It happened today - July 18, 2015

So, how about that Mein Kampf? First published 90 years ago today, it’s quite a book.

What’s that? You haven’t read it? You should.

A few years back I actually assigned it as a textbook in an upper-division University of Ottawa course on the Cold War. I thought it would make a great headline: “Right-wing prof assigns Hitler book”. Instead of a PC outcry the result was total silence. Including from the students, most of whom I think ducked it because it was long.

The thing is, Hitler is a reality thing and, as Philip K. Dick said, “Reality is that which when you stop believing in it, it doesn’t go away.” All kinds of people brushed Hitler off in the 1930s as a comic opera would-be dictator, a buffoon with a weird moustache, strange gestures and weirdo followers, just another Mussolini on the other side of the Alps. Then he took over Germany, launched World War II and carried out the Holocaust. Apparently he needed to be taken seriously.

The odd thing is, even experiencing the massive evil destruction he unleashed generally did not make people take him seriously and still doesn’t. The general verdict was he was stupid and ugly and his mother dressed him funny. Ha ha. Imagine that clown doing anything important.

The reason I asked my students to read Mein Kampf was partly technical. We were studying totalitarianism as part of our effort to understand the origins of the Cold War, both the general course of the 1930s and the specific question whether Stalinism was totalitarian. As I insisted at the time and still do, it cannot be an example of totalitarianism unless there is such a thing; if there is, Stalinism might or might not be an instance but if there isn’t it can’t be. But I had a more general motive.

Profoundly evil and insanely aggressive philosophies do attract adherents, gain power and do enormous harm in the world. They do so even though most normal people ignore them or laugh them off. And so it’s important to look at them closely and try to understand why and how they can have wide appeal despite being at once ludicrous and sinister.

Naziism is no longer really a going concern despite some journalists’ obsession with it as a major threat to decency. I worry a lot more about radical Islam these days. But for precisely that reason, it’s possible to study Naziism without a covetous eye on current events, and ask yourself how could Hitler ever have persuaded anyone he was a great man, a chosen leader, a secular saviour. If you can figure that out, you might have a slightly better idea why apparently normal Westerners suddenly join ISIL. It’s not because the radicals are dullards, whatever else the reason may be.

In fact I found Mein Kampf to be fairly well written, sometimes funny, with an unmistakable if evil logic. Some people concede that in its pages Hitler did at least reveal much of what he planned to do, while insulting his writing style. But in fact he also revealed much of how he planned to do it. And he showed some of the tools that let him inflict such horror on the world, including the charisma that allowed him to bewitch enough of an advanced European nation to put his demented plans into effect.

So here’s the deal. Hitler was a profoundly evil man. But he was also very talented, with elements of genius especially in the field of public relations and political theatre, he could be charming when he wanted to be, he was exceptionally brave and he was utterly determined. If he were not, he’d be just as evil but we wouldn’t know his name.

Since we do, and can’t forget it, I suggest you read his book. Evil is loose in the world, including in public affairs. You should take a close look at it so you’ll recognize and understand it next time.