“Hitler had nothing new to say”
Hitler’s Mein Kampf went out of copyright this year, prompting the Institute for Contemporary History (IfZ) to prepare and publish an annotated edition, with the aim of stimulating critical engagement with this programmatic text. Dr. Thomas Vordermayer worked on the project from start to finish, and talks here about the challenges involved, what he learned during the project and his response to criticism of the new edition.
Do you have an explanation for the enormous public interest in the critical edition of Hitler’s Mein Kampf?
Thomas Vordermayer: The high level of interest aroused by the new edition is partly attributable to the mythological status of Hitler’s book. Everyone knows the title, but few of our contemporaries have actually read it. But the public’s reaction also reflects the widespread tendency to reduce the complexity of the Nazi regime to the person of Hitler himself, with the implication that he was always in control and he alone made all the important decisions. As Hitler’s programmatic statement of his political views and aims, Mein Kampf undoubtedly has its own specific fascination. But the Third Reich was a much more complex historical phenomenon, and the significance of the self-mobilization of the German population in the 1930s is very often underestimated. I would also like to think that the wide-ranging and accurate commentary in the new edition, which provides detailed historical explanations and other useful information will also have motivated people to buy the book. Without this background, much of Hitler’s text is incomprehensible to modern readers.
How does one set about writing a commentary on such a text?
First of all, we thought long and hard about which sections of the book required annotation and commentary. This was a particularly difficult process, because historical documents are usually analyzed and edited in the context of their origin and the circumstances of their composition. Hitler‘s book, on the other hand, anticipates much of what was subsequently put into practice and became horrifying reality in the Third Reich. One example is Hitler‘s unequivocal support for eugenic measures, and in particular for a policy of forced sterilization. For this reason, parts of the commentary look forward into what was the unforeseeable future when the text of Mein Kampf was being written. We felt that needed to be done in order to underline the historical significance of this source. Once we had reached agreement on this fundamental aspect of the procedure, we decided which of us should prepare the commentaries on which chapters. These draft commentaries were then critically reviewed, emended, supplemented and improved by all co-authors and by other experts.
The Nazi era is one of the most intensively studied periods in history. Was this an advantage for your project, or did the sheer weight of the relevant material make your work more difficult?
The huge amount of research relating to National Socialism was at once a blessing and a daunting challenge. One cannot simply focus on the latest studies on any given topic. The earlier work must be taken into consideration as well. And one is inevitably confronted with diverse and often contradictory interpretations. In such cases, when editing and finalizing the commentary, we chose to feature the viewpoint we found most convincing, while pointing out that the issue was still under debate among historians. It is not always possible to satisfactorily reconcile competing assertions about, and interpretations of Hitler. There is a broad range of views on questions like when and why exactly Hitler’s political views became so radical, and how forceful a dictator he actually was after he came to power.
How original was Hitler as an author?
That’s not an easy question to answer. Over large stretches of Mein Kampf, Hitler simply repeats propositions and ideas that were then commonplace among authors on the extreme right, although he sometimes expresses them in particularly radical and drastic fashion. Some of the notions included in Hitler‘s book – such as his views on eugenics – also found support in, or were at least not entirely unacceptable to, circles far beyond the extreme right fringe of the political spectrum. All of Hitler’s demands, assertions and opinions were more or less stably established in German – and indeed European – society at the time, although of course the degree to which they were accepted varied. So, as a contribution to the history of ideas, Mein Kampf has little claim to originality. It is, however, true that Hitler was the only one of the very many right-wing authors on the scene in the 1920s who managed to attain a position that allowed him to implement the extreme measures he so bombastically advocates in his book.
Mein Kampf contains many autobiographical passages. To what extent is this material trustworthy?
It is important to distinguish between the few authentic glimpses of his life that Hitler was willing to reveal and his overwhelming need to conceal the real facts about his past. Instead, he presents himself as a prodigy who alone had developed all the elements of what would become the ideology of Nazism long before his first appearance in the political arena. Furthermore, his autobiographical pronouncements are highly selective and incomplete. Many of the people who had played a significant role in his life are not even mentioned in Mein Kampf. The most striking example is his close friend August Kubizek, for instance, who was his most important social contact – indeed, virtually the only person willing to take him seriously – during his early years in Vienna. Hitler describes his time in Vienna in detail in Mein Kampf, but Kubizek is never referred to. To acknowledge the existence of a selfless and understanding friend and companion would have been incompatible with Hitler‘s portrayal of himself as a lone warrior who had overcome the most intimidating obstacles entirely on his own.
In your commentary on sources, you cite borrowings from, among others, classical philosophers and the Bible. Was Hitler well-read?
Hitler was certainly not well-read. He was interested in a wide range of topics, but his reading was extremely selective and unsystematic. It is important to point out here that Mein Kampf is not a work of plagiarism. There are very few places in the book where it is possible to unequivocally identify the works on which a passage of Hitler’s text is based. There are virtually no direct quotations, and he cites the names of very few of the authors who influenced him. Here again, his aim is give his readers the impression that in Mein Kampf he has created something entirely new. Our commentary lays this legend to rest by systematically locating the concealed or disguised sources of Hitler’s text.
Do you think the annotated version will be seen and understood as a kind of corrective vis-a-vis earlier, unannotated versions of the text, such as those on the internet?
Our principal aim was to show that the text constitutes one of the most important documentary sources for the ideology of National Socialism, and should be seen and discussed as such – as a whole and not just on the basis of selected passages. As I’ve already said, without an explanatory historical commentary, Mein Kampf is incomprehensible to today’s common reader. The text is full of references to themes and events that were common knowledge to the author’s contemporaries, but of which only specialists are now aware. We have produced an edition that is not addressed solely to the experts. In light of the high degree of interest in the project, it would have been irresponsible on our part if we had ignored the needs of a broader public. That is why the commentary is so detailed.
In the US and many other countries the book has never been banned. Do you expect your edition to be translated, and have there been inquiries regarding translation rights from abroad?
Numerous publishers from all over the world have expressed interest in issuing translations of the book. I am not involved personally in decisions relating to translated versions of the edition, but I would very much like to see a professional translation of the book into English at least. With respect to requests from publishers elsewhere, I am rather more skeptical, simply because one always needs the help of experts who can assess the quality, fidelity and tone of the translation. That not only takes lots of time, it requires specialized knowledge and a correspondingly secure grasp of the languages involved.
There has also been considerable criticism of the new edition. Where do you stand in the current debates on the proposal the edition should be part of school curricula?
When a text is as controversial as that of Mein Kampf, criticism is to be expected. However, in my view, the positive reactions so far clearly outweigh the negative responses. With respect to its use in schools, it should not be forgotten that Mein Kampf has been used, indeed repeatedly used, by teachers in the classroom over the past several decades. But given the fact that History makes up only a small part of the school curriculum, I would not regard it as imperative to set aside for the discussion of Mein Kampf. And a cursory treatment of Hitler’s text runs the risk of a return to the approach used in schools in the 1950s, when teachers tended to suggest that the whole history of the Third Reich could be explained in terms of Hitler’s actions and personality. What’s important is that students should understand the circumstances that led to Hitler’s rise to power, and how the Nazi State, and society as a whole, worked during the Nazi era. How did the regime succeed in maintaining itself as a stable structure for so long? These are the crucial questions, I think, that should be dealt with in the classroom. Clearly, they cannot be answered without consideration of Hitler as a person, but focusing solely on Hitler is not enough. If teachers wish to treat passages from Mein Kampf in class, however, I do believe they would be well advised to use our edition. Because it is so rich in background information, it provides teachers with suggestions that they can build upon, although not everything in the book is ideally suitable for use in this context.
Interview: Clemens Grosse
Dr. Thomas Vordermayer is at LMU’s Institute of Modern History (Director: Professor Andreas Wirsching) at LMU. He was a member of the team of authors that worked on the new critical edition of Mein Kampf from August 2012 until October 2015, under the leadership of Dr. Christian Hartmann of the Institute for Contemporary History (IfZ). All of the researchers involved in the project are specialists for various aspects of history of the Nazi regime. Vordermayer himself is an expert on the history of the ultranationalist movements in Germany prior to the establishment of the Third Reich.