Return of Mein Kampf

Many wish that Adolf Hitler's hate-filled manifesto would simply disappear


Many wish that Adolf Hitler's hate-filled manifesto, Mein Kampf, would simply disappear. However, with the book about to enter the public domain in Germany next year, the country is having to confront one of the most charged remnants of its Nazi past.

Since 1945, the state of Bavaria, which took over Hitler's estate after the US occupation, has, as the copyright holder, been able to prevent publication of the tome. But that control will cease when the copyright expires, 70 years after the author's death, on December 31.

The idea of anyone being able to publish their own German-language edition of Hitler's brutal text has, inevitably, provoked heated debate over how the situation should be handled, and whether it is appropriate, safe or moral for the dictator's self-mythologising and virulently antisemitic screed to go on sale in the cradle of the Third Reich.

Dr Charlotte Knobloch, president of the Jewish Community of Munich and Upper Bavaria, is in no doubt about what the book represents, or what should happen to it.

"Mein Kampf is the most evil antisemitic pamphlet ever published, and its repercussions were catastrophic," she says. "It was the handbook for the crime of the Nazis: the cold-blooded extermination of European Jews. This book needs to be locked away permanently." Knobloch acknowledges the book's availability on the internet means that total suppression is not possible. Even so, she believes that making it widely available in print would be a step too far.

Few read it as it was so badly written and endlessly boring

"It should not be published in Germany, the country on whose behalf this unprecedented crime was committed. Mein Kampf was and is Pandora's Box - once opened it's impossible to close it, and the evil escaping it will be impossible to trap again."

Concerned about the potential impact of raw copies flooding the market after the December deadline, the Bavarian government gave 500,000 euros to Munich's highly respected Institute for Contemporary History (IfZ) in 2012, to help fund a critical edition that will attempt to "defuse" Mein Kampf.

The good intentions of the state were not enough to satisfy everyone, and Bavaria's premier, Horst Seehofer, found himself under pressure to rethink its participation. Following a trip to Israel with Knobloch, he announced that he was withdrawing funding. More outcry followed, this time from supporters of the work.

Seehofer responded by withholding the government's approval, but left its money to be funneled into other IfZ research projects and replaced by funds from the institute's regular budget. IfZ will now publish the book independently.

Neil Gregor, a professor at the University of Southampton and the author of How to Read Hitler, as well as other books on the Nazi era, identifies two main fears fuelling the debate about re-publishing Mein Kampf: "The first is the obvious fear that the book will become an inspiration for the far-right once again. The second is that republication will send the wrong symbolic message about contemporary Germany's relationship to the Nazi past, that it may give the impression that the German state sees this as distant history, part of Germany's deep past, and no longer an issue in any meaningful contemporary way." Since neo-Nazis have long had access to Mein Kampf, he believes the first fear, while not unfounded, has been "overstated".

IfZ historian Dr Christian Hartmann likewise says he "wouldn't overrate the danger of Mein Kampf; the book is, in many ways, the product of a specific historical situation and many references are not understood any more. Nevertheless, the brutal antisemitism in Mein Kampf demands a decisive answer."

Hartmann, a member of the German-Israelite Society, says its edition will analyse this aspect of Hitler's ideology "very thoroughly".

As for what kind of message permitting republication would convey, Gregor says "one might argue it is a symbolic gesture, too - a gesture of faith in the strength of German democracy, an affirmation that [Mein Kampf] is part of a historical past to which Germany will not return."

The expiration of Bavaria's copyright will not remove all the barriers for would-be publishers of Mein Kampf. "Out of respect for the feelings of Holocaust survivors and their families," says Ludwig Unger, the press speaker for the Bavarian Ministry of Education and Science, "the state government will utilise the existing legal framework to prevent the inappropriate dissemination of Mein Kampf after December 31."

Reproducing the original text will qualify as Volksverhetzung, or "incitement of popular hatred", explains Knobloch. "Hence one doesn't have to fear a mass publication in Germany." What this means for the IfZ annotated edition, however, "remains unclear", she says.

Hartmann calls the situation "confusing". "But nevertheless, it can be taken for granted that an annotated edition that critically contrasts Hitler's propaganda and half-truths with historical facts is far from being anything like Volksverhetzung."

He believes that the decision to impose a block during the 1950s, '60s and '70s, when many more people who lived through the Third Reich were alive, was "good and clever". Today, though, the prohibition "seems to be an anachronism", he suggests. "In a world without taboos, this ongoing ban could cause the wrong curiosity."

Around 12 million copies of Mein Kampf were distributed, with all newlyweds receiving it as a wedding gift from the Nazi state from 1936. There is some dispute over whether many actually read it - Hartmann believes it was often set aside quickly, "because it is very theoretical, badly written and endlessly boring". But should those who did have been able to see what Hitler intended for the Jews? Is the book a blueprint for the Holocaust?

"Only partially," says Hartmann. "What is becoming evident is the fact that Hitler was a brutal and fanatical antisemite. But the scientific research, meanwhile, shows that it is still a long and sometimes meandering way to Auschwitz."

If all goes to plan, the IfZ edition of Mein Kampf will go on sale in Germany next January.

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