by Andrew Heisel
Earlier this year, a new volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s novel My Struggle arrived in America, prompting a fresh discussion of why the writer borrowed his book’s title from Adolf Hitler. Knausgaard said the choice was about scaling down; he wanted to contrast the dictator’s “grand, ideological worldview with the reality of the individual.” But he also believes that, “for someone interested in the zone between literature and reality, this book is, in the end, impossible to avoid.” In fact, he added, “I think everybody should read Mein Kampf.” Responding to the surprising spike of digital sales of Mein Kampf, Stephen Marche echoed Knausgaard’s sentiment in Esquire: “Everyone should read it. It’s essential to understanding history and the way that history reaches into our present moment.” And, last month, when considering if Germans should read the book, Peter Ross Range concluded in the Times that they would be “better served by open confrontation with Hitler’s words.”
So, perhaps everyone should read Mein Kampf, as these men have recently determined. But who actually does? What perspective do these bring to the book? What do they buy alongside it? What did these people hope to learn? There are over six hundred reviews of Mein Kampf on Amazon, and I read all of them. Who gave it five stars? Three stars? Or just one?
Of the patterns that emerged as I read Hitler’s readers, none were so immediately unsurprising as readers who do not reckon with Mein Kampf so much as adhere to it, chapter and verse. Consider the following review, titled “Jesus and Hitler”:
Hate them both or Love them both. What’s important is the realization that they came preaching the same message and suffered the same fate.
This type of reader frequently discusses “our servile deference to Jewry” or refers to the author as “Herr Hitler.” They deny the Holocaust. They call the book a “must read for any racially conscious white person.” They sign off, “All the best, to one of the Volk!” But many of this ilk are less overt, suggesting they came to Mein Kampf innocently and found reason there. They imply a process of discovery and conversion, much like Hitler’s. One writes:
Hitler didn’t wake up one day and hate the enemies of Germany. He saw problems with society and devoted his life in Vienna studying history and Marxism and relentlessly questioned the people behind the politics. He learned they were anti-German and transforming Germany/Austria into a multicultural state.
While Knausgaard says he’s confident that nobody will be converted by reading the book, these sympathetic reviewers insist that it’s an eye opener: “I’ve read the entire book twice and i’m only 17. The idea’s and ‘ramblings’ as all you protalitariats call it would actually work. People should just give his book a chance in society today. It would be such a better place.” For Hitler’s converts, the “kosher biased media” is all that divides the enlightened from ordinary “sheeple.” Clarity lies in simply opening the book: “No wonder Europe is in the mess she’s in. No body reads anymore.” For these reviewers, the question tends not to be whether Hitler was right, but which is the right translation.
Other readers look to Mein Kampf for the opposite of instruction. They read to stay vigilant:
We don’t want this in the house. BUT Rush Limbaugh has told us about technique of “The Big Lie” in Mein Kampf. We are Tea Party Conservative Patriots and love the Constitution … We have the need, the duty to KNOW THE ENEMY, so it can NEVER HAPPEN AGAIN
The dangers of liberalism motivate many of these reviewers. Approximately two-thirds of all Amazon reviews of Mein Kampf have been published since Obama took office in 2009. I haven’t found evidence of a recent conservative call to read the book, but right-wing voices have been especially vocal in the reviews since the beginning of the year — right around the time that it was reported that Mein Kampf was an e-reader hit. One story noted that Mein Kampf’s place on the digital sales charts was surrounded by books from various conservative luminaries like Sarah Palin and Ben Carson. Some of the reviewers of this ilk not only insist that “national socialism” is the same as liberalism but also repeatedly assert, as one does, that “if Marx was not born as a Jew, Hitler would have bought into his economic plan.” One conservative is open about Hitler’s position on the extreme Right and annoyed by the intrusions of neo-Nazis into the Tea Party; this gets him branded a liberal.
Clearly, many are taking this “know your enemy” idea seriously. The most common companion purchases to Mein Kampf on Amazon are historical studies, anti-semitic screeds, and the Communist Manifesto, reviews of which have also been tilting more heavily against Obama in the past year. Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals is another frequent companion purchase. (Of the four hundred and seventy reviews of Alinsky’s book, ninety percent have come since 2008, and almost all are by conservatives.) Most of these reviews try to play it coy about their target. It seems that they think the answer to avoiding Godwin’s Law is not to fully enunciate the comparison. Some choice excerpts:
But then again, many are less so:
In the United States the instant association of Hitler is linked to the white supremist movements, but the same philosophy is also present in the feminist movements, pro-abortion lobby, the compartmentilization of cultures in the differing diversity programs etc.
A number of reviewers bring up the remarkable similarity that both men wrote a book before rising to power. They insist that like Mein Kampf, Obama’s books are filled with “morbid ideas” and tales of a “devious life.” Yet, to some, it’s also a shame Obama’s books aren’t more Kampfy:
If Barack Obama had had the honesty to write what he really believed, instead of the vapid mush he put in his books, he never would have been elected President.
To others, Obama is actually worse. One writer says, “I only bought it to see how closely Obama is following his formula, and I have to say he’s doing a hell of a job.” Another from 2010 has an even closer read on things:
I read this book to see if we are repeating history in any way at all. And YES we are. The one difference is that we now have a leader in America that has accellerated the pace of the Nazi’s. Hitler had his brown shirts where Obama has his purple shirts. Hitler had Gurbles vs Gibbs and Axelrod. Hitler had Himmler vs Rob Emmanuel and Andy Sterns. The parellels can go on and on. But what I found terrifying is that our president is moving at light speed in comparison while following a very simular road map.
Dozens of reviewers use this line about history repeating. This one would surely like to be able to “go on and on” with supposed parallels, but it sure gets tricky. Hitler began killing disloyal elements within a year of taking power. In his fifth year in office, Kristallnacht happened. Surely, not all these conservative reviewers believe what they’re saying. Many of their reviews are the shortest and least detailed, suggesting that perhaps they didn’t read the book and simply see this forum as a useful place to perform their contempt of Obama.
And yet, as much as Hitler is feared by these conservative reviewers, there are also awkward moments of appreciation for him. “Without giving sanction to all his ideas or actions,” one writes, “I could without reservation wish that America had one statesman who loved his country as much as Hitler did.” And some admire more than just his passion. Another says that Hitler “accurately nails the weakness and evil of democracy but then through his live and actions he displays the evil of dictatorship.” This distrust of democracy — as opposed to Republicanism — is a favorite Glenn Beck theme that appears a few times. Apropos of nothing, the Limbaugh listener quoted previously says, “Did you know that Democracy is Unconstitutional? Democracy is Mob Rule and the Founders were dead set against it!” (She’s not entirely wrong.) Although one reviewer finds the book to be the “bedrock” of today’s political correctness, another declares the book “refreshingly PC-free.”
Many of the conservative reviewers thus look to Mein Kampf not just to learn the ways of the enemy but also for practical advice:
Hitler was not only spot-on but scathingly hilarious … when describing the shortcomings of the conservative politicians of his day and their tragicomic actions in the face of the communist/liberal threat.
Yet conservatives are not alone in finding things to agree with in Hitler’s tome. One reviewer writes, “Taking most of the statements and conclusions from this book and displaying them separately you would be surprised as to how many you would agree with.” Another says, “I will admit I agree with Hitler … but damn its hard to disagree with Hitler when it comes to social and governmental issues.” One describes this feeling as “psychologically torturing.” For some, this feeling is a reason to read the book: Maybe you ought to confront your own capacity to be Hitler.
Maybe, many reviewers suggest, this opportunity is being kept from you. It’s not only Hitler’s ardent admirers who feel this way. Plenty are simply taken with the idea that “The truth always seems to be somewhere in between the poles,” even if one of those poles is Hitler. They read Mein Kampf because both sides must be heard. Balance must be restored:
Even while rejecting Hitler, many reviewers note that “the one-sided story taught us in school” has misled us. We should read Mein Kampf to get past the “slant” of historians and “to obtain balance from the other literature.” There can be no “better source that the central figure in the story himself.” If we don’t get “the complete facts” to “understand both sides,” we’re “no better than any of those critics or movie makers that produce films that slander our country.”
Yet reviewers never point to any facts they’ve discovered that aren’t readily available elsewhere. What they really mean is that we’re never given an opportunity to sympathize with Hitler; these reviews are doubtless written after the reviewer has felt an unexpected kinship with the man, so it feels like something had been hidden. Plenty find themselves thoroughly impressed with his reasoning, albeit with important caveats. They come to believe Hitler “had a good idea,” as one writes, but unfortunately took it “to an extreme in killing other races.” Even if the man was “not quite right in the head,” another says, you “cannot denounce the book because of the author, that would be unfair.”
These reviewers are reasonably skeptical of mainstream forums, which, as the reviewers’ grammar sometimes indicates, rarely include their voices. Like so much bad news coverage, these reviewers start from a laudable goal of seeking differences of opinion and reduce it to a matter of weights and measures. Whereas journalism’s parameters of acceptable opinion are rather narrow, however, these reviewers expand the range of valid opinions all the way to Hitler. The man and his book thus continually earn hollow journalistic epithets like “controversial” and “polarizing,” as though Hitler’s depravity is still up for debate. Speaking in these terms of meta-analysis, that opprobrium is elided; maybe some even slyly use this approach to work Hitler back into the realm of acceptable thought. One reviewer writes that although Hitler did good for Germany, “he did harm to the rest of the people he thought as inferior. On the net of things, the oppinions tilt to more harm than good although some disagree.” (“3 of 4 people think this post adds to the discussion. Do you?”) This is not disinterested, academic inquiry, since no truth is sought; it’s just a purposeful way to shut one’s eyes.
For readers of another bent, the book is valuable not for what it can tell us about evil but about excellence. Such readers glean tips about “organizational brilliance and unrelenting effort, agenda aside.” They’re like nihilists, granting esteem to whoever makes the earth shake:
“Impact” is also why the book has an average rating of four stars. Even those unimpressed with Hitler feel it deserves the stars on account of its renown; those who rate it poorly are sometimes chided in the comments. For many, success, whatever the endeavor, blunts criticism. They come to Mein Kampf in awe:
If nothing else could be learned from this book, learn that 1 person has the God given ability to touch the future, whether he be a force for good or evil. Don’t admire Adolf Hitler for what he did when he came to power, admire him for being a single man who may have risen higher and impacted more than anyone in this century.
Again and again, reviewers praise Hitler as “one of the most powerful men in history,” or “the greatest mover in history.” He was a “man of strong principles, discipline and good organizational skills,” and overcame poverty “to create the worlds largest empire.” Try to set aside your negative feelings for a moment and appreciate the impact: “Greatness is not measured by good or evil. Greatness is. Fascist or not, Hitler was a great leader.” The praise is qualified, but the tribute paid to morality often feels trivial alongside the esteem. Hitler “did some bad things,” one of the above says. Although he “crossed that line and spiraled into madness” and “evil,” says another, he was “wonderful leader.” Few leaders, offers another, have “matched the depth of his dedication, evil though it was.” They see that he’s a “monster” just like many of the other reviewers; they just don’t think it’s worth dwelling on instead of the positive takeaways.
Some would suggest this discourse is the effect of relativism, and there’s some of that in there, but I think, more than that, it is the value-neutral language of enterprise, where what matters most is getting things done — having an impact, being a “mover.” It’s a language that reveres action, power, and profit as goods in themselves and overlooks the ethical failings of those with power. With mere achievement as your focus, you can whittle away the details until Hitler has an affinity with Jesus. It’s the “Great Man Theory” at its most frightful. If you accomplish so much, you become beyond judgment, become simply History. This special status is invoked in reviewers’ endless assertions that Hitler is a “genius.” (“I’m no racist, but I really think he was a mad genius.”)
Yet this supposed brilliance gets tricky when dealing with the book itself. To Knausgaard, Hitler is a “lousy” writer. But Stephen Marche sings his praises: “one must admit that it’s very well written: Its passion is infectious, its prose is clear.” Here the reviewers don’t always concur. While some admire Hitler’s passion as a way of evading his content, over half think it is poorly written. Sometimes cognitive dissonance is manifest, as when a writer compares Hitler to Shakespeare, Plato, and Dickens but then merely assert that the book “is reasonably well written.” Even many who enjoy the book have to apologize for the fact that “Hitler was an abysmal author.” Reviewers repeatedly lament that he rambles on tediously and lacks organization. At the same time, he’s Hitler; he’s an evil genius, so intimations of that genius must be in his book. For some, it’s proof enough that it’s “still a worldwide bestseller.”
That Hitler and his book are the stuff of genius helps make sense of the world, even if you must suppress your judgment to believe it. This too, we see all the time. Declare that some politician or celebrity is successful for reasons other than talent, and people will quickly defend on their “really savvy” career moves. If we have to be subjected to some awful person, it’s a little comforting to believe they have merited that position of influence. Some reviewers offer Panglossian justifications for Hitler: “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…”
The critical approaches that open up space for this esteem strike me as worse than the earlier Hitler comparisons. These more accepted modes of commentary — balance, meta-analysis, impact — affirm fundamentally nothing. And at their worst, they give cover to all manner of vileness, even that of Hitler and his acolytes. Through the meta-analysis, the Nazi can hide his affinities; through balance, he can hedge atrocities; through the Great Man approach, he can bury questions of ethics in esteem for leadership.
Thus, although I tried to separate out Hitler’s committed admirers, it was often difficult. A review that would start as an ill-considered but honest attempt at impartiality would sometimes shade into sounding more like a way of working Hitler back into the realm of acceptable opinion. White nationalist reviewers even occasionally discuss the best strategy to avoid “alienating mainstream Whites.” Through these empty critical approaches — which have no less currency in politer forums — they have the tools to do so.
It’s some consolation that many of the reviewers feel a healthy shame about owning the book. One reviewer speaks of “how much bull I have recieved for just haviiing it, especially from my jewish aquaintances.” Another says he has decided the most “fitting place is in the back of [his] garage.” “Read it in private,” one advises. True, not all are embarrassed. One reviewer laments that his copy is not “nearly as cool looking as” advertised. But another notes that the “very prominent picture of Hitler” and big, gold-lettered title on his cover “can’t be removed,” which may upset “hypersensitive folks.” Even a digital version reader makes it clear he will delete it when he’s done.
Happily, some readers find nothing at all to admire in Mein Kampf. The book is “a frustrated man’s argument with life.” It’s “a transcript of fifty drunken, disjointed, endless *speils* by your racist old uncle.” It “reads like a HORRIBLE first draft of a high school or college paper by a student with no time, and even less desire, to attempt to do a proper effort on an assigned topic.” Hitler’s views “are well known in other secondary sources,” one reviewer explains, “the value of Mein Kampf is to be able to read them in their own convoluted badly written context.” The book is “vomit between two covers.”
This contempt is a nice antidote to all the fawning, and it’s probably more valid. One of many reviews making a solid case for reading Mein Kampf also pointed me toward Ian Kershaw’s book The Hitler Myth, which demonstrates that Hitler certainly had his vile talents, but he was also plugged into an ongoing messianic call for a leader. The source of Hitler’s mystique was less the man than the propaganda machinery around him and the people eager to consume it. He was not interchangeable, but he was also “a projection of national aspirations to greatness.” His power “depended on the readiness of others to see ‘heroic’ qualities in him.” It’s apparent we’re still ready to see those qualities in Hitler today. We still have a lot to do with him.
Full disclosure: I did not read Mein Kampf. Because it’s by Hitler.
Andrew Heisel is a writer living in New Haven.
Photo by Gwydion Williams