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During Donald Trump’s racially charged 2016 presidential campaign, many people started wondering to what extent Trump and his followers could be compared with Hitler and the ideology of the National Socialist movement that he led. One place to start to answer that question would be by reading Mein Kampf, (“My Struggle” or “My Battle” in English). But admittedly, few people want to wade through 800-some pages of Hitler’s definitive manifesto of his worldview and political goals—let alone subject themselves to the racist diatribes found in it.
By training, I am a philosopher, so my way of approaching Hitler’s thinking is by a careful reading of the text in which he lays his ideas out. Here, I only want to focus on a few aspects of Hitler’s main work: four points that are vital for us to understand.
1. Dehumanizing language. The language that Hitler used toward Jewish people throughout the text should have alerted everybody to what his plans were. It’s not necessarily that he had a concrete plan for genocide then—many historians argue that the Final Solution was not formulated until 1943, well into the war. Nevertheless, the logic of genocide is implicit in his language from this early document. At one point, he asks point-blank, “are these people human, worthy to belong to a great nation?” He most often refers to Jewish people in terms of some kind of parasite or germ, or tumor, or as a noxious weed. Whichever metaphor is used, when you frame a problem in biological terms, it automatically suggests a biological solution—and biological solutions generally involve extermination.
Hitler isn’t subtle on this point. In speaking about the purported Jewish influence on the trade unions, he says that the choice is either to allow malicious results “or else the state disposes of the Jew and his work.” Vast numbers of Germans claimed to have not known what Hitler was going to do when they supported him. But by 1939, Mein Kampf had sold over five million copies. Those who actually read the book should certainly have known of his intentions.
2. The centrality of race to Hitler’s politics. People often use the term “fascism” as a broad term for far-right ultra-nationalist movements. But there are, of course, significant differences between the original Italian Fascism and German National Socialism. One of the most important of these is that for Hitler, unlike Mussolini, the state is not the end-all and be-all of political action, but race is. Rather, its proper role of the state is to serve the particular race which it represents. Hitler defines this service in terms of “preservation of the species”, which involves both racial purity and decisive victory over other races in what Hitler sees as a universal struggle for existence, in which the strong should triumph and the weak should perish.
This distinction is important today for two reasons. First, it speaks to the misuses of historical comparisons. During his administration, a number of Barack Obama’s opponents compared him to Hitler. Conservative commentators were able to do this because they use a definition of “fascism” which stresses not its racism or militarism, but rather its supposed excess of “government”—that is, its violations of personal liberty. For Hitler, however, “big government” is not what defines National Socialism. He states that his movement is defined by race, blood, and fatherland. Government is a tool to achieve these ends.
Racial politics has also defined Donald Trump’s movement. As the New York Times documented in 2018, “Donald Trump has been obsessed with race for the entire time he has been a public figure”. The Times article goes on to catalog Trump’s racist views and utterances from the beginning of this time in the public eye.
3. A hatred of the procedures involved in liberal democracy. If you go by the number of times he mentions it in this book, you get the idea that one of the things that Hitler hates the most, almost as much as Jews or Marxists, is parliamentary democracy. The idea that you solve problems by people talking about them in a room, rather than by a single leader making decisions by fiat, was abhorrent to him. He wanted a system where you could “get things done”.
Unfortunately, similar sentiments are familiar in American political life. . During the 1992 elections, I often heard the people who voted for Ross Perot said that it was because he would “get something done”—without being very clear on what that would be. What they wanted was uncompromising, dynamic action, the reassurance that there is movement of some kind—whatever that might be.
It should be noted, however, that Hitler does not reject every aspect of democracy. In Mein Kampf, at least, he endorses the idea that a nation should elect its leader—but that the actual administration of power should consist of the decisions of that elected leader. This “truly Germanic democracy” would be “characterized by the free election of a leader and his obligation fully to assume all responsibility for his actions and omissions. In it there is no majority vote on individual questions, but only the decision of an individual…” In other words, the people get to pick who is to have absolute power over them for the duration of the administration.
Again, it is not difficult to hear echoes of this in American political culture, from Andrew Jackson’s white supremacist disdain for constitutional limits on presidential power, to the “imperial presidency” manifested in foreign policy throughout the 20th century, to the authoritarian inclinations of Donald Trump and his supporters.
4. A program of revenge for a humiliating defeat. World War I and the German Revolution of 1919 are of central importance to Hitler’s account of his political “struggle”. He couldn’t stand the fact that Germany lost the war, and that that defeat had brought a democratic socialist government to power, and facilitated a revolutionary insurrection that was led by Jewish Marxists like Rose Luxemburg.
A crucial scene in Mein Kampf happens when Hitler was lying in the hospital bed, blinded by a gas attack, and heard the news about the surrender. We shouldn’t underestimate the kind of motivation this was for his “revenge” on everybody who had “wronged” him. This “revenge” permeated everything he did subsequently. One thing that connected the event of the loss of the war with his subsequent political activity was the pernicious and often-circulated myth that Germany did not lose the war on the battlefield, but rather that the soldiers at the front were “stabbed in the back” by Jews and Marxists back home.
American history also has a prominent example of a military loss being mythologized into an idea that actually helped an ideology take root. This is, of course, the myth of the “Lost Cause” which valorized the Confederacy in the years following the Civil War. We are still seeing the effect of this thinking in the controversy over the removal of Confederate monuments.
Similarly, America’s defeat in the Vietnam War led a number of former soldiers and supporters of the war tried to argue that victory would have been possible were it not for anti-war protestors at home and a lack of political will to take more extreme military measures. The fantasy of revenge for the national humiliation of a military defeat fueled an important aspect of the emotional content of the nationalistic politics on the Right in the 1980’s. Even though the American withdrawal from Vietnam is rarely explicitly mentioned today, I argue its specter haunts the American Right in the same way that Germany’s defeat in the Great War haunted Hitler in the pages of Mein Kampf.
Of course, there is much more to Hitler’s book than these four points that I have highlighted. Much of that has to do with German politics and culture, especially those of the era in which is was written, and so aren’t particularly salient for our purposes. And it is also certainly the case that the United States has its own long history of illiberalism, shown in varying figures from Father Coughlin to Joseph McCarthy to George Wallace. However, what these points show is that there are certain aspects of racism and authoritarianism that recur across different times and places—and for which we should always be on the lookout.
Dr. Erich Christiansen has taught philosophy at John Jay Criminal Justice College, the University of Georgia, and is now at the University of Washington Bothell.
*From the editors: An earlier misspelling of Andrew Jackson’s name has been corrected.