Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler’s memoir-cum-polemic, became a best-seller in Germany once the Nazi leader became dictator and made his book required reading for the entire nation. Today, the 700-page-long “dreary and often incomprehensible diatribe,” as one writer described it, retains a dark power.
With the copyright for the book due to expire at the end of 2015, a discussion is going on in the United States, Israel and especially Germany over what will come next. It pits those who want to suppress the book against those who want to carefully bring it into the daylight in order to strip it of its mystery.
“I don’t think it’s a dangerous book in general,” said Richard Breitman, an American University historian and co-author of FDR and the Jews. “In the United States, some academics assign it in courses. The book obviously has more resonance in Germany than outside it.”
Germany, ever sensitive to its role in the Holocaust, has an effective ban on Mein Kampf (My Struggle). The state of Bavaria, which took over Hitler’s copyright in 1945, has never authorized the book’s publication.
Once the copyright expires and the book goes into public domain, anyone can do anything they want with it – whether they are neo-Nazis, scholars or film producers. To get ahead of the situation, the Bavarian government in 2012 allocated 500,000 euros to the Institute for Contemporary History in Munich, where a five-scholar team went to work creating an annotated edition.
The goal of an annotated edition is to “encircle” Hitler’s anti-Semitic polemic and kill it with context.
“You need to surround it with as much knowledge, information, perspective and history, so it doesn’t stand alone,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of ADL, and a Holocaust survivor who supports the annotated edition.
Some of his fellow survivors disagree. After a meeting with Holocaust survivors in Israel last December, Bavaria’s premier, Horst Seehofer, canceled the project, according to reports. He later backpedaled. The state will allow the institute to keep its funding, but will withhold official recognition from the finished product.
The work is “fairly advanced,” according to Diedre Berger, director of AJC’s Ramer Institute for German-Jewish Relations in Berlin. She said the concerns that convinced Seehofer to abandon support for the project were homegrown, “particularly in south Bavaria where Hitler had a base. They feel a particular responsibility” to the threat that Mein Kampf poses, she said. “There is still very much a feeling that this book can endanger democracy.”
While Berger supports the annotated edition–“It’s an important reference work,” she said – she believes encircling has its limitations. “It would be naive to think it is easy to counter this propaganda. The name [Mein Kampf] remains powerful and resonates among anti-Semites.” She pointed to the influence of Hitler’s ideas in the Arab world and in Europe’s growing Muslim population and the brisk sales in Turkey once the book was published there.
“Books that are harder to find are disseminated less,” she said.
Hitler began writing Mein Kampf in 1924, while serving a prison sentence for an attempt to overthrow the German government.
“It is full of bombastic, hard-to-follow clauses, historical minutiae and tangled ideological threads, and both neo-Nazis and serious historians tend to avoid it,” Sally McGrane wrote in The New Yorker.
Nevertheless, the World Jewish Congress opposes even an annotated version. In a letter to The New York Times, WJC President Ronald Lauder wrote, “We must do everything we can to prevent the publication and mass distribution of Mein Kampf. We owe it to Hitler’s victims.”
“We need to be vigilant that this does not become a rallying point for Nazis,” added Menachem Rosensaft, the organization’s legal counsel.
Yet the annotated edition found support in Germany’s Jewish community. Writing last year on bbc.com, Stephan J. Kramer, then the general secretary of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, said the approach will “unmask” Mein Kampf as “an appeal to the lowest instincts of his readers, hate-mongering and intellectual primitivism.”
“I do not think German democracy will be endangered by new publications of Mein Kampf,” Kramer continued. “But handling Hitler’s book will be an important litmus test of German political maturity and of whether Holocaust education of the past 60 years has succeeded or failed.”
Mein Kampf is available all over the world – even in Germany, where the sale of Nazi-era editions is legal. And even if all those bound volumes disappeared tomorrow, there is still the Internet, where the electronic version this year became a best-seller.
In January, two versions were in the top 15 of iTunes books’ politics and current events section, ABC News reported. On Amazon, Mein Kampf hit number one in the propaganda and political psychology section category.
Commentators suggested that for the curious, carrying Hitler’s tome around on a Kindle is less embarrassing than toting the tome and having to explain why you were carrying Mein Kampf. While easy for anti-Semites, it’s also an easy way to satisfy a morbid curiosity.
That’s the power of Mein Kampf that Foxman wants to undercut by bringing it into the daylight. “If you make it a secret and it’s banned, you mystify it and make it bigger than it is.”
In an introduction to a 1999 English translation of Mein Kampf, Foxman wrote Jewish tradition suggests a dual approach to the work and the “discomfort and distaste” it evokes. Much as we might, “we should not let ourselves succumb” to the temptation to blot out Mein Kampf.
“‘Expunge the memory of Amalek from beneath the heavens,’ the Bible says, referring to one of Israel’s ancient enemies; but the verse itself spread the memory of those malicious people throughout the world and preserved it for all time,” he wrote. “Zakhor, we are taught, Remember – not just the victims but the evil that was done to them. Commit the evil to memory in order to reject it; reject the evil, but do not let yourself forget it. Zakhor, and so we keep the Nazi bible in print.”
SEE George Orwell’s 1940 review of Mein Kampf here