A Struggle

Germany reckons with two opposing republications of Mein Kampf

Christian Hartmann, who spearheaded the release of the annotated edition, attributed its success to the fact that many Germans were “obviously curious” about the Nazi manifesto. johannes simon / getty images
01 November, 2016

On an evening this June, at his three-storey house in the German city of Mainz, Hanns Dieter Lohnes showed me his personal library. On a crowded bookshelf, standing out next to dog-eared literary classics and art magazines, was the book I had come to discuss with him: a 1938 copy of Mein Kampf (My Struggle), the autobiography and manifesto of the Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler. The Nazi emblem—a swastika and an eagle—was embossed in gold on the midnight-blue dust jacket.

Lohnes, an 82-year-old lawyer, is remarkably agile for his age. When he was only a small boy, and the Nazis had risen to power in Germany, nearly all of his male relatives were conscripted into Hitler’s army. “It was only natural that I wanted to know more about the Nazi propaganda that influenced my childhood, so I bought the book at a second-hand dealer in the 1950s,” he told me.

Nearly every German family during the Second World War, Lohnes said, had a copy of Mein Kampf. “The Nazis, like my girlfriend’s parents at that time, proudly owned it. And the others were forced to own it.” By the time Hitler’s regime was toppled, in 1945, 12 million copies of the book had been sold. In 1944, when the last wartime edition was printed, the book was in its 1,031st edition. Lohnes’s antique copy was a three-hundred-and-twelfth edition.

That evening, we also discussed a much more recent edition of Mein Kampf. A hefty tome of 2,000 pages—compared to the original’s 780—this was a scholarly version of the book, published in January of 2016, with over 3,700 annotations. News of its publication caught the attention of both national and international media. Intrigued, Lohnes diligently cut out articles and editorials written about the critical edition, and saved them in a plastic folder. But now, he said, “There have been too many articles. I’ve stopped collecting them.”

In post-war Germany, the publication of Mein Kampf was banned, and Hitler’s intellectual-property rights were officially exercised by the government of the state of Bavaria, where he had resided. But in December 2015, after 70 years, Hitler’s intellectual-property rights expired. In anticipation of this, the Bavaria government funded a group of scholars to prepare an annotated version of Mein Kampf. At the same time, the government declared that even after the copyright expired, any publication of the book aside from that of the annotated version would be subject to the criminal charge of incitement.

The annotated Mein Kampf has met with unforeseen popular success. A more worrying event following that book’s publication, however, has been the recent release of an illegal, non-annotated edition, whose success potentially signals the growing strength of Germany’s far right.

The group of scholars that produced the annotated Mein Kampf was led by Christian Hartmann, a historian at Munich’s Institute of Contemporary History. When I spoke to him over the phone in June, he seemed pleasantly surprised by the strong public response the book had received. “We did expect international interest for the republication. However, since it was a scholarly edition, we limited it to 4,000 copies,” he said. Those copies sold out instantly. By September, the book was on its fifth print-run and had sold around 85,000 copies, even managing a respectable position on the country’s well-known bestseller list of the magazine Der Spiegel. Hartmann attributed that success to curiosity. “For the average German, the book holds a certain mystery,” he said. “People were obviously curious to know what was written in the book.”

Not everyone was happy with the rerelease. Ronald Lauder, the president of the World Jewish Congress, an international federation of Jewish organisations, said, “Holocaust survivors would be offended by the sale of the anti-Semitic work in bookstores again.” Within the country, Josef Schuster, the president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, said that while the critical volume may prove valuable, its sale and purchase should be monitored. The popular bookstore chain Thalia said it would not promote the book, and would only make it available upon individual customers’ requests.

The illegal, non-annotated version of Mein Kampf appeared about six months after the annotated edition, from a right-wing publisher called Der Schelm. The publisher is based in the eastern German town of Leipzig, in a state where the right wing has a strong presence. Der Schelm’s website claims that all copies of the first print-run have sold out, and that books from the second print-run became available on 20 September. The volume carries a preface by Gerald Fredrick Töben, the head of a Holocaust-denial group in the Australian city of Adelaide, who has served jail sentences in Germany for posting anti-Jewish messages on his website.

When I left a short note on Der Schelm’s website to ask about ordering the book, I received a response from the publisher via email. “You can buy the hardcover. Send me your address and I will let you know how much it’ll cost,” the message said.

According to Hartmann, Der Schelm is publishing an illegal edition “to push the boundaries of the system and to provoke the legal bodies.” Efraim Zuroff, the director at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem, which researches Nazi war crimes, told me in an email, “The book, without the annotations, is basically Nazi propaganda which is justifiably outlawed in Germany.”

In what may be an attempt to avoid legal action, Der Schelm states on its website that “By publishing the book, the publisher does not adopt any perspectives of its own and distances itself from any slanderous, hateful, offensive and human dignity attacking passages, especially from any abusive criticism of Judaism.” Nevertheless, in June, the broadcaster Deutsche Welle reported that authorities were looking into the matter in order to bring charges against the publisher, though no action has been reported yet.

Both versions of Mein Kampf have come at a time when Germany is experiencing a rise in extreme right-wing nationalism. Parties such as the Alternative for Germany, or AfD, and the National Democratic Party of Germany, or NPD, along with social movements such as Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West, are leading protests against the influx of refugees Germany is receiving from war-torn, largely Muslim countries. Espousing virulently anti-immigrant ideas, some of those on the far right seem influenced by the Nazi tenets of racial purity and fascism. According to Jan Buschbom, a scientific counselor at an organisation that rehabilitates such people, “There are still a lot of neo-Nazis who regard Mein Kampf as a central source.”

But for many in the right-wing world, the bookis still taboo. “The right-wing populist AfD and the NPD both are presumably hesitant when it comes to Mein Kampf,and strongly try to avoid any associations with Nazi topics,” said Fabian Leber, who reports on right-wing politics for the Berlin daily Der Tagesspiegel.

While some argue that the dissemination of Mein Kampf stokes the fires of modern-day fascism, others stress the importance of engaging with the text. Speaking of the annotated edition, Hartmann said, “I think the critical success of the book is very important, since it throws light on Nazi propaganda.” Lohnes agreed. “You must understand what’s hidden behind the lines by interpreting the text,” he said. “Soon, all schools will have this critical edition in their syllabus.”

Lohnes’s prediction may not be far from becoming reality. Last year, shortly before the release of the annotated Mein Kampf, Josef Kraus, the president of the German Teachers’ Association, suggested in an interview that excerpts of the book “should be read in sixth forms in the hope that young people can become immunised and resistant to extremist notions.” This would be a major departure from current practice. Although National Socialism is a main topic in history classes across Germany, Hitler’s manifesto is never among the assigned readings.

On a Wednesday morning this June, I walked into a popular chain bookstore in the southern German town of Reutlingen. When I enquired about Mein Kampf, a salesgirl showed me the hardbound critical edition sitting in the history section, priced at a steep ¤59. Lifting the bulky volume from the shelf with both her hands and allowing me to photograph it, she clarified that the store sold it only because it is an academic text. “But we do not sell the original,” she told me, pursing her lips, seeming unsure whether I was looking for it.