Remember… and do not forget

About nine years ago, I picked up a copy of Adolf Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf’ while visiting the United States. For over twenty years I have been fascinated by the Second World War, and have read about and studied that period extensively, focusing mainly on Nazi Germany. My maternal grandparents lived through that period in the Netherlands and experienced German occupation themselves in the early 1940’s. My intention (nine years ago) was to read ‘Mein Kampf’, to see for myself the ramblings of a mad man. I started reading, and made it about 80 pages into the book, when I put it down. Now, nine years later, I picked it up again, and started over. With significant extra knowledge and context I have picked up over that timeframe, I felt confident enough to read it in its entirety.

The most fascinating part so far has been the introduction, written by Abraham Foxman, who writes that ‘Mein Kampf’

… 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.

In the Netherlands for instance, the book is still banned from being printed and sold, even though the copyright expired this year (2016). ‘Mein Kampf’, in my opinion, is an important book for historical reasons, even if it is rife with historical inaccuracies, lies and half truths, and, as Abraham Foxman explains: “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.” When speaking of the most important lesson we can learn from this book, he writes:

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.

It will be an interesting text to examine, although, when I think back to the first eighty or so pages I read nine years ago, a rather boring read.

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