Fifty Shades of Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf,’ the New German Best Seller

The critical edition published in January may be better as a doorstop than a beach read. Despite the hype, its sales are a minuscule fraction of what they once were.

AMSTERDAM — The national German news magazine Der Spiegel this week posted Adolf Hitler's infamous rant, Mein Kampf, in second place on its best-seller list.

Amid the refugee crisis and resurgent racism (onlookers reportedly cheered a fire at a migrant shelter in the town of Bautzen this week), it would seem that the Führer’s infamous anti-Semitic screed—a “best-seller”!—is gaining traction once again in Germany.

But best-seller lists often are based on bookstore surveys rather than overall statistics, and we’re not talking about six-figure sales. When that list first came out, we were looking at about 14,000 copies sold in a nation of 81 million people, and many of those apparently went to academics. As of this writing, Mein Kampf has dropped out of Der Spiegel’s top ten.

“There are alternative lists from bookstores where the book isn't even mentioned,” says Simone Paulmichl, spokesperson for the Institute of Contemporary History, which published the new edition. “The only thing that's clear is that we have sold 14,000 copies since presentation of the book on Jan. 8.”

“When you hear ‘Hitler's Mein Kampf is a best-seller in Germany,’ it sounds very strange,” Paulmichl told The Daily Beast. “And you have to bear in mind that it is not Mein Kampf itself that is the bestseller, but rather the scientific, critical edition of Mein Kampf.”

In this form, as Paulmichl put it, Hitler’s rabid and redundant diatribe, already quite boring, is just not very attractive for an aspiring Neo-Nazi.

“Reading it accompanied by 3,500 footnotes is no pleasure,” says Paulmichl. “It's a critical edition and its main aim is to contradict the ideology. It exposes Hitler’s lies and makes you aware of the propaganda.” Little effort has been made to market it to the general public. “It doesn’t sport an attractive cover, it is not the sort of book you read in bed before going to sleep.”

Pre-publication demand for the first edition was hard to judge. At first, 4,000 copies were planned, but that was upped to 9,000. The decision to print just enough copies to meet demand was not political but logistical. Storing spare inventory in warehouses was considered too expensive. “The problem was, nobody could guess exactly how many books would be sold,” says Paulmichl.

The book is priced to cover production costs as part of a nonprofit research project, so it is relatively cheap for such an imposing tome. The huge two-volume publication retails for a mere €59 ($65), while, according to Paulmichl, such an opus normally would sell for about €150. So, as a doorstop at least, it’s an attractive buy, and another 10,000 are on their way to the stores.

But there’s no comparison with the best-seller status of the original. In the 1930s Mein Kampf sold like hotcakes—over 12 million copies—and, in fact, a lot of those are still around.

Paulmichl notes there was never a dearth of copies available in Germany, and the law did not ban them as such. But the copyright, which expired last year, was held by the State of Bavaria, and it would not permit any new editions.

“It is a myth that Mein Kampf was something like a forbidden book before this year. The only thing that was forbidden was to make a reprint,” Paulmichl explains. “In Germany you could buy the books in second-hand bookstores legally. It wasn’t illegal to own it or even to sell it in a flea market,” she says. “There are still copies from the ’20s and ’30s around, and on the Internet the complete text is just a mouse click away.”

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So who has been buying the new edition?

Paulmichl: “We get a lot of feedback from the bookstores. They tell us normal people buy the book, customers known by the store owners, not identified as right wing or Neo-Nazis.”

“You can’t look in somebody’s mind, that's clear, but the booksellers are cautious,” she says. “Most don't put it on the shelves and only sell or order it when asked.”

Overall, the Institute For Contemporary History is pleased with the response so far. “We received a lot of positive feedback from researchers around the world. We are not disappointed that the book is in demand. We’ve sold 14,000 copies at the moment—it’s not Fifty Shades of Grey.”