A Monster in the Making
Last month, I splurged a whole 99 cents on the download of an 89-year-old book.
Worth every penny, it's a non-fiction horror story: James Murphy's 1939 English translation of Adolph Hitler's Mein Kampf. Its sheer blandness and apparently reasonable, normal prose is what sets it apart, in the light of what arose from it a decade or two later.
Turgid in parts, yes. Hard to read in several parts because they relate to details of long-dead German politicians, yes. But as a window into the mind of a world-class statist, this is a must-read; for statism, I now understand, was the primary motivator of this monster. He's often scorned as a racist – which he also was – but what those critics miss is that he was both; his ideal was a nation, or state, founded on and consisting of a race. He worshipped it more earnestly than most, but in common with every other politician, his god was the State.
Born in Braunau, Austria in 1889, Hitler's childhood was spent in Linz near the German border, for his father Alois was a customs official. He writes that school was rather normal, though he recalls one outstanding teacher – of history: “To study history means to search for and discover the forces that are the causes of those results which appear before our eyes as historical events . . . . Probably my whole future life was determined by the fact that I had a professor of history who understood, as few others understand, how to make this viewpoint prevail in teaching and in examining. This teacher was Dr. Leopold Poetsch . . . . He was . . . an elderly gentleman with a decisive manner but a kindly heart, he was a very attractive speaker and was able to inspire us with his own enthusiasm.” (page 24 of this Kindle edition.)
His other great interest as a boy was art. He was quite a talented painter, and liked drawing too, and decided to become an artist. Alois disagreed; the boy was to enter government service, like his father. Both were stubborn; Adolph responded by deliberately flunking those subjects that did not interest him, so that he would not be qualified for such work. That came back later to bite him.
Adolph had an elder half-brother named Alois Jr. and a half-sister named Angela (Alois' previous wife had died) and a younger sister Paula. Both girls grew up without becoming sociopaths. Four other babies were born to Alois and Klara, but they died in infancy. Some have attributed Adolph's violence to beatings by his drunken father, but he refers to him (page 21) as “the old gentleman” while adding (page 27) “I respected my father, but I loved my mother.”
As a teenager Adolph was hit by three blows: at age 14 his father died, then at 18, in 1907, so did his mother. By then he had moved to Vienna in hopes of entering art school, but the third blow fell heavily when the Academy of Fine Arts rejected him; he wrote (page 28) “the news that I had failed to pass was brought to me . . . [and] struck me like a bolt from the skies.” The entrance examiners thought his painting not good enough, but liked his drawings and advised him to apply for architecture studies – but for those, he needed the school-leaving certificate he had spurned. One rock, one hard place. Had his father been less insistent, or if that entrance examiner had taken a kinder view of his painting talents, human history would have taken a different course. An example, perhaps, of the “butterfly effect.”
So from 1907 Adolph was a frustrated young man on the loose in Vienna, making a thin living by the sale of paintings and in odd manual-labor jobs. But his mind was active; this was the period of his real education. He taught himself, at the library and the opera and in endless discussions with those he met. Apparently he was not distracted by girlfriends – or if so, he doesn't mention them - it seems he followed the Roman Catholic teaching that sex should follow marriage. However, his friend and roommate Guztl Kubicek did write that he composed many love poems to a certain Stefanie, but never sent them.
So there: Hitler was a shy, romantic softie, and we never knew.
He seems also not to have followed his father into intemperate drinking, and later in life at least was a teetotal vegetarian. He does seem to have an affection for animals; he wrote (page 176) that, some years later, he enjoyed watching mice at play. And even in the Führerbunker, he kept a German Shepherd.
Following Poetsch's introduction, Hitler's studies in history cemented in his mind that national strength derived from unity and willpower. Whereas Adam Smith had made an “Inquiry into the Wealth of Nations”, Adolph was fascinated by the political strength of nations, especially the German one to which he felt he belonged; and he came in Vienna to despise not just the contrast between rags and riches (page 31: “Besides the horde of military officers of high rank, State officials, artists and scientists, there was the still vaster horde of workers. Abject poverty confronted the wealth of the aristocracy and the merchant class face to face”) but also the failure, as he saw it, to integrate Austrians as a nation; it was trying to unite Germans with Slavs, which he saw as inconsistent with national strength. Vienna was cosmopolitan – which you or I might enjoy; Hitler hated it. (How he would have fared in New York City is hard to imagine.) He also despised what he saw as the Austrian failure to take care of its poor (in Germany, Bismark had introduced some social welfare three decades earlier) so as to bind all classes to the National ideal; “I can fight only for something that I love” (page 38).
In his twenties, Hitler continued at first in Vienna, becoming a little better off as his paintings sold more readily, and so having more time for study, thought and debate; and in Chapter 2 of Mein Kampf he describes the progress of his understanding. He became sure of a need for “social welfare” but, remarkably, realized that the political Left, from Social Democrats to Marxists, was not its proper source. He even saw a key flaw in trades unions; that (page 48) “When I was twenty years old I had learned to distinguish between the Trades Union as a means of defending the social rights of the employees and fighting for better living conditions for them and, on the other hand, the Trades Union as a political instrument used by the Party in the class struggle.”
It was during his Vienna days too that Hitler turned anti-semitic. At first (page 52), “There were very few Jews in Linz. In the course of centuries the Jews who lived there had become Europeanized in external appearance and were so much like other human beings that I even looked upon them as Germans . . . my aversion to hearing remarks against them grew almost into a feeling of abhorrence. I did not in the least suspect that there could be such a thing as a systematic anti-Semitism. Then I came to Vienna.”
He writes (page 54), “Once, when passing through the inner City, I suddenly encountered a phenomenon in a long caftan and wearing black side-locks. My first thought was: Is this a Jew? They certainly did not have this appearance in Linz. I watched the man stealthily and cautiously; but the longer I gazed at the strange countenance and examined it feature by feature, the more the question shaped itself in my brain: Is this a German?” (my italics.)
So Hitler first became a passionate German nationalist, and then perceived that Jews owed no loyalty to any nation; and so were at best a hindrance to his ideal of national integrity.
He then tied his discoveries together and noticed that Jews were prominent in the political Left, and in publishing newspapers (so influencing public opinion), in entertainment, which he saw as degenerate, and in finance – hence making Jews responsible, as he saw it, for the disparity in wealth. From then on, Jews and Bolsheviks were his twin pet hates. “Here was a pestilence, a moral pestilence, with which the public was being infected. It was worse than the Black Plague of long ago” (page 56). Notice, though: his prime belief was in nationalism; his hatred was directed at those who obstructed that prime belief.
Young Adolph's intense interest in history and current affairs was not matched, alas, by any in economics. On page 83, he makes his only reference to the free market, even after having lived in the very city where “the Austrian school” had its birthplace: “In the 'eighties of the last century Manchester Liberalism, which was Jewish in its fundamental ideas, had reached the zenith of its influence in the Dual Monarchy, or had already passed that point.”
So was the Manchester school of Cobden, Bright et al, which had worked such wonders for prosperity in Britain, dismissed with that single sentence.
In 1912 at age 23, with his world-view (Weltanschauung, one of his favorite words) developed strongly, Adolph Hitler moved to Munich in Germany proper, and the next two years were (page 109) “by far the happiest and most contented time of my life.”
There he might have settled down, prospering perhaps as a painter, raising a family, and nursing his nationalism relatively privately; but that was not to be. In their gross irresponsibility, Europe's governments began a wholly needless war two years later, and because Germany's was one of them and the conflict brought the possibility of greater glory for the nation, Hitler was thrilled. He joined the throngs in a Munich square to express delight at the War's declaration in August 1914, here photographed by chance, waving his hat.
As a passionate patriot, he volunteered at once to join the army. Page 136: “I had no desire to fight for the Habsburg cause, but I was prepared to die at any time for my own kinsfolk and the Empire to which they really belonged . . . I presented an urgent petition to His Majesty, King Ludwig III, requesting to be allowed to serve in a Bavarian regiment. I was all the more pleased when I received the answer a day later, that my request had been granted. I opened the document with trembling hands; and no words of mine could now describe the satisfaction I felt on reading that I was instructed to report to a Bavarian regiment.” Say what you will about this little monster, he was no armchair patriot.
After training, he was sent to the Northern part of the Western Front, facing British troops. He described the high morale of his comrades during the trip: “For the first time in my life I saw the Rhine, as we journeyed westwards to stand guard before that historic German river against its traditional and grasping enemy . . . with one accord the whole troop train broke into the strains of Die Wacht am Rhein. I then felt as if my heart could not contain its spirit.”
So far in the development of his treasured Weltanschauung, Hitler had concluded that great nations depend on national pride and united will, that such strength is weakened by Jews and Bolsheviks whose outlook is international, that centralized propaganda was of the greatest importance especially in war time, and that free markets are irrelevant; and he was ready and eager to kill men of other nations whom he had never met, on command. There is more to come as we'll see below, but already it's hard to get much further away from a rational, anarchist understanding of which way is up.
During the war he performed well and bravely, earning the coveted Iron Cross and being wounded twice, running dispatches by motorcycle and evidently being virtually fearless. He was not promoted beyond Corporal, for his officers failed to detect qualities of leadership; a very few years later that judgment was to look rather silly. In Mein Kampf, he names two particular ways in which his world-view was enhanced by his war experience.
First, before arrival at the front, he'd been told that the enemy was of small account, easy to defeat. When reality was encountered, the German soldier realized he'd been misled: he “finally wound up by rejecting everything from home as pure swindle and humbug” (page 149) with an obvious impact on morale. In contrast, the Brits had been told that the German enemy was made up of Huns and barbarians; and once in his trenches, the Tommy could quite readily believe it. The relative difference to morale resulting from these domestic propaganda may have been a deciding factor in this tightly-balanced war; and taught Hitler very plainly the great importance of the subject. He put the lesson to powerful use a few years later.
Second and associated with that lesson, after being wounded in the leg, he was treated back home in a hospital, and found other patients were largely demoralized, even boasting (page 156) of how they had wounded themselves so as to escape the conflict. Hitler was horrified. Again, he attributed this loss of morale to the insidious influence of the domestic newspapers, run by Jews and Socialists; the experience reinforced the understanding he had already formed. This, mind, was in mid-war, 1916; not, as I had thought, after the war had been lost.
He was in the hospital again, blinded by a gas attack, when in 1918 the dreadful news arrived that Germany had asked for an armistice because it was no longer possible to furnish the army with supplies of food or ammunition. The country was in chaos, Bolsheviks were rampaging through the streets even of his own Munich, the Kaiser had abdicated and the government collapsed. Disillusion, on top of blindness, was enough to crush the spirit. He turned 30 when the Versailles “treaty” was imposed the following year, and although he'd recovered from his blindness, he had some re-thinking to do.
I was interested to see no mention, in Mein Kampf, of the vicious British Navy blockade of 1918-19, which caused hundreds of thousands of Germans to die of starvation. Hitler must surely have resented that, but he wrote nothing about it. He placed blame for the loss of the war where he thought it belonged: a failure of national will and spirit, sapped by Jews and Bolsheviks on the home front – not merely in 1918, but for all of the Century to date and perhaps longer. They were, in his thinking, the real traitors, the real enemy; the foreign enemy was after all fighting a war, in which all is said to be fair.
In his thirties (1919 – 1929), Hitler quickly recovered his spirits and set about taking action to restore the honor and strength of his country. Mein Kampf was written in 1923 and published in 1925, so it shows only the start of this process; the plans, more than the achievement. It makes a fascinating story, with lessons for anyone trying to build any movement from scratch.
I'll pick two aspects of what he wrote about the years 1919 – 1923: the rounding-out of his thinking or Weltanschauung, and some of his remarks about party expansion.
Already a nationalist and German patriot, Hitler developed the idea of establishing national strength by ensuring “racial purity” -- and he uses “race” in a very narrow sense, not the simple biological one. We speak of race as we speak of species; the human race, rather than other higher animals. Sometimes the word may refer to major and visible differences among humans; the white race, the black race, the Oriental race, etc. But Hitler used it to refer to the German race, as distinct from the French or Polish or British or Jewish ones. His ideal was of a State consisting of a single race (in that sense) united by a unified will, whose people believe and act in concert under the guidance of a wise leader. The words are those of his Fascist friend Mussolini, but they well express Hitler's vision: “everything for the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.” Collectivism, raised to a moronic level.
The German word Volk complements this. Literally meaning “people” (as in the well known people's wagon) it goes deeper than that English equivalent; it has overtones of a spiritual entity, a mystical grouping. He ridicules (page 244) the idea that anyone from anywhere can become a true German just by immigrating and learning to speak the language: “A man may acquire and use a new language without much trouble; but it is only his old ideas that he expresses through the new language. His inner nature is not modified thereby. The best proof of this is furnished by the Jew himself . . . .” (my italics). So, being a member of a State is properly to have an “inner nature” peculiar to his race. Several times in the book, he writes of other states like France and the UK – his erstwhile foes – respectfully; but Brits and Frenchmen were not busy dominating the media and financial structure of Germany. Jews were (or so he thought). That is why he so resented Jews.
It's nonsense, of course, and the melting-pot of America suffices to demolish the nonsense; but that is the Weltanschauung Hitler developed and sold to the humiliated German people. Eventually it inspired the ominous, oft-used slogan, Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Führer.
His vision of the new German state to be constructed involved total control of education and propaganda, so that this Völkisch sense could be nourished and each generation could be bound ever more closely to the single entity, Germany. He wanted sports to play a big part in the curriculum, including boxing – at the expense of book-learning. Hence, for example this, on page 323: “In the future much more emphasis will have to be laid on this side of our [sic] educational work. Loyalty, self-sacrifice and discretion are virtues which a great nation must possess. And the teaching and development of these in the school is a more important matter than many others things now included in the curriculum . . . . If our youths, during their years in the primary schools, had had their minds crammed with a little less knowledge, and if instead they had been better taught how to be masters of themselves, it would have served us well during the years 1914-1918.” School, as preparation for obedience and war. Sound familiar?
Most of the second half of Mein Kampf is taken up with Hitler's plans for growing the NSDAP, and some of it is quite amusing. In 1920-21, there was virulent opposition from the Social Democrats, and the Nazi Sturmabteilung (SA) was formed as a defensive force, he says, to kick such disrupters out of their meetings. They would leave with “bleeding skulls” rather often, he wrote with satisfaction. He had, nonetheless, an interesting approach to these meetings: he would actively encourage his adversaries to attend, then speak so powerfully – often for two or three hours at a time – that many of them were converted during the meeting! I believe Hitler was the finest orator of the century, more effective even than Churchill or Obama. He was not the first member to join the Party, but that skill made him its leader.
First and foremost, Hitler saw the State as the ideal form of social organization; managed by people dedicated to making it finer and stronger. Wrong! He failed totally to get his premise right, i.e., that individual humans each own themselves, and should interact only when and how each wishes to do so – in what we call the “market.” This fundamental error he shares with all who favor the continuing existence of government. Thus, at root, every politician is a Nazi.
Second, Hitler valued education and propaganda as vital ways to keep members of his ideal State in tune with his objectives – and of course he was correct, that's the only way to do it. Therefore, a free society must not have any centrally directed schooling or licensed media.
Third, his ideal State was based on race, meaning that all members should be of like mind and heritage and even physical resemblance; nonsense, on stilts! As above, America itself demonstrates the falsehood of that, even granting the premise that states have any business existing. His whole program to expel and exterminate Jews was based on this gross falsehood, and to call it a Weltanschauung (something universally applicable) is ludicrous, given that only a limited number of states even start with a racially distinct population.
Fourth, while writing of the “strength” of his ideal State, he completely misunderstood the vital question of how to fund it – that of financial strength. Instead of noting that prosperity has always resulted from freedom, he casually dismissed the subject of economics and of the free market in particular. He is, of course, not alone. Current politicians here have squandered the capital Americans built up over a hundred years, and the Debt Clock is one indicator of the havoc they have wrought. Hitler's “Thousand Year Reich” lasted only twelve, but the success that seemed to accompany its first few years amounted only to smoke and mirrors.
And fifth, by placing the glory of the State as his primary objective, Hitler saw warfare as one of its legitimate activities. I don't say that (15 years after writing this book) he started WWII; that war was unnecessary. But by bullying others into yielding territory to his State, instead of just leaving traders peacefully to work in the international market, he did make it more likely.
Adolph Hitler has now been dead for longer than he lived, and if his spirit is gazing up through the alleged flames and smoke, he will see that almost every nation on Earth has implemented his ideas; Statism reigns. I fancy I hear him, chortling with demonic glee. All developed countries have compulsory schooling with curriculae overseen by government. All have extensive social welfare programs. Many have compulsory military service, to round out the indoctrination, and almost all are heavily armed. All regulate their industry and commerce, distorting the free market. All control their media (as in the recent suppression of the German interview with Edward Snowden). All promote “love of country” -- with anthems, such as the American worship of the Stars and Stripes; each says the singer puts his or her country above all, just as in Deutschland über alles. One – most ironically, the State of Israel – even bases membership largely on race.
Happily, you and I can take action to change all that. Only then will Hitler's spirit finally die.