Preventing the proliferation of Mein Kampf may feel the right thing to do – but it risks impeding those trying to demystify it.
The CSU has had second thoughts about the Bavarian crest appearing in the academic edition of Mein Kampf, reportedly after complaints from Holocaust survivors. Photograph: Andreas Rentz/Getty Images
Last week, a number of news headlines suggested that the German state of Bavaria was trying to "ban" Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf. In fact, no such thing had happened. What had taken place was that Bavaria's minister president, the Christian Social Union (CSU) politician Horst Seehofer, had gone back on a commitment to fund a critical, academic edition of the book, set to be published just before copyright runs out on 1 January 2016.
The finance ministry of Bavaria, where the publishing house behind Mein Kampf was officially registered when it was liquidated in 1945, has owned the copyright to the work since the end of the war, and has in the past denied any requests for publication.
In 2012, however, the Bavarian parliament had announced that it would help fund a critically annotated academic publication of the book produced by the Munich Institute for Contemporary History, the Institut für Zeitgeschichte, which has been worked on since 2009. A year ago, finance minister Markus Söder told the political magazine Cicero that "we want to make clear what rubbish is written in this book, and what fatal consequences it had", adding that "we have to demystify this book".
Now, after investing €500,000 in the project, the CSU seems to have had second thoughts about the Bavarian crest appearing in the academic edition, reportedly after complaints from Holocaust survivors.
This seemed politically inconsistent, but not quite the draconian measure it was made out to be. Perhaps, given Bavaria's status as the "birthplace" of national socialism, it was even the ethical thing to do. Most legal experts suggested that the publication of the academic edition would go ahead as planned, just with a bit less money.
But a small notice in German papers last Friday, which has so far passed by the English-language media, makes this tale a bit more interesting. It said that the Bavarian finance ministry last week threatened to take legal action against an academic at the Technical University of Berlin, who had uploaded a PDF of Mein Kampf to the university's website.
In Germany, academics' freedom to do their research, Wissenschaftsfreiheit, is embedded in Article 5 of the Basic Law, and Bavarian minister for education and cultural affairs, Ludwig Spaenle, had promised that "academic freedom would not be touched" by the political U-turn over the Mein Kampf question. But suing an academic seems to suggest otherwise.
Christian Gizewski a research professor at TU Berlin describes himself as a "general historian" specialising in ancient history. For years, he told me over the phone, he had wanted to "expose Hitler's prejudices and show that there was no sound historical basis to his ideology about race". The author of Mein Kampf, Gizewski said, never really tried to get his head around the history of the Jewish people or what Aryan really means. "He was a sweary demagogue, not a historian".
Initially, he uploaded a summary of Mein Kampf to his website hosted by TU Berlin. But, he said, it would have been unscientific to have a commentary on a book without specifying which edition it was referring to. Therefore, in 2011, he uploaded a PDF of Mein Kampf to his site. "It's very easy to find online already, after all."
No one complained for two years – until Thursday, when the Bavarian finance ministry rang and asked him to take the PDF off his website. "I tried to explain to them why I had academic reasons to upload the text, but they weren't interested", he said. "They just inferred that I was a Nazi".
On Friday, TU Berlin switched off the entire website for three days. On Monday, they switched his site back on, but without the PDF of Mein Kampf. A spokesperson from the university said that it considered Gizewski's action a breach of copyright.
But Gizewski argued that as a qualified academic he was perfectly within his right to reproduce a historical source text as long as he did not make a profit from it. He pointed to paragraphs 52 and 52a of German copyright law – which, for example, allow lecturers to photocopy books for seminars. He also said he he wanted to fight his corner if the case went to court: "I will keep on running this website."
"It should be in everyone's interest, that the whole work is taken apart back to front. Of course there are people who will abuse this book, but surely we have to distinguish between them and academics who look at it for sound academic reasons."
Gizewski could be accused of eccentricity (there is also a long letter to Social Democrat party members on his site, explaining why they should have voted against a coalition with Merkel's party), and perhaps of wilful mischief – he could have just linked to one of the thousands of other scans of Mein Kampf you can find on Google. But from talking to him there seems little doubt that he has a genuine academic motive.
At the very least, this episode illustrates the ongoing absurdity of the situation around the publication of Hitler's book in Germany. The Bavarian finance ministry can call up Christian Gizewski because he happens to live in Germany. But it can do nothing about the thousands of scans uploaded outside Germany that remain just a keystroke away for those within the country.