Reading mein kampf

Reading Mein Kampf: Hitler and Knausgård

5 minutes to read
Odile Heynders

The new Dutch translation of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf evoked a debate about how to read (and whether to read at all) this historical work. Literary author Arnon Grunberg emphasises the antisemitism and anti-democracy tendencies of the book. We hear echoes of Mein Kampf in contemporary politics; the book should be taken as a warning. This interpretation differs from the reading by Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgård, who in the last part of his monumental novel My Struggle underlines the autobiographical aspect of Mein Kampf and identifies with the young Hitler. 

Mein Kampf

Mein Kampf was written in 1924, while Hitler was imprisoned in Bavaria. The book appeared in two parts (1925/26), the first one of which is the more autobiographical, a self-fabrication. Over 10 million copies were sold, while the book was translated into more than 30 languages. The first Dutch translation appeared in 1939, but after World War II the book was forbidden until 2016, when the rights to it were released. 

The current publication of the Dutch translation of Mein Kampf (translator Mario Molengraaf, introduction by historian Willem Melching, publisher: Prometheus) led to a debate about the relevance of the historical book with regards to current political developments, in particular new-right populism and anti-migration sentiments. Historian Thijs Kleinpaste argued in De Groene Amsterdammer that the ‘horrific actual’ idea expressed in Mein Kampf is that people could live in happiness if only corruption would end. Journalist Chris van der Heijden, on the other hand, points at how the work helps to understand Hitler, but is not a blueprint for national socialism.

For Arnon Grunberg, a renowned literary author in the Netherlands, Hitler’s political ideas are certainly recognizable in today’s society: the aversion to democracy and parliamentarianism, the hatred of politicians and journalists, the antisemitism and disgust of social-democracy are noticeable themes in both times. Grunberg makes a direct link between passages from Mein Kampf and recent statements on the multicultural society as made by Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs, Stef Blok.[1] Grunberg is not interested in Hitler’s autobiographical and mythicized sketches, or in his suffering during World War I. He does not know if he recognizes himself in Mein Kampf.[2]

Fascinatingly, these autobiographical aspects are exactly the themes picked up by Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgard, who wrote a monumental novel project (over 3,500 pages) entitled My Struggle (Min Kamp) (2009-2011). The reference to the title of Hitler’s book was taken as insult by some reviewers, yet others saw it as a more neutral reference to the difficulties of a life.[3]

Knausgård spends many pages analysing Hitler’s antisemitism

In the novel project, Knausgård describes the growing up of a man in Norway – the author / narrator himself – and he evokes the minutiae of ordinary life in the 1970s – 2000s. It can be argued that the novel demonstrates typical social structures and public institutes. All six parts of the novel interweave private details, collective memories and (un)exceptional events. The last part of the book is an exception, in that it offers an extensive essayistic passage in which Hitler’s Mein Kampf is discussed. We could consider this essay – entitled ‘The Name and the Number’ - the intellectual justification of the project. 

Reading and Writing Mein Kampf/ My Struggle

It was only after the publication of the first parts of the My Struggle project, that Knausgård started reading Hitler’s text. And as is typical for the project, in the novel he describes his reading while at the same time continuing his description and reflection on his own life. Knausgård places Adolf Hitler in the petit-bourgeois Austrian context, and reveals that he does not believe that the man was already evil as a young boy. His violent and oppressive father, the death of his brother and mother, and the poverty in a provincial town were decisive and forming aspects of Hitler’s life. Becoming a painter was a way out of the misery, but the young man was not talented and not radical enough. During his early years, he developed as a damaged person, unable to connect with another human being, to form friendships and intimate relationships. Hitler stood ‘beyond the social’, as Knausgård writes.[4]

But then the First World War occurred, and Hitler felt immediately at home in the army, as it was a radical simplification of life. Knausgård quotes frequently from the memoirs of August Kubizek, a youth friend of Hitler, and from the biography of Hitler by British historian Ian Kershaw. He critiques Kershaw’s view that the Holocaust was something Hitler did and was destined to do, and not something for which we all have to feel responsible today. 

Knausgård spends many pages analysing Hitler’s antisemitism while referring to comparable ideas in other books of the same period (Jünger, Zweig, Hamson, Kafka, Ford, Heidegger and others). The difference is that Mein Kampf is a badly written book; it has no style, no intimacy with form, and it does not provide serious arguments. Knausgård underlines that Hitler’s ‘I’ lacks a ‘you’; it is unaccountable and therefore immoral. 

Hitler could not see himself in the eyes of others and had no self-awareness and thus no empathy with others. His self-identity was absorbed by a phantom ‘we’, the German Volk. What enabled the atrocities of the Third Reich, according to Knausgård, was a strengthening of the ‘we’ and therefore the reduction of the multiple ‘I’'s in society. In a fascinating passage, Knausgård reveals that he himself has only known one moment in his life when he felt part of a collective ‘we’: that was when Anders Breivik in July 2011 shot sixty-nine youngsters on Utøya Island. Knausgård experienced the collective when watching the news and seeing the pictures of the island. Only later, he writes, did he understand that this power of the ‘we’ must have been the same for the German people during the 1930s. The collective offers an identity.

The 'we' within the 'I'.

Reading Mein Kampf while writing his own Min Kamp, Knausgård unsettles the mythological image of Adolf Hitler as the ultimate evil person. Hitler was, just as Breivik, a true fanatic with megalomaniac fantasies, low self-esteem and extreme anger. In both lives, a real, grounded-in-itself ‘I’ did not exist. This observation helps us to understand what is at stake in Knausgård's own project. Writing more than 3000 pages about the private self was aimed at overcoming the social, at expressing the absolutely personal and intimate. But in due course Knausgård realised that morality lies with the ‘we’ within the ‘I’, and consequently that his writing about the 'I' could not be anything but ultimately social.[5] In opposition to Hitler’s Mein Kampf, Knausgård’s novel is concerned with reciprocal human relationships. Literature can never only be about an ‘I’.


[1]“Noem mij een voorbeeld, van een multi-etnische of multiculturele samenleving, waar de oorspronkelijke bevolking nog woont (…) en waar een vreedzaam samenlevingsverband is. Ik ken het niet.” Cited in Arnon Grunberg, ‘Het leven als strijd’ in De Groene Amsterdammer, 30 August 2018.

[2] “…, hoewel ik niet zeker weet of ik mezelf in Mein Kampf herken”, Arnon Grunberg, ‘Het leven als strijd’ in De Groene Amsterdammer, 30 August 2018.

[3] See Evan Hughes, Why name your book after Hitler’s? The New Yorker, 11 June 2014. and James Wood, Total recall, Karl Ove Knausgård’s My Struggle, The New Yorker, 13 August, 2012.

[4] Karl Ove Knausgård, Vrouw, Mijn Strijd6, Breda: De Geus, 2015, p. 685.

[5] Karl Ove Knausgård, Vrouw, Mijn Strijd6, Breda: De Geus, 2015, p 764.