Reading Mein Kampf: Adolf Hitler And Me
Based on the translation by James Murphy.
First published in March 1939, reset April 1942.
When Hitler was thirteen his father died. When he was fifteen his mother died. “Though expected, her death came as a terrible blow to me. I respected my father, but I loved my mother.” At the same time, his mother’s two-year illness had used up most of the family resources. As an orphan, he would receive an allowance from the State, but “it was not enough even for the bare necessities of life. Somehow I would have to earn my own bread.”
With my clothes and linen packed in a valise and with an indomitable resolution in my heart, I left for Vienna . I hoped to forestall fate, as my father had done fifty years before. I was determined to become ‘something’—but certainly not a civil servant.
During the final stages of his mother’s illness, Adolf had traveled to Vienna with a “bulky packet of sketches” to take the entrance examination for the Academy of Fine Arts . In the local Reaschule , Adolf saw himself as “by far the best student in the drawing class” and was making steady progress in the “practice of drawing.” He was very “proud and happy” by what he thought was an “assured success …
I was so convinced of my success that when the news that I had failed to pass was brought to me it struck me like a bolt from the skies.
When he approached the Rector of the school to find out how this could have happened, he was told that his “bulky packed of sketches” suggested very strongly that he should study architecture, not easel painting.
When I left the Hansen Palace , on the Schiller Platz, I was quite crestfallen. I felt out of sorts with myself for the first time in my young life. For what I had heard about my capabilities now appeared to me as a lighting flash which clearly revealed a dualism under which I had been suffering for a long time, but hitherto I could give no clear account whatsoever of the why and wherefore. [But] within a few days I myself also knew that I ought to become an architect.
Hitler writes that his self-assurance soon returned. He turned his eyes on his goal. He would become an architect. “Obstacles are placed in our path not to stop us, but to be surmounted.” Hitler’s father had been the son of a village shoemaker. Hitler realizes that his own start in life was significantly more favorable.
At that time my lot in life seemed to me a harsh one; but today I see I it as the wise workings of Providence, The Goddess of Fate clutched me in her hands and often threatened to smash me; but the will grew stronger as the obstacles increased, and finally the will triumphed.
I am thankful for that period of my life, because it hardened me and enabled me to be as tough as I now am. And I am even more thankful because I appreciate the fact that I was thus saved from the emptiness of a life of ease and that a mother’s darling was taken from tender arms and handed over to Adversity as to a new mother. Though I then rebelled against it as too hard a fate, I am grateful that I was thrown into a world of misery and poverty and thus came to know the people for whom I was afterwards to fight.
It was during this period that my eyes were opened to two perils; the names of which I scarcely knew hitherto and had no notion whatsoever of their terrible significance for the existence of the German people. These two perils were Marxism and Judaism. (p22)
The possibility then of being smashed by Fate. The triumph of the will. The Virtues of being hardened and toughened. The emptiness of a life of ease. The consciousness of being a mother’s darling. Adversity itself as a “loving” Mother. Gratitude for having found those who live in misery and poverty. The desire to fight (work) to better their lot. The terrible significance for Germans of Marxism and Judaism. All in all then, it would appear that such matters would be the natural consequence of life for a young man deciding on a career in architecture.
We won’t argue here that Hitler recognized all the above at the moment he decided to become an architect, but will suggest that these matters came to his attention during his advanced teenage years. For myself, I turned fifteen in February 1945, and three months later was perhaps half-awake to the ending of WWII in Germany . I had followed the military campaigns in a boyish way, and often worked out the major battles, as I understood them from the newspapers, with decks of playing cards representing the different commands. I remember particularly following the German campaign in North Africa , and later the grand affair inside the Soviet Union, particularly the events of 1942/43, but afterwards had lost interest.
That I might be smashed by fate, or life, never occurred to me. A triumph of the will was beyond my imagination. I never thought about being hard or tough, nor soft and weak. I was, like Adolf, a mother’s darling, but I took that to be the natural way of things. How else could it be? While we had been very poor, we had never been miserable, and I never knew people who were miserable. There was no need for me to fight, struggle, to help anyone better his lot. I was satisfied with what we had. I did not contemplate the significance, or possible consequences for the American people, if either the Germans or the Japanese won the war and the Americans lost. I do not think it even crossed my mind that “we” would lose. I didn’t know what a Marxist was, and I had never had reason to know what a Jew was, though many years later I understood that there had been a sprinkling of Jews living in South-Central Los Angeles at that time.
One was my friend, Ernest Kamm. He lived in a nice old house on an alley just off of San Pedro Street . He had a younger brother. I remember that his mother, a smallish woman with unusually black hair, had no interest in me. I remember how there were no curtains on the windows of their house. One day after school—we were in the 6 th grade at 66 th Street School, it was probably 1941—Ernst showed me a small smooth stone. It had the circumference of an egg, perhaps, but was rather flat. He had written on the stone the words “So what?” I thought it was awfully clever. We were both laughing. I asked him to give it to me. He did. I took it home and that evening I showed it to my mother and father. Mother smiled and dismissed it. Father said: “Smart aleck little Jew.” That was the first time I had heard the word “Jew,” outside of Bible class. I do not recall ever hearing the word in our house again until about 1980. Father was dead, and my mother and I were sharing a small apartment in Hollywood. I was fifty years old. A few years ago, rummaging through a box after moving to Baja, I found the stone that Ernest hd given me some sixty years previously. It was a wonderful moment. Now, again, I don’t know where it is.
A couple years later, when I was 13 maybe, Ernest introduced me to the Boy Scouts, which met in John Reese high school. I rode over on my bicycle a couple evenings. I had some interest in the group, not a lot. I would leave my bike on the grass outside the entrance to the hallway. The third night I came out to discover someone had stolen it. My father was incensed, reporting the theft to the police. I didn’t return to the Boy Scouts. The police actually found the bike. Some kid on 69 th street had it. It was identified by its license plate.
Ernst and I stopped seeing each other. No reason. I had horses and all my time was spent working with them, riding, becoming part of the horse world with Texan and other Dustbowl immigrants on the fringe of South Central. One afternoon in early 1945 I ran into Ernest on the corner of 62 nd Street and San Pedro. It was coincidence. He was bigger than me now, rather beefy, powerful looking, and dressed in a Canadian air force uniform.
“How did you do that,” I asked?
Ernest said: “They don’t care how old you are up there. You tell them you’re eighteen and they just write it down. You could do it too.”
“But you’re not eighteen.”
“The Canadians don’t care. Anyone can do it. You can do it.”
He was laughing. I didn’t understand why he would do such a thing. He seemed more mature than me. I could see dark hair on his upper lip. It would never have occurred to me to go to Canada and join anything. I didn’t have a clue why he did it. At the time, I didn’t make the connection with him being a Jew. What did being a Jew have to do with it?
With regard to the Marxists, I may not have known what the word meant. I may never have heard the word. I remember when I was about eleven in our front room that my father got into an argument with our neighbor Mr. Matchett about politics and I heard my father say angrily something about “you and your god dammed communists” and Mr. Matchett laughing. Aside from that one reference I do not recall communism ever mentioned in our house when I was a young man, or that Marxism was ever mentioned at all.
I had no interest in politics. I was thirteen when I bought my first horse, stopped going to Sunday school, and until I was seventeen I had no other interests. In those days the street car lines ran out to 116 th street and either Broadway or Vermont , and that was the end of the city streets. Beyond 116 th Street there were hay ranches, oil fields, and truck farms. I would take the street car to the end of the line and walk to 119 th Street to where I boarded my horses at “Ma Lyons” boarding stable. I became a good horseman. Some of us enter our maturity when we are teenagers, others don’t. With regard to maturity, or maturity of interests, as teenagers, Adolf was about one light year ahead of me.
He writes about “five years of poverty” in Vienna .
Five years in which, first as a casual laborer and then as a painter of little trifles. I had to earn my daily bread. And a meager morsel indeed it was, not even sufficient to still the hunger which I constantly felt. That hunger was the faithful guardian which never left me but took part in everything I did. Every book that I bought meant renewed hunger, and every visit I paid to the opera meant the intrusion of that inalienable companion during the following days. I was always struggling with my unsympathetic friend. And yet during that time I learned more than I had ever learned before. Outside my architectural studies and rare visits to the opera, for which I had to deny myself food, I had no other pleasure in life except my books.
During those years I never had to earn my livelihood. For pocket money I delivered newspapers via bicycle, then got a part-time job as a stock boy in the liquor department of a supermarket on the corner of Florence and Figueroa. I was never hungry. Ever! While I did use the library, I never bought a book. The people I knew didn’t buy books. My family didn’t buy books. I didn’t know where a bookstore was. I never went to the opera, and never knew anyone who did. Ironically, while in John C. Fremont High School , like Adolf, I did study architecture for a year and a half as a vocational major. I was drawn to design, but would not take the trouble to learn the engineering that was demanded. I managed to not get thrown out of the class by not completely failing my exams. It didn’t matter to me. I was in a world of horses and horsemen.
Adolf read a great deal at that age, and reports that he “pondered deeply” what he read. All his free time after work was devoted exclusively to study. Within a few years he was able to acquire “a stock of knowledge which I find useful even today.”
But more than that. During those years a view of life and a definite outlook on the world took shape in my mind. These became the granite basis of my conduct at that time. Since then I have extended that foundation only very little, and I have changed nothing in it.
On the contrary: I am firmly convinced today that, generally speaking, it is in youth that men lay the essential groundwork of their creative thought, wherever that creative thought exists. I make a distinction between the wisdom of age—which can only arise from the greater profundity and foresight that are based on the experiences of a long life—and the creative genius of youth, which blossoms out in thought and ideas with in exhaustive fertility, without being able to put these into practice immediately, because of their very superabundance. These furnish the building materials and plans for the future; and it is from them that age takes the stones and builds the edifice, unless the so-called wisdom of the years may have smothered the creative genius of youth.
I read somewhat widely and with some enthusiasm, but almost exclusively in the history of the American West. I was not aware of any ideas associated with what I was reading. No overt or implied moral or historical lessons made an impression on me. Other than the idea that it was best to act with courage, best to act with honor. It wasn’t made entirely clear what was honorable and what was not. Same today as I watch the news and the Israelis are destroying Lebanon and killing whomever they think it in their interest to kill, with the backing of the American administration. There are questions of honor to be addressed here, as there are everywhere.
I saw the American West as an endless series of romantic adventure stories and biographies of men who lived in a world that had only just passed. In the 1940s it was not uncommon to find elderly folk who as children had experienced frontier life. I met people who had met Wyatt Earp, a man whose story fascinated me, and others who had known folk who had known folk who had crossed the plains in covered wagons. Earp, as a matter of fact, lived in San Bernadino, near Los Angeles , until he died in 1929. Curiously (to think of it now), he was married to a Jewish lady from San Francisco , Josie Marcus. She lived until 1944.
Years later in the main reading room of the New York Public Library, where I was reading Dietze Suzuki on Zen Buddhism, thought recalled something I had read in Earp’s autobiography when I was a teenager. He was asked what advice he could give about taking part in a gun fight. His response was that you should draw “as quickly as possible, without hurrying.” At the time I read Earp, I was maybe 16 years old. I found the answer intriguing. How do you do that? I first read the quote in the mid-1940s, recalled it in the late 1950s, and have never forgotten it. Move as quickly as possible, but don’t hurry. Zen, pure and simple.
I read for pleasure, not as Adolf did, to study. It never occurred to me to “study.” What was there to study? I did not “ponder” anything I read. I either remembered it, or half-remembered it, or forgot about it. When I finished a book I enjoyed, I rather mindlessly turned to another book that I hoped would give me as much pleasure as the one I had just finished. Reading was pleasure, not study. Horses were pleasure. My friends. Girls were becoming a pleasure, and sometimes it was difficult to get them out of my mind. Still, I was uncertain how much pleasure girls could really be. I was smart, I was funny, I was good looking, and girls liked me. I had many friends who were girls, but it did not yet seem correct to me to approach them in any way other than as friends. I suppose I did “ponder” the girl thing, but came to no conclusion while still in high school. It appeared to me to be very complicated, and then there was the fact that I did not want to reveal myself. Somewhere along the way, that changed. Clearly.
It was different for Adolf in his teenage years. A “view of life” formed itself in his mind. The “granite basis” of his conduct, a foundation for his life which he would “extend” in later years, but would change “nothing in it.”
Hitler writes of being convinced that:
… generally speaking, it is in youth that men lay the essential groundwork of their creative thought ( … ) the creative genius of youth, which blossoms out in thought and ideas with an exhaustive fertility, without being able to put these into practice immediately, because of their very superabundance. These furnish the building materials and plans for the future; and it is from them that age takes the stones and builds the edifice, unless the so-called wisdom of the years may have smothered the creative genius of youth.
I wonder. It must be so for some, but for a very rare minority. How many of us really experience Hitler’s “creative genius of youth?” How it “blossoms out in thought and ideas with an exhaustive fertility.” Thought recalls Keats, but when I rummage around in memory for others, in the moment I do not come up with another name. And then I do not really understand what Hitler means when he writes about creative genius. Is it creative genius to form an attitude toward history, politics, or culture when you are a teenager? With genius, perhaps you can get something of a grasp on such matters. But is it “creative” to do so, or would we simply be following our subjective inclinations? And how would you demonstrate that such a thing would be either creative or intelligent? Intelligent is one thing, being creative another. In the end, how do we judge either to exist before we see what comes of it?
Last night, half asleep and yet restless, I watched most of Alexander the Great on television. Brad Pitt as Alexander and Angelina Jolie as his mother. Jolie is an actress with facial features of great beauty and deep sexual wantonness. As a movie, Alexander was poorly conceived and poorly executed. At the same time it contained the outline of a magnificent story. I found I did not want to turn it off. The battle scenes were immense, impressive, but unreadable. With all its faults, it made me want to read a short biography of Alexander. I have a set of 1954 Britannica. The materials there on Alexander will be all I should need. I suppose.
At the end of the movie an old man is telling Alexander’s story so that Macedonian, or Greek, scribes can write down Alexander’s story from an “eyewitness.” He refers to Alexander as a “dreamer.” In the movie he dreamed of conquering the world and uniting into one all the diverse peoples he conquered. To that symbolic integrative purpose he took a Persian wife, then he proceeded to kill everyone in Asia who got in his way, just as he had done before he married. I suppose it could be argued that he was a “liberal.”
But then the screenwriters had the old man make an interesting observation about “dreamers.” He said: “In the end, the dreamers exhaust us.” The thought caught my attention. I hadn’t expected such an interesting observation to be made in this kind of Hollywood big-budget, grade B movie.
“In the end, the dreamers exhaust us.”
And thought took me back to Mein Kampf and Hitler writing about the “creative genius of youth,” how it blossoms with “exhaustive fertility,” and how his own teenage creative genius shaped his world outlook, became the granite basis of his conduct, and that while he had “extended” its scope, he had “changed nothing in it.”
Alexander was twenty years old, hardly out of his teens, when he became, upon the murder of his father, the ruler of Macedonia . He immediately took control of the Macedonian army and led it against Greeks who he considered enemies of the State. He was a military genius. Hitler was to prove to have a lesser talent for directing armies. But last night, in the moment, it occurred to thought to compare the teenage “dreamings” of Alexander and those of Adolf Hitler. The vastness of their scope, the incredible self-confidence, the willingness to risk a sea of blood and suffering, the sheer organizational and management abilities—in the end it was as if they were from another planet. In Alexander’s day there was every reason to think of him as a god. We are past such beliefs now, no one suggests that Hitler became a god, but there remains a myth about him that, for some, remains rather out of this world. Both for those who admire him, and those who hate and fear what they believe he stood for.
Almost as a post-script, it occurs to me to recall that in “Alexander the Great” it was openly suggested that Alexander had sexual issues that he could not straighten out, if loving men and women alike is still considered a sexual issue. I think the historical record, such as it is, suggests the same. Adolf Hitler, for his part, appeared to have some kind of sexual issue as well. Women loved him, three committed suicide out of their love and frustration with him. I have never heard it suggested that he was homosexual. But something was going on there. Something he kept hidden. I have no idea if it is important. Alexander was open about his sexuality and was willing to kill anyone for the good of mankind. Hitler was very private about his sexuality and he was willing to see anyone killed for the good of his own people. There it is. Two immensely capable men, each driven to “help” others, each willing to bring about any brutality, and each with some kind of sexual issue.
Of course, Henry the Eighth and Bill Clinton had sexual issues.
Great dreamings then, the creative genius of youth blossoming with exhaustive fertility, and then the catastrophic exhaustion of others waking up. After the immense slaughter of human beings that Alexander brought about, his empire began to fall apart at his death. Hitler’s empire, created out of the ideas of his youth, fell down around his own ears, soaked in blood and misery. Both these men remain heroes to some. The problem inherent with insignificant men like me writing about the Alexanders and the Hitlers of the world —and such men as myself make up almost all humankind—is that while we do no harm with the actions we do take, we do great harm indeed with our inability to act effectively. Responsibility for the catastrophe of life as we have lived it over the centuries is shared by those few who believe utterly in their own visions of rule, and by the rest of us who perhaps choose to not have such vast visions, but to remain insignificant before the immense drift of time.