Friday, December 2, 2011
The Return of Mein Kampf
The Return of Mein Kampf
By SARAH WILDMAN
VIENNA — In Vienna’s leafy Augarten Park stand two enormous flak towers — vestiges of World War II. Beige and hulking, with walls four feet thick, they are as imposing as they are ugly. Impossible to ignore, they force a conversation.
European Pressphoto Agency
The other day, at a café nearby, the historian Herwig Czech was talking about another World War II relic, much smaller but far more fearsome: “Mein Kampf.” Adolf Hitler’s personal-political 700-plus-page screed, the text that provided the opening overture and background music for the racist ideology of the Nazi period, enters the public domain in 2015. At that point, there will no longer be any legal control over its distribution.
This already scares a lot of people. “There are those who say, oh, it’s passé,” said the historian Jean-Marc Dreyfus, a colleague of Czech’s and an organizer of a conference held last month in Paris to discuss the implications of freely distributing “Mein Kampf.” “But my students tell me they find it engaging. It still ‘speaks’ in the psychoanalytic sense of the word.” And, he said, “It still sells.”
Limiting free speech is anathema to many Americans, but throughout Europe it has seemed like a proper means of shoring up democracy against the threat of fascism. In the immediate postwar period, nearly all European governments passed such restrictions on free speech. “It was believed we needed the laws to keep the lunatic fringe right at bay,” Czech explains.
In 1947, Austria adopted the Verbotsgesetz — or “Prohibition Act” — banning the Nazi Party and criminalizing the celebration, promotion, or adulation of Nazi ideology; in the 1990s, it was amended to prohibit Holocaust denial. (It was under this law that the English writer David Irving was jailed a few years ago for denying the existence of the gas chambers.) Distributing and displaying Nazi paraphernalia is forbidden here. Germany, Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Lichtenstein, Luxembourg, Lithuania — all these countries also criminalize revisionism and restrict various forms of speech and publications about the Holocaust. And for nearly 70 years, the German state of Bavaria, which holds the copyright for “Mein Kampf,” has fought heartily against the book’s publication in any country where it is possible to fight it.
But now the rationale behind these restrictions is being questioned. While they may have helped limit the widespread distribution of “Mein Kampf” in Europe, repressive tactics of this kind have not aged well in the Internet era. (The book was never fully blocked anyway: in the 1980s, the U.S. Army sold it in some of its “Stars and Stripes” shops across Germany. And libraries often held copies.) Preventing a book’s publication today is largely a symbolic move.
“Mein Kampf” is widely available, in its entirety, across the Web. It has been a hit in Japan and Turkey in recent years; it has sold briskly in South America and the Middle East; and it has shown up, like a nefarious inspiration, in such ugly places as the rantings of the Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik. By 2008, an estimated 70,000,000 copies had been put into circulation since the book was first published in 1925, according to HatePrevention.org, a consortium of academics and activists. In other words, the restrictions on its publication may have enabled a kind of willful ignorance, a means of not recognizing the continued impact of the book’s ideas on society.
And so as Europe faces the end of the copyright on one of the most painful texts of the 20th century, some people now believe that the best course of action is not to extend the ban, but to publish “Mein Kampf” with extensive annotations that explain how the book was used and what it wrought — that recognize its continued presence. “Our idea is a zero-censorship effort,” says Philippe Coen, a French attorney at the forefront of HatePrevention.org, which organized the recent conference in Paris. He, like Dreyfus, favors the pedagogical approach to the publication of Hitler’s manifesto.
As the war’s last eyewitnesses die out, Coen warns, new ways must be learned to ward off the ideology behind the text without being afraid of the text itself.