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First German Edition of Hitler's 'Mein Kampf' Since 1945 Stirs Old Feelings

At a time of resurgent xenophobia in Europe, the planned reprinting of the Nazi leader's long-winded screed when its German copyright expires has elicited an array of responses.
February 27, 2015, 11:10am
Photo par Carl De Souza/AFP/Getty Images

Ever since Adolf Hitler's suicide in 1945, his manifesto Mein Kampf has gone unprinted in Germany at the behest of the federal state of Bavaria, which holds the copyright — but this will soon change.

With the copyright set to expire at the end of the year, the Institute of Contemporary History in Munich is planning to release a heavily annotated, scholarly text of the book in German to get ahead of other potentially sympathetic editions of the text, which is as full of hate as it is remarkably dull to read.


At a time of resurgent xenophobia in Europe, the controversial undertaking has elicited an array of responses, from the vehement protests of Holocaust survivors to an acceptance among some Jews who feel that, because the book is already generally accessible, there might as well be an appropriately critical dissection of it.

Though the depiction of Nazi Party symbols like the swastika are expressly prohibited in Germany, the country has no such ban on Mein Kampf. Hundreds of thousands of copies dating from the Third Reich, when party officials distributed the book, still exist.

"On the internet, in second-hand bookshops, or in foreign translations, it is already possible to read Mein Kampf in the un-commented original without any problem," Simone Paulmichl, spokesperson for the Institute of Contemporary History, told VICE News.

The institute's edition will include scholarly material that expands the length from the original 700 pages to 2,000, and document how much of Hitler's thought is pilfered from elsewhere.

"With our comprehensive annotations, we aim to set facts against Hitler's assertions, reveal his half-truths, and thus deprive Hitler's propaganda of its mystique bit by bit," Paulmichl said.

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Copyrights in Germany run for 70 years after the death of an author, and 2015 is the last year that Bavaria can enforce its de facto blocking of new printings within the country.


Germany still has a strong community of independent booksellers. Once the copyright expires, "they will choose which edition to sell, and they will probably adopt this scholarly edition," Fritz Breithaupt, professor of Germanic studies at Indiana University, told VICE News. "In that sense, this is good pro-active thinking."

Hitler dictated much of the long-winded screed — whose title was changed by the publisher from Four and a Half Years of Struggle Against Lies, Stupidity, and Cowardice to simply, My Struggle — while he was imprisoned for treason following his failed seizure of power in Munich during the Beer Hall Putsch of 1923. His narration vacillates between autobiographical accounts and passages of ideological frustration, in which he singles out Jews as a danger to the Aryan race and Germany.

"Without the clearest recognition of the race problem and, with it, of the Jewish question, there will be no rise of the German nation," he ominously wrote.

In the seven decades since the Holocaust, Mein Kampf has become a kind of totem for extreme right-wing and fascist groups around the world, though it's unclear how many of their followers have actually read it. It is available for sale in other European countries, both online and in bookstores. In Greece, the right-wing political party Golden Dawn, which has adopted a salute resembling that of the Nazis, openly offers a translated edition at their bookstores.


But for all the stigma associated with the book, the best defense against it may be its own prose.

"It's a bad book — it's poorly written, it's rambling and full of naive thinking, and it has aged," Breithaupt said. "Putting this book in the hands of people may actually be not so bad. They'll see that it is hardly readable."

Kenneth Jacobson, deputy national director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), called publication of the work in Germany unavoidable, but noted that having it accompanied by explanatory text is important.

"We always have ambivalent feelings about it," Jacobson told VICE News. "We know that some of the interest comes from racist extremist groups, but we also know it's an important tool for understanding history and what history can create."

Polls taken by the ADL and other groups reveal that many Europeans still harbor anti-Semitic sentiments — in Germany, as many as a fifth of residents. Following deadly terror attacks on the offices of satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish supermarket in Paris last month, the United Nations General Assembly held its first ever session on anti-Semitism around the world. France, which has the largest Jewish population in Europe, has seen an alarming increase in attacks targeting Jews. French migration to Israel more than doubled in 2014.

Throughout the European Union, which allows greater mobility and resettlement among member states, xenophobic sentiment during economic stagnation has generally focused on immigrants, many of them Muslim. In December, some 15,000 protesters marched in Dresden under the banner of the anti-Islamic group Pegida.


Jacobson said that, in many respects, Jews and Muslims in Europe are in the same boat. "Europe is going through an identity crisis," he said. "Extreme-right organizations are gaining ground. You see it in France with [Marine] Le Pen's party…. You see it all over the continent."

Some members of Germany's Jewish community, including Holocaust survivors, have vigorously opposed the publication of Mein Kampf, regardless of purpose or intention.

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"I am firmly of the conviction that Mein Kampf should never be legal and it should not be made publicly available, in any shape or form, in Germany or anywhere else in the world," said Charlotte Knobloch, the former head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany. "To argue there's a case for reading the text to understand the historical context is a rather spurious assertion and certainly not very constructive."

The institute, whose members have long devoted their energies to the study of Nazism and the Third Reich, have produced annotated versions of many of Hitler's speeches, but were never encouraged by Bavaria to prepare an edition of his infamous book until 2012, when the state offered the institute 500,000 euros to help fund the project.

Controversy over this decision led to its sudden recantation the following year, which occasioned still more outcry. In a face-saving arrangement hatched in 2014, the funds Bavaria allotted to the project were re-directed elsewhere within the institute, allowing it to finance the Mein Kampf edition from its general budget.


Paulmichl said that Jewish researchers and intellectuals in Germany, the United States, and Israel have helped support work being done on the edition, which she called "an important contribution against anti-Semitism."

"Of course, it is completely comprehensible to us that the republishing of Mein Kampf and its anti-Semitic tirade of hate can be a very sensitive matter for the victims of the Holocaust," she noted.

Thomas Kuhne, director of Holocaust and genocide studies at Clark University, expects that the annotated text will likely be read by far fewer than the furor surrounding it might suggest.

"We are talking about a scholarly edition — this will not have any huge impact beyond a relatively small circle of scholars and maybe lay people interested in the history of Nazism," Kuhne told VICE News. "I cannot imagine this will be used by neo-Nazi groups to enthuse themselves about Hitler. They have other options for that."

He is nevertheless unsettled by the resurgence of the extreme right in Germany.

"Their mere presence is disturbing," he said. "The problem is that tolerance for openly admitting, confessing, or boasting of anti-Semitism and other forms of xenophobia is higher than 10 or 20 years ago."

Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford