By Martin U. Müller and Florian Zerfaß
Is it permissible to sit in a cafe and read Adolf Hitler's "Mein Kampf?" British publisher Peter McGee, 51, has no doubt. "Of course it is. It's long overdue that a broad public should get the opportunity to deal with the original text."
And because McGee is so sure he's right, he plans to serialize extracts of the book in three small 15-page brochures with an initial print run of 100,000 copies each. The front cover features a photo of Hitler with a black bar obscuring his eyes and a headline that translates to "The unreadable book."
The plans could trigger opposition from Bavarian civil servants, though. Contrary to common belief, "Mein Kampf" is not banned in Germany. But the state of Bavaria, which seized Hitler's assets after his death, owns the copyright to his infamous treatise and has so far consistently prohibited efforts to reprint it.
McGee likes a fight and is no stranger to scandal. In 2009, he published reprints of vintage Nazi newspapers like Der Angriff and Völkischer Beobachter with print runs of up to 300,000, delivered alongside comments from historians.
Confiscated By Police
The move caused a minor uproar in Germany, with the conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung warning of an "embellishment of horror" and the Central Council of Jews in Germany labelling the reprints potential "blueprints for budding Nazis."
The row escalated and the Bavarian government, which also owns the copyright to the two newspapers, dispatched police throughout the nation to seize the republished copies.
The Bavarian Finance Ministry takes a similarly strict view of the planned publication of "Mein Kampf." It declared: "Permission to publish volumes isn't granted in Germany or abroad." It added that Bavaria would use "all means at its disposal" to fight copyright infringements. Their aim was to prevent the spread of National Socialist propaganda and to send a "clear signal" of opposition to its content, it continued.
McGee regards that as nonsense. "Mein Kampf is an extremely bad book, it is badly written, has awkward language and no internal logic," he says. "The thoughts are strewn across the whole book." But he adds that one can only recognize its insanity if one confronts the text.
In McGee's edition, each page contains a column of original text alongside critical commentary. "We're aware of the dark power of this book but it stems from the fact that no one has read it. The aura of being forbidden accounts for its myth," said the publisher.
McGee wants to destroy the myth and plans to put the extracts on sale in Germany beginning next Thursday. It's not just an ethical provocation, but a judicial one as well. A book copyright expires 70 years after the death of an author. In Hitler's case, that won't be until 2015.
McGee's publishing company Albertas didn't even speak to the Bavarian finance ministry before going ahead with the project. "Given how they reacted last time, it didn't seem to make much sense," he said. But he has secured the services of Berlin lawyer Ulrich Michel, who regards the publication of excerpts as lawful.
The Central Council of Jews, meanwhile, is taking a far more relaxed view of the publication than it did with the Nazi newspapers in 2009. Dieter Graumann, the president of the council, said he hoped that the reprints would "demystify" the book. "I'm an Internet junkie myself," said Grauman. "Everyone can already find the book on the Web."
But Internet readers are left alone with the inhuman original text because Web versions of "Mein Kampf" are often just uploaded without any accompanying notes from historians.
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