The following is a feature article from the LARB Quarterly Journal: Spring 2015 edition. To pick up your copy of the Journal, become a member of the Los Angeles Review of Books or order a copy at amazon.com, indiebound.com, or b&n.com.
ON THE AFTERNOON of July 22, 2011, a young Norwegian named Anders Behring Breivik parked his white Volkswagen Crafter outside of the government building where the prime minister and other politicians kept their offices. The car was packed with a fertilizer bomb similar to the one Timothy McVeigh used to blow up the federal building in Oklahoma 16 years earlier. By the time Breivik’s bomb went off, leaving eight dead and many wounded and downtown Oslo looking like a war zone, the 32-year-old killer was in a cab on his way to the harbor. Dressed as a policeman and carrying a bag of semiautomatic firearms, he boarded a ferry to the small island of Utøya, roughly 40 kilometers northwest of the capital, where 600 teenagers, most of them children of members of Norway’s Labour Party, were enjoying a day at summer camp. In a little over an hour, 69 young men and women, most of them between the ages of 14 and 30, were indiscriminately gunned down in the shade of the island’s dense pine forest. When he could find no more people on the ground to shoot, Breivik began firing at those in the water attempting to escape.
On the same day that he carried out this massacre — the worst act of terror in Scandinavia since the Second World War — Breivik digitally distributed his 1,500-page manifesto 2083: A European Declaration of Independence, a hodgepodge of far-right zealotry decrying the “Islamization” of Europe, the crimes of “cultural Marxists,” and the weakening of traditional male values by feminists. Faced with these developments, Breivik called for “cruel methods of armed resistance” against the acquiescent, multiculturalist regimes of Western Europe, regimes he believed were guilty of permitting “genocide against the indigenous peoples of Europe” by Muslims. With pedantic zeal he offered other potential radicals detailed instructions on how to avoid government detection, how best to budget operations, and how to sustain ideological motivation. In some quarters it became known as Breivik’s Mein Kampf.
Indeed, Breivik believed in an ur-myth of humiliation, of having been egregiously wronged and betrayed by the governments of Europe. Along with 2083’s tone of inflamed self-righteousness, the killer’s indignation called to mind the young Adolf Hitler — even though Breivik dismissed the German Reichskanzler as “a traitor to the Germanic and all European tribes” and blamed Hitler for indirectly giving birth to the multiculturalist ideology that Breivik believed had come to define the welfare policies of postwar Europe. He even compared the Labour Party’s youth camp to the Hitlerjugend (Hitler Youth).
But as Karl Ove Knausgaard cautiously observed a year after the Utøya massacre, Breivik and Hitler both shared characteristics of the true fanatic: grandiose fantasies, low self-esteem, and extreme irascibility. “It has to do with the low image they have of themselves,” Knausgaard wrote in the Swedish broadsheet Dagens Nyheter. “A person who is nothing to himself must become something, it is his only chance.” (All translations from Knausgaard’s texts are my own.)
Like many people in Norway and throughout Scandinavia, Knausgaard became obsessed with the self that Breivik presented to the world in court and in his manifesto. Pointing out some of the traits Breivik and Hitler had in common, Knausgaard acknowledged that many of us have probably entertained grandiose fantasies of our own, particularly in adolescence, but that in most cases those fantasies have been caught up to and confronted by reality. “But what if,” Knausgaard asked, “this confrontation is impossible, if the future grandeur is all there is because a real, grounded-in-itself I does not exist?” — a question echoed by the philosopher Lars Svendsen (author of A Philosophy of Evil), who after reading 2083 in its entirety concluded, “there is no one at home in this text.”
In the weeks leading up to Breivik’s massacre, Knausgaard was completing “The Name and the Number,” a 500-page essay centered in part on the life and crimes of Adolf Hitler. The essay makes up half of the as-yet-untranslated My Struggle Book Six, and is an attempt to dismantle our conception of Hitler as evil incarnate, as a figure who somehow stands outside the realm of the human. Focusing on the Austrian’s childhood, adolescence, and adulthood roughly until 1933, Knausgaard shows us Hitler before he became Hitler, when he was just a bitter, self-taught, music-binging young man from the lower classes with delusions of grandeur; the son of a loving mother and a tough, abusive father; a young boy whose mother had lost three of her infant children before his birth — and one of them, Edmund, when he was five years old and Hitler just 10. Of course, none of this explains why Hitler later acted as he did; Knausgaard repeatedly emphasizes the many ways in which Hitler was merely typical of his time and even goes so far as to suggest that “Hitler’s youth resembles my own.” The young Adolf’s “desperate hunger for greatness, to rise above himself, his love for his mother, his hatred of his father, his use of art as a place for great emotions and self-annihilation [and] his difficulties connecting with other people, his anxiety of women and his exaltation of women, his longing for purity” are all qualities Knausgaard forthrightly recognizes in his youthful self. This deliberately provocative claim is designed to underline just how common and unremarkable Adolf Hitler once was — not to mention to demonstrate just how far beyond conventional norms Knausgaard himself is willing to venture to make his point.
Knausgaard’s attempt to get his readers to view Hitler as a mere human being may bring to mind the controversy surrounding Hannah Arendt’s publication of Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1963. Arendt’s insistence that Obersturmbannführer Adolf Eichmann (who attended the same secondary school in Linz as Hitler and whose achievements were similarly unimpressive before joining the Nazi Party) was “not Iago and not Macbeth,” but like Hitler a pretentious mediocrity who lacked imagination, inflamed a great many people who felt Arendt was letting Eichmann off the hook. But perhaps, all these years later, it’s possible to see just how far ahead of her time Arendt really was; by finding a way to think about the Nazi evil in a context that was neither monstrous nor demonic nor otherwise un-human, she took the first steps in thinking about Nazism in a morally challenging way. The hysterical and slanderous reactions to her book were a display of the unwillingness of readers to think seriously about the discrepancy between the “banality” of men like Eichmann and Hitler and the incomprehensible enormity of their acts. Nobody wanted to hear that a glorified office clerk who couldn’t stand the sight of blood facilitated the mass murder of 6 million people — for what is that office clerk if not disturbingly, recognizably human?
Ron Rosenbaum has argued that all attempts at explaining Hitler are fundamentally cultural self-portraits. “What we talk about when we talk about Hitler,” he writes, “is also who we are and who we are not.” Knausgaard’s comparison of his youth to Hitler’s is a way of adding moral weight to that distinction. Anyone can say, “Well, I am no Hitler,” but Knausgaard’s point is that refusing to acknowledge potential similarities between Hitler and ourselves is a way of making Hitler wholly unique, the fluke perversion in an otherwise stable pool of humanity. As extreme as the gap separating Hitler’s life from that of your average 21st-century Norwegian may be, we must not allow that gap to become a source of comfort or self-complacency, Knausgaard seems to warn.
The most intriguing parts of “The Name and the Number” therefore deal with Hitler’s formative years in Vienna and Munich, when he left behind his provincial home and family (both his parents were dead by then) and pursued a sub-bohemian life as an aspiring writer, architect, and painter in the vibrant capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire — a city in which the likes of Sigmund Freud, Stefan Zweig, Arnold Schoenberg, and Gustav Klimt hung about the cafés, hotels, art galleries, and opera houses. But the city’s glittering promise turned out to be a chimera and young Adolf a talentless hack; he was rejected from the Academy of Fine Arts at least twice and soon embarked on a vagrant existence sleeping on park benches and in the occasional shelter. “Hunger was then my faithful guard,” Hitler later wrote in Mein Kampf, “he was the only friend who never left me, who shared everything with me honestly.”
But even this very real hardship, Knausgaard explains, does not set Hitler apart from thousands of other young men at the time. “Hitler was not the only person in the Habsburg monarchy who had an authoritarian father and a loving mother, who had siblings that died and artistic dreams that led him to the metropolis,” he writes. Nor was he the only person who found those dreams unobtainable. Knausgaard draws an intriguing parallel to Knut Hamsun, and particularly to the nameless narrator of Hamsun’s autobiographical novel Hunger (1890). Like Hitler, Hamsun’s narrator lives hand to mouth in a big city, anonymous and alone, harboring dreams of becoming a writer while producing only short articles for newspapers — just as Hitler earned money painting postcards for tourists. “Hitler has the same self-confidence,” Knausgaard writes, “and something of the same febrile imagination.” The difference, of course, is that whereas Hamsun actually became a great artist, Hitler never did.
What Hitler lacked as a painter, and what Hamsun gained as a writer, was an intimacy with form. Hitler’s weakness as a painter is that he never found a way of expressing what was distinct about himself, or had the desire to go there in the first place, and perhaps that’s why he gave it up and merely used painting as a way of making money.
Hitler and Hamsun both despised the bourgeois culture that surrounded them, but unlike Hamsun, Hitler was never able to express his ideas about the world in artistic terms. “His aesthetic,” Knausgaard claims, “was on the contrary identical to the bourgeois, the preference for art that was beautiful, elegant, ideal.”
Knausgaard might have made a little more of Hamsun’s meeting with Hitler in 1943. (The octogenarian novelist, a vocal supporter of the Nazis, was later tried for treason in Norway.) Hitler had high expectations of the Nobel Prize–winning author’s visit to the Berghof residence in the Bavarian Alps, and expected to find in Hamsun a kind of artistic equal. “I feel, if not completely, then very deeply connected to you,” the führer told his guest, “since my life resembles yours in certain ways.” Alas, eager as he was to discuss literature and art, Hitler was gradually enraged by Hamsun’s stubborn insistence on discussing politics instead, particularly certain details concerning the German occupation of Norway, about which Hamsun showed no fear in confronting Hitler. The meeting was a total disaster. When the Norwegian novelist left, Hitler exclaimed that he never wanted anyone like that to set foot in Berghof ever again. Little did he know that Hamsun had in fact spared him the final insult: as he drove away from the meeting, he complained to his German interpreter that “the man doesn’t suit our country. He is … uncultured” (my emphasis).
Hitler, who saturated himself in culture, had little real feeling for it, and Knausgaard brilliantly charts this tension as the impressionable young Adolf stumbles around Vienna certain of greatness. These are the years that inspire so many “what ifs” in a researcher’s mind. Knausgaard quotes frequently (though not uncritically) from the memoirs of Hitler’s best (and only) boyhood friend, August Kubizek, and conveys the nuances and balances of their friendship, which, it seems, was genuine enough. There is something touching about the impoverished Hitler showing up at the Vienna train station to greet Kubizek, his great friend from Linz, who like himself had come to pursue his dreams of an artistic life. (Kubizek was accepted into the Vienna Conservatory.) Endearing himself to his friend’s parents, Hitler had convinced Kubizek senior that he owed it to his son’s talent to allow him to pursue his musical vocation in the metropolis, and, as late as 1944, the führer was still sending Kubizek’s mother presents on her birthday. But even the affectionate Kubizek was aware of an unsettling quality about his friend, something manic and grandiose. Hitler didn’t drink or socialize with anyone, had no sexual relations, didn’t masturbate, spoke for hours about all manner of grand ideas and ambitions, and was incapable of shrugging things off. He was deeply, rigidly serious.
I think Knausgaard is fascinated by Hitler’s years in Vienna because they are fateful but not fated; they are pregnant with the possibility of other choices. Perhaps there was still hope for the serious young Austrian, still a chance that he might have turned out differently, felt differently, or acted differently. Knausgaard is deeply critical of those historians who either cannot or simply refuse to see “a Hitler without victims,” as the scholar Alvin Rosenfeld famously put it. The British historian Ian Kershaw in particular is singled out for what Knausgaard says is an almost pathological bias toward everything Hitler said, thought, and did. Kershaw’s two-volume biography (Hubris and Nemesis, published in 1998 and 2000, respectively), Knausgaard writes, is
marred by the fact that it describes everything, and I mean everything, about Hitler as decidedly negative, even his childhood and adolescence, as though his entire life was overshadowed by what he would become and what he would do twenty years later, as though he somehow embodied an evil, or that evil was some kind of core inside him, something unchangeable and irreparable that explains why things turned out the way they did. This understanding of Hitler is immature, and it makes his books, which are regarded as the ultimate Hitler biography, almost unreadable.
For Knausgaard, Kershaw’s conception of Hitler is not only immature but also morally troubling. If Kershaw was unable to regard Hitler’s life as anything more than a prelude to his crimes, and Hitler as nothing more than the embodiment of unconditional evil, then he has failed us as a historian and a thinker, according to Knausgaard. In Kershaw’s view, the Holocaust becomes something Hitler did and was destined to do, and therefore not something we need feel any responsibility to investigate the root causes of. For Kershaw, as indeed for many other historians, Knausgaard writes, Hitler was never innocent. They condemn him as though “pointing out his innocence when he was 19 or 23, or pointing out some of his lifelong good qualities, somehow amounts to defending him. Actually it’s the other way round: only his innocence can give weight to his guilt.”
In Explaining Hitler, Ron Rosenbaum writes that denying Hitler the freedom to have acted differently, or reducing him to a vessel borne on the tide of history, is an “escape from responsibility” and only serves to distance the man from his actions. Perhaps it is unfair to take Kershaw to task for this; as Rosenbaum shows in his book, there are far more alarming abandonments of “negative capability” when it comes to the abundant tomes of Hitler studies. But, on the other hand, one might fairly expect more nuance and open-mindedness, as Knausgaard clearly does, from a historian with Kershaw’s credentials, and in particular when the subject is one of the most universally loathed individuals in recorded history. You might even say that because Hitler is so broadly despised, so clearly guilty of inexplicably evil acts, the impetus to refrain from judging him before the crime is greater because it is so tempting. “In the night of the pathological and the presupposed,” Knausgaard writes, “there is no free will, and without free will there is no guilt.”
If any single event might be isolated and held accountable for pushing Hitler onto a resolute and single-minded path, it is his experience on the front lines in World War I. Knausgaard rightly claims that it is impossible to understand Hitler without also understanding this. “In the fall of 1914 a human life was worth infinitely less than it had been in the fall of 1913,” he writes. The last war fought on European soil, in 1871, had claimed about 150,000 lives. By 1918, World War I had claimed more than a hundred times that number. The psychological fallout of industrialized slaughter on such an unprecedented scale is difficult now to imagine. Before the war, as Paul Fussell caustically remarks in The Great War and Modern Memory, people “had known so little of debris that they still put an acute accent over the e.” By the time the magnitude of the human loss might reasonably have been reckoned with, the world was already bogged down in a bloodier, more expansive war that would claim twice as many lives.
Whereas for many people World War I put to bed the 19th century’s decayed myth of rationalistic progress and exposed instead the underbelly of industrialization (the reduction of the human to numbers and statistics en masse), for Hitler the war was imbued with another kind of meaning. “The war became a home for him,” Knausgaard writes, “he didn’t take his leave until after two years in the trenches, not because he wasn’t permitted to, but because he didn’t want to.” As a Meldegänger, or dispatch runner, the young corporal delivered messages between the command post and the front lines. According to Timothy W. Ryback, author of Hitler’s Private Library, “the work could be perilous in the extreme. When shelling disrupted telephone lines, runners were forced to dart amid flying shrapnel while most soldiers huddled in underground bunkers.” Indeed, Hitler was wounded twice: once when a shell exploded and a piece of shrapnel lodged itself in his thigh, and a second time when a mustard gas attack left him temporarily blinded. By the time Germany capitulated in October 1918, Hitler was still recuperating at the military hospital in Pasewalk; he claimed to have been so incensed by the news that he went blind a second time. “The Hitler we know today,” says Knausgaard, “was created by the First World War.”
It might even be said that Hitler never truly returned from the war. Unlike many other soldiers, he had nothing to come home to. His surviving family — his younger sister and his older half-siblings — were not mentioned in his enlistment papers in 1914. The war truly was his home: he lived out the rest of his life in the ruins of old Germany’s betrayal of the German people, their humiliation by the Allied powers, and their suffering at the hands of capitalists and Marxists alike. It isn’t a coincidence that Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph des Willens opens with the words, “Twenty years after the outbreak of the World War, 16 years after the start of the German suffering […].”
But the journey from embittered ex-soldier to Chancellor of the Third Reich cannot be explained by anger or disillusionment at the humiliating circumstances of Germany’s defeat in the war. Being a novelist and not a historian, Knausgaard is less interested in the political intrigues and apocalyptic blunders of the German Weimar politics that helped pave the way for Hitler than he is in the contradictions and complexities of the man himself. The fact that Hitler was able to achieve his goal of waging a new war to complete the old one, Knausgaard writes, nearly defies belief when you consider his meager circumstances in the fall of 1918. That a man who “didn’t even know his own feelings, other than something that washes through him and blinds or darkens his soul and being, will be the king of Germany’s feelings,” writes Knausgaard, is a historical paradox of near-epic proportions.
Knausgaard chronicles Hitler’s discovery of his oratory skills, his carefully rehearsed gestures and his “almost hypnotic charisma” — the qualities that allowed him to draw thousands of spectators to political rallies and fill beer halls to the brim. And like virtually everyone before him, Knausgaard balks at the mysterious control that Hitler is able to exert on a crowd — even on people who didn’t take his ideas seriously. “Oh, it is the longing for fellowship,” Knausgaard argues, “the longing for equality, the longing to belong.” Hitler’s hatred of Jews, which had not played a significant role in his life before the war, was intensified by the traditional anti-Jewish prejudice of the lower classes and the racist pseudoscience then advancing in intellectual circles — a paranoid confluence of mythology and modernity. The orator Hitler also took notice, of course, that the anti-Semitic portions of his speeches seemed to galvanize his audiences as nothing else did.
Hitler was clearly a damaged person, Knausgaard writes, and the most damaged thing about him was his inability to get close to other people, to form friendships or relationships of an intimate kind. His emotional life was a mystery even to himself, let alone anyone who came into contact with him. In his youth, he had attempted to surmount this void in himself in the way that many other like-minded young men had done: by turning to art. But he had failed; he either wasn’t smart enough, or he wasn’t strong enough, or he wasn’t committed enough to be able to withstand the kind of criticism every budding artist must, and he remained unfulfilled until the war in 1914. When that, too, was taken from him, he found a way of continuing the war by other means: speeches, provocations, bar fights, storm troopers, uniforms, and violence. Yet Hitler’s enormous appeal, Knausgaard writes, the fact that he was able to mobilize millions of people and convince them of the necessity of war and the extermination of millions of other people, remains inexplicable to us. We cannot sufficiently fathom the
flame he kindled in all the people who listened to him, the enormous unifying powers he had, in which his entire reservoir of bottled-up emotions and repressed desire was given an outlet and filled everything he said with so much intensity and conviction that it made you want to be there, in the hatred on the one hand, hope and utopia on the other, and the glittering, almost holy future within reach if only they would follow him and his words.
The German writer Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen wrote in his diary in 1936 that Hitler’s ascendance “coincided in time with the bursting of an abscess by a nation, and came as the embodiment of all the dark and generally well-curbed desires of the masses.” Knausgaard acknowledges this — acknowledges Hitler as the Great Simplifier in whom the disillusioned German people saw their own inner turmoil reflected and crystallized. If you took away his complacent audience, Knausgaard writes, Hitler would just have been “a lonely, failed man with an unjustifiably high opinion of himself.” Without his audience, Hitler would have been like Joseph Conrad’s indignant Professor in The Secret Agent, who walks around London with a bomb strapped to himself but secretly fears that terror alone will not shake the masses. “What if nothing could move them?” he wonders. Somewhere along the way Hitler discovered the answer to that question, or the answer was offered to him in the form of historical circumstance. For there is even a sense in which the masses themselves evoked the qualities they were attracted to in Hitler: a weird, destructive symbiosis between individual and nation.
Still, if we cannot adequately locate Hitler in the ecstasies his speeches provoked and into which he himself disappeared, then perhaps we can pursue him in a medium in which he was far less comfortable, and therefore more revealing. This is more or less what Knausgaard hits on in his examination of Mein Kampf — a book almost universally panned on its publication in 1925 and 1926, written in what Thomas Mann called “a truly pathetic style,” and which the Frankfurter Zeitung considered to mark the end of Hitler’s political career.
Knausgaard argues that what makes Mein Kampf stand apart from other books of its time, particularly books whose ideas can be distasteful or offensive (such as the work of Carl Schmitt or Ernst Jünger, or even parts of Walter Benjamin), is that it has no style — no awareness of itself. Its opinions and claims cannot be argued with because they do not seek any legitimacy beyond themselves. If Hitler had studied philosophy somewhere, Knausgaard speculates, he might have been able to articulate his ideas in a different context, a context open to discussion and analysis. He writes: “Hitler’s I lacks a you — it is unaccountable, and therefore, at its most extreme, immoral; free of morality.”
Language, he goes on, “is a social activity; all language requires an I and a you, which together constitute a we.” What Knausgaard discovers in Mein Kampf, however, is the total absence of a “you.” This distance weakens Hitler’s “I,” his sense of self, which is dependent on the gaze of others. Self-awareness means the ability to look at oneself from an exterior perspective, from the point of view of someone else. Failing to do this means that one’s “I” becomes isolated, and this in turn means that “the understanding and experience of others occurs outside it — that is, without empathy, without involving one’s self, which is really the first and only condition of empathy.”
To put it differently, Hitler lacked imagination; he could not bridge the distance between himself and other people, and therefore he could not see himself in the eyes of others. His self-identity was unmoored, allowing it to become occluded by the phantom “we” — the German Volk — to whom Hitler addressed himself. This is the decisive abyss in his personality — the prerequisite for his ability to orchestrate the single most efficient and calculated genocide in human history. “What enabled the atrocities of the Third Reich,” Knausgaard explains, “was a strengthening of the we, and the weakening of the I that this entailed reduced the resistance toward the gradual dehumanization and exclusion of the non-we, that is to say the Jews, which thus strengthened the we further.”
The Nazi’s dehumanization of Jews was rooted in language, but it was also born of a large-scale dehumanization brought on by the extreme social transformations of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The momentous changes in human relationships that occurred in the wake of industrialization, Knausgaard argues, radically compromised society and revealed it to be both changeable and arbitrary. The utopian visions of Fascism and Communism grew out of this transformation; they offered an alternative foundation to the one dissolved by the rapid growth of industrialization, the waning influence of religion, the age of the biological worldview, and the explosion of the global population. Knausgaard views this as a crisis of the Western world in which an immense detachment and distancing of the human was able to expand — a distance that reached its most extreme manifestation in the concentration camps of the Second World War, and in the nameless, abstract number of the 6 million who died there, not to mention the mobile killing units and ghettos.
“Humanity does not exist as an abstract entity,” Knausgaard argues, “it exists only as the quantity of individual human beings.” This is what all ideology, which abhors human diversity, is designed to negate. For Knausgaard it is what gives literature purpose and meaning. Fiction is bound by human relationships, he writes. “The novel is the literary form of the social, it is concerned with human relationships and the way in which the reality that we constitute and which surrounds us is communicated.”
"The Name and the Number,” as I mentioned earlier, runs to more than 500 pages; beyond its Hitlerian nucleus, it is also concerned with Paul Celan’s poems, the prose of the Bible, the history of the modern novel, and the possibility of the sublime in the modern world — all of which I’m unable to do full justice to here. What I will say, however, is that it’s one of the most eccentric and fascinating texts I’ve ever read, and a dizzying immersion into the mind not of a historian or theologian or philosopher, but the idiosyncratic mind of a novelist. This is a central distinction because one of the many things I felt quite strongly as I emerged dizzily from the transfixed state in which I read the essay was that I had just encountered the strangest and most profound defense of the novelist’s art.
This concern with the challenges to empathy — Knausgaard’s urge to resist allowing an individual name to dissolve into an abstract number — is what gives the entire My Struggle project its moral efficacy. Far from being an inflated exercise in literary narcissism, My Struggle tries to bring us as close to another human being as we can possibly get — that is, to Knausgaard himself. “The Name and the Number” is a defense of this perspective, of what we might call the literary vision. Early in the essay, Knausgaard writes: “To read a novel after listening to Bach’s cello sonatas is like going from a sunset down into the basement. The novel is the small life’s form; when it isn’t, it’s either lying or it isn’t a true novel, for there is no such thing as an I that isn’t also small.”
Knausgaard’s portrait of the small man that was Adolf Hitler, like his portrait of himself, is an experiment in the radical empathy of literature. The most extreme logical consequence of “I am you,” writes Knausgaard, is that Hitler is the same as the Jews he killed, the same as you and me. “Hitler is our opposite. But in terms of what he did, not in terms of who he was. In that respect he was like us.”
It is probably inevitable that Knausgaard will come under fire for humanizing Hitler to such an exhausting degree, even though his portrait is unflinchingly clear about Hitler’s crimes and cruelty. What Knausgaard challenges is the illusion that we are somehow radically different from the Nazis or the German population that enabled and supported them (an “us” versus a “them”). He reminds us that the Hitler who consigned six million Jews to their death and started a war that claimed the lives of more than 60 million people is the same man who, on his 56th birthday, just 10 days before he put a bullet in his head, emerged from his bunker into a daylight half-obscured by Soviet artillery to pin a few medals on a group of Hitlerjugend. Hitler’s acts were monstrous, but he was nevertheless human.
Knausgaard writes that James Joyce’s Ulysses is a sort of anti–Mein Kampf, and clearly he intended My Struggle to aspire to be something similar. But perhaps he has gone even further by usurping not just the title of Hitler’s book, but the events and circumstances of his life as well. By toppling the fallible human being that was Adolf Hitler from the mythological pedestal he has occupied for more than half a century, Knausgaard has confined a man whose entire existence was lived out in images and music and gestures and speech to the nuances and doubts, the slippery, ambiguous textures of literature — the very qualities that Hitler resisted most. What better fate to condemn him to?
Morten Høi Jensen is a writer from Copenhagen, Denmark. He has contributed to Bookforum, Salon, and The Millions, among others.