Why ‘Mein Kampf’ Is a Must-Read Now

Now in the public domain, Hitler’s infamous book has been republished in a scholarly edition. It’s time to confront it head on.

01.18.16 5:01 AM ET

One of the welcome developments of the new year is the republication in Germany, for the first time since World War II, of—yes, gulp—Mein Kampf.

Adolf Hitler’s autobiographical manifesto was re-released in a new, highly annotated academic edition, in German. With 3,500 footnotes and nearly 2,000 pages in two volumes, the new book is more than twice as long as Hitler’s 782-page original.

Withheld from publication for seven decades for fear that it might stir up neo-Nazis or tarnish Germany’s international image, Hitler’s convoluted, anti-Semitic memoir is back in print in the land of its origin because its copyright has just run out. Since Jan. 1, one of the world’s most notorious books has been in the public domain.

And while the reissue of Hitler’s anti-Semitic rant is denounced by some, especially within the Jewish Holocaust survivor community, it is being greeted enthusiastically by the great majority of scholars, including Jewish intellectuals in the U.S., Israel, and Germany. Even the head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Josef Schuster, has welcomed the issuance of the annotated book by Munich’s respected Institute for Contemporary History. “There are no objections to a scientifically annotated edition,” he said.

That is as it should be. It’s time for the long-taboo book to face the harsh light of common scrutiny by a German public that is three generations removed from the war. And it is high time, even long overdue, that German schoolchildren and university students have the benefit of direct access to the early raw material of Hitler’s madness, just as they have long been able to read his speeches and see him perform in old film clips.

Though young readers could also find Mein Kampf on the Internet or perhaps in their grandparents’ attics, the book has for seven decades lived a shadow existence as a contraband item that was too hot to touch. The book, or even significant excerpts from it, have never been part of the German school curriculum—even though postwar Germany’s first president, Theodor Heuss, recommended just such a step in 1959. Now, says Germany’s education minister, Johanna Wanka, Mein Kampf can be taught in the schools because “Hitler’s statements will no longer be uncontradicted.”

Fears that Hitler’s feverish but rambling and repetitive writing would somehow incite a neo-Nazi revival are dismissed by most observers. The pure text has for years been posted on extremist right-wing websites, in German and other languages, and has not yet triggered a fascist groundswell. Such German xenophobia as exists today is more likely to be directed at Syrian refugees than channeled through Hitler’s obsession with Jews.

For contemporary readers of any political persuasion, digging into Hitler’s overheated, simplistic theories of racial domination and his tangled ’20s foreign policy prescriptions is more in the nature of historical homework than political inspiration.

But the homework is important, and that’s what makes the arrival of the new “critical edition” of Mein Kampf a positive step. Closeting the single most important original source of the Nazi enterprise is hardly the way to educate and inoculate future German generations about their country’s darkest hour. Putting the academic imprimatur on the beast somehow tames it, converting it from inflammatory political pamphlet to interesting historical artifact. Now it can be taught for what it is.

And teaching is the key. Hitler’s original, aggressively marketed by his Munich publisher, sold more than 12 million copies, but the Munich scholars openly hoped their book, priced at $64 a set, would not become a best-seller—the new edition has an initial print run of only 4,000. It is designed for libraries, researchers, and teachers. “The book will get a multiplier effect through academic use and the media,” comments historian Christian Hartmann, the scholar in charge of the project.

With the footnotes snaking throughout the text, the new Mein Kampf more closely resembles a theological treatise than a political tract. “Ironically, [the newly annotated Mein Kampf] will look like the Talmud,” noted Dan Michman, head of international research at Yad Vashem museum in Israel.

The Talmudic analogy flows from the decision by the Mein Kampf academic team to “encircle” Hitler’s words with the analytical and deconstructing footnotes. “We wanted to surround the text to demystify it and destroy it,” says Hartmann. Since 2009, his team of five scholars—with help from several dozen others—has traced and dissected the origins of Hitler’s complex, sometimes outrageous thinking almost sentence-by-sentence. Since Hitler wrote only in the omniscient voice and almost never attributed ideas to anyone (and provided no footnotes at all), the task has been monumental.

Hitler’s text needed deconstructing not simply because it is offensive and inflammatory. It is also dense, convoluted and filled with obscure references. Writing the first volume of his book in 1924 in a small prison cell outside Munich—where he was serving time for the abortive 1923 Beer Hall Putsch—Hitler wallowed in the common “truths, half-truths and lies” of social Darwinism of the late 19th century and early 20th century, says Hartmann.

When I visited that cell in 2015 (the internal walls are gone but the windows where Hitler stood for an iconic photograph are exactly the same), I could visualize the “small library” Hitler had along one wall where he drew on the random writings of the day for his racist ideas. Hitler pasted together strewn data and tendentious notions for his own purposes with no documentation or even the slightest attempt to persuade readers of their veracity. Where he discovered his oversimplified constructs—about “the path of the Jews,” for example—and why he dwelt at length on such topics as “the art of reading” and on stamping out syphilis (“the task of the nation”) are all subjects of the scholarly inquiry and the commentary.

But the decision to publish the book was not entirely academic. Anticipating the expiration of the book’s copyright—held since 1945 by the state of Bavaria, which refused re-publication on political grounds—the historians and other civil society actors, including Jewish and Catholic groups, sought to steal a march on potential exploiters of the copyright-free book by commissioning the academic version—and having it ready by the crack of 2016. They feared that allowing Mein Kampf to be issued by a neo-Nazi group or a commercial publisher seeking a quick-buck sensation would have, once again, tarred Germany’s image. Better to do the deed at the highest and most sober levels, reasoned the researchers. (There have been numerous enquiries by foreign publishers, though no translation has yet begun.)

While the lifting of one of the last postwar prohibitions in Germany has to be seen as a sign of civic maturity, Germans are still, to some extent, afraid of their own shadows. The conference of state justice ministers, who enforce laws like incitement to hatred, have said they will prosecute anyone who publishes a non-annotated version of Mein Kampf. Even today, the naked text is treated like the unexploded ordnance of German history. Perhaps after a generation of Germans has digested the newly deconstructed version, the pure Hitler will not seem so scary. Demystified, Mein Kampf can be turned into what it ultimately is—the last relic of a failed and horrific enterprise.

Peter Ross Range, a Washington-based writer, is the author of 1924: The Year That Made Hitler, due out Jan. 26.