- By Stephen M. WaltStephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
My copy of Mein Kampf sits on a shelf in my study, along with a couple of dozen books on World War II. It was the first book ever translated by the late Ralph Manheim (who also translated the works of Gunter Grass and others) and published by Houghton Mifflin in 1943. I’ve used it to prepare lectures on the Second World War, where I quote a few of Hitler’s more lurid and bizarre passages in order to convey to students the dangerous world-view from which Nazism sprang.
I mention this because authorities in Bavaria are reportedly trying to prevent new editions of this book from being published in Germany (where it has been banned), now that the original copyright (which is controlled by the Bavarian government) is about to run out. Their concern, which is understandable but in my view overstated, is that neo-Nazi groups will use the expiration of copyright as an opportunity to disseminate Hitler’s hateful ideas anew.
I think this is a mistake. In addition to being filled with a lot of appalling racist claptrap, Mein Kampf is an awful book-turgid, tedious, badly organized, and mostly boring. So the danger that a German edition it will win a lot of new converts seems remote. Second, it’s widely available in pirated versions on the Internet and in plenty of other countries (including the Untied States), so anybody with neo-Nazi sympathies can get a copy already.
But most importantly, the best way to deal with a book like Mein Kampf is to expose it to light, demolish its “arguments,” and remind everyone where Hitler’s world-view ultimately led. Apart from its obvious xenophobia and anti-Semitism, the book is filled with historical falsehoods, bogus prescriptions and sophomoric attempts at philosophy. If you want fascism to remain a marginalized social phenomenon, allowing qualified historians to dissect Hitler’s ideas is a better antidote than censorship. After acknowledging the legitimate sensitivities of some who oppose publication, Stephen Kramer, secretary-general of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, wisely counseled that the best course was not censorship but an open effort to put the work in context, with an appropriate commentary. As he told the Times, “Those who are already on the wrong side already have the book and already read it from their own point of view. Let’s get it out there, and let’s get it out there with a commentary.” Furthermore, banning publication would just let extremists argue that elites are conspiring to keep some valuable “wisdom” away from the people, and a few nutjobs might even believe them.
Two additional lessons are worth remembering as well. Books like Mein Kampf remind us that bizarre, incoherent, and hateful ideas can sometimes win over enough people to sway a nation and ultimately help lead to the deaths of millions. When you actually look at the the book, and read about the history of Nazism, it may be hard to believe that serious people in an advanced society could be persuaded by arguments of this sort. But they were. And while Hitler may be the extreme case, we live in an era where plenty of political (and I regret to say, religious) figures offer all sorts of memoirs and tracts of their own, some of them nearly as bizarre and illogical (if not as murderous) as Hitler’s infamous tome. And I regret to say that some of them have a significant following.
The second lesson, of course, is that following beliefs of this sort was not only a tragedy for millions of innocent people in Europe, but it was also a disaster for Germany itself. Anyone who is ignorant enough to be attracted by the program set forth in Mein Kampf needs to be reminded about what Hitler’s world-view produced. In addition to directly causing the deaths of millions, his leadership led to Germany being extensively bombed, occupied by several foreign armies, divided for nearly half a century, and regarded with suspicion for many decades thereafter. Thus Hitler was not only one of history’s greatest criminals, but also one of history’s greatest failures. Mein Kampf is a blueprint for disaster, and anyone who might find it inspirational needs to be reminded of that fact.
The marketplace of ideas isn’t perfect, but I have enough faith in it to believe that you can put Mein Kampf on a bookshelf in Germany today — preferably in an annotated edition that exposes all of its errors — and that the net effect will be to further discredit one of the darkest chapters in modern human history.