There was a lot said last week about the reëmergence, in Germany, of Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” (“My Struggle”)—which just became legal to publish and sell there, for the first time since the end of the Second World War, albeit in a heavily hedged “scholarly” edition. Did providing a public place for the autobiographical testament of the Nazi dictator, written when he was briefly imprisoned in Bavaria, in the nineteen-twenties, in some way legitimize it, people asked, even if the text was surrounded by a trench work of scholarly addenda designed to italicize its lies and manias?
I read “Mein Kampf” right through for the first time last year, while working on a piece about Timothy Snyder’s history of the Holocaust as it happened in the Slavic and Baltic states during the Second World War. (Snyder reads Hitler in a somewhat original and provocative way, derived in part from his reading of “Mein Kampf.”) I read it in the first English translation, from 1933, with the German version alongside, online, and a crib of graduate-school German grammar nearby. (I’ve since reread sections, in Ralph Manheim’s later translation.) The question of what to do with “Mein Kampf” is, in some sense, independent of the book’s contents—buying it is a symbolic act before it’s any kind of intellectual one, and you can argue that it’s worth banning on those grounds alone. A good opposing case can be made on similarly symbolic grounds: that making it public in Germany is a way of robbing it of the glamour of the forbidden.
However that may be, the striking thing about the text as a text is that it is not so much diabolical or sinister as creepy. It is the last book in the world that you would expect a nascent Fascist dictator to write. Most of us—and most politicians in particular, even those who belong to extremist movements—try to draw a reasonably charismatic picture of our histories and ourselves. We want to look appealing. An evil force may emerge and temporarily defeat the narrator, but that force is usually placed against a childhood of a purer folk existence, now defiled. That’s the way most politicians’ campaign memoirs still work, for instance.