On April 30, 1945, Adolf Hitler took his own life with a simultaneous bite into a cyanide pill and gunshot to the temple. The day before, he dictated his will from the dank confines of the Führerbunker, a concrete shelter buried some eight metres below the old Reich Chancellery, as Soviet forces encircled Berlin. What exactly happened next is still ﬁercely contested, but by most accounts, the bodies of Hitler and his wife, Eva Braun, were carried upstairs to the garden by SS devotees, doused in gasoline, and burned to pieces—then buried, then later unearthed, and then buried again in an unknown location, or perhaps just scattered to the wind.
Almost 65 years later to the day, the man and the totalitarian regime he established continue to fascinate us. In just the last few years, Mein Kampf (My Struggle), Hitler’s poorly written, 700-page magnum opus, “turgid, verbose, shapeless,” to borrow from Winston Churchill, has earned bestseller status in some unlikely markets: India, Turkey and the Palestinian territories. His paintings are fetching record-setting prices, and trade in anything the Third Reich leader touched, or might have touched, is thriving. In some cases, the fascination is trivial, even absurd, such as the “Nazi chic” clothing that has been popular in Asia: T-shirts with Hitler portraits and swastikas. In others, though, it is more pernicious: the 65 years that have passed since Hitler’s death have not dulled the allure of the Führer, or his ideology, for the now-burgeoning extreme right.
Take the lead-up to last Sunday’s national elections in Hungary, which saw the far-right Jobbik Magyarországért Mozgalom (Movement for a Better Hungary) rake in 16.7 per cent of the national vote. In just a few years, Jobbik has grown from almost nothing, winning over a disenchanted electorate with its stark anti-Semitic and anti-Roma rhetoric. Party ofﬁcials have been careful to dismiss any direct links to Nazism; anti-Semitism is masked in attacks on Israeli investors and hatred of the Roma is justiﬁed with talk of “gypsy crime.” But members of Jobbik’s paramilitary wing, the Magyar Gárda (Hungarian Guard), have not been so cautious. Neither have its supporters, who gathered by the Danube River last week to lash out at “Jewish pigs” and to unite in a common cry against foreigners on Hungarian soil: “They should leave!” Jobbik’s leaders, now at the helm of the opposition, are ready to take their country forward—away from all that “commotion over the Holocaust.”
Hasnain Kazim, a journalist of Pakistani and Indian origin who is based in Islamabad, shies away from revealing where he was born: Germany. But it’s hard to avoid; Kazim says people in Pakistan jump at any opportunity to talk with someone from Germany. “They say: ‘Wow! Cool! So you’re in favour of Hitler!’ ” It’s even worse, he says, when family comes to visit him in Pakistan’s bustling capital. The embarrassment might begin on the busy drive home from the airport. “You’ll ﬁnd cars with the Deutsches Kreuz, the German Cross. You’ll ﬁnd people with stickers on their car saying ‘I LIKE NAZI’ or ‘I LIKE HITLER.’ ” And then there’s the banter. “People start talking about Hitler [in a] friendly way,” Kazim explains. Even though “the people aren’t Nazis,” he says that Nazi imagery is ubiquitous in Pakistan’s large cities. It took some time away, and then a move back to Islamabad eight months ago, for it to really resonate: “I only realized now how many people like Hitler.”
Jonathan Solomon, a lawyer in Mumbai, says the same revelation struck him when he was browsing for books. “I was shocked to see that Mein Kampf is available in Indian bookstores, even in the prestigious bookstores. It was not 10 years ago.” Moreover, pirated copies of the book, in a country where a 22-year ban on Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses has still to be lifted, are available at street stalls. “It sells very well,” says P.M. Shenvi, manager of the Strand Book Stall in Mumbai. Today, publishers continue to churn out multiple reprints of Mein Kampf a year to meet what R.H. Sharma, an editor at Mumbai’s Jaico Publishing House, insists is a surging demand. In 2009, “we sold 10,000 copies over a six-month period in our Delhi shops,” Sharma has boasted.
Perhaps Solomon should not have been taken aback. In 2002, the English-language Times of India published a report showing that Indian college students found much to admire in the Führer: namely, his efﬁciency, military strength and nationalism. The newspaper asked 400 elite college students, “Who’s your favourite leader from history?” Hitler came in third, just behind Mahatma Gandhi. “Because he made Germany a superpower,” was one student’s response.
Of course, it’s not just India where Mein Kampf is topping the charts. In 2001, it became a hot item after being introduced in Bulgaria. Soon afterwards, an Arabic translation became the sixth best seller in the Palestinian territories, according to Agence France-Presse. (“National Socialism did not die with the death of its herald,” read its introduction.) Then, in 2005, the book took a top-seller spot in Turkey, selling over 100,000 copies in January and February alone—mostly, said publishers, to males between 18 and 30. And, it’s been ﬂying off Croatian shelves for years.
Not bad, for a badly written book. (“A boring tome that I have never been able to read,” Benito Mussolini, the Italian Fascist dictator, once jeered.) Hitler wrote Mein Kampf—part autobiography, part raving philosophical treatise—in 1923, while in jail for a failed plot to seize control of Munich. It eventually became the holy book of the German National Socialist Party.
Global sales ﬁgures are hard to estimate; the ofﬁcial rights to Mein Kampf are held by the German state of Bavaria, which bans it from being printed. In the U.S. and U.K., the rights were seized when Hitler was still alive, and are privately held today. Houghton Mifﬂin, the U.S. publisher, told Maclean’s that it sold 26,000 paperback copies in 2009. The U.K.’s Random House would not release its sales ﬁgures upon request. In many other countries, however, the situation is less controlled, and small publishers are apt to print Mein Kampf at will. Increasingly, they are feeding eager markets.
Ilhas Niaz, history professor at Islamabad’s Quaid-e-Azam University, says Hitler fares well in Pakistan in part because of a particularly Pakistani admiration for strong leaders. “The cult of personality is strong,” says Niaz. When “the current crisis cannot be met by any ordinary leader, people are looking into history for a charismatic ﬁgure.” Aurangzeb Nazir, a 24-year-old student in Islamabad, told Maclean’s, “Hitler united his nation and brought it from the brink of collapse to global prominence. That’s why we look up to him.” It’s certainly not a new phenomenon. One of Pakistan’s most beloved leaders, Zulﬁkar Ali Bhutto, also saw the 20th century’s most famous mass murderer as someone to emulate. “Bhutto had silver-bound copies of Mein Kampf in his library,” says Niaz. “He incorporated lines from Hitler’s speeches directly into his own oratory.”