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BOOKS “The Nazi Monster, an Enemy to Uncover

PEBy Gadi Luzzatto Voghera*

For decades, Mein Kampf was just the title of a book briefly mentioned in high school classes. Then last year Bompiani published an anastatic reissue, coming with an issue of Il Giornale, the newspaper owned by Silvio Berlusconi, and including a preface by historian Francesco Perfetti. A decision that sparked off debate. Vincenzo Pinto, curator of a recent edition of Mein Kampf, said: “I was in Berlin when Bompiani released its anastatic reissue. Journalist and historian Sven Felix Kellerhoff, editor in chief of Die Welt, asked me what I thought about it. I replied that, for me, it was the Berlusconi’s family reaction to the new law against historical denial, which they considered ‘liberticidal’. A year later, I am confirming my initial claim, and pointing out the cultural and commercial reasons behind their decision. On the one hand, they wanted to launch a series of books on the Third Reich; on the other, they wanted to uphold the theory of ‘Germany’s new economic hegemony’ (the Fourth Reich). Now, Sallusti’s defense of Bompiani’s reissue was weak, as it is not a critical edition at all (a historian’s preface, although valuable as Perfetti’s is, is not enough). Moreover, if we share the assumption that to fight (and defeat) our enemy we need to know him, I wonder what ‘strong’ statement Il Giornale’s edition is making. Finally, Bompiani anastatic reissue of the second volume is far from the one published by the Institut fuer Zeitgeschichte in Munich (whose limits I shall mention later). For all these reasons, I think it was a questionable decision.”

The edition you and your wife curated for Free Ebrei may look like the one by the Institut fuer Zeitgeschichte in Munich to an amateur. But maybe this is not the case. Do you distance yourself from such statement? How?

The Free Ebrei (“Free Jews”) edition – that I translated with my dear departed wife Alessandra Cambatzu – is not at all like the German one. In the introduction, I explained that, even though our edition mentions some annotations from the German one, it is not a copy. To prove it, we introduced every chapter with an analysis of the text, and, a few weeks ago, we published a second volume of essays on the history of the book, its content, and its political and educational use. The German edition had three main goals: to show Hitler’s sources to the readers, to examine his statements, and to evaluate their realization after 1933. In other words, it is a philological work. It is a book of undoubted ethical and political importance, as it helps the reader understand a text as difficult as Mein Kampf (for its syntax, and for aesthetical, cultural and political reasons). But it is “politically correct”: it leaves the perception (and the conception) of national socialism untouched. We all know that politicians tend to manipulate facts according to their political stance. Why would Hitler be different? Finding the correspondence between facts and statements (after 1933) may be reassuring from an international viewpoint (because it proves that Hitler had clearly devised his “great project” even before he rose to power), but it does not provide any new insight into Mein Kampf. And now we get to the point. Sallusti (who casually mentioned Sun Tzu’s The Art of War), as well as the German Institute, did not do a logical and rhetorical analysis of Hitler’s work, probably because they deemed it to be useless (Nazism is “objectively” bad), or because they lacked the cultural and interpretive tools. Our critical edition tried to know the “sky” (other than the “earth”) – as Sun Tzu would have said. In other words, it offered an innovative key to the book. We must consider Mein Kampf as a crime novel, in which the doctor-detective (Hitler) leads the reader through the interpretation of the clues, to identify who is guilty of the crime (the “stab in the back”). Some years ago, while studying Julius Langbehn, I had already suggested such investigative method (see Carlo Ginzburg) as a historiographical as well as “pragmatistic” tool to analyse the mass political movements of the 20th century. Thanks also to American historian Ben Novak’s research on Peirce’s abductive reasoning, it was possible to discover and value the modernity of Mein Kampf, and to solve the enigma of consent (beyond the historical, social and economic context). In a nutshell, it is based on Hitler’s ability to use a “divinatory” literary path in the political construction of the enemy (Hitler was a big fan of Karl May, a German writer best known for his adventure novels). On this we focused our “strong” historiographical interpretation, in addition to the bibliography, the analysis, etc.

As you know, many people are against the reissue of Mein Kampf. They believe it risks normalizing the anti-Semitic language that is one of its key points. Do you believe an impartial critique of the book is possible?

Our edition is critical. This should reassure those who believe that the book could create a new generation of anti-Semites. However, there are many clandestine, non-annotated editions (which, for the most part, are anastatic reprints of Bompiani’s), and those could fuel anti-Semitic instincts. But let’s move on to the main problem you mentioned: “normalizing” anti-Semitic language. What do we mean by “normalizing”? If we mean “rationally” explaining anti-Semitism, then that is our main goal: make the readers understand that anti-Semitism, i.e. a particular view on the Jews, exists and must be acknowledged. Now, “to acknowledge” a particular language does not mean to approve of it or support it. It means to recognize it as a way to discuss a particular (and extreme) human condition. For me, this is the only way to defeat anti-Semitism. We should wonder what went wrong when we see that, after seventy years, some ideas are still around and the ban didn’t defeat anti-Semitism. We may think that anti-Semitism is eternal, or that congenital and irrational hatred towards the Jewish people exist. Or that the politicians in charge did something wrong, or that humans’ “enlightening” path is still long. But I think all this is not enough to defeat anti-Semitism. It is a myth, thus we have to fight it with an even stronger myth. Argumentation is not enough: it’s like trying to kill a hungry big bad wolf with dialogue. I will write an essay on the subject of the counter-myth in the next few years.Now, going back to our critical edition for Free Ebrei, I believe such works as Hitler’s should be read from an impersonal viewpoint. Otherwise, there is no point in reissuing: the anti-Nazis will stay anti-Nazis, and the pro-Nazis will stay pro-Nazis. If we want to break the wall between these fronts, we need to analyse all the documents, even the most unpleasant. From history, we have learnt that books have never killed anyone; their political use has. The new generations of scholars and citizens must be brave enough to go beyond their “fathers”, not to betray their memory, but to make it more useful and incisive in the future. No surprise that far-right groups heavily criticized (and sometimes ignored) my critical edition. The name Free Ebrei linked us with the “Israel lobby”. Moreover, to them the annotations rig the work’s unalterable meaning. On the other hand, some other readers claimed that the reissue of such a text was pointless. We know everything about Hitler and Nazism already, why keep digging? I believe we haven’t understood them deeply, and our critique can help shed some light on their rhetorical strategies, instead.

In Germany, most people agree that Mein Kampf should be used to educate for tolerance. I myself suggested that students read it critically at school. Do you believe such “homeopathic” method may work, especially in an era characterized by so many migration waves? How?

Almost everyone in Germany agrees about it (including the Jewish communities, probably with the only exception of the Bavarian community). But the text is historically complex. The annotated edition in German is problematic to use for a number of reasons. It needs to be adapted to educational standards. In the essays included in the second volume of our critical edition, some German scholars and professors reflected on the different ways to bring the public close to the text. I agree with a wise and contextualized use of Mein Kampf in the schools, to explain to the students the author’s ways of thinking, and to show them how historical conditions may lead the “enlightened” reason to commit heinous acts, and to fall into the most extreme brutality. Nonetheless, we cannot compare the phenomenon of anti-Semitic persecution depicted in Hitler’s work to today’s migration issue. Don’t forget that Hitler wrote it during the Weimar Republic. The Jews he speaks of were essentially German citizens professing the Mosaic creed. In my opinion, it is hasty to compare these people, who were well-integrated in society and had full rights, to immigrants fleeing wars or hunger. I do not mean to diminish the latter’s human condition. Instead, I want to emphasize the real tragedy of the German Jews: being rejected by a state and a culture they felt they were a part of. As to how to present Mein Kampf at school, I believe there are two main ways: an “institutional” and a “psychodramatic” way. First of all, the teacher has to choose some readings or sections of the book, and provide the students with the cultural, historical and rhetorical tools to analyse them. While overlooking the consequences of Nazism (as much as possible), it is important that the students notice its language, its historical and cultural roots and the reasons for its “charm”, instead.Secondly, the students need to understand that the emotional, “sentimental” and “resentful” approach Nazism offered (i.e. its populism) is not a solution to (political, economic, social, etc.) problems. Instead, it is a way to exacerbate them, and to lead people to the edge of an abyss (at this point students should read the works by Anna Frank, Primo Levi, etc.). Besides this “institutional” approach, there is another way to present this text to the youth: creating a sort of “victim”-“perpetrator” game. Sympathy for the victim is not enough to see the whole picture. It is important (at first) to also understand the “perpetrator”, his mind and feelings, and to stage them somehow (for example, in the form of a play). This can lead to some sort of final catharsis, as the students, cleansed of the scum of history, are finally able to acquire the cultural and human knowledge (the so-called antibodies) to deal with more or less veiled forms of intolerance in the future. With young people, prohibition is not enough. We need to work hard to obtain their assent. But to do so, we need not fear to look at and to “live” the dark side of human condition.

More and more editions of Mein Kampf are being published. Thule’s neofascist group published one, and now Garzanti is preparing a critical edition, in addition to yours. Since the text is not particularly charming, but indeed a little boring for those who do not specialize in the origins of Nazism and totalitarianisms, do you think there is a future for the new editions of Mein Kampf and other similar works?

I don’t know what is going to happen to the future editions of Mein Kampf (assuming that there will be future editions). What I know is that the Thule edition is a perfect example of how not to help the public. The curators retranslated the text as a whole, sometimes making questionable and too literal translation choices. Thus making the text even more difficult to read. Moreover, they did not include a critique, claiming that it would “betray” and “spoil” the original. However, the real reason is that they feared that the annotations would sound like an apologia for or a criticism of Nazism. In the first possibility, they could have faced legal issues. In the second, they would have disappointed the readers. As I said, any edition of Mein Kampf need include a critique. Our main goal at Free Ebrei was not to make profit (as some pro-Nazis suggested), but to address the need to “bridge” the gap with the younger generations. Sometimes, you need to make your way down to hell (as Dante did) to be able to “shine” again. More prosaically, going back to the initial quote by Sun Tzu (whom Sallusti quoted, but whose spirit he didn’t understand), we need to really know our enemy to be able to defeat him. But to know him, we have to understand him.

*Gadi Luzzatto Voghera is the director of Fondazione CDEC. Translation by Federica Alabiso, student at the Advanced School for Interpreters and Translators of Trieste University, intern at the newspaper office of the Union of the Italian Jewish Communities.