A critical edition of Hitler's notorious manifesto was published a year ago - and became a bestseller in Germany. Historian Peter Longerich discusses the strengths and weaknesses of the globally publicized work.
"Hitler, Mein Kampf. A critical edition" is an annotated version of the Hitler's infamous work. Published a year ago, it is now in its sixth print run. Restricted for decades in Germany, Hitler's autobiographical work was reprinted in this two-volume edition prepared by the Munich-based Institute for Contemporary History (IfZ).
DW: Professor Longerich, does this academic reading of Hitler's political manifesto shed new light on the work?
Peter Longerich: Historians have been dealing with this text for decades. "Mein Kampf" has always been accessible. It's not as if it were a secret book that had been suddenly rediscovered. The 3,800 footnotes written by specialists offer a very thorough commentary on the text - and that is altogether really very praiseworthy.
The small problem I see in this form is that footnotes cannot offer a counter-narrative to the original text. By this, I mean that even if I very carefully comment on a text with footnotes, I'll still be following the author and his text. The emphasis of the text cannot be changed.
Let me try to explain this through an example. It's a known fact that Hitler applied twice to the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts, in 1907 and 1908. He was rejected both times.
However, he concealed the second rejection in "Mein Kampf." It appeared to be even more embarrassing for him because he tried to give the impression that the first rejection led him to prepare for studies in architecture, yet he actually applied again for fine arts a year later.
So what did Hitler actually do? He completely collapsed after the second rejection and disappeared, living in Vienna's men's hostels for the homeless. He didn't want to say anything about this period so he avoided writing anything personal on the following five years in "Mein Kampf" and rather focused on the city, Viennese Jews, social democracy, etc. This is simply a trap he set up for his readers. In his book, he wanted to cover up that he didn't overcome this crisis and that he was a socially marginalized, unemployed man.
It doesn't make much sense to try to dissect this and check whether he really hated the Jews in Vienna or if it was something he read about. Basically, that would mean letting Hitler mess around with us. What really matters is that the man tried to retrospectively improve his failed biography, and that his readers are offered a construction of lies. This does not really come through in the critical edition, which follows the text through many academic footnotes.
On the other hand, we have to recognize that the editors couldn't do it any other way. They were expected to produce an exceptionally thorough annotation, and that's what they did, guided by the principle that one explanation too many is better than one too little. To that effect, it turned into an extensive work.
Many criticized the fine, noble edition, with its light gray linen hard cover and deep red embossed title. How did you perceive this when the work came out?
I have to say that I found the presentation questionable. In the preface, the publisher expressly quoted the Talmud as a model for the book, which is somewhat peculiar in this context. Through its appearance, the book is assigned a meaning that it doesn't have and cannot have.
Hitler was not a meaningful author or thinker, and it would have been more appropriate if the Institute for Contemporary History had published the work in a completely conventional form, just like any academic publication, and as the last volume in the already existing collection of Hitler's speeches from 1919-1933. I would have found that better.
On the other hand, public expectations were very high. When the two volumes were published in January 2016, the impression was given that a forbidden text was being made available for the first time - which isn't true.
In Germany, only new publications of "Mein Kampf" were forbidden. The text itself was readily available and the books could be found everywhere in second-hand bookstores and on the internet.
But then there's a hype that was created around "Mein Kampf": Something forbidden was suddenly available again, and everybody could buy it freely. That put the publishers under pressure in a way.
"Hitler, Mein Kampf. A critical edition" sold very well and landed on the top spot of "Spiegel's" bestseller list. The book is now in its sixth print run. Isn't that an enormous achievement and a major success for an academic work? How do you see that?
It is absolutely sensational. Over 80,000 copies sold is an exceptional feat for an academic work. Its success had another positive effect: It took over the market for "Mein Kampf." People initially feared that when its copyright expired, it would allow all kinds of dubious reprints to be published. But that wasn't the case.
From a publisher's perspective, "Mein Kampf" has been done. There is no interest in publishing the book in another form. In this sense, the success is that it came as a healing process - even if some might wrinkle their nose seeing "Hitler, Mein Kampf" become the number one bestselling book.
Peter Longerich is a German historian with a focus on National Socialism and the Third Reich. His acclaimed biographies on Heinrich Himmler, Joseph Goebbels and Adolf Hitler were translated into various languages. He is currently director of the Research Center for the Holocaust and 20th Century History at Royal Holloway, University of London.