For the first time since 1945, Adolf Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf’ is available for sale in Germany. With a new annotated edition, Historians hope to “defuse” the Nazi-era bestseller. Even after seven decades, it remains a dangerous proposition.
That damned book! The minister feels a need to drink something spicy. Ludwig Spaenle reaches for a bottle of Tabasco, pours a generous amount into a glass of vegetable juice and takes a large gulp. “Mein Kampf?” Yes, he says, it’s certainly a unique story.
He initially welcomed the new edition of Adolf Hitler’s book, he says, and the Bavarian state parliament even approved a budget of €500,000 ($542,000) for the project, led by the Munich Institute of Contemporary History. But then, says Spaenle, he accompanied the Bavarian governor on a trip to Israel in September 2012. And after that, opinions changed, he explains. Period.
Spaenle, the Bavarian Minister of Education and Science, pours another serving of vegetable juice and Tabasco into his glass and takes another large gulp. What happened in Jerusalem? Well, he says, there were the victims’ rights groups, there were Israeli cabinet ministers and there were many meetings. After that, it was clear that it just wouldn’t do. A new edition of “Mein Kampf” with the coat of arms of the State of Bavaria on the front cover? No one in Israel would have understood such a thing.
Spaenle takes another sip and spends a moment staring into space in his office, enormous even by Bavarian standards. It is an evening in November 2015 and the minister, a Baroque figure, is sitting — or rather, holding court — on his sofa, with his sleeves rolled up, surrounded by dark oil paintings on the walls and a large photo of former Bavarian Governor Franz Josef Strauss on his desk.
This book, the victims, academia — somehow it all refused to fit together. And it was up to him, Spaenle, to solve the problem without spoiling his relationship with his boss, current Bavarian Governor Horst Seehofer.
On Dec 11, 2013, a day after Seehofer had announced Bavaria’s withdrawal from the project, Spaenle wrote a rather sly press release: “Out of respect” for the victims of the Holocaust, he wrote, he too was opposed to the publication of “an academic edition of this disgraceful book on assignment from the Free State of Bavaria.” But then he added, diplomatically: “This will not affect the freedom of academia to address the issues it deems necessary.”
In other words, the Institute of Contemporary History (IfZ) was free to continue working on the project. The state government was not asking the IfZ to pay back the subsidy, instead the funding was declared to be a non-project-specific grant. The language allowed Spaenle to successfully evade the problem.
Now, more than two years later, the IfZ edition has actually been published. And just days after it appeared in bookstores last week, the first print run of 4,000 copies was sold out. IfZ is now starting a second, much larger run of the two-volume, 1,948-page work. The new edition includes the complete original text of “Mein Kampf,” together with more than 3,500 astute annotations. The only thing missing is the Bavarian coat of arms on its gray cover. To defuse any suspicions of commercial interest, the edition is being published by the IfZ’s in-house imprint.
Nevertheless, the project has raised concerns, even in the academic world. Wolfgang Benz, a Berlin expert on anti-Semitism, cannot imagine that the new edition will offer anything new, and Jeremy Adler, a professor of German in London, even tried to stop the edition last Thursday. Otherwise, he wrote in an angry op-ed in Süddeutsche Zeitung, “a disgraceful work would gain a dignity that we associate with Homer and Plato, the Bible and the Talmud.”
Adler does admit, however, that he rendered his verdict “without access to the new text.” Which is rather bold. For if he had had the opportunity to peruse the IfZ edition, he would most likely have reached a different conclusion. In fact, this edition is one of the most important Hitler-research works to be printed in years. It will satisfy experts in the field and provide historically interested laypersons with a wealth of new insights.
It is likely that IfZ historians have never before attracted this much public attention. For months, journalists, diplomats and politicians besieged the academics at their offices in a concrete building on Leonrodstrasse in Munich. Some of their more prominent visitors included Douglas Davidson, the US State Department’s Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues, Dan Shaham, the Israeli General Consul in Munich, and members of the Green Party’s parliamentary group in the Bavarian State Parliament.
The new edition project was mentioned on South Korean breakfast radio and on the BBC, CNN and Al Jazeera. The Italian daily La Stampa and the Spanish newspaper El País reported on the project, as did the Tokyo daily Asahi Shimbun and the New York Times. Three German public broadcasters produced documentaries and almost all German newspapers and magazines published lengthy articles on the subject.
‘The Foundation of the Hitler Myth’
Should we have expected anything else? For the last 90 years, “Mein Kampf” has been treated as a key work of Nazism and, in light of its consequences, can be considered the world’s most dangerous book. It was only during the writing of the tome that Hitler began to believe that he had been chosen, and the book was intended to convey this message to his supporters. “Mein Kampf,” says historian Ian Kershaw, laid “the foundation for the Hitler myth.”
In “Mein Kampf,” Hitler outlined the murderous ideology that dominated his thinking until his 1945 death in the Führer bunker in Berlin. With the book, writes Hitler biographer Peter Longerich, Hitler began “to consistently connect the space issue with the race issue,” that is, the destruction of the Soviet Union with anti-Semitism. In the end, these delusional ideas led to the dual catastrophe of a war of extermination and the Holocaust.
From pogroms to hatred of Communists to his greatest obsession, the war, Hitler revealed in his book “what he intended to do, with an openness that was as remarkable as it was naïve,” write the IfZ historians. In the last relatively free parliamentary election before the war, in March 1933, about 52 percent of Germans voted for Hitler and his coalition. They should have known what the leader of the Nazi Party had in mind.
The first volume of “Mein Kampf” was published in the summer of 1925 and the second in December 1926. Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels called the book a “gospel of a new era,” while others saw it as the “bible of National Socialism.” Today critics are no less dramatic in their assessments, calling it a “grail of evil” and a “Pandora’s box” that would better be left closed forever.
Once it was re-opened, Charlotte Knobloch, president of the Israeli Cultural Society of Munich, warned in the Washington Post, it could no longer be closed. In other words, Knobloch seemed to imply, a republication of “Mein Kampf” could expose Germany to an uncontrollable threat.
It is a concern shared by many. Indeed, justice and interior ministers from the German states have prepared for the book’s publication — because the Munich academics aren’t the only ones now allowed to publish “Mein Kampf.” As of Jan. 1, 2016, anyone can publish and sell the book, at least in theory. More than 70 years after the author’s death, the copyright, which the Free State of Bavaria held since 1948 and consistently defended, has now expired.
Aware of the Risks
But exactly how dangerous is “Mein Kampf” today? Will adherents of the anti-Islam group Pegida find new material for their agitation? Will a xenophobe like Björn Höcke, a politician with the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, use “Mein Kampf” to justify his biological racism? Will Germany’s latent anti-Semites — about 20 percent of the population, according to polls — immediately begin to invoke Hitler’s book?
The publishers of the new edition are certainly aware of the risks. He is not willing to rule out, “that sections of ‘Mein Kampf’ can still be exploited for radical right-wing thought today,” says IfZ Director Andreas Wirsching. He cites the “Statement on the Question of the Affinity of the NPD (National Democratic Party of Germany) with Historic National Socialism,” which his institute submitted for the newly launched proceedings to ban the neo-Nazi NPD before the Federal Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe. Apparently, members of the new far right have repeatedly cited Hitler’s book — to legitimize political violence, for example, or to justify the myth of the “Jewish desire for global dominance.”
If the case against the NPD succeeds, Germany could find itself in a paradoxical situation this spring: with a newly banned neo-Nazi party at the same time that its ideological foundation is more widely available than it has been since 1945.
Nonetheless, Wirsching defends his institute’s project. The fear “of acting incorrectly from a moral standpoint or making political mistakes in the treatment of Hitler’s legacy” — that is, continuing to pretend that the book doesn’t exist — would only amplify its taboo nature. “Mein Kampf” is “eminently valuable as a source work in studying the history of the calamity,” he says, noting that no work reveals more about the delusional world of Adolf Hitler.
The fact that the ideas underpinning this delusional world are neither unique nor original is one of the most important conclusions reached by the Munich historians. After examining hundreds of pamphlets and books from the volkisch-conservative world of the early 20th century, they determined that Hitler’s apodictic verdicts and his biologistic terminology grew straight out of the reactionary mainstream.
The man who would later become Germany’s “Führer” wasn’t the only one who despised Slavs, hated Jews and bloviated about “natural selection” and the “law of the jungle.” In fact, the Nazi leader derived his ideas “from the popular and pseudo-scientific knowledge of his day,” especially social Darwinism, says IfZ Director Wirsching. What was unique, however, is the manner in which he assembled the pieces. According to Wirsching, Hitler “integrated key elements of German political culture, amplifies them and radicalized them for his purposes.”
Uncovering the Lies
What the IfZ scholars call this “monstrosity” has never been annotated — and refuted — so comprehensively. The historians compared 38 of the 1,122 editions of “Mein Kampf” with one another. Each correction is noted. For instance, in the 1937 edition the phrase “teure” (expensive) German mothers was changed to “treue” (faithful) German mothers. It was changed back to “teure” mothers in 1939 and finally, in 1944, to “treue” mothers.
Most of all, however, the editors have uncovered every lie and half-truth. For instance, where Hitler writes that Jewish theater critics went easy on productions by Jewish authors, the editors quote from damning reviews by Karl Kraus, an Austrian Jewish critic, about works by Jewish playwrights. Where Hitler claims that “nine-tenths of all literary filth” was written by Jews, the IfZ team exposes the “nine-tenths statement” as a favorite trick of anti-Semites. No matter how many counter-examples are presented, they are merely interpreted by the far-right as exceptions that prove the rule.
Hitler, originally from the Austrian town of Braunau, deliberately distorted many things, while other inaccuracies were merely the result of poor research. The number of factual errors alone is in the hundreds. Hitler writes that the heirs to the Habsburg throne spoke Czech with each other. Wrong. He writes that he himself was Nazi Party member No. 7. Wrong again (the number on his membership card was 555). According to Hitler, “no one” was interested in the question of war debt after World War I. Completely wrong. Few issues were as controversial among Germans after 1918 as the war debt.
In fact, the editors’ notes on some passages are what make them broadly comprehensible in the first place. The IfZ team, headed by historians Christian Hartmann and Thomas Vordermayer, applied all the rules of historiography in completely disassembling the original, 800-page text. In the new edition, each double page consists of one page from “Mein Kampf” and one page filled with up to 15 explanatory comments from the publishers. Reading is tedious at times, but it’s also rewarding: The new edition goes a long way toward permanently inoculating readers against the book’s ideological poison. Or, to put it in the words of Christian Hartmann: “We are the bomb disposal team. We remove the fuse.”
Hitler’s writing style feels outdated today. The text is replete with oddities (“the lower strata of the population”) and bizarre metaphors (“Examples of the Columbus Egg lie around us in hundreds of thousands, but observers like Columbus are rare.”).
Pride in Anti-Semitism
Hitler loved foreign words, repetition and superlatives. For him, parliaments were not only dishonest, but in fact “most supremely dishonest,” and his party didn’t just face a struggle, but an “enormous struggle.” And then there is the constant vituperation of his enemies as “profiteers,” “poisoners of the people,” “deceitful assassins,” “smug little men” and “riff-raff.”
Another noticeable feature is Hitler’s inflated use of terms that would ordinarily be negative, such as “ruthless” and “brutal,” in a positive context: “From being a soft-hearted cosmopolitan I became an out-and-out anti-Semite,” Hitler reported in “Mein Kampf” — and he was clearly proud of the transformation.
Astonishingly, the author, ordinarily not one for self-criticism, felt that his book was not particularly successful linguistically. “I am not a man of the pen, and I write poorly,” he noted in 1924. It was an assessment that even Nazi propaganda minister Josef Goebbels, who was devoted to Hitler, shared. “The book feels honest and courageous,” he said. “It’s just that the style is sometimes unbearable.”
Apparently, most readers did not find Hitler’s strange style off-putting. Reviewers in the right-wing press praised the work. A pastor even thanked God “for the hours in which I was able to study Adolf Hitler’s book ‘Mein Kampf.'” The diplomat Ernst von Weizsäcker, whose son would later serve as president of Germany, was apparently so impressed by the book that he praised Hitler’s “warm-heartedness toward social suffering” in a letter.
Literary scholar Helmuth Kiesel, a professor of German literature in Heidelberg, notes that the book is — linguistically, at least — better than its reputation. In the summer before last, Kiesel performed an experiment and read “Mein Kampf” in its entirety during a vacation. He found the content disgusting, but Kiesel reached a surprising conclusion in an article for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, where he noted that Hitler had a “broad range of rhetorical and stylistic tools” at his disposal. He was “not incompetent, but a writer with an awareness of his impact.”
Hitler’s choice of words, the IfZ team notes, was certainly in keeping with the period. Some terms that are frowned upon today as being of Nazi provenance — such as Volksgemeinschaft (ethnic community) and Entartung (degeneracy) — were also used by democrats at the time.
Prepared for a ‘Fantastical Adventure’
In the early 1920s, Germany was a hotbed of delusional ideas and political desperados. The German Empire had sent more than 13 million soldiers to war, and more than 2 million of them didn’t come back. For many people, the “stab-in-the-back legend,” that is, the claim that primarily Jews, Social Democrats and Communists were responsible for Germany’s defeat in World War I, seemed to be the only explanation for the disaster. German society, traumatized by the defeat, lacked democratic consensus and center-right parties, together with the SPD on the center-left, had discredited themselves among large segments of the population by accepting the Treaty of Versailles.
Meanwhile, Leftist revolutionaries and radical right-wing militia groups took the country to the brink of civil war, while a judiciary that was hostile to the republic did almost nothing to stop their murderous activities. Political anti-Semitism, still the domain of smaller parties in the German Empire, expanded into the entire conservative, national spectrum.
Finally, the country and its inhabitants became impoverished following the hyperinflation of 1923. “The year 1923 wore Germany out,” wrote journalist and Nazi Party opponent Sebastian Haffner, “and it prepared it not for Nazism in particular, but for any fantastical adventure.” The thing that gave Nazism its “streak of insanity” developed at the time: “The cold madness, the imperiously self-indulgent, and the blind determination to achieve the impossible.”
Lance Corporal Adolf Hitler saw the war come to a close from a military hospital in Pasewalk. An Austrian fighting in a Bavarian unit, he had been temporarily blinded by a mustard gas attack. Like many other soldiers, he was searching for someone to blame for the defeat. Germany had fallen into the hands of a “gang of despicable criminals,” who were to be fought tooth and nail, he later wrote in “Mein Kampf,” and he wanted to contribute to the fight. Then he added the famous and notorious sentence: “For my part, I then decided that I would take up political work.”
It is unlikely that the wounded war veteran truly envisioned a career in politics as early as November 1918. But he did soon make an impression on his comrades with his strident tirades of hate against Jews and Communists. In the summer of 1919, his superior, a radical right-wing officer, transferred him to a Reichswehr camp near Augsburg in Bavaria, where Hitler, as a propagandist, was to turn Spartacist soldiers into dedicated nationalists.
At the time, Bavaria was suffering from the consequences of the Bavarian Soviet Republic, which had plunged the state into chaos for several months. And because a few leaders of the socialist uprising were Jews, Hitler became convinced that Judaism and Bolshevism were inextricably linked.
‘A Mouth We Could Use’
In September 1919, Hitler’s right-wing officer sent him to Munich to attend a meeting of the German Workers’ Party, one of the many small nationalist parties of the postwar era. Hitler’s audience was so impressed by his first speech that party leader Anton Drexler reportedly shouted: “Man, he’s a got a mouth we could use.”
Hitler enjoyed his appearances and turned his talent for rhetoric into a profession, speaking before increasingly large audiences. He vituperated against Versailles and social democracy, and he called Jews bloodsuckers and Communists traitors. And he soon took over the party, which had since been renamed the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, and began to plan an overthrow of the government. Inflation was reaching its climax and one kilo of bread cost 200 billion marks. From his base in Munich, he aimed to conquer Germany and deal a death blow to the Weimar Republic.
Logistically speaking, Hitler’s coup, on the night of Nov. 8, 1923, was more of an amateur affair. He had neither sufficient troops nor a strategy to seize power in Berlin. During the final shootout between his followers — many of them recruited from Munich beer halls — and the police, a bullet missed him by a few centimeters and killed the man standing next to him.
In the ensuing trial, Hitler was sentenced to a five-years prison term, which he was permitted to serve with a handful of supporters in Landsberg am Lech. In the luxury prison, where the cellblock was furnished more like a middle-class apartment, inmate Hitler spent his days writing. At first, his only goal was to settle scores with all those he held responsible for Germany’s defeat in World War I.
There are many myths about the creation of “Mein Kampf,” for instance that the future Führer dictated his work to fellow Nazi inmate Rudolf Hess, who typed it up. In reality, Hitler typed it himself. And to get himself into the mood, he even engaged in a bit of reenactment. “I can hear his voice in our joint living and dining room,” Hess noted in a letter to his mother on May 17, 1924. “He appears to be in the midst of reliving wartime experiences. He is imitating the sounds of shells and machine guns, and he is jumping wildly around the room, transported by his fantasy.”
A few weeks later, Hitler was so intoxicated by his words that he burst into tears while reading the passages about his first deployment to the front in 1914.
He frequently read passages from the developing book out loud to his fellow inmates. Publishers contacted him with offers. In the end, he signed a contract with the Eher publishing house, which also published the Völkischer Beobachter (National Observer), the Nazi Party paper. Affluent Hitler supporters from the Munich upper classes, including the wife of piano maker Carl Bechstein, sent him baskets of food. Hitler could also count on the prison warden, who was a fervent supporter of his famous inmate.
What Hitler had intended as a settling of scores soon became an odd mixture of stylized autobiography and ideological platform, a blend of party history and propaganda. In the preface to the first volume, Hitler writes that he wanted to “clarify the goals of our movement” and confront the creation of legends about him, allegedly by the Jewish press. But his real purpose was to differentiate the Nazi Party from other right-wing extremist parties, and to establish that there could only be one Führer: Adolf Hitler.
The demagogue devoted many pages to the “magic power of the spoken word,” which he argued was the only force capable of setting “in motion great historical avalanches of religious and political movements.” However, he added, an outstanding speaker is rarely a good theoretician and organizer at the same time, and that only the combination of these talents in a single individual could create “a great man.” Between the lines, Hitler left no doubt as to where this “great man” could be found: In the Landsberg prison, but only temporarily.
The book begins harmlessly enough. The 35-year-old author first writes about his family in Braunau am Inn, and about being rejected when he applied to the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. Despite not being accepted, he moved to Vienna in 1908, and according to “Mein Kampf,” that was when “the saddest period” of his life began, a time of “misfortune and misery.”
He describes in drastic terms the alcoholism of many workers and the social hardships in Vienna, where ordinary families had already consumed the breadwinner’s weekly wages after only three days. Hitler also claims that he was part of the squalor. “Hunger was the faithful guardian which never left me.”
That, though, was significantly overstated. Hitler regularly frequented Vienna coffee houses and spent his time strolling around the city, going to bars and concerts. The IfZ team confirmed research that he wasn’t nearly as poor in his younger years as has sometimes been claimed. Thanks to money he had inherited from his mother, an orphan’s pension and a loan from an aunt, he didn’t have to work for an entire year. Only then did he earn an admittedly meager living painting postcards.
The story Hitler used to explain his early aversion to social democracy was also apparently invented. He claimed that he had worked as a casual laborer in construction. When his fellow workers went to a tavern, he always remained on the sidelines (“I drank my bottle of milk and ate my morsel of bread”). He claimed to have heard horrible things on the construction sites. The fatherland, religion and morality, he wrote, were all “dragged through the mud.” Hitler claimed he confronted the men and was then threatened by their leaders, who were Social Democrats, and told to get lost or else they would throw him from the scaffolding.
‘Like a Maggot in a Putrescent Body’
It’s a nice anecdote, but untrue, according to research conducted by the IfZ team. Adolf the construction worker “probably never” existed.
With accounts like these, Hitler sought to create the impression that Vienna had been the “school” of his life. Before then, he wrote, he had had nothing against Social Democrats, parliamentarianism or the Jews. It was only his own experiences that had disabused him of these notions, he claimed.
Hitler devoted only a few pages to describing his path to becoming a staunch anti-Semite. He was initially impressed by Vienna Mayor Karl Lueger, who was anti-Semitic, and then he took offence at the Eastern European Jews on the streets of Vienna. “The odor of those people in caftans often used to make me feel ill,” he wrote. A short time later, he arrived at the allegedly objective realization of the devastating impact of Judaism. “Was there any shady undertaking, any form of foulness, especially in cultural life, in which at least one Jew did not participate? On putting the probing knife carefully to that kind of abscess, one immediately discovered, like a maggot in a putrescent body, a little Jew who was often blinded by the sudden light.”
Passages like this permeate Hitler’s bestseller like feverish rants. At irregular intervals, but with growing vehemence, the author rages against Judaism as the source of all evil. But his transformation into a hater of Jews, the future mass-murderer writes, was “the occasion of the greatest inner revolution that I had yet experienced.”
According to the Munich historians, Hitler claimed that this process took place about 10 years before it actually did. In fact, they write, it was not in Vienna but in Munich — after the war — that he, affected by defeat and revolution, became a “dogmatic racial anti-Semite.”
In its research, the IfZ team encountered the 1922 book “Racial Science of the German People,” by Freiburg eugenicist Hans F. K. Günther, which they believe inspired Hitler. According to Günther, the “Nordic person” has a tendency toward “solitariness,” and is forbidding, hard and relentless, highly talented but usually a poor student — a characterization that closely matched the image Hitler had forged for himself.
It is no coincidence that Hitler mentioned neither patrons nor friends (of which there were indeed only a few), not even his sister Paula or other family members. The IfZ editors use the term “systematic incompleteness” to describe Hitler. By stylizing himself as an “unknown individual,” they write, he offered his followers an “especially large potential to identify with him.”
Even More Tedious
Hitler was inhibited and plagued by fears. In sticky, pubertal passages, he fabulates about prostitution, procreation as the purpose of marriage, and the “female,” whose psyche is influenced less by abstract reasoning than by a “vague emotional longing for the strength that completes her being.” There are classic rape fantasies, such as the tale of a “black-haired Jewish youth” who “lies in wait for hours on end, satanically glaring at and spying on the unsuspicious girl whom he plans to seduce.”
After about a third of the book, the reader has reached the year 1919, and reading becomes even more tedious. There are increasing numbers of race-baiting passages, and Hitler randomly strings together his theories. Chapter 10, for example, called “Why the Second Reich Collapsed,” is allegedly about the 1918 defeat. In it, he criticizes the supposed superiority of industry in the German Empire, berates the press, writes indignantly about the deterioration of cultural life, deplores the lack of contemporary monuments in cities, accuses the Reichstag of failure, finds fault with the fleet policy of Kaiser Wilhelm II and discusses the pros and cons of the monarchy.
Behind this chaotic panorama lies a concrete, misanthropic set of ideas, albeit one that is scattered across several chapters. He begins with the thesis that “events that take place in the life of nations” are “the natural results of the effort to conserve and multiply the species and the race.” Historical progress, he writes, is based on the struggle between the races, one in which the stronger prevail — a law of nature, as Hitler claims. For Hitler, war is not a curse but a legitimate form of the “great and eternal struggle for existence.”
“The pacifist-humanitarian idea,” on the other hand, leads to “barbarism” and “chaos.” For Hitler, peace and the rule of law are not the achievements of civilization but signs of decline. The team of Munich researchers sees the roots of this anti-civilization program in Hitler’s wartime experiences on the Western front, with which he never came to terms. “The man writing these words is someone for whom the war never really ended,” they write.
“When the courage to fight for one’s own health is no longer in evidence,” Hitler declares in one passage, “then the right to live in this world of struggle also ceases.” Of course, he anticipates the outcome of the competitive struggle. “Every manifestation of human culture … is almost exclusively the product of the Aryan creative power.” And it is the duty of their noblest representatives, namely the Germans, to perform the historic mission to stop the Jews who, as “the international maggot in the body of the nation,” sought to control the world.
Dictatorship, Murder and War
To quote a term coined by historian Saul Friedländer, Hitler was a redemptive anti-Semite, which made him one of the racists who justified the persecution of the Jews as an act of idealism. In “Mein Kampf,” he claims that humanity would perish if the Jews — the “vampire” — prevailed in the impending titanic battle between creation and destruction, good and evil. In Hitler’s world of thought, Jews were determined to weaken other peoples, including Aryans, through racial “cross-breeding.” As soon as their powers of resistance were weakened, the Jews would first establish democracy and then, with the help of Marxism, the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” In Hitler’s view, the “great, last revolution” had already begun with the triumph of “Jewish Bolshevism” in the Soviet Union. He argued that time was running out and advised his supporters to engage in an opposing effort that was as radical as it was brutal: dictatorship, murder and war.
In addition to analyzing Hitler’s treatise, the IfZ historians engaged in a search for his sources. Hitler included neither footnotes nor a bibliography in his book. To the extent that this can be reconstructed today, it seems he haphazardly availed himself of the nationalist literature and the bestsellers of the day.
The ideological core of these sources can be found in the 11th chapter of the first volume of “Mein Kampf,” titled “Race and People.” In addition to Günther’s “Racial Science of the German People,” Hitler primarily used books by known anti-Semites like Henry Ford and Wilhelm Marr as well as the anti-Semitic classic “The Foundations of the 19th Century,” by Houston Stewart Chamberlain, who claimed that the mixing of races would lead to “decline” and “sterility.”
There are analogies to Richard Wagner’s essay “Judaism in Music,” in which Hitler, a fan of Wagner’s, could read: “The Jew can naturally but echo and imitate, and is perforce debarred from fluent expression and pure creative work.” And Hitler’s favorite author, Alfred Rosenberg, had written, in his pamphlet “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” that all revolutionary overthrows had been staged by Jews.
The idea of a large-scale land grab in the East had achieved popularity even before World War I. Hitler could read about it, for example, in a work by Heinrich Class, the head of the Pan-German League. Class advocated the colonization of the Slavic regions in the East in emulation of the Teutonic Knights of the Middle Ages.
IfZ co-publisher Roman Töppel has compiled an entire collection of documents and books that are unknown today but which left their mark on “Mein Kampf,” as he explains in his essay “Nation and Race,” to be published soon in the Vierteljahrsheften für Zeitgeschichte (Contemporary History Quarterlies). “It is conspicuous,” says Töppel, “that Hitler’s arguments were considerably more one-sided and radical than those of most of the authors who influenced him.” In other words, Hitler merely collected the building blocks for his work that suited him, while ignoring everything else. At the end of his “Handbook of the Jewish Question,” anti-Semite Theodor Fritsch writes that the “Jewish question” can only be solved by a “sublimely brilliant mind with unlimited courage, the real dragon killer, the true Siegfried.” Apparently the inmate at Landsberg Prison fancied himself in the role of this superhero.
A Political Platform?
But was there more to “Mein Kampf” than just agitation against Jews and Communists? Was the book even a kind of political platform for the National Socialists? The historians at IfZ also explored this question and discovered a number of “direct connections to the practical structures of National Socialism.” In “Mein Kampf,” for example, Hitler wrote:
— That the “first task” of “really national government” is “to seek and find those forces that were determined to wage a war of destruction against Marxism and to give those forces a free hand.” By the summer of 1934 — just one-and-a-half years after grabbing power — the Nazis had locked up around 100,000 Social Democrats or communists in prisons, temporary detention centers and concentration camps.
— That the “people’s state” would classify its population in three groups: “Citizens, subjects of the state and aliens,” but that only “citizens” should be given all political rights. In 1935, the Nuremberg Laws determined that a “Reich citizen can only be a person of German or German-related blood.”
— That those who “show hereditary defects” and invalids should be forcibly sterilized and that the “people’s state” must ensure that “only those who are healthy shall beget children.” In July 1933, the “Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring” was passed and 400,000 people were forcibly sterilized.
— That Aryans had the “sacred duty” to ensure that the “purity of the racial blood should be guarded.” In 1935, the so-called “Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor” went into effect, prohibiting marriages between Jews and non-Jews and penalizing any extramarital relations between them. That same year, the law was extended to ban marriage with “gypsies, negroes and their bastards.”
— That the 80 million Germans Hitler counted in Europe should be united in one empire. Hitler included Austria is his calculations as well as the German-speaking minorities located largely in Poland and Czechoslovakia. By 1939, Hitler had subjugated these countries under his control.
— That France should be considered the “deadly enemy” of the German people and that they must rally together for the “last decisive contest” with their neighboring country. The Wehrmacht invaded and occupied France in 1940.
— That the Germans must be provided with Lebensraum, or greater living space, in the east but that “Germanization” can only be applied to land, and not to people. During World War II, General Plan Ost (Master Plan East) saw the expulsion and murder of 30 million Slavs.
Those in 1925 who wanted to understand what Hitler stood for would have learned a lot from “Mein Kampf.” But in upper middle class and leftist circles, the book wasn’t taken seriously — at least not initially. It was disparaged as “pathetic nonsense,” and full of “sadistic” drivel that made its author a laughing stock.
It was only much later that his opponents realized the explosive effect the book could have. “Hitler is not a sneaky person at all,” Social Democrat Friedrich Kellner noted in his diary on Dec. 12, 1944. “In ‘Mein Kampf,’ he very openly expressed his most intimate thoughts.”
Nevertheless, in the opinion of the historians at Munich’s IfZ, the text cannot be read as the blueprint for the crimes of the “Third Reich.” The Holocaust, for example, the most horrifying of all of Hitler’s crimes, isn’t mentioned in “Mein Kampf.” At most, he hints at his plans in a passage blaming the Jews for the defeat in 1918.
“If twelve or fifteen thousand of these Jews who were corrupting the nation had been forced to submit to poison gas, just as hundreds of thousands of our best German workers from every social stratum and from every trade and calling had to face it in the field, then the millions of sacrifices made at the front would not have been in vain. On the contrary: If twelve thousand of these malefactors had been eliminated in proper time, probably the lives of a million decent men, who would be of value to Germany in the future, might have been saved.”
What is referred to here, though, was death on the fighting front and not in a factory of extermination, so the quote does not deliver a hint at Auschwitz. Hitler and his supporters wanted to expel the Jews from all areas under German rule by 1941 and they weren’t shy about using murder and terror to make this happen, but the systematic decimation of millions first came about as a consequence of the war against the Soviet Union.
When Hitler was working on “Mein Kampf,” he still considered an endeavor like that to be implausible. In an interview he gave shortly before the putsch attempt in Munich, which appeared in a Catalan newspaper, he gushed about the medieval pogroms (which he called “a magnificent thing”) but added they wouldn’t be feasible in Germany. “What do you want to do?” he said. “Kill them all overnight? That, of course, would be the best solution and Germany would be saved. But it’s not possible. The world would descend on us rather than thank us.”
A Rich Man
At first, Hitler conducted himself cautiously. After his early release from prison in December 1924, he had to reform his desolate party and any further provocation, not to mention another putsch, seemed futile. Initially, the book didn’t sell massively. It wasn’t until the crises of the final days of the Weimar Republic and the rise of the National Socialist Party in elections that the tome’s circulation increased dramatically. By the end of 1933, 1.5 million copies had been sold. But by 1945, sales of more than 12 million copies had made Hitler a rich man.
There has been much speculation about the number of people who have read the book. It appears that the number was smaller than the sales figures would seem to suggest, but was considerably larger than claimed following the end of the war. The historians at IfZ reference two polls conducted in the US occupation zone following the war. According to the surveys, taken in 1946, 23 percent of the respondents said they had read “Mein Kampf” — with 7 percent saying they read the book in its entirety and 16 percent claiming to have read parts of it.
If these figures are representative, it means that around 15 million Germans would have been familiar with the book. And millions of German citizens were familiar with parts of the treatise because members of the Hitler Youth, the SA and the SS were indoctrinated with quotes from “Mein Kampf.”
In 1945, the Allies banned the book. It was also placed on indexes of banned books in the Netherlands and in Russia, although Moscow didn’t take the step until 2010. In France, Italy, Great Britain and many other countries, on the other hand, it is still printed and sold. Online reseller Amazon gives away any proceeds it earns from sales of “Mein Kampf” to charity.
The state of Bavaria fought against the distribution of the book internationally, but the tools available to it under copyright law were limited even prior to January 1. The book is a hit in the Arab world, in India and in Bangladesh — and is popular in Turkey too, despite being banned there. These are all places where there’s still enthusiasm for historical figures who, regardless of the calamities they have caused, have stuck it to the Jews or the United States.
Used bookstores, incidentally, are permitted to sell the book in most countries, even in Germany. Editions with an inscription from the “Führer” can even yield five-digit bids at auctions in the United States.
IfZ, which published Hitler’s “second book,” a representation of his foreign policy goals never published during his lifetime, back in 1961, initially sought to bring out an annotated version of “Mein Kampf” in the 1990s. But the state of Bavaria refused to give its authorization at the time.
Use in Schools?
Even though the copyright barrier has now been lifted, no bookseller in Germany has stated it wants to stock the IfZ edition. Initially, the book will only be delivered to people who order it. Either way, IfZ has control over sales since the book is the product of its own imprint. Should the institute desire, they can ensure that “Mein Kampf” doesn’t make it onto any bestseller lists, despite the considerable demand.
The German Teachers’ Association, for its part, is in favor of using the book in classrooms. Bavarian state Education Minister Spaenle, though, doesn’t yet want to make a decision on whether to approve an edition for schools.
It’s questionable whether other editions will also be published. Germany’s national panel of state justice ministers agreed in June 2014 that it should take steps to “prevent the unannotated dissemination of Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf,’ even after its copyright period has expired.”
Their decision is based on a German law that makes incitement a crime and that freedom of speech must take a back seat. It’s unlikely that any German court would dispute that “Mein Kampf” has elements of incitement. The attempt to disseminate writings aimed at incitement alone is grounds for prosecution in Germany. The courts are likely just waiting for any publisher that would dare to try to bring out a non-annotated edition. Officials in Bavaria’s Justice Ministry say action would be taken “very quickly.”
If they did dare, they would have plenty of time to study the Institute for Contemporary History’s 1,948-page edition. Conviction on incitement charges in Germany can carry a sentence of up to five years in prison.