A few decades ago, back in high school I was particularly struck by an incident in which a German exchange student with whom I was friendly expressed considerable surprise that Adolf Hitler's screed Mein Kampf was setting openly on the shelves of our library. I told him that I had actually tried to read it, but found it be an incomprehensible mess. He solemnly told me that the book was illegal in Germany. He picked the volume up and held it as though he thought it might bite him. Having never heard of United States v. One Book Called Ulysses, I was patriotically proud of the fact that we had no such censorship in my country.
According to an op-ed by journalist Peter Ross Range, "Should Germans Read 'Mein Kampf'?, in today's New York Times, the book is, strictly speaking, not illegal in Germany. However, the copyright holder, the state of Bavaria, has refused to allow its republication. The copyright is about to expire, so anyone would have the right to publish it soon. In fact, a team of scholars is working on an annotated version. This has provoked concern in some quarters that making it available to Germans might summon forth the old Nazi demons. As the op-ed reports:
Unsurprisingly, the "Mein Kampf" project has stirred uproar in some Jewish circles. Charlotte Knobloch, president of the Israelite Cultural Community of Munich and Upper Bavaria, said "there is still a danger" of catalyzing far-right sentiments. Uri Chanoch, an 86-year-old Israeli Holocaust survivor, added that Germans "somewhere in their hearts still have a hatred for us" and has campaigned aggressively against the book's republication, calling for international pressure on Bavaria to block it.
It is only natural for people who survived the savagery of Hitlerism to express such sentiments, but cooler heads have prevailed and work on the annotated edition is proceeding:
Racing to be first to publish the book is the Institute for Contemporary History, a noted center in Munich for the study of Nazism, which has a five-scholar team at work on an annotated "critical edition" of Hitler's 700-page ramble.
The institute's version will double the size of the book and create an academic baseline for all future study of the ur-text of Hitlerism, said the team's leader, Christian Hartmann. The book's extensive notations, he added, will "encircle" Hitler's story line with a "collage" of commentary to demystify and decode it, an alternative subtext and historical context that will strip it of its allegedly hypnotizing power.
Range is clearly right when he concludes:
Sixty-nine years after World War II, it no longer makes sense for Germans not to have unfettered access to the same book that can be easily bought in other countries….
In 1959, West Germany's first postwar president, Theodor Heuss, recommended republishing "Mein Kampf" as a cautionary document for the German people. Not yet ready for such a confrontation, the political establishment ignored him. Today, 55 years and 10 presidents later, Heuss's good idea is finally coming to fruition.
Limiting speech will not deter tyranny, but free speech can.