Thursday, October 8, 2009

An Odious Little Book

Last week was Banned Books Week and mine was not the only blog taken over by the topic of banned and challenged books. Christine at Stacked posted a book review of one of the most reviled books in history and mounted a compelling defense of keeping it in print and on the shelves.

Of course, I am talking about Mein Kampf by Adolph Hitler.

The intellectual courage it took for her to review such a book is astounding. During banned books week, she took on a book that almost everyone agrees is the vile product of a twisted mind, the elucidation of a twisted ideology that literally broke the world and began the march toward the holocaust. I had to read Mein Kampf in college and the thing that struck me most about it is how boring the whole thing was.

Hardly one of Hitler's firebrand moments.

And that is the dangerous face of evil. Hannah Arendt, reporting for the New Yorker on the Trial of Adolph Eichmann, wrote of the realization that evil wasn't a radical force, or a transcendent philosophy, it was the banal and efficient daily application of a horrible ideology. An evil force of bookkeepers backed up by the might of the Wermacht.

I've already posted my defense of keeping both extremes of the political argument in print and readily-available for readers despite the fact that one side or the other makes my blood boil. For better or worse, his is the map of modern political dialogue (or screaming matches as the case may be) and to make it disappear would be to lie about who we are and how we communicate... and how we don't.

But what of Mein Kampf? Surely if any book deserves the "Banned" stamp, it is this one.

This is where it gets sticky. It's easy to rally around a book we love, but how do we argue for a book that we hate? At what point do we cut it off? I don't know. There are some ideas, some philosophies, some books out there in the world that even I think should be suppressed. But where do we draw that line as a society? As I see it, the biggest problem with banning a book like Mein Kampf is that it doesn't make it go away, it drives it underground. It adds a titillating context to reading it that changes the way your mind accepts or rejects its content.  

This is banned, censored, someone doesn't want me to read this... 

Back in my Borders days, we carried Mein Kampf on the shelf in the German history section. At least once every few months, a German citizen visiting our shores would come into my bookstore and for a copy of the book to take home with them. Because it was banned in Germany--it still is for all I know. They were so intensely curious about it, wanted to see it; most of them bought a copy. Between college students slogging through the thing for a class and the German visitors, it's a wonder we ever had it on the shelf.

As my grandparents’ generation dies and then my parents generation follows them, the realities of the world that went to war pass from living memory to the pages of books. There is an erosion when this happens, sharp edges get knocked off and we forget the details. There will one day be no one left to tell us the story with the horror in their voices of having lived through it; no more war crimes trials and extraditions of aging Nazis; no more unremarkable accountants standing before the assembled masses, horrifying us with the blandness of their evil. And there will be no more neighbors, grandparents, or art teachers, as I had growing up, who will show you the numbers tattooed on their arms and witness to you the reality of the camps with hushed voices and tears.

Without the written record, without the evidence on the shelves of every bookstore, we will slowly lose our horror. The names Elie Weisel and Simon Weisenthal and Anne Frank will become dusty and cobwebbed names on the flaking spines of books in an unregarded section of your local library.

6 million killed in the camps. The numbers are too great to grasp, too evil to contain. How long before the greatest atrocity in human history is regarded as an anomaly even by those that aren't among those who deny that it happened. Already it's viewed by too many as something that could only happen once, Hitler was evil, a malign spirit from a medieval morality play, the devil incarnate, somehow separate from the human race. If he wasn't human we don't have to accept that a human being did such a thing... or could do it again.

I'm not the first to say it and hopefully I won't be the last, but it's already begun, the myth of Hitler has overtaken the historical. Hitler has devolved into a caricature, a name thrown around in arguments to vilify your enemy’s position and with overuse any metaphor weakens.

The greatest lie we tell ourselves is “We will never forget” and the second greatest is “It could never happen again”. Which is why I believe that the speech that needs the most protection is so often the speech that scares us the most.

Scott Walker Perkins writes literary thrillers and novels of suspense woven from the threads of history. His current novel in progress is The Palimpsest.
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  1. Mein Kampf is still banned - in much of Europe I believe. The copyright in Germany expires in 2015 (coincidentally the 70th Anniversary of Hitler's Death).

    And thanks for pointing out that it's not just a matter of forgetting - people who've been through terrible things don't forget - the real issue if that as we move generations from the events they become non-events and more like vague happenings from "way back when."

    I saw so many people that week simply reading "banned" books that were challenged over a word or a scene, and people just reviewed the books and then said they shouldn't be banned. Choosing Mein Kampf was a tough decision, I wanted to choose books that are had a larger ideology that scared people. Writing the review was tough too - I knew I wanted to start with that joke but there was this big void of guessing how people would react to the approach I took and the book itself.

  2. Very powerful and beautifully expressed post. I would like to think those names will never just end up in a forgotten corner of the library but that their words will live on forever telling the story to new generations. I am though afraid some of the lessons are already forgotten as we stand by and watch horrors perpetrated daily in various parts of this small globe. As to Mein Kampf I would never want to see it banned, I want it out in the open, read and discussed, exposing the horrors it underscored, but your right that perceptions change over time and banning also generates interest and alters how we read.
    Have you read Zusak's novel The Book Thief, I love the way he uses Mein Kampf, the way Max painted over the pages to create a new surface on which to tell another story. That is a book that explores the power of books.
    Great post, it is always confronting to realise that if you believe in free speech it means you also must accept the expression of ideas that are repugnant. That they are repugnant obliges us not to silence and ban them but rather to repudiate them and defend the things we believe in. We simply must never let the voices of history fall silent.

  3. I was sure this was going to be about Conrad's "Nostromo."


Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).