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Why 'Mein Kampf' continues to be a struggle

Sertan SandersonJuly 25, 2015

In 1925, Adolf Hitler's nearly 800-page manifesto, "Mein Kampf'," was published for the first time. With its copyright set to expire, it could be republished in Germany in 2016, creating widespread controversy.

USA Mein Kampf von Adolf Hitler
Image: F. J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

There may be few book titles as universally familiar as Adolf Hitler's "Mein Kampf." During his 1924 imprisonment following a failed coup attempt in Munich, Hitler dictated his tome to Rudolf Hess, who would later become his deputy. "Mein Kampf," which translates as "My Struggle," set forth Hitler's plans for Germany's future under the Third Reich.

Though the initial print run was low, at the height of his power Hitler made sure that every German household had a copy of "Mein Kampf," resulting in an estimated 9.2 million copies across the country by 1943. In fact, "Mein Kampf" became a regular gift given to newlyweds by the Nazi government. It turned into a brand that no one could escape in Nazi Germany.

Today, between 50 and 60 million copies circulate in multiple languages worldwide - but, for decades, you would not have been able to find a copy of "Mein Kampf" in any German bookstore. Following the horrors of World War II, the Federal Republic banned Nazi symbols such as the swastika, the Hitler salute and propaganda material in a bid to keep history from repeating itself.

Ernst Röhm alongside Adolf Hitler
Many Nazi symbols, such as the swastika and the Hitler salute, were banned in Germany after World War II - but the ban on "Mein Kampf" did not extend to existing copiesImage: picture-alliance/akg-images

As Hitler had no descendants, the rights to the book were transferred to the German state of Bavaria, his last official place of residence, after his death in 1945. The new copyright holder refused to allow any printing or duplicating of the book. Once a staple in every German household, hard copies of Hitler's book became hard-to-find relics from a past that still haunts the country.

"Mein Kampf," however, could soon become a lot easier to find, with the copyright on the infamous book scheduled to expire at the end of 2015 - 70 years after the author's death, in accordance with EU law. By this rationale, "Mein Kampf" would then enter public domain in 2016, with anyone owning the means theoretically allowed to publish Hitler's tome as he or she may wish.

Despite ban availability remained strong

Despite efforts to suppress the book, there were always ways to read Hitler's manifesto in Germany. The nearly 800-page tirade became widely available on the Internet long before the advent of online banking. Recently, English editions, unaffected by Bavaria's copyright, even hit the top of the charts as an e-book on Amazon and other retailing platforms. Though selling "Mein Kampf" might still not be allowed in Germany, foreign outlets have had no issues in making the content available online, for a profit or not.

It never became a punishable offense to simply own a copy of "Mein Kampf" in postwar Germany. In the pre-digital era, you might have have found dusty old copies in attics and basements. Despite being known for disposing of books on a grand scale, Hitler would likely be the first person to tell you how difficult it might be to get rid of more than 9 million books.

What would change, then, if "Mein Kampf" were to be reprinted and widely circulated within Germany? Not much, Gerhard Weinberg, professor emeritus of history at the University of North Carolina, told DW in a 2014 interview.

1945 newspaper declaring that Adolf Hitler is dead
With the 70th anniversary of Hitler's death, the copyright on "Mein Kampf" expires in Germany at the end of 2015Image: picture alliance/Everett Collection

"If anybody today wants a copy, it's accessible," Weinberg told DW. "There is always the sense of adventure in getting something that is supposedly banned but, in reality, of course available in libraries across the world," he added.

'National duty'

Weinberg is not the only history expert who has stressed that the "forbidden fruit" status of "Mein Kampf" in Germany has given the book most of its allure over the past decades. The Bavarian historian Christian Hartmann has long regarded the impending republication of "Mein Kampf" in Germany as a matter of "national duty," which he has personally become involved in.

"No one, who reads the book today, will become a Nazi simply by doing so," Hartmann told the daily Süddeutsche Zeitung (SZ) in June.

Hartmann works for the publicly funded German historical society IfZ. In 2009, as officials began to worry about what to do with the copyright set to expire, the IfZ applied for a tender from the state of Bavaria to produce an updated, annotated version of "Mein Kampf" providing a framework of historical context and critical analysis. Bavaria contracted the institute to prepare the new edition in order to pre-empt the publication of other editions with the expiry of the copyright.

Book burning event in the the Third Reich
Hitler's troops organized public burnings of works deemed incongruous with National Socialism. "Mein Kampf" was one of the few acceptable items on the bookshelfImage: picture-alliance/Georg Goebel

"We have added more than 3,500 footnotes so far and have proven Hitler's assertions to be wrong in hundreds of details," Hartmann told SZ.

Though some groups are still trying to stop the new edition from being published on the grounds of Hitler's discriminatory language, Hartmann believes that he has the law on his side.

"Our work is protected by Article 5 of the Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany, which covers freedom of research and scholarship," Hartmann told SZ.

Opposition to republication

Burkhard Lischka, a Social Democrat and member of parliament, has insisted that, regardless of legal standing, there's no good reason to republish "Mein Kampf" in Germany.

"I believe that, as the German state, based on our history, we have a unique responsibility," Lischka told DW in 2013. "If you were to generally allow the work to be sold with commentary, then that leads us to the possibility that right-wing extremists will republish the book with commentary none of us would want."

In recent years, attacks against foreigners and migrants have increased in Germany.

Coping with the past

Some Germans appear to see potential for dialogue where Lischka sees potential peril. For example, Serdar Somuncu, a comedian with Turkish roots, has created an entire show around readings from "Mein Kampf." He has toured Germany with his show, trying to highlight Hitler's inconsistencies, generalizations and megalomania. In his act, he draws the audience's attention to the fact that, outside of Germany, there's no public debate about whether Hitler's book should be allowed to be published.

"Bavaria, or to be precise, the Bavarian taxman owns the rights to 'Mein Kampf,'" Somuncu says in a recording preserved on YouTube. "They prohibit 'Mein Kampf' in the name of all Germans, saying that publishing the book would harm Germany's regard abroad. What is interesting, however, is that when you go abroad you can get 'Mein Kampf' legally everywhere, even in Israel."

The controversial book has indeed been translated into at least 20 languages and still manages to sell copies. In April, a signed first edition of "Mein Kampf" sold for over $40,000 (37,000 euros) in an online auction. The winning bidder's identity was not revealed.

In his act, Somuncu says there might be a greater danger in banning the book than making it openly available.

Edition of 'Mein Kampf' in Afghanistan
"Mein Kampf" has been translated internationally and continues to sell despite its inflammatory contentImage: picture-alliance/dpa

"Dealing with our past doesn't have to be burden; it can be a fruitful pursuit indeed," he says. "Otherwise you will continue to create a sense of ambivalence suspended between running away from the darkness of the past and never incorporating its painful lessons into the present. And, all the while, fascists still bully immigrants and burn down asylum homes. Each time people get together in Germany to hold candlelight vigils in the wake of yet another xenophobic attack, it means that someone has died again. It means that we have failed to act in a situation where we should have acted because we are so busy running away from the past that we could not act in the present."