Criticism in Context: Kenneth Burke's "The Rhetoric of Hitler's 'Battle'"

Garth Pauley, Calvin College


Many scholars are only familiar with the version of “The Rhetoric of Hitler’s ‘Battle’” reprinted in The Philosophy of Literary Form; the rich history of Kenneth Burke’s essay has been neglected.  “The Rhetoric of Hitler’s ‘Battle’” was situated in a particular historical context that deserves scholarly attention.  Burke formulated his analysis of Hitler’s book as a response to contemporary reviews of the unexpurgated translation of Mein Kampf, and he presented his essay before the Third American Writers’ Congress during the peak of a critical debate about fascist rhetoric.  By understanding the influence of contextual factors on Burke’s essay, scholars will have a fuller account of one of his most acclaimed works.

“The Rhetoric of Hitler’s ‘Battle’” has been heralded as one of Kenneth Burke’s greatest essays and as an exemplar of rhetorical criticism.  Burke’s analysis of Mein Kampf revealed that “the patterns of Hitler’s thought are a bastardized or caricatured version of religious thought” (Philosophy 199), and he exhorted critics to ward off a similar “crude and sinister distortion” in America (219).  Malcolm Cowley claims that Burke’s analysis was his “most brilliant” essay and one of the most “brilliant examples of the critic’s art” (“First Principle” 17).  William Rueckert argues that Burke’s analysis of Hitler’s book is a “masterly analysis” (Kenneth Burke 151) and “a paradigm of all Burke’s later work on the seductive, destructive inducements of ideological and political rhetoric” (“Field Guide” 18).  Several scholars have also emphasized the critical responsibility embodied in Burke’s essay.  Rueckert, for example, suggests that by exploring Burke’s analysis of Mein Kampf critics can better understand “the role of the critic and the function of criticism in a democratic society” (Encounters 122).  Grieg Henderson asserts that Burke’s essay “is an exemplary illustration of how literary criticism can perform a vital social and political role” (36). [1]

But apart from scholars’ admiration for the essay and emphasis on its role as an archetypal instance of critical responsibility, little has been written about Burke’s analysis of Mein Kampf.  A particularly glaring gap in the scholarly literature on Burke is the neglect of the historical context in which “The Rhetoric of Hitler’s ‘Battle’” was situated.  Burke himself opened the essay by placing it in response to a particular historical event: “The appearance of Mein Kampf in unexpurgated translation” (Philosophy 191).  The history of the essay itself has also been neglected: many readers are familiar only with the version reprinted in The Philosophy of Literary Form; in fact, Burke first published the essay in The Southern Review and presented it before the Third American Writers’ Congress in the summer of 1939. [2]  My goal in this essay is to fill in the gaps in the literature about Burke, to provide a fuller account of one of his most acclaimed works.  Given the importance of Burke’s essay and that it was formulated as a response to other discussions of Mein Kampf, it is worth looking carefully at the circumstances in which it was situated.  Since Burke presented his analysis at the Writers’ Congress during the peak of a critical debate about fascist rhetoric, it is important to examine the history of Burke’s presentation at the Congress.  The essay proceeds by: (1) examining Burke’s essay as a response to the contemporary reviews of the unexpurgated translations of Mein Kampf, published in 1939, (2) tracing the publication history of Burke’s analysis of Hitler’s “Battle”, thereby highlighting the critical essays that Burke responded to and was read against, and (3) discussing Burke’s presentation of his analysis at the Writers’ Congress in 1939.

Sacking the Vandals

“The Rhetoric of Hitler’s ‘Battle’” was situated in a particular historical context: the controversy surrounding the publication of two new translations of Mein Kampf in 1939.  Americans had only recently gained access to an unexpurgated version of Hitler’s book when Burke’s essay was published in July 1939.  Houghton Mifflin had published an abridged translation in 1933, but the book never lived up to the publisher’s expectations; by 1939 the book had sold only 15,000 copies (“‘Mein Kampf’ in Complete Translation” 2217).  The Houghton Mifflin edition, translated by E.T.S. Dugdale, compressed Hitler’s original 205,000 words into a 75,000 word volume.  Many reviewers dismissed the translation as a watered-down version of the original. [3]  The Nation boldly claimed that Dugdale’s abridgement presented a portrait of “a man who bears only a vague resemblance to the one originally portrayed in the autobiography” (Lore 515).

The Munich crisis in September 1938 aroused public interest in Hitler’s book; perhaps, many reasoned, the key to future Nazi policy lay buried in the pages of Mein Kampf (Barnes and Barnes 82; Krohn 137-38).  Several American publishing firms began to explore the possibility of printing an unexpurgated version to meet the demand.  Publishers Reynal & Hitchcock employed Helmut Ripperger at the New School for Social Research to translate Hitler’s book in September, while Stackpole & Sons put Mussey Barrow to work on a translation in December: both editions became available on the same date--February 28, 1939.  A widely-publicized legal battle preceded publication.  Reynal & Hitchcock had leased the American copyright to Mein Kampf from Houghton Mifflin and, therefore, sued Stackpole for copyright infringement.  Stackpole, however, claimed that Hitler had not been a citizen of any country at the time of copyright and hence was not protected by copyright law.  The book was public domain, Stackpole argued, and therefore Reynal & Hitchcock’s copyright was invalid.  This publication battle contributed to increased sales of Mein Kampf (“‘Mein Kampf’ Kampf” 182).  By early March, the Reynal & Hitchcock version alone had sold nearly 30,000 copies (Barnes and Barnes 107).

The publication of the two unexpurgated versions also led to a flood of book reviews.  Many reviewers simply filled their space by characterizing Hitler as delusional, insane, vulgar, and psychotic.  In the introduction to “The Rhetoric of Hitler’s ‘Battle,’” Burke positioned his essay against these “vandalistic” reviews of Hitler’s book:

The appearance of Mein Kampf in unexpurgated translation has called forth far too many vandalistic comments.  There are other ways of burning books than on the pyre--and the favorite method of the hasty reviewer is to deprive himself and his readers by inattention.  I maintain that it is thoroughly vandalistic for the reviewer to content himself with the mere inflicting of a few symbolic wounds upon this book and its author, of an intensity varying with the resources of the reviewer and the time at his disposal. (Philosophy 191)
Burke’s critique of vandalistic reviewers extended his discussion of the critic’s function and obligation in Attitudes Toward History.  There he called critics’ failure to analyze closely the documents of history “cultural vandalism,” and argued that critics had a “moral obligation” to apply their methods to those artifacts (214). “The Rhetoric of Hitler’s ‘Battle’” again emphasized the critic’s obligation.  Burke argued that Hitler had put “his cards face up on the table,” and exhorted critics to study Mein Kampf: “Let us, then, for God’s sake, examine them.  This book is the well of Nazi magic; crude magic, but effective.  A people trained in pragmatism should want to inspect this magic” (Philosophy 192).

The sheer volume of “vandalistic” book reviews that Burke indicted prevents an exhaustive study here.  A brief survey of the contemporary reviews of Mein Kampf, however, will reveal the type of commentary that Burke’s analysis attempted to counter.  Ludwig Lore described Mein Kampf as “an outpouring of willful perversion, clumsy forgery, vitriolic hatred and violent denunciation” (qtd. in Thompson 15).   James Green, a reviewer for The Saturday Review of Literature, claimed that the unexpurgated versions contained “all the torrential verbiage, the racial nonsense, the egocentric emotionalism, and the surpassing shrewdness that was lacking in the abbreviated version” (11).  Green claimed that Hitler was “Europe’s latest Napoleon” and condemned him as “the Machiavelli of our age” (11).  He also argued that Mein Kampf revealed Hitler’s “fanatical and frustrated idealism” (11).  The Spectator’s R.C.K. Ensor described Hitler’s book as “a vast rambling medley of autobiography, exposition, rant, argument, and prophecy” (491).  The Nation claimed that Mein Kampf reveals “the eerie pathological quality of the mind that rules Germany” (“France is the Enemy” 263).

Alfred Vagts and Miriam Beard of The New Republic claimed that Hitler’s book was characterized by “awkward and peculiar style” and plagued by a “mixture of bad sophomoric composition [and] stiff bureaucratic jargon” (171).  The Nation’s Frederick Schuman claimed that Mein Kampf “is devoid of intellectual content or any pretense of rationality” (323).  Schuman repeated a metaphor employed by several reviewers, [4] calling Hitler’s book the “Nazi Koran.”  He noted, however, that “Mein Kampf differs from most holy writ in that it is vicious, vulgar, and violent.  These qualities, however, are but a measure of that cultural degradation of which Hitlerism is the most complete contemporary expression” (323).  Schuman concluded his review by calling Mein Kampf an index of “Hitler’s neuroses and his sadistic drive toward omnipotence” (323).

Burke’s primary grievance against these “vandalistic” reviews was not that they denigrated Hitler and denounced his book, but rather that the reviewers only engaged in denigration and denouncement.  In doing so, book reviewers provided the public with what they wanted to hear about Mein Kampf rather than what they needed to hear.  Burke warned: “Hitler’s ‘Battle’ is exasperating, even nauseating; yet the fact remains: If the reviewer but knocks off a few adverse attitudinizings and calls it a day, with a guaranty in advance that his article will have a favorable reception among the decent members of our population, he is contributing more to our gratification than to our enlightenment” (Philosophy 191).  Here, Burke criticized reviewers for what he had labeled “cashing in” in Attitudes Toward History.  That is, the vandalistic reviewers of Mein Kampf drew upon their audience’s attitudes--the public’s desire to caricature Hitler--to ensure their own rhetorical success.  By “cashing in” on the historical situation, however, they did not equip their readers “to understand the full complexities of sociality” (Attitudes 93); that is, the reviewers did not explore the most important aspect of Mein Kampf, how Hitler was able to manipulate social consciousness for his purposes.

Many reviewers also emphasized that Nazi plans for world domination were disclosed in Hitler’s book.  Frederick Schuman, for example, claimed, “Most readers will doubtless peruse these pages in the hope of finding answers to the perennial question: What will Hitler do next?  They will not be disappointed, for the Leader follows his blueprint closely” (323).  Ira Williams, reviewer for The Saturday Evening Post, posed and answered a rhetorical question: “What is Adolf Hitler’s ultimate goal, and what sort of world does he intend to carve out for the future?  Fortunately he himself disclosed his plans for the future of Germany and the world in Mein Kampf” (23).  The March 4, 1939 issue of The Nation reprinted excerpts from the Reynal & Hitchcock translation of Mein Kampf in order to “throw light on Germany’s real intentions toward France” (“France Is the Enemy” 263).  The editors at The Nation claimed that Hitler’s book was important “in view of the remarkable degree to which the plans embodied in that volume have been carried out” (263).

Burke positioned “The Rhetoric of Hitler’s ‘Battle’” against these types of reviews, which only fueled a preexisting public interest in Hitler’s book as a blueprint for the future. [5]  He claimed, “Here is the testament of a man who swung a great people into his wake.  Let us watch it carefully; and let us watch it, not merely to discover some grounds for prophesying what political move is to follow Munich, and what move to follow that move, etc.” (Philosophy 191).  Although Mein Kampf may prove useful for predicting Hitler’s political moves, Burke suggested, it had far greater importance as the chronicle of a “crude magician” who effectively unified his nation.  If Hitler could bastardize “fundamentally religious patterns of thought” (219) for his own purposes, a similar hoax might be possible in America.  Burke’s goal, then, was to apply his critical methods “to discover what kind of ‘medicine’ this medicine-man has concocted, that we may know, with greater accuracy, exactly what to guard against, if we are to forestall the concocting of similar medicine in America” (191).

Publishing History

Burke’s essay clearly responded to the publishing controversy and the ensuing book reviews, but it is not clear when he actually wrote “The Rhetoric of Hitler’s ‘Battle.’”  For his quotes, Burke used the Reynal & Hitchcock unexpurgated translation, available on February 28, 1939, which suggests that he wrote the essay in March.  However, Burke was fluent in German-- he had translated several essays and pieces of fiction from the German during his tenure at The Dial—and may have begun the essay using the German edition of Mein Kampf, revising it upon the publication of the English translations.  Furthermore, Burke may have had access to the Reynal & Hitchcock volume before its publication; he was teaching at the New School for Social Research during its translation there in 1938.  If he did not begin the essay until the publication of the Reynal & Hitchcock translation, Burke wrote the article quickly: he first sent out “The Rhetoric of Hitler’s ‘Battle’” for possible publication in Harper’s magazine in March 1939.

Burke’s interest in publishing the essay in Harper’s seems to have been piqued by several articles on Hitler that had appeared in the periodical in the preceding months.  The December 1938 issue featured two essays on Hitler: Wilson Woodside’s “The Road to Munich” and Elmer Davis’s “The Road from Munich.”  Woodside’s article was primarily an indictment of British prime minister Neville Chamberlain’s negotiations at Munich.  He argued that British foreign policy was in a period of crisis, a state of transition, which explains the incredulity of the Munich agreement.  Woodside claimed that while British foreign policy was confused, Germany’s policy was crystal clear; it had already had been mapped out in Hitler’s Mein Kampf (34-35).  The fourth section of Woodside’s essay emphasized that the world should pay closer attention to Hitler’s book because it contains his plan for world domination.  Chamberlain “probably has not read Mein Kampf,”  Woodside claimed, which explains--in part--the outcome of Munich (34).

Davis’s essay also claimed that Hitler’s book is a clear outline of German foreign policy.  He called Mein Kampf “a preview of the history of Europe after Munich” (40).  Davis argued that the world must take Hitler more seriously and that Mein Kampf is a vehicle for understanding the Führer’s intentions.  Davis claimed that “certainly it is a bleak and hardboiled Weltanschauung that underlies the doctrines of Mein Kampf,” which is precisely why the book must be scrutinized: it reveals Hitler’s world view (41).  Hitler’s book, Davis claimed, also explains Germany’s policy toward Czechoslovakia: “As for the Czechs, it is clear from the early chapters of Mein Kampf that he has had a special hatred for them from boyhood” (41).  Davis suggested that the book also foreshadows the course of German territorial expansion in Europe: “How much land does Germany want?  No more after the Sudeten lands, said Hitler to Chamberlain; but . . . Mein Kampf insists that all Germans must be brought into the Reich, and there are still plenty of them outside” (45).  Henry Wolfe’s essay in the February 1939 issue of Harper’s echoed Davis’s claims.  Wolfe asserted that Hitler’s dream of world power was “moving from the pages of Mein Kampf to the realm of actuality” (253).

Burke’s essay was, in part, a response to the types of arguments published in Harper’s.  As noted previously, the introduction of Burke’s analysis of Mein Kampf positioned his thesis against claims about the predictive power of Hitler’s book, such as those made by Woodside, Davis, and Wolfe.  He argued that people should read Mein Kampf “not merely to discover some grounds for prophesying what political move is to follow Munich” (Philosophy 191).  Burke suggested that people who focused on Hitler’s future plans--as outlined in Mein Kampf--were misguided, for already Hitlerism’s “ominousness is clarified by its record to date” (219).  Rather, Burke claimed, Americans should focus on scrutinizing Hitler’s doctrine and “tracking down its equivalents in America” (219).

Publication of “The Rhetoric of Hitler’s ‘Battle’” in Harper’s would have put Burke in dialogue with those analyses of Nazism to which he was responding.  The editors at the magazine, however, decided not to publish his essay.  George Leighton sent a rejection letter to Burke on March 24, 1939:

I am sorry to say that we can’t use your piece on Hitler’s “Battle.”  God knows, I don’t imply duplication, but we are running Drucker’s “The End of Economic Man in Europe” in the May number and while the two pieces are completely unlike [sic] he nevertheless chews enough around the edges of this theme to make it desirable to let this ms. of yours go. (Leighton)

Peter Drucker’s essay did touch upon some of the same points as Burke’s analysis of Mein Kampf.  Like Burke, he claimed that Hitler was successful because he articulated a philosophy during a period when “the masses in Germany had reached a point where there was nothing left in which the individual could believe” (561).  Drucker also commented on Nazism’s attempt to translate an individual’s social rank, function, and satisfaction from economic to non-economic principles (567).  Unlike Burke, he did not acknowledge that the Nazis proclaimed economic success will follow from inborn dignity.  Drucker’s essay also suggested that the anti-Semitic principle of Nazism was misunderstood as a prevalent feeling of hostility toward the Jewish people, when in fact German anti-Semitism was a form of scapegoating (569).  The essay did not, however, acknowledge the unifying function of the scapegoat.  Finally, Drucker emphasized the importance of Hitler speaking as the one voice for all the German people (562), yet he explicitly denied the possibility of identification between the people and the Führer, as suggested in Burke’s analysis. [6]

After receiving the rejection notice from Harper’s, Burke promptly sent the manuscript to The Southern Review, which accepted the essay for publication in the summer edition.  Robert Penn Warren wrote the acceptance letter to Burke on March 29, 1939:

We do want to use “The Rhetoric of Hitler’s Battle,” probably in the summer issue.  But we hope that you can reduce it.  A sentence might come out here and there, as, for example, in the first paragraph or on page 22.  I am afraid that we shall have to dispense with the notes, enlightening as they are.  Our acceptance, of course, is not contingent upon the amount of reducing you can do, but any space saved for us now is a cause for rejoicing. (Warren)

Unlike Harper’s, The Southern Review had not regularly published essays on Hitler or Nazism.  The only recent articles that touched on the subject were I.F. Stone’s review of Jerome Frank’s plea for isolationism, Save America First, and Lindsay Roger’s “Munich: British Prestige and Democratic Statecraft,” in which he called Mein Kampf a statement of the Germans’ political aims “in their own words” (630). Burke’s essay can be read in tandem with Stone’s: both writers suggest, contrary to Frank, that the rise of fascism in Europe could be repeated in America. Burke may have chosen The Southern Review as an outlet simply because he had good fortune in publishing in the journal: his essay “The Virtues and Limitations of Debunking” had appeared in the Spring 1938 issue, and “Semantic and Poetic Meaning” was published in the Winter 1938 edition.  Joseph Montesi notes that the editors encouraged Burke and other critics “to develop their strategies and programs in the Review” (6). [7] Furthermore, Burke apparently believed that the journal paid it contributors well.  In a letter to Burke dated July 19, 1939, Edgar Johnson wrote: “I’ve just finished a chapter of my book that I think I might do for The Southern Review (of which I seem to recall your [sic] saying that they pay well)” (Johnson).

“The Rhetoric of Hitler’s ‘Battle’” first appeared in print in the July 1939 issue of The Southern Review. Burke’s article was reprinted almost immediately.  Even before its publication in journal form, publishers Scott, Foresman and Company asked permission to reprint Burke’s analysis of Mein Kampf in a book on contemporary literature and criticism. [8]  By the end of the summer, Burke’s essay was reprinted in This Generation: A Selection of British and American Literature from 1914 to the Present with Historical and Critical Essays. Burke’s article was also praised by several fellow writers.  I.F. Stone wrote to Burke on July 6, 1939: “I have long admired your work.  I can’t resist sending you a line to let you know how much I liked and enjoyed your analysis of Mein Kampf in the latest issue of The Southern Review.  You did a marvelous job” (Stone). Cleanth Brooks, Jr., a managing editor at The Southern Review, praised Burke’s essay in a letter dated August 8, 1939: “By the way, let me pay a personal tribute to your article on Hitler, which I thought was extremely good--indeed one of the best things of yours I have seen for some time” (Brooks).

A Congressional Hearing

After “The Rhetoric of Hitler’s ‘Battle’ was accepted for publication, Burke began to prepare his essay for presentation at the League of American Writers’ Third American Writers’ Congress, held in New York City on June 2-4, 1939.  Burke certainly hoped for a better response than the scandal generated by his presentation at the First Writers’ Congress in 1935. [9]  In the words of Armin Paul Frank, Burke’s address to the League had “aroused the solid indignation of many hard-core partisans” (24).  Burke’s speech, “Revolutionary Symbolism in America,” suggested that the Left should choose a symbol broad enough to encourage more people to identify with the movement: “The symbol I should plead for, as more basic, more of an ideal incentive, than that of the worker, is that of ‘the people.’ . . . It contains the ideal, the ultimate classless feature which the revolution would bring about--and for this reason seems richer as a symbol of allegiance” (89-90).  Burke’s presentation upset the Congress and generated accusations about his lack of loyalty to the movement (Heath 16).  Ironically, Friedrich Wolf, author of the anti-Nazi play Dr. Mamlock, equated Burke’s suggestion with Hitler’s propaganda; Wolf opposed using the term “the people” because it was the same symbol Hitler used as “a supplement to his blackjacks and machine guns” (Hart 168).

In spite of his past problems with the League, Burke was on the committee to draft the call for the Third Congress.  In a letter to Burke on April 11, League Executive Secretary Franklin Folsom asked Burke to draft a brief call “incorporating the best features” of the versions prepared by Malcolm Cowley, Harry Carlisle, and Henry Hart (Folsom).  The final version of the call included Burke’s primary suggestion, a focus on the term “democracy,” which he believed was the key concept underlying earlier drafts.  The call for the Congress also emphasized the importance of the international political climate to the community of writers:

The call to the Third American Writers’ Congress goes forth at a time when the world fears the outbreak of more invasions and wars.  We address ourselves to all professional writers who recognize the need to face the immediate problems--technical, cultural, and political--that confront them today, and warmly invite them to attend.  (“Call to the Third”)

Malcolm Cowley claimed that although more attention was given to purely literary matters than at previous Congresses, the international political situation was “an ominous background taken for granted” (“Notes” 192).  Writers were concerned about the rise of fascism in Europe and worried that it was spreading in the United States. [10]  Burke’s essay clearly fit into this historical context: he used his presentation on Mein Kampf as a vehicle to emphasize the writer’s role in heading off the fascist ideology that Hitlerian propaganda had been so effective in spreading.

A public session at Carnegie Hall on the evening of June 2 inaugurated the Third American Writers’ Congress.  This session featured speeches by writers Thomas Mann, Langston Hughes, Ralph Bates, and Sylvia Townsend Warner, journalist and Newspaper Guild founder Heywood Broun, and Eduard Benes, former president of Czechoslovakia.  Over 2,500 people attended the opening event (“Writers’ Congress” 78).  The remainder of the Congress centered around closed sessions on different literary arts held at the New School for Social Research.  For example, one session titled “Folklore and Folksay” included presentations by Hyde Partnow and B.A. Botkin, writers at the Folklore Department of the Federal Writers’ Project.  A session on the novel included presentations by writers Edwin Lanham, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Richard Wright, and Dashiell Hammett.  Langston Hughes and Alain Locke spoke at a session titled “The Negro in Fiction.” [11]  The closed sessions were a success: over 450 delegates attended the sessions, which Franklin Folsom called “a good deal more communal and friendly that the isolated writer of the past could have ever believed” (Folsom, Days of Anger 84, 86).  Malcolm Cowley called the Congress “the greatest achievement of the League of American writers” (“In Memoriam” 219).

On Sunday, June 4, Burke presented his paper at a closed session on “The Writer in Politics,” which included presentations by two of the editors of The New Masses--A.B. Magil and Joseph Freeman--and by Vincent Sheean, a journalist and future vice-president of the League.  Magil discussed fascist rhetoric in America, warning that its “anti-fascist pretense” was “its most potent rhetorical device” (qtd. in Stewart 144).  His presentation also emphasized the role that the writer must play in countering fascist rhetoric in America:

Let us not underestimate our enemies.  The fascists have shown themselves masters of the art of rousing the emotions of the common man.  True, they operate with counterfeit coin and have developed deception into a system and a science.  But this does not relieve us, the anti-fascists, the fighters for ‘democracy and more democracy,’ of the necessity of being at least equally skillful in appealing to the basic needs and desires of our fellowmen.  And we have the advantage that ours are the words of truth and freedom. (qtd. in Stewart 145)
Magil’s speech echoed many thoughts expressed earlier in his co-authored book (with Henry Stevens), The Peril of Fascism: The Crisis of American Democracy and in his pamphlet “The Truth about Father Coughlin,” which had a circulation of over 200,000. [12]

Burke presented his essay on Mein Kampf after Magil and was followed by Freeman’s historical analysis of democracy.  Ironically, Freeman had been one of Burke’s harshest critics at the First Writers’ Congress: Burke later recalled him as exclaiming, “We have a traitor among us!” following Burke’s speech in 1935 (qtd. in Yagoda 68).  Freeman’s speech at the Third Congress suggested that writers must understand history in order to stop the spread of fascism and to promote democracy.  He claimed: “The past has come alive again.  We must recall the good of the past because its greatest evils have been raised from the dead for a terrible moment.  Fascism has revived slavery; we must recall the great struggles of mankind for liberty” (qtd. in Stewart 149).  Freeman’s discussion of the history of democracy put writers at the front; he claimed that by examining the lives of writers like Byron, Shelley, Wordsworth, and Coleridge, contemporary writers could better understand “the relation of the writer to the central historic events of his age” (qtd. in Stewart 153).

Sheean’s speech addressed the role of the writer in the social revolution.  He claimed that writers must be involved in politics to the extent that their art will help “raise more and more of the submerged classes to the surface of life, to a share of its rewards . . . to a share of its desires and responsibilities” (qtd. in Stewart 159).  Sheean’s presentation was not a prescription for what proletarian literature should look like, but rather a motivational address.  His speech functioned epideictically: it praised contemporary writers for acknowledging their responsibility “to that brotherhood whose progress we wish to accelerate” (qtd. in Stewart 160-61) and placed blame on writers who “wish to work in seclusion for a limited number of their spiritual kind” (qtd. in Stewart 161).  Sheean ended his address with a writers’ “call to arms.”  Like Magil, he urged American writers to enlist in the struggle against fascism:

That struggle is one of the prime conditions of our lives; we know it will be long and that its course will be studded with failures as well as, sometimes, with victories.  But if what I have said earlier is true, the adult contemporary writers of this country have found their place and will not abandon it. (qtd. in Stewart 164)

Burke was the only presenter at the session to emphasize the role of the critic in fighting against fascist propaganda, with his own essay as an example.  He urged writers “to find all available ways of making the Hitlerite distortions of religion apparent, in order that politicians of his kind in America be unable to perform a similar swindle” (qtd. in Stewart 147). Burke’s presentation at the Congress also countered the League of American Writers’ attempt to prevent circulation of Hitler’s book.  Earlier in 1939, the Book-of-the-Month Club had circulated a new translation of Mein Kampf as a book dividend to its members.  A committee of the League of American Writers visited Harry Sherman, head of the Club, to attempt to persuade him to not circulate the book.  In his memoir of the League, Franklin Folsom notes, “We wanted to persuade him not to give Hitler’s anti-human words the kind of circulation Hitler wanted for them.  Our anti-Nazi zeal was such that we easily forgot that we were also anti-censorship.  We failed to persuade Sherman not to circulate Mein Kampf” (Days of Anger 73).  In contrast to the League’s strategy, Burke’s analysis of Hitler’s “Battle” emphasized that people must inspect Hitler’s words in order to prevent the rise of fascism in America.

Burke’s paper--a slightly abbreviated version of the essay that would appear in The Southern Review--was well received by members of the League. [13]  Magil, who read the essay before its presentation to the Congress claimed: “I found it enormously interesting--a really acute study of the methodology of fascist propaganda.  It should provoke real discussion. . . . The article is really an outstanding piece of critical work” (Magil).  Soon after the Congress, Franklin Folsom wrote to Burke to request a copy of the essay:

The work is already started on getting out a book about the Congress, and I found I neglected to get your paper from you. . . . I am even more eager to get a copy from you because I had to be out of the New School during most of the time you were reading and I have only been able to gather information about it from the many who praised it.” (Folsom)
The July/August 1939 issue of Direction claimed, “Kenneth Burke gave a ‘preview’ of his coming [essay] on Hitler’s Mein Kampf, brilliantly analyzing the Nazi blood-and-force system” (“Third American Writers Congress” 4).  Burke’s speech was among the few to appear (in abbreviated form) in the book about the Third Writers’ Congress--Fighting Words, edited by League president Donald Ogden Stewart and published by Harcourt Brace in 1940.

Ralph Ellison also praised Burke’s essay.  Ellison had attended the session on “The Writer in Politics,” and later acknowledged Burke’s presentation as a key influence on his development as a writer.  Burke and Ellison became close friends, and in a letter to Burke on November 23, 1945, Ellison wrote:

My real debt lies to you in the many things I’ve learned (and continue to learn) from your work. . . . That is a debt I shall never stop paying back and it begins back in the thirties when you read the rhetoric of “Hitler’s Battle” before the League of American Writers, at the New School (I believe you were the only speaker out of the whole group who was concerned with writing and politics, rather than writing as an excuse for politics--and that in a superficial manner). (Ellison)

Ellison also noted in the letter that he was “writing a novel now” [Invisible Man] and claimed that “if it is worthwhile it will be my most effective means of saying thanks.  Anything else seems to me inadequate.”


This essay has provided a historical account of one of Kenneth Burke’s most influential critical works.  By reading Burke’s article against the texts discussed in this essay, Burke scholars can gain a better perspective on “The Rhetoric of Hitler’s ‘Battle.’”  As a piece of rhetorical discourse itself, Burke’s analysis of Hitler’s book intervened into a particular historical moment.  Burke himself suggests that rhetorical acts participate in an “unending conversation” (Philosophy 110).  The intellectual conversation about Hitler and Mein Kampf had begun before Burke arrived at the parlor.  After listening for awhile and catching the tenor of the argument, Burke put in his oar.  By publishing his essay in The Southern Review, Burke participated in the critical dialogue about Hitler’s influence in Europe and offered a corrective to the vandalistic reviews of Mein Kampf.  Burke’s presentation of his analysis before the Third Writers’ Congress allowed him to participate in the intellectual conversation opposed to fascism when the League of American Writers was at the height of its influence (Gilbert 225).  The intellectual discussion about Hitler and Mein Kampf continued when Burke left, yet his intervention into that unending conversation provided scholars with an outstanding example of rhetorical criticism and a model of critical responsibility.

Works Cited

Aaron, Daniel.  Writers on the Left: Episodes in American Literary Communism.  New York:
            Harcourt, Brace and World, 1961.
Barnes, James J., and Patience P. Barnes.  Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” in Britain and America: A
            Publishing History, 1930-39.  Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1980.
Benet, William Rose.  “The Poetry Session.”  Saturday Review of Literature 10 Jun. 1939: 10-11.
“Blueprint of a Dictator.”  Collier’s 30 Apr. 1938: 78.
Brooks, Cleanth, Jr.  Letter to Kenneth Burke.  8 August 1939.  Kenneth Burke Papers.  Pattee
            Library, The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA.
Burke, Kenneth.  Attitudes Toward History.  3rd. ed.  Berkeley and Los Angeles: U of California
            P, 1984.
---.  The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action.  3rd ed.  Berkeley and Los
            Angeles: U of California P, 1973.
---.  “Revolutionary Symbolism in America.”  American Writers’ Congress.  Ed. Henry Hart.
            New York: International, 1935.  87-93.
“Call to the Third American Writers Congress.”  Direction 2.3 (1939): 1.
Cowley, Malcolm.  “A Critic’s First Principle.”  New Republic 14 Sep. 1953: 16-17.
---.  “In Memoriam.”  Rev. of Fighting Words, ed. David Ogden Stewart.  New Republic 12 Aug.
            1940: 219-20.
---.  “Notes on a Writers’ Congress.”  New Republic 21 Jun. 1939: 192-93.
Daly, Jim.  Letter to Kenneth Burke.  11 June 1939.  Kenneth Burke Papers.  Pattee Library, The
            Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA.
Davis, Elmer.  “The Road from Munich.”  Harper’s Dec. 1938: 40-48.
Drucker, Peter F.  “The End of Economic Man in Europe.”  Harper’s May 1939: 561-70.
Ellison, Ralph.  Letter to Kenneth Burke.  23 November 1945.  Kenneth Burke Papers.  Pattee
            Library, The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA.
Ensor, R.C.K.  “Hitler Unexpurgated.”  Rev. of Mein Kampf, by Adolf Hitler.  Spectator 24
            Mar. 1939: 491-92.
Folsom, Franklin.  Days of Anger, Days of Hope: A Memoir of the League of American Writers,
            1937-1942.  Niwot, CO: UP of Colorado, 1994.
---.  Letter to Kenneth Burke.  8 Jun. 1939.  Kenneth Burke Papers.  Pattee Library, The
            Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA.
---.  Letter to Kenneth Burke.  11 Apr. 1939.  Kenneth Burke Papers.  Pattee Library, The
            Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA.
“France is the Enemy: From the Unexpurgated ‘Mein Kampf’ of Adolf Hitler.”  Nation 4 Mar.
            1939: 263-65.
Frank, Armin Paul.  Kenneth Burke.  New York: Twayne, 1969.
Gilbert, James Burkhart.  Writers and Partisans: A History of Literary Radicalism in America.
            New York: John Wiley, 1968.
Green, James Frederick.  “Hitler Without Scissors.”  Rev. of Mein Kampf, by Adolf Hitler.
            Saturday Review of Literature 4 Mar. 1939: 11.
Guterman, Norbert.  Letter to Kenneth Burke.  28 Mar. 1939.  Kenneth Burke Papers.  Pattee
            Library, The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA.
Hart, Henry, ed.  American Writers’ Congress.  New York: International, 1935.
Heath, Robert L.  Realism and Relativism: A Perspective on Kenneth Burke.  Macon, GA: Mercer
            UP, 1986.
Henderson, Grieg.  Kenneth Burke: Literature and Language as Symbolic Action.  Athens and
            London: U of Georgia P, 1988.
Hochmuth, Marie.  “The Criticism of Rhetoric.”  A History and Criticism of American Public
            Address.  Ed. Marie Hochmuth.  Vol. 3.  New York: Russell & Russell, 1965.  1-23.
Hook, Sidney.  Letter.  Nation 27 May 1939: 626.
Jenkins, Virginia.  Letter to Kenneth Burke.  14 May 1939.  Kenneth Burke Papers.  Pattee
            Library, The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA.
Johnson, Edgar.  Letter to Kenneth Burke.  19 Jul. 1939.  Kenneth Burke Papers.  Pattee Library,
            The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA.
Josephson, Matthew.  “Making of a Demagogue.”  Rev. of My Battle, trans. E.T.S. Dugdale.
            Saturday Review of Literature.  28 Oct. 1933: 213-14.
Krohn, Claus-Dieter.  Intellectuals in Exile: Refugee Scholars and the New School for Social
            Research.  Trans. Rita Kimber and Robert Kimber.  Amherst: U of Massachusetts P,
Leighton, George.  Letter to Kenneth Burke.  24 Mar. 1939.  Kenneth Burke Papers.  Pattee
            Library, The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA.
Lentricchia, Frank.  Criticism and Social Change.  Chicago and London: U of Chicago P, 1983.
Louisiana State University.  The Southern Review: A Commemoration.  Baton Rouge: Louisiana
            State UP, 1980.
Lore, Ludwig.  “The Book of Adolf Hitler: A Diluted Version.”  Rev. of My Battle, trans. E.T.S.
            Dugdale.  Nation 1 Nov. 1933: 515-16.
Magil, A.B.  Letter to Kenneth Burke.  14 May 1939.  Kenneth Burke Papers.  Pattee Library,
            The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA.
“‘Mein Kampf’ Kampf.”  New Republic 22 Mar. 1939: 182.
“‘Mein Kampf’ Unfolds.”  Nation 19 Mar. 1939: 316-17.
Montesi, Albert Joseph.  “The Southern Review (1935-1942): A History and Evaluation.”  Diss.
            Pennsylvania State U, 1955.
Rogers, Lindsay.  “Munich: British Prestige and Democratic Statecraft.”  Southern Review 4
            (1939): 629-48.
Rudin, Harry R.  “Hitler’s Utopia.”  Review of My Battle, trans. E.T.S. Dugdale.  Yale Review
            23 (1933): 400-02.
Rueckert, William H.  Encounters with Kenneth Burke.  Urbana and Chicago: U of Illinois P,
---.  “A Field Guide to Kenneth Burke--1990.”  Extensions of the Burkeian System.  Ed. James
            W. Chesebro.  Tuscaloosa and London: U of Alabama P, 1993.  3-41.
---.  Kenneth Burke and the Drama of Human Relations.  2nd. ed.  Berkeley and Los Angeles: U
            of California P, 1982.
Schuman, Frederick L.  “Nazi Koran.”  Rev. of Mein Kampf, by Adolf Hitler.  Nation 18 Mar.
            1939: 323.
Smyth, Joseph Hilton.  “The Third Writers’ Congress.”  Saturday Review of Literature 10 Jun.
            1939: 10.
Stewart, David Ogden, ed.  Fighting Words.  New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1940.
Stone, I.F.  “Jerome Frank’s Dilemma.”  Rev. of Save America First, by Jerome Frank.  Southern
            Review 4 (1938): 209-26.
---.  Letter to Kenneth Burke.  6 Jul. 1939.  Kenneth Burke Papers.  Pattee Library, The
            Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA.
“Third American Writers Congress.”  Direction 2.4 (1939): 4-5.
Thompson, Ralph.  “Books of the Times.”  Rev. of Mein Kampf, by Adolf Hitler.  New York
            Times 28 Feb. 1939: 15.
Vagts, Alfred and Miriam Beard.  “The Brown Koran.”  Rev. of Mein Kampf, by Adolf Hitler.
            New Republic 15 Mar. 1939: 170-71.
Walton, Eda Lou.  Letter to Kenneth Burke.  9 May 1939.  Kenneth Burke Papers.  Pattee
            Library, The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA.
Warren, Robert Penn.  Letter to Kenneth Burke.  29 Mar. 1939.  Kenneth Burke Papers.  Pattee
            Library, The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA.
Williams, Ira Jewell, Jr.  “Blueprint for Hell.”  Rev. of Mein Kampf, by Adolf Hitler.  Saturday
            Evening Post 22 Apr. 1939: 23+.
Wolfe, Henry C.  “Before Hitler Crosses the Atlantic.”  Harper’s Feb. 1939: 253-59.
Woodside, Wilson.  “The Road to Munich.”  Harper’s Dec. 1938: 28-39.
“Writers’ Congress.”  Time 19 Jun. 1939: 78.
Yagoda, Ben.  “Kenneth Burke: The Greatest Literary Critic since Coleridge?”  Horizon 23
(1980): 66-69


  1. Marie Hochmuth also argues that “The Rhetoric of Hitler’s ‘Battle’” exemplifies the critic’s social responsibility: “He should be ready to alert a people, to warn what devices of exploitation are being exercised, by what skillful manipulation of motives men are being directed to or dissuaded from courses of action” (17).
  2. Burke later noted that it was at the suggestion of the editors at The Southern Review, where the essay first appeared, that he “put together for publication by the Louisiana State University Press the collection of essays and reviews: The Philosophy of Literary Form” (qtd. in Louisiana State University 11).  The version of “The Rhetoric of Hitler’s ‘Battle’” reprinted in The Philosophy of Literary Form  includes the footnotes that were excised for publication in The Southern Review.
  3. See, for example, Josephson 213-14, and Rudin 400-02.
  4. The New Republic referred to Hitler’s book as “The Brown Koran” (Vagts and Beard 170); The Saturday Evening Post called Mein Kampf “the official Koran for the German people” (Williams 23).
  5. The New Republic acknowledged this public sentiment its March 15, 1939 issue, claiming that the average reader “will be tempted to regard ‘Mein Kampf’ as a handy guide to Nazi actions, a blueprint for the future as well as a graph of the past” (Vagts and Beard 170).  This type of sentiment, however, preceded the issue of the unexpurgated translations.  Collier’s, for example, called Mein Kampf the “blueprint of a dictator” in its April 30, 1938, edition (“Blueprint of a Dictator” 78).  The Nation proclaimed, “‘Mein Kampf’ Unfolds,” in an essay that analyzed the European political situation (“‘Mein Kampf’ Unfolds” 316).
  6. In a letter to Burke on March 28, 1939, Norbert Guterman (who had translated Konrad Heiden’s 1936 Hitler: A Biography) praised “The Rhetoric of Hitler’s ‘Battle’” and expressed his surprise that Harper’s published Drucker’s essay and not Burke’s: “I think that your prospects are good and the corruptio pessimi optima [sic] idea quite timely and consoling. . . . It is quite strange that they [Harper’s] should run pieces on the ‘end of the economic man’ when he is just beginning” (Guterman).
  7. Montesi also notes that by 1939 there was a dearth of superior literary and critical journals: “The Dial and The Hound and Horn were dead; The Symposium had also folded . . . the Sewanee appeared inadequate” (5).
  8. On May 9, 1939, Eda Lou Walton wrote Burke, “Will you please write Scott, Foresman and Company . . . a note saying that you allow the use of your Hitler article for $50?  They require a personal statement” (Walton).  Virginia Jenkins--an editor at Scott, Foresman--wrote Burke on May 14, 1939: “We greatly appreciate your permission to reprint “The Rhetoric of Hitler’s Battle” (Jenkins).
  9. In a letter dated June 11, 1939, Jim Daly asked Burke about his presentation before the Third Congress: “What about the Writers’ Congress?  Did they bop you this time?” (Daly).  For an analysis of the controversy at the First Writers Congress, see Aaron, Writers on the Left 287-92, and Lentricchia 21-38.
  10. For example, the Committee for Cultural Freedom--a group comprised largely of members of the League--wrote a warning against American fascism in 1939.  The manifesto, published in the May 27, 1939, edition of The Nation, claimed, “Even in the United States its beginnings are all too evident in the emergence of local political dictators, the violation of civil rights, the alarming spread of phobias, of hatred directed against racial, religious, and political minorities.  Ominous shadows of war are gathering in our own land.  Behind them lurk dangers . . . to a free culture” (Hook 626).
  11. Descriptions of the closed sessions held at the Congress are contained in Smyth, “Third Writers’ Congress,” Benet, “The Poetry Session,” and “Third American Writers Congress.” Excerpts from several of the presentations are included in Stewart, Fighting Words.
  12. New Masses, 6 June 1939, p. 20.
  13. In a letter dated May 14, 1939, A.B. Magil suggested that Burke shorten his essay for presentation: “I suggest you consult Folsom about the length of your report.  My impression is that it is now too long” (Magil).  A comparison between the excerpts from Burke’s presentation at the Congress printed in David Ogden Stewart’s Fighting Words and the version printed in The Southern Review reveals some of the abridgement.