Q&A: Hitler on the Bestseller List
Eighty-one years after its original release, Mein Kampf (“My Struggle”), the notorious autobiography and manifesto Adolf Hitler wrote while he was in prison, is once again a bestseller in Germany. The reason for this unusual comeback? Seventy years after the author’s death, the copyright for Mein Kampf has finally expired. Since the end of World War II, the government of Bavaria—the heir of Hitler’s property, including the rights for Mein Kampf—has prohibited its publication, until now. When the Munich-based Institute for Contemporary History published its annotated edition of the book in January, it sold out in just a few days. While the historians intended to provide context and correct untruths, the re-publication nonetheless triggered intense discussion and controversy.
“It is a Pandora’s box: when you stir up this kind of hatred, no one knows where it might lead,” Charlotte Knobloch, former president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, told the magazine Index on Censorship.
Moment talked to the Institute’s Dr. Christian Hartmann, the head historian of the annotated edition of Mein Kampf, about the concerns of Jewish organizations over the book’s publication, and why the text is worth re-examining. —Thomas Siurkus
How would you describe the content of Mein Kampf?
Mein Kampf is Hitler’s attempt to give an ideology to a splinter party, like the NSDAP (Nazi Party), which had been on the fringes during the writing process of the book. Characteristic for this group was their extreme racist, nationalistic and violent mentality. But the group didn’t have a written ideology, besides a 25-point program. Hitler used the break after his failed putsch in 1923 to develop a real NS ideology. Hitler didn’t have any writing skills, nor was he politically or philosophically educated. You note that, if you read Mein Kampf, the book is a unique mix of autobiography, hate speech, political operations instructions and ideological policy statements.
Was the plan for the Third Reich laid out in Mein Kampf? Could people have known what was to come if they had read it?
Yes and no. In parts of Mein Kampf, Hitler speaks very openly about his future politics—for example, the alliance with Italy, the attack on the Soviet Union and his expansion into the east.
He even talks about killing the Jews by using gas. However, we should not over-interpret that. It would be wrong to draw a direct line from Mein Kampf to Auschwitz. The genesis of the Holocaust is much more complex.
Where Hitler leaves no doubt in Mein Kampf is his fanatic hatred of the Jews. Back then, it was clear that he would be willing to commit mass murder. He also announces a dictatorship and war, when he would come to power.
Did Hitler give a personal reason for his Jew-hatred?
Primarily, Hitler tries to justify his Jew-hatred ideologically. He tries to interweave his ideology in Mein Kampf with his biography. He conventionalizes himself as a kind of founder of a religion. That is really unusual. He begins in Mein Kampf with his birth and develops his ideological program with the story of his life, from his birth to his youth in Vienna, where he also mentions his first contacts with Jews, which he describes negatively. In our annotated edition we refer to the fact that Hitler also conducted business with Jewish people during his time in Vienna.
Mein Kampf is full of hatred and warmongering. Why wasn’t there an outcry abroad after its release?
By now we have a good analysis about the reception of Mein Kampf. The enemies of Hitler read the book and some of them stood up—but only some of them. There was still the hope that it wouldn’t become that bad. Even the German Jews had this hope.
Another reason for the lack of outcry is that Hitler didn’t implement all the plans that he announced in Mein Kampf. That, among other things, led to underestimating the matter.
Mein Kampf was even known in the Soviet Union, where it had been translated into Russian. But that didn’t prevent Stalin from signing a non-aggression treaty with the Germans. Mein Kampf was too often underestimated.
Many people say that the book is confusing and banal. Do you agree?
That is a first impression, because Hitler didn’t have any writing skills. But we should not forget that Hitler built in his pamphlet an ideology that is in itself logical, even if it looks insane and criminal from an outside perspective. Hitler was not a maniac—he was, rather, a product of his time.
Would you call Mein Kampf the most dangerous book of the German language?
The book is still dangerous, when it comes to the basic concept of it. The basic idea is split into four ideologies—ideas of race, territory, dictatorship and violence. Even today, right-wing groups can relate to that.
Otherwise, Mein Kampf includes long passages of descriptions that are today only of historical interest—for example, Hitler’s youth in Vienna before 1914, the occupation of the Ruhr Area in 1923 by French troops and German reparations after the end of the first World War. Many people do not understand these aspects without appropriate commentary. Hitler also works with hidden allusions that are very hard to decrypt these days.
Why did you publish this edition exactly when the copyright expired?
We wanted to prevent an political or economic abuse of this unfortunate heritage of the Third Reich. Because there are publishers that just want to make money with this book.
How has the reception of the annotated edition of Mein Kampf been?
The public reaction was mostly positive, I think because most people understood our goal: a critical examination of Hitler’s text and his complete deconstruction.
There are also many critical voices. Our question always is: What would have been the alternative? The book is in the world! The book has been in the public domain since January 1. Mein Kampf is already very popular in Arab countries today. Millions of copies get sold all over the planet, and they sometimes look like they were printed in the Third Reich. There’s an Indian copy of the edition printed with an Imperial Eagle and a swastika, like in the old days. We are challenged to answer with a critical annotated edition to counter this.
Why should people read Mein Kampf today?
Everybody who wants to know more about the topic of National-Socialism, German history and Hitler’s biography should read Mein Kampf. The book is a centerpiece of an ideology that led to the biggest catastrophe known to mankind.
You worked for many years on an annotated edition of Mein Kampf. Why have you devoted so much time to this topic?
I was born in 1959. In my youth, in the ‘60s and ‘70s, the topic of National-Socialism was much more present. I got interested in dealing with the past, so I decided to study history. I never imagined that I would annotate Hitler one day. But I got the inquiry and I think that this is a responsibility that you should not withdraw from.
I always compared our work to the Kampfmittelräumdienst, the Explosive Ordnance Disposal service. Because we are defusing a bomb that laid in earth for many decades.
Why is it important for an annotated edition of Mein Kampf to be on the market?
An un-annotated edition of Mein Kampf is just Nazi propaganda. That’s why we worked on a annotated edition. But we’ve already gotten a few letters saying that people would like to read the original. They can do that with our edition, but we also confront them with the results of historical research. The radicalism, dishonesty and evilness require an adjustment.
What do you say about the accusation that the release of the newest edition is hurtful to Holocaust survivors? Have you spoken with any of them about it?
I didn’t speak directly with a Holocaust survivor. But we had contact with Yad Vashem. Dan Michman, head of the International Institute for Holocaust Research at Yad Vashem, visited us at the Institute and was convinced by our project. However, there are other opinions within Yad Vashem that have different points of view on our work. We can understand the reservations of the survivors. But we always have to have the question in mind: What would have been the alternative?
Mein Kampf is a racist, anti-Semitic book. The copyright expired in a year when Germany is accepting hundreds of thousands of refugees and right-wing parties are gaining popularity. Is the release of the edition not counter-productive?
Quite the contrary. I believe that this moment especially is a good one. Because there is an edition coming on the market that is refuting Hitler’s hatred and lies.