Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf is not for the faint hearted reader. The content, and the language that is used to express it, are an affront to basic decency and to the sensibilities of those who have been socialized in a cultural milieu that emphasizes, directly or indirectly, the moral framework of universal human rights. A not-unusual sentence in Mein Kampf is the following: “The French people, who are becoming more and more obsessed by negroid ideas, represent a threatening menace to the white race in Europe, because they are bound up with the Jewish campaign for world-domination.”
Nonetheless, it is worthwhile to read this difficult text because it helps to answer several puzzles. The first is the question of how Hitler managed to seduce tens of millions of people, and not only Germans. It is worth recalling that he built his National Socialist party from scratch; at its first meeting in 1919, it attracted only seven men. By 1933, the Nazi’s won a plurality of votes in a democratic election, which paved the way for the creation of the dictatorship which perhaps represented history’s greatest menace to civilization. Mein Kampf provides clues that help to answer the question of Hitler’s smashing success, and in so doing helps to solve another puzzle: the main cause of World War 2. Scholars disagree on this topic, with some arguing that it was the injustice of the Versailles Treaty that created the conditions for the rise of the Nazi’s, while others point to Germany’s expansionary agenda. The book under review provides evidence for both explanations but it will be argued here that the second has more evidentiary weight. Lastly, it is valuable to read Mein Kampf because in the book Hitler, perhaps inadvertently, forces one to interrogate the basis of one’s moral framework and the civilization that produced it. Hitler’s system of thought contained many elements, but the main ones are racial supremacism and a kind of theological pantheism that equated nature with divinity and, in so doing, glorified the amoral aspects of natural selection. In this sense, it is a moral system derived from the laws of the natural world. As will be argued below, this framework is immoral precisely because the laws of nature are ruthless and do not conform to any observable standards of human decency.
Before assessing the content of Mein Kampf, the historical context of the book and its author are worth mentioning. Adolf Hitler grew up in a typical middle-class home, he adored his mother and respected his father, and often quarreled with the latter about his career choices. Against the wishes of his father who wanted him to become a bureaucrat, Hitler wanted to be an artist, and eventually left home to pursue this dream in cosmopolitan Vienna, which at the time was the capital of the Habsburg Empire. In that city he lived as what today might be called “a starving artist”, but quite literally, since he often did not make enough money to buy food. It was also here that his views on racial purity and his anti-Semitism began to develop. Hitler detested the social pathologies he observed in Vienna, including the co-existence of fabulous wealth and obscene levels of destitution. Economic exploitation, poverty, family breakdown, alcoholism, syphilis, ignorance, and other pathologies were all widespread in the city, and as time went by Hitler developed the idea that Vienna’s cosmopolitanism generally, and its racial mixing specifically, were the culprits. In addition, according to his own accounts at least, as a young man he did not feel any animosity towards Jews, and was even sympathetic to their plight, until he observed them in Vienna. Whereas previously he thought that they were mainly of European racial stock (but with a different religion), after living in Vienna he believed that they were a foreign and inferior race. Even worse, he blamed Jews for many of the cultural pathologies he observed, but his main accusation was that they were the authors and purveyors of Marxism, which Hitler equated with pure evil. This is rather ironic, because Hitler agreed with Marxists that industrial capitalism was exploitative and that the state should be an agent for the progressive empowerment and improvement of the working classes. However he fiercely objected to the cosmopolitanism and universalism of Marx’s ideas. Hitler believed in socialism, but one that was undergirded by the interests of the nation. Hence the name of his party: National Socialism.
Hitler detested the condition of the German people, divided as they were between different nation-states. He blamed many groups for this state of affairs, both domestic and international, and welcomed the First World War as a means to settle scores. He enthusiastically joined the front, where he engaged in close combat, and was wounded twice: the first time from conventional warfare, and the second time from poison gas, which almost took his life, blinded him for weeks, and ultimately led to a long period of convalescence that prevented his return to the battlefield. This was a source of grief for Hitler; he explains in vivid detail the sorrow he felt in the hospital because he could not fight with his comrades. His anguish reached a crescendo when Germany surrendered. For Hitler, this was unspeakably and unforgivably humiliating because it resulted, not from German weakness, but from the machinations of Jews and the betrayal of Marxists, bourgeoisie liberals, pacifists, and others who signed the terms of surrender which included the loss of German inhabited territories and the punitive measures of the Treaty of Versailles.
It was in the shadow of this perceived humiliation and betrayal that Hitler began his political career. He wrote the first volume of Mein Kampf while in a Bavarian jail cell, where he was imprisoned for his political activities. Another important background feature is that it was written when the French illegally occupied Germany’s industrial district, the Ruhr, in order to control and extract resources from it. These three elements—the humiliating loss of the First World War, his imprisonment, and the French occupation—go some length in explaining the rage and venom that suffuses much of the language of Mein Kampf. But this is insufficient to account for the content of the book. Equally important is the philosophical substance of his thought. It is to that which I now turn.
Throughout Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler repeatedly refers to the “Almighty Lord” or the “Divine Creator” or, simply, “God”. This highlights that he was a theist in the sense that he believed in a creator god who governs the universe. However, his god would not be recognizable to any of the monotheisms even though he adopts their terminology. In particular, Hitler’s god would be alien to both Protestantism and Catholicism (I will focus on Christianity because it is the faith that I am most familiar with). Both major denominations rely on the belief that man is made in God’s image, which forms the ethical basis of human value that both ascribe to. To the extent that they follow the example of Christ, both denominations also valorize the sick, weak and the poor and make it a core mission to support them through acts of charity.
Hitler’s theological worldview relies on a different paradigm: biology and the survival of the fittest. He begins with an observation that few biologists would disagree with, namely, that the natural world is characterized by struggle and violence, and through this process nature selects only those organisms which are stronger. On this basis, Hitler proceeds to assert that since Europeans (or those of Aryan stock) ruled the world and displayed unmatched technological and economic power, they were selected by nature to fulfill this function by virtue of their biological constitution. Hitler then makes a theological leap and sustains that these supposed natural and biological processes are a reflection of god’s will.
This biologically based moral system is also seen in the kinds of the metaphors that Hitler uses to make his case. In a typical sentence where he critiques the influence of the Jewish press, he complains that “this poison was allowed to enter the national bloodstream and infect public life.” Here, the nation is perceived as an organism that must be protected from disease. In a chapter called “Race and People”, Hitler defends the promotion of racial purity by appealing to analogies in the animal word: “Each animal mates only with one of its own species,” he says, and deviations will inevitably lead to inferior creatures. The same is true, according to Hitler, with inter-racial offspring. Hitler also anthropomorphizes nature (a tactic that is often used to ascribe moral agency to abstractions): “Nature is pleased with what happens” when the stronger defeat the weaker; and “Nature [his capitalization of nature is revealing] does not wish that weaker individuals should mate with the stronger, she wishes even less that a superior race should inter-mingle with an inferior one” (emphasis mine).
Whereas a Christian might explain the world’s evils, including inequality and disease, by positing the principle of original sin, Hitler presumed that they were the outcome of god’s will operating through the mechanisms of natural selection. It is a short leap from this to assert that the strong rule because they have a divine right to. Here we see a complete inversion of the example of Christ: it is the strong, rather than the meek, that are favoured by the divine. In a passage that reveals Hitler’s close reading of Nietzsche, he calls this “the aristocratic principle of nature.” The difference between Nietzsche and Hitler, of course, is that the former was an atheist, while the latter believed in a pantheistic god with the characteristics highlighted above. Despite this difference, both derived their moral systems from the logic of natural selection. Hitler’s whole political program rested on these metaphysical assumptions: for him only healthy Aryans are made in god’s image, while the rest are inferior. It is therefore their duty to rule the world, and to fight those who place obstacles in the path of this destiny.
Readers might be shocked to learn that variants of these ideas were shared by many in the West who called themselves progressives. Those who supported eugenics may have opposed fascism and even Hitler, but the unpleasant truth is that eugenics is a moral system derived from the logic of natural selection and which asserts that the state should be an agent in the perfection of the human race by only allowing those deemed “fit” to breed. Those deemed “unfit” tended to be members of minority groups, or those with low-scores on IQ tests, prostitutes, alcoholics, and others deemed to be inferior. Prominent defenders included Tommy Douglas, founder of Canadian universal healthcare; Woodrow Wilson, 28th President of the US and promoter of “self-determination” (self-determination for whom?), Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood, and most major scientific organizations in the West. Eugenics became law in many Western states and Canadian provinces, and was only delegitimized after WW2, when it became associated with the genocidal crimes of the Nazi’s. The main difference between the National Socialists and Western eugenicists was that the former was willing to kill those they deemed inferior, while the latter wanted to prevent them from reproducing.
This sad historical episode reveals an important point: that any moral system that rests on equal human dignity cannot flow from the scientific observations of biologists. In other words, universalist moral systems, like liberalism, socialism, or the United Nation Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) rely on assumptions that are not scientific. The idea that all humans have equal worth is a statement of value that is not verifiable according to the standards of science. Rather, it rests on faith, but this does not make it less true. It means that a strictly scientific materialist worldview is insufficient for the belief in universal human equality. One could even assert that human decency is inversely proportionate to the distance that we create between ourselves and the dictates of nature. The natural world indeed operates in a hierarchical, predatory, and ruthless fashion that ensures the survival and reproduction of the strongest. Hitler not only recognized this, he celebrated and derived his morality from it, as did eugenicists. Universal moral systems like the ones mentioned above can accurately be characterized as attempts to use human agency to overcome these ruthless processes of the natural world. Therefore, attempts to derive moral systems from nature, or to ascribe some transcendental moral agency to the earth, should be taken with a grain of salt.
Another feature of Mein Kampf is Hitler’s rabid hatred of Jews. They are not the only group that he attacks; Slavs, blacks, aboriginals, and especially the French are all, at one time or another, targets of his animus. But the book reveals that he had a pathological obsession for Jews. Obsessions of any kind tend to distort reality, because they exaggerate the agency of the object, and lead to fantasies about its supposed actions, past and present. And, of course, an inordinate amount of thought is devoted to the object of the obsession. This characterizes some of Hitler’s ideas when he discusses Jewish people. He repeatedly mentions them when analyzing some social ill that has supposedly weakened Germany. His accusations are varied and many, from producing smutty literature and cinema, to “adulterating the blood of fair haired German girls,” to spreading democracy, propagating Marxism, promoting the interests of international finance, having designs for world domination, to “smelling bad,” secretly pulling the strings behind the French and Bolshevik revolutions; these are just the main indictments. In one of his flights of spiritual fancy, he claims that, in fighting them his “conduct is in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator. In standing against the Jew [Hitler] is defending the handiwork of the Lord.”
It seems easy to draw a direct line between this obsessive and irrational hatred and the holocaust. But scholars actually disagree on whether the attempt to exterminate Jews was part of a grand design (Intentionalists), or whether it was more ad hoc (Functionalists). In my view, Mein Kampf does not conclusively answer this question, because nowhere in the book, despite the rabid hatred mentioned above, does he say that the entire Jewish race must be exterminated. Functionalists would point out that his hatred was compatible with any number of different policies, including subjugation, forced labour, or even expulsion from Europe. This interpretation is supported by a document that Hitler approved on May 25, 1940, titled “The Final Solution to the Jewish Question,” which stated that “the Bolshevik method of physical extermination of a people [is] un-German and impossible.” The document proceeds to endorse the “territorial solution” (i.e. forced population transfer). Intentionalists, on the other hand point to certain passages in Mein Kampf, such as the one stating that had 12000-15000 Jews been gassed during WW1, the sacrifice of millions of German soldiers would not have been in vain. This aspiration, it is argued, is evidence of a master plan to exterminate Jews. Perhaps, although it was written in 1926, and in the context of a war that Hitler believed Germany lost because of the machination of Jews. In any event, this debate is academic, since the Nazi war machine did create the industrial machinery for mass murder and used it. Their culpability for this crime is not lessoned by evidence that suggests that it was not the ultimate plan of the party’s leadership.
The Seduction of Hitler
In light of the dark vision outlined in the book, one cannot help but ask: how did Hitler manage to seduce millions of people? It is worth repeating that his National Socialist movement began in a dingy room with seven people, and would eventually capture the hearts of entire political communities and lead to a series of events that would overturn European politics and change the course of history. One of the popular explanations is that his success was the result of the Treaty of Versailles, which imposed punitive measures on Germany after World War 1. Exponents of this view often favourably cite John Maynard Keynes’s book The Economic Consequences of the Peace, where he presciently observed that the imposition of reparations and other punishments on Germany would have devastating economic and political ramifications for Europe. Mein Kampf provides some textual evidence for this view, as Hitler repeatedly rails against the injustice of the Treaty and emphasizes its importance as a propaganda tool.
I find this unconvincing for several reasons. First, the Treaty was hated across the board in Germany. Liberals, Marxists, and other German political groups also suffered from its provisions, and hence Germans who objected to it could have pursued other political parties. Second, a discursive analysis of Mein Kampf gives the impression that other motivations dominated the text. In particular, a close reading clearly shows that Hitler had an expansionary agenda that involved the destruction of many European states. In the conclusion he devotes an entire chapter to the need to conquer Eastern Europe and destroy the Russian state so that those of German racial stock could grow in numbers and feed themselves. At the time that the book was written, Germans numbered perhaps 70 million, and Hitler explicitly says that those numbers must increase to the hundreds of millions. This would fulfill Germany’s divine destiny, according to Hitler, to rule the world. In order for this to happen, he says, they needed more territory. These expansionist views take up much more space in Mein Kampf than the injustice of the Treaty of Versailles, and the subsequent savagery of the conflict in Eastern Europe and Russia supports the view that they were the main motivating force of Hitler’s regime.
Hitler’s talent for communication also mattered. In Mein Kampf he is revealed to be an astute observer of mass psychology. Evidently, the other ideological movements in Germany at the time, such as liberalism and socialism, did not have the rhetorical suave and emotional appeal of fascism. Hitler correctly states that the major problem with the bourgeoisie is that their rhetoric of economic liberty appeals mainly to learned professors, upper-class professionals, and other privileged groups. Marxism’s main weakness as a political movement, he correctly understood, was its cosmopolitanism: most oppressed workers have little time for the plight of their comrades in other countries. Fascism appeals to things that resonate among the masses, namely, nation, blood, and belonging, while it condemns the supposed commercial egoism of liberalism and the internationalism of the socialists. The last two ideological movements promise economic growth and/or social justice, while fascism satisfied the desire for blood lust and victory, both of which should not be underestimated as major motivating forces. As the usually perspicacious George Orwell observed after reading Mein Kampf, fascism was:
“psychologically far sounder than any hedonistic conception of life … Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a more 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 … We ought not to underrate its emotional appeal.”
The Final Lesson of Mein Kampf
Our current international system is characterized by liberal principles that are codified in the United Nations founding documents, and even though they are often not met in practice, they have changed the consciousness of political actors and constituted our aspirations. This was possible mainly because fascism lost WW2. At that point, the US entered history as the world’s hegemon, a position that it still holds. The international institutions that subsequently emerged, such as the UN, the protection of open seas, the principle of self-determination, all bear the stamp of the liberal values that emerged triumphant after WW2 and that reached their apotheosis after the collapse of the USSR. This shows that power precedes, and has causal influence over, value systems, whatever they may be. In light of this, one could not help but wonder: what would the world look like if fascism had won?
Mein Kampf provides some clues to that question. First, the notion of universal human rights would have remained academic; it would not have become codified in any treaties or international institutions. Second, and most shockingly, the values of racial hierarchy would have reigned supreme. Had Hitler achieved his dream of conquering all of Europe, he would have created a political unit where only Aryans had a right to citizenship and to marry and reproduce. Others, including minorities, the sick, or those of non-Aryan stock, would either be sterilized, subjugated, or expelled. Doing this, according to Hitler, would mean their extinction in about 600 years, and only healthy fair-haired Aryans would be left, at least in Europe. Other countries and regions would have to submit to the dictates, or the conquest, of this all-powerful entity; for Hitler, non-whites had no right to self-determination. True freedom would be unthinkable in this political structure. Any group that threatened this order based on white supremacism, such as liberals, socialists, or Christians, would, in one form or another, be crushed. It is worth emphasizing the fact that this outcome was prevented not because of divine intervention or some historical destiny. Rather, it was the combined force of the US and the Soviet Union (but mainly the latter) that destroyed the Nazi’s and, with them, their designs for world domination. This should give pause to those who believe that societies organized around human decency are universal and natural. Rather, they are sustained by power relations that are historically contingent and ephemeral.