The copyright on Hitler's book will expire at the end of 2015. Amidst the current political discussions, the theater collective Rimini Protokoll created a play which aims to demystify the controversial work.
Onstage, Alon Kraus, an Israeli lawyer in his mid-40s, always seems a bit stressed. The son of Holocaust survivors has two obsessions: the German language and the Nazi regime. Nothing stops him from asking a random German tourist in Tel Aviv to read him certain parts of "Mein Kampf" aloud and explain them.
He is the only one in the team of the theater collective Rimini Protokoll who has read the book from cover to cover, he says. Several times, actually, in English and Hebrew. The edition he owns is one of the tightly-controlled 500 copies printed by a university publishing house in Israel.
One of the many aspects discussed in the play "Adolf Hitler: Mein Kampf, Volume 1 & 2" is the current debate in the Israeli Knesset surrounding the upcoming expiration of the copyright of "Mein Kampf," which will allow new publications of Hitler's work. One of the Israeli deputies refuses to say the name of the book out loud. Some believe it endangers the "mental health of the people."
With its play, which premiered at the Weimar Art Festival on September 3, the Rimini Protokoll theater collective adds its own series of questions to the current debate.
As usual, the three theater directors Helgard Haug, Stefan Kaegi and Daniel Wetzel didn't cast professional actors in their production, but ordinary people. They call these actors "experts of everyday life," who explore onstage Hitler's manifesto through the prism of their own personal experiences.
"'Mein Kampf' is poison, it glorifies hatred and violence, but I am against censorship," says Alon Kraus. Israelis and Germans should study the book very well, he continues, as it includes Hitler's instructions to armed struggle, how he became an anti-Semite and how he depicts himself as a sensitive person. This last aspect, incidentally, was censored in the Hebrew edition.For now, the State of Bavaria still owns the copyright to "Mein Kampf." At the end of 2015, 70 years after Hitler's death, it will enter the public domain. Bavaria has forbidden all new publications of the book until now. In January 2016, the Munich-based Institute of Contemporary History will release an annotated scholarly edition. But theoretically, other uncommented versions of "Mein Kampf" could also land in bookstores.
Communism and fascism back to back
"The play aims to demystify this sinister book a bit," says Daniel Wetzel, co-director with Helgard Haug. Their thorough direction started with a particular stage set. Two huge bookshelves with plants, a cuckoo clock and a bust of Mao were taken from the set of an earlier Rimini play on Karl Marx's "Capital."
This time they are turned around, and at the end, the bookshelves are pushed together to form an oversized book spine of "Mein Kampf."
The two great ideologies of the 20th century are thus set back to back. Daniel Wetzel offers a pragmatic explanation for the symbolic juxtaposition: "We just wanted to avoid an endless debate on what could be an adequate set for 'Mein Kampf'."
Deviant contradictions are Rimini Protokoll's specialty - and they look for them in their characters too.
65-year-old professor Sybille Flügge tells of her unusual experience with the book. At age 14 she stumbled upon an old copy and decided to type one of her own in order to "soak it up" - then offered it to her parents for Christmas. She also remembers how shocked her high school teacher was when she boasted about how well she knew the manifesto.
"You don't turn into a Nazi just by reading the book," says Volkan, a German-Turkish rapper who is also part of the crew. He doesn't believe in censorship, which impacted one his own music videos. It was an ironic work about the German potato - which happens to be a pejorative way to talk about Germans among German-Arab and Turkish teens.
Volkan feels it is important to deal with the language used in "Mein Kampf," saying that there are so many expressions in it that are used in neo-Nazi marches against refugees nowadays. "Lügenpresse" (liar press) is just one.
Of course, the play's creators know that this issue is part of current discussions. The decision to premiere it in Weimar was no coincidence, as it was one of Hitler's favorite cities.
With the Buchenwald concentration nearby, that fact is also briefly mentioned in the play: 62 copies of "Mein Kampf" were found in the camp's library.
"This place is like a magnifying glass," says stage director Helgard Haug. Still, the play could just as well be staged anywhere, because the books can be found everywhere.
With 12.5 million copies in circulation, "Mein Kampf" was a bestseller during the Third Reich. Prescribed by the state, it was initially an expensive book and later a typical wedding gift. Ten percent of the royalties went to Adolf Hitler, who used them to finance his party.
Copies of the book obviously didn't all disappear. They can legally be bought secondhand; first editions are traded online for thousands of euros. Translated into more than 15 languages, "Mein Kampf" is available worldwide.
Stacks of 'Mein Kampf' onstage
Matthias Hageböck, who restores books at the Anna Amalia Library in Weimar, holds a pile of copies of the controversial tome onstage. The true bibliophile is the only one in the play who refuses to let a 1938 edition of "Mein Kampf" be thrown around like a frisbee. He believes a book is always something that should be protected. Sybille Flügge also wants to keep the copy owned by her grandfather, but Alon Kraus throws his copy in the trash without second thought.
"Adolf Hitler: Mein Kampf, Volume 1 & 2" offers an almost too full evening of theater. The mosaic of personal stories and splitters of Nazi history make one thing clear: Hitler's manifesto can and should be demystified. That's the only way it can freely find its place on the bookshelf - or in the trash can.