Otto Strasser, an early follower of Adolf Hitler who later broke with him and escaped from Germany, recalled a dinner with top Nazi officials at the 1927 Party Congress in Nuremberg. When it became apparent that no one had read Hitler’s Mein Kampf in its entirety, they agreed to ask anyone who joined them if he had done so—and stick whoever answered in the affirmative with the bill. As Strasser reported in his memoirs, “Nobody had read Mein Kampf, so everyone had to pay his own bill.”
There’s a reason that even many of Hitler’s followers never bothered to plow through the two volumes of his autobiographical screed: it makes for an excruciating reading experience, no matter what your political leanings. Which is just one reason why the successful bid by the Bavarian authorities this week to uphold the postwar ban on publishing the book in Germany defies logic. A far more sensible approach would be for the authorities to lift the ban long before Bavaria’s copyright expires in 2015.
When Hitler was on the rise, the most perceptive American correspondents in Germany despaired that almost no outsiders had paid any attention to Mein Kampf. H.R. Knickerbocker, the Berlin correspondent of the Philadelphia Public Ledger and the New York Evening Post, told a fellow American reporter who had just arrived in the German capital to read the book right away. “No American I know of has taken the trouble to read it seriously, but it’s all there: his plan for the conquest for Europe,” he told him.
So, too, of course, was Hitler’s vituperative language about the Jews and what he wanted to do to them. After reading Mein Kampf and interviewing Hitler in late 1931, when he was still an opposition leader on the rise, Dorothy Thompson, another famous American correspondent from that era, summed up his views: “The Jews are responsible for everything.” She added: “Take the Jews out of Hitler’s program, and the whole thing … collapses.”
To be sure, committed anti-Semites were in complete agreement with Hitler’s descriptions of Jews as bloodsuckers and vermin—and anti-Semitism has hardly disappeared from today’s world, including in Germany. According to a recent study, one fifth of the population harbors “latent” feelings of hostility toward Jews. And about 26,000 Germans have been identified as right-wing extremists by the government, which is stepping up its efforts to combat this small but at times violent minority. One cell is suspected of killing 10 people since 2000, nine immigrants and a policewoman.
But none of this strengthens the case for keeping the ban on the publication of Mein Kampf. With its hundreds of pages of turgid, often incoherent prose, it’s hardly a major attraction now.
In fact, the only reason that the book may still exude a bit of magnetism for anyone but the already fanatical adherents of the far right is its banned status. And even that is a somewhat bogus claim, since any German who wants to read the book can turn to the Internet or buy a copy abroad. Owning Mein Kampf is not a crime; the current ban only prevents publication of the book in Germany.
It’s time to let Hitler’s outpouring of venom, dictated in 1924 while he was serving a short term in prison for his role in the failed Beer Hall Putsch, to be published. Today’s Germany is certainly a strong enough democracy to survive such a shift in policy, and it may even benefit from it. Inoculations always involve inserting a bit of poison into the body to strengthen it. Germany is fully ready for its shot.