New Edition of Hitler Polemic: '"Mein Kampf" Is the Shell, We're Removing the Fuse'
Hitler's polemic "Mein Kampf" has long been a no-go zone for German publishers. But a Munich historical institute is now publishing the first scholarly edition of the book since World War II. In a SPIEGEL interview, project head Christian Hartmann discusses why it is both controversial and necessary.
SPIEGEL: At 12 million copies, Hitler's polemic "Mein Kampf" numbers among the best-selling books in the world. The text is also available online for free. What are you hoping to achieve by publishing an annotated scholarly edition?
Hartmann: We view ourselves as something akin to a bomb disposal team. "Mein Kampf" is the rusty old artillery shell, and we're removing the fuse. The idea is to defuse the book with a new introduction and especially with a thorough scholarly commentary. This removes the book's symbolic value and makes it what it essentially is: a historical record, and nothing more.
SPIEGEL: Wolfgang Benz, the historian and former head of the Center for Research on Antisemitism (ZfA) at Berlin's Technical University, believes this annotated edition is unnecessary because he views Hitler's book as containing nothing more than "personal, hate-filled tirades without any additional insight."
Hartmann: I see it completely differently. This book is of key significance for understanding Hitler's policies. In it, he takes stock of his situation after a life that had been fairly hectic up to that point. Reading this book leaves little to support the theory of a weak dictator. In fact, it's disturbing to see just how precisely Hitler implemented what he wrote here in subsequent years.
SPIEGEL: Do you think it's essential for Germans to read this now, 67 years after the end of the war?
Hartmann: We want to set an intellectual debate in motion. In doing so, we're not simply confronting society with the raw material, as some do. We point out where Hitler's ideas came from, how much truth they do or don't contain, and what significance they had for the Nazis' ideologies and policies. It's revealing, for example, to contrast Hitler's racial theories with scientific findings on human genetics.
SPIEGEL: The state of Bavaria has held the copyright to "Mein Kampf" since the end of World War II and, although the book is not officially banned in Germany, Bavaria hasn't allowed it to be published since then. Nevertheless, anyone wanting to read the original text can simply download it from servers in other countries or buy it from a used bookstore. How dangerous is this book today?
Hartmann: Parts of it are quite dangerous, if only for their raving anti-Semitism. And there is otherwise much agitation -- against parliamentarianism, the monarchy, the middle class and the Church. Still, this is obviously not the first time Hitler has been edited. The publication will have a relatively limited impact.
SPIEGEL: Has the years-long ban on printing this book in Germany sparked an enormous interest in it today?
Hartmann: In the words of Wolf Biermann: "We want exactly the things we're forbidden to have." The book is, of course, of high symbolic value. Still, the American occupying force knew what it was doing when it banned this book. At the time, it was a completely sensible thing to do.
SPIEGEL: Even if millions of Germans already had it on their shelves at home anyway?
Hartmann: But they knew they couldn't leave "Mein Kampf" lying around in the open. That generation was hugely susceptible to this language and this rhetoric. Today's situation is completely different.
SPIEGEL: One part of "Mein Kampf" reads: "Examples of the Columbus Egg lie around us in the hundreds of thousands; but observers like Columbus are rare." How could such nonsense have been successful?
Hartmann: Hitler was self-taught and, stylistically speaking, the book is fundamentally flawed. Its atmosphere is dull, muggy and inferior. But one shouldn't underestimate Hitler's intelligence, just as the history of National Socialism has always been a history of underestimation. The book also contains keen observations. And it's a book that was even more important for its author than for its readers. This is where Hitler developed the vision he would later realize. He was a revolutionary, programmatic thinker and statesman, all in one person -- which, incidentally, is a rare historical phenomenon.
SPIEGEL: Although a school dropout, Hitler alludes to Schopenhauer and Goethe in the book. Did he write it alone?
Hartmann: He probably had hardly any direct assistance, and he apparently typed the manuscript himself. Hitler had also read a great deal, mostly from murky sources. He had few original thoughts; his originality lay in his way of combining what he gleaned from his reading, from the ideological rubble of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
SPIEGEL: By the end of World War II, the book had sold 12 million copies. Couples received a free copy when they married. But did many people actually read it?
Hartmann: This question remains disputed to this day. The older generation of historians is more skeptical on this point, while more recent research attempts to prove that people actually did consume it using sales and library-borrowing figures. I don't believe that. Any person picking up this book realizes how tough and slow-going it is to read. The average reader hardly makes it past more than 30 pages.
SPIEGEL: Leading ideologists in the Nazi Party, such as Alfred Rosenberg and Joseph Goebbels, didn't pay much attention to "Mein Kampf" in their own writings. Why, then, is the book considered to have played a decisive role for the party?
Hartmann: In the beginning, the major players in the Nazi Party all had different ideas of what National Socialism meant. In the end, it was Hitler who prevailed. And this book contains his program, more or less openly formulated. It wasn't for nothing that British Prime Minister Winston Churchill later said that this book, more than any other, deserved to have been studied more carefully by Allied politicians and military leaders after Hitler assumed power.
SPIEGEL: The book was also translated into other languages starting in 1933. What was its impact abroad?
Hartmann: Limited. The Nazis also slightly altered these editions. For example, attacks on Germany's great archenemy were toned down in the French version of the book.
SPIEGEL: In addition to your scholarly edition of "Mein Kampf," there are also plans to teach the book in schools. This triggered immediate protest from the teachers' association in Bavaria, which say this is like trying to protect children from alcoholism by allowing them to try alcohol. Do you share these concerns?
Hartmann: It is a key document of National Socialism and, from it, one can learn which distortions and lies Hitler used. Dealing with this history has been routine in German schools for years. "Mein Kampf" is not going to turn the instruction upside down.
Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein
Interview conducted by Felix Bohr and Steffen Winter
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