Thursday, September 15, 2016

Ring-fenced by footnotes and commentaries, the new, exclusive Mein Kampf is a preordained bestseller. Its audience has never gone away.

The critical edition of Mein Kampf does not offer new insights into Hitler’s character, a theme which is at the centre of Volker Ullrich’s massive three-volume (two have already appeared in German) biography. Ullrich justifies his undertaking on the grounds that previous Hitler biographers have been naive, accepting at face value his apparent lack of an inner life. Ian Kershaw, for example, noted “the emptiness of [Hitler’s] existence outside the realm of politics”. Rather than accept this self-styled image, Ullrich argues that “we need to look behind the curtain that separated Hitler’s public persona and role from the human being”. Hitler, Ullrich argues, was not only a gifted orator. He was also “an extraordinarily talented actor”. He once called himself “the greatest actor in Europe”, and had “an undeniable ability to don different masks to suit various occasions and to inhabit changing roles”. This flexibility in drawing on a wide repertoire of roles accounts for the perplexing and contradictory personae that his acquaintances and intimates later remarked on. At the same time, Ullrich insists that he never wavered from the ideological fixations that he had adopted in the early 1920s. First and foremost in this outlook was his fanatical anti-Semitism, which saw the removal of Jews from German society as an absolute necessity. “Indeed, in Mein Kampf Hitler had spelled out with exemplary clarity everything he intended to do if he was ever given power.” The temptation to see Mein Kampf as a blueprint for Nazi policies is a scholarly quagmire that unwittingly affirms Hitler’s claim to have been a prophet. This sort of judgement is wisely tempered by the editors of the critical edition: “It would be much too simple to construct a direct road to Auschwitz from Hitler’s hateful sermons. But it would be even more problematic to simply ignore such a connection”.

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