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One of history's most horrifying, but important books
, March 20, 2008
This review is from: Mein Kampf (Paperback)
From my point of view this is probably one of the most important books written. This is one of those books that changes history. Yes, this means I completely disagree with what Hitler said about books. He mentioned that books don't change history, but a good speaker/leader does. While this is very true, books usually exist in conjunction with this. I think you need both because the book is far more timeless than the speaker and often times a book precedes a major turning point for a movement. Look at texts like "The Bible", "The Principia," or Euclid's "The Thirteen Elements". All these texts were turning points in history and changed the way we look at the world. "Mein Kampf" would forever change the way we looked at the world as well. It literally moved nations to act... in opposition of such a major power struggle.
I do not advocate Hitler's methodology in what he did, but I do acknowledge the profound impact it has left on the world and the major advancements we were all forced to make in realms such as technology. Now that this book is part of history you can't help but think of the "what if..." scenarios as I read through this massive text, I'll play into these concepts as I touch upon specific areas. Now I'm not a World War II or World War I historian by any means, so it was a hard book for me to read some of the more minute details Hitler referenced in this book. However, I read it more for the prospects in philosophy.
This particular edition is split into two different volumes with an excellent introduction by the translator. Volume I was printed in 1925 and then Volume II came out in the year 1926, so they were written very close together. The first was mostly philosophical and recounts his childhood growing up. The second was more a general history of the political party and how to deal with foreign nations. It's interesting that Hitler didn't put out any other books after these two and I assume it's because his involvement in politics took up much more of his time and no longer had the free time to write. However, they did find another book he was working on after the fall of the Reich and is now published as "Hitler's Second Book". This edition is great because it compared the first printing with the second printing and footnotes the discrepancies. It also adds in details on the people Hitler named specifically in this book who would be relatively unknown to the rest of the world outside Nazi Germany and especially helpful to me because I haven't read that much about this period in history to know the extreme details. In Volume's I and II Hitler specifically references incidents in World War I that really helped shape the beliefs he has here.
Anyway the introduction that prefaces this edition is rather lengthy, but well worth the read. It adds more of the historical background into the text you are about to dig into. It has interesting anecdotes about Hitler's involvement with the party, like in the text he states he was the seventh member of the DAP, but later it was found out he was 555th and this was corroborated with an unsent letter from Drexler, one of the founders. In fact when historian's looked at the membership items that were left behind after the war they could see that Hitler's had been altered physically. Also the introduction has an excellent overview of the printing of this book. Such as how it is not allowed to be printed in certain countries. Luckily in my country no such restrictions apply to any printed document, so I am free to read and review whatever I wish, regardless of how inaccurate a printed document is. I'm definitely glad there was an introduction even though it added another twenty pages onto an already daunting read. The introduction also forewarns us that Hitler can have a tendency to ramble in forms that eventually make little sense. I'm glad this warning was stated because when reading this book it was quite clear when Hitler felt particularly passionate about the subject he started to go off on these ridiculous tangents and tirades, often times in run on sentence form.
In the spirit of this book, I will review Volume I separately from Volume II. So first we discuss Hitler's philosophy and growing up. Personally, I think Hitler should have stuck with the philosophical approach and left politics to the politicians (regardless of the fact this didn't mesh with his philosophy). Hitler's main point in doing the things he believed in was to change society for the better. It's very clear that he truly thought he would be saving the world and putting Germany in the forefront of being that savior. Hitler's conclusion was that it would most easily be changed through moving into the political realm. He specifically outlined his plan for getting access to the political realm and the backing of the people through propaganda. He even spells out that the propaganda doesn't always have to be true; it just needs to draw a person's attention. Realistically, when we look back on what he was planning on doing and how he did it, none of the world should have been shocked that this is what would happen. He pretty clearly outlines where his prejudices are and why he has them.
Hitler starts his story as a young boy growing up and becoming disillusioned with the world around him. His father wouldn't let him do what he really wanted to do, which was art. He doesn't seem like the over confident Hitler that history portrays today. In fact I would say the movie "Max" starring Noah Taylor as Hitler did a pretty good portrayal of that possibility, only that movie was not about Hitler in his High School years, so it was a little unrealistic. When World War I started Hitler joined the military and I think this is where his confidence in himself really started to take root. This is also where he became convinced that propaganda was the key to winning the war because upon viewing the enemy's propaganda it was better than what Germany was putting out. It would appear his assumption was correct; since via propaganda he got many crowds gathered to listen to him speak.
Probably the most well known facet of his beliefs is the anti-Semitism that brought on the Holocaust. He eventually ended up in Vienna and I think this is where his prejudice became firm. You can see where his theory turns into some sort of paranoid dementia, because before you knew it he was calling everyone on the street a Jew in disgust. This was mostly based on looking at the person and guessing. He believed they had penetrated the newspaper industry and were completely lying to everyone in the world. As Volume I continues you find that eventually this belief grows into him thinking that they also controlled the governments. I think a lot of this stemmed from one other text, which he mentions in this book "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion." This is a hoax that has existed for a while and first started getting published in 1897. I believe the global conspiracy outlined in that book only solidified what Hitler suspected with his newspaper theory. I was surprised that Hitler had originally wanted to start out as an artist and actually held a few gallery viewings of his work. I wonder at this point if there is any Hitler original art around. If I remember correctly I heard actually wasn't a very good artist. It's interesting to note that as Hitler continues with his tirades I this book, you can tell he has a special soft spot for art because he wants more of that industries presence in Germany.
Overall I was surprised at how little anti-Semitism there was in the book in comparison to the length of the text. I was actually expecting a lot more. Don't mistake me, he took jabs wherever he possibly could and there was an entire chapter dedicated to the subject. However, I felt like in the first volume he spent more time criticizing the Slavs and the Austrians as being a much more immediate problem. It's almost as if the first and foremost problem was his own government and Austria; the issue of the Jewish population was a more of a global problem and probably seemed to be less immediate. You get a wholly different feel by the time we reach Volume II though.
I was also very surprised at the countries he referenced as being respectable, specifically England and America. He must have been greatly disappointed in England when they refused to side with him during World War II and he must have felt doubly wrong about his initial assessment of America when we funded a lot of his enemies. Being an American I found some of his comments curious since it seems he felt we had a dominant German aspect of our country. I found this odd since it was essentially founded by England and France mostly. I couldn't help but think that Hitler was misinterpreting his history or the books he was reading were just plain wrong.
For the most part Hitler is a pretty good writer. I found that he appears very intelligent and very well read, also very arrogant. He has sections that discuss the part of his life where he was looking into the political arena and when he came across the German Workers' Party. He doesn't hesitate to point out how superior his ideas were or how much better things worked when done his way. From the point of view of a leader, this seems counter to what you would want. Since his ability to elevate his own status seems to be his main underlying motive rather than helping his people, despite what he actually says. There is one instance when he was recounting the first speeches given for the party and how the first speaker was rather boring, but when he spoke the crowd became excited and into the words, they stood up and cheered even. History recounts Hitler as a very excellent speaker and I have no doubt this is true, but it's curious to see that he puts himself over his own party members constantly in this book. There were also sections where he got very passionate about a topic that became very confusing, as I explained above. I don't think this speaks to his inability to write, but rather his inability to write clearly when he is really trying to get his point across on a topic he believes as a core problem.
Either way you looked at it, I couldn't help but think by the end of Volume I that Hitler would have been one of the world's most celebrated leaders if he had just put his prejudice aside. This was the case... at least until I read Volume II. Through Volume I he seems to genuinely want to help his people and the world around him. The one major crux in his argument is that he believed in some overly prejudice driven conspiracy. I think Hitler really had to start struggling in the end when it was becoming even clearer that the Jews weren't as well off in Germany as he believed they were, especially during the great depression. I was surprised at his focus on helping the middle class and a seemingly focal point on intelligence and action. It appeared his main push to change the nation was centered on elevating the knowledge of the German peoples as well as moving them to the desire for action to help their nation. I think this is a great point and he's most certainly not wrong about it being needed. However, my interpretation of this concept would be dashed by Volume II...
Volume II made it incredibly clear to me that Hitler had no place in becoming a leader and especially no place on deciding education reform. Shortly into Volume II he has a lengthy chapter on what he plans to do with education to bolster a more national spirit for young Germans and to create what he refers to as a "folkish state". The concept of the "folkish state" is discussed in great length throughout Volume II and seems to be the main focus. One of the first things he was going to do was decrease the amount of time in classrooms and increase the amount of time for exercise. Following this he would decrease the amount of subjects being taught in school. This completely conflicts with his desire for an intelligent Germany, and he also discusses at length how the intelligentsia of the area are all weaklings and spineless. He notes that many students learn quite a bit of frivolous subjects in High School, which is true, but I personally believe that being a well rounded student is far better. I do agree that people need more exercise, this is painfully clear to me living in America, but to sacrifice the access to knowledge is not a viable solution! He complains at length that too many people complain about certain political actions, but being spineless professors they never actually do anything about it. Hitler sought to change this and part of this included that right after High School the population (men) would go directly into the military. Hitler being a Veteran clearly thought his experience taught him strength, so he thought that what was good for him would be good for everyone else. If only such things were true, this is clearly something that cannot be put into practice. A lot of these crazy ideas may have seemed plausible on paper, but realistically they are a fool's errand... an errand Hitler was intent on running! After a citizens completion of Army service they were then allowed into the community to pursue whatever higher level career they saw fit to pursue. His purpose in High School was to expose the students to enough generalities for them to make a choice, which is a good idea, but his plan of execution was fairly far fetched and unrealistic. Personally, in 2008, I don't think High Schools are teaching students enough to prepare them for college or to perform in the working world. So it would seem less education on academics is not the answer, but the world really does need to find some kind of a balance on this subject, even Hitler recognized that and he lived in a vastly different era from our own.
Volume II also takes a drastic turn in terms of anti-Semitism and his foreign relations outlook. England seems to have been demoted into a nation that they could possibly not ally with due to the financial control of the Jewish empire. The United States was also seen as a victim of this disease, but his knowledge of American finance seems to have been quite limited. Granted there were some major firms in the U.S. that were founded by German Jews, namely Goldman Sachs, but what about firms like J.P. Morgan? In terms of the major American firms there was a balance and in the 1930's Goldman Sachs nearly went out of business in the Great Depression, so clearly this racial favoring of economic power was quite unfounded. I think Hitler spoke on these foreign nations rather out of turn because it was pretty clear he didn't know all that much about the nations and had gotten all of his knowledge from books, which may have been biased. For he terms Ford as one of the only free American business men, but in the second printing he no longer names Ford specifically, I felt this was curious. This was a drastic change from my perspective after reading Volume I, where he praised America. So even within his own book he is very contradictory. Also the focal point of being against the Slavs and Austrians has been replaced by Germany's mortal enemy... France. This sort of came out of nowhere, since in Volume I they were not "mortal enemies" just the regular kind. Hitler must have read a lot more on the subject and decided the French were far worse than they once appeared. I find all this curious because he prefaces Volume II, with saying that it's going to be about the party history and formation. The above topics have nothing to do with the party history or its formation, rather Hitler's own pet peeves about the problems that he saw after World War I.
Most of this Volume is spent complaining about current (1920's) Bourgeoisie decision making and discussing what Hitler plans to do to fix that. I personally wasn't buying it, but then again, his book is so long that I doubt many of the general workers ever actually read what he wrote. He did spell out in Volume I that he was essentially going to dupe the masses into following him by creating the best propaganda to get people to go to the meetings. At that point he probably understood the concept of mob madness and let that do the rest for him. He recounts his early involvement with the party as becoming the head of propaganda, which is what he wanted because he believed propaganda, first and foremost, was the fulcrum to a party's success. Hitler even points out that it doesn't matter if the party is well organized at that time if the propaganda doesn't bring the masses in, they will have nothing to organize in the first place. He also discusses at length the rarity of a man who can organize and lead well; I couldn't help but feel that he thought himself to be such a man. He was a brilliant strategist and acutely aware of the power of the threat of violence on the general populace, especially after a major war that was still fresh in peoples memories. One of his main points was that he believed that it didn't matter what the people knew as long as an intelligent leader was looking out for them, and it's clear he believed that he was the person that could truly help the most and should be leader. This is regardless of the violence he would have to inflict; besides he only wanted strong people to be German anyway, so a show of strength went a long way with him.
It's interesting to also note that he clearly wanted to rewrite some of the annals of history to favor the German people. In his long winded explanation of the Folkish State he points out that he believes the Aryan's are the only ones who could ever develop culture. No, he wasn't referring to the peoples belonging to the nation of India, but rather the Germanic peoples. See, the term Aryan comes from India, and I have no idea if Hitler knew this or not, but that's its origin. Indians clearly wouldn't have been high on his list, and certainly didn't qualify as those being able to create culture despite their history of creating that vast nation. Rather, it appears the legend and concept of the Aryan survived and came down to Hitler as the superior race. For some reason he equated that with the Germanic peoples. His whole concept of the white population being the only force intelligent enough to create culture is clearly unfounded. He gets even more contradictory in this concept since he was well aware that Germany was vastly tribal up until the Roman invasions. He states the reason was that "we were a young people". This is just foolishness because it was trade in technology that eventually brought what we call "civilization" today to the Germanic tribes. It has nothing to do with them being the only creative force in the world. He completely ignores the fact that Egypt existed long before as a civilization. I question whether he knew of the Arab city-states of Sumer, but it doesn't explain Egypt. I think Hitler merely viewed them as "uncivilized" or "not a cultured" or whatever other twisted elaboration he wanted to thrust upon them. Either way, he does not explain his reasoning in detail, and just states matter of factly that only Aryans harbor the creative force to develop culture and no one else.
Overall I walked away with reading a superb book, in my opinion. At times it was very hard to read and I will be the first to admit that not everyone will struggle through this thing. There are too many sections of rambling that don't drive home the main points. It all sounds very smart at first glance, but when you sit down and analyze what he's saying inherent contradictions come to the surface. Then it occurs to the reader that most of his language use is merely superfluous for the sake of sounding intelligent (much like this sentence). No one wants an incredibly inconsistent leader (however, I feel like that's all we get at times!). Despite the racial hatred, I am glad I read this book, it gives me a great historical perspective and I now understand where Hitler was coming from. On a philosophical note, it really makes me think of the concept of evil and how that plays into perspectives. From Hitler's perspective he thought he was saving his people. He thought he was actually saving the world from the greatest threat and he really thought the other nations would see the truth that he saw and back him up. Alas, for Hitler he was chasing after rumors and ghosts that didn't actually exist.
In reading this I also couldn't help but wonder about what the world is like today. Lots of "what if" questions come to mind. Despite the incredible tragedy that Hitler wrought on so many lives, it was really the need to ramp up production of war elements that brought the world out of the great depression. So Hitler really did end up helping the world in this sense by provoking everyone to action. He also motivated the world to increase production and research into massive amounts of technology. Atomic energy might not have come to us as soon as it has without this provocation. I can't deny this factor. Also, I have to look at the historical perspective that the country I now reside in is the major world power because of Hitler's actions against Europe! Many people will probably consider these horrible thoughts, but I can't deny the reality of the situation and it leaves me to wonder that if Hitler had become the artist he always wanted to be, would we be in the same situation? Would Israel exist today if he never came to power? After World War II the Cold War went quickly into effect and I wonder if I would even have the internet to relay my ideas if World War II had never taken place, since that also forced us to ramp up production and research in technology. As a philosophical perspective these are all very profound concepts and questions. Despite all the horror that was wrought in the war, if you step back with the utilitarian perspective of Mills and look at all that has come out of the war that has elevated our lives and the economy as a whole.
On the reverse side, what if Hitler had actually succeeded in what he wanted to do? Israel surely wouldn't exist today. Would Christianity be the same? Since he seemed to respect Christianity and he was surely no atheist, so would his disdain for the Jewish people provoke him to edit the Bible down to just the New Testament? I've already said before that he clearly sought to rewrite history and I don't think anything would be out of his grasp. I do know one thing for sure though, I wouldn't have been able to read all the books I have under a reign like that, and I most surely would not have been able to criticize this book as I have in such a society. Thankfully his party was not in power for a long time, but apparently long enough to change the world.
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