Hitler is long gone but "Mein Kampf" still haunts. Daniel Arizona considers an exhibition of artwork that uses the book as a canvas ...

When confronted with the crimes of a mass murderer, such as Adolf Hitler, detachment from reality is inevitable. We feel moral outrage when we hear that someone has killed someone else, but large scale slaughter is impossible to process. We lose our bearings. Wiping out millions of lives is simply incomprehensible. How does one begin to consider that much suffering?

The name Hitler, like that of Jesus Christ, has come to represent an absolute, well beyond the realm of humanity. Hitler and most of his followers are long dead, but "Mein Kampf" (“My Struggle”), his paranoid polemic about Germany’s racial supremacy and "the Jewish peril", lives on. The book is widely available in America and elsewhere, with more limited circulation in Europe, where pockets of racist extremism persist. Germany has banned the book since the second world war. On March 26th Russian authorities followed suit, to help curb the spread of far-right politics in the country.
Notre CombatIn 2005 Linda Ellia, a French painter and photographer, was understandably surprised when her young daughter brought home a copy of "Mein Kampf" from a friend’s house. A Sephardic Jew, Ellia had moved to Paris with her family in the 1960s to escape the increasingly violent anti-Semitism in Tunisia, where she was born.  Holding the Nazi diatribe in her hands, she felt uneasy. She realised she needed to deface it, to somehow make it her own. So Ellia covered a few pages with paintings and drawings, colonising Hitler’s provocative, hateful language and turning it into an interesting sort of art.
The effect was therapeutic, even cathartic, inspiring Ellia to share the experience with others. She began distributing pages of “Mein Kampf” to friends and strangers, professionals and amateurs, artists, writers, grown-ups and children, inviting all of them to change them into whatever way they saw fit. There were no rules, except that they return the altered pages to her. The results were so interesting, so moving, that she ended up including hundreds of people.  
This experiment in cultural bloodletting has since been published as a book, "Notre Combat", or Our Struggle” in English (“Mein Kampf” is “Mon Combat” in French). An accompanying exhibition of 600 of these pages, “Our Struggle: Responding to Mein Kampf”, is now on view at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco until June 8th.

These pages reveal an interesting range of reactions, from the snicker-inducingly puerile to the head-noddingly solemn. Hitler himself is often mocked, drawn wearing a dunce cap and panties with a yo-yo, or with a Pinocchio nose, or as a hydra or with crazy spiral eyes. Many of these pictures seem like doodles torn from an irreverent schoolboy’s notebook, as do the preponderant images of death. We see Hitler’s brush moustache made up of skeletons, or Hitler pulling the arm of a slot machine with skulls pouring out, or Hitler’s face superimposed over a skull. One page features a pen-and-ink sketch of Death on a pale horse with a sickle at the ready.

With all this macabre imagery competing for our attention, it is hard to feel shocked or moved. Yet much of it is refreshingly unexpected. Most exercises in Holocaust remembrance feature the usual sinister images of starving prisoners, barbed wire and the gate at Auschwitz-Birkenau, but few feature a page of “Mein Kampf” upon which each word of Hitler’s text has been carefully, delicately rendered into a small skull. Another especially powerful work sees a page of text covered with several pairs of reading glasses, grim souvenirs of the camps that also serve to magnify Hitler’s text (pictured above).  

Notre CombatThese sombre images and others like it are among the most intriguing. In other cases the text of “Mein Kampf” morphs into bars of troop movements, or the decorations on a general’s chest, or train tracks leading to the camps. Other designs include a storm cloud of bombers darkening the sky; a subway map of European domination; a river system of blood; a little girl holding tiny Nazi flags along a parade route; Einstein sticking out his tongue; Ann Frank’s image multiplied a la Warhol; a DNA double helix drawn over a page pertaining to the sterilization of “incurables”; or a bird’s eye view of rows of Hasidic Jews whose wide-brimmed black hats and prayer shawls become eyes staring out at the viewer with a mysterious and questioning look. On some pages a lock of hair or a gold tooth has been added, a silent reminder of the individual who once possessed them.

The work is inevitably uneven, given how many hands were involved. Yet one of the show’s greatest strengths is the panoply of styles, which act almost like a primer on modern art. The pieces reference Francis Bacon, Munch, Keith Haring, Picasso, Dali, Miro, Malevich, Lichtenstein, Rauschenberg, Richard Hamilton, R. Crumb and Anselm Kiefer, creating not only eye-grabbing visuals, but also reinforcing the role of art as a therapeutic outlet that has long crossed national and historical boundaries.  

This diversity of responses proves Linda Ellia’s insight. The pages of "Mein Kampf" make for an irresistible palimpsest, an inviting canvas for the anguished imagination. The Contemporary Jewish Museum, which organised this show, reminds us that while Hitler’s evil text can never be un-written, it is useful, perhaps even necessary, to transform each page to express something else.
Our Struggle: Responding to Mein Kampf at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco through June 15th
(Daniel Arizona is a writer based in California. His last piece for More Intelligent Life was about remembering Vic Chesnutt.)

Picture credit: From the project "Notre Combat" by Linda Ellia; Anais Eberspecher; Antonia Aimini; Joko; Courtesy of the Contemporary Jewish Museum.