A Journal of the Plague Year 2022–chapter 250

The Great Dictator.

Sunday, January 23

The noted Norwegian memoirist Karl Ove Knausgaard must have known it was a provocation to entitle his magnum opus My Struggle. And that act alone must have made it all but inevitable that Knausgaard would at some point have to ruminate a bit about the writer who previously employed that title—Adolf Hitler, author of Mein Kampf. (At one point Knausgaard calls it “literature’s only unmentionable book”—so of course he mentions it.)

Knausgaard writes hugely long works and so I won’t apologize for only now catching up to him. The 1157-page Book Six of My Struggle was published in 2018.

But you would think it would be almost impossible to say anything new about Adolf Hitler, so much has been written about him. Nonetheless, Knausgaard has extracted some information from Mein Kampf and elsewhere that is novel, to me at least.

Did you know that Adolf Hitler was homeless for a time? That he was a battered child, being regularly beaten up by his terrifying pig of a father, Alois Hitler? (Alois was illegitimate and went by his mother’s name Schicklgruber for a time, finally adopting his stepfather’s name of Hiedler, which the authorities misspelled as Hitler.)

Did you know that Adolf had only one real friend, August Kubizek, with whom he roomed for a time in Vienna?

And that Adolf was paralyzingly shy around members of the opposite sex? For years, he carried a torch for one girl, writing poems to her and even drawing up plans for a house in which he imagined they would live. Yet Hitler never even approached her or members of her family…he could never bring himself to speak to her.

Knausgaard offers startling but provocative comparisons. In his late teens, Kubizek tells us in his book The Young Hitler I Knew, Hitler was not fixated on politics but was instead so enthralled by high culture—painting, architecture, Viennese opera, and the symphony—that he could talk of little else. In this, he resembled his Vienna contemporary Stephan Zweig and that future successful novelist’s gang of buddies.

Moreover, if Hitler was a failure at his chosen profession of painting, he was hardly alone. Vincent Van Gogh, Knausgaard reminds us, failed to sell even one painting during his lifetime and must have experienced his time on earth as a deeply painful rejection.

So in many ways, one must conclude, Hitler was nothing special–not even a special failure.

During the year 1909, the nineteen year old Hitler was evicted by his landlady, had no possessions, went hungry, and slept on park benches. But, like Van Gogh, he was too “headstrong” to give up his vision of becoming an artist.

Three-time rejection by the art school of his choice and the period of destitution surely played a role in the making of the Führer. Knausgaard compares some of the writing about poverty in Mein Kampf to the reflections of Karl Marx and Jack London. Like Marx, Hitler faulted capitalism. But where Marx focused on the problem of class exploitation, Hitler located the key problem in the ethnic conflicts that resulted from the growing number of immigrants converging on Vienna. “In the Greater Germanic Reich of which he dreamed, there would be no division between burgher and aristocrat, but between German and non-German,” Knausgaard writes.

And before long, there was World War I, and for Hitler, four years in the trenches. Out of that experience, Hitler constructed a mythology of heroism and war.

Dinner: The Italian rice dish risi e bisi, broccoli, and avocado salad.

Entertainment: More episodes of the British mystery series Vera.