What a comeback: Nearly 90 years after Adolf Hitler wrote “Mein Kampf,” and 70 years after his death, his magnum opus is again topping German bestseller lists.
Despite the controversy surrounding the reappearance of Hitler’s anti-Semitic screed, the Institute for Contemporary History in Munich was surprised by the success of the two-volume annotated version of “Mein Kampf,” which contains more critical commentary than the original text.
“We were surprised by the great demand of the book, as the originally planned 4,000 copies prove,” acknowledged Austrian historian Othmar Plöckinger, who co-edited the new edition. Still, he told The Times of Israel in an email interview, in the Internet era, it was “an illusion” to believe that people could be prevented from reading this or any other work. And far better, he said, that they read “our annotated edition” than the original version.
Written by Hitler between 1924 and 1925, mostly while he was in prison for a botched putsch, “Mein Kampf” (“My Struggle” in German) was translated into 18 languages and sold more than 12 million copies before 1945. After the war, the book’s publication was outlawed in Germany. But according to German law, a book enters the public domain seven decades after the author’s death, which enabled its re-publication last week.
Even the publication of a “critical edition,” as the publisher calls it, was received with mixed feelings in Germany’s Jewish community.
In December, the Central Council of Jews in Germany said the book must remain prohibited, and called on authorities to “rigorously prosecute the distribution and sale of the book.” However, the council’s president, Josef Schuster, acknowledged that “Mein Kampf” was already easily available online.
He further allowed that knowledge of the work continues to be important to the understanding of Nazism and the Holocaust. “Therefore we do not object to a critical edition, contrasting Hitler’s racial theories with scientific findings, to be at the disposal of research and teaching,” he said in a statement.
Co-editor Plöckinger, who published his first book on “Mein Kampf” in 2006, said he sympathizes with Holocaust survivors who worry about seeing Hitler’s book back on German bookshelves.
“In my opinion there is no alternative to the publication of the annotated edition,” he told The Times of Israel. “If I would have to choose between people reading an original issue of ‘Mein Kampf’ or our annotated edition, I’d vote for the second option,” he said.
Plöckinger, who together with three other historians wrote some 3,500 critical annotations to accompany Hitler’s text, is a veritable “Mein Kampf” expert. Besides his first book on the topic, entitled: “Mein Kampf: The Story of a Book,” he recently published a 700-page volume with historical sources dealing with the book, many of which have never been published before. For instance, it reproduces for the first time a letter from December 1931 in which famed German philosopher Martin Heidegger warmly recommends the “Hitler book,” arguing that its author has an “unusual and secure political instinct.”
In preparing for the task of publishing an edited version of one of world history’s best-known and incendiary works, Plöckinger also consulted with senior Israeli scholar Dan Michman, who heads Yad Vashem’s International Institute for Holocaust Research. Plöckinger was also in contact with Alon Kraus, an Israeli lawyer who recently toured Germany with a play about “Mein Kampf.”
Here is a slightly edited transcript of our interview:
The Times of Israel: How many copies of the annotated new version of ‘Mein Kampf’ have been sold so far? How many advance orders have you received? How many additional copies is the publisher preparing to print?
Othmar Plöckinger: At the beginning, 4,000 copies were produced, but they were sold out weeks before the presentation of the annotated edition last Friday. Therefore, 5,000 additional copies were produced. But as 15,000 orders were placed by last Friday, there will be more copies produced again. Actually it can’t be said if this is it. But according to the great coverage of the edition, I don’t think so.
What can you tell me about plans to translate the book? Have any agreements been reached? Which other languages are being considered, and which will be prioritized?
There have been several inquiries concerning possible translations, but there are no agreements and no actual plans to translate the annotated edition. On the one hand, to finish the edition in time took all the resources available, so no serious talks were possible. On the other hand, it is crucial for the Institute for Contemporary History in Munich to ensure a high quality and integrity of possible translations — and that takes time to organize and to prepare. To my knowledge there is an independent annotated edition of ‘Mein Kampf’ in preparation in France.
Are you surprised by the book’s overwhelming renewed success? How do you explain that a scientific edition of an old book would be such a sales hit?
Yes, we were surprised by the great demand of the book as the originally planned 4,000 copies prove. Of course it is an old book, about 90 years old, but still it is a symbol of the horrors of the Nazi regime and therefore more than an old book. Moreover, all the myths and legends around this book and its content can be discussed, analyzed and debunked now based on the original text itself. And I prefer a high interest in our annotated edition much more than in editions without any comment in India, Turkey or elsewhere.
Who do you think is buying the book? Mostly scholars of the Third Reich? But they probably know it already. How worried are you that the book is falling into wrong hands, for example of people who, ignoring the critical commentary, might be sympathetic to Hitler’s message?
At this stage it is hard to say who bought the annotated edition so far. Probably many scholars, libraries, education institutes, universities etc. For right-wing people, who want the book for symbolical reasons (and there are studies which prove that this is the main relevance of the book for neo-Nazis), our edition is of no interest; they have an original edition long since. And for those right-wing people interested in the content of the book it takes only two clicks on the Internet to download it for free without any comment. And if nevertheless a neo-Nazi will have a look into the annotated edition, he will not be able to ignore the comments for 2,000 pages; he will be confronted with them unavoidably. And that’s a good first step.
Opinions about the value of the book’s publication vary. You obviously belong to those who argue that it is a good thing to open the book to a wide public in order to debunk Hitler’s rubbish for what it is. Does the massive popularity of the book in any way change your opinion? Doesn’t it worry you just a little bit to know that so many people are reading Hitler’s book?
I deeply understand the rejection of the publication of the annotated edition of “Mein Kampf” by survivors of the Nazi horrors and their descendants because the book still is a symbol of Nazism and covers all the filth of the Nazi-ideology. But in my opinion there is no alternative to the publication of the annotated edition.
In times of the Internet it’s an illusion to think one could prevent people from reading any book, including ‘Mein Kampf.’ And if I would have to choose between people reading an original issue of ‘Mein Kampf’ or our annotated edition I’d vote for the second option. But besides that I would suppose that most of the buyers of our edition are more interested in our comments than in the original text. Otherwise they would not have waited for this edition.
At 59 euros (over NIS 250), the book is not cheap. Who determined the price? Where do the proceeds of the sale go to?
I would disagree. The book is cheap compared with other publications of this size (2,000 pages in two volumes). This is possible as the book is produced at cost price, there are no profits. This is the information the Institute for Contemporary History announced at the presentation last Friday. I have no further information, but of course I was not involved in the financial planning of the edition.