In Germany, as in the rest of Europe, book copyrights expire seven decades after the author’s year of death. Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf was not an exception when on January 1, it began being legally reprinted and sold around the world.
The most important and accurate document of Hitler’s ideology and intent, Mein Kampf attracts modern reader’s attention. Only two months after it entered the public domain, Mein Kampf was labeled as “Best Seller” on Amazon’s eBook charts in the United States and Germany, and became heavily demanded in bookstores from Poland and Turkey to China and South Korea. Some Japanese publishers even issued a comic-book edition of the Nazi leader’s autobiography, featuring key scenes of Hitler’s life in easy-to-interpret pictures.
Republication has unleashed fierce debate in Germany; a country that has spent the better party of 70 years grappling with its Nazi past and its responsibility for murdering over six million Jews during the Holocaust. But despite Germany’s and other countries’ diminished attraction to Hitler’s ideology, some people are afraid that Mein Kampf could again manipulate the minds of its readers, reinforce racial discrimination or even pave the way to further political extremism.
The modern European world into which Mein Kampf has been rereleased bears eerie similarity to the uncertain postwar realm that saw the book originally hit store shelves. With Hitler’s death in 1945, Mein Kampf was published during a period of intense refugee migration to many countries from areas directly or indirectly affected by the war or Nazi atrocities. On the same day of the book’s 2016 republication, a group of immigrants robbed and sexually assaulted women during the New Years Eve celebrations in Cologne. On the following week, Hungarian president Viktor Orbán called for Europe to abandon Greece to the next wave of refugees from Middle East and North Africa, and to erect a line of razor wire at the Macedonian and Bulgarian borders. The Turkish government, meanwhile, pocketed €3 billion of European taxpayers’ money to finance an armed assault on its Kurdish ethnic minority. Amid this confluence of rising barbarity, ISIS posted a propaganda video in which ISIS soldiers executed five suspected British spies.
It is impossible to ignore the fact that many around the world find at least some points of agreement with Hitler’s infamous book. Even before the recent Mein Kampf republication, thousands of little Mein Kampf’s have been and will be written on social media platforms by people who feel victimized and have come to the conclusion that someone else’s death, starvation, expulsion or torture would solve their problems. Especially in the modern climate of tension over immigration across the West, Mein Kampf can carry with it all-too-important historical lessons.
Despite its controversial message, Mein Kampf’s renewed presence illustrates that Europe has taken a huge step in coming to terms with history’s mistakes. Even though it is disturbing that this book has returned in a time of hate rallies around Europe, the republication of Mein Kampf is part of a larger process of standardizing Hitler into just another tyrant, whose words are to be parsed and whose actions are to be analyzed for a deeper understanding of extremist political history.
Along with the original text, the reprinted edition of Mein Kampf came with 3,500 astute academic annotations that help readers analyze the text and point out Hitler’s historical inaccuracies. With these modern additions, Mein Kampf loses its purpose of provocation and rather serves as a historical enlightenment that sheds light on Nazi ideology.
Even if Mein Kampf were reprinted without contemporary supplements, modern Germany need not fear the consequences of this book reentering public domain. The Germany of the 21st century bears little resemblance to the Weimar Republic, in which far-right demagogues could manipulate the masses with the help of sly propaganda.
When Mein Kampf was first published, the majority of the German population was influenced by the authoritarian structure of the German Reich, which had existed from 1871 until the end of World War I in 1918. People met the young democracy, established in 1919 after the war, with skepticism and rejection.
Today Germany is a stable democracy with a highly advanced economy, a vision that Europe has been continuously striving for over the last 70 years. Although right wing extremists and their bouts of violence will persist, the majority of the German population continues to stand solidly on a tolerant, democratic foundation, where the demagogy of Mein Kampf is no longer a cause for fear.