Adolf Hitler’s ranting, rambling autobiographical “magnum opus” has long been a subject of controversy in Germany. In 1945, the post-war Allied Government banned the publication of the two-volume manifesto in order to suppress post-war Nazi cults, a move wrapped up in notions of Germany attempting to “atone” for the Second World War. Last month, the 70-year copyright used to prevent the book’s publication ran out and a 2,000 page scholarly edition of the text, constructed by the Institute of Contemporary History in Munich, was published ahead of the general release. I believe that this is an entirely necessary move. Should Mein Kampf be published? Absolutely. Should it be removed from its historical context? Probably not.
The first point is rather simple: information wants to be free. If a German extremist wanted to access Mein Kampf, it would not be particularly difficult for them to do so. The book has been freely accessible online for years, taking only a brief Google search to find. Unfortunately, some versions require extensive trawling through out-of-context editions on far-right forums. Is there any way to get around this? Not really. There has yet to be a way of controlling the internet that is completely successful.
Yet it is not enough to say that limiting the availability of Mein Kampf is impossible – it is also undesirable. By maintaining its 70-year ban, the government has mystified the book, enhancing its perceived power and perpetuating the idea that it has an undeniably persuasive nature. It is true that Mein Kampf was very popular when it was first published. The book was written as Hitler developed his Nazi ideology after the failed Munich Putsch of 1923, but upon his release Hitler was still forbidden from speaking publicly in Bavaria. The book was eventually published in 1925, but not in its original form – all parts about recent German politics had been removed. This purified first volume was a large success but, possibly due to Hitler’s lack of political platform, this popularity was not transferred to the second volume. Later on, interest in the book rose hugely. Before 1933, about 241,000 copies were sold, with a huge leap in sales in the spring of 1930, months before the Nazi Party’s first big electoral victory. Hitler had made about 1.2 million Reichsmarks from the income of his book in 1933, when the average annual income of a teacher was about 4,800 Marks. Throughout the regime popularity of the book soared, although in a warring fascist police state, we should be cautious about drawing too strong a conclusion from this.
Today, many are concerned by the rise of global fascism. Germany is no different, with fears about surging neo-Nazism made especially pertinent by the country’s past. Indeed, a survey by the Anti-Defamation League found that 20% of Germans are still anti-Semitic. The recent migrant crisis is fanning the flames of nationalist extremism again, as is demonstrated by a leaked report from the German Security and Intelligence Services: “Mainstream civil society is radicalising because the majority don’t want migration and they are being forced by the political elite”. Pegida (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West), Germany’s far-right, anti-European, anti-Islamic movement, regularly draws thousands to its protests – 20,000 attended a rally in October last year. The right-wing Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party has also been making huge gains off the back of anti-asylum-seeker statements. It scored 8% of the electorate in an opinion poll published last December, which marked a doubling of support since September. A study for German magazine Der Spiegel showed that 65% of all surveyed Germans felt that the “government did not respond appropriately to their concerns about asylum policy and immigration”. This was before the current migrant crisis really picked up speed. More recently, Nazi hate mobs violently protested against the 2,200 new arrivals in the village of Feital. Against this backdrop of intolerance, who could blame the German government if it decided to retain the copyright for Mein Kampf? Surely it is a matter of public safety?
Absolutely not. The juxtaposition of the political climate with Mein Kampf is nothing short of lazy fearmongering. German rates of anti-Semitism are no outlier in Europe and the few extremists are fringe groups which can be easily contained. To think, even for a second, that Germany is incapable of safe, rational discourse with this terrible text is to presume that Germany is so immature as to be on the verge of a Fourth Reich. Rather, Germany is experiencing a Europe-wide phenomenon that our country must also confront. The othering and scapegoating of migrants has been equally worrying in our own mainstream media, which has referred to them as “tides” or a “swarm”. We should not be swept up into a frenzy, but nor should we suppose that this fear exists only among extremists. In France, Marine Le Pen’s controversial Front National came within a whisker of winning control of swathes of the country, while the far-right Danish People’s Party finished second in last year’s General election with 21% of the vote, entering a coalition government. This is not simply a German problem.
The truth is that this turgid tantrum of a manifesto is more likely to bewilder and disgust than to enflame. But that is not to say it has no persuasive power. How then should Germany deal with defusing Hitler’s infamous words? By doing exactly what it is doing: supporting a critical annotated text. “Mein Kampf is like a rusty old grenade. We want to remove its detonator,” explains Christian Hartmann, who leads the annotation team in Munich. “We intend to defuse the book. This way it will lose its symbolic value and become what it really is: a piece of historical evidence—nothing more.” Mein Kampf is a fascinating insight into the mind of Hitler and his ideology. By publishing an annotated version, Germany not only facilitates frank discussion about its past and present, but also eliminates any danger that readers will accept the paranoid conspiracy theories and factual inaccuracies found within. It protects the young and the impressionable by allowing the full text to be taught in and outside the classroom in a safe way. This new edition, published before the book becomes publicly available, sold out incredibly fast. It defuses Hitler’s message and allows people throughout the country to engage with intolerance, fascism and History away from the glare of an over-paternalistic government.
To continue the ban on Mein Kampf would be both untenable and fundamentally wrong. Publishing it without providing historical context would be pointless for anyone trying to understand the content, if not dangerous for those who might be persuaded by its message. The decision taken by the German government is just right, although it should have come far earlier. It is sad to see that Hitler’s words continue to create a unique fear in Germany. Banning a book for 70 years shows a lack of confidence in the German people to know right from wrong. Hopefully the republication of Mein Kampf is a step towards a nation free to debate and accept its past – after all, without access to the sources, how can one possibly come to an informed opinion?