CULTURE & ARTS
12/30/2015 05:02 pm ET

After 70 Years, Germany Is Printing 'Mein Kampf.' Should It?

An annotated edition will be released in January. Is it in the public interest?
TOBIAS SCHWARZ via Getty Images

Mein Kampf, or My Struggle, Adolf Hitler's hate-filled screed that paved the way for the Holocaust, is set to be printed for the first time in Germany since the end of World War II next month.

Is that a good idea? Or a very bad one?

It's certainly controversial. After the Allied nations' victory over the German Nazi party in 1945, Mein Kampf copyright fell to the state of Bavaria, which promptly banned its publication in Germany. But as of Jan. 1, 70 years will have passed since the year of its author's death. Under Bavarian law, that means the 800-page polemic will enter into the public domain, its ban lifted. Seeing the copyright's expiration on the horizon, Germans have been debating the merits of allowing the book to be published within its borders for years.

In 2012, the state approved funding to support a Mein Kampf edition with academic annotation for publication in 2016 to place the work in a clearer historical and moral context. Following complaints, that decision was reversed the next year. In 2014, the state reversed its decision once again, announcing its support for an academic edition, without financial backing. At the time, Bavarian Minister of Culture Ludwig Spaenle stated that the project -- which had also secured support from The Central Council of Jews in Germany -- promoted "freedom of science." 

Technically, as of Jan. 1, anyone can publish Mein Kampf in Germany. But the annotated edition, published by Germany's Institute of Contemporary History of Munich (IFZ), is aimed at countering any far-right neo-Nazi prints that may crop up. At a whopping 2,000 pages, the IFZ edition contains thousands of annotations broken up into two volumes. It'll be sold for about $65. 

If you ask IFZ director Andreas Wirsching, the annotated diatribe isn't just helpful research material -- it's a public necessity. In an interview with Deutsche Welle, Wirsching said that allowing the work to slip into publication without commentary would be "irresponsible." By publishing Mein Kampf, his organization aims "to cut off Hitler's demagogic discourse, fully exposing his half-truths, his provocative remarks and his downright lies."

"Any Hitler sympathizers who might be interested in the book are better off looking elsewhere," Wirsching said. Hitler's partly autobiographical work, written in a Bavarian jail in 1923, was released in 1925 and earned the Führer millions despite poor critical reception. (It's been described as "repetitive" and "pedantic.")

For Germans, however, the book still remains a symbol of a destructive past, and its publication divisive. In the 21st century, is Mein Kampf a cautionary tale against extremism? Or a dangerous source of racist ideology?

As recently as this fall, a YouGov poll showed that opinion was almost perfectly split: 51 percent of Germans did not think it should be printed in their country. Some librarians consider it too dangerous for public consumption.

Jewish community leaders also differ in opinion. Josef Schuster, President of The Central Council of Jews in Germany, voiced support for the annotated edition in a statement after former president Charlotte Knobloch spoke to Agence France-Presse against it.

"It is a Pandora's box. One does not know what's going on within the reader's mind," Knobloch said, adding, "Of course it is in the interest of right wing militants and Islamists to spread these ideas."

Josef Kraus, president of the German Teachers' Association, acknowledged Knobloch's remarks in an interview with Deutsche Welle, but they did not alter his belief that Mein Kampf should not only be printed but taught in schools -- albeit with caution.

"What's much more dangerous is remaining silent or completely banning the book," Kraus said. He hopes including select passages from Hitler's work in history classes might help "immunize" young people against extremism.

Of course, the manifesto has long been easy to get ahold of, even in Germany. A quick Google search yields a number of sites hosting it. Hitler's rambling work is allowed to be printed and sold in all but a few countries, such as Austria and the Netherlands -- where, consequently, copyright expiration in Germany will not automatically dissolve bans.

Where it is available, it consistently sells itself. A 2003 estimate by Cabinet magazine put the number of English-language copies sold annually at around 20,000. Suggesting a pervasive curiosity in the book, cheap paperback editions have shot to the top of bestseller lists in Turkey and India in the past decade, and sales of ebook editions (which defy judgment from nosy neighbors) reached record highs in 2014.

Yet the question of who or what should profit off the hateful title has long been a sticky one. In the U.S., where Houghton Mifflin has printed the book since 1979, public criticism arose after news of the publisher's six-figure earnings came to light in 2000. Houghton Mifflin announced it would donate all accrued profits to an unnamed charity. In the U.K., Random House also donated royalties from Mein Kampf from the mid-70s until 2001, when the charity it partnered with was publicly revealed. The charity soon returned the donationsAs the sun sets on Bavaria's copyright Dec. 31, that's an issue that publishers in Germany wishing to print the book will have to consider as well.

Through 2016 and beyond, how Germans choose to regard Mein Kampf -- educational resource or poisonous execration -- will help shape national identity in a country still wiggling out from the shadow of its former dictator.

 

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