Reading “Mein Kampf”: Part I

[So, you’re reading Mein Kampf. What motivated you to pick up that book in the first place?]

We’ve been hearing an awful lot of references to Hitler in the past few years. Everybody wants to make an analogy, whether that involves President Trump or the Democratic Party. Accordingly, I thought—

[Wait a minute. I’ve heard plenty of people describe Trump as a modern-day Hitler, but I wasn’t aware of any mainstream commentators who drew explicit parallels between the Democrats and the National Socialist German Workers’ Party.]

Are you kidding me? In his film Death of a Nation, Dinesh D’Souza argued that the original Nazis were more tolerant of racial diversity than the Democrats.

[Did he really say that?]

Yeah, he did. He said that the Nazis were more lenient in classifying “Jewish blood” than were the Democrats of yesteryear—and, by implication, of today—in determining what makes one a Negro.

[It’s funny how no one really talked about that film. Of course, our little website hadn’t been open for business by the time of the film’s release. But anyway, you were talking about Mein Kampf.]

Basically, the political culture of the United States is obsessed with Hitler—or, more specifically, with the question of who the next Hitler is, who is the Hitler of today, or of tomorrow. I just started Mein Kampf a few days ago, and already, more than one person has asked me: “What does this say about Trump? Does he have something in common with Hitler, after all?”

[Conservatives wouldn’t ask you that question, would they? They wouldn’t make that association, since, in their mind, Trump and Hitler couldn’t stand further apart.]

No, but a zealous right-winger would probably want to know if Hitler’s program calls to mind the Democratic Party’s. You might have guessed that D’Souza likes to comment on Hitler’s preference for government subsidized health care, and for several other social welfare programs. Obviously, such a link is as tenuous as can be, and the commentator who forges it must be terribly desperate to make his or her feeble case.

[Lost in the question of what, if anything, Trump has in common with Hitler is the curious interest of the one who asks. Why are we “obsessed” with Hitler, as you claim? Why are we looking for a template of sorts, regardless of where we search for its becoming?]

That’s a very good question. It almost seems like we want to find a modern-day Hitler. In any case, such is the impression I’ve received from those who have asked me about Mein Kampf: when I tell them that, initially, the book is actually reassuring me that Trump has very little in common with Hitler, they look almost disappointed. Were they expecting something more sensational, perhaps? Did they want to find themselves caught up in the ultimate battle for humanity’s beating heart?

[Only if they can fight the good fight and still get home in time for another round of Netflix. Yeah, I’m not sure why people desire melodrama on the world stage. It could have something to do with our incessant wish for international war, in which case, it may well be a problem exclusive to the Americans. Is it an indication of the empire’s decline? Could this be a supercharged answer to the call for bread and circuses?]

Eh, probably. Call it malignant boredom, or something. Incidentally, or perhaps not, boredom was a big reason why I opened up Mein Kampf. Earlier this year, I grew downright jaundiced with the superficial and circuitous commentary that is mass produced by the news media, so I tried my best to move away from CNN and the BBC in favor of old, or at least older, political literature. Away with Don Lemon, Sean Hannity, and the rest of those grotesquely overpaid circus performers; let me look upon Rousseau, Ayn Rand, and Hunter S. Thompson instead.

[If you were looking for something thoughtful, surely you could have done better than Rand.]

Make no mistake: Rand was a shallow, narcissistic hypocrite who may have embarrassed herself on a truly epic scale when she attempted a political application of Nietzsche, as if such a stunt were even possible. However, no one can deny that her work, even the worst of it, yielded a far greater influence on subsequent political thought than anything you will hear on CNN today. CNN and all the rest of the corporate news outlets, all of that junk is reactionary, a response to something. If you want to understand the source, look to history, whereof, it must be said, Rand played a role.

[I believe Hitler played a role, too. You’re proposing that, rather than listen to an uneducated pundit make awkward references to Hitler, a person whom the pundit has probably never studied in detail, we should peruse Mein Kampf, really read it thoroughly, and discover what is actually there.]

That pretty cleanly hits the nail on the head. I’ve read only two chapters of Mein Kampf, and yet—

[You’ve read only the first two chapters? I thought you said you were telling people that the book demonstrates how little Trump has in common with Hitler. How can you make so strong a claim after reading so slightly?]

I said the book is reassuring me, with emphasis on the present tense. There’s a lot more ground to cover, obviously, but in seventy pages, I’ve already learned one lesson that can’t be negated in the next six hundred and thirty: Hitler is everywhere, and yet, he is nowhere.

[You’ll elaborate, I’m sure.]

The mathematically minded among us will note that Mein Kampf runs for seven hundred pages. It ain’t a bite-sized nugget like The Communist Manifesto. So, what is it? It’s Hitler, running through his own political ideology, over and over, for seven hundred pages. That’s a mighty long time. For a sense of context, most of the audiobook versions run for eighteen hours, if not for even longer. This article, which all too many people would claim is overlong, could probably be read in a matter of minutes.

[What’s your point?]

My point is, Hitler runs a lot of language, and a lot of ideas, between the covers of Mein Kampf, more so than most politicians are wont to commit to print. Can you imagine Hillary Clinton writing a book of comparable length? Can you imagine Barack Obama assembling a single volume of just under 190,000 words? Now, imagine that those books describe, not the politician’s life activities, but the politician’s views. Can’t do it, can you?

[So, you’re saying that Mein Kampf represents a fairly concentrated work of political perspective, of ideological exploration. By contrast, most modern politicians, when writing books, are actually trying to write something more accessible, something that is less political than it initially appears.]

You got it. Now, if Clinton, or Obama, or Trump, or any other politician, was compelled to write at such length, but only in the form of answers to the political questions of the day, we would have a much better idea of how that person feels about “the issues”, would we not?

[We would.]

Now, that’s zero in on Trump. How much has Trump written about his political views?

[Well, he has posted more to Twitter than I care to recall, but the total word count of those posts, taken in aggregate, would fall far short of the final tally of Mein Kampf. Elsewhere, I don’t believe that he has written very much. He talks a lot, yes, but even so, it’s probably still well shy of Hitler’s total output of communication.]

So, is it fair to say that, in the grand scheme of things, you could fit everything Trump has said in a suitcase, but in the case of Hitler, you would need an entire closet, if not an entire room?

[I suppose it is.]

And therefore, it is likelier that one would find something of Trump’s in Hitler’s collection, than the other way around?

[. . . I believe it is.]

In conclusion, it is almost inevitable for a politician to speak, or to write, at any meaningful length without eventually producing some idea that has something in common with something Hitler said. Politicians rarely speak for more than a few minutes at a time, but if they speak often enough, it’s a good bet that, sooner or later, they will say something that could be perceived as Hitleresque. It isn’t always a fair comparison, as Dinesh D’Souza unintentionally proved, but that’s of no concern to the pundit who is desperate to compete in the ratings.

[That is true, but you haven’t accounted for the possibility of a “true” tyrant emerging. In that case, how can we differentiate between the fair and the unfair comparison? People like to talk about the boy who cried wolf, but everyone forgets that, in the end, there really was a wolf.]

And that is precisely why we need to read Mein Kampf for ourselves. Only then can we even begin to put these comparisons in the proper context. We can’t rely on the secondhand interpretation of a person who undeniably has an agenda. Just this morning, I re-read an essay that Chinua Achebe wrote on, what he perceived to be, the flagrant racism in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Now, when I first read that essay four years ago, I had yet to read Heart of Darkness, so I took Achebe on his word and joined him in mocking Conrad’s vision. Having since read the book he assesses, I can say with high confidence that Achebe was not only wrong, but almost certainly dishonest. I very strongly believe that Achebe deliberately misrepresented the book in order to paint a portrait that, while grossly inaccurate, was quite convenient to his own political ambitions. We can debate this point, of course, but we will have little wherewith to support our opinions unless we take the time to read Heart of Darkness—and to read Achebe’s essay, as well.

[I see what you mean. After all, why should we submit to the view of this pundit on CNN, but not to the view of Dinesh D’Souza?]

Exactly. It may well be that, as we dig deeper into Mein Kampf, we discover perfectly valid reasons to associate Trump with Nazism. However, we can’t make that comparison without much reading.

[And by the way, that reading only begins with Mein Kampf. One can read that book and still be woefully ignorant of Trump’s political positions in context. It may be that Trump does have much in common with the authoritarians of world history, even if he has relatively little in common with Hitler.]

That’s a very good point, but it’s also a complicated point, and one that is unlikely to fetch you a lot of enthusiastic comments on social media.

[True. Still, it makes for a pretty good discussion.]

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