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How Germany deals with Hitler's 'Mein Kampf'

Hitler's manifesto is banned in Germany, but will soon enter the public domain. Some want it read out loud, others would prefer to keep it in the university's "poison cabinet." DW explains what's next for "Mein Kampf."

Adolf Hitler's infamous book outlining his Nazi ideology, "Mein Kampf," has been banned in Germany since the end of World War II. Now a new project by the theater collective "Rimini Protokoll" dissects the historical document of the early days of Nazism.

Their play, which premieres at the Kunstfest in Weimar on September 3, explores the fascination surrounding this forbidden book and what it is actually about, contributing to the current debate as to whether the book should be republished in the country.

Due to the ban, very few Germans have actually read a single line of Hitler's manifesto. Does the hate-filled book still pose a threat? Opinions on this matter vary.

Historians and academics have always claimed it is a work which should be studied to obtain insight on history, yet German politicians have long held a different opinion. Just a year ago, in 2014, the Justice Ministers of the Federal States determined that the publication of the book should stay illegal.

The state of Bavaria still holds the copyright on the work, but it expires on December 31, 2015. After that, the book will be republished - circumventing the ban by being prepared as an annotated scholarly edition prepared by the Institute for Contemporary History in Munich (IfZ).

Bavaria owns copyright to 'Mein Kampf'

After the end of the war in 1945, the Allies determined that the state of Bavaria should obtain the rights to the Nazi work. Since then, the publication and circulation of "Mein Kampf" have been forbidden in Germany.

As the copyright expiration approaches, the Bavaria's indecision on the issue is growing. State Premier Horst Seehofer first contributed to the financing and supported the critical edition prepared by the IfZ, but he later turned away from the project, claiming in 2013 that as the proponent of a ban against the far-right political party NPD, he could not be printing the state's coat of arms on a new edition of "Mein Kampf."

Hitle's book Mein Kampf, Copyright: Arben Muka /DW

It's a bestseller abroad. "Mein Kampf," shown here in Albanian

Hitler's manifesto translated into many languages

These concerns are not shared abroad. It is possible to buy reprints in almost every language - and even original copies signed by Hitler himself. Even in Israel, "Mein Kampf" can be found in book stores - in both German and Hebrew.

The Turkish edition of the book advertises it as "a classic of anti-Marxist world literature" and even reached number four on the bestseller list in 2005.

'Mein Kampf' a 'struggle' to read

The high demand is in no way related to the quality of its contents. Hitler's first autobiographical volume is drenched in pathos. "Mein Kampf," a title which translates as "My Struggle," has been recently described by "The Daily Telegraph" as "indeed a struggle" to read, "stuffed with incoherent and nonsensical passages."

On German radio broadcaster Deutschlandradio, the historian Sven Felix Kellerhoff also characterized it as "horribly written - a collection of bad grammar and poor sentences."

Nevertheless, he criticizes the decade-long "quasi-ban" on the work, as he believes it should be read, to let people know what this book really is about.

"Using the copyright as a way to prevent the book from being read by Germans is absurd. It almost comes down to saying that readers in Germany are more seducible than in other countries," says media analyst Horst Pöttker.

He was also directly affected by the legal restrictions. "Zeitungszeugen" (Newspaper Witnesses), a project he co-edited, was banned by the Bavarian state for including a commented selection of excerpts from "Mein Kampf."

How did Nazis really think?

Heavy debates are ongoing as Germany is trying to find an acceptable way to deal with "Mein Kampf," 70 years after the end of Nazi rule.

Advertisement for Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf, Copyright: Mary Evans Picture Library

"Mein Kampf" was Germany's bestselling book until 1939

It may be illegal to publish the book, but it is impossible to eliminate its existence. Those who absolutely want to read it can find it in flea markets, antique shops or online. In German schools, some excerpts are read and discussed in history or religion classes.

In Germany, copyrights expire 70 years after the death of the author. Horst Pöttker feels the unlimited redistribution of the work should have been allowed much earlier: "I don't see why Germans should be deprived of this knowledge. Federal President Theodor Heuss already said in the 1950s that this book should be published, in order to let Germany know how Nazis were thinking."

The anti-Semitic diatribe published in 1925-26 became a bestseller under Hitler's dictatorship. He had written the manuscript while in prison in Munich, after his failed coup attempt in November 1923.

'No one who reads it will become a Nazi'

It is hard to imagine the effects of this half-baked political treatise, says the historian Christian Hartmann from the Munich Institute for Contemporary History. "I am deeply ashamed that we Germans have fallen for such a mediocre book."

At the beginning of 2016, he and his team from the IfZ will publish the annotated scholarly edition in two volumes of over 2,000 pages, which will include 3,500 footnotes and 5,000 scholarly comments meticulously classifying every aspect of the book. Hitler's original text was 780 pages long.

Hartmann has been analyzing his writings for years. The book is an important source to understand Hitler's world view and the foundations of the Nazi dictatorship he would later establish.

Yet its style is so bad that "no one who reads the book today will become a Nazi simply by doing so," he told the German newspaper "Süddeutsche Zeitung."

Serdar Somuncu reading Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf, Copyright: dpa / Rademacher

Comedian Serdar Somuncu tried to cast "Mein Kampf" in a humorous light

Poking fun at Hitler's book

Serdar Somuncu, a comedian with Turkish roots who lives and works in Germany, has been using the Nazi leader's crude manifesto for many years, working them into a performance for schools and comedy clubs.

Since the public presentation of the work is permitted in Germany for educational purposes only, Somuncu did his public reading on this basis in over 1,000 schools - wearing a bulletproof vest. He has received death threats from neo-Nazis, who do not appreciate him mercilessly exposing the book as the hate-drenched anti-Semitic work of a madman writing in tangled sentences.

Eventually these threats became too much of a burden for Somuncu, who stopped his public performances. He has, however, released an audio version of his commented reading, and he still pleads for open, relaxed access to the book which once served as a kind of Nazi bible.

"Every teenager can download it from the Internet. It can be bought in every language. Why can't Germany deal with this issue more confidently? I trust the young people's capacity to do so," said Somuncu.

"Mein Kampf" will be legally republished in Germany from 2016 on, but only in an annotated version. Because of the racist and anti-Semitic content of Hitler's creed, the legal situation remains unchanged: Owning the book and studying it in libraries is permitted, but it will remain forbidden to read it in public in its uncommented version. This would go against the German criminal law banning incitement to racist hatred.

Still, the historian Georg Maser remains convinced: "There is no better way to fight a revival of Hitler's spirit than with 'Mein Kampf.'"

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