The Echoes of Hitler

Reading “Mein Kampf” shows how much continuity there is between the anti-egalitarian Nazi rhetoric that produced the Holocaust and today’s mainstream right-wing beliefs.

The Current Affairs offices overflow with books of all kinds, but unfortunately no matter where I put the copy of Mein Kampf it always seems to be the first thing visitors see when they wander in. In my experience, people find it creepy and odd that one would own a copy of the world’s most infamous genocidal manifesto, because it suggests one has either active Nazi sympathies or an excessive fascination with Nazis. 

But I don’t always own books because they are good. Sometimes I own them because they are useful, and my library consists, in large part, of volumes that can help me better understand the world in some way. Nazis are, regrettably, part of the world, and understanding Nazi thought helps better illuminate why there have been Nazis and how we might rid ourselves of them. I can certainly respect the impulse to only read good books, but in my experience one can learn as much from such unfortunate genres as the billionaire memoir as from edifying literature like the collected political writings of Noam Chomsky

One reason it is actually worth scrutinizing the dreary prose of Adolf Hitler is that you find out what he actually believed. You might think this was obvious, but as fewer and fewer of those who actually lived through World War II or saw the Holocaust firsthand remain present on Earth, the collective memory fuzzes and fades. Some polling suggests that the majority of millennials do not know what Auschwitz was, and that most Americans do not know how Hitler came to power. The good news is that few people deny that the Holocaust happened. The bad news is that a lot of those people have no idea what the Holocaust actually was, except a Very Bad Thing Where A Lot Of People Died.

In fact, I have two volumes by Hitler, Mein Kampf and My New Order, the second of which is an obscure volume of collected speeches. My edition of My New Order was published in 1941, which gives it a certain eerie quality: at the time this ink was put on these pages, it was uncertain whether Hitler would in fact succeed in his mission of global conquest. This book was printed at one of the bleakest moments in humanity’s history: Europe had been overrun, the United States had yet to enter the war, and the possibility of a vast, permanent Nazi empire—a thousand-year Reich—was very much real. Looking at these books serves to remind me of what the stakes of politics are. Hitler was not a cartoonish abstraction—he was a real human being who walked the Earth and who used rhetoric to persuade otherwise-normal human beings to participate in a nightmarish project to exterminate millions of people. 

When you read Mein Kampf and the collected speeches, the first thing that strikes you is just how open he was about what he believed and intended to do. It’s true that, once he had obtained power, Hitler pretended to want peace, but for the most part Hitler was quite honest about wanting to do away with democracy, establish a dictatorship, ruthlessly persecute Jews (and leftists), and create a dystopian nightmare-state in which physically weak people were prohibited from procreating and children were taught to be automatons serving a racist nationalist ideal. It’s all there in the text. This is important, because if Hitler had been furtive, it would be easier to excuse those who looked the other way or were sympathetic to Nazism as having been duped. The far scarier reality is that a man came along promising a nightmare and many people supported it and worked with him to help bring it about. 

American conservatives sometimes insist that Hitler was a leftist, because of the presence of the word “socialist” in “national socialist.” Hitler himself insisted that “our adopted term ‘Socialist’ has nothing to do with Marxian Socialism,” but reading his writings and speeches is a very good way of understanding why it’s absurd to call him a leftist. The core ideological commitments that Hitler expresses, over and over again, are:

  • The need for racial purity
  • A meritocratic belief that the talented should rule over their inferiors
  • Contempt for the physically weak and a celebration of physical strength
  • A disgust with “Marxist” principles that human beings are equal 
  • A disgust with democracy for failing to recognize that human beings are unequal
  • Extreme bitterness about the Treaty of Versailles
  • Fanatical nationalism and belief in the necessity of violent struggle
  • A violent hatred of Jews, for they embody traits he detests, such as being intellectuals, Marxists, pacifists, egalitarians, etc. 

To make the case for Hitler as a socialist, then, it is necessary to ignore everything Hitler actually said about his own beliefs, which were according to Hitler himself the very inverse of the leftist commitments to egalitarianism, anti-racism, internationalism, democracy, pacifism, etc. In fact, it’s rather incredible just how little overlap there is between anything Hitler believed and anything leftists stand for. He explains very clearly that while leftists believe people are equal, and that they have a right to rule by virtue of their humanity, he rejects “loathsome humanitarian morality” and believes in rule by natural superiors

“The Jewish doctrine of Marxism rejects the aristocratic principle of Nature and replaces the eternal privilege of power and strength by the mass of numbers and their dead weight. Thus it denies the value of personality in man, contests the significance of nationality and race, and thereby withdraws from humanity the premise of its existence and its culture…”

Democracy, Hitler says, is a ridiculous idea, because it lets the government be controlled by people who are too stupid to know what they are doing, rather than letting the enlightened and heroic few (i.e., him) decide what’s best. “If Tom can be master, what is to prevent Dick and Harry from having their turn too?” Hitler asks, with the implication that Dick and Harry are imbeciles. “We cannot be too sharp in condemning the absurd notion that geniuses can be born from general elections,” he says, because the majority “is not only a representative of stupidity, but of cowardice as well,” and thus democracy means “placing the ultimate decision in a matter in the hands of men totally lacking in every prerequisite to the task,” so that “the decision is always made by a majority of ignoramuses and incompetents.” It is “the rule of stupidity, of mediocrity, of half-heartedness, of cowardice, of weakness, and of inadequacy.” It is the good of the nation rather than equal participation that should matter: “The law of democracy seems holier to such a principle-monger than the welfare of a nation.” (Principle-monger!)

This is, of course, the opposite of the core article of leftist faith that the people ought to rule, but it does overlap very closely with many conservative arguments about democracy that are still heard to this day. (There is even a book called Against Democracy, published by the Princeton University Press, that argues we should be ruled by “epistocrats,” a special class of the mentally superior.) Hitler lays out very plainly that you can either believe in democracy (everyone gets to decide regardless of merit) or you can believe in “achievement”: 

“I see two diametrically opposed principles: the principle of democracy which, wherever it is allowed practical effect, is the principle of destruction; and the principle of the authority of personality which I would call the principle of achievement, because whatever man in the past has achieved—all human civilizations—is conceivable only if the supremacy of this principle is admitted.” 

Amusingly enough, one of the arguments Hitler uses for why democracy doesn’t make sense is that the economy is not democratic. He says that because we don’t distribute private property equally, but instead it is given out unequally on the basis of people’s achievements (Elon Musk being a much higher achiever than I am), it doesn’t make sense that we do the opposite in the political realm and say anyone can rule. “Private property can be morally and ethically justified only if I admit that men’s achievements are different,” he says. Thus:

“In the economic sphere, from the start, in all branches men are not of equal value or of equal importance. And once this is admitted it is madness to say: in the economic sphere there are undoubtedly differences in value, but that is not true in the political sphere. It is absurd to build up economic life on the conceptions of achievement, of the value of personality, and therefore in practice on the authority of personality, but in the political sphere… to thrust into its place the law of the greater number—democracy.” 

In other words, if democracy is good, then private property must be bad, and if private property is good, then democracy must be bad: 

“Either because of equal capacity all men are equally capable of administering a State and then the maintenance of the concept of property is not only unjust but simply stupid, or men are in truth not in a position to take into their common administration as common property that sum-total of material and cultural treasure which the nation as a whole has created, and then in that case they are far less in a position to govern the State in common.” 

Why is it, he asks, that “in the political sphere special capacities are not necessary but that here an absolute equality in achievement reigns”? He says democracy in the political realm is analogous to communism in the economic realm, and since communism in the economic realm is clearly a bad idea (because private property should be handed out on the basis of “achievement” and “personality”) clearly democracy cannot be justified. “The conception of private property is… inseparably connected with the conviction that the capacities of men are different alike in character and in value,” he said, and so because he believed that different capacities should be given different rewards, the system of private property made sense. Under a private property regime we “accept this difference in value—which I will now call difference in talent—as giving rise to a moral claim on the result produced by this superiority.” 

Of course, leftists take this in precisely the opposite direction, arguing that we need economic democracy as well as political democracy (meaning that there shouldn’t be huge power imbalances in the economy just as some people shouldn’t get more votes than other people). For Hitler, the unequal distribution of private property makes sense, and provides a good argument for getting rid of universal suffrage. Besides, he said, “democracy is fundamentally not German: it is Jewish.” (Everything he didn’t like was Jewish.) 

Hitler uses a similar kind of reasoning against democracy by citing another institution whose hierarchies he thought were sound: the army. 

“In the State there is an organization—the army—which cannot in any way be democratized without surrendering its very existence. But if a Weltanschauung cannot be applied to every sphere of a people’s life, that fact in itself is sufficient proof of its weakness. In other words: the army can exist only if it maintains the absolutely undemocratic principle of unconditional authority proceeding downwards and absolute responsibility proceeding upwards, while, in contradistinction to this, democracy means in practice complete dependence proceeding downwards and authority proceeding upwards.”

Once again, a leftist might see the democratic principle as an indictment of militarism, rather than militaries as an indictment of democracy. 

Hitler has contempt for the masses, instead valuing what he calls “personality” or “achievement.” “Marxism presents itself as the perfection of the Jew’s attempt to exclude the preeminence of personality in all fields of human life and replace it by the number of the mass.” But a well organized society must be an “embodiment of the endeavor to place thinking individuals above the masses, thus subordinating the latter to the former.” There are two routes to national decline, both of which come down to egalitarianism: “the one is that for the conception of the value of personality there is substituted a levelling idea of the supremacy of mere numbers—democracy—and the other is the negation of the value of a people, the denial of any difference in the inborn capacity, the achievement, etc. of individual peoples.”

It is a hierarchy of talented and superior individuals ruling the masses that makes society work: 

“The salvation of mankind has never lain in the masses, but in its creative minds, which must therefore be regarded as the benefactors of the human race… [The interest of the totality] is not satisfied and is not served by the domination of the unintelligent or incompetent, in any case uninspired masses, but solely by the leadership of those to whom Nature has given special gifts for this purpose. The selection of these minds… is primarily accomplished by the hard struggle for existence. Many break and perish, thus showing that they are not destined for the ultimate, and in the end only few appear to be chosen… the destructive effect of the Jew’s activity in other national bodies is basically attributable only to his eternal efforts to undermine the position of the personality in the host-peoples and to replace it by the mass.”

Hitler is not often associated with the term “meritocracy,” in part because he clearly cared more about race than anything else, but much of his rhetoric is about how those who have proved themselves superior in various virtues deserve to rule over others. (I could not help but be reminded, when reading Hitler, of what right-wing economist Ludwig von Mises once wrote to Ayn Rand: “You have the courage to tell the masses what no politician told them: you are inferior and all the improvements in your conditions which you simply take for granted you owe to the effort of men who are better than you.”) He speaks of “opening the gates of the higher state educational institutions to all talent, absolutely regardless from what circles it may originate.” Of course, it wasn’t absolutely regardless, because he only wanted talented Aryans, but Hitler was stating plainly that he believed talent should determine rewards, rather than everyone having a basic right to share equally in those rewards. 

What, then, did Hitler mean by the “socialism” in “national socialism”? It was mostly a good bit of branding, and he only occasionally uses the term positively, saying things like “only through a truly socialistic view of this problem which faces the community will it be possible to find the solution” when talking about unemployment, then clarifying this means “hav[ing] everyone rise above his egoism and triumph over his personal interests.” In other words, he mostly just means being social, and elsewhere says “to be ‘social’ means to build up the State and the community of the people so that every individual acts in the interest of the community of the people and must be to such an extent convinced of the goodness, of the honorable straightforwardness of this community of the people as to be ready to die for it.” In one curious passage, he defines it this way: “He who has taken to heart the meaning of our great song ‘Deutschland, Deutschland, uber alles,’ that nothing in the world stands for him higher than this Germany, people and land, land and people, he is a Socialist!Hitler’s “socialism,” then, was mostly just a vague restatement of his nationalism. It certainly had nothing to do with the class struggle that most socialists believe is important. “I reject the word ‘proletariat,’” he says, calling it a Jewish term. Hitler says the whole idea of a class struggle is Marxist Jewish nonsense, and “we must on principle free ourselves from any class standpoint,” because what matters is not whether you are a bourgeois German or a proletarian German but whether you are German. As he says:

“There are no such things as classes… where everyone who is a German at all has the same blood, has the same eyes, and speaks the same language, there can be no class, there can be only a single people and beyond that nothing else.” 

In Mein Kampf, Hitler speaks of how outraged he was as a young man to hear people condemning the bourgeoisie and capitalism instead of identifying the real culprits. (I don’t need to tell you who.) He offers a “confession of faith” that he has taken a “sacred oath which I will keep so long as I draw breath,” which is that his great historic task is the “destruction of Marxism,” to wage “the fight against communism” to the death. Communism was antithetical to everything Hitler believed because it stood for the principle of international human equality, the abolition of classes. Hitler was a believer in strict hierarchy and thus saw communism as destructive of the natural order of things.

Hitler expounds an education program in Mein Kampf, and it is about what you’d expect, although it’s interesting how openly he advocates turning children stupid in the service of national glory:

“[The state must] not adjust its entire educational work primarily to the inculcation of mere knowledge, but to the breeding of absolutely healthy bodies. The training of mental abilities is only secondary… only in last place comes scientific schooling…. A man of little scientific education but physically healthy, with a good firm character, imbued with the joy of determination and will-power, is more valuable for the national community than a clever weakling. A people of scholars, if they are physically degenerate, weak-willed, and cowardly pacifists, will not storm the heavens… A decayed body is not made the least more aesthetic by a brilliant mind.”

To that end, he supports more gym classes and fewer history lessons, and is quite direct that learning racism is the point of going to school: the “folkish state’s entire work of education and training must be to burn the racial sense and racial feeling into the instinct and the intellect… no boy and no girl must leave school without having been led to an ultimate realization of the necessity and essence of blood purity.” It is unsurprising that Nazism produced few contributions to the advancement of the world’s knowledge. 

One cannot have any doubt that Hitler is fundamentally right-wing when reading his writings and speeches. His emphasis on the importance of human racial differences echoes today in Charles Murray, and the centrality of hierarchy in Jordan Peterson. One need not carry these beliefs through to the kind of fanatical genocidal ends that Hitler did, but one of the central arguments between the left and the right is over egalitarianism: are there natural hierarchies of privilege and wealth or should people be equal? 

The egalitarian also believes that people around the world are deserving of equal consideration; socialists tend to be internationalists who champion the rights of oppressed peoples everywhere. But for the Nazi, humanity is not what is valuable: “If others speak of the World and Humanity, we say the Fatherland—and only the Fatherland.” He scorns the slogan “proletarians of all countries, unite,” calling it “the expression of the will of men who in their essential character have a certain kinship with analogous peoples on a low level of civilization.” Ultimately, “Ideas such as ‘democracy,’ ‘majority,’ ‘conscience of the world,’ ‘world solidarity,’ ‘world peace,’ ‘internationality of art,’ etc. disintegrate our race consciousness, breed cowardice, and so today we are bound to say that the simple Turk is more man than we are.” Global solidarity, the core principle of leftism, gets in the way of racism and would end up leading to such radical and unacceptable conclusions as Turkish people are not that different from German people. Death to solidarity, then. 

The foremost impression one gets from Hitler’s writings and speeches, though, is just how violent and fanatical his anti-Semitism was from the start. This is not unexpected, but it’s still startling just how aggressively and obsessively anti-Semitic his entire program is. He describes himself as “a confirmed anti-Semite, a deadly foe of the whole Marxist world outlook, and pan-German in my political principles.” He cannot speak on any topic without somehow coming back to how the Jews are to blame for whatever is wrong. He could not be more explicit: “the Jewish people in itself stands against us as our deadly foe and so will stand against us always and for all time.” He is fighting a “battle which began nearly 120 years ago, at the moment when the Jew was granted citizen rights in the European States. The political emancipation of the Jew was the beginning of an attack of delirium” as they are “much more clearly and definitely a race apart than all others… always formed and will form a state within a state.” In Mein Kampf he is already fantasizing about gassing Jews by the thousands. (“If at the beginning of [World War I] and during the war twelve or fifteen thousands of these Hebrew corrupters of the people had been held under poison gas… the sacrifice of millions at the front would not have been in vain.”) Hitler is almost more committed to anti-Semitism than white supremacism, speaking of the corrupting influence of Jews far more than the superiority of white people. He describes his early awakening to anti-Semitic thought, as he noticed the abnormal number of Jewish people producing both the Social Demcoratic newspapers he hated and the artistic “filth” he felt was corrupting the nation. After that, “wherever I went, I began to see Jews, and the more I saw, the more sharply they became distinguished in my eyes from the rest of humanity.” His paranoia never stopped intensifying. 

The bile does not stop flowing. Jews are “a people of robbers” who have “destroyed civilizations by the hundreds.” If you “go up to one of our health-resorts” you will find “the Jew who goes there to lose his fat” (fat gained through eating what rightfully belonged to the German people, or something), and up in the mountains you will find “Jews in brand new-yellow boots with splendid rucksacks in which there is generally nothing that would really be of any use.” Hitler even somehow manages to link the prevailing fashion for stovepipe trousers back to his hatred of Jews: 

“Dress must be put into the service of education. The boy who in summer runs around in long stove-pipe trousers, and covered up to the neck, loses through his clothing alone a stimulus for his physical training. … If physical beauty were today not forced entirely into the background by our foppish fashions, the seduction of hundreds of thousands of girls by bow-legged, repulsive Jewish bastards would not be possible…. The most beautiful bodies should find one another, and so help to give the nation new beauty.”

A good tip for avoiding genocidal bloodbaths is not to ever let anyone who believes deranged things like this be put in charge of a state. The scale of Hitler’s mass murder may have been shocking, but his intention to use extreme violence against his many enemies was clear. He promised to be “intolerant and pitiless against anyone who shall attempt once more to destroy or disintegrate this body politic.” He responds to the charge that “You want one day in Germany to annihilate your political opponents” by saying that, yes, of course he does, because these opponents are Bolshevists who will end Germany. His prophecy is clear: “A state which in this age of racial poisoning dedicates itself to the care of its best racial elements must someday become lord of the earth.”

Hitler’s racial theories do not make much sense, and he doesn’t even try to explain them in detail. There is something in the blood that creates virtue. What it is cannot be said, but its existence is “beyond question”: 

“It is beyond question that certain traits of character, certain virtues, and certain vices always recur in peoples so long as their inner nature—their blood-condition composition—has not essentially altered… The inner value which determines the life of a people can be destroyed by nothing save only through a change in the blood causing a change in the substance.” 

(It is well-known that writers tend to put “it is beyond question” before the statements they make that are most questionable.) 

In an interesting passage in one of Hitler’s speeches, he explains that he is not the only one who believes in the superiority of white people, and in “might makes right.” In fact, he says, the whole way that the white race “has created for itself a privileged position in the world” is through an absolute belief that it is entitled to use force in order to rule, and he even goes so far as to suggest that the fact of white dominance is mostly a result of white people’s belief in their right to dominate:

“Take for example India. England did not conquer India by the way of justice and of law: she conquered India without regard to the wishes, to the views of the natives, or to their formulations of justice, and, when necessary, she has upheld this supremacy with the most brutal ruthlessness. Just in the same way Cortez or Pizarro annexed Central America and the northern states of South America, not on the basis of any claim of right, but from the absolute inborn feeling of the superiority of the white race. The settlement of the North American continent is just as little the consequence of any claim of superior right in any democratic or international sense; it was the consequence of a consciousness of right which was rooted solely in the conviction of the superiority and therefore of the right of the white race… If Fate allowed the white race to take a different path, that is only because this white race was convinced that it had the right to organize the rest of the world. It matters not what superficial disguises in individual cases this right may have assumed, in practice it was the exercise of an extraordinarily brutal right to dominate others, and from this political conception was developed the basis for the economic annexation of that world which was not inhabited by the white race.”

This would not be the only time that Hitler looked to America as a model.  

Ludicrous as Hitler’s rants about stovepipe trousers and other instruments of Jewish control might have been, one can see why they were effective in the Germany of the 1920s and 30s. Hitler offers a coherent narrative to his people: they have been humiliated and impoverished, there is a party to blame for their fate, they have a great destiny ahead of them in rebuilding their country and achieving the superiority they are naturally entitled to. The country was being poisoned and had become weak. It had been dishonored and degraded and victimized. It needed to be cleansed and purified and reborn. 

When one thinks about the implications of the doctrine, of course, it was always destined to create a hell on Earth, and Hitler was open about the fact that he believed creating physically strong specimens to feed into the war machine was more important than culture or pleasure. He actually says directly that “The state’s end lies in the preservation and advancement of a community of physically and psychically homogenous creatures,” which it’s hard to see many people being too keen to be molded into. But one can see why the combination of aggressive scapegoating and romantic nationalism found an audience. George Orwell, in his review of Mein Kampf, pointed out that Hitler’s appeal was quite obvious, even though his doctrine was wholly unappealing and miserable: 

“What he envisages, a hundred years hence, is… 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?… The fact is that there is something deeply appealing about him. One feels it again when one sees his photographs… 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. The attraction of such a pose is of course enormous; half the films that one sees turn upon some such theme.”

Orwell pointed out that offering people struggle, death and conquest could be more appealing than offering them peace and the 8-hour workday, a point made also by William James in “The Moral Equivalent of War,” which argued that pacifists simply didn’t have anything as romantic and spiritually fulfilling to offer as the militarists. 

In his speeches and writings, Hitler has no sense of humor, no self-doubt, no real “charm” to speak of. He does, however, possess a fanatical certainty in his own destiny and a series of grievances against the world. His arguments may often not make logical sense, but they tell a coherent story that, repeated over and over, might inspire those looking for something to believe in. What is alarming, in reading Hitler’s words, is realizing that this sort of stuff can succeed, that it can produce suffering on an unimaginable scale. 

From reading Hitler closely, then, we can see that the intellectual foundations of his horrifying project have not yet been eradicated. Nationalism, anti-egalitarianism, and militarism are still with us. So is anti-Semitism. The disturbing thing about reading Hitler’s writings is realizing how similar they are to a great deal of contemporary rhetoric, and how effective these arguments can be in the right historical circumstances when made by a skilled enough demagogue. How to stop monstrous visions like this from ever again becoming reality is a task we have to take seriously. During Hitler’s rise, according to the translator of My New Order, there was a “concerted refusal to take him seriously,” and the “democratic newspapers ridiculed his program and were content to prove his lack of logic and his inconsistencies.” Clearly that didn’t work. The next time someone comes along bearing these arguments, and they will, we can’t just out-argue them but must also out-organize them. 

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