What Mein Kampf can tell us about the importance of knowledge (part 2)

mein kampfThis is the second post of three inspired by the BBC Radio 4 Documentary “Publish or Burn” about Mein Kampf. In this post I’ll explain why knowledge should be the core of what we pass on to our students, not just for the sake of knowledge itself but also as the building blocks for everything that follows.

First, some background. This year marks the 70th anniversary of Adolf Hitler’s suicide. This is an important anniversary as it means the copyright on Hitler’s rambling anti-Semitic diatribe will be expiring. For the last 70 years the copyright has been held by the Bavarian Regional Government as the book’s original publisher was based in Munich. They have tried to limit or stop re-publication in Germany and Austria, this does not stretch to books published in English or those published elsewhere around the world.  As a result, the text of Mein Kampf is available online and books can be bought pretty much on every street corner in some countries, so the expiry of the copyright might not seem like such a big deal. Nevertheless, it is the republication of the book in German that has created an international response from survivors of the Holocaust and Jewish communities.

I sympathise with the Jewish communities that are seeking to stop the republication of Mein Kampf. Seeing the text in its original German, with the knowledge that it led to the murder of over 6 million Jews and other ‘undesirables’, gives power to the words that probably doesn’t exist to the same extent when translated. It is this power that many of the Jewish groups fear will give rise to new waves of anti-Semitism and anti-immigrant feeling in Germany. Whilst I sympathise with these communities I don’t agree that publication of the book should be stopped. Mein Kampf carries a certain ‘mystique’ in Germany and Austria as it is seldom discussed – it is this ‘mystique’ that I think will do greater damage than the book itself.

The Institute for Contemporary History in Munich, had planned to publish Mein Kampf with guidance notes next to the text so that the reader sees “all the flaws, distortions and deadly tendencies”[i], how much better that a text like this be produced and then used as a teaching tool. “Mein Kampf is a dangerous book in the wrong hands”, says Ludwig Unger (spokesperson of the Bavarian Ministry of Education and Culture); and so it is, I can see no better way to combat this than by producing an annotated version that clearly destroy the myths and lies in the book.

It is only in conjunction with the knowledge of who and what Adolf Hitler and the Nazis were and what crimes were perpetrated by them, that younger generations will understand the importance of the book; and it is only with a solid knowledge base that the book will cease to hold any truth or power for the people of Germany. Discussing this book openly and allowing it to enter into high school history reading material will make it simply a book again.

Where the book has already been published, knowledge is vital in dispelling misinterpretations. Misinterpretations of the book could be accidental and these are perhaps easier to deal with or dispel when the weight of evidence is presented. In India for example, some people have interpreted the book as a self-help guide or a form of nationalistic road map. Deliberate misinterpretation is much harder to deal with and no matter the evidence that is thrown at the perpetrators of this, we are unlikely to be able to change their minds. However, we can reduce the power these people have by ensuring their audience is suitably skilled.

Knowledge gives people the power to question what is being told to them, it allows them to see where a speaker might have twisted or distorted facts and therefore avoid being duped or misled. If nothing else and the person is not an expert in that particular area, there is a good chance that their knowledge has provided them with the ability to spot connections and critique arguments which will again help them avoid being convinced by persuasive arguments.  The reason why Mein Kampf could be so spectacularly misinterpreted or used as a way to incite violence and anti-Semitism is not because students know too much, it is because they know too little.

The first Director General of the IB, Alec Peterson, has said, “What matters is not the absorption and regurgitation either of facts or of predigested interpretations of facts…but the development of powers of the mind or ways of thinking which can be applied to new situations and new presentations of facts as they arise”.[ii]  Whilst I agree, education should be more than the ‘regurgitation of facts’, you can’t have ‘thinking being applied to new situations’ without the knowledge or ‘facts’. Deep knowledge is vital if students are to get more than a simple understanding, an understanding that could be easily overridden by a skilled or passionate orator.

Laughing at Hitler?

In one of the interviews which forms part of “Publish or Burn”, a comic comments that laughing at Hitler is the best way to deal with his legacy and to make the subject matter more accessible. Similarly, Mel Brooks said in an interview with Der Spiegel in 2006 “by using the medium of comedy, we can try to rob Hitler of his posthumous power and myths.” Again, in a 2014 article from The Guardian, the question of the use of comedy to demystify Hitler and his legacy is explored.

One of the dangers of ‘laughing at Hitler’ mentioned in all three examples above is that it could trivialize the horrific impact this man and his writing has had on the 20th century and our consciousness. If we only have incomplete or inaccurate knowledge of what he and his followers did, this could be the consequence. It is therefore vital that ‘clear and accurate knowledge’ is accessible. Sometimes this means that it might be the “absorption and regurgitation either of facts or of predigested interpretations of facts” – but I think I can live with that as the alternative might be far worse.

Cheers.

[i] Taken from the BBC Radio 4 programme “Publish or Burn”,

[ii] IB MYP Principles into Practice’. May 2014. IBO. Pg 14.

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