Don’t Read ‘Mein Kampf’ – Read Clive James

    “God does not rule the world outwardly by gravitation and chemical affinity, but inwardly in the heart of man: as in your soul, so will the destiny of the world in which you live and do.”  – Egon Friedell

If one ever attempts to read Hitler’s writings (and, for heaven’s sake, don’t – take my word for it), one is bound to be impressed by how boring he was.  There is an astounding amount of scholarship on the subjects of Hitler’s personality and thinking, an abundance which is puzzling when you consider that he left an entire book for us on the subject.  Crack open Mein Kampf and the need for all that scholarship becomes clear: the man was basically incoherent.

Which is maybe better for everyone – Hitler’s ideas were toxic and demented and the world would have been better off without them.  But we run a risk if we forget them: we need to be able to recognize them if we see them again.  And to do that, we need to understand them.

All this was brought to mind by something that Clive James wrote in his late-life masterwork, Cultural Amnesia:

“Hitler needed no telling that there were a lot of brilliant Jews from whom German-speaking culture had gained lustre.  That was what he was afraid of: of a bacillus being called clever, and of the phosphorescence of decay being hailed as an illumination.”

It is worth noting that, while this may in fact be what Hitler thought, he could never have expressed it so well.  And though it is impossible to read James and not be grateful for his lucidity of thought, it pains one to see Hitler’s thoughts expressed so well.  They do not deserve so graceful a presentation.

That quote is taken from James’ essay on Egon Friedell.  Friedell was a Jewish actor and writer living in Vienna in the first half of the twentieth century.  James may indeed understand Hitler’s thinking; Friedell certainly did: during the Anschluss, as the S.S. came down his street to arrest him, he jumped out his window to his death, shouting as he did to the pedestrians below to warn them to safety.

Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia really is a wonderful book, and is highly recommended to anyone interested in twentieth century history, the arts, or the general emotional arc of humanity.


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