Milan Hauner, Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf: The Critical Edition

Mein KampfA critical edition of Mein Kampf by the Institute for Contemporary History, Munich-Berlin 2016. Edited by Christian Hartmann, Thomas Vordermayer, Othmar Plöckinger and Roman Töppel, et al. The following is a shortened review essay by Milan Hauner, based on the original text. [1]

“We Are Not Finished with Hitler Yet…”

Several German historians selected this quote in the 1980s as their motto. The quote provided them with a kind of permanent challenge to persevere in their critical studies of the Third Reich.[2]

It is certainly useful to be reminded of that challenge in connection with Mein Kampf, often referred to as “the Bible of the Nazi movement,” whether we are contemplating the book as Hitler’s mere autobiography, covering the first three and half decades of his life or as an exposition of his doctrine of National Socialism, in which Hitler insisted in solving the “Jewish Question” and preached the necessity of conquering a new Lebensraum in the East. Whatever view we may hold on the role of the individual in history, Hitler remains a challenge.

I wish I could describe the quote, “We are not finished with Hitler yet,” as too gloomy and say that, 40 years later this is no longer true. Alas, Hitler has become so deeply amalgamated with the very short Nazi era of less than thirteen years that not only the German history of this period, but all of modern European history, too, might remain identified with Hitler. Every historical dispute in Germany since 1945 has been carried out, implicitly if not always explicitly, in Hitler’s shadow: the notorious waves of the Historikerstreit, the debate over Daniel Goldhagen’s impertinently provocative book, the impact of the movies like the Holocaust (1977) and Der Untergang (2004), including the greatest postwar literary scandal involving the selling of forged Hitler Diaries in 1983, which constitutes perhaps the biggest fraud in publishing history,[3] and David Irving’s “Holocaust Denial Trial” of 2000, [4] and the follow-up to the critical edition of Mein Kampf in 2016. And that was certainly not the last time we heard of Hitler and his disturbing legacy.

Why is Mein Kampf so important for understanding Nazism and Hitler himself? Upon Germany’s defeat and Hitler’s suicide in 1945 Mein Kampf was already considered “the most dangerous book in the world.” Eberhard Jäckel, one of the leading German historians on Hitler’s Germany, expressed the significance of Mein Kampf very succinctly when he wrote that “rarely in history, if indeed ever, would a ruler even before he seized power, reveal in writing what he was about to carry out, as Hitler had done.”[5]

Whatever are the reasons for taking Mein Kampf seriously, it has taken more than 90 years since Hitler’s book was first published, and 70 years since the dramatic suicide of its author, to accept the fact that an unabbreviated and fully commented critical edition should be finally published in Munich, the seat of Germany’s finest research institution on contemporary history and specifically dedicated to the study of the Nazi era. The place of publication happened to be incidentally the same where Hitler’s movement had originated a century ago. Because the copyright on Mein Kampf, owned by the Bavarian government, was to expire on 31 December 2015, the work on the critical edition had to start at least three years earlier.

Hitler’s Mein Kampf consisted originally of two volumes, published separately in 1925 and 1926. At first, the book did not sell well, but after 1933 it became the most published book in the German language. By 1945 over 12.5 million copies were sold in over 1,000 editions and translations into at least 17 languages were arranged. Out of these millions of copies, a surprising amount survived the war and the iconoclasm of Nazi cultural monuments, emanating from Order No. 4 of the Allied Controlled Commission for Germany of 13 May 1945, according to which “literature and works of national socialist and militaristic character” were to be destroyed. Consequently, in May 1945 when the Allies seized the property of the Eher Verlag, Hitler’s publisher, they automatically banned Mein Kampf in Germany and Austria. Soon the Allies transferred the copyright of Mein Kampf to the Bavarian government. Its representatives not only refused to allow Hitler’s book to be published in Germany but tried to ban – though unsuccessfully – its publication abroad as well. Today, full and slanted translations of Mein Kampf are being printed and sold in at least a dozen countries, even reaching the bestseller’s list in countries such as India and Turkey.[6]

Why should Hitler’s Mein Kampf deserve our attention? Without Mein Kampf other sources and testimonies attributed to Hitler, such as his countless speeches, articles and other texts, would have otherwise been much less relevant. These personal testimonies found themselves promoted to the first rank as historical sources only because of Hitler’s book.

Why is Mein Kampf such an important source? Not for its symbolic or monetary value. Simply because it remains the most detailed manifold testimony of Hitler’s life and the formation of his worldview leading to the most destructive war of mankind so far. It remains a unique personal autobiography of the first stage Hitler’s life before – as he himself wrote – he turned into a politician. Never again will Hitler have the opportunity for instance to recall details from his childhood and adulthood – however incomplete.

As for the significance of the contents, it should suffice to glance at the opening page of volume I to realize that the page contains, in a nutshell, the basics of Hitler’s Weltanschauung. It is all there: the belief in racial superiority of the German race, the need to absorb Austria into Germany, and the quest for a new Lebensraum for the sake of feeding the hungry German nation. Missing are only the alleged main culprits of German misfortune, Marxism and Judaism, which appear several pages further.[7]

Hitler revealed his long-term expansionist goals in volume II, especially in Chapter 14 on “Eastern Orientation and Policy.” There, he explained how he wanted to “lead German people out of its present restricted Living Space (Lebensraum) to new land and soil, and hence also free it from the danger of vanishing from the Earth or of serving others as a slave nation.” Hitler tried to convince his listeners that Germany of the year 2000 would need space and soil to sustain 250 million Aryan citizens. “We National Socialists must go further,” declared Hitler, “without extension of its soil a great nation seems doomed to destruction… Germany will either be a world power or there will be no Germany [Deutschland wird entweder Weltmacht oder überhaupt nicht sein]. We stop the endless German drive to the South and West and turn our gaze towards the land in the East. At long last we break off the colonial and commercial policy of the pre-war period […]. If we speak of new land in Europe today, then we can primarily have in mind only Russia and her vassal border states.”[8]

How many people read Mein Kampf when it was first published? In the opinion of the editors of the Critical Edition, Mein Kampf was certainly read even prior to 1933 in Germany by a much larger readership than was originally assumed. After Hitler seized power in January 1933 it became the compulsory “unread bestseller” of just under 800 pages. [The editors further] expose the myth associated with the book and widely spread as soon as the war ended, namely that very few Germans read the book because it was said to be almost unreadable for its extremist contents and mediocre style. Recent research has established that the readership of Mein Kampf was actually wider than had been assumed after Germany’s defeat. If the percentage of the inquiry (23 per cent) is expressed through figures, then about 15 million Germans were believed to have read Mein Kampf. Although it is a sizeable figure, it should not be imposed as a label of collective guilt on the German nation as a whole without examining the contents.

What is a critical edition? For the first time, 90 years since its first publication, and 70 years after Hitler’s death, the Institute for Contemporary History in Munich has published the unabridged version of Mein Kampf with a running critical commentary. What a critical edition means in the German context, is advertised already on the cover: more than 3,500 “professional notes” that are juxtaposed with Hitler’s own text. The editors offer insights with detailed background materials based on latest research, thereby fact-checking the Führer’s own text and explaining various ideological concepts. They have tried to place Hitler’s utterances into proper historical context, disclosing Hitler’s sources, correcting errors and one-sided interpretations. Moreover, they are also trying to juxtapose Hitler’s ideas at the time of writing Mein Kampf with his deeds as he began to put them into effect as dictator between 1933 and 1945.

The Critical Edition: What is Missing? Overall, the critical edition accomplishes the task of contextualizing Mein Kampf, revealing its highly-constructed nature, and offering readers an apparatus with which to work through Hitler’s writing. Particularly useful are the lengths to which the editors go to explain jargon and pseudo-terms Hitler used profusely. One would find it hard to search for the slightest imperfection in this supremely professional edition. However, there are at least three instances that should deserve critical attention.

  1. Shell-shock and temporary blindness: On the night of 13 to 14 October 1918, corporal Hitler temporarily lost his eye sight as a result of mustard gas attack. Within a few days his clinical blindness was showing signs of hysterical blindness. Dr. Edmund Forster, who diagnosed Hitler as suffering from psychopathic hysteria, applied hypnotherapy to cure Hitler in the lazaret of Pasewalk.[9] Because Hitler’s medical report from Pasewalk disappeared, his highly emotional description in Mein Kampf remains the only source for guessing what happened to him during those critical weeks. The editors of the critical edition of Mein Kampf decided to bypass this highly contentious episode in Hitler’s survival. In doing so, however, they are silent on what others have speculated was the importance of Hitler’s experience of “shell shock” for his psychological and ideological development.
  2. Munich Socialist Republic: A watershed moment in Hitler’s life was his experience with the short-lived Munich Socialist Republic lasting only from February to the end of April 1919. After the assassination of its first Prime Minister Kurt Eisner on 21 February the radical minority took over and proclaimed Bavaria a “Soviet” Republic in early April. Corporal Hitler was elected as battalion’s representative (Vertraunsmann). After the defeat of the Munich Soviet Republic by the combined forces of the Reichswehr and the Freikorps, Hitler should have been arrested and properly interrogated. However, thanks presumably to the intervention of officers who knew him, Hitler was discharged and appointed a member of an emergency tribunal investigating the activities of his fellow soldiers during the brief communist rule. He was then selected for a crash course for army propagandists by Captain Karl Mayr, who became, next to Dietrich Eckart, Hitler’s most influential mentor. In September 1919 Hitler entered the miniscule German Workers’ Party (DAP) under the orders of Captain Mayr and wrote a long letter on antisemitism to Adolf Gemlich, a fellow army propagandist. The letter, in which he recommends to solve the Jewish Question by “removing” Jews from Germany, is considered the first and most comprehensive evidence of Hitler’s antisemitism. Although Hitler is silent in Mein Kampf about this critical stage in his career, the editors of the critical edition, having almost 2,000 pages at their disposal, could have devoted more space and energy to this crucial period of Hitler’s political transition.
  3. Beerhall Putsch: One would assume that a critical edition on this massive scale should comprise everything from the two original volumes of Mein Kampf, including Hitler’s own prominently displayed dedication at the beginning of the book to the 16 Nazi supporters, who were shot during the November 1923 Beerhall Putsch. The editors, however, decided not to publish their names. Why? The list with 16 names is a historical source. It should have been included and not censored. Where else in the book one could find the name of the very complex personality of Dr. Max Erwin von Scheubner-Richter (1884–1923), Hitler’s chief adviser on Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Russia, whose loss Hitler himself described as “irreplaceable,” and whom historians have recently “discovered” as one of the key witnesses of the Armenian genocide when he served as the German Vice-Consul in Erzurum in 1915?

Reaction to the Critical Edition of 2016

In view of the 70-year ban on the publication of Mein Kampf, which was to expire on 31 December 2015, the Institute for Contemporary History in Munich (that had already published in 1961 the so-called Hitler’s Second Book of 1928),[10] proposed several times to publish an annotated edition of Mein Kampf – but the Bavarian government always refused to give permission. In anticipation of the deadline when Hitler’s dangerous book would be open for grab, the Institute’s director Andreas Wirsching decided three years ahead of the schedule to forestall the fallout by preparing a comprehensive critical edition of Mein Kampf. Wirsching also warned of two contrasting extremes. One consisting of holding the topic as a taboo and preventing the public accessing Mein Kampf – as indeed the government of Bavaria did for 70 long years. The other extreme consists of excessively mentioning the name of Hitler and Mein Kampf in the form of satire for example, which allegedly creates an atmosphere of belittling (Verharmlösung) the threat.[11]

Opinions remain divided after the publication of the critical edition of Mein Kampf in January 2016. The first edition was limited to 4,000 copies – presumably to prevent the book from reaching the bestseller list. The second edition which followed with 50,000 copies enabled the critical edition of Mein Kampf in April this year to hit the German bestsellers’ list after over 47,500 copies had been quickly sold. While the Bavarian Minister of Education Ludwig Spaenle could not make up his mind, Josef Kraus, the President of the German Teachers’ Union (Deutscher Lehrerverband) – declared that they would like to use the critical edition in schools, for he believed that as an alternative to banning Mein Kampf or remaining silent, it could help to immunize pupils against right-wing extremists.[12]

What was the reaction in the US like? Peter Ross Range, writing for the New York Times (8 July 2014) one-and-half year before the expiry, was in favor of an open confrontation with the principal gospel of Nazism.[13] While the prospect of Hitler’s words circulating freely in Germany again, and in numerous translations abroad, may shock the public, Ross Range believed it should not. Why? Because, he argued, the inoculation of the younger generation against the Nazi bacillus was better served by an open confrontation with Hitler’s words than by keeping his reviled tract in the shadows of illegality. While the director of the Anti-Defamation League, along with the majority of readers, argued for publication of Mein Kampf (stressed: with annotation!), Ronald Lauder, the President of the World Jewish Congress, wrote to the New York Times editor that Mein Kampf served as “the inspiration and playbook for the greatest mass murder the world has ever seen,” and therefore must not be published. Because of Germany’s history, he continued, “publishing it there again at a time of rising anti-Semitism would be a travesty.”[14] As a deterrent he referred to the e-book versions of Mein Kampf, which in the spring of 2014 shot to the top of the best-seller lists. “What would the Holocaust survivors and their relatives think,” he concludes his protest letter, “if they visit a German bookstore and see Hitler’s book on the shelves?” Mr. Lauder was obviously referring to the original Mein Kampf – not the critical edition to be published by the Munich Institute. It remains to be seen which of the two contrasting views, both of them legitimate and justifiable, will prevail in the end.

In my view, those who feel attracted by neo-Nazism and accept Mein Kampf as their Bible, cannot be rescued by the critical edition. The world construed by Adolf Hitler remains, alas, immune to counter facts and critical comments.

[1] We are grateful to the editors of the Czech Journal of Contemporary History, no. 5 (2017) for permission to reprint material here.
[2] Gerhard Schreiber, Hitler Interpretationen 1923–83 (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1984).
[3] See the fascinating account by Robert Harris, Selling Hitler: The Story of the Hitler Diaries (London: Arrow, 1996).
[4] Richard J. Evans, Telling Lies About Hitler: The Holocaust, History, and the David Irving Trial (London: Verso, 2002).
[5] Eberhard Jäckel, Hitlers Weltanschauung (Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlags-Amstalt, 1981), 7.
[6] A Russian copy of Mein Kampf was first printed in 1992. Copies with Hitler’s own signature at auctions can match prices in five digits. In India, Turkey and the Arab world, versions of Mein Kampf belong to bestsellers mainly for the book’s anti-Semitic contents. In September 2010 Mein Kampf appeared on India’s bestsellers list; in Turkey Mein Kampf has been a bestseller since 2005. A real boom exploded on the internet. Hitler’s Mein Kampf reduced in size and edited can be nowadays easily found in various databanks.
[7] Mein Kampf (1939), 1 and 20.
[8] Mein Kampf (1939), 742.
[9] Bernhard Horstmann, Hitler in Pasewalk: Die Hypnose und ihre Folgen (Düsseldorf: Droste, 2004), chapters vi and vii; David Lewis, The Man Who Invented Hitler (London: Headline, 2003), 147–164. Lewis discusses in great detail whether Hitler’s eyes were affected by chlorine or mustard gas ammunition.
[10] G.L.Weinberg, ed., with an introduction by Hans Rothfels, Hitlers Zweites Buch: Ein Dokument aus dem Jahre 1928 (Stuttgart: Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 1961); published in English as Hitler’s Secret Book (1961). Found by G. L. Weinberg as a separate manuscript not related to Mein Kampf in the National Archives in Washington among German captured archives.
[11] A. Wirsching, Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte, nos. 43–45 (2015): 15.
[12] Deutsche Welle interview with Josef Kraus, 21 December 2015.
[13] Peter Ross Range, “Should Germans Read Mein Kampf?,” New York Times, July 8, 2014.
[14] Letters to the Editor, New York Times, July 9, 2014.

Milan Hauner is an historian of Czechoslovakia and of twentieth-century transnational history, including India, Central Asia, Germany, Russia and Central Europe. He studied for his first PhD in Prague. After the Soviet-led invasion of 1968 he emigrated to England to complete his second PhD in Cambridge and Oxford. In 1974 he directed the East European section of Amnesty International and since 1976 worked for the German Historical Institute in London. In 1980 Hauner left for the US to join his family. He has since been affiliated with UW-Madison as visiting professor and honorary fellow in the Department of History. Hauner taught and conducted research at various universities and archives in the UK, US, Germany and Czech Republic. Between 1990-1991 he directed East European Studies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington. He has authored or co-authored ten books and over 100 articles. Among them: India in Axis Strategy: Germany, Japan, and Indian Nationalists in the Second World War (London and Stuttgart, 1981); Hitler: A Chronology of His Life and Time, (Macmillan 1983, 2005, 2008); Afghanistan and the Soviet Union, ed. with Robert L. Canfield (Westview Press, 1989); What Is Asia to Us? Russia’s Asian Heartland Yesterday and Today (Unwin & Hyman 1990 and Routledge 1992, 2013). He edited, annotated & introduced: Edvard Beneš, The Fall & Rise of a Nation – Czechoslovakia 1938-1941 (Columbia 2004); Edvard Beneš Paměti [Memoirs] 1938-45. 3 vols. (Prague 2007); Hitler: Den po dni [Day after Day], (Prague 2017).

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