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Melbourne, Wednesday, August 1, 2001


Unbanning Hitler


By JULLA PASCAL Wednesday 1 August 2001

Germany, 1945. As the Allies liberate the country, thousands of Germans rush to bury Mein Kampf in their gardens. The soil of the defeated is, literally, full of Hitler's anti-Semitic ravings. Fifty-six years later, the book cannot be bought or sold in Germany, and it remains buried. Is it time to release the book to a new generation of Germans? Or would the unbanning result in a revival of Hitler's race-hate?

Mein KampfMost German and Jewish scholars I speak with think not, but the idea of circulating Mein Kampf freely in Germany opens up difficult questions about freedom of speech and who stands to gain from Hitler's estate.

By the time of Hitler's death, eight million copies of Mein Kampf had been sold. The book, bought by the state and given out to newlyweds in the Third Reich, made him a millionaire. Six million copies were issued to couples by 1942. Hitler's boast was that Mein Kampf had the largest sales of any book worldwide, apart from the Bible. His royalties were $1 million a year.

Mein Kampf was written in the Bavarian prison fortress of Landsberg am Lech in 1923-24, after Hitler's abortive beerhall putsch. Stylistically turgid and filled with repetition, the first version was improved to hide that it was written by a half-educated man. According to Hitler, the evil behind Germany's woes was "the Jewish people", who wanted "to pollute Aryan womanhood and soil the Aryan bloodline", an idea that is still common currency on neo-Nazi websites today. Anybody reading Mein Kampf could not fail to be aware of Hitler's plans for the Jews, the disabled and those others considered "racially inferior".

Hitler, 1920sThe original title was A Four-and-a-Half-Year Struggle Against Lies, Stupidity and Cowardice. Hitler's publisher, Max Amann of Franz Eher Verlag, persuaded him to choose the shorter version ("Mein Kampf" means "my struggle").

Officially, the book cannot be bought in Germany, Hungary, Israel, Latvia, Norway, Portugal, Sweden and Switzerland, but is readily available in Russia, Romania, the United States and the United Kingdom.

Mein Kampf was first sold in the Czech lands in 1936, and again in 1993, both times in abridged, annotated versions. In March 2000, Otokar II published a full Czech edition. Publisher Michal Zitko printed 10,000 copies, whereas the average Czech print run is 400. The German embassy in Prague asked that Zitko stop distribution. Zitko refused.

The new edition contained no commentary or introduction, and the cover bore an eagle-and-swastika design. There were protests by several organisations. Thomas Kraus, executive director of the Czech Federation of Jewish Communities, says: "To spread such a book as Mein Kampf freely in the market is even more dangerous than its availability on the web."

Fedor Gal, a Jew born in the Terezin concentration camp (known to Germans as Theresienstadt) and today a Prague publisher, is equally damning: "Using this book to make money is the publishing business at its worst and most spoiled."

The copyright situation is complicated. In 1933, Eher Verlag bought the world rights for Mein Kampf, selling it on to other publishers for translation. In Britain, it ended up as part of Hutchinson's list. In 1939, Hutchinson commissioned the Jewish emigre Ralph Mannheim to translate Hitler's race-hate bible. This choice was not approved by Berlin.

After the war, Mein Kampf went on to Hutchinson's backlist, but was reprinted in 1969. Richard Cohen, now managing director of Richard Cohen Books, was Hutchinson's trade publishing director in 1985, and he recalls the tricky issue of how to deal with the book. "The questions we faced at Hutchinson were: what were a publisher's responsibilities when confronted with such a book, and should we do anything to increase sales?"

The moral dilemma was solved by describing the book as "vile" on the dust jacket. Today's version, now published by Pimlico, still calls it an "evil" book.

Meanwhile, Hutchinson was bought by Random House, which in turn was bought by the German conglomerate Bertelsmann. The irony is not lost on Cohen: "Thus Hitler's racist tract, unavailable in German bookshops, will be published throughout Britain and the Commonwealth by a German company."

As for the German copyright, the state of Bavaria confiscated Hitler's assets after the war, and controls all rights except for the English-language editions. In the UK, royalties went through the Curtis Brown literary agency, which, from 1976, transferred the money to a charity whose name the agency refused to reveal.

The "anonymous" charity has just gone public; the German Welfare Council has been absorbing the royalties since 1976. The council claims to have distributed the cash to German Jewish refugees and, now that so few remain alive, "the trustees have decided that the funding is no longer appropriate". Now $A700,000 in royalties is to be returned to Random House.

Who else might benefit from Hitler's "intellectual" property? Hitler had a sister, Paula, and a half-brother, Alois, who settled in Dublin, married Brigid Elizabeth Dowling and was later tried for bigamy. There was also Angela, Hitler's half-sister. Most of her grandchildren - Hitler's grandnieces and grandnephews - live in Linz, in the area where Hitler was born.

Alois' descendants live on Long Island. In theory, they could inherit royalties, should Bavaria ever sanction German publication.

Family interests are represented by Werner Maser, the self-styled administrator of the Hitler estate. Maser, whose house is covered in ivy taken from the graves of Hitler's parents, claims royalties from Mein Kampf are worth "almost nine million marks" (about $A8 million).

Maser has reportedly said he has "absolutely no moral reservations" about pursuing the Hitler millions.

"The Jews have got their compensation and now the slave laborers have got theirs. It is time for us to get ours."

Maser has been trying to obtain profits from Mein Kampf for Hitler's family, but Siegfried Zangl and Nicole Lang, who control the copyright for Bavaria's Finance Ministry, state: "There is absolutely no legal basis on which the Hitler heirs could lay claims to royalties ... There is no Hitler estate to administer. It's our responsibility to see that this book stays out of print."

Clearly, it is possible to make the case for unbanning German sales of Mein Kampf in the name of freedom of expression, but acting on this resolution is fraught with complications. The libertarian argument for lifting the ban is that its inducement to racial hatred should be countered through education, the law courts and public debate.

Despite the ban, Mein Kampf is easy to locate. The German original can be found on the Web, and it thrives on neo-Nazi sites. Where it has been offered for sale over the Internet, there have been protests. Barnes & Noble was asked by Germany's Minister for Justice to halt sales of the book; Amazon agreed to stop selling through its German site last November.

WiesenthalThe protests began when Simon Wiesenthal wrote to both companies, asking them to refrain from offering Mein Kampf to people in Germany.

The American picture is also worth examining. During the Second World War, the US Government made more than $US20,000 from royalties on Mein Kampf, having seized the copyright as part of the Trading with the Enemy Act. By 1979, the Justice Department had collected more than $US139,000 in royalties. Eventually, the money was paid on a pro rata basis to claimants, many of them American former prisoners of war.

In 1979, Houghton Mifflin, the US publisher of the book, paid the government more than $US35,000 for its rights. Selling more than 15,000 copies a year, Houghton Mifflin made substantial profits. When questioned about the ethics of this, the publisher reassigned the profits to charity.

Certainly, it would offend many survivors if Mein Kampf were to be on open sale in Germany. The question here is less about freedom of speech, more about the living nerve of survivors' "sensitivity". Just as it might be considered absurd that Wagner's music is not officially performed in Israel, it is not hard to understand how broadcasting The Flight of the Valkyries on Israeli radio might disturb Hitler's victims.

Similarly, the furore over the proposed sale by the Board of Deputies of British Jews of Sir Richard Burton's anti-Semitic manuscript Human Sacrifice among the Sephardine (sic) or Eastern Jews also provoked alarm. As a theatre practitioner, I would never advocate banning The Merchant of Venice, but the image of the Jew gleefully sharpening his knife to cut the flesh from the Christian breast has a horrible resonance after Auschwitz, which no amount of liberal interpretation can silence. The free representation of difficult texts may make the reader or spectator uncomfortable, but to hide the material is to deny the complexity of racism and to minimise the debate.

The thought of Mein Kampf becoming freely available in Germany will not make much difference to the majority of Germans. Most of them are hardly aware of the ban, and thousands still have their grandparents' copies.

The Jewish intellectuals I consulted did not seem too frightened by the question of lifting the ban. David [sic: DD] Guttenplan, the author of The Holocaust on Trial: History, Justice and the David Irving Libel Case, says: "As a non-German, I hate to make policy recommendations to the Germans, who have their own historical reasons for suppression, but I do not believe that suppression by the state is counterproductive."

Luke Holland, a documentary film maker who has focused on the slave labor issue, says: "Leave the book banning and burning to the Nazis."

Michael Whinge, a spokesman for the Board of Deputies, observes:

"When Hutchinson wanted to publish in 1969 for the scholarly market, we raised no objections. But I can sympathise with governments who have a rise in white nationalism and racism, and with fledgling democracies wanting to suppress it."

Professor Ian Kershaw, one of Hitler's biographers, declares himself "in favor of removing the ban on condition that there is an edited, scholarly version", and says his position is shared by Eberhard Jäckel, Germany's leading scholar of Mein Kampf.

Naomi Gryn, daughter of the late Rabbi Hugo Gryn (an Auschwitz survivor) and co-author with her father of Chasing Shadows, also thinks any publication should be printed with a commentary. She believes that, as in the Irving libel case, "the public debate in our liberal democracy will reveal racism masquerading as scholarship".

But Ludwig Fischer -- a non-Jewish German journalist and active anti-fascist campaigner -- believes no German politician today would dare suggest changing the law. "Nazism remains in trauma in Germany. There is still a cult of guilt ... Any German politician suggesting the free publication of Mein Kampf would be hounded out of office as a pro-Nazi."

Certainly, in principle, I believe Hitler's original text should be unbanned. But those cousins of my father, murdered in the forests of Lithuania by the Einsatzgruppen, would probably not thank me for this opinion.

Any publication of Mein Kampf, whether in German or in translation, should not enrich secret charities or any of Hitler's family. Rather, the profits should be given to those artists and writers working for reconciliation between the children of Germans and Jews and other Holocaust victims. Hitler left a gaping hole that spreads all over Europe. How fitting it would be if the money earned from Mein Kampf could be used to support writers and artists trying to reconstruct a fragment of the world Hitler destroyed.


Julia Pascal is a playwright. Her Holocaust Trilogy is published by Oberon Books. This article first appeared in New Statesman.

Related stories on this website: German Government tries to ban Hitler's book Mein Kampf | Simon Wiesenthal Center also tries to ban book from giant Internet bookstores | Internet comment on antisemitism provoked by such bans | Amazon still banning sales at request of German justice ministry | Mein Kampf voted one of the 100 books of the 20th century -- banned from Frankfurt book fair | Swedes tried, failed to ban Mein Kampf

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