition. But
in 2015, 70 years after the author’s death, Bavaria’s copyright will expire. So,
the state has announced plans to fund two new editions, the first in German
since 1945, including critical commentary. The aim, say Bavarian authorities, is
to “demystify” Mein Kampf and make other editions “commercially unattractive.”
The recent announcement was welcomed by, among others, representatives of
Germany’s Jews, who would prefer to see Mein Kampf remain under careful state
Like most classics, Mein Kampf is often cited but rarely read,
especially by those who pass judgment on it; but the book deserves careful
study. It was published in two volumes in 1925 and 1926, after Hitler emerged
from the Bavarian prison in which he wrote it after his failed 1923 Beer Hall
Putsch. The work presents his life story, education, philosophy and plans. Its
structure is immensely clever, beginning with a very modest snapshot of Hitler’s
family and early life. Through this device Hitler poses as the German
The book then maps Hitler’s struggles – as a child, artist,
soldier and revolutionary – onto the struggles of the German nation, whose
corrupt leaders have failed its pure, if naïve, people. Hitler’s life becomes
Germany’s life. “The Goddess of Fate,” Hitler addresses Germany, “clutched me in
her hands and often threatened to smash me; but the will grew stronger as the
obstacles increased, and finally the will triumphed.” The purely literary merits
of such declarations are few, but the emotional appeal to the German masses of
1925 – or, Bavaria fears, 2012 – is apparent.
What is needed, the book
explains, is to uplift and “nationalize the people.” But as a struggling artist
in Vienna, Hitler came to see the obstacles: His “eyes were opened to two
perils, the names of which I scarcely knew hitherto and had no notion whatsoever
of their terrible significance for the existence of the German people”: Marxism
and Judaism. Even more fundamentally, social democracy, finance, capitalism and
Communism, the press – all these corruptions stemmed from “the life which the
Jew lives as a parasite thriving on the substance of other nations and
The book, initially taut, then becomes baggier, suitable mostly
for dipping in and out rather than reading through; but it remains saturated
with a pure anti-Semitism that even the most episodic reader cannot
One of the book’s virtues, so to speak, is honesty.
of leadership,” it explains, “as displayed by really great popular leaders in
all ages, consists in consolidating the attention of the people against a single
adversary and taking care that nothing will split up that attention into
Hitler makes clear from the beginning who that single
adversary will be. No one who had persevered through the first 100 pages should
have had any doubt about his beliefs or intentions; and no one reading it after
Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor of Germany on January 30, 1933, should have
doubted that the book’s racialized, anti-Semitic, anti-democratic program would
become state policy.
In his so-called “Second Book,” written in 1928 but
not published in his lifetime, Hitler laid out concisely his vision for a
national socialist foreign policy, based not on industry and trade but on the
expansionist pursuit of Lebensraum.
The Second Book is a policy
statement, not a personal one, and perhaps for that reason was unavailable until
1961 (thanks to the discovery of a typescript among materials seized by the US
government). Yet whereas credulous readers of Mein Kampf insisted until 1939
that that book was not to be taken seriously, the Second Book leaves no doubt
regarding Hitler’s aims.
Does Mein Kampf remain too dangerous for
uncontrolled publication? The question is in one sense academic: Copies can be
downloaded from the Arctic to the Kalahari, and the book is a bestseller in the
Muslim world. In fact, the problem may be that the book is not read enough – or,
at least, not read enough in the right places. Its current Amazon ranking is a
relatively high 16,946, which suggests that it is indeed being read. But Mein
Kampf is largely invisible in public discussions of fascism, history or anything
else. It is once again not being taken seriously.
Why isn’t Mein Kampf
taught prominently in American schools? Several explanations occur. The first is
the fear that the book’s overt racism would be offensive – or, paradoxically,
that it would radicalize students. True, today’s students are otherwise
saturated in school with anti-racist messages; but when Tom Sawyer is
bowdlerized to shelter children from a single word (and teachers and
administrators from parental outrage), Mein Kampf is unlikely to make many
middle school or high school reading lists.
But perhaps there is a more
pernicious reason. If we admit that Mein Kampf is clearly murderous literature
and that it must be taught so that we can condemn it, what other books are we
obliged to teach in the same way? What about Communist, socialist, or Islamist
literature – like Mao's Little Red Book, which inspired even more killing than
Mein Kampf, or Sayyid Qutb’s Milestones? Educators may not wish to start down
this slippery slope – which is not just a pity but a disgrace, because it
contributes to a worldview that does not take words at their face
Ignoring the details of Hitler’s message – or Stalin’s or Mao’s –
waters down the critically important specificity of historical experiences into
generalized and empty laments for “all victims of genocide.” It furthers, for
example, the dejudaization of the Holocaust.
Reminders of precisely how
the Holocaust was different, in intent and execution, are most
Reminders of how the current Chinese communist regime is heir
to Mao’s slaughter of tens of millions are equally unwelcome. By celebrating all
victims, we celebrate none and forget all.
Putting Mein Kampf back in the
schools raises a final, even more unwanted issue: the question of evil, a
question that schools, including Jewish ones, may be unequipped to address. They
ask students to seek historical explanations rooted in politics, culture,
economics, or the irrational. But if students were to look for evil in Mein
Kampf, they would actually find it; and, in recognizing it, they might be
persuaded to look for it elsewhere.
That, perhaps, is the most compelling
reason why the book should be taught.
This article originally appeared on
‘Jewish Ideas Daily’ and is reprinted with its permission.