Germany is once again passing through the wringer of its past. At issue this time are not the deeds but the words of Adolf Hitler and the planned republication of his infamous manifesto-as-autobiography, “Mein Kampf,” a book that has been officially suppressed in the country since the end of World War II.
But while the prospect of the Führer’s words circulating freely on the German market may shock some, it shouldn’t. The inoculation of a younger generation against the Nazi bacillus is better served by open confrontation with Hitler’s words than by keeping his reviled tract in the shadows of illegality.
Hitler wrote the first draft of his deeply anti-Semitic, race-based ideological screed in 1924, while in prison for leading a failed coup; by the time of his death 21 years later, it had sold 10 million copies.
Since then, although “Mein Kampf” has maintained a shadow presence — on the back shelves of used bookstores and libraries and, more recently, online — its copyright holder, the state of Bavaria, has refused to allow its republication, creating an aura of taboo around the book.
All that is about to change. Bavaria’s copyright expires at the end of 2015; after that, anyone can publish the book: a quality publisher, a mass-market pulp house, even a neo-Nazi group.
The release of “Mein Kampf” into Germany’s cultural bloodstream is sure to be a sensational moment. In a nation that still avidly buys books — and loves to argue in public — the book will again ignite painful intergenerational debates on talk shows and in opinion pages about how parents and grandparents let themselves be so blindly misled.
Like the 1996 uproar caused by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s controversial book “Hitler’s Willing Executioners,” which accused ordinary Germans of being capable of mass-murdering Jews, this publishing event will shape contemporary politics and feed Germany’s deep-rooted postwar pacifism. Germany’s involvement — or noninvolvement — in international crises like Kosovo, Afghanistan, Libya and, most recently, Mali is profoundly influenced by such impassioned debates. “Germany is a haunted land, still living in Hitler’s shadow,” the German Jewish writer Henryk M. Broder told me recently.
Racing to be first to publish the book is the Institute for Contemporary History, a noted center in Munich for the study of Nazism, which has a five-scholar team at work on an annotated “critical edition” of Hitler’s 700-page ramble.
The institute’s version will double the size of the book and create an academic baseline for all future study of the ur-text of Hitlerism, said the team’s leader, Christian Hartmann. The book’s extensive notations, he added, will “encircle” Hitler’s story line with a “collage” of commentary to demystify and decode it, an alternative subtext and historical context that will strip it of its allegedly hypnotizing power.
Unsurprisingly, the “Mein Kampf” project has stirred uproar in some Jewish circles. Charlotte Knobloch, president of the Israelite Cultural Community of Munich and Upper Bavaria, said “there is still a danger” of catalyzing far-right sentiments. Uri Chanoch, an 86-year-old Israeli Holocaust survivor, added that Germans “somewhere in their hearts still have a hatred for us” and has campaigned aggressively against the book’s republication, calling for international pressure on Bavaria to block it.
After such sentiments were expressed to Bavaria’s premier, Horst Seehofer, during a trip to Israel, he decided to halt his state’s planned participation in the “Mein Kampf” project and cancel the $684,000 it had given in research funding.
That decision, in turn, triggered an outcry among academics and in the Bavarian Legislature, which had earlier approved the book. Even some Jewish leaders were taken aback. “I was astonished by this decision,” said Salomon Korn, the leader of Frankfurt’s 7,000-strong Jewish community. “We should have already had a critical edition of ‘Mein Kampf.’ ”
In an awkward dance, Mr. Seehofer’s government was forced to reconsider its reconsideration. It agreed to leave the money in place while withholding its governmental seal of approval. This reverse fig leaf may or may not mollify opponents, especially in Israel, who thought they had stopped the book.
But with the funding in hand, the institute is proceeding. Its edition will serve a political purpose, countering the negative impact on Germany’s image and political culture of raw reprints of the book that might flood the market. Whether it impedes such publications or not, the academic edition can always be held up as authoritative, especially in schools and universities. This is a good thing. Sixty-nine years after World War II, it no longer makes sense for Germans not to have unfettered access to the same book that can be easily bought in other countries. Keeping Hitler’s dreary and often incomprehensible diatribe under wraps, out of misplaced fear of a Nazi revival, is a vast overreaction: Germany’s only pseudo-Nazi party received 1 percent in the recent European Parliament vote; in France, the far right received nearly 25 percent.
In 1959, West Germany’s first postwar president, Theodor Heuss, recommended republishing “Mein Kampf” as a cautionary document for the German people. Not yet ready for such a confrontation, the political establishment ignored him. Today, 55 years and 10 presidents later, Heuss’s good idea is finally coming to fruition.
Peter Ross Range is a journalist who writes frequently on Germany.