Two years ago, the state of Bavaria allocated €500,000 to the Munich-based Institute for Contemporary History to produce the first critical edition of the 800-page, twin-volume bestseller that has been banned since Hitler’s suicide in 1945. Since Hitler was a resident of Munich, his estate, including the copyright and royalties to Mein Kampf, were confiscated by the Bavarian finance ministry, which has resolutely banned all reprints and translations, except in the United States and Great Britain where the copyrights were sold during Hitler’s lifetime.
In anticipation of the copyright expiration, seventy years after the author’s death, the state decided to produce an authoritative edition of Mein Kampf, complete with annotations and context-setting academic commentary. The move was welcomed by many, but criticized by others. Eminent Berlin-based scholar Wolfgang Benz expressed dismay that a book so poorly conceived, so poorly written, and so “drenched in hatred of Jews and chauvinism” should be accorded serious academic attention. “Why all the effort?” he asked back in 2012. “How does one justify the effort when things are so straightforward?”
An unfortunate about-face
The leadership of the Jewish community in Germany grew increasingly uneasy with the project, as did many Holocaust survivors. Some taxpayers questioned the use of state funds to reissue a book by Adolf Hitler. The state minister of Bavaria, who initially endorsed the project, expressed unease about seeing the state seal emblazoned on the Hitler book. The project was cancelled.
It is an unfortunate about-face. Hitler was a man better known for burning books than collecting or writing them, and yet by the time he died he owned an estimated sixteen thousand volumes and had authored one of the most consequential and best-known books—for all its semantic, substantive and moral offenses—of the twentieth century.
“When a person gives, he has to take,” Hitler once said. “And I take what I need from books.” He was a compulsive and voracious reader for much of his life. “Books, always more books!” a teenage friend recalled. “I can never remember Adolf without books.” Hitler’s personal secretary, Traudl Junge, —whose memoirs served as the frame for the Oscar-nominated film “The Downfall”—once told me that Hitler invariably recounted to her over breakfast his previous night’s reading in tedious detail.
Reading shaped Hitler’s early interests. It fueled his ambitions. It inspired some of his most destructive ideas. It also provided much of the substance for Mein Kampf. Hitler pilfered and plagiarized ideas liberally, rarely crediting others, though he does mention Anton Dressler’s My Political Awakening for helping inspire his own political career. Thus, the critical and annotated edition of Mein Kampf offers much promise for exploring the many unreferenced sources, and the origins of many of Hitler’s ideas, in the most comprehensive and consistent manner to date.
The Institute for Contemporary History has produced a similarly annotated edition of Hitler speeches, orders and writings (from the years 1925-1933) that has become an indexed goldmine for scholars. It explicates references, ranging from Hitler’s pilfering of Shakespeare quotes—“To be or not to be” was a favored phrase—to his repeated and ominous and ultimately catastrophic rants on Aryan superiority and Jewish conspiracies. The Mein Kampf edition holds similar sourcing and context-setting promise.
We know from the surviving remnants of Hitler’s private library and from other sources many of the books Hitler had at hand while writing Mein Kampf, be they the works of radical nationalists like Heinrich Class and Hans F. K. Günther or the farther-flung inspiration of Henry Ford and his virulently anti-Semitic The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem and Madison Grant, author of The Passing of the Great Race, which Hitler reportedly referred to as “my Bible.”
The Institute for Contemporary History has vowed to see its Mein Kampf project through to completion despite the reversal by the Bavarian state, but it could encounter an even more consequential impediment if publication of the book is restricted in Germany (even after the copyright lapses) under the same provisions that prohibit the Hitler salute and the display of the swastika banner. While a continued ban on the publication of Mein Kampf in Germany is perhaps understandable for historical, political and moral reasons, preventing the publication of a fully annotated critical edition would represent a double loss.
A valuable resource
First, it would deprive scholars and historians of an updated and comprehensive resource for exploring and understanding the sources on which Hitler drew in formulating his ideas for Mein Kampf. More consequentially, it would serve as a potential antidote to the flood of uncritical editions that will be certain to appear on the market after the copyright lapses on December 31, 2015.
I would hope that the critical edition could be made available both in hard copy and as an eBook to permit easy and global access. Indeed, one would like to see translations for language regions where interest in the book is anticipated to be high, beginning with English, where sales of Mein Kampf in e-Book form are reported to be disquietingly brisk.
As to the financing: Bavarian taxpayers need not worry. The state finance ministry in Munich may be losing its claim to Hitler’s confiscated copyright, but it still retains control of his royalties—generated from pre-1945 Mein Kampf sales—estimated to be worth millions of Euros.