BOSTON – For more than 80 years, Boston-based publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has faced a singular challenge: what to do with royalties earned from Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” manifesto, which the company obtained US rights to in 1933.
The most recent challenge to allocating what has been called “blood money” came earlier this month, when the Boston Globe reported that HMH had “quietly decided to change course” on the use of Hitler book royalties by granting funds to projects having nothing to do with the Holocaust or anti-Semitism. Some Jewish leaders are disturbed — not only by this shift in focus, but also by the lack of engagement between HMH and the community during the process.
“This question is of particular importance because the facts of that genocide are still — and increasingly — denied in our own time,” said Jeremy Burton, executive director of Boston’s Jewish Community Relations Council.
“If Houghton Mifflin Harcourt wants to support educational institutions broadly and the non-profit community more generally, they should do so using overall profits of their business,” Burton told The Times of Israel. “Proceeds from the sale of ‘Mein Kampf’ should continue to be used exclusively for institutions that promote Holocaust education and awareness, including the universal lessons to be drawn from the Holocaust,” said Burton, who called the publisher’s decision to not involve local survivors and community members “problematic” and “painful.”
Hitler began work on “Mein Kampf” in 1923, during his brief, cushy imprisonment in Bavaria for the failed Beer Hall Putsch. Ten million copies sold in the dictator’s lifetime, earning him the equivalent of about half a billion dollars in today’s money. The book continues to be a best seller in parts of the world, including the Middle East and Germany, where a heavily annotated edition was recently republished.
Since 2000, HMH has donated “Mein Kampf” royalties to charities tied to Holocaust education and preventing anti-Semitism. Recipients have included the Anti-Defamation League and Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. In 2012, HMH donated $200,000 to Facing History and Ourselves, a global leader in Holocaust education and genocide prevention, also headquartered in Boston.
In recent weeks, HMH approached several local cultural institutions with invitations to apply for funding derived from “Mein Kampf” royalties. In October, the publisher rejected a proposal from Facing History and Ourselves, according to Roger Brooks, CEO of the nonprofit. The request had been for $150,000 to expand a partnership with Boston Public Schools for Holocaust education, Brooks told The Times of Israel.
“We have heard voices on many sides of this debate and they reflect the complexity of the issue,” HMH senior vice president Bianca Olson told The Times of Israel on Friday.
“We are actively working with members of the nonprofit community who support Holocaust survivors to review our opportunities and ensure these funds are used appropriately and with the most significant impact,” said Olson. “We understand the importance of honoring those that were victims of such deplorable atrocities and the actions that led up to them.”
‘Behind closed doors’
Calling the “Mein Kampf” royalties “blood money,” former Boston city councilor Mike Ross gave vent to his feelings in an interview on WGBH public television.
‘It is wrong to accept those funds’
“This is the blueprint for the annihilation of a people,” said Ross, who praised Boston’s Children’s Museum and Museum of Fine Arts for turning down HMH’s invitation to apply for funds.
“It is wrong to accept those funds,” said Ross, the son of Holocaust survivor Stephan Ross, founder of the New England Holocaust Memorial.
“In Germany, they had a much more responsible conversation about their version of ‘Mein Kampf,’” said Ross, referring to the annotated book. Claiming that HMH’s process has been “behind closed doors,” Ross said he is worried the publisher is “not taking this responsibility more seriously.”
From HMH’s viewpoint, the distribution of “Mein Kampf” royalties to a wider array of cultural and social organizations is in keeping with the times, as explained by the company’s chief in an op-ed for the Boston Globe on May 9.
‘When we have money that can be viewed as tainted, we remove the taint by making sure to combat the hatred behind the money’
“By partnering with organizations that have a wide reach, that serve our communities and our visitors, we aim to touch more individuals, spark meaningful discussion, and highlight how essential cross-cultural exchange, understanding, and community are in combating discrimination and hatred,” wrote Linda K. Zecher, president and CEO of the iconic publishing house, founded in 1832.
Calling the book an “ugly, concrete symbol of extremism and terror,” Zecher said the work’s “complexity” calls for “a closer look at the way the past informs the future, at the patterns of ideology we see around us, and at the ways in which the stories we share with our community shape public opinion,” adding that “today’s narrative” calls for community leaders to “embrace diversity.”
According to Facing History and Ourselves’ Roger Brooks, HMH “needs to think about what kind of legacy they want attached to these dollars,” he told The Times of Israel in an interview.
“When we have money that can be viewed as tainted, we remove the taint by making sure to combat the hatred behind the money,” said Brooks. “The funds should go to those groups that really take on issues of the Holocaust and its contemporary manifestations,” he said.
Eight decades of ‘blood money’
The tension is the latest in more than eight decades of PR fiascos related to HMH’s handling of the US rights to “Mein Kampf,” an arrangement that yields about $60,000 in annual royalty profits.
The company started publishing a British translation of “Mein Kampf” in 1933, eliciting immediate debate. Jewish editor Louis Rittenberg said Houghton Mifflin was “cashing in on the misery and catastrophe of an important section of the human family,” and a petition was sent to the company’s board of directors.
“The greatest service one can render humanity in general and Germany in particular is to play ‘My Battle’[‘Mein Kampf’] within the reach of all, that each, for himself, may see whether the book is worthy or is an exhibition of ignorance, stupidity, and dullness,” wrote Houghton Mifflin in its response to the petitioners.
Unfortunately for American readers, however, Hitler’s manifesto had been greatly abridged for the Houghton Mifflin edition. The demagogue’s fixation on race and race-mixing, his “solution” for Marxism, and almost all of his philosophies about wartime propaganda did not make it to the book, nor did most of his genocidal rantings about world Jewry. Hitler’s esoteric ramblings were left intact, but many dozens of pages relevant to his genocidal plans for Europe were eliminated.
Hitler’s manifesto had been greatly abridged for the Houghton Mifflin edition
These omissions greatly disturbed journalist Alan Cranston, a former correspondent in Europe who was familiar with the original “Mein Kampf” in German.
“It was much less weighty, it was much thinner,” said Cranston of the English edition he saw one day in New York City’s Macy’s bookstore, soon after he returned from Europe in 1939. For six years, Cranston realized, the American people had been sold a significantly less inflammatory “Mein Kampf” than what Hitler had actually written, all while Germany rearmed.
Cranston, who went on to serve in the US Senate, immediately set out to publish a bootleg “Mein Kampf” to expose the essence of Hitler’s thinking. The activist created a 32-page, illustrated tabloid, restoring key racist and violent passages omitted in Houghton Mifflin’s “Mein Kampf” translation.
For all this, Hitler’s publisher in Bavaria sued for copyright violation in 1939, and Cranston’s outfit was shut down by Connecticut court action. However, more than half a million copies of the underground truth-telling “Mein Kampf” had been sold by then, helping to clarify Hitler’s intentions though his own words.
At the start of World War II, the US government seized the rights and profits from “Mein Kampf,” including from Houghton Mifflin’s belated, unabridged edition, released shortly after Cranston’s tabloid came out. Although the publisher continued to pursue action against rogue printers of its former property, HMH did not buy back the rights to “Mein Kampf” until 1979.
The next PR blip came in 2000, when US News & World Report revealed that HMH had made $400,000 in royalty profits from “Mein Kampf” since 1979. The article prompted the company to begin donating the royalties to nonprofits that promote “diversity and cross-cultural understanding.” In practice, those organizations have all been related to Holocaust education and combatting anti-Semitism — until the publisher’s latest plan to gift Hitler’s book royalties to Boston cultural institutions.
“I’m sure HMH was well-intentioned when it tried to broaden the use of funds from Mein Kampf,” said Josef Blumenfeld, founder of PR firm EdTech180 and a former executive at HMH.
“Unfortunately, the company failed to recognize the sensitivity around this book, perhaps more than any other,” Blumenfeld told The Times of Israel. “Holocaust education and fighting anti-Semitism is the most appropriate use of funds derived from the sale of Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf.’ The opportunity for HMH to do the right thing here still exists,” said Blumenfeld, whose clients include Facing History and Ourselves.
Having started its association with “Mein Kampf” by chopping out the book’s core message, HMH is still deciding on the future of profits from that hateful manifesto. The company’s 1933 abridged edition helped obscure Hitler’s genocidal blueprint, and some onlookers worry that HMH’s latest plan for “Mein Kampf” royalties will stymie Holocaust education efforts — even while anti-Semitism is again on the rise.