The Holocaust of the European Jews was part of Adolf Hitler’s Rassenideologie (racial ideology). He divided the various peoples of Europe into ethnicities and classified them hierarchically. Some of them were destined for extermination; others were destined to become servants of the Aryan Herrenrasse (master race).
All this was an essential part of Hitler’s National Socialism and was carefully transcribed into his autobiographical manifesto Mein Kampf, published in 1925. Nazi Germany did not simply incite a war aimed at enlarging Germany’s territory. It was engaged in deeds that were, as Hannah Arendt put it in an interview with Günter Gaus, “militarily unnecessary and forever irreconcilable with ourselves.”
Next year marks the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII and Adolf Hitler’s death. In accordance with German law, the copyright on Mein Kampf (currently held by the Bavarian state) will expire after 70 years and the work will enter the public domain.
Neutrality and inaction are not acceptable
The German government is faced with a choice: It can sit back and allow the publication of Mein Kampf – possibly by right-wing groups; it can support the publication of an “edited” and commented version, or it can pass a law that prohibits its publication and distribution. The practical benefits of publication are limited. Mein Kampf probably won’t become a best seller and can already be downloaded or read in libraries across the country. The choice therefore is primarily a moral one.
While allowing the book’s publication is in line with the general liberal agenda of a democratic state and its negation of any form of censorship, this liberal option is a neutral one. It doesn’t make a choice or take a stance. Certainly, the state can and must hide behind the Rawlsian “veil of ignorance” most of the time, but there are times when any moral agent must decide to actively differentiate between good and evil. And this is one of those times.
In the same interview with Günter Gaus about her life, Hannah Arendt said: “If one is attacked as a Jew, one must defend oneself as a Jew.“ Equally, when the German state is faced with the Holocaust question or the Mein Kampf question, neutrality and inaction are simply not good enough.
The plain and outspoken rejection of Nazi ideology is a fundamental part of German democracy. The post-WWII German constitution, the Grundgesetz, is shaped by the experiences of the war and the Nazi regime and expressly aims to prevent such a human tragedy from ever happening again. It is also the reason why human dignity is inscribed in it as the first inalienable right.
Human dignity is ascribed to every person simply for being a person – a subject rather than an object of the law. It protects against all forms of tyranny and has the power to trump the freedom of speech of others. While having “this dignity thing” as a core value may seem intangible to many, it means a whole lot to those whose grandparents were once denied the right to be considered humans or were the perpetrators of such crimes.
Seventy years ago, the Bavarian state legitimately tried to keep Mein Kampf out of the heads and shelves of the German people. It also paid its respects to the survivors of the Holocaust. Today’s ban would continue this legacy with a symbolic act. Like the ban of Nazi symbols or the denial of the Holocaust, this memorial commemorates the sheer horror that occurred when a state put hate speech and Nazi ideology into practice. A society making conscious decisions based on its history is a good thing.
We have seen how powerful irrational hatred can be, and we accept that the outright rejection of such an ideology is the surest way to prevent history from repeating itself. This is particularly relevant to future generations who won’t have any contact with Holocaust survivors or people who witnessed these acts.
For Hannah Arendt, faith in the essential goodness of mankind was a necessary human condition. For many Germans, continuous commemoration is proof of the possibility of their goodness.
*This article was co-authored by The European columnist Juliane Mendelsohn.