Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler’s book describing his early life, wartime experiences and the early development of the National Socialist Movement, continues to be one of the best-selling political books in the world. In fact, the more it is condemned, the more it seems to fascinate. Just google ‘sales of Mein Kampf‘. Rational analysis is in far shorter supply.
In that vein, I ran across an interesting review of Mein Kampf the other day. The reviewer pointed out that prefaces in the English editions of Mein Kampf, published in the 1930s, were quite sympathetic to Hitler, no doubt due to the fact that the Depression-level unemployment in Germany had been greatly reduced, and the nation seemed to be getting on its feet again after its calamitous defeat in the First World War. Also, the 1936 Olympics in Berlin were a huge propaganda victory for the Hitler regime.
It is no use saying that hate, bigotry and madness and whatever else strikes your fancy are the reasons for the success of the fascist movements, and the Hitler movement in particular, in the 20s and 30s, as millions of ordinary, decent people supported them, not only in Germany but throughout Europe and as far away as India. And it is easy to say that Hitler was supported by big business to crush the socialist and communist parties of the time, but that would not have happened had he not “talked a great movement into existence already.”
In the 1920s, there was a multitude of left- and right-wing parties, movements and aspiring demagogues vying for attention and power. Why did Hitler succeed when so many others failed? Our reviewer continues….
“But Hitler could not have succeeded against his many rivals if it had not been for the attraction of his own personality, which one can feel even in the clumsy writing of Mein Kampf, and which is no doubt overwhelming when one hears his speeches…The fact is there is something deeply appealing about him.”
Obviously, some deep psychological need was being addressed, something way beyond mere opinions about political parties or national policies.
“One feels, as with Napoleon, that he is fighting against destiny…”
Indeed, there are numerous references and appeals to Destiny in Mein Kampf and no doubt Hitler felt that was his purpose, either to fulfill it or thwart it.
Prior to the First World War, or the Great War as it was then known, Europe possessed many powerful socialist movements. At times, it seemed that the old imperial orders across Europe were approaching their end. But when war broke out in August 1914, the international socialist parties across Europe folded like straws in the wind before the onrush of Nationalist Awakening. Nation and race have a far deeper psychological appeal than watery internationalism (something our reviewer noted elsewhere) and Hitler and Mussolini rose to power largely because they could recognize this fact and their opponents couldn’t.
But there were nationalist leaders before that never evoked anything like the adulation that was awarded to Hitler and Mussolini. There were also reasons for this….
“…Also he has grasped the falsity of the hedonistic attitude to life. Nearly all western thought since the last war, certainly all “progressive” thought, has assumed tacitly that human beings desire nothing beyond ease, security and the avoidance of pain. In such a view of life there is no room, for instance, for patriotism and the military virtues.”
At least intermittently, people yearn for struggle, self-sacrifice and devotion to a higher cause. Whether one considers these passions desirable is beside the point, they exist and are powerful. Hence…
“…however they are as economic theories, Fascism and Nazism are psychologically far sounder than any hedonistic conception of life. The same is probably true of Stalin’s militarized version of Socialism….whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a grudging way, have said to people ‘I offer you a good time’, Hitler has said to them ‘I offer you struggle, danger and death,’ and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet.”
As if you hadn’t already guessed, “our reviewer” is, of course, George Orwell, probably the most prescient writer on politics in the twentieth century. Orwell’s essay (here) is not really a review of Mein Kampf, but an essay on the psychological basis of Hitler’s appeal to millions of ordinary people. It is an important essay because it is written honestly and without fear, not of Hitler, but without fear of bullying and censorship in his homeland. Orwell was a man possessed of a terrible clarity of vision and a crystalline honesty, qualities entirely lacking in our current world of conformity, cowardice and mediocrity.
It is important to note that his essay was published in England, in March 1940, during a period of wartime censorship, when England was at war with Germany. It is highly unlikely that such an essay, analyzing Hitler’s appeal to the good, as well as the bad, in people, would be able to be published in this country in peacetime, when, supposedly, we are guaranteed freedom of speech.