Publish and debunk this relic of history

By Ben Macintyre (THE TIMES, 27/07/07):

Read the 1933 Times Editorial on Mein Kampf

Seventy-four years ago this week, The Times started serialising the worst book ever written. Adolf Hitler had dictated Mein Kampf in Landsburg Prison in 1924, while incarcerated for his attempted putsch against the German Government. The book would not be published in Britain until October 1933, but this newspaper obtained the rights to run exclusive extracts four months earlier.

The Times explained that it was publishing this vile, anti-Semitic rant on the grounds that “readers will find it illuminating as a psychological revelation [which] will show how Hitler came to hate the Jews”. Even so, the Editor of the day, George Dawson, was plainly holding his nose as he placed Mein Kampf (“My Struggle”) in the public domain.

The accompanying editorial spoke of the author as a “fanatical anti-Semite” with “a few ideas, harshly created and stubbornly held”. It noted Hitler’s “revengeful fury” and the “cruel acts of savagery which have degraded Germany in the eyes of the world”. The editorial concluded: “The Hitler regime has actually been established by violence [and] legalised terrorism is still necessary to its maintenance.”

Few in 1933 could have foreseen the full scale of the horror that Hitler would shortly unleash, but there is a flicker of premonition in this newspaper’s palpable distaste. Dawson must also have wondered whether, in giving space to Hitler’s noxious ideas, he was also spreading and encouraging them. Was The Times justified in publishing Hitler’s tract? Or are there some words so ugly in import and so violent in intent, that they should be locked away? Is Hitler’s creed an ideological poison, liable to corrupt and contaminate anyone who is exposed to it? These questions have been asked about Mein Kampf ever since it first appeared, and it is an issue of fierce debate in Germany today, where Horst M�ller, a leading German historian, has called for the book to be published openly for the first time since 1945.

The Bavarian state authorities own the copyright to Hitler’s writings, but maintain an effective ban by refusing all requests to print it. Officially, the book cannot be bought in Germany, Israel, Norway or Switzerland. It is illegal to own it in Austria and to sell it in the Netherlands. But the book is available for sale in the US and Britain, as well as through internet bookshops. About 3,000 copies are sold every year in the UK.

Mein Kampf is the central defining text of racial hatred, a lurid, paranoid diatribe founded on the lie of Aryan supremacy. It is not only evil but amazingly badly written, being repetitious, anti-factual, rambling and turgid, the testimony of a furious, self-pitying failure with a slender grasp on reality and none whatever on grammar. It was a huge bestseller: each newly married couple, graduating student, and soldier at the front was presented with a copy by the Third Reich; Hitler earned more than $1 million a year in royalties. It is wicked rubbish, at once stomach-turning and soporific; everyone should read it, once.

Holocaust survivors are understandably unhappy at the prospect of a book that caused such bloodshed becoming freely available once more in the country that gave birth to Nazism. Yet whatever sympathy one may feel for those who suffered, no book should be banned, however pernicious. Allowed to fester in the dark corners of neo-Nazism, Hitler’s ideas continue to hold a spurious glamour for the twisted few: held up to the light, they shrivel. In treating this disease, exposure to fresh air is always more effective than quarantine.

Some argued as much from the beginning. William L. Shirer, the American journalist and historian who covered the rise of the Third Reich, suggested that if Hitler’s ideas had been more widely disseminated and understood outside Germany in the 1930s, then the world might have taken action in time to stop him.

The Times was right to publish extracts from Mein Kampf in 1933; the publisher Hutchinson was brave and right to issue a cheap wartime edition in order that British people might better understand what we were fighting for, and against. And Mr Möller is surely right to argue that Germany has now left the spectre of Nazism so far behind, that it can trust itself to read Hitler’s creed without fear of reinfection.

Quite apart from the issue of free speech, there is the practical consideration that book-banning is virtually impossible in the internet age. The Nazis themselves tried, and failed, to ban and burn the “degenerate” books they feared, and in the process lent those works underground status. Today any neo-Nazi with half a brain (rather more than the usual complement), can download Mein Kampf and feel aggrieved and special for having to do so in secret.

The copyright of Mein Kampf in Germany will expire in 2015, and then German publishers will be free to publish it. How much better, then, to produce a cheap, scholarly, annotated version in German now, with a commentary comprehensively debunking it. That would be a mark of moral courage, a demonstration that Germany has come to terms with its past and can look on the evil of Nazism with confident disdain instead of a lingering fear.

Mein Kampf is a historical relic that has retained its power to horrify: it should be preserved and exhibited in the same way as Auschwitz, the killing fields of Cambodia and Holocaust museums everywhere. Germany has struggled to explore and understand its own history with an honesty that stands as a beacon to other traumatised nations, from South Africa to Iraq to Northern Ireland. Hitler’s apologia for mass murder is a painful but necessary part of that story. It should be published, and damned.