The Strange Publishing History Of ‘Mein Kampf’

“Obstacles do not exist to be surrendered to, but only to be broken.” —Adolf Hitler, “Mein Kampf”

In A Nutshell

It’s kept under lock and key in a vault in Bavaria, it’s been legal to own but illegal to reprint in Germany, and there’s a comic book version issued in Japan. Mein Kampf is easily one of the most disputed books in history, and at one point, Houghton Mifflin started suing other American publishing companies for the sole rights to release it in the United States. Its controversy isn’t going away, either, and with the expiration of Bavarian copyrights, publishers are planning to re-release new print editions for the first time since the end of World War II.

The Whole Bushel

Today, the publishing of Mein Kampf can be looked at with the clarity of hindsight, and in some places, it’s still a dangerous, terrifying thing, even decades later. In the Bavarian State Library, Nazi-era copies of the book are kept under lock and key in a special room where all the most dangerous and toxic pieces of literature are kept. Anyone who wants to get a look at it has to submit a formal request to do so, a request that’s checked out by a group of experts to make sure it’s not getting into the wrong hands.

At the time it first hit the shelves, though, it sold somewhere around 12 million copies in Germany. Plenty of them are still out there. The rambling, 700-page work was more likely to be given as a wedding gift than to serve as anyone’s bedtime reading.

In the US, though, it was at the center of a weird lawsuit as major publishers fought over the rights.

In the 1930s, American publishers were scrambling to reserve the rights to print Hitler’s bizarre book. Houghton Mifflin was among the first to do so in a complete form, around 270,000 words. Noram Publishing Company wasn’t far behind, but rather than release the whole thing, they chose to make an abridged version. About 32 pages long, the book came with notes and maps to make the ramblings easier to understand. Houghton Mifflin sued their competitor, demanding they be the only one allowed to print it. And they won, forcing Noram to destroy all the abridged copies printed.

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After the end of World War II, Germany banned the publishing of the book, the rights of which had reverted to Bavaria. (The book itself was never actually banned, only the reprinting of it.) The state of Bavaria has, for decades, blocked any attempts to get around the laws or purchase the rights—until now. Bavaria’s rights expire in December 2015, and the first new print edition of Mein Kampf is coming from a strange source: the German people.

A German historical society is releasing the book again, but they’re doing it as a completely annotated version complete with analysis, notes, critiques, and criticisms designed to preserve history (as historical societies do). But with the society getting much of its funding from the taxpayers, their decision to re-release it at all is unsurprisingly controversial.

Historian and writer Andrew Nagorski points out the sort of disarming effect that Mein Kampf had in America. It was so vitriolic and hateful that it was easy for people to think that it must be composed of figures of speech than any literal hate or plan for the future.

In other countries, though, Mein Kampf has had something of a different effect in a different form. In Japan, there’s a comic book version of it, and in India, it’s become known as a self-help book.

Show Me The Proof

Featured photo via Wikipedia
Smithsonian: Houghton Mifflin Once Sued Another Publisher on Behalf of Hitler and Mein Kampf
The Atlantic: Early Warnings: How American Journalists Reported the Rise of Hitler
Washington Post: ‘Mein Kampf’: A historical tool, or Hitler’s voice from beyond the grave?
New Yorker: Defusing “Mein Kampf”

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