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When a performance of 'Mein Kampf' makes Hitler feel human

Breaking a taboo, the critical edition of Hitler's "Mein Kampf" has become a bestseller in Germany. An unusual reading of the dictator's manifesto at the lit.Cologne festival shows that the work can still unsettle.

Among the different readings and discussions organized by the lit.Cologne festival, held through March 19 in the German metropolis on the Rhine River, this one was bound to be an unusual one. The topic of the sold-out event was Hitler's "Mein Kampf."

The work that long used to be taboo in Germany can now be legally circulated in the country. After the expiration of the copyright on the text on December 31, 2015, a scholarly edition was published: "Hitler, Mein Kampf - Eine kritische Edition."

Christian Hartmann, the director of this project published by the Institute for Contemporary History in Munich at the beginning of 2016, was among the guest speakers of the evening. He sounded a bit nervous before the talk: "It's a spontaneous exchange. The organizers of lit.Cologne obviously have a plan, but we're somehow serving as guinea pigs."

"We're currently experiencing the growth of right-wing parties and extremism, so this event automatically has its relevance in the current debate," the historian added.

Is Germany too cautious with 'Mein Kampf'?

Rimini Protokoll Adolf Hitler: Mein Kampf, Band 1 & 2, Copyright: Sebastian Kahnert/dpa

The documentary theater collective Rimini Protokoll produced a play on "Mein Kampf"

Other guests of the talk were Helgard Haug and Daniel Wetzel, members of the experimental documentary theater collective Rimini Protokoll. They were accompanied by one of the protagonists of their play "Mein Kampf I und II," which was performed over 50 times in Weimar.

That evening this week in Cologne, they showed video excerpts of their production. In the documentary play, five people with a different perspective on Hitler's book - for example, a secondhand bookshop owner and an Israeli lawyer - discuss how it should be dealt with. One of the fundamental issues underlying the play, the artists explained, is that Germany's uneasy way of dealing with "Mein Kampf," making it taboo, may have contributed to building the myth.

The historian Christian Hartmann agrees on this aspect, all while pleading for a well-informed, honest approach: "'Mein Kampf' is one of the last relics of the Third Reich and has long-lasting symbolic power. That's why you cannot handle it just like any other book."

The human face of Hitler still unsettles

Christian Hartmann had selected excerpts from the stigmatized book to be read by actor Sylvester Groth. With a slow, almost emotionless voice, he read Hitler's words. The passage was about his experiences at the front during the First World War and the brutal misery of the soldiers. Progressively adding emotion to his depiction, Groth suddenly spurted hatefully, "Shameful news from the front: They wanted to surrender!"

Actor Sylvester Groth at 'Mein Kampf' reading in Cologne, Copyright: Henning Kaiser/dpa

Sylvester Groth delivered a chilling performance of Hitler's words

His performance was chilling, revealing Hitler's fears and needs; making him so real and human. The audience was unsettled: Was it even appropriate to applaud?

Hartmann summarized the strength of Groth's "very, very courageous performance" at the podium: "You have shown us Hitler as one of us."

Such a convincing interpretation was highly unusual - even disturbing for some.

Other actors have dared perform Hitler's manifesto publically before, such as the satirists Serdar Somuncu and Helmut Qualtinger (1928-1986), but they highlighted how ridiculous Hitler was, instead of emphasizing how persuasive his words could have been for millions of people at the time.

Breaking the spell

It has often been said that Hitler's book was so badly written that no one who would go through the effort of reading it seriously would turn into a neo-Nazi. With its 2,000 pages and 3,700 footnotes, the new, thoroughly researched critical edition is definitely not the type of book to turn people into neo-Nazis.

Historian Christian Hartmann, editor of Hitler, Mein Kampf - Eine kritische Edition Copyright: picture alliance/dpa/M. Müller

Christian Hartmann deliberately chose excerpts where Hitler wrote about himself for the public reading

Through this scholarly project, Christian Hartmann has read it thoroughly, and knows that Hitler's writing is most eerily "powerful when he talked about himself," he said during the discussion. That's why he specifically chose those excerpts of the dictator's autobiography.

"We are used to observing Hitler from a historical distance, but here we could experience his fears directly, and how he openly dealt with them," Hartmann told DW. The result was disturbing, but also revealing.

Even though the aim of the critical edition is to break the spell of the manifesto through its meticulous notes, Hartman nevertheless admits that after spending so many years on the book, Hitler "is even scarier to me now."

Now a bestseller

The initial print was limited to only 4,000 copies, to avoid seeing the book land on bestseller lists. The interest in the much publicized scholarly edition was much stronger and was largely purchased by libraries and academic institutions. The demand, however, drove the prices on the limited copies up online to several hundred euros. That didn't look good either, so a second run was printed.

Now 34,000 copies have already been sold and a third printing is ready. The book has been on the "Spiegel" bestseller list for five weeks already.

Buying the book that evening at the literature festival in Cologne, Marion Scholten explained that she "always wanted to break that taboo for herself; to find out what's in there, what Hitler really said and wrote."

Christian Hartmann and his team from Institute for Contemporary History in Munich are satisfied with the success of the book: "We have occupied a vacant space with this critical edition, and it's unlikely that anyone will try to take it up in or abuse it now since we did. That's the achievement we aimed for."

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