For the entirety of Germany’s postwar history, Adolf Hitler’s infamous manifesto of hate, Mein Kampf, has been out of print. Thanks to the Bavarian government and the vagaries of German copyright law, however, that’s about to change.
The German state of Bavaria owns the book’s copyright, a privilege it has used to prevent publication of the foundational document of Nazism since the end of World War II. But with those copyright restrictions due run out at the end of 2015, officials decided to publish an edition for students, which puts Hitler’s work in historic context with critical annotations, before it can be published elsewhere. (While Germany has strong laws against hate speech and stringent regulations prohibiting Nazi symbols, the book itself is not specifically banned, except when used or displayed in violation of those laws; Bavaria has, however, used its copyright to successfully block publication of the book or excerpts in the past.)
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Markus Soeder, Bavarian state finance minister, said that the move is aimed at “demystifying” the defining text of Nazism, reports the BBC . “We want to make clear what nonsense is in there…what a worldwide catastrophe this dangerous body of thought led to.” The state also hopes to make future German editions as “commercially unattractive” as possible.
Mein Kampf (literally, “My Struggle”), which Hitler began writing during a stint in prison after his failed Munich coup of 1923, is an odd mix of autobiography, racist dogma and political ideology; published in Germany later that decade, it became a huge bestseller and made Hitler rich. But it’s is unlikely that the Führer imagined it would be central to an argument in support of German democracy and openness, an angle many are taking on the Bavarian government’s decision.
Jacob Heilbrunn, writing in The Atlantic, argues that the decision is “good news” for Germany, as “defanging” such a notorious text will help speed “normalization” in a country that still struggles with the legacy of its Nazi years. “Germany is democratic and mature enough to form its own picture of Hitler’s book,” said Rafael Seligmann, publisher of the newspaper Jewish Voice from Germany.
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However, the Daily Telegraph reports that “Holocaust survivors and their families have expressed fears that neo-Nazis could seize upon the book as propaganda,” and the idea of publishing an edition for schoolchildren has prompted an outcry among some commenters. But Thomas Neumann, a Bavarian state spokesman, tried to reassure critics, telling Reuters the book would have no sinister influence in the classroom:
“We discussed a copy for schools. It wouldn’t be a whole book but excerpts that were presented in a particularly didactic way so they were suited for use in schools – that is conceivable.”
It certainly seems poignant that this process is launched amid an apparent far-right revival currently underway in Europe, epitomized by far-right candidate Marine Le Pen’s surprising gains in France’s recent presidential elections to Anders Breivik’s extremist rhetoric at his murder trial for last year’s massacre in Oslo and Utoya, Norway. But as Dieter Graumann, head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, told the AFP, the Bavarian government made the best of a bad situation, seeing as how the book is already widely available outside Germany and on the Internet. “If it is going to be released, then I prefer seeing a competent annotated version from the Bavarian state than profit-seekers trying to make money with Nazis,” he said. “I would of course prefer it if the book disappeared on a dust heap of contempt but that will not happen.”