The elitist struggle against Mein Kampf
Why are some people so frightened by Hitler's book? It's so tedious the only thing it's likely to induce is snoozing.
When I was a child, I often used to ask if I could read such and such a book. My mother would tell me it’s a bit grown-up darling, maybe when you’re older. I would read those books anyway, of course, but, since I was a child, she was often right in predicting that I’d suffer from childish nightmares afterwards. What she did let me read, though, wasn’t prefaced with a long academic lecture on what the book was about and what I should think of it. Even as a child, she let me make my own mind up about what I was reading.
The Hate Prevention Initiative, on the other hand, is not inhibited by any such respect for the capacity of readers – even adults – to make their own judgements. The organisation was recently established to ‘create a European annotated and educational edition [of Mein Kampf] allowing an informed access to the text and warning the young generations of the conditions in which the Text of Hate was published and disseminated as well as how the theories were implemented between 1935 and 1945′.
Mein Kampf is the extended rantings of Adolf Hitler written between 1923 and 1924 when he was in prison after the Nazis’ abortive Munich putsch. Every page of the new edition is to be watermarked with a warning about the content, and abridgement will be prohibited (despite the fact that it’s a book crying out for abridgement, given it’s so dull) because there is a ‘need to respect the full original text’. Why it deserves any respect beats me.
The Initiative calls for European-wide regulation of the public communication of Mein Kampf, which will be just the first ‘text of hate’ to be given this special status. In effect, the organisation is aiming to set up a twenty-first-century index of hate books that we, the people, should not read. Or, if they are read, they should only be read in the ‘right way’, based on the assumption that the open and free dissemination of such books may incite us to hatred.
Mein Kampf contains few surprises – apart from possibly how boring it is. The book ‘reveals’ that Hitler was a violent nationalist who hated Marxism and the world Jewish conspiracy he thought pulled its strings. Readers also learn that he was the leader of the equally anti-Semitic and nationalist Nazi Party. In other words, there is nothing that would justify the effort of ploughing through so many tedious pages.
Nothing tells you more about the book and the man who wrote it than Hitler’s original choice of title: Four and a Half Years (of Struggle) Against Lies, Stupidity and Cowardice. Even Benito Mussolini never bothered to read it. I would bet that no one was converted to Nazism on the basis of reading it simply because there are no arguments in it designed to convince you. There are some arguments designed to marginalise Hitler’s opponents within the Nazi Party, but nothing that would make you want to join it.
That Mein Kampf should be such a tedious, ideas-free tome should be no great surprise, given that fascism was not exactly a positive ideology. It’s very difficult to make rational arguments for an entirely irrational project committed to destroying the entire tradition of Western thought.
The objections to Mein Kampf made by the Hate Prevention Initiative are actually vague. They centre on the claim that it is ‘a text that invokes hatred’ and ‘racial theory’. Jean-Marc Dreyfus, one of the expert advisers to the Initiative and a Holocaust historian, told me via email that ‘we think the book is not innocent’.
In Germany, a similar overestimation of the supposed superhuman powers of Mein Kampf has been made since the end of the Second World War. The copyright on all editions except English and Dutch is owned by the State of Bavaria. It has attempted to enforce bans on the book, not just in Germany (where you can’t even research it without undergoing a background check), but abroad as well, successfully forcing, for example, the Czech publisher Kma to pulp an edition of it in 2010. It is remarkable, of course, that the postwar German state does not realise the sad historical irony of enforcing bans on books.
The view that there are such things as ‘dangerous ideas’ that must be suppressed because some people (but not the enlightened, of course) will be influenced by them is now mainstream across much of Europe. Laws against expressions of religious and racial hatred have been toughened up by every UK government since Thatcher. Nick Cohen, writing in the UK Observer in the wake of the recent mass murder in Norway, calls Britain ‘the European capital of extremist ideas’ and takes both left- and right-wing media to task for carelessly throwing out ‘dangerous ideas’ that pander to the ‘prejudices of their supporters’. Seeing people as an unthinking mass is a dangerous idea that you will find in Mein Kampf, one that seems to be echoed in the desire to suppress the book today.
The Hate Prevention Initiative is not arguing for a ban. Instead, it wants to warn people not to be the wrong kind of people. This is pandering to a climate of fear about extremism and turning a dull-as-ditchwater book into something to be afraid of. It is also an attitude that betrays a broader fear of the masses’ supposed predilection for racism and fascism unless warned off by their intellectual and moral superiors in Brussels and Strasbourg. That elitist sentiment is much more worrying than the prospect of Mein Kampf falling into the hands of someone who won’t read it in the ‘right way’.
This is really a matter of free speech, which is not merely something to be granted to those who express ideas but, more importantly, those who hear them. Regardless of how odious the views being expressed, we must demand the right to make our own minds up about them, not have this judgement outsourced to the great and the good.
If there is any need to respond to Mein Kampf coming out of copyright, it might best be through the publication of scholarship on its production and reception so that it can be placed in proper historical context. For example, far from Germany being in thrall to the power of his ideas, the irony is that Hitler never gained a majority of the votes in any election and his popularity had already gone seriously into reverse by the time he was handed power in 1933. It was the weakness of the German elite, not the eloquence of Hitler’s writing, which led to dictatorship.
But in reality, there is little need to respond to Mein Kampf. It would be far better to ignore it and concentrate instead on tackling contemporary arguments that still see ordinary people as a gullible and easily swayed mass rather than as individual humans each with the capacity to judge and make their own minds up.
Angus Kennedy is a member of the organising committee of the Battle of Ideas festival.
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