Adolf Hitler's rambling magnum opus, Mein Kampf ("My Struggle") is considered a blueprint of the radical nationalist, pungently anti-Semitic vision that he would put into practice when the Nazis captured power in Germany, in 1933. It reflects his thinking so accurately that one German historian describes the book as "direct access to Hitler's brain."
In fact, the book's contents were considered potent and infectious enough that the postwar administration in Allied-occupied Germany banned its publication, a prohibition that German authorities maintained, and which is to remain in place until the end of 2015, when the copyright expires. What happens then is the object of intense discussion and soul-searching in Germany, where, 67 years after the war's end, freedom of speech is still curtailed when it promotes Nazi ideology.
Hitler wrote most of Mein Kampf in 1924, during his incarceration for his role in the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch in Munich, when he and his followers tried to seize power in southern Germany. One of his motives for writing the book was to use the royalties to pay off his legal fees. It was originally thought that Hitler dictated it to his prison mate and early follower, Rudolf Hess. But recent research concludes that Hitler typed it himself in his cell on a portable typewriter, and then later dictated further parts to a publisher.
The tome is a 700-page, two-volume monstrosity, the first edition of which came out in 1925. Though the book contains autobiographical information and was used as a basis for the Nazi Party's political programs, it is written in the agitprop style of a political pamphlet. During the Weimar Republic years, the book was a best seller and the subject of fervent debate.
Hitler conceived Mein Kampf as a call to a völkisch nationalist alternative not only to Marxism and social democracy, but also to parliamentary democracy, monarchy, and the church. He describes international Jewry as a force committed to a global conspiracy to dominate the world and reduce Germans to their underlings. Using the classic anti-Semitic forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, he asserts that rootless, cosmopolitan Jews were behind Bolshevism as well as American-style capitalism. Hitler's tract calls for Germany's rearmament, the annexation of Austria, the rejection of the Versailles peace treaty, and the necessity of a Rassenkrieg (racial war) to win Lebensraum (living space) for Germans in eastern Europe.
Because Munich was Hitler's last legal address before he and his National Socialist German Workers Party came to power in Berlin, Bavaria owns its intellectual-property rights, a hot potato that officials here have juggled uneasily for decades. Despite the fact that 12 million copies of Mein Kampf are in print—making it one of the world's all-time best sellers—German courts have repeatedly upheld the ban on publication, as well as the book's flaunting in public and display in store windows. One may legally, however, own Mein Kampf, disseminate it, use it in university coursework, and even sell secondhand copies. Anybody can download it today free from the Internet.
The de facto Nazi bible was outlawed in the delicate postwar years, when Germany was a traumatized, post-fascist country, far removed from the imperative of coming to terms with its past.
"The prohibition was completely justified at the time," says Hajo Funke, a political scientist emeritus at Berlin's Free University. "Both the American and German authorities were rightly worried that it could attract a cult following. In addition to this, there were much tougher prohibitions aimed at a population that had just undergone 12 years of fierce Nazi propaganda and still had those thoughts in their heads. At the time, there were broad networks of active former Nazis, including ex-SS officers."
Today there are still networks of right-wing extremists in Germany, as there are most everywhere in Europe. And in Germany, the state's rigorous prosecution of Nazi propaganda is accepted by most citizens. Just last year, Germans were shocked at revelations that a terrorist group calling itself the National Socialist Underground had murdered 10 people, nine of them immigrants. Polls attest that anti-Semitism still has currency among about 20 percent of Germans. That figure is not higher than elsewhere in Europe, but Germany is, after all, Germany.
Most observers feel that Germans have long possessed the political sophistication to have Mein Kampf readily available in bookstores, and that the ban has outlived its purpose. "German society as a whole is now mature enough," says Bernd Wagner, an expert on right-wing extremism who runs a program for neo-Nazis opting to leave the scene.
But the Bavarian authorities aren't taking any chances. At the cost of $700,000, they have opted to publish annotated editions, including English and audio-book versions, to go on sale on January 1, 2016. The hope is that these will precede the publication of private publishers' unannotated versions and will therefore steal their thunder.
The task of annotating Mein Kampf—including one for high-school students—is in the hands of a small team of historians at the prestigious Institute of Contemporary History, in Munich. The aim of the exercise, which will include critical introductions, is to "demystify" its messages.
"Mein Kampf is like a rusty old grenade. We want to remove its detonator," explains Christian Hartmann, who leads the Munich team. "We intend to defuse the book. This way it will lose its symbolic value and become what it really is: a piece of historical evidence—nothing more."
Exactly what Hartmann and his team intend to include in the commentary is a source of tension. Why should historians alone get the job, ask political scientists? What will be emphasized and what will be omitted? Will the commentary confine itself to Hitler's early ambition to conquer Europe alone, or will it point toward phrasing that indicates the waging of a world war? Can one read into Hitler's anti-Semitic tirades his intention to exterminate Europe's Jewry, even though that idea is nowhere explicitly mentioned in Mein Kampf? Scholars are among those eager to get their hands on the Munich team's annotated version in order to discover what emphases the notes convey.
For instance, Julius H. Schoeps, director of the Moses Mendelssohn Center for European-Jewish Studies, at the University of Potsdam, argues that one of Mein Kampf's most essential elements is Hitler's presentation of himself in quasi-religious terms, as a "savior," even a Christ figure. Although Schoeps' focus is not particularly maverick, there is no consensus that this is a primary aspect students should take away from the book. More generally, Schoeps argues that annotations should be ample, not just minimal footnotes, and that they should explicitly underscore connections and explain nuances.
"Mein Kampf was the clearest single ideological formulation of Nazism," says Funke, who as a political scientist focuses on the ideological design of fascism. "In it you'll find radical anti-Semitism, Hitler's will to dominate the world, völkisch nationalism, Aryan supremacy, the logic of eugenics, and his justifications for a Führer-led state. The annotated editions have to make these points, as well as being historically exact and clear."
But Wolfgang Benz, director of the Center for Research on Antisemitism, at the Technical University of Berlin, believes that Mein Kampf is not nearly as definitive a work on Nazism as many of his colleagues think, and that imputing so much weight to it in the annotated editions blows its relevance out of proportion.
Norbert Frei, a historian at Friedrich Schiller University of Jena, feels that the commentary is in the right hands in Munich but agrees that "it has to refrain from overeditorializing.
"You could comment on every line, but that would be way too much," he says. "It should stick to correcting factual errors, identifying persons mentioned, etc."
The debate over annotation is less relevant for university students, since their instructors aid them in making sense of the content. "The commentary is for your nonacademic man on the street, so he'll be able to understand its context," says Schoeps.
Selections from Mein Kampf have long been on course syllabi, particularly in political-science departments in Germany. Usually West German instructors would photocopy a short section or a few pages for their classes. Before the age of photocopiers, students in the 1960s, like Hajo Funke, filched copies from their parents' shelves or found used editions in secondhand book stores. After all, there were plenty floating around in the postwar decades. During the Nazi years, every newlywed couple in Germany and every soldier on the front received a free copy. By 1945 an estimated 10 million were in circulation.
But making Mein Kampf available to high-school students, even with a commentary aimed at teenagers, is a different matter. Germany's federal agency for civic education is drawing up a manual to help teachers better explain the text. The Bavarian Teachers' Association has protested the move. Right-wing-extremism experts, like Bernd Wagner, worry that when bookshops sell new editions of Mein Kampf, neo-Nazis will be better able to persuade young people to buy them. "And if the kids aren't talking about the content" with someone in the know, "then they might make some of the theses their own."
Some scholars outside Germany are less worried about that possibility.
"I have no qualms about Mein Kampf being available to a broader German public," says Jonathan Sperber, a professor of modern European history at the University of Missouri at Columbia. "Actually reading the work, with its tedious 1920s German, would, if anything, discourage the various neo-Nazis and skinheads in Germany today."
"The idea of immunizing the populace against Hitlerism by banning Mein Kampf was always pointless," says Anson Rabinbach, a historian at Princeton University. "It has also been available in German on the Internet for some time."
"A long overdue scholarly edition should address such issues ... as its intellectual roots, audience, and contemporary influence," he says
Concentration-camp survivors and their relatives are appealing to publishing houses and book retailers not to carry the book. Germany's democratic socialist party, the Left Party, blasts the annotated version as a misguided approach. "The right-wing scene has always had access to the book," said a news release from the party, "and an annotated edition simply contributes to the wider dissemination of fascist thinking under the guise of scholarship." The Left Party, particularly strong in eastern Germany, maintains that Mein Kampf should be banned completely in Germany, because it constitutes inflammatory fascist propaganda.
But the historian Frei responds that "in order to prevent publication, the state would either have to prove it was inflammatory or create a new law. Why should we give Adolf Hitler the honor of going to so much trouble so long after his death?"