From 1925 to 1945, more than 12 million copies of Adolf Hitler's semi-autobiographical screed "Mein Kampf" (in English, "My Struggle") were sold worldwide and translated into 18 different languages. After World War II, as humanity struggled to process the unthinkable horrors of the Holocaust, Hitler's best-seller was banned from respectable bookshelves and lurked in the popular imagination as the most dangerous and taboo of texts.
In 2016, an annotated critical edition of "Mein Kampf" was reprinted for the first time since the end of the war in Germany on the day that its original copyright expired. Its release triggered heated debate over the merits of reading "Mein Kampf," even in a heavily annotated edition that actively calls out Hitler's lies.
One fierce critic of the book's release, the historian Jeremy Adler from King's College London, wrote that "Absolute evil cannot be edited," echoing the verdict of many scholars and historians that "Mein Kampf" wasn't worth reading for any reason.
"It's not a book that people read, including experts on Nazism," says Michael Bryant, a professor of history and legal studies at Bryant University (no relation) who wrote a book on Nazi war crimes but had never opened "Mein Kampf" before 2016. "There are not that many people who write about it and even fewer people who have actually read the damn thing."
Bad Ideas, Worse Writing
As a historian, Bryant decided it was high time he read the "primary source" of all Nazism for himself. "How often do you have an 800-page book written by a political criminal of Hitler's stature?" he asks.
The German 2016 critical edition ran more than 1,700 pages with all of its scholarly commentary, but Bryant says it wasn't the extensive footnotes that made "Mein Kampf" a "slog" of a read.
"Hitler's not a scholar and he's not a writer," says Bryant. "His writing is so baroque and turgid and suffers from a lack of organization. If a student of mine wrote like Hitler, the red ink would be dripping off the page. 'You need a transitional sentence here! Too obscure! Too vague!'"
When Did Hitler Write "Mein Kampf"?
Hitler wrote the first of his two-volume book in 1924 while imprisoned for a failed political coup. His right-wing National Socialist (Nazi) party had been banned and 35-year-old Hitler decided to use his jail time to plan his triumphant comeback. With "Mein Kampf" he hoped to consolidate the splintered right-wing movement in Germany and become its hero.
In the preface of "Mein Kampf," Hitler laid out the purpose of the book, which was part political diatribe and part personal memoir (notice that even in the preface, he bristled at the influence of "the Jews").
"I decided to set forth, in two volumes, the aims of our movement, and also draw a picture of its development," wrote Hitler. "At the same time I have had occasion to give an account of my own development... in so far as it may serve to destroy the foul legends about my person dished up in the Jewish press."
Magnus Brechtken is the deputy director of the Leibniz Institute for Contemporary History, the German research institute that published the 2016 critical edition of "Mein Kampf." Brechtken says that Hitler's purpose for writing "Mein Kampf" was to present himself as the person who had discovered the "key to history," which is that history is above all the struggle between different races.
In "Mein Kampf," Hitler writes that:
In his dense and meandering prose, Hitler fills both volumes of "Mein Kampf" with his racialized view of Germany's history and his program for its purified future. If, that is, the German people recognize the Jew as their enemy and Hitler as their savior.
"Hitler believed that he was the 'chosen one' to save Germany from racial destruction and the only person who had the political power, will and ruthlessness to see his program through," says Brechtken. "'I am your last chance,' he told the German people in 'Mein Kampf.' 'We are our last chance.'"
Did Hitler Invent the Racist Ideologies in "Mein Kampf"?
Brechtken and Bryant agree there was nothing particularly new about the twisted, anti-Semitic worldview Hitler put forth in "Mein Kampf."
The idea that Central European "Aryans" were the superior race was popularized in the 1850s by Joseph-Arthur, Comte de Gobineau, a French diplomat and armchair ethnologist who wrote the influential "Essay on the Inequality of Human Races." According to Gobineau, everything good in human civilization was created by the Aryans, the "purest" of the white races, and has been defiled through intermarriage with "inferior" blood.
Next came Houston Stewart Chamberlain, an English-born music critic who respected the German composer Richard Wagner as much for his rabid anti-Semitism as his operas. In an 1899 book, Chamberlain forwarded the idea that all of history was a clash between the Aryans and the "Semites," and that only "Germanism" could rescue the world from the grips of Jewish conspirators.
In "Mein Kampf," Hitler parroted Chamberlain's conception of the Jewish people as the chief opposition, writing, "The mightiest counterpart to the Aryan is represented by the Jew."
According to Hitler, Jews were "parasites" who fed on the Aryan culture before undermining its superior Aryan instincts with "Jewish" concepts like Marxism and humanistic thinking. All the while, Hitler insisted, the Jew was plotting to dilute the purity of Aryan blood.
"With satanic joy in his face," wrote Hitler, "the black-haired Jewish youth lurks in wait for the unsuspecting girl whom he defiles with his blood, thus stealing her from her people."
Anti-Semitism is ugly on its own, but when Hitler was in Austria, he also learned how to employ anti-Semitism as a political tool. Rejected from art school, young Hitler peddled postcards in the streets of Vienna, where he absorbed the rhetoric of the Austrian politician Georg von Schoenerer. Von Schoenerer wanted to see the creation of a "Pan German" state that absorbed the Germanic parts of Austria, and he successfully used the Jews as both a scapegoat and enemy of his cause.
When Germany lost World War I, Hitler and other German nationalists blamed the defeat on "back-stabbing Jews," Marxists and other leftist elements in German politics. The alleged culpability of the Jews in Germany's demise was a repeated theme throughout "Mein Kampf" and offered "proof" that the Jews were the enemy of the pureblood German Aryan.
Are There Premonitions of the Holocaust in "Mein Kampf"?
While Hitler doesn't explicitly call for the mass extermination of Jews in "Mein Kampf," as he would as part of the Nazis' murderous "Final Solution," Bryant believes that there is a clear throughline from 1924 to 1941.
"My thinking about the Holocaust has really changed because of steeping myself in 'Mein Kampf,'" says Bryant. "I'm much more receptive to the idea, which I didn't entertain before, that Hitler was already thinking about murdering the Jews in the 1920s."
There are generally two schools of thought on who was responsible for planning the Holocaust, Bryant explains. On one side are the "Functionalists," who argue that Hitler didn't plan or even order the Final Solution, but that it was executed by lower-level functionaries who thought they were fulfilling Hitler's wishes. On the other side are the "Intentionalists," who say that Hitler was plotting the Holocaust from the very beginning, and simply waited for the opportune moment to execute his genocidal plan.
Bryant was largely swayed by the evidence put forth by the functionalists, until he read "Mein Kampf" which at its heart, Bryant says, is "a revenge book."
"It seethes with anger and resentment toward the Jews," says Bryant. "Obviously, I wasn't surprised that Hitler was an anti-Semite. I was surprised by the sheer rancorous, poisonous quality of his invective against the Jews. It's the single most important theme of 'Mein Kampf' bar none."
Hitler makes it clear, particularly in the racialized history laid out in chapter 11 of volume one, that the very fate of the German people, of this superior, but weakened Aryan culture, depended on how Germany dealt with its "Jewish question."
"It's a theme that runs from page 1 to page 850 of 'Mein Kampf' — this idea that the Germans are facing a life and death situation, a battle for the existence of their national lives," says Bryant. "If something isn't done about the Jews, then Germany will perish from the face of the earth. It's not a metaphor; it's the future he prophesied."
Should You Read "Mein Kampf"?
Which brings us back to the question that scholars and history buffs have been asking for more than half a century: Is there value in reading this poisonous book that sowed the seeds of genocide?
Magnus Brechtken, whose institute published the controversial critical edition in 2016, says yes. If you want to prevent another Holocaust, you need to know how it all began, with a poorly written manifesto scribbled in a jail cell.
"How else can you analyze what happened in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s if you don't look at the motives of those who were acting at the time and committing those atrocities?" says Brechtken. "If you understand why they did it and how they achieved it, you have a much better chance of preventing anything like that happening again."
Adam Gopnik, a longtime staff writer at The New Yorker, agreed in a 2016 article. He wrote: