It's one of the biggest bestsellers of all time, going through more than 1,000 editions and selling more than 12 million copies between its original publication in 1924 and 1945. Like the works of Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson, it still sells strongly long after its creator’s death and — every publicity person’s dream — remains in the public eye as it continues to generate news coverage and commentary.
Just one problem: It’s one of the most despicable works of literature of all time, Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf.
And nearly three-quarters of a century after the author took his own life, it’s still causing legal and political uproar in Germany.
Real estate deal
Munich graduate student Giles Bennett points across a square known as Prinzregentplatz. As it’s been for more than a century, this is still a swanky residential neighbourhood.
Directly in front of him stands a handsome five-storey apartment building. In it, Hitler’s old flat (or what we’d call in North America these days a luxury condo), which has been turned into a neighbourhood police station.
As Bennett told the CBC, immediately after the war the Free State of Bavaria scrambled to seize all of Hitler’s assets.
“Since this was Hitler’s final private official residence registered with the authorities, when after the war de-Nazification procedures were begun,” Bennett said, “everyone, including the defence, agreed that his entire property, despite what his last will and testament said, was confiscated on behalf of the Free State of Bavaria.”
Included on this list were all of his copyrights, including the one to his infamous biography-cum-manifesto Mein Kampf.
Since Bavaria controlled copyright on the book, it controlled publication. It has allowed virtually no legal versions the führer’s screed to be produced in Germany since the end of the war.
But in Germany, copyright disappears at the end of the 70th anniversary year of the author’s death. Hitler’s suicide in his Berlin bunker in the spring of 1945 meant Bavaria loses control of the most famous written work of its most infamous native son at midnight of December 31, 2015.
End of copyright
At the beginning of 2012 the interests of the Free State of Bavaria and Germany’s leading research centre on the Nazi movement seemed to converge.
The Institute of Contemporary Studies in Munich has since the 1940s overseen analysis and critical commentary on most of Hitler’s written and spoken words. But Bavaria’s effective ban on the most famous work of all, Mein Kampf, kept it away from this work.
However, with the prospect of copyright ending, the Institute launched work on the world’s first critical edition of Mein Kampf in 2010.
Two years later, Bavarian politicians and government officials decided getting a critical edition of Mein Kampf to market at the same time as an anticipated flood of uncritical Neo-Nazi editions was a good thing. They offered the Institute a contribution of 500,000 euros, or nearly $750,000 Canadian, to speed the work - an offer which was accepted.
Political surprise in Bavaria
All went well with the project until December 2013, when the Bavarian Free State’s political leader, Minister-President Horst Seehofer, had a change of heart.
Known as “Herr Turnhofer” by political enemies for his alleged fickleness and weakness for sudden policy changes, Seehofer, without warning, cancelled funding for the project.
Scholars at the Munich Institute for Contemporary History were also told that they faced prosecution if they persisted in their work on the new edition (a move which many legal experts regarded as an empty-but-provocative threat).
Why had this happened?
Historian and German radio producer Rainer Volk, who has followed this story carefully, has an explanation.
“In the in the fall of 2013, the prime minister of the region, the State of Bavaria, Mr. Seehofer went on a trip to Israel with the president of the Munich Community of Jews, a very well-respected old lady named Charlotte Knobloch,” Volk told me.
“And on the trip, some say during the flight from Munich to Tel Aviv, Mrs. Knobloch persuaded the Prime Minister, Mr. Seehofer, to cancel the project.”
Charlotte Knobloch lost many close relatives during the war and is herself a Holocaust survivor. In the decades since the Shoah, as the Holocaust is known in Hebrew, Knobloch has been a vigilant and successful defender of Jewish rights in Germany. As well, she is a sworn enemy of everything the Nazis and their successors stand for.
As Knobloch told Japanese television recently, “Mein Kampf is the ideological foundation for the Holocaust. We should sink it in a very deep ocean so that it will never be seen again.”
Democracy strikes back
It soon became clear in Bavaria, though, that Minister-Seehofer had over-reached in accommodating Knobloch.
His critics argued that continuation of harsh censorship of Mein Kampf was unseemly in a modern, democratic Germany. And attacks on and threats of sanctions against some of the state’s most respected scholars was called unthinkable.
After more than a month of unremitting political pressure, a face-saving compromise was announced by the Seehofer administration.
In January 2014, the 500,000 euros originally given by the State of Bavaria for the project was reallocated to other projects run by the Institute of Contemporary Studies. That allowed the organization to channel other money into the new edition of Mein Kampf.
The threat of legal sanctions against Institute scholars was also dropped.
The new critical edition of Mein Kampf is scheduled to appear the moment copyright expires on New Year’s Day, 2016.
The meaning of the controversy
One of the world’s foremost experts on Hitler’s writings, Professor Neil Gregor of the United Kingdom’s University of Southampton, is the author of the newly reissued book How To Read Hitler. He expresses mixed feelings about the uproar.
“In a way, I’m pleased to see that the controversy happened,” Gregor said.
“Those who want to publish a critical edition are honourable people. Those who are arguing for a ban are also honourable people. And the vitality of that argument and the vitality of that debate speaks very positively for Germany’s political culture,” he said.
“What really needs to be done, though, is that the book needs to gradually fade into history.”
[Listen to Sean Prpicks full audio documentary on CBC radio's Ideas, The Struggle Over Mein Kampf, on June 6 starting just after the news at 9 p.m. eastern. It takes an in-depth look at how the book's evil cachet may explain why the Bavarian government has banned and unbanned Mein Kampf several times in the space of just a few months, and examines the high stakes involved in working with history and the dangers of mixing politics with scholarship.]