Books

The rhetorician and his neighbours
World of Books

The primacy of the word, what the Greek philosophers called logos, has been for many the only way in which both good and bad can be distinguished. Yet one has, in this day and this age, to doubt some whether this is always so.

Take these words – they are from a cradle Catholic, whose mind and imagination were filled with the aberrant lore of Catholics in Austria and Germany about many aspects of life and history; ideas which alas still circulate among so many wishful thinkers.

Wishing to explain his ideas, the writer, who would soon come to dominate the lives of countless millions around the world, wrote: “I know that fewer people are won over by the written word than by the spoken word, and the growth of every great Movement on earth is due to great speakers and not to great writers.”

Though the thought might be applied to Jesus, these are the words of Adolf Hitler, in the foreword to Mein Kampf (1925/26), his account of his political struggle to that date. it was written in jail after he was convicted after the failed Munich putsch.

This is a surprising sentiment in a way for a man who was writing what was to become a major ‘best seller’, whose book still sells remarkably well in Turkey, Pakistan, India and in the United States.  (Banned since 1945 in the Federal Republic of Germany until a recent date, it is now available there in a two-volume scholarly edition, published by the Institute of Contemporary History in January 2016, in which all the assertions made by the author are subjected to careful scrutiny and rebuttal.)

I see from my copy of the English edition, slightly abridged, that the book was first  published in London in October 1933 – Hitler had been elected Reichskanzler in January – that the this copy itself is from the 25th printing of November 1938. Some 92,000 copies in total, of just the British edition alone circulated in these islands. Though at 18 shillings the first edition was expensive, this is the mass-market, cheap edition.

So it cannot be said that Hitler’s aims were not clearly known to all who could read. He often spoke about the lying press, the conspiracies of “International Jewry”, and his intense loathing for Judaism – and for Christianity, especially the Catholic Church, which he believed was enfeebling the manhood of the Aryan race – are made clear from the very first pages.

Aside from international editions, in Germany itself after the National Socialists were elected by popular vote to put their views into operation, every couple on their marriage was presented by the state with a free copy.

Master speaker

Now Hitler was a master speaker. His powers enthralled the millions over the years who attended his rallies – like some modern politicians he saw the rally as the ideal form for a true leader. His powers can be detected even in the brief newsreel clips that are often show on TV, but which can be fully appreciate in Leni Riefenstahl’s remarkable film documentary Triumph of the Will (1935) – an instance of where the skills of a great artist were put into the service of a tyrant.

He was almost the inventor of the ‘big lie’ and ‘alternative facts’. Yeats, writing at the same period, claimed: “The rhetorician would deceive his neighbours, / the sentimentalist himself.” We are most of us, in Yeats’ sense, sentimentalists, who all too easily fall under the sway of powerful rhetoric.

The world is now beset by sentimental nationalists, who see some better country in the past that they wish to restore: “Make America great again.” The power of mass rally rhetoric is once again on display. We have before us another leader who believes he will change the world by mere spoken words rather than the laboured study of books. By the power of his words, too, he manages to throw the settled order into chaotic confusion, in the hope of rebuilding on the ruins.

But, as with those first readers  of Mein Kampf in the 1920s, we cannot say we have not been warned.