The Rights to Hitler The Struggle for "Mein Kampf"

A Polish publisher wants to publish an edition of Adolf Hitler's anti-Semitic book "Mein Kampf." But he may be in violation of copyright laws. The German state of Bavaria, where Hitler once lived, owns the rights to the title -- and is doing what it can to defend them.

All those Auschwitz ceremonies in January came at just the wrong time for Marek Skierkovsky. Just before the 60th anniversary of the concentration camp's liberation, he realized that his new reprint of Hitler's book "Mein Kampf" could end up causing him quite a bit of trouble. He decided to postpone shipment of the books by a few weeks.

"You have to show some respect," he says, smiling.

The 39-year-old Pole smiles easily, and he makes a rather harmless, friendly impression. Judging by his glitzy wristwatch, he could easily be taken for a used car dealer, but he insists that he's a "publisher." It may not have the usual trappings of a legitimate business -- an office, a listing in the telephone book in the Polish city of Wroclaw, or even a website -- but his nameless publishing company does in fact publish books.

One is a horror novel, for example. The cover shows a bloody-eyed monk gazing into the distance. Publisher Skierkovsky has also tried his hand at cookbooks, astrology, short stories by "Alan Edgar Poe," even the "Satanic Bible," not exactly a best-seller in staunchly Catholic Poland. The crowing achievement in his list of published books is a collection of bawdy jokes certain to go over well with every local men's bowling league. But it's his latest publishing feat that is causing such an uproar: a Polish-language edition of Adolf Hitler's "Mein Kampf," ("My Struggle") registered under ISBN number 83-921822-0-0. At 208 pages, he plans to sell it for 29 Zlotys (just over €7).

But when officials at the Bavarian State Ministry of Finance found out about Skierkovsky's republication from an Associated Press news report, the alarm bells went off. Of course, they always go off whenever someone plans to publish "Mein Kampf" somewhere in the world. That's because the German state of Bavaria claims the copyright to Hitler's book. Under the laws imposed by the Allied occupation forces, the Nazi leader's assets were seized and later transferred to the German states. Adolf Hitler, who had apparently neglected to officially register his change of residence from Munich to his Alpine retreat, the Eagles Nest in Obersalzberg, and to Berlin, was registered as a resident of the Bavarian capital of Munich. Because the Eher Publishing Company, once the Nazi Party's central publishing house, also had its registered office in Munich, the state government now owns the rights to Hitler's anti-Semitic tirade. From Italy to Mongolia, Bavarian bureaucrats are constantly pursuing leads about republications, so as to prevent further distribution of the incendiary work (about ten million copies have been published worldwide to date).

Bavarian Prime Minister Edmund Stoiber occasionally becomes personally involved in the ambitious mission. Once, when a small Czech publishing house published a few thousand copies, he wrote a letter to then Czech President Vaclav Havel, asking him to look into the matter.

The Bavarians have no influence over republication of the book in the United States and Great Britain, because other publishing companies own the rights in those countries. But everywhere else, they're determined to stop the Marek Skierkovskys of the world. On the same day as the AP report about Skierkovsky's plans came out, the Munich ministry sent an e-mail to the German Department of Foreign Affairs, urging it to get the German embassy in Warsaw involved. A short time later, Bavarian Finance Minister Kurt Faltlhauser sent a letter to the German foreign minister, asking him to exert his influence.

Skierkovsky can't remember when exactly he found the police summons in his mailbox and drove to police headquarters in Wroclaw. He told the police officers that he'd always voted for the social democrats, about his book of jokes and about a Jewish friend who had told him that he thought there was nothing wrong with republishing "Mein Kampf." He was allowed to leave after an hour. Skierkovsky, speaking English without an accent, complains that the police interrogation "was rather unpleasant," adding, "How should I know that Bavaria owns the rights to the book?" Although "Mein Kampf" isn't expressly prohibited in Poland, Article 256 of the Polish criminal code calls for a maximum sentence of two years in prison for anyone who "promotes a fascist form of government."

"'Mein Kampf' has to be published," says Skierkovsky, "because there's a market for it." The market he's referring to isn't Wroclaw's skinhead community, but the "many students" who have supposedly contacted him to inquire about the book because, as they say, they need it for academic research. Before the fall of communism, Skierkovsky studied foreign languages and worked as a tour guide, a job that took him all over the world, even to places as far away as Mexico and Thailand. He later became an importer of colored glass from France and established a monthly magazine devoted to esoteric issues. He's printed just under 2,000 copies of "Mein Kampf", and he expects to turn a profit of about two euros per book. He makes the impression of a man who wouldn't even stop at selling his wife's secret diaries if he could use the profits to pay off his car loan. "Have you ever read Hitler?," he asks, "it's really totally boring." And he smiles again.

Is he worried about the prospect of being taken to court in the near future? It doesn't bother him, says Skierkovsky. After all, he says, a friend, a retired professor from Warsaw, wrote the foreword, which clearly means that his "Mein Kampf" qualifies as a scientific source, and who can prohibit that? Publisher Skierkovsky is already planning his next major project: an epic about Leonardo da Vinci's relationship with his cats, bound in leather, bordered in gold.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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