From Ideology to Racism: Hitler’s Mein Kampf

The content of the book is well known for its blatant aggression against political enemies, democracy, and mainly, against what Hitler viewed as the "enemy race" of the German people: the Jews

Mein Kampf frontispiece, 1933

In 1925, shortly after the end of the period of hyperinflation in Germany, a radical political book was published, written by an activist from the right-wing fringe of the political spectrum of those days. The author, who was not particularly well known outside of Bavaria, served a nine-month prison sentence during 1924 following a failed attempt at overthrow the government that he carried out together with accomplices on November 9, 1923, in Munich, the Bavarian capital. During his period of incarceration, the prisoner wrote what was to be his first book, entitled Mein Kampf, or “My Struggle.” The author’s name was Adolf Hitler. No one thought that within ten years, the author of this aggressive book would be heading the German government. No one could have guessed that six years after that, the same man would launch the deadliest war in human history. Who could have known that within 20 years of the book’s publication, its author would commit suicide after losing a war in which over 50 million people had been killed.

The content of the book, originally written in two parts, is well known for its blatant aggression against political enemies, democracy, and mainly, against what Hitler viewed as the “enemy race” of the German people: the Jews. In Mein Kampf, Hitler combined two main elements: autobiographical excerpts, some of them fictional, and in parallel, detailed political plans.

Hitler sought to offer in his book a political outline oriented against “Bolshevist-Jewish” Communism, which in his opinion was a great danger at the time, and on the other hand, against international financial capital, which, he claimed, was also “in Jewish hands.” The author presented a number of political demands in his book, such as the annexation of Austria to Germany, occupation of more “living space” (Lebensraum) for the German people at the expense of other countries, and, as stated, “exposing” the plans of the Jews to take control of the world. Hitler did not hesitate to rely on The Protocols of the Elders of Zion – a false composition written by antisemites in order to “prove” the supposed Jewish aspirations to take over the world.

Many versions, stories, legends and defamations were disseminated around the planning and writing of the book. Hitler was accused of having plagiarized substantial portions of it; it was said that he dictated the text to his close associate, Rudolf Heß; many claimed that Hitler was not capable of editing a coherent text and therefore, was dependent on the help of others in the process of preparing the materials for press. Without a doubt, the book is clearly not a high-quality literary work: the reading is indeed difficult and the reader is quickly put off by the awkward style and the shocking content. These characteristics led to the popular opinion that the book, though widely disseminated (by the Nazi rise to power in January, 1933, over 240,000 copies had been sold), was not widely read. And yet, modern studies have shown that apparently, this extremist political manifesto found an audience that showed a keen interest in its content and ideas. Despite a certain amount of success, however, the initial public impact of Mein Kampf was quite limited. The book was not taken seriously by critics during the era of the Weimar Republic, with the exception of a handful who identified with the Fascist movement in Germany.

Beyond the motivation that pushed Hitler to write a political book, there was an additional reason for the publication of Mein Kampf: Hitler’s need for money. His hope was to earn enough funds to finance the lawyers he hired prior to his appointment as Chancellor of Germany. Before that, the book enjoyed a degree of popularity, but the peak of its success began in January, 1933, with Hitler’s appointment to the role. There is nothing surprising about this: beginning with the Nazi rise to power, the book effectively became the basic plan for the “New Germany.” From that moment, further editions were printed, and copies were distributed to newly married couples (instead of Christian Bibles) and as gifts to colleagues at work. According to estimates by historians, by the end of the Nazi period, over 11 million copies had been sold – and this figure represents the German version alone. These high numbers yielded respectable royalties and Hitler, in order to maximize his income, prohibited the sale of used copies, such that officially, one could only purchase new copies of the book.

Irene Harand’s book, Sein Kampf, 1935

Outstanding among the negative responses to the incitement in Mein Kampf is the book by an Austrian Catholic author named Irene Harand. Her 1935 book, called Sein Kampf (“His Struggle”), expresses support for the Jews and tries to protect them from the preposterous antisemitic allegations that Hitler spread through his ideological composition. Harand exposed fabrication as Hitler’s main tool and basis for his claims, and she provides examples of how the lies regarding the Talmud, blood libels, and the claim regarding Jewish “tendencies” to deal in loans and interest, were simply untrue. Harand even undermines the “authority” of the infamous composition The Protocols of the Elders of Zion that Hitler held in such high esteem as a historical document. Luckily for Irene Harand, at the time of the Anschluss she was in England, and was thus spared arrest by the Nazis. Ultimately she immigrated to the United States.

Mein Kampf’s succesful run came to an end in Germany with the country’s defeat in WWII. After the collapse of the Nazi regime, millions of panicked citizens feared that possession of the book at home would be considered criminal, and many copies were destroyed. To this day, it is illegal to print Mein Kampf in Germany, although of late attempts have been made to publish a critical edition accompanied by studies that present the book in its political-historical context. And yet, there is no way to avoid publication of translations of the book into other languages, and quite unfortunately, many editions can be found – most without any accompanying commentary or critique – in many book stores around the world.

The Nazi Rise to Power Through the Eyes of Sebastian Haffner

Everything went "strictly by the book," using means that were permitted by the constitution

Beginning in 1928, German voters were called to the polls at least every two years as the political system suffered from instability due in part to the world economic crisis and the ensuing mass unemployment, but also due to the diffusion of political force between the many parties that gained representation in the National Parliament. In 1932, the situation was so dire that the German government disintegrated twice in the same year, leading to general elections in July and in November.

Hitler and his party had already succeeded in convincing many voters to support them in previous elections, but in July 1932 the Nazis garnered the largest number of votes and entered the Reichstag as the strongest party. Together with the Communist Party representatives (both parties were anti-Democratic), the Nazis achieved an absolute majority in the National Parliament, precluding the establishment of any type of coalition. At this stage, Hitler refused to cooperate with a government that would not be under his leadership, but President Paul von Hindenburg was not yet prepared to appoint Hitler as the Chancellor of Germany. There was no choice, then, but to hold a re-election in November 1932.

These elections created the impression that the unabated rise of the Nazis had been halted: for the first time in years, they had lost votes. And yet, they were still the strongest party in the Reichstag. Despite this development, there was still no realistic possibility of forming a stable coalition. The president appointed the Prussian General Kurt von Schleicher as the Chancellor of Germany. He tried to build a government in collaboration with various moderate political forces, including the moderate branch of the Nazi Party, hoping to thus split the Nazis. Nevertheless, the attempt failed and on January 28, 1933, he was forced to resign from his post. Two days later, President Von Hindenburg appointed Adolf Hitler as Chancellor of Germany, though most of the government portfolios were still in the hands of other parties. Nonetheless, Hitler and his people knew how to seize control, both politically and through violent means. Within months, the Nazis already held all of the political and state power – with almost no resistance on the part of the German people, most of whom had not voted for the Nazis in the elections.

On the evening of January 30, endless lines of uniformed Nazis bearing torches marched towards the Brandenburg Gate, in order to celebrate the “victory”. There are reports that upon seeing this sight, the well-known Jewish painter Max Liebermann, who lived in the building adjacent to the Brandenburg Gate, said, “I cannot eat as much as I would like to puke.”

The German publicist Sebastian Haffner (1907-1999) reported on the Nazi rise to power, and more generally, on the developments in Germany during that period. Haffner was a law student at the time, and opposed the Nazis and their barbaric political style. In 1938 he emigrated from Germany to England where he began writing political-historical works about Germany and contemporary history. He authored a series of books and even wrote for an anti-Fascist German paper published in England. Haffner’s first composition on the topic, 1939’s “Defying Hitler (Geschichte eines Deutschen – The Story of a German)”, was neither completed nor published during his lifetime. The work was ultimately published in 2000, a year after Haffner passed away. In this work, which has been translated into various languages including Hebrew, Haffner describes the political and social developments in Germany in the years 1914-1933 from a personal, everyday perspective. Writing about the events beginning in 1933, after the Nazis’ political strength had been strongly established, Haffner observed:

The whole façade of everyday life remained basically unchanged. The cinemas, cafes and theaters were full; couples danced in the open air and in the dance halls, people strolled down the streets, while others sunbathed on the beaches. The Nazis used this to great effect in their propaganda: “Come and see our peaceful, quiet country. Come and see how well even the Jews are doing. The secret vein of madness, fear and tension, of living by the day and dancing a dance of death: those one could not see. (Adapted from p. 154 of the English edition, entitled, Defying Hitler – A Memoir by Sebastian Haffner, translated from the German by Oliver Pretzel, 2002).

On the Nazis’ rise to power and the concurrent political changes, he wrote:

What is a revolution?

Constitutional lawyers define it as a change of constitution by means not foreseen therein. By this definition the Nazi revolution of March 1933 was not a revolution. Everything went “strictly by the book,” using means that were permitted by the constitution. At first there were “emergency decrees” by the president of the Reich, and later a bill was passed by a two-thirds majority of the Reichstag, giving the government unlimited legislative powers. (Defying Hitler, p. 124)

Reading Haffner’s book is both riveting and spine-chilling from the reports of the violent political takeover to the April 1st ban on Jewish businesses and the slow infusion of Fascist poison into broad segments of the general population. Haffner’s writings prove that it was already possible in 1933 to know where Germany was headed.

Those like Haffner, who so desired, could see it clearly.

The Aliyah of Central European Jews (the “Yekkim”) and the “German Immigrants’ Association News”

In the great frenzy that ensued, many Jews who lived on German territory understood that their lives and property were in imminent danger, and that they had to find alternatives to carry on living

German Immigrants’ Association News

​Until the Nazi rise to power, some half a million Jews lived in Germany, over 150,000 of them in Berlin alone. Most found their place in society-at-large and took part in economy, politics, science, and of course German culture, both as producers of culture (authors, journalists, musicians, artists, etc.) and consumers of culture of all types. The Zionist movement found it difficult to penetrate German-Jewish society, since most of it was well established; and Zionist groups in Germany never became mass movements.

The picture changed in 1933, when the Nazis rose to power. The blatant anti-Semitism and the unbridled Nazi aggression (across large segments of German society) made it clear to German Jews that their integration into the greater society was only a brief episode that was drawing to an end with the political change.

In the great frenzy that ensued, many Jews who lived on German territory understood that their lives and property were in imminent danger, and that they had to find alternatives to carry on living. Approximately one half of Germany’s Jewish population emigrated from Germany to other countries, most to the United States, but many also moved to Israel as part of what is known as “the fifth Aliyah.” It is estimated that some 60,000 German immigrants came to Eretz Israel as part of this wave of immigration, in addition to 30,000 from other German-speaking areas, primarily Austria and Czechoslovakia.

Their situation in Eretz Israel was also quite difficult: the new climate, the language unfamiliar to most of them, the reservations of many locals from German language and culture due to the Nazi acts, and the unsuitable professions of many (a great deal of them were active in the fields of science, the humanities and culture) – all posed severe problems for many of the “Yekkim”, as they were called then and to this day. Their habits, style of dress, precision in all that related to timeliness, and their idiosyncratic humor, attracted much derisive humor. Tragically, while in Germany they were always considered Jews, in Eretz Israel they were considered “Germans.”

The German immigrants in pre-State Israeli society were quite diverse: the majority played a role in the sciences, arts and culture, unsurprisingly, but among them were also industrialists and entrepreneurs (the founders of companies including “Asis”, “Strauss” and others), publishers (e.g. the Schocken family), architects, (Richard Kaufmann and others from the famous Bauhaus movement). In many cases, however, the Yekkim were forced to find their place in the new society in Israel like all of the other immigrants, in professions in which they weren’t trained, while living in crowded housing and facing the large and small cultural difficulties that awaited all of the immigrants in their everyday lives.

The Yekkim settled in a number of cities and other types of localities: around Tel Aviv and Jerusalem (many of them in the Rechavia neighborhood), but also in the city of Nahariya, in Kfar Shmaryahu near Herzliya, and in other locations. The Rechavia neighborhood of Jerusalem was planned by the architect Richard Kaufmann beginning in the 1920s. It was inhabited by distinguished academics, including many lecturers from The Hebrew University: Gershom Scholem, Shmuel Hugo Bergmann, Akiva Ernst Simon, the well-known architect Erich Mendelsohn (who lived in the neighborhood for a few years only, in the 1930s) as well as Zalman Schocken, the owner of a successful department store chain in Germany and a publishing house on his name, that exists to this day.

With the aliyah of the “Yekkim,” new newspapers and periodicals in German were established. For example, the newspaper Yediot Hadashot (that later assumed the name Hadashot Yisrael), and the periodical Yediot Hitachdut Olei Germania (Mitteilungsblatt der Hitachduth Olei Germania, known also, simply, as MB). This publication was founded in 1933 and exists to this day, and the initials still appear on the cover, but the name has changed to Yakinton (hyacinth). Beginning with the first edition, it featured texts both in German and in Hebrew, at first with German dominating, while today, with the proportions have reversed. For many years, firms and businesses advertised in Yediot, mainly those owned by German immigrants or relevant to the German immigrant community. It is interesting to note that during the publication’s first years, even the Templar Bank in Palestine saw fit to advertise its services in this periodical, even though the orientation of many Templars – German-Protestant settlers who had no relationship with Judaism – was pro-Nazi. Other companies, some known to this day, already advertised there, in German of course, such as the “Asis” company.

“Transfer Agreement” and the Boycott of German Goods

Jewish organizations appealed to the public to forgo the purchase of goods from Germany

Beginning in the spring of 1933, objections began surfacing against the procurement of German goods. Jewish organizations appealed to the public to forgo the purchase of goods from Germany through declarations and placards, with the goal of striking a blow at the German economy, and in this manner, to the power of the Nazis who had recently taken power. The anti-German boycott was initiated following the Nazi boycott initiated on April 1, 1933, against Jewish businesses in Germany. Following this, the Jewish organizations in various countries called for a boycott of German products available around the world, including in Palestine. The boycott in Palestine itself would have little effect on the German economy, but the joint effort in various countries, including the United States, had an impact, although it did not affect Nazi policy towards German Jewry.

During this same period, German products were considered to be of particularly fine quality. Germany was already at the time a highly industrialized nation and its products were marketed internationally. Importers and retailers in Palestine sought to sell products from German factories and promoted them through ads and placards, some in Hebrew and some in Hebrew and German. The expertise of German factories in the production of machines and technical products guaranteed great success for products, especially in Palestine of the 1930s, where many branches of local industry were just beginning to develop. Despite the boycott, there were some German products sold in stores in Palestine, such as medicines manufactured by Bayer and photographic equipment manufactured by AGFA, that were promoted in the newspapers and other advertising venues (for example, in Purim celebration programming in Tel Aviv).

Following the call for a boycott – mainly instigated by the Revisionist camp – leaders of the Yishuv faced a difficult dilemma. At that time (August 25, 1933), a “transfer agreement” was signed with the German Nazi government. Both parties had a vested interest in the agreement. The Nazi leaders hoped that through it they could minimize the worldwide boycott on German products. During these years, the Nazi leaders were still of the opinion that they should promote voluntary Jewish emigration from Germany in order to “be rid” of the “Jewish problem.” On its part, the Jewish side hoped that the agreement would enable German Jews who wanted to immigrate to Palestine to bring with them a more significant portion of their possessions.

In 1931, following the global economic crisis, those who emigrated from Germany were forced to pay exceedingly high taxes for the transfer of their property to points abroad; this policy remained in effect during the Nazi period. As part of the agreement, German Jewry was given the option of depositing a minimum of 1,000 lira in a German bank, and with the money, German products were purchased for export to Palestine.

In Israel, the importers sold the German products and deposited the funds in a bank account, from which a significant sum was returned to the immigrants on their arrival. It is estimated that tens of thousands of German emigrants did just this in order to prevent simply giving their capital to the Nazi German tax authorities. Inevitably, the agreement and its results, i.e. the import of German products to Palestine during the time of the boycott – aroused a stormy debate. On the one hand, there was severe opposition to the transfer agreement, but on the other, there were also voices of support, for example, on the part of the German Olim Association, which was afraid to negatively impact the transfer of property belonging to German Jews who had not yet come on Aliyah.

Public activity surrounding the boycott continued throughout the 1930s, and the transfer agreement remained in effect during these years. It is estimated that some 140 million German marks were transferred by this mechanism to Palestine until the outbreak of World War II in September 1939. Economically, the transfer agreement was a great success, both in terms of German emigrants and for the Palestinian economy. The negotiator for the Jewish side was Haim Arlozorov, but he was murdered in Tel Aviv before the agreement was signed. The circumstances of the murder and its motives are to this day not entirely clear, but there is a possibility that the motive was related to Arlozorov’s role in the Negotiations with the German-Nazi side.