The fact is that Mein Kampf is too dangerous not to be published.
German authorities will allow the republication of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, after decades of censorship.
Decent people can argue that the book is too dangerous to be published. But the fact is that Mein Kampf is too dangerous not to be published.
The great fear is that Hitler’s ideas are not dead and that his book could trigger another horribly pathological social movement. Nationalism and socialism still appeal to many, and combinations of the two ideologies attract new adherents every day in Europe and around the world. (See The Far Left Brotherhood of Greek and German neo-Nazis.)
Mein Kampf is already available in many editions, in many languages, and online. So the furor over its republication is about the Germans in particular: Can they handle it?
One of many old jokes has one German ask another, “How many Poles does it take to change a light bulb?” The other German replies, “I don’t know. Let’s invade Poland and find out!”
Always fun to poke at the Germans’ historical reputation. But it has been three generations since the end of World War II. There have been major cultural shifts in German attitudes towards militarism, authoritarianism, anti-Semitism, and other elements in the National Socialist package. There is plenty of evidence that today’s Germans are well above the average in civility and decency. So the post-Nazi cultural training wheels can come off.
Yet beyond the specifics of the German debate, there is a more important general point about prohibiting even the most repulsive of ideas: Censorship weakens our ability to combat them.
Levi Salomon, speaking for the Jewish Forum for Democracy and Against Anti-Semitism based in Berlin, opposes republication of Mein Kampf: “This book is outside of human logic.”
Perhaps that is true, but it is not outside of human experience. We must understand the “logic” of national socialist beliefs, however dangerously wrong they turn out to be. Those beliefs continue to have a powerful psychological and social appeal to many, so it is crucial that every generation knows exactly what they are, why they attract many — and how to fight them.
The Nazis were not just some crazy guys who somehow lucked into power. For too long a cartoonish understanding of National Socialism has held sway in the public mind.
Also before the Nazis came to power, many intellectuals with Ph.D. degrees from the best German universities wrote books supporting national socialist ideology. Among them were the historian Dr. Oswald Spengler, who published the bestselling The Decline of the West in 1918. Spengler was the most famous German intellectual in the 1920s. The legal theorist Dr. Carl Schmitt wrote books that are still recognized as twentieth-century classics. Political theorist Moeller van den Bruck published The Third Reich in 1923, which was a big seller throughout the 1920s. And the philosopher Dr. Martin Heidegger, thought by many to be the most original philosophical mind of the century, actively supported the Nazis in theory and in practice.
Many of those big-brained supporters of national socialism were extremely well read and saw themselves as disciples of George Hegel, Karl Marx, and Friedrich Nietzsche — and as doing the vital, idealistic work of applying those abstract philosophies to practical politics. (See my Nietzsche and the Nazis for details.)
So the problem is not Adolf Hitler alone. And if we are to censor dangerous writings that led to Nazism, the list is long.
Also important is the fact that many millions of Germans voted for the Nazi party. In the critical democratic election of 1933, the Nazis won 43% of the vote — more than the next three parties combined. (In second place were the Socialists, and in third place were the Communists, which also speaks much about the political-intellectual climate of the time.)
The electoral success of the Nazis was also not the product of a set of ideas in books alone. In building their movement, the Nazis used cutting-edge principles of marketing, logistics, and administration. They applied new theories of psychology and sociology to build upon a core movement of hundreds of devoted activists and turned it into a mass movement of millions of followers. Yet we don’t want to censor books on effective logistics, marketing, and social psychology.
So we have some hard questions: Why did so many top intellectuals agree with National Socialist ideas? Why did so many volunteers and donors and professionals devote their energies to creating an awesomely awful political movement? Why did millions of German citizens vote — often enthusiastically — for the Nazis? Were they all just stupid/depraved/insane?
No, they were not. Whether we like the fact or not, National Socialism embodies a deep philosophy of life — and that is what explains its power. One might argue that Nazi philosophy is not logical and rational. I will agree. Yet few philosophies are. One might argue that Nazism, if embraced fully, leads to psychosis. I will agree again. Yet that also is true of many philosophies.
Suppressing dangerous ideas is much more dangerous than fighting them openly.
But it’s neither logical nor rational nor sane to ignore a set of ideas that continues to animate movements around the world. Suppressing dangerous ideas is much more dangerous than fighting them openly.
A free society can work only if most of its members understand what principles a free society depends upon and why they are better than the alternatives. That presupposes that they know what the alternatives are.
So there are no short cuts in our ongoing cultural education. Every generation must discuss and debate the great ideas — true and false, known and possible, healthy and dangerous – and become intellectually armed so as to defend and advance liberal civilization.
Sometimes the urge to censor focuses on the symbolism of allowing evil books to be published. Not censoring Mein Kampf, for example, is a statement by the authorities that they consider national socialist ideas to be within the range of acceptable opinion.
But we should remember that a free society rejects the idea that it is up to the authorities to decide what opinions are acceptable. That’s our job, each of us individually.
In his dissenting opinion in a classic case in American censorship, Justice Potter Stewart made this perceptive remark: “Censorship reflects a society’s lack of confidence in itself.”
There is an important symbolism built into encouraging robust free speech: We can handle it.
So let us strive for that self-confidence. We have the smarts and the character to deal with the Adolf-Hitler-wannabes, as well as their clever but evil theoreticians.
A century ago, Germany was the authoritarian nation. Kaiser Wilhelm was presiding over its efforts in World War I, and young Adolf Hitler was working toward his opportunity in World War II. At the same time, Britain and America were havens of liberal ideals.
Yet those nations seem to have reversed roles on free speech and open debate. Just as the German authorities decided to allow the republication of Hitler’s Mein Kampf, the British government ordered its universities to police extremist ideas within their walls. And at the next American commencement season, we can expect another round of speaker dis-invitations as university students demand that they not have to listen to ideas outside their comfort zone.
Let’s take up the new British directives. Read for yourself this “Prevent Duty Guidance” document at Her Majesty’s Government’s site (or this PDF version) — especially pages 20-23 which focus on the special duties of Higher Education. Or you can take my summary word for it:
The U.K. government’s current fear is terrorism, especially of the Islamist type, and the large number of young people who become radicalized while at university. So the government has decided that students at institutions of higher education now need extra protection from extreme ideas. This will, as the document puts it, require some “interaction” with the universities’ traditional duty of free speech.
The document also includes a reminder of who is paying most of the bills, i.e., the British government, with the implication of he who pays the piper.
And a final point: the Secretary of State will be monitoring universities “to assess the bodies’ compliance,” with further details forthcoming.
What could go wrong? (Perhaps readers of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix already know the story: the Ministry will be sending Dolores Umbridge into Hogwarts.)
Let’s first dispense with an important but secondary issue — the document’s regular use of the weasel-word “extremism,” which is often a euphemism for “strongly-held positions that I disapprove of.”
Extremism is definitely not the problem. Some extreme ideas and actions are true, important, and healthy — extremism in hygiene as your surgeon is preparing to operate upon you, extremism in eating healthy foods and avoiding poison, and extremism in opposing child molesting. The problem of terrorism is the problem of false-and-destructive ideas, not extreme ideas.
Another important but secondary issue: the government’s inclusion of both violent and non-violent forms of extremism. What is non-violent extremism? Mahatma Gandhi was rather extreme about non-violence. Do his ideas count as suspicious? Of course not! comes the reply. Don’t be ridiculous! We don’t mean to ban Gandhi! But who really knows where the lines will be drawn? With the document’s bureaucratese language, we are to wait until the government-appointed coordinators decide and let us know.
Another secondary issue: already the special-interest lobbying has commenced and, on a technicality, student groups at Oxford and Cambridge universities get special exemption. (A colleague reminded me that the Communist spies Philby, Burgess, Blunt, and Maclean were recruited at Cambridge, so it’s not clear how effective that exemption will be.) But of course it was politicking that led to the elite-universities exemption, not high principle.
Yet the primary point in response to “Prevent Duty Guidelines” is about high principle.
The document references “the fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance for those with different faiths and beliefs.” Excellent. Exactly those values are at stake.
But they cannot be preserved by indoctrination, half measures, or ignorance of their enemies. Our best defense of democracy, liberalism, and tolerance is citizens who are fully educated. That means those who know what those values mean and what they depend upon — and who know and can counteract the best arguments of the opponents of democracy, liberalism, and tolerance.
Especially in a university context, education requires principled commitment to free speech and robust debate. By trying to limit the range of ideas rather than extending it, the British government is implicitly admitting that it has little confidence that its best minds can out-argue the ideas of terrorists — even on their own turf at British universities.
British officials would do much better for democracy by re-reading its trinity of Johns — Milton, Locke, and Mill — three philosophers whose advocacy of vigorous and open liberalism in thought and debate were essential to making Britain great in the first place.
That may be a genuine concern. Yet British officials would do much better for democracy by re-reading its trinity of Johns — Milton, Locke, and Mill — three philosophers whose advocacy of vigorous and open liberalism in thought and debate were essential to making Britain great in the first place. John Milton’s Areopagitica, John Locke’s A Letter concerning Toleration, and the second chapter of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty are timeless teachers of how to advance free societies.
We must also remember that for its entire history, liberal civilization has had to grapple with powerful ideological opposition. Plato, Augustine, Hobbes, Rousseau, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, and Heidegger — all of them are extreme thinkers implicated in varying degrees in extreme ideologies and extremely violent practice. But we must read them and understand them. No shortcuts.
So in combating the latest contender, politicized Islam, we will have more success by encouraging students to read Islamist writings, e.g., Sayyid Qutb’s Milestones (as I do in my Philosophy of Religion course).
Having “Prevent Guidance Compliance” officers sniffing around along with self-censoring by institutions of higher education can lead only in the direction of failure — to universities that will graduate a whole generation of citizens ignorant of enemy ideas and unable to argue effectively against them.
Centuries ago the British best taught all of us how to live freely. They can once again find the way to defeat dangerous ideas — openly, cleanly, and steadfastly.
This was published in two articles at http://www.everyjoe.com as “Is Republishing Hitler’s Mein Kampf the Correct Decision?” and “Is Free Speech Dead in Universities?”