One of the most frustrating books I’ve often used is Ralph Manheim’s English edition of Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Not on account of the wearisome content, but because there is no index. You have to know a book pretty well to be able to find the precise point you need, amid its 600 rambling pages, when you come back to it after years.
First published in 1925, Mein Kampf is making minor waves again because the copyright lapses in 2015. The copyright was “inherited” from the Nazi Party’s Munich publishing firm by the state government of Bavaria and is technically held by the finance ministry, which has withheld permission to reprint the book, even in academic form.
During Hitler’s lifetime, Mein Kampf was a “nice little earner”. It sold 10 million copies, and from 1936 onwards every German married couple received a copy. Along with royalties for use of Hitler’s portrait on banknotes, coins and stamps, the revenue from Mein Kampf swelled a personal slush fund, which the Chancellor used to reward successful generals with landed estates or huge cheques. Prussian aristos were not above taking money from the little Austrian corporal turned Führer.
Until recently, the authorities in Munich have sought to frustrate the proliferation of unauthorised editions of the book, though there is no scholarly edition either. While it is possible to do this with a printed book, with legal action against publishers in Sweden in 1992 and Poland in 2005, it is impossible to do so with internet editions, which do well in the Middle East. During the 1990s, Amazon was “persuaded” not to sell the book in Germany, where the Hitler salute and the swastika are still verboten.
One solution to the unexpurgated second-hand versions readily available online is for the Bavarians to publish a scholarly edition. They have been at work since 2010 under the aegis of Munich’s Institute for Contemporary History (IfZ), on whose advisory board I served for eight years. This project has run into criticism. Salomon Korn, vice-president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, thinks publication should be delayed out of sensitivity towards Holocaust survivors. That of course could take a long time, if the children of actual survivors redefine themselves in such a way too.
A scholarly edition has also been deemed irrelevant by Wolfgang Benz, head of the Centre for Anti-Semitism Research in Berlin. “How can you annotate an 8,000-page monologue exposing Hitler’s insane worldview? After every single line you would have to write, ‘Hitler is wrong here’ and then ‘Hitler is completely off the rails there’,” he is reported as saying. Actually most German academic books have cliffs of footnotes beneath a couple of lines of text. He claims that precisely those who ought to read an academic edition will not do so, because they will not pay €120 for something they can buy as a cheap paperback from a canny neo-Nazi publisher.
I think both Korn and Benz are wrong and Horst Möller, the outgoing IfZ director, is right. The team working on the scholarly edition includes Othmar Plöckinger, whose work includes a 2006 scholarly history of Hitler’s book. The first volume, originally entitled A Reckoning, stemmed from the period Hitler was on remand in Landsberg jail for his role in the November 1923 Munich putsch. He was in low spirits and felt betrayed by the broader Bavarian nationalist Right. For a few days he went on hunger strike. After a besotted Winifred Wagner supplied a typewriter and paper, Hitler initially produced statements of his views to use in court.
Following his conviction, Hitler was sued for non-payment of fees by his lawyers, so he urgently needed to generate cash. He used his fellow inmate Rudolf Hess as a captive audience for each evolving chapter, after Hess had brought his 5am mug of tea. When Hitler was released, his manuscript was smuggled out inside a gramophone. None of these factual details is likely to incite neo-Nazis in Germany or anywhere else.
A scholarly edition of Mein Kampf will not just deal with its tendentious self-justifications, or how successive editions were massaged to suit Hitler’s diplomatic postures once he was in power. It will also examine what, in both German or translation, is an execrable style that Karl Kraus called “slovenly, illogical and pretentious”. Ironically, the writing improves when Hitler drops the pseudo-philosophical “an sichs” and streams of substantives in favour of unadorned rage.
Stylistic turgidity was among his minor sins. For whether or not many Germans actually read the whole book, Churchill was surely right in saying, “Here was the new Koran of faith and war: turgid, verbose, shapeless, but pregnant with its message.” If a scholarly edition gets to the heart of the book’s subliminal appeal, despite itself, then it is worth undertaking.