George Orwell Reviews Hitler’s Mein Kampf


“Suppose that Hitler’s programme could be put into effect. What he envisages, a hundred years hence, is a continuous state if 250 million Germans with plenty of “living room” (i.e. stretching to Afhanistan or somewhere thereabouts), 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? It is easy to say that at one stage of his career he was financed by the heavy industrialists, who saw in him the man who would smash the Socialists and Communists. They would not have backed him, however, if he had not talked a great movement into existence already. Again, the situation in Germany, with its seven million unemployed, was obviously favorable for demagogues. But Hitler could not have succeeded against his many rivals if it not been for the attraction of his own personality, which one can feel even in the clumsy writing of Mein Kampf, and which is no doubt overwhelming when one hears his speeches….The fact is that there is something deeply appealing about him. One feels it again when one sees his photograph–and I recommend especially the photograph at the beginning of the Hurst and Blackett’s edition, which shows Hitler in his early Brownshirt days. It is a pathetic, dog-like face, the face of a man suffering under intolerable wrongs. 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.”

– George Orwell, excerpt from his review of Mein Kampf, 1940

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While Mein Kampf is a dramatic representation of Hitler’s personal history, Orwell’s review has less to do with the merit of the text and more to do with Hitler’s faulty perspectives and the disfunctionality of the National Socialist ideal. Written sometime around the declaration of war by Britain, this article is mostly reflective in nature, making for a haunting read in light of the horrors of the War and the revelations of the Halocaust.

Orwell’s insight into Hitler’s appeal to a nation in Germany’s situation is perhaps one of the most clarifying responses to a question that would echo throughout the world in the decades following the War. We all shake our head and wonder simply, “How is this possible?” Orwell’s pre-war insight is the closest thing to an answer I’ve seen, and in reality it implies a thousand factors.

Charlie Chaplin’s film “The Great Dictator” came out around the same time that Orwell wrote this piece, and it too gives insight for modern generations to realize the troubling situations that many men foresaw. Chaplin himself said that if he had known the full extent of the lengths to which Hitler was going, he never would have made the iconic anti-Nazi film. I wonder what further insights Orwell would have added to his review a decade after its publication.

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Further Reading

Wendell Berry On The Cold War

What C.S. Lewis Knew Before WWII

We Are All War Memorials

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6 comments

  1. I always liked Orwell’s take, but I suspect he doesn’t speak German… Hitler’s prose isn’t really that bad – in German. His speeches, as well, were rhetorically powerful and flex German’s muscles pretty well. For me, I had read Mein Kampf in English and thought of it much as Orwell does. Then I learned German, and was honestly surprised at the difference.

    Many things do not translate. Probably most of the most important things, in fact.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. German really gets a bad rap. Within itself, it is a beautiful language. It also has quite a bit of rhetorical weight. In some sense, a lot of Germans fell for Hitler because they fell for German. German can make even mundane things sound significant.

        “I like to eat pancakes for breakfast.” becomes
        “Ich esse gern Pfannekuchen zum Frühstuck.” Give that sentence to Rammstein and away you go. 😉 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U7DHoZEBQtI

        In some ways, English-speakers who liked him (like at least half of the world’s industrialists in the 30s) have far less of an excuse, since they were neither crushed by economic misery/lost wars nor vulnerable to manipulation through the language…

        Liked by 1 person

      2. BTW<, if you're interested in a German's experience with Hitler and the war years, I can't recommend Christa Wolf's "Patterns of Childhood" enough. One of the most beautiful books every written, by one of the world's bravest people.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Thanks again! I have always thought it would be interesting to study how the different emphasis of sounds used and concepts available in various languages have effected their cultures over a span of lifetimes. Here you bring up a valid argument for a situation where the powerful sound and rhetorical weight of the language directly influenced how society responded to a powerful user of the language.

        Always appreciate any reading suggestions!

        Like

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