Sunday, 12 August 2012

Mein Kampf: Part I, Adolf Hitler

This is not a book that needs much introduction.  It comes in two parts.  I have only read the first.  I doubt that the second is much better.
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The details of Hitler's early career are well known, and he provides us with a broadly (but by no means entirely) accurate account of his life as a child and a young man.  He initially wanted to be an artist, though he claims that he was always interested in militarism, pan-German nationalism and Wagner.  He moved to Vienna as a teenager; he wasn't talented enough to get into the Academy of Fine Arts, but he arrogantly assumed that he had passed the entrance exam and was stunned when he was told that he had failed.  He then thought about becoming an architect, but didn't have the academic qualifications to make it.

He describes Vienna vivdly:
At the beginning of the century Vienna had already taken rank among those cities where social conditions are iniquitous. Dazzling riches and loathsome destitution were intermingled in violent contrast. In the centre and in the Inner City one felt the pulse-beat of an Empire which had a population of fifty-two millions, with all the perilous charm of a State made up of multiple nationalities....  Abject poverty confronted the wealth of the aristocracy and the merchant class face to face. Thousands of unemployed loitered in front of the palaces on the Ring Strasse; and below that Via Triumphalis of the old Austria the homeless huddled together in the murk and filth of the canals.
He talks of his own poverty and suffering in Vienna after failing to get into the Academy.  He omits to mention that he was cushioned financially for at least some of his time there by sponging off his family.

It is in Mein Kampf that Hitler provides his own answer to the often debated question of how he came to be a fanatical antisemite and right-wing extremist.  He locates his conversion experience in his time in Vienna.  However, on this subject as on others, it looks like he was being less than candid.  It is probably true that he imbibed contemporary antisemitic ideas in Vienna, but there is evidence from other sources that he was not yet a fully-fledged Jew-hater, and indeed that he had amicable relations with Jews.  It seems to have taken the shattering experience of the Great War, culminating in Germany's defeat, to turn him into a genocidal fanatic.  In similarly unreliable vein, he tells a story about having been turned off left-wing politics when he was intimidated by unpatriotic trade unionists while working as a casual labourer.  Historians have suggested that this was a fabrication (not least because the real Hitler assiduously avoided manual labour).  He also claims to have read a lot at this time, but it is not clear how broad or deep his studies were.

The young Hitler didn't think much of the multi-ethnic Austrian state: the Habsburgs were too keen on the Slavs, and Franz Ferdinand had got what he deserved.  In particular, he didn't like cosmopolitan Vienna.  He crossed the border in 1912 and settled in the more unambiguously German city of Munich.  However, all was not well in the Second Reich.  Germany, Hitler wrote, was decadent even before the Great War.  The Kaiser was not an impressive figure, the imperial government had no deeply held principles, and the Reichstag was a contemptible farce.  Germany had made the mistake of seeking a colonial empire and following a policy of engaging in commerce.  She had also allied herself with multi-culti Austria instead of with Britain.  Worst of all, Germans had failed to recognise the all-important racial dimension of world affairs.

Hitler finally found a purpose and meaning for his life when the First World War was declared.  He found himself in the trenches, "in a position where any chance bullet from some nigger or other might finish me", as he charmingly puts it.  He loved the Army, but he discovered that not everyone shared his take on the slaughter, and he hated the cynics and defeatists he encountered.

In the end, of course, Germany lost the war.  Hitler was in no doubt as to how this happened.  The Army, which had been deprived of resources by the democratic politicians in the Reichstag, was stabbed in the back by a conspiracy organised by Jews.  His famous words on learning of the German revolution and the surrender to the Allies bear repeating:
So all had been in vain. In vain all the sacrifices and privations, in vain the hunger and thirst for endless months, in vain those hours that we stuck to our posts though the fear of death gripped our souls, and in vain the deaths of two millions who fell in discharging this duty.... Was it for this that the soldiers died in August and September 1914, for this that the volunteer regiments followed the old comrades in the autumn of the same year? Was it for this that those boys of seventeen years of age were mingled with the earth of Flanders? Was this meant to be the fruits of the sacrifice which German mothers made for their Fatherland when, with heavy hearts, they said good-bye to their sons who never returned? Has all this been done in order to enable a gang of despicable criminals to lay hands on the Fatherland?
But Hitler didn't just bewail the defeat of his beloved Vaterland and the end of his beloved war.  He decided to do something about it.

*

At the heart of Hitler's political ideas were the two fundamental principles of the extreme right - the celebration of human inequality and the love of violent conflict.

For Hitler, all life was struggle:
He who would live must fight. He who does not wish to fight in this world, where permanent struggle is the law of life, has not the right to exist.
He subscribed to a crude social Darwinism in which human affairs were subject to "the law of eternal struggle and strife" and "the strong are always the masters of the weak".  International politics was accordingly a deadly struggle between nations and races, and in this struggle the interests of the German Volk were paramount.  But this was not merely the standard hard-headed Realpolitik that informs all foreign policy: Hitler was something more sinister than a Lord Palmerston or a Henry Kissinger.  For him, the struggle of nations was not simply a matter of unavoidable necessity which had to be accepted with realism: it was something to be celebrated and relished.  War was good.  "Man has become great through perpetual struggle.  In perpetual peace his greatness must decline."  Hitler was not advocating a foreign policy based on cool calculations of rational self-interest.  He was proselytising for a cult of violence based on racist nationalism ("in the vehement and extreme sense") and adorned with the irrationalist language of heroism, sacrifice and faith.

The constant dystopian racial struggle on behalf of the German Volk was the keystone of Hitler's entire world-view.  Everything else was subordinated to it:
For me and for all genuine National-Socialists there is only one doctrine. People and Fatherland.

What we have to fight for is the necessary security for the existence and increase of our race and people, the subsistence of its children and the maintenance of our racial stock unmixed, the freedom and independence of the Fatherland; so that our people may be enabled to fulfil the mission assigned to it by the Creator. All ideas and ideals, all teaching and all knowledge, must serve these ends. It is from this standpoint that everything must be examined and turned to practical uses or else discarded.
In practical terms, the interests of the race disallowed any notions of individualism, internationalism or pacifism.  Interracial dating was out too: the Aryans should not mix their blood with that of inferior races, or they would merely weaken themselves.  What was at stake was nothing less than the survival of human civilisation itself.  The Aryans were the creators of true human culture.  They were the "founders of culture".  Most other races were "bearers of culture", like the Japanese.  And then there were the "destroyers of culture".  It does not come as an enormous surprise that Adolf Hitler assigned to this last category "that bacillus which is the solvent of human society, the Jew".  For Hitler, the Jews were everywhere, and they were responsible for almost everything.  He blamed them both for communism and for "international capitalistic domination".  He claimed that they were the hidden force behind democracy, the press and Freemasonry.  He accepted the claim of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion that they were aiming to take over the world.  It perhaps does not take much to believe that the mind behind this noxious paranoia was the mind that conceived the Holocaust.

Another practical implication of the epic struggle of races was that Germany, whose population was growing, needed new living space.  This Lebensraum could only be acquired at the expense of inferior races (specifically, the Slavs).  Hitler was not a man given to changing his mind about things, and his views on this subject underwent no serious revision until the battle of Stalingrad.

As far as domestic politics was concerned, Hitler despised democracy.  He considered it to be a decadent system which led to communism.  Politics was about the vision and leadership of great personalities, not the majority votes of assemblies and the careers of time-serving politicians.  Parliamentary deputies were ignorant, and ministers were mediocrities.  It was degrading for a great statesman to have to persuade people to support him.  In Hitler's version of "German democracy", the people would simply choose the Leader, and the Leader would take it from there.

Again, what was at stake was nothing less than the future of human civilisation - or even the human species itself.  Hitler claimed that the egalitarianism and internationalism of the left would, unless checked, literally mean the end of the world:
The Jewish doctrine of Marxism repudiates the aristocratic principle of Nature and substitutes for it the eternal privilege of force and energy, numerical mass and its dead weight.  Thus it denies the individual worth of the human personality, impugns the teaching that nationhood and race have a primary significance, and by doing this it takes away the very foundations of human existence and human civilization.  If the Marxist teaching were to be accepted as the foundation of the life of the universe, it would lead to the disappearance of all order that is conceivable to the human mind.  And thus the adoption of such a law would provoke chaos in the structure of the greatest organism that we know, with the result that the inhabitants of this earthly planet would finally disappear.
Exactly why Hitler believed this sinister, misanthropic gibberish is fundamentally a psychological question, and the answer must lie in a combination of his brain chemistry and his life experiences.  Yet he saw himself as a rational, forensic thinker - he rejected, for example, antisemitism based on religious prejudice - and he sought to validate his ideas scientifically by appealing to the "iron laws of Nature".  He saw himself as a rigorously logical man who was not swayed by "mere manifestations of feeling, such as ethical and moral conceptions, etc.".  He refers to Darwin's theory of evolution and to the well-known racist scholar Houston Stewart Chamberlain, though whether he had actually read either writer is less clear.  He saw his prejudices as being no more than correct inferences drawn from the observable facts: "one may", he wrote, "defy Nature for a certain period of time; but sooner or later she will take her inexorable revenge".  But then most people are under the impression that their own political outlook is basically just a description of objective reality, from radical biological racists like Hitler to left-wing egalitarians who see racial, gender and class differences as being un-natural social constructs.

Hitler's paranoid vision of the world went hand in hand with a contempt for the intelligence of the "dunder-headed multitude".  They were "a vacillating crowd of human children who are constantly wavering between one idea and another", "mostly stupid", cowardly, feminine and brainwashed by the Jew press:
Like a woman whose inner sensibilities are not so much under the sway of abstract reasoning but are always subject to the influence of a vague emotional longing for the strength that completes her being, and who would rather bow to the strong man than dominate the weakling - in like manner the masses of the people prefer the ruler to the suppliant and are filled with a stronger sense of mental security by a teaching that brooks no rival than by a teaching which offers them a liberal choice.
The result was that propaganda had to be simple and repetitive.  This points up one of the principal ironies and inconsistencies in Hitler's outlook.  He was obsessed with the survival of the Volk, but he viewed most of its members with contempt.  He was a populist who despised his populace.

Hitler's populism sometimes reveals itself in the Socialist part of National Socialism.  He is scornful of the old aristocracy, and he doesn't show much interest in restoring the monarchy.  He recognises that the industrial revolution had spelt oppression for many ordinary workers, and he argues that capitalism should serve the interests of the nation rather than vice versa.  He didn't like the smug, self-interested bourgeoisie, who had forced the workers to embrace Marxism by refusing to enact social reforms.  He was ok with trade unions as long as they stuck to protecting their members' material interests against greedy employers and didn't get involved in politics.  Unfortunately (he claimed) the Social Democratic Party had long ago succeeded in co-opting the German labour movement as part of its wider Marxist class war.  And - of course - he thought that the movement was being manipulated behind the scenes by a Jewish conspiracy.

Rather bafflingly, Hitler seemed to think that capitalism and socialism were essentially kindred systems.  Overall, he had little interest in the details of economic policy, and economics was not the point anyway.  Prosperity was a sign of decadence.  Getting rich got in the way of making war.

*

Hitler seems to have seen himself as a philosopher as well as a practical politician, though he was at the same time anti-intellectual - another notable inconsistency.  He was aware of his own talent for oratory and propaganda.  He wrote:
It is only through the capacity for passionate feeling that chosen leaders [like me] can wield the power of the word which, like hammer blows, will open the door to the hearts of the people.
A modern reader has to remind herself that this book was written by a nobody on the fringes of respectable society who was serving time in jail.  No-one in the Germany of 1924 thought that Hitler would end up running the country within a decade.  It is very difficult not to read the book in the light of what happened in the years that followed its publication.  In practice, however, this isn't much of a handicap.  As George Orwell wrote, the striking thing is how very little Hitler's ideas changed after he wrote the book.  Mein Kampf was not a blueprint, to be sure.  Hitler had no idea how he was going to put his ideas into practice, and he spent most of the rest of his career making policy on the hoof (or letting others do so in his name).  Fundamentally, however, he knew what he wanted to do.  He knew that he wanted the Jews out of Europe, even if he didn't yet know that this would be accomplished by building a network of death camps with gas chambers in occupied Poland.

I would not recommend anyone to read this book, unless they need to do so for the purposes of academic research.  It is turgid and overlong, even though it was apparently significantly edited by Hitler's literary helpers.  It is also predictably repellent in its contents.  It reminds one that Nazism was nothing more than the basest and most brutal of human passions masquerading as a political philosophy.  It is moral and mental poison.