Who Read ‘Main Kampf’?

Late this month, I viewed the first episode of the BBC series ‘Ian Fleming – The Man Who Would Be Bond’. It was good escapist hokum, but definitely hokum. The casting (or maybe playing) of Fleming was inappropriate, I thought. Fleming was assuredly much suaver and more amusing than the heel that appears in this drama. In one unlikely scene (set in 1939), Fleming furtively acquires a first edition of Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf’ from a German seller in what appears to be the library of a government building. (Native Londoners help me out, please.) Naval Intelligence has its officers watching Fleming, and he is taken off to meet Commander Godfrey.

Apparently, Fleming did own a copy of ‘Mein Kampf’, but I doubt whether he acquired it in so dangerous a way. And it so happens that I had been reading about the book this month, primarily in the works, memoirs, and biography of the historian Sir John Wheeler-Bennett. In his ‘Munich: Prologue to Tragedy’ (1948), Wheeler-Bennett provides the following footnotes:

1) “The degree to which Mein Kampf was ignored in political circles was very great. Brüning had never read it until after his fall from office, and had von Papen done so he would have scarcely have made a coalition with a man who had written that ‘no really great achievement has ever been effected by coalitions, but has been due to the triumph of one individual man  . . . The national state therefore will only be created by the adamantine will-power of a single movement, after that movement has won through, having defeated all others.In France, when Hitler came to power in 1933, only M. Louis Barthou had read Mein Kampf, and, in Russia, M. Litvinov claimed he had read the book immediately on its appearance. Sir Nevile Henderson first read it in 1937, en route from Argentina to take up his post in Berlin. A somewhat bowdlerized translation appeared in English in 1933, but a complete translation was not made until 1938 (in America) and 1939 (in Britain). A French edition was published in Paris in 1934 but almost immediately withdrawn at the request of Hitler’s literary agent.”                                                                                                                                                    2) “Many of the ideas and precepts in Mein Kampf were derived from the writings of Gobineau, Houston Stewart Chamberlain, Ludendorff, Haushofer, Rosenberg, the American military writer, Homer Lea, and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”

Wheeler-Bennett’s omniscience about the reading habits of French politicians seems misplaced. As Igor Lukes reports, in Czechoslovakia Between Stalin and Hitler, the French Prime Minister, Daladier, warned Halifax and Chamberlain of Hitler’s plans as revealed in Mein Kampf.       Wheeler-Bennett also gives a scathing question of the craven French foreign minister, M. Bonnet:   “Had M. Bonnet read Mein Kampf, of which the édition intégral of the French translation had been officially suppressed in 1934 at the request of the German editors? If so, could he seriously believe that Hitler would allow even a complacent France to exist as a first-class power?”    He also provides the following extraordinary revelation: “Shortly after the appointment of Adolf Hitler as Chancellor, I was shown in Berlin a list of prominent anti-Nazis abroad who, it was said, had been marked for death. The list included King Alexander of Yugoslavia, Chancellor Dollfuss, M. Louis Barthou and M. Duca, the Rumanian Prime Minister. All these persons were assassinated within two years of the Nazi Revolution.”

On October 9, 1934, M. Barthou was assassinated in Marseille, alongside King Alexander of Yugoslavia, by a Bulgarian supported by Croats armed with German weaponry, and thus was eliminated one of the braver opponents of the Führer. Many historians believe that the failure by democratic politicians to have read Hitler’s plans contributed largely to the appalling policy of appeasement that led to Munich. In Why Britain Is At War, Harold Nicolson put it as follows:  “It is unfortunate that so few British statesmen should have studied the original German edition of Mein Kampf, or have examined how far Herr Hitler was merely ranting, and how far he was prepared to put his wild ideas into practice.” To reinforce this point, in his memoirs, Winds of Change, Harold Macmillan wrote:     “Finally, the very decency of ordinary men and women in Britain was a handicap. In our insularity, we neither read Hitler’s gospel, Mein Kampf, nor understood the nature of his movement, or the scale of his ambitions.” Note the evasive ‘we’, as Supermac aims to transfer responsibility to a larger group.

I have gathered some examples of politicians and writers who did in fact read the work, not all taking Hitler’s message with the same degree of seriousness. Stanley Baldwin had read it (presumably the bowdlerized edition), though that did not stir him from his torpor. Roosevelt had read it. Breitman and Lichtman, in FDR and the Jews, write:    “Roosevelt had warned repeatedly that war would place Jews in Germany and eastern Europe in great peril, and he had read Mein Kampf.”    In Appeasement, A Study in Political Decline, 1933-1939, A. L. Rowse wrote:   “I had read Mein Kampf, indispensable to understanding Hitler and the upsurge of irremediable evil he elicited and directed.” Before the period of the ineffectual Nevile Henderson (who, Wheeler-Bennett notes, had read Mein Kampf), some diplomats posted in Germany did pass on such intelligence. The Labour MP and minister Hugh Dalton recorded in his Memoirs:   “He [Rumbold, Ambassador in Berlin 1928-1933] used to send quotations from the unexpurgated edition of Mein Kampf to the Foreign Office, but they took no heed.” Rumbold’s DNB entry confirms this assessment, although it appears his insightful reports were sent on to Churchill.   Lastly, from my notes on Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of Auden, I see that “Auden himself later recorded that he had expected war ever since reading Mein Kampf”, but Carpenter does not source this remark.

Astonishingly, Wheeler-Bennett himself confessed he had not read Hitler’s gospel, yet he had no excuse, since he was a fluent German speaker, and spent most of the 1930s investigating German politics and interviewing prominent politicians. His biographer, Victoria Schofield attests:    “Although he had to admit that he had not read Hitler’s Mein Kampf, he suggested that the twenty-five points of the Nazi programme were so contradictory that nobody could carry them out. . .”. Given that Wheeler-Bennett was a secret adviser to British intelligence at the time, his is probably the most inexcusable oversight of them all. This colossal error is confirmed by Adam Sisman in his biography of Hugh Trevor-Roper, An Honourable Englishman:  “Hugh came to see SIS as an example of a closed, inward-looking society, recruited by patronage, feeding on fantasy and self-perpetuating illusions, and increasingly isolated from reality. Its members, he felt, tended to come from one of two unimpressive groups: rich men of limited intellect whose egos were boosted by membership of a secret organization with a romantic past; or retired officers of the Indian police, whose experience had been limited to harassing innocent Indians suspected of Communist leanings. On the one hand, empty-headed members of the upper class, clubland habitués; on the other, unimaginative policemen whose brains had been scorched by the Indian sun. Such men could not begin to comprehend the new techniques of scientific intelligence made possible by the systematic study of radio intercepts. Since the perceived threat in the inter-war years had come from international Communism – from the Left and not from the Right – these men were unprepared, ideologically as well as practically, to change direction. Little was known about Nazism; none of Hugh’s new colleagues appeared to have read Mein Kampf.”    Curiously, Trevor-Roper’s nemesis, A. J. P. Taylor, another German expert, also appeared slow off the mark. His biographer, Kathleen Burk, in Troublemaker, writes:  “Mein Kampf, which he read in the original German, does not appear on his [reading] list until August 1962…”

To conclude, a bitter citation from the historian R. C. K. Ensor: “Wo Deutschtum endet, fangen die Laus und die Wanze an.” [‘Where Germanness ends, there begin the louse and the bedbug’], spoken to R. C. K. Ensor by a German acquaintance, as cited by him in Oxford Pamphlets on World Affairs, No. 2 , ‘Mein Kampf‘. The full title of this Pamphlet is ‘Herr Hitler’s Self-Disclosure in Mein Kampf’, and was first published on July 6, 1939. By then, of course, it was all too late.

Antony Percy, January 31, 2014

P.S. As so often happens, immediately I write about a topic, it crops up in multiple places – or perhaps it is just that my eye is especially prepared to notice such occurrences. On February 27, a copy of Mein Kampf, signed by the author (and presumably genuine, Lord Dacre) sold for $64, 850. In a review of Joachim Fest’s Not I – Memoirs of a German Childhood I read that, in the 1930s, a neighbor ‘turned one of the Fest boys away from her apartment because he hadn’t read Mein Kampf‘.  And in her memoir, From Baku to Baker Street, Flora Solomon expresses her disgust that, when in 1933 ‘The Times published a series of extracts from the Nazi leader’s Mein Kampf‘, some of her closest friends did not share her reaction. Unfortunately, the Times archive does not go back further than 2000, so I could not verify this claim. (The New York Times, on the other hand, displays fascinating items on the publication of the work in the 1930s.) But if such excerpts – even expurgated ones, as is probable – did appear in the Thunderer, the naivety of such as Macmillan and Wheeler-Bennett is even more astonishing.         (March 3, 2014)

P.P.S. And then, in a withering review of The Kennan Diaries by Matthew Walther in the Spectator, March 1, (‘the longest, chronologically, and probably the most boring diary I have ever read’) appears the following observation on the disciple of containment of the Soviet Union, after a quotation showing the diplomat’s contempt for democracy: “A pity that Kennan, who served the state department in Berlin from 1929 to 1931, and again from 1939 to 1941, failed to get his hands on a certain best-selling memoir published in the middle of the previous decade: all his worries might have been assuaged.”                      (March 12, 2014)

P.P.P.S. I next read about Helen Kirkpatrick and the Duchess of Atholl in Lynn Olson’s Troublesome Young Men (‘The Rebels Who Brought Churchill To Power And Helped Save England’). Of Atholl, Olsen writes: “Then, in late 1935, she picked up a copy of Mein Kampf in the original German. As she read Hitler’s outline of his political philosophy, she was appalled by its hatred and bigotry but, most of all, by its explicit blueprint for German aggression against much of the rest of Europe. ‘Never can a modern statesman have made so startlingly clear to his readers his ambitions . . . ‘ she later wrote.” Kirkpatrick edited a weekly foreign affairs newsletter with Victor Gordon-Lennox, the Daily Telegraph‘s diplomatic correspondent. “We pointed out what was in Mein Kampf and what the Germans were doing . . . in Europe,” said Kirkpatrick, who was to become a correspondent for the Chicago Daily News in the spring of 1939. “It was clear to us that Britain was headed for a war with Germany.”

Olson then explains how Mein Kampf came to be published. Edgar Dugdale, the husband of the Zionist sympathiser Baffy Dugdale, had performed the translation for Hurst & Blackett, but the German government managed to get it watered down from the original 781 pages to 297 pages, with Hitler’s most inflammatory statements omitted. Atholl sent both the German edition and the English translation to Churchill, along with copies of passages that had been left out.                                                                                                                     (March 31, 2014)

One Response to Who Read ‘Main Kampf’?

  1. Good blog post. I absolutely love this website. Continue the good work!

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