Germans’ huge interest in ‘Mein Kampf’ shows a will to ‘cope with the past’

Top Israeli scholar surprised but unfazed by high sales of new annotated version; publisher tells Times of Israel it is deliberately making no money from what it calls an educational project

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

A copy of 'Hitler, Mein Kampf -- A critical edition' stands on a display table in a bookstore in Munich, Germany, Friday, Jan. 8, 2016. This annotated edition is the first version of Adolf Hitler's notorious manifesto to be published in Germany since the end of World War II. (AP/Matthias Schrader)
A copy of 'Hitler, Mein Kampf -- A critical edition' stands on a display table in a bookstore in Munich, Germany, Friday, Jan. 8, 2016. This annotated edition is the first version of Adolf Hitler's notorious manifesto to be published in Germany since the end of World War II. (AP/Matthias Schrader)

The overwhelming success of a new, critically annotated version of Hitler’s Mein Kampf that was published in Germany last week stems from the German people’s desire, still strong 70 years after World War II, to come to terms with the country’s dark past, one of Israel’s leading Holocaust scholars said Tuesday.

The sale of thousands of copies of the new edition, turning Hitler’s manifesto into a German bestseller, Dan Michman said, should not raise concerns about it fueling a new wave of anti-Semitism. Those who sought inspiration from Hitler didn’t need a new, scholarly edition to read the Nazi leader’s screed, he noted, since it was already widely available elsewhere.

Published Friday amid great controversy, the two annotated volumes of Hitler’s anti-Semitic screed sold out instantly. The great interest in the work surprised even the Institute for Contemporary History, which published it. Having initially printed only 4,000 copies — but receiving more than three times as many orders by publication day — the institute quickly moved to print thousands of additional copies, and is vowing to maintain an uninterrupted distribution to all those who are interested.

“I am a bit surprised, indeed. Not many scholarly source editions become bestsellers,” said Michman, who heads the International Institute for Holocaust Research at Yad Vashem. “I suggest two reasons — first, because of the media buzz, quite a number of people decided to see what it is all about, though most of them will not really read through it. [And second,] this would be part of the still-ongoing process of ‘coping with the past’ in Germany.”

Yad Vashem's Dan Michman (Courtesy Friends of Yad Vashem Austria)
Yad Vashem’s Dan Michman (Courtesy Friends of Yad Vashem Austria)

Known in German as Vergangenheitsbewältigung, this process describes the sincere but often awkward effort of the German people to analyze Germany’s actions before and during World War II and to move on with confidence in a new Germany, without ignoring crucial lessons of the past.

Most copies of the new edition of Mein Kampf are probably being purchased by historians and other scholars, Michman said. “I assume that this edition was not bought by Holocaust deniers and neo-Nazis.”

“In the German-speaking or German-reading world, there are a considerable number of scholars dealing with 20th-century history, and especially with Nazism and World War II. And, because the price of the book is reasonable, [at 59 euros, or NIS 250] they are glad to have a copy at home. This tops up the many university libraries around the world that purchase the book.”

Over 12 million copies of 'Mein Kampf' have been sold. (photo credit: dccarbone/CC-BY, vi Flickr)
A copy of Adolf Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf’ (dccarbone/CC-BY, via Flickr)

Michman, who also chairs the Institute of Holocaust Research at Bar-Ilan University — where, until a few weeks ago, he taught modern Jewish history — sat on the informal international committee convened by the book’s publishers in December 2014 in Munich to make general comments and observations.

Like the scholars at the Munich-based Institute for Contemporary History, Michman is supportive of the new, critically annotated edition of Mein Kampf. He dismisses concerns that it could stir up anti-Semitic resentments in readers. Anybody who wants to read the anti-Semitic screed could have easily done so, long before the new scientific edition was published, he argued.

“I don’t think that this book — in the original or the present form — really speaks to contemporary audiences,” Michman continued. “Some of the dangerous ideas in it are indeed alive and play a role in current anti-Semitism. But they are available anyhow, and have made it to our days through various popularizing channels. On the other hand, the availability and the comments [in the new edition] open up paths for renewed research and gaining [hitherto] unobserved insights into Hitler’s world.”

The Munich-based Institute for Contemporary History is re-publishing 'Mein Kampf' on January 8, 2015 in a heavily annotated two-volume edition. (courtesy)
The Munich-based Institute for Contemporary History republished ‘Mein Kampf’ on January 8, 2016, in a heavily annotated two-volume edition. (Courtesy)

By January 8 — when the new edition of Mein Kampf hit German bookshelves — the Institute for Contemporary History had received some 15,000 preorders.

“We will therefore now increase the circulation piece by piece. The book will thus remain available at all times,” Simone Paulmichl, the head of the institute’s public relations department, told The Times of Israel Tuesday.

The institute had received several requests for translations into foreign languages even before the German edition was released, but it is too early to say if the book will be translated at all, she added. “The institute wants to take its time to assess how the edition is being received and will then critically assess which partners could at all be possible for the translation of such a sensitive project,” Paulmichl said.

The institute self-published the new edition and produced it at cost, she added. “By doing so, the institute deliberately wants to signal that no commercial interests are being pursued with the publication of Hitler’s Mein Kampf.” The price of 59 euros should ensure that the book is available not only for scholars, “but will remain affordable for a wide audience as a contribution to historical-political education.”

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