If we are serious about freedom of speech and freedom of the press, then we must extend it even to people we hate and to ideas we find repulsive.
The German authorities, however, take a different view. They have imposed a de facto ban on the publication of Mein Kampf for the past 70 years, on the basis that its content is so foul, so hateful, that it might corrupt the minds of those who encounter it and propel Germany into another fit of far-right extremism.
Too shocking and grotesque for reprinting?
They imagine that this is a principled suppression of Hitler’s poisonous ideology. But in truth it is better understood as a suppression of the German people’s right to freely access and make up their own minds about Hitler’s work.
It is not Hitler’s freedom that is undermined by the restrictions on the publication of Mein Kampf — it is the German people’s. Some people argue that Mein Kampf isn’t really banned in Germany. They point out that it isn’t a crime to own it or even to sell it in antiquarian bookshops (just so long as you are selling a very old one, published pre-1945, rather than one published illegally in the postwar years).
But these claims are disingenuous, for it remains the fact that anyone who publishes and disseminates a new version of Mein Kampf in Germany could find himself in very big trouble. Because his official place of residence at the time of his death was Munich, all of Hitler’s estate, including the copyright of Mein Kampf, passed to the government of Bavaria when he committed suicide.
And in the 70 years since then, Bavaria, with a nod of approval from Germany’s federal government, has strictly forbidden any copying or printing of Mein Kampf in Germany. It has also tried to assert its copyright overseas, insisting that other nations not print the book, but this has for the most part been ignored by foreign publishing houses.
So what we have here are state bodies forbidding the printing of a book on political grounds. That is a pretty clear-cut case of censorship. No amount of talk about it being a mere copyright technicality that prevents Mein Kampf from being republished and distributed can disguise the fact that officialdom in Germany has censoriously judged a book to be too shocking and grotesque for reprinting and sale to the public.
The censorious nature of Germany’s block on publishing Mein Kampf can be clearly seen in recent controversies.
More than a copyright issue
A few years ago, the German justice minister asked the American store Barnes & Noble to stop selling copies of the book via its website to residents of Germany. Likewise, following an investigation by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Amazon agreed to stop distributing Mein Kampf to people with German addresses.
In 2000, the German authorities threatened legal action against the website Yahoo after it said it would auction copies of Mein Kampf and it became clear that German citizens could enter the auction. In 2012, the British publisher Peter McGee planned to publish and distribute in Germany 100,000 copies of a pamphlet called “The Unreadable Book”, which would have consisted of various sections of text from Mein Kampf. But a court in Munich ruled that even publishing citations from Hitler’s book violated Bavarian copyright, and so McGee backed down.
The “New York Times” aptly described the prevention of McGee’s plans as the German authorities’ “most recent victory in a continuing battle to prevent circulation of Hitler’s seminal work”.
This is clearly more than a copyright issue. When German citizens are blocked from ordering books online, when publishers are prevented from quoting Hitler in pamphlets, there is clearly something deeply political and censorious at work. The German authorities are attempting to deprive their citizens of access to a particular book. That is censorship.
But this cannot go on forever. Next year marks the seventieth anniversary of Hitler’s death, and in accordance with German copyright law this means Bavaria’s hold over his book will end and others will be allowed to publish it.
Germany must lift all restrictions
This — and the fact that Germans can now pretty easily find Mein Kampf on the internet — is freaking out the authorities. They are considering okaying the publication of a version of Mein Kampf with a great deal of commentary and contextualisation in it — a warning message, in effect — in order to pre-empt the potentially “irresponsible” publication of unannotated versions by others.
I think it is a shame that the right to publish and sell new versions of Mein Kampf looks set to happen pretty much by accident, through the passing of time and the erosion of copyright, when the freedom to print and promote this book is actually an important matter of principle. It’s a freedom of speech issue. If Germany considers itself a free and democratic society, then it must lift all restrictions on the printing, buying and sharing of Mein Kampf.
Many think that freedom of speech refers only to the freedom of the speaker, or the writer, or the publisher. But there’s far more to it than that — there is also the freedom of the listener, and the reader, and the audience. Freedom of speech isn’t only about the right of individuals or groups to speak — it is also about the right of the rest of us to listen, and to judge.
The great 18th-century radical Thomas Paine said that censorship of published material is always more of a “sentence on the public [than] the author”, because it effectively tells the public “they shall not think, they shall not read”.
Rehabilitate one of Hitler’s foulest ideas?
From this perspective, the restrictions on Mein Kampf should be seen as an assault on the autonomy of currently alive German citizens rather than on the freedom of the long-dead Hitler. For the ban on Mein Kampf is justified on the basis that its content might generate instability by warping and twisting German people’s minds, reigniting the racist outlook. In short, German people cannot be trusted to have free access to this book. Their minds are so malleable, and their souls so corruptible, that they apparently require the authorities to protect them from an old mad book.
How patronising. How insulting. In keeping with virtually every act of censorship in history, the real target of the restrictions on Mein Kampf isn’t the author himself; it’s the public, who have been judged too morally immature to be able to cope with seeing this book. Their right to read, to think, to argue, to make an independent judgment call as to whether this book has any moral worth, has been denied.
The great and terrible irony of Germany’s restriction on printing Mein Kampf is that it presents itself as being anti-Hitler but in fact rehabilitates one of Hitler’s foulest ideas — namely that some books are so immoral that they might corrupt the little people’s minds and thus they must be banned / burned.
Brendan O’Neill spoke on the banning of “Mein Kampf” at the European Students for Liberty conference at Humboldt University in Berlin on Sunday 16 March