How many people are reading Mein Kampf in 2014?

According to Time and ABC News it has rocketed up the e-book charts - but are more people reading it now than six months ago? By turning Mein Kampf into a totem of evil, we only reinforce its dark glamour.

The Internet acts as a powerful echo chamber: Drop a pin and you would think a bomb had gone off. Earlier this month, the bombshell was the news that Mein Kampf had suddenly become a best-selling book. According to reports at Time, ABC News, Fox News, and many other news sites, a 99-cent e-book edition of Hitler’s tract was rocketing up the charts on Amazon and iTunes. Historians and Jewish spokesmen were called on for worried comments; comparisons were made to 50 Shades of Grey. It was enough to make you wonder if, next time you take a peek at someone’s Kindle on the subway, you’ll find them immersed in Hitler’s rants about the Treaty of Versailles. 

Look closely at the news reports, however, and it becomes clear that they weren’t actually reporting anything. They were all simply paraphrasing the same essay by Chris Faraone, which originally appeared on the website Vocativ. And Faraone’s evidence for the alleged surge in Mein Kampf sales is, at best, slender. “Kindle Fuhrer: Mein Kampf Tops Amazon Charts,” the headline shouts; but the chart in question turns out to be “Propaganda and Political Psychology,” where Mein Kampf is, as of this writing, number 2. This is a subsection of Amazon’s Politics and Government chart, which in turn is a subsection of the Politics and Social Sciences Chart.

How many actual sales does it take to move up a few notches on a sub-sub-section of Amazon? No one knows, since the ranking algorithm the bookseller uses is secret. But it’s clear that Mein Kampf is fairly deep into the “long tail” section of Amazon’s titles, where a handful of sales could significantly improve its ranking. (The 99-cent Kindle edition of the book is currently ranked 11,855 among all paid e-books.) Are we talking about a hundred downloads? Ten, which just happen to have come in a short period of time? Maybe less?

The picture is further complicated by the fact that Mein Kampf is easily available for free online. Neo-nazis can find it on Stormfront, while everyone else can find selections at Jewish Virtual Library; a complete facsimile of the 1941 English edition is hosted at archive.org. Interestingly, that edition, appearing not long before America entered the war against Hitler, lists on its cover not just the author and translator but ten “editorial sponsors.” These literary and academic worthies seemingly had nothing to do with the actual preparation of the book; their names are there strictly to reassure the reader. Even in 1941, the mephitic reputation ofMein Kampf made respectable people feel the need for official permission to pick up a copy.

How many people, then, are reading Mein Kampf in 2014? The answer is that it’s impossible to say, and there’s no real reason to think there are more now than there were six months or six years ago. Yes, the Internet makes it easy to find the book—just as it makes it easy to find hardcore pornography, snuff films, and videos of people eating excrement (remember 2 Girls 1 Cup?). It’s not news that the human imagination is drawn to the forbidden, or that the privacy of the computer screen allows us to violate all kinds of boundaries that remain sacrosanct in real life. Nor should we be surprised that there are people in the world who admire Hitler and hate Jews—after all, they tell us so themselves, all the time. (Just look at the comments section of any of the news reports about Mein Kampf.)

By turning Mein Kampf into a totem of evil, whose very title makes us start jumping at shadows, we only reinforce its dark glamour. At this point in history, no one is going to be converted to Nazism or anti-Semitism by reading Hitler. Indeed, given how execrably written the book is, it’s hard to imagine that many of the people who download Mein Kampf will actually finish it. Owning the book, physically or virtually, is a way of stating one’s politics, not of learning about politics. And since those politics are both hateful and, in the larger scheme of things, utterly marginal, the best thing for us to do with Mein Kampf is to go on ignoring it. Unless, of course, it ever becomes an actual best-seller—in which case we will have a lot worse problems to deal with than literary ones.

A wartime Mein Kampf on display in a Berlin exhibition. Photograph: Getty Images.
Picture: ANDRÉ CARRILHO
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Leader: Boris Johnson, a liar and a charlatan

The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. 

Boris Johnson is a liar, a charlatan and a narcissist. In 1988, when he was a reporter at the Times, he fabricated a quotation from his godfather, an eminent historian, which duly appeared in a news story on the front page. He was sacked. (We might pause here to acknowledge the advantage to a young journalist of having a godfather whose opinions were deemed worthy of appearing in a national newspaper.) Three decades later, his character has not improved.

On 17 September, Mr Johnson wrote a lengthy, hyperbolic article for the Daily Telegraph laying out his “vision” for Brexit – in terms calculated to provoke and undermine the Prime Minister (who was scheduled to give a speech on Brexit in Florence, Italy, as we went to press). Extracts of his “article”, which reads more like a speech, appeared while a terror suspect was on the loose and the country’s threat level was at “critical”, leading the Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, to remark: “On the day of a terror attack where Britons were maimed, just hours after the threat level is raised, our only thoughts should be on service.”

Three other facets of this story are noteworthy. First, the article was published alongside other pieces echoing and praising its conclusions, indicating that the Telegraph is now operating as a subsidiary of the Johnson for PM campaign. Second, Theresa May did not respond by immediately sacking her disloyal Foreign Secretary – a measure of how much the botched election campaign has weakened her authority. Finally, it is remarkable that Mr Johnson’s article repeated the most egregious – and most effective – lie of the EU referendum campaign. “Once we have settled our accounts, we will take back control of roughly £350m per week,” the Foreign Secretary claimed. “It would be a fine thing, as many of us have pointed out, if a lot of that money went on the NHS.”

This was the promise of Brexit laid out by the official Vote Leave team: we send £350m to Brussels, and after leaving the EU, that money can be spent on public services. Yet the £350m figure includes the rebate secured by Margaret Thatcher – so just under a third of the sum never leaves the country. Also, any plausible deal will involve paying significant amounts to the EU budget in return for continued participation in science and security agreements. To continue to invoke this figure is shameless. That is not a partisan sentiment: the head of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir David Norgrove, denounced Mr Johnson’s “clear misuse of official statistics”.

In the days that followed, the chief strategist of Vote Leave, Dominic Cummings – who, as Simon Heffer writes in this week's New Statesman, is widely suspected of involvement in Mr Johnson’s article – added his voice. Brexit was a “shambles” so far, he claimed, because of the ineptitude of the civil service and the government’s decision to invoke Article 50 before outlining its own detailed demands.

There is a fine Yiddish word to describe this – chutzpah. Mr Johnson, like all the other senior members of Vote Leave in parliament, voted to trigger Article 50 in March. If he and his allies had concerns about this process, the time to speak up was then.

It has been clear for some time that Mr Johnson has no ideological attachment to Brexit. (During the referendum campaign, he wrote articles arguing both the Leave and Remain case, before deciding which one to publish – in the Telegraph, naturally.) However, every day brings fresh evidence that he and his allies are not interested in the tough, detailed negotiations required for such an epic undertaking. They will brush aside any concerns about our readiness for such a huge challenge by insisting that Brexit would be a success if only they were in charge of it.

This is unlikely. Constant reports emerge of how lightly Mr Johnson treats his current role. At a summit aiming to tackle the grotesque humanitarian crisis in Yemen, he is said to have astounded diplomats by joking: “With friends like these, who needs Yemenis?” The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. By extension, he demeans our politics. 

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left