Unbanning Hitler

<em>Mein Kampf</em> made the Fuhrer a millionaire, and it has been enriching anonymous charities. Bu

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? Most German and Jewish scholars I speak with think not, but the idea of circulating Mein Kampf freely in Germany opens up many 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 l942. Hitler's boast was that Mein Kampf had the largest sales of any book worldwide, apart from the Bible. His royalties were $1m 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 Jews, the disabled, and those others considered "racially inferior". The book's 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, Mein Kampf cannot be purchased in Germany, Hungary, Israel, Latvia, Norway, Portugal, Sweden and Switzerland, but the book is readily available in Russia, Romania, the United States and the UK (where it sells a regular 3,000 copies annually).

Mein Kampf was first sold in the Czech lands in l936, and again in l993, both times in abridged, annotated versions. In March 2000, the full Czech edition was published by Otakar II. Publisher Michal Zitko printed 10,000 copies, whereas the average Czech print run is 400. The German embassy in Prague requested 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, including the Czech Romanies and the Czech Union of Freedom Fighters. Tomas Kraus, the 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 the 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 l933, Eher Verlag purchased 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 l969. Richard Cohen, now managing director of Richard Cohen Books, was Hutchinson's trade publishing director in l985, 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. "Each new edition has prompted a letter of complaint from the German government," Cohen adds.

Meanwhile, Hutchinson was bought by Random House, which in turn was purchased 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 go 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. Last weekend, the press published the news that the German Welfare Council has been absorbing the royalties since 1976. The German Welfare Council claims to have distributed the cash to German Jewish refugees and, now that there are so few alive, "the trustees have decided that the funding is no longer appropriate". Now £250,000 worth of royalties is to be handed back 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. The majority of her grandchildren - Hitler's grandnieces and -nephews - live in Linz, in the area where Hitler was born. Alois's descendants live on Long Island. In theory, they could inherit royalties from Mein Kampf, should Bavaria ever sanction German publication.

Has money been made by association? Brigid Dowling attempted to capitalise on her Hitler links through her unpublished manuscript My Brother-in-Law, which she peddled in New York. According to Timothy Ryback (author of The Last Survivor), Alois Hitler "was reportedly earning pocket money by signing photographs of his half-brother and selling them to tourists in New York in l953". The rest of the Hitler clan in the US and Austria prefer to keep a low profile. 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 that royalties from Mein Kampf are worth "almost DM9m" (about £3m). Other assets include Eva Braun's photo albums, housed in the National Archives in Washington, DC.

Maser has told Ryback that he has "absolutely no moral reservations" about pursuing the Hitler millions. "The Jews have got their compensation and now the slave labourers have got theirs. It is time for us to get ours." Curiously, he has admitted pretending to be partly Jewish to Jewish business colleagues. "Now, if it came out that I was reclaiming part of the Hitler estate, that might look a little strange to them." 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 that "there is absolutely no legal basis on which the Hitler heirs could lay claim to royalties. We don't understand what legal basis Professor Maser has for calling himself the administrator of the Hitler estate. 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 to halt sales of the book by Germany's minister for justice; Amazon agreed to stop selling through its German site in November 2000. The protests began when Simon Wiesenthal wrote to both companies, asking them to refrain from offering Mein Kampf to people in Germany. Last year, the German authorities considered taking legal action against Yahoo for auctioning copies, but the action was dropped in March.

The American picture is also worth examining. During the Second World War, the US government made more than $20,000 from royalties on Mein Kampf, having seized the copyright as part of the Trading with the Enemy Act (Hitler's book was one of the first assets gained under this law). By l979, the Justice Department had collected more than $139,000 in royalties. Eventually, the monies were paid on a pro-rata basis to claimants, many of them American ex-POWs. In l979, Houghton Mifflin, the US publisher of the book, paid the government more than $35,000 for the rights. Selling more than 15,000 copies a year, Houghton Mifflin made substantial profits. When questioned about the ethics of this, the publishers reassigned the profits to charity.

What of those who endured the Holocaust and experienced Mein Kampf as a direct weapon? In The Holocaust: the Jewish tragedy, Martin Gilbert chronicles how, on Kristallnacht in Baden-Baden, a Dr Flehinger "was ordered to read out passages from Mein Kampf to fellow Jews. 'I read the passage quietly, indeed so quietly that the SS man posted behind me repeatedly hit me in the neck.' "

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 hidden in the attic. The Jewish intellectuals I consulted did not seem too frightened by the question of lifting the ban. David 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 this suppression, but I do believe that suppression by the state is counterproductive." The lawyer and author Anthony Julius agrees, pointing out: "The ban is a bit of a nonsense. But I do feel that the basic principles of freedom of speech are context-specific, and a certain political judgement is needed."

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

Michael Whine, a spokesman for the Board of Deputies, observes: "When Hutchinson wanted to publish in l969 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 favour of removing the ban on condition that there is an edited, scholarly version", and says that his position is shared by Eberhard Jackel, 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 running commentary. She believes that, as in the Irving libel case, "the public debate in our liberal democracy will reveal racism masquerading as scholarship".

The historian Deborah Lipstadt, defendant in the David Irving libel case, says: "Germany has a historical legacy that makes this a unique situation. I would feel very uncomfortable, but I can understand that banning could be counter- productive." The German analysis reveals even more complexity around this subject. Ludwin Fischer is a non-Jewish German journalist living in Switzerland, and has been an active anti-fascist campaigner, successfully dismantling several internet neo-Nazi groups. He believes that no German politician today would dare suggest changing the law. "Nazism remains a trauma in Germany. There is still a cult of guilt. When Gerhard Schroder said recently, 'I am proud to be German', it provoked a cry of horror in the country. Any German politician suggesting the free publication of Mein Kampf would be hounded out of office as a pro-Nazi. It would be political suicide."

Certainly, in principle, I believe that 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 (£9.99)

This article first appeared in the 25 June 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The slow death of Tory England