Working at a portable typewriter in a small jail cell in 1924 and 1925, Adolf Hitler completed a 700-page manuscript. His National Socialist manifesto outlined his paranoiac description of a global Jewish conspiracy, and plans for annihilating Germany’s Jews once he came to power.
“Mein Kampf,” or “My Struggle,” became a bestseller in Germany after Hitler became chancellor less than a decade later; every newlywed couple in the country received a copy.
After Germany’s defeat in World War II and Hitler’s death, U.S. troops who occupied Munich seized the Nazis’ chief publishing house, and the book’s copyright passed to Bavaria’s regional government. Since then, Bavaria has zealously prevented the book’s publication in Germany.
Unlike the swastika and the Nazi salute, the sale and reading of “Mein Kampf” are not banned in Germany, but the book, subject to a 70-year copyright ban upon the death of an author, has remained largely a shadowy presence there, largely unread outside of neo-Nazi circles and university courses where it is studied in selected excerpts.
At the end of this year, the copyright ban on publication of “Mein Kampf” expires. For the first time in 70 years it will be openly available.
An academic institute in Munich is preparing an annotated edition of the book, packed with footnotes and explanations that will demystify Hitler’s words, putting Hitler’s claims into a historical context and pointing out contradictions and factual errors. The new edition, which is to come out early next year, will be expensive, out of financial range for most readers; it will be geared for use by researchers and university professors. In addition, Germany’s Federal Agency for Civic Education has indicated that it may create special materials for teachers in case neo-Nazis start distributing the book.
A French publishing house also plans to issue its own heavily footnoted edition of “Mein Kampf,” but some observers say the pending release of the book known as “the Nazi Bible” has the most resonance in Germany, which started World War II and coordinated the Final Solution that wiped out two-thirds of European Jewry.
Copies of “Mein Kampf” could be displayed in the windows of German bookstores within a year. “That’s the image one has to deal with,” said David Marwell, executive director of the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in Manhattan. “It could be shocking for German Jews to see. The issue is for people living in Germany.”
However, other academicians and Jewish leaders say the uncontested publication of “Mein Kampf” in Western countries for the first time in seven decades may be problematic for Jews elsewhere, outside of Germany; while “Mein Kampf” has remained available over the decades in libraries and antiquarian bookstores, it has also become a bestseller in many countries throughout the Muslim world, especially popular in India, Turkey and Russia.
Experts point to the growing incidence of global anti-Semitism, especially following Israel’s Operation Protective Edge against Hamas terrorists in Gaza last year, and greater acceptance of neo-Nazi parties in some European countries.
The impending open availability of a book that inspired a generation of Nazi enthusiasts raises many questions, which have special relevance on the eve of Yom HaShoah, the annual commemoration of the Holocaust that is marked on April 15: Will “Mein Kampf” in German bookstores be a danger? Will it fuel anti-Semitism? Will it disturb the country’s aging Holocaust survivors?
“I think there’s a valid concern that the copyright expiration of ‘Mein Kampf’ could contribute to making it more widely available to the public, especially though online and digital publishing,” said Anti-Defamation League National Director Abraham Foxman, pointing to “a sudden surge in digital downloads of e-book editions of Hitler’s manifesto” a year ago.
“Everyone, even a neo-Nazi group, will be able to republish the book,” said Foxman, a Holocaust survivor. “There is always the concern … that some people who are already infected with anti-Semitism will misuse the book in an attempt to glorify Hitler or reinforce their own warped views about Jews.”
Foxman said he endorses the publication of the forthcoming annotated edition. To complement that effort, the ADL has posted background information on “Mein Kampf” on its website and has contacted major booksellers in the U.S. about including information from ADL on their websites if the book is offered for sale.
However, law professor Thane Rosenbaum, a child of Holocaust survivors who often writes about Holocaust-related themes, said the publication of an annotated edition on ‘Mein Kampf” carries its own risk — it could offer anti-Semites the “imprimatur” of academic respectability. “On the basis of [scholarly] authority, they will be able to invoke the language of Hitler as well as his political theories.
“Any free society that is interested in human rights should be concerned,” Rosenbaum said.
Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, wrote in a letter to The New York Times that “We must do everything we can to prevent [its] publication. We owe it to Hitler’s victims.”
On the other hand, a wide range of German-Jewish leaders, at both the national and regional level, said they support the publication of an annotated edition of “Mein Kampf.”
Banning the book from being sold or published “gives it a status as something almost mythical,” said Michael Brenner, a professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Munich. The child of Holocaust survivors, he is an active member of the German-Jewish community in addition to teaching Jewish studies at American University in Washington. “I don’t see anything bad that a very serious institute will publish it. When you study the historical period in college, you should have this available.”
In 2012, Bavaria allocated 500,000 euros ($544,000) to the Munich-based Institute of Contemporary History, founded in 1949 to study the phenomenon of National Socialism, for a team of scholars to prepare the annotated edition. The Bavarian government was initially planning to publish the edition but decided against it after coming under attack by some scholars and politicians. But it has not withdrawn its money or support for the project. The Institute will publish the book.
Bavarian officials, after conversations with survivors, decided that it would be a mistake, for “diplomatic and human” reasons, to publish “Mein Kampf,” a government spokesmen told The Jewish Week in an email.
Edith Raim, a member of the Institute’s research team, said via email that “everybody with some common sense will understand that researchers/historians need to read Nazi texts for their research — it is … sensible to deal with [‘Mein Kampf’] in a scholarly fashion, showing the prejudices, the mistakes, the errors and the outright stupidity of some of Hitler’s arguments.
“I doubt whether it will once again become a bestseller,” Raim said. “Times have considerably changed since [the 1920-30s]. I doubt whether anti-Semites can make any use of the book for current purposes.”