Yesterday, the U.S. Holocaust museum held a Twitter chat about the impending emergence of Hitler’s manifesto Mein Kampf from copyright and what the former owners, the city of Munich in particular and Germany in general, ought to do now that they can no longer easily inhibit its publication.
My answer: they should let it be published.
Mein Kampf is certainly a hateful book. I had to read it in translation when I was in college for a class on modern European history, and Hitler’s rants against Jews and other races are both frequent and long. Getting through it was hard enough for that, but there was something else that made Hitler’s magnum opus an even worse slog.
Adolf Hitler was a dull-as-shit writer.
My edition of Mein Kampf was a little over 800 pages long, and there was not a witty or charming sentence, much less a page, in the bunch. Now, maybe you’d like to blame that on the translation, but according to William Shirer, SS men–fanatical Nazis, mind you–found the book equally hard reading in its native German. In Mein Kampf Hitler rambles and digresses, sometimes for entire chapters. He promises to make points that he never gets around to making. And sometimes, after twenty pages of discourse he just throws up his hands and gives up on whatever argument he was trying to advance.
Much of this was a function of the way the book was written. Hitler didn’t write Mein Kampf; he dictated it, mostly to his flaky adjutant, Rudolf Hess. And though Hitler’s editors did their best, the text still feels like being trapped in a room with Hitler, a self-involved, unstable crank who’d been delivering these same dreary, hate-filled rants since 1910, when he was haranguing his roommates (and sometimes their empty chairs) in Vienna’s flophouses. From birth to the bunker, Hitler had always been tedious company, and his book is equally so.
So why the nervousness about it? I think what it comes down to is the success the Nazis had in other media in convincing both themselves and the wider world, that there was something magical about Hitler. Nazis held it as an article of faith that Hitler had preternatural powers of persuasion, and many outside Germany bought the myth as a way of explaining to themselves how the Nazis managed to achieve political success and drive a civilized nation into barbarism. Our own History Channel sometimes runs a documentary that speculates on Hitler’s occult powers and connections, and I suppose if you think that way, Hitler’s Mein Kampf becomes a kind of spell book that can infect any reader unlucky enough to gaze upon the symbols found within.
But we know a great deal about the real source of Hitler’s charisma. There’s no mystery. It came not from magical rune powers, Hitler’s internal stores of dark greatness, or from his skilled team of spin doctors, but rather from that 42% of German voters, agonized by political paralysis and economic collapse, whose yearning for simple solutions and autocratic saviors motivated them to reimagine a bizarre, raving Austrian corporal as a God. Few of these 1933 voters ever read Mein Kampf, which is probably a big reason why so many of them were comfortable seeing him as someone they could trust with their futures.
So I think Germans should read Mein Kampf when it comes out. They should wade through Hitler’s long, tangled sentences and reams of racist imbecilities, pausing to think “My great-grandparents thought this guy was Germany’s savior?!?” Maybe it’ll inspire them to ponder, as we all should, the value of our wish for saviors. It’s gotten our species into no end of trouble.