I mentioned yesterday that the last book I found at John King Books was the one that broke my budget. It became its own post because I felt I needed to offer an explanation as to why I shelled out $55 for this 1939 printing of the first unabridged English translation of Mein Kampf.
As the introduction explains, the text is fully annotated to explain the history behind events Hitler mentions in the text and to correct false information.
Now, why on earth would I want such a book? I’m not a neo-Nazi or a white supremacist, though a card tucked in the pages which we discovered once we were back home certainly suggests that those people are active and looking to recruit like-minded people…
One of the reasons I bought this book is that I am a student of history, particularly of the 20th century, and I am deeply interested in how historical events led to the world we live in today. I am also researching Adolf Hitler and the geopolitical realities of his lifetime for a series of books I hope to write someday. Thus, it is invaluable to have this pre-WWII view of the book and the man that changed the course of history. The editors are not looking back at Hitler through the historical lens of WWII and the Holocaust, but from the standpoint of what were to them current events. The introduction to this book mentions the reasoning behind the timing of this edition, and a preface even makes note of the tremendous speed at which they felt pressured to produce it.
In some ways, producing this book is a bit like people buying The Art of the Deal or other Trump-authored books after the election to see just what kind of man had come to power. This introduction was certainly written before the invasion of Poland in the fall of 1939 as it makes no mention of it. The world knew Europe was headed for conflict after Germany’s 1938 annexation of portions of Czechoslovakia, but it had no inkling of the scope of the war that would engulf the entire globe over the next six years. Seeing how they saw these events as they were unfolding rather than simply reading history from the standpoint of someone looking back in judgment — How could they have thought they could appease Hitler? How could they have turned a blind eye to what he was doing? — is vital for an honest, non-revisionist understanding of why world events happen as they do. It removes the “hindsight” glasses we are always inevitably wearing when we study history and allows us to see with the biases that the people of that time had.
When you read portions of Mein Kampf that deal with the question of race, and especially the Jewish people, you wonder how on earth anyone could believe any of it. While Hitler can even sound reasonable in some of his views of more political questions (even if you disagree with him, there are logical underpinnings to his arguments in this sphere), the logical leaps he makes when talking about race sound utterly absurd to us. How could anyone have followed this guy? We’ve all seen the newsreels. He was a raving lunatic. They must have all been brainwashed. I’ve even heard an acquaintance of mine say that she thought they must have been eating something bad or the water must have been poisoned for them to blindly follow him.
But that kind of talk removes responsibility from the real people who carry out horrific acts, and it makes those of us in the 21st century feel quite sure of our intellectual and moral superiority to those in the past. We would never do such things. No one could fool us the way Hitler fooled them.
The fact of the matter is, if you study even the century that led up to World War I, what do you find? Rampant antisemitism. What do you find after WWI? Rampant antisemitism. Leaders like Hitler cannot lead without a following. He struggled for years to gain his, but once he found the right combination of political views (including blaming the Jews for WWI and for the Marxist revolution in Germany after the war) and built the right kind of propaganda machine (which he talks about extensively in Mein Kampf) he found a very willing audience to listen to and applaud and follow him. They wanted someone to blame and they wanted someone to make Germany great again. He wasn’t a lunatic. He was a very clever man who knew how to convince people that he was going to fix everything that was wrong.
We live in a day when our president throws a lot of blame around. When it has been suggested that we register and track people of a particular religion. When the working class population is hard-pressed and suffering from long-term joblessness and wage stagnation. When we vote in someone from outside the establishment in order to shake things up. Our times are not so unlike those that led up to two of the most deadly and destructive wars in history (approximately 100 million people died as a result of WWI and WWII combined — that would be like the entire populations of California, Texas, New York, and Illinois combined…dead).
Now, I’m not equating Trump and Hitler. Trump’s a bumbling idiot muddling through a job he’s perhaps realizing he didn’t really want to do after all. Were Trump a decent orator, maybe (maybe) I’d be more concerned about him. (Aside: Imagine the crazy tweets Hitler would unleash if he’d had Twitter.) No, sir. Trump is no Hitler.
I’m simply saying that it’s important to study our history and to resist chronological snobbery, which suggests that since we live in a later time we are more enlightened or savvy or moral than those who lived in the past. We’re not. We must always be on guard against bad leadership and we must always be on guard against our own capacity to do evil…especially when we have convinced ourselves we are doing good.
Because the more pressing question, the more disturbing question is: Could we regular, everyday Americans be more like all those regular, everyday Germans in the 1930s than we think?