“Should Germany Publish ‘Mein Kampf’?” Is the Wrong Question

Should German scholars have published a new edition of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf upon the expiration of its copyright? Last week, the manifesto, which the New York Times calls “a combination of memoir, party program, anti-Semitic rant and exposé on how to gain power,” was released in Germany for the first time since 1945, when the Allies banned it and awarded its publication rights to the state of Bavaria. That copyright ended on December 31, 2015.

The new scholarly edition is a two-volume, 2,000-page book with approximately 3,500 academic annotations. (“We wanted literally to surround Hitler with our comments,” Christian Hartmann, the project’s leader, told the Times.*) And it was self-published by the Institute for Contemporary History in Munich, an organization founded in 1949 on the recommendation of the Allies and devoted to the study of recent German history. The aim of self-publication, the Institute explains, is to avoid accusations that it wanted to exploit the book’s considerable popularity for commercial gain. The Institute is funded by the German government.

The publication of the book was met, in the American press, with predictable insincerity. “Mein Kampf Is the Hottest Book in Germany,” Michal Addady wrote at Fortune, informing readers that the book’s initial run of 4,000 copies had been sapped by 15,000 preorders. To put these sales into perspective: 1. last year, Knopf, the publisher of Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire, issued 6,500 review copies of that novel; 2. Mein Kampf sold 10 million copies in Germany before its ban at the end of the war.

Another example of this halfhearted if cheeky alarmism: Breitbart reissued a Reuters news post about the book’s sales, only this time it was framed by a double mutation of Godwin’s Law. Under a headline that read, “Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf Reissue Explodes in Sales,” a group of commenters arrived not at a reference to Hitler — that work was already done for them — but instead at a rehearsal of conspiratorial anti-Semitism.

The existence of this xenophobic, fascist, or neofascist mindset, the threat of its contagiousness, of its virulence, of its ability to pull apart our civic infrastructure, animated much of President Obama’s State of the Union Address last evening, roughly a quarter of which was devoted to not naming Donald Trump. Likewise, the Republican rebuttal to the President’s speech, delivered by South Carolina’s Nikki Haley, seemed less like a direct response to the president and more like a plea to the conservative base: let’s break the wave of resentment before it destroys our chances of electoral gain.

In other words, much of the argument against the recent publication of Mein Kampf, which Roger Cukierman of the Council of Jewish Institutions in France has called a “disaster,” is predicated on the post- or neofascist groundswell in Europe and America, a development that, if not created by the financial collapse, was certainly exacerbated (or accelerated) by it. Obama’s speech was, if anything, an official acknowledgement that battling this “rancor” is a project of his final year in the presidency.

It’s almost understandable, then, that some are concerned about a reissuing of Mein Kampf, which is to say that it isn’t entirely understandable. If recent gains by far-right parties in Europe, or the present support for Donald Trump in the US, is due in part to an implosion of Enlightenment values, it would seem a mistake to abandon projects of critical commentary and research. If writing poetry is barbaric after Auschwitz, as Theodor Adorno said and later (sort of) recanted, does that mean scholarship has to be?

Anyway, Mein Kampf is already available to anyone who wants to read it, and this fact alone reveals the disingenuousness of the current “debate,” which is really nothing but a symptomatic avoidance of other questions. Why, for example, is “the Holocaust” an appendage of the culture industry, a ritualization in literature, and a genre of Hollywood film? Or why, as Enzo Traverso points out in the new translation of his remarkable Fire and Blood, have we gentrified historical antifascism in favor of a simplistic anti-totalitarianism: an error that serves only the far right? I doubt the publication of a scholarly edition of Mein Kampf answers these questions; it shouldn’t obscure them either.

*The new edition seems not to surround Hitler literally.