A publisher's replicas of Nazi era newspapers that hit newsstands in January has sparked a national debate on press censorship. The court ruling on Wednesday lifted the ban since the 70 year old copyrights had expired.
Nazi newspaper replica contains historians' annotations.
A Munich court ruled on Wednesday that a British publisher's popular history series called Zeitungszeugen, or Witness Reports would be allowed to reprint old Nazi newspapers printed before 1939. The court based its decision on a copyright law, which says that reproduction rights can be exercised after a seventy year period.
Germany's state of Bavaria controls the copyright to most Nazi era newspapers as well as Adolf Hitler's autobiography Mein Kampf and forbids their reproduction. Since Hitler died without leaving any heirs, Bavaria holds the rights to his estate, which includes Nazi newspapers "owned by" the dictator.
The newspaper reprints with articles on Hitler being sworn in as chancellor on January 30, 1933, have been available on German newsstands since January this year.
Munich prosecutors issued orders for police to confiscate newsstand copies of Zeitungszeugen, which reprinted Nazi dailies such as Der Angriff, (The Attack) on grounds that right-wing radicals would use the reprints to for propaganda purposes.
Germany's Jewish leaders had also warned that re-publishing the Nazi-controlled newspapers, which the publisher Peter McGee says is part of a campaign to raise historical awareness, could set a dangerous precedent.
"I'm highly dubious about this project," Stephan Kramer, general secretary of the Central Council of Jews, told Reuters after the first run of 250,000 copies was circulated all across Germany. The initial press run had sold out so fast that another 50,000 copies were printed.
The British publisher can now reprint Nazi era papers before 1939.
Fear of Nazi reprints being used as propaganda
Kramer said he feared that the neo-Nazi movement could misuse the collection of newspapers as a rallying point and that even ordinary Germans would take the Nazi claims at face value.
On page one of Der Angriff for example, Hitler's propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, attacked the "Jewish press" in a column under the headline: "Make a clean sweep!" He wrote: "It's time to cure the ill German body and bring it back to life again".
The British publishers accused the Bavarian authorities of censorship and argue that it is high time for young Germans to be able to see the headlines that their great grandparents saw, especially since the reprinted articles are often accompanied by detailed annotations written by historians.
They also pointed out that each weekly issue contains reprints of not just the Nazi press, but also papers of other political persuasions, such those with Communist and moderate views.
Bavarian authorities argue that the replica newspapers can be cut, pasted and re-printed for separate use without the historical annotations, thereby violating the letter of a German law that generally bans publication of Nazi propaganda and symbols such as the swastika with few exceptions.
National debate on coming to terms with Nazi past
Police raids and official efforts to ban the reprints of Nazi-era newspapers have sparked a national debate about whether Germans are ready to cope with their historical demons.
"We're a laughing stock internationally with such ludicrous discussions," said Hans Mommsen, 78, a historian who is one of the moving forces behind the project to reproduce the annotated editions in an interview with DPA news agency.
"And when law enforcement officials are called in and the editor faces federal prosecution, it just reveals Germany's neurosis when it comes to Nazism," he said.
Mommsen, who is a professor emeritus from Ruhr University and has been a guest professor at American universities such as Harvard, Princeton and Berkeley even argued that Hitler's Mein Kampf autobiography, which is readily accessible in other countries should also available to the German public.
"I'm highly dubious of this project", said Stephan Kramer.
"In Israel you can buy Mein Kampf in any book shop, but here it is still banned," said Mommsen.
"That creates a mythic aura for a book which, when read, reveals its banality from A to Z. To this very day there is no annotated edition of that book in German," he said.
German media divided about reprints
The Nazi newspaper replicas have also divided the German news media. The national Sueddeutsche Zeitung said that readers were intelligent enough to see through the propaganda themselves.
"You flick through these old newspapers as anyone born long after the war might: in shock and amazement. The evil (is right there) on paper," the national daily wrote.
A local paper in Lower Saxony, the Peiner Allgemeine Zeitung suggested that the publishers could be motivated by commercial interests. "Hitler sells better than sex," the paper said.