Board of Deputies says an annotated edition can put the antisemitic polemic into historical context.
Adolf Hitler wrote Mein Kampf when he was in prison following a failed putsch and the first volume was published in 1925
Senior figures in Britain’s Jewish community have cautiously welcomed the republication of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf for the first time since the second world war.
The most notorious antisemitic text of the 20th century, Mein Kampf (My Struggle), was originally published in two volumes in 1925 and 1926, and was the first systematic exposition of Hitler’s thinking on race and the “Jewish peril” he believed was threatening Germany.
Since 1946, the copyright has been in the hands of the Bavarian state, which refused to consider a new edition. However, the copyright protection expires at the end of the year and on 8 January a new academic, or “critical”, edition will be launched by the Institute of Contemporary History in Munich, complete with comprehensive annotations.
German Jews have already expressed divided opinions on the republication. Levi Salomon, spokesman for the Berlin-based Jewish Forum for Democracy and Against Antisemitism, told American media that he was “absolutely against” the publication, regardless of its annotations. “Can you annotate the Devil?” he asked. “Can you annotate a person like Hitler?”
Charlotte Knobloch, president of the Jewish Community of Munich and Upper Bavaria, said the book is dangerous. “It is a Pandora’s box. One does not know what’s going on within the reader’s mind … It is the ideological basis of the mass, industrial extermination of the Jewish people.”
But just under two weeks from the new edition’s launch in Munich, Richard Verber, vice-president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, said the board had faith in the academic and educational worth of the exercise. “We would, of course, be very wary of any attempt to glorify Hitler or to belittle the Holocaust in any way,” Verber told the Observer. “But this is not that. I do understand how some Jewish groups could be upset and nervous, but it seems it is being done from a historical point of view and to put it in context,” he said.
“The key is that the notes to the text really do refute Hitler’s ideas with factual information. If that were not the case, the board of deputies would be worried. But the fact remains Hitler is one of the most famous, or infamous, leaders of the 20th century and anything that might put a dampener on that, by showing his views in a historical light, might actually be helpful.”
In a column for the Daily Telegraph last week, the editor of the Jewish Chronicle, Stephen Pollard, expressed sympathy with Knobloch’s opposition, but wrote: “My principles tell me that republishing it is fine. At the very least, Mein Kampf is – obviously – an important historical work … Ideas, however awful, cannot be locked away. They have to be defeated.”
The republication comes as Europe’s far-right nationalist parties are gaining ground. “With the rise of far-right groups in the Ukraine, in Germany itself, and in France,” said Verber, “it is of concern, of course. There has always been a fascination with Hitler, ever since he was first in power, when Charlie Chaplin made fun of him. There is a macabre fascination, and that makes us nervous. If anything good comes out of this new edition, perhaps it might be that people are reminded of how powerful words alone can be in inciting hatred.”
As many as 4,000 copies will be printed of a volume that will run to almost 2,000 pages, as a result of 3,500 footnotes and comments. The edition was originally to have been produced in collaboration with the Bavarian state but, following complaints from Holocaust victims’ families and from survivors in Israel, the Institute of Contemporary History decided to proceed independently.
The scholarly approach was welcomed, however, by Dan Michman, head of the International Institute for Holocaust Research at Yad Vashem in Israel, who told reporters: “What is sorely absent is a scientific, annotated edition which can be used in research, especially for younger Holocaust scholars. In this era of rampant Holocaust denial and distortion, it is important for the public at large to possess the knowledge previously only held by researchers and historians.”
The German justice ministry has ruled that no edition of Mein Kampf can be published without the additional analytical context. But Josef Schuster, president of the German Council of Jews, has talked of the perils surrounding new interest in Hitler’s early writings.
“There is a great danger that [Mein Kampf] will increasingly be circulated on the market after the expiry of the copyright,” Schuster said. “Nevertheless, knowledge of Mein Kampf continues to be important in order to explain National Socialism and the Shoah. Therefore we do not object to a critical edition, contrasting Hitler’s racial theories with scientific findings, to be at the disposal of research and teaching.”
The German teachers’ association also took this view last weekend when it issued advice to schools that selected passage should be taught to students aged 16 and over. Josef Kraus, the head of the association, said it was the best way of combating the allure of the forbidden and could help to “inoculate adolescents against political extremism”.
Mein Kampf was written by Hitler during a period of imprisonment that followed the failed putsch in 1923. The book’s style is famously convoluted and it would rank as neither a literary achievement nor an insightful historical document had it not been linked to Hitler’s rapid rise to power. By the time he was chancellor in 1933, it was a bestseller and there were 13 million copies in circulation by the end of the war. It was regularly handed out to newlyweds in Nazi Germany as a kind of blessing by municipal officials.
German bookshop chains are not planning to promote the title.