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Saturday, February 6, 2016

You Gave Four Stars to “Mein Kampf”?!

In the last month I’ve been reading quite a bit about Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party.  First I read the massive two volume biography of Hitler by Ian Kershaw (Hitler: 1889 – 1936 Hubris / Hitler: 1937 – 1945 Nemesis) and I’ve just finished Hitler’s own autobiographical and philosophical ramblings, Mein Kampf (“My Struggle”). And I’ve given it-a very qualified- four out of five stars.

I began this reading for two reasons: 1) I’ve joined the local community theater group for a production of Mel Brooks’ comedic musical The Producers; I’ll be playing the part of Franz Liebkind, a devoted follower of “our beloved führer (Producers Act 1 Scene 6).” It’s a broad role intended to be played for scenery chewing and laughs rather than intellectual examination but I wanted, for my own benefit, to know something more about Franz’s hero: Adolf Elizabeth Hitler (Producers Act 1 Scene 6). That’s one of the jokes in the show. In fact, Adolf does not seem to have been given a middle name.)

And 2) in our highly charged, politically polarized times comparisons with Hitler and the Nazis are both too frequent and usually inaccurate. I’ve been reading this material so that I can help to stem the tide of baseless Hitler comparisons (probably an unrealistic expectation, I know, more improbable than King Canute commanding the tide waters to halt…) and so I can, where it is legitimate and accurate, make helpful and realistic comparisons to and contrasts with Hitler and the NSDAP (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei - the National Socialist German Worker’s Party - commonly known as the Nazi party).

And now, having trudged through Hitler’s 688 page screed (as translated by Ralph Manheim) all I can say is “ugh!” And yet I am giving it 4 of 5 stars-a very qualified 4 stars.

That rating is not given for the quality of writing. Hitler’s prose is, even keeping in mind the German tendency for lengthy, ponderous, even labyrinthine sentences (Manheim xiii), tedious and vague. He isn’t concerned with providing details or specifics, just fury and rage. There is no orderly progression in Mein Kampf, even if it does, loosely, follow the events of his life, from his childhood in Bavaria up through his ascendancy to the role of Leader in the NSDAP; Hitler circles around, forward and backward, through his favorite topics. There’s little connection between paragraphs as he lurches from one topic to another. There are few concrete images; Hitler liked universal abstractions.  Mixed metaphors abound.

Hitler’s writing is marginally better than the impenetrable diatribes of Scientology’s founder, L. Ron Hubbard, but only just.

And neither is the four star rating for the validity of his philosophy or political program. Good God, no! It’s nothing but unrestrained egoism and hate on every page. It is evil.

So why a four star rating?

Because it’s important. Mein Kampf  needs to be read and to be understood in its historical context so that we might never forget what has happened and so that we can prevent it from happing again in our time.

Godwin’s Law of Nazi Analogies seems to be accurate: "As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1 —​that is, if an online discussion (regardless of topic or scope) goes on long enough, sooner or later someone will compare someone or something to Hitler or Nazism.”

Yet there are times when a comparison to Hitler or the Nazi party might be warranted, might be helpful in better understanding our world. We need to have an accurate understanding of the man and his party and his program if we’re going to make comparisons to and contrasts with the people and events of our present reality.

I’d like to suggest that it should be read by everyone. I can’t imagine that it will convince anyone to take up the vitriolic antisemitism of the Nazi party (except those who are already filled with that hatred); the writing is ploddingly dull. It’s not going to be convincing. So put it under the light. Give it exposure so that we can all understand him, and better understand our times as well.

Brooks, Mel and Thomas Meehan. The Producers. Booksfilms Limited. 2000.
Hitler, Adolf. Mein Kampf. Trans. Ralph Manheim. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company. 1971.
Manheim, Ralph. Translator’s Note. Mein Kampf. By Adolf Hitler. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company. 1971.

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