Mein Kampf publication – the best way to destroy Hitler’s hateful legacy

A toxic text – but we can learn from it… Adam Jones/flickr, CC BY-SA

The Institute for Contemporary History in Munich plans to publish an annotated version of Mein Kampf in 2016; the main idea being that a critical edition of the book should be available to counter the anticipated reprint of it by neo-Nazis.

For 70 years, reprinting Mein Kampf has been illegal in Germany. However, the copyright, which is owned by the Bavarian government – and is used to enforce the law – expires this year. From 2016, anyone can reprint it.

This new annotated version was initially supported and funded by the Bavarian government, but then in January 2014 it withdrew its support. The reason the Bavarian governor cited was that he had met with Holocaust survivors on a trip to Israel and they pleaded with him not to allow the publication. Yet there is debate among both historians and survivors whether this is the best position to take.

A question of guilt

Why is this book still seen as toxic by so many? The most obvious reason is that it is written by Hitler and is seen as an artefact of his dreadful legacy. But it can also play a valuable, positive role in ensuring that Hitler and the Nazi party are remembered for what they really were – monstrosities – at a time when some continue to hold them in a strange kind of reverence.

After the debates in the 1990s over the Goldhagen book, the exhibition about the crimes of the Wehrmacht and the Holocaust memorial, by the end of that decade public opinion in Germany came around to the conclusion that Germany’s guilt must be accepted unequivocally and that the minute documentation of the country’s Nazi past is paramount. As a matter of fact, the current discussion about the reprint of Mein Kampf hasn’t created so much of a general, public debate, but seems to be taking place mainly between academics, the Bavarian government and some of the Holocaust survivor groups.

Hitler wrote Mein Kampf in two volumes: the first while incarcerated at Landsberg prison in 1924 after his failed coup attempt in November 1923, and the second after his release in early 1925. Both volumes are a rather crude mix of autobiography – and a quite glossy version at that – and Nazi party political manifesto. During the Third Reich, as you would expect, it became a best-seller – on average, every household had a copy and it was also school reading material.

Maybe the taboo and embarrassment in post-war Germany was due to this circumstance – that the stereotypical excuse, “we didn’t know about the atrocities” could be easily called into question simply based on the distribution of Mein Kampf being so widespread.

Mein Kampf given as wedding present, Germany. Agence de presse Meurisse‏, via Wikimedia

A window into Hitler’s mind?

Hitler does not hold back in the book and lays out a lot of his plans. For example, he – like others on the German right-wing post-1918 – blames the defeat in World War I on a lack of determination among German soldiers which had been caused by Marxist agitators (who, in his view, were agents in a Jewish conspiracy).

He consequently states: “At the front a man can die, as a deserter he must die” (vol. II, ch. 9), and that if “twelve or fifteen thousands of these Hebrew corrupters of the people had been held under poison gas” than “the sacrifice of millions at the front would not have been in vain.” (vol. II, ch. 15).

In World War II approximately 16,000 German soldiers were executed for desertion (whereas the Americans shot one GI, and the British not a single soldier, for desertion). And the gassing of Jews and others was to become the signature atrocity of the Nazi regime. Hitler’s wicked ideas were thus out in the open, in print, by as early as 1925.

Which is why the republication is so important: on the one hand to make today’s society aware of complacency about the Holocaust, and also to make the point that despots and mass-murderers are often quite frank about their intentions. This should remind us that we shouldn’t dismiss, for example, statements by the Iranian regime that: “Israel needs to be wiped off the map” as merely colourful rhetoric.

Unravelling its own myth

The reprint is long overdue for other reasons as well. Given that it has been a taboo for so long, Mein Kampf has developed an odd afterlife. It is freely available online in both German and translations (often on neo-Nazi websites). Amazon UK also offers the newly edited English version (which has four out of five stars in its customer reviews), just as Apple’s iTunes and other stores do. And in 2013 there was a Manga version being published in Japan.

Equally bizarre is the fact that Germany’s largest publishing house, Bertelsmann, seems to want no part of any reprint of Mein Kampf in Germany – critical edition or otherwise. Yet the publisher has no issue with the English edition by Pimlico, a division of Random House, which Bertelsmann bought in 1998.

The emotional distress that the reprint in Germany might cause to Holocaust survivors is understandable. Yet, the post-war reverence towards Hitler held by some Germans (including some of this author’s own relatives) was often based on the excuse that the “Führer” was misunderstood and that his ideas had been misinterpreted by his minions. A look at Mein Kampf, such as the two quotations above, would use Hitler’s own words to quickly unravel that myth.