Adolf Hitler's "Mein Kampf": An Introduction

by: Abraham H. Foxman | January 15, 2014

Editor's Note: The following is an introduction to Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf written by Abraham H. Foxman, the National Director of the Anti-Defamation League and a Holocaust survivor. Mr. Foxman was asked to write the introduction for the 1999 English translation published by the Mariner Books division of Houghton Mifflin Co. It is reprinted here in its entirety with permission from the publisher.

ALMOST SIXTY YEARS after the end of World War II, Mein Kampf has yet to become merely another historical document. Its theories have long since been discredited, and its current influence seems limited to the furthest fringes of society, but it refuses to become just an outdated political text. Mention it and a conversation can turn awkward; say its name and tempers can rise. Some countries have banned it, and others have prohibited new translations. Reprintings have become minor media events, eliciting protests and sometimes lawsuits.

To some extent, Mein Kampf's contemporary ability to offend results from its continued unfortunate ability to inspire. The "bible of National Socialism" has found new generations of devotees in neo-Nazis, haters, racists, and Third Reich enthusiasts. Even the fringes add up. Aware of this, many people would prefer that Mein Kampf not be reprinted. For the scholars who study it, it is already available in libraries and in secondhand bookstores. Better not to make it widely available, some say, to keep it out of the hands of those who would revive the movement its author started.

This argument deserves serious consideration, and has been accepted by many European governments which regulate the production and dissemination of Nazi materials in a variety of ways. The Bavarian Finance Ministry holds the continental European copyright to Mein Kampf, and routinely denies requests by authors to quote extended passages from it and by publishers to reprint it. Many European countries restrict the sale of existing copies to qualified academics. In December 2000, a Czech court issued a $50,000 fine to the publisher of an illegal Czech-language edition.

These measures may seem extreme to many Americans; we cherish our First Amendments rights and find censorship anathema. But let us not forget that in the United States we have been blessed with two centuries of secure borders and political stability. Not so our European counterparts, who have experienced Nazism and other destructive social movements on their own soil. Their efforts to control their legacy of extremism should be respected, even if their methods are not ours.

Mein Kampf presents a deeper problem, though, unrelated to such practical concerns as controlling extremism. It evokes discomfort and distaste, a desire to cover up its crude evil and let it recede from our consciousness. When we encounter things of beauty, it is natural to want to display them; here the tendency is reversed and the desire is to blot out this work of ugliness and depravity.

We should not let ourselves succumb to this temptation. "Expunge the memory of Amalek from beneath the heavens," the Bible says, referring to one of Israel's ancient enemies; but the verse itself spread the memory of those malicious people throughout the world and preserved it for all time. Thus we learn the need for prudence. "Zakhor," we are taught, "Remember" -- not just the victims but the evil that was done to them. Commit the evil to memory in order to reject it; reject the evil, but do not let yourself forget it. Zakhor, and so we keep the Nazi bible in print.

Remembering gives strength to the survivors, comfort to the families of those who perished, and a final legacy to those who fell. But beyond that, remembering the Holocaust -- its causes, its progression, its aftermath -- allows us to understand the phenomenon of genocide better and attunes us to the dangers of racial and ethnic conflict.

Before the Holocaust, the Western world had had few lessons on these subjects. So we missed the portents of disaster: the denial of civil liberties in Germany as early as 1933, the establishment of Dachau (a concentration camp for political opponents) that same year, the passing of the Nuremberg Laws of 1935. These measures should have alerted us to the danger Hitler represented. He had made his ultimate goals clear in Mein Kampf as early as 1926: rearmament, the abolition of democracy, territorial expansion, eugenics, the "elimination" of the "Jewish threat." Mein Kampf may have been dismissed by the West when it was first published -- it is largely a theoretical text, lacking an identifiable program for accomplishing the goals it describes -- but here Hitler was taking concrete steps to realize his vision. Yet nothing was done. Even in the 1940s when the reports of death camps became available, we continued to deal with Hitler in conventional military terms; we understood war, but genocide we could hardly imagine, even with evidence before us. Even today it is tempting to close our eyes to the genocidal aspects of World War II, to view the Holocaust as the byproduct of an ordinary, though catastrophic, military conflict. The systematic effort to destroy a religious or ethnic group is a concept so horrifying that our instinct is to look away.

The lesson, however, has begun to sink in. The term genocide was coined in 1944; four years later the United Nations General Assembly made the action illegal under international law. The Nuremberg trials of 1946 were an improvised affair, but since then the principle of "crimes against humanity" has been refined and war crimes tribunals have become an accepted aspect of global statecraft. Jewish refugees in the 1940s encountered closed borders and international indifference, but today the West has begun to learn compassion for refugees. In a tragic, ironic way, the Holocaust has helped lead to these advances in world civilization.

Admittedly, we have more to learn. The Holocaust was perpetrated by a well-defined national government whose armies could be confronted on the fields of battle; its victims were similarly well defined and largely helpless. Of late, however, we have been confronted with murky genocides in the Third World, where today’s victims can be tomorrow’s perpetrators and shifting alliances and general chaos hamper efforts to aid those in need. From the Balkan conflicts we are also learning more about the specific dangers that women face during times of ethnicity-related conflict. Recently the Taliban regime in Afghanistan ordered all Hindus to wear identifying badges. International alarms sounded; we remembered the yellow stars that Nazis forced on the Jews more than fifty years ago, when we saw that such badges help identify their wearers as "the other," a necessary precursor to more significant persecution. The world took note of the Taliban's efforts and is intently watching that troubled regime.

We preserve Mein Kampf in this spirit of remembering; we study it in the hope of securing a brighter future for humanity.

One who turns to Mein Kampf in the hope of learning the truth about Hitler's personal development and rise to power will be disappointed -- or, worse, misled. Historians have recognized that the lengthy autobiographical sections of this book are more than the common and generally innocuous attempts of a writer to portray himself favorably; they must be construed, rather, as pieces of propaganda, actively omitting, fabricating, and twisting historical fact to achieve a desired effect.

As Hitler wrote Mein Kampf from 1924 through 1926) he was in the process of remaking himself. Since 1921 he had served as the chairman of the German Workers’ Party; a relatively small pan-German party centered in Munich. With his fiery rhetoric he had succeeded in putting the party on the political map in Bavaria, but there were no indications at the time that he or his party would have much of a future on a national scale. In fact, Hitler composed Mein Kampf while in prison for leading a coup against the Bavarian government that was almost comical in its failure.

Hitler's early life suggested even less the incipient greatness that he tried to imbue it with in 1926. Orphaned at the age of eighteen, Hitler had a lonely existence in municipal boarding houses for men in Linz and Vienna. Though he dreamed of becoming an artist, he twice failed the entrance exam of the Academy of Fine Arts and never advanced beyond a secondary education. He spent much of his time loafing in the reading room of his boarding house, haranguing those present on whatever subject held his attention at the time. He lived off his small orphan’s pension and the proceeds of the cheap postcards that he painted and sold. In February 1914 he was screened for the Austrian army but rejected as physically unfit. His greatest successes took place in the Bavarian army, in which he served with some distinction as a message runner during World War I and as a propaganda officer afterward.

Until the mid-1920s, Hitler did not show any desire to take a personal leadership role in German national politics. Even after he took control of the German Workers’ Party, his focus was on propaganda and his efforts were devoted to stirring the German people with his anti-democratic message of militant ultranationalism, economic conservatism, and racial superiority. In practice, Hitler staged rallies and parades and dabbled in local Bavarian politics; even at the time of the failed 1923 beerhall putsch, he viewed himself more as a drummer for the nationalist cause than as a potential statesman or leader.

However, by the mid-1920s, surrounded by fanatical party members and buoyed by the near-dictatorial powers he held as party chairman, Hitler was coming to see himself less and less as a mere agitator. His political career became his mission, and his rhetoric increasingly focused on uniting the fractious bands of nationalists under his leadership. Mein Kampf is a study in Hitler’s attempt to shed the image of the opportunistic local demagogue and assume the role of fuhrer, the heroic leader who would bring a weak and troubled Germany to salvation. Its tone suggests self-assurance, if not megalomania; Hitler presents his entire life as the chronicle of an incipient messiah waiting for the moment to redeem his people. In attempting to produce this effect in Mein Kampf he ignored any of his mistakes and vacillations, attempting to take credit for what in reality were others’ achievements, as historians have shown.

Thus, for example, Hitler dramatizes his decision to join the German Worker’s Party (which later changed its name to the National Socialist, or Nazi, Party) in 1919. He depicts this decision as a difficult one, made only after intense soul-searching, portraying himself as an as yet undiscovered great man attempting to determine with great care where to direct his history-shaping energies -- the fate of a nation may hang on his decision. Yet the biographer Ian Kershaw has noted that the decision may not have been Hitler's at all; Hitler's military commander, Captain Karl Mayr, "later claimed that he had ordered Hitler to join the party, to help foster its growth." Hitler's description in Mein Kampf culminates in the claim that he was the seventh person to join the party, with its "handful of members," making him one of the founding members, as he enjoyed recounting in later years. In fact, however, the party had 554 members before him, a point made by the first party leader, Anton Drexler, when he wrote in a 1940 (unsent) letter to Hitler that "no one knows better than you yourself, my Fuhrer, that you were never the seventh member of the party, but at best the seventh member of the committee, which I asked you to join as recruitment director. And a few years ago I had to complain to a party office that your proper membership card of the DAP, bearing the signatures of Schuissler and myself; was falsified, with the number 555 being erased and number 7 entered."

At best, then, Mein Kampf is unreliable as a source of historical data, though useful, perhaps, to professional historians who have the ability to detect its lies, omissions, and half-truths.

The majority of Mein Kampf, of course, is taken up not with historical narration but with Hitler’s ideological discourses. Perhaps, then, the value of the book lies in its explication of Hitler’s ideas?

Perhaps. Here too, however, we must handle it with caution, lest its presentation mislead the reader. Written relatively early in Hitler’s political career, Mein Kampf avoids points that might alienate potential supporters; its silence on the subject of Christianity, given Hitler’s documented antagonism toward that religion, is the most noteworthy example.

Moreover, we should not construe Mein Kampf as an early expression of Hitler's "program." Hitler presents himself here as an ideologue; in many cases he does not wrestle with the details that implementing his vision would require. He is at his most concrete when writing about trade unions, control of the media, and foreign alliances, less so in describing the educational system of the ideal German state or his plans for eliminating syphilis, for example. On some of the most explosive issues he can be maddeningly opaque. Thus he writes often about the "danger" that Jews pose to Germany and the rest of the world and suggests that one day there will be a reckoning between Jews and Germans, that he will "eliminate" the "Jewish threat." But he presents no details on how this will be accomplished.

Readers should not regard the "bible of National Socialism" as the most advanced expression of Nazi ideology, either. That dubious honor should probably go to Alfred Rosenberg's 1930 The Myth of the Twentieth Century (which Hitler never read). Hitler's strength as an ideologue, as explained by the historian Hajo Holborn, was in "reducing simple ideas to even simpler terms while believing thereby to have achieved a higher wisdom." Despite the efforts made by both National Socialists and their detractors in the West to relate Hitler to the great tradition of German philosophers, including Leibniz, Kant, Fichte, and Hegel, Hitler's influences were more likely such lowbrow racists and nationalists as Adolf Lam (a.k.a, Lanz von Liebenfels), the author of the Ostara gutter-press pamphlets, and Houston Stewart Chamberlain, who wrote Foundations of the Twentieth Century, a popular racist interpretation of world history.

Hitler's contribution to the history of ideas can be found in his clear and forceful articulation of numerous theories already in circulation during the early twentieth century rather than in any original thoughts of his own. Many of the ideological themes of Mein Kampf were embraced to varying degrees by groups in Germany, Europe, and even the United States before Hitler wove them together to form the foundations of National Socialism. The critique of democracy that Hitler presents, for example, is commonly compared with that of Italian fascism. Hitler was hardly alone in his fear and distrust of Marxism, another theme of Mein Kampf. Anti-Semitism, expressed in either theological or sociological terms, was common throughout the Western world at the time: in France, Alfred Dreyfus was exonerated only in 1906, after more than ten years of baseless accusations; The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was not discredited until 1921 and in the meantime ran in serialized form in Henry Ford's newspaper, the Dearborn Independent; Jews were commonly barred from hotels and country clubs in the United States; and even Hitler's nemesis, Winston Churchill, spoke openly about the "sinister confederacy" of "international Jews" when referring to communism.

The glue that Hitler used to hold these disparate themes together was an extreme form of race-oriented social Darwinism, but even this idea was not limited to the German fringes. The modern "science" of race had evolved with the Enlightenment, when the Aristotelian distinctions between the "cultured" and the "barbaric" races were revived, this time using terms like "civilized" and "primitive." By positing that certain races were inherently "primitive," white men of the Enlightenment were able to justify both their continued toleration of black slavery and their imperialist designs on places such as Africa. Differences between races were scientifically "proven" with techniques such as anthropometry (the collection and study of precise measurements of the human body); the races were then ranked on some arbitrary scale, with modern European man always holding the highest spot.

Racial theories became increasingly radical as they incorporated aspects of Darwinism, which swept the Western world in the mid- to late 1800s. Applied to race, the ideas of evolution and "survival of the fittest" turned the history of humanity, as well as the contemporary world, into a story of racial conflict. When coupled with nationalism, racial (social) Darwinism led to the development of national archetypes; thus educated people at the end of the nineteenth century could seriously claim that the distinctive cultural characteristics of the English, French, Americans, and Germans were biological. Eugenics movements with the goal of improving national or racial "stock" through selective breeding (which later became inextricably linked with the Nazi regime in popular perception) arose in England, Scandinavia, and the United States.

Hitler's racial theories cemented together all of the disparate aspects of his philosophy. Pan-Germanism, ultra-nationalism, rabid anti-Semitism and anti-Marxism, and theories of racial conflict led to his Manichean philosophy of Aryan versus Jew. Each aspect of Hitler's ideology existed elsewhere; Hitler's achievement lay in weaving them together and presenting them as a heady brew that the demoralized and economically struggling German people could not refuse. Though others may have formulated the National Socialist program in a more sophisticated fashion, Hitler's essentialist formulations, presented in Mein Kampf and in his speeches, were able to galvanize the German people in ways that no others could.

Herein lies perhaps the most important lesson we can take from Mein Kampf. Its shortcomings seem obvious; its atrocious style, puerile digressions, and narcissistic self-absorption should be clear even to the casual reader, Its theories are extremist, immoral, and seem to promise war and catastrophe if taken seriously. But somehow this book and its author were embraced by a civilized nation and its lunatic plan was actually put into effect. Mein Kampf seems absurd, even comical in places; its program of ultra-nationalism, racism, and territorial expansionism, its fascistic disdain for democracy and human rights, seems to caricature itself at times -- yet this book was given to every newly married German couple from the late 1930s onward. If we read this ridiculous tract while keeping in mind the history surrounding it – the frenzied Sieg Heils, the mass rallies, the racial indoctrination, ultimately the barbarism and genocide that it inspired -- we may begin to attain a historical perspective on the period. A window to a world different from ours may open for us.

Here in the pages of Mein Kampf Hitler presented the world with his dark vision for the future. Years would pass before he attained the power to realize that vision, but Mein Kampf’s existence denies the free world the excuse of ignorance. We dismissed him as a madman and we ignored his wretched book; the result was a tragedy of unprecedented proportions. This is yet another lesson to take from Mein Kampf: the lesson of vigilance and responsibility, of not closing our eyes to the evil around us. Since World War II, our societies have taken promising steps in this regard. It is our responsibility to ensure the continued progress of that civilizing trend.