As The Washington Post’s Anthony Faiola reported this week, Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf is expected to be reissued in Germany for the first time since the end of World War II. Although widely available elsewhere in the world, the book — Hitler’s testament and what’s considered the founding text of Nazism — was never reprinted in postwar Germany.
Its planned reissue in Germany will come in the form of a 2,000-page academic tome that supplements Hitler’s own text with sharp commentary and criticism. The new version offers “a useful way of communicating historical education and enlightenment,” says one of the scholars behind the project. “A publication with the appropriate comments, exactly to prevent these traumatic events from ever happening again.”
There was a time, though, when Mein Kampf was not just the repugnant treatise of the 20th century’s greatest villain. More than seven decades ago, Hitler and the message of Nazism had great traction, and it required clear-eyed thinkers to cut through its seductions.
George Orwell’s 1940 review of an English edition of the book is as important now as it would have been then. That’s not because he’s uniquely right about the threat of Hitler — at this point, World War II was already in full swing. But the celebrated British man of letters has a special lens into the dangers and allure of fascism.
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Orwell offers this withering assessment of Hitler’s ambitions:
What (Hitler) envisages, a hundred years hence, is a continuous state of 250 million Germans with plenty of “living room” (i.e. stretching to Afghanistan or thereabouts), a horrible brainless empire in which, essentially, nothing ever happens except the training of young men for war and the endless breeding of fresh cannon-fodder. How was it that he was able to put this monstrous vision across?
It’s not sufficient to answer that last question just by looking at the political and economic forces that buoyed Hitler’s rise, Orwell contends. Rather, one has to grapple with the inescapable fact that “there is something deeply appealing about him.”
Hitler, Orwell writes, “knows that human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene . . . they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice, not to mention drums, flags and loyalty-parades.”
For good reason, the Atlantic’s Graeme Wood quoted this same piece in his lengthy meditation on the worldview of the militants of the Islamic State. The militarist pageantry of fascism, and the sense of purpose it gives its adherents, echoes in the messianic call of the jihadists.
Wood cites this passage in Orwell’s review: “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.”
But, in my view, the most poignant section of Orwell’s article dwells less on the underpinnings of Nazism and more on Hitler’s dictatorial style. Orwell gazes at the portrait of Hitler published in the edition he’s reviewing:
It is a pathetic, dog-like face, the face of a man suffering under intolerable wrongs. In a rather more manly way it reproduces the expression of innumerable pictures of Christ crucified, and there is little doubt that that is how Hitler sees himself. The initial, personal cause of his grievance against the universe can only be guessed at; but at any rate the grievance is here. He is the martyr, the victim, Prometheus chained to the rock, the self-sacrificing hero who fights single-handed against impossible odds. If he were killing a mouse he would know how to make it seem like a dragon. One feels, as with Napoleon, that he is fighting against destiny, that he can’t win, and yet that he somehow deserves to.
Hitler projected this image — of a self-sacrificing hero, wounded by the universe — and went on to unleash horrors on the world. But the narcissism of a “martyr” and the penchant to make dragons out of mice, as Orwell puts it, can be found in demagogues of all political stripes. It’s worth keeping these words in mind when watching the spectacle of our contemporary politics.
Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor at TIME, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.
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