Seventy years after his death, Hitler's "Mein Kampf" can be legally sold in Germany again. Who will read it? And how dangerous is the book in a country currently divided on refugee issues?
While for some it is a horror scenario, for others it is the conclusion of a demanding project. As of January 2016, "Mein Kampf" is available for sale in German bookstores. More than just a book, the version available is a critical edition including commentaries by renowned historians, adding context and a better explanation for the reader. The book cover does not feature Hitler, or the characteristic Nazi propaganda font; the two-volume edition offers a sober cover instead.
Yet the subject continues to trouble minds in Germany. From members of the German Parliament and the Central Council of Jews in Germany to the German Historian's Association, all have been involved in discussions surrounding the topic for the past months and even years. Copyright protection of a book expires 70 years after the author's death, meaning that as of 2016, Hitler's "Mein Kampf" belongs to the public domain, thus essentially allowing anybody to print and distribute it.
So far, only one publisher has dared to do so: The Institute for Contemporary History in Munich (IfZ). Since 2009, a group of experts have worked on a new edition including commentaries. "It would not be a good idea - irresponsible to say the least, to allow this text to freely circulate. Therefore, it's important that our version portrays contextual and academic references in an informative political and historical manner," said IfZ's director Andreas Wirsching in an interview with DW. "Looking at this edition, the reader will find a lot of new information that will help to better understand the text, section by section. Ideally, this will also help readers better understand the history of the Nazis."
Advertisement for "Mein Kampf" in 1939. About 5.2 million copies were sold after the Nazi party declared the book to be compulsory reading
The 'Mein Kampf' myth
Although there is much talk surrounding "Mein Kampf" in Germany, very little is known on the matter. Even though the book is the only existing autobiography penned by Hitler, it lacks in-depth analysis on its origin, its structure and most importantly its effect in the provocative writing of his time.
The legend of the "unread bestseller" remains until this day. Millions had bought the book or received it as a gift but most would not read it and therefore very few knew what crimes Hitler had planned - an excuse many Germans used after the war.
According to Wirsching, it is possible to see which role Hitler actually played in various issues through "Mein Kampf," such as the idea of a war in the so-called Lebensraum ("living space") in Eastern Europe with the invasions of Poland in 1939 and the Soviet Union in 1941. His ideas on the subjects of anti-Semitism, forced sterilization and euthanasia are also evident. All of the crimes later committed by the Nazis were already present in Hitler's first volume in 1924 and in the second in 1927.
Wirsching said the commentaries in the new edition of 2016 serve different purposes such as explaining historical context, people and background. "The fundamental purpose of the commentaries, and perhaps their most important function, is to cut off Hitler's demagogic discourse, fully exposing his half-truths, his provocative remarks and his downright lies." They also serve as a reference to the following years "as much of what Hitler wrote in 'Mein Kampf' became the brutal reality after 1933."
The theater collective "Rimini Protokoll" in Berlin brought "Mein Kampf" to the stage in summer 2015
Originally, the institute had the financial backing from the state of Bavaria which had owned the copyright of "Mein Kampf" and its publishing rights. After the Second World War, the allies transferred the rights of the publisher Eher to the state, which in turn used the rights to prevent the book's printing in order to stop the spread of Nazi ideology.
Politicians against historians
The state of Bavaria's government stopped providing financial support of the project due to criticism from Israel and Charlotte Knobloch, the former President of the Central Council of Jews in Germany: "Hitler's sorry effort is filled with hate and inhumanity and according to experts accomplished to incite hatred in the masses," she said.
"That is an argument that I can understand. Respecting the dignity of the victims and empathizing with them is a must and we do that as well, without question," said Wirsching. "In this respect, we understood the decision of the Bavarian government, but we weren't happy about it." Nevertheless the funds for the project were guaranteed so even after reallocation, the grant was kept for the Institute of Contemporary History.
Criticism did not only come from those who preferred to ban the book forever. A few years ago, sociologist Horst Pöttker wanted to create a commentary of the book for another project but the state of Bavaria prevented it at the time. So when the new project of a critical and historical edition was announced, Pöttker went up against it. "Critical historical also means comprehending several layers of the text's meaning. Is detailed word for word analysis important here? In my opinion what is important is that the general public finds out the content of this book and develops a realistic assessment of it based on critical analysis."
However, the most important question when it comes to publishing rights' expiration is not who will print Hitler's book but who will read it. Maybe it will be the PEGIDA sympathizers who attend rallies and their xenophobic slogans cause many to worry in Germany? Those who write posters with the word Lügenpresse or "lying press," a word that originated during Nazi times? Or possibly it could be officials from the NPD party, which faces dissolution in 2016 but will at least be able to freely cite Hitler's work after New Year's Eve.
Who will read 'Mein Kampf' in the future?
The book has for long been available on the internet and the courts cannot do much about it. Internet platforms such as eBay, offer old versions of "Mein Kampf" and operate lawfully in Germany. It is forbidden to commercialize the book but not to read it.
"Mein Kampf" in a bookstore in Kabul. Hitler's book has been sold without regulations in other parts of the world
"The book 'Mein Kampf' is not immediately dangerous," said Andreas Wirsching from the Institute for Contemporary History. However, the book carries strong symbolism with it. "Issues such as anti-Semitism or racism are unfortunately still present today and it cannot be ruled out that a quote or two might be taken to heart."
It remains to be seen who exactly will be reading "Mein Kampf" in the future. At least, the version with critical commentaries provides a necessary historical context. Those who promote quotes without reference to the work's background can be accused of incitement to hatred - which is still illegal under German law.