Germany's Outdated, Wrongheaded Ban on Nazi Books Like 'Mein Kampf'

Letting people read and dismiss Hitler freely would do more to combat fascism than the de facto prohibition on Nazi literature

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Hitler's autobiography and other Nazi writings seized in part of a 1960 West Berlin police raid / AP

There's something deeply distasteful about the news out of Germany this week. It's not that the latest edition of a British publisher's excerpts of Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf has sold 250,000 copies in just a few days. It's that the Bavarian state government, which technically owns the copyright, is considering fighting it.

Hitler's ideological dumping ground of an autobiography isn't technically banned in Germany. But it might as well be. The finance ministry of the state of Bavaria, in the south, holds the copyrights to Mein Kampf and has simply refused to let it be republished. It's done the same for other Nazi works. This same British publisher, Peter McGee of Albertas Ltd., reprinted parts of Nazi newspapers in 2009 with accompanying historical commentary, and the Bavarian government, holding the copyrights to those papers as well, had police seize the publications.

Fighting reprints is no protection against fascism -- quite the contrary

So, for those of us who believe books just shouldn't be banned, is McGee's latest project cause for celebration? The answer, most definitely, is "not yet." Celebration would be in order if McGee had caused the Bavarian government to reconsider its ill-advised and thinly-veiled efforts at censorship. Bafflingly, though, the state said Monday that the publication violates copyright law and that the state was considering legal action.

But if copyright had really been the issue back in 2009, a lawsuit of some kind probably would have sufficed. Dispatching  policemen to remove the offending publications seems extreme, particularly as the state clearly isn't concerned about losing revenue from its own exclusive publications (a more normal reason for copyright-holders to prevent unauthorized publication). As has been clear from the public debate in both cases, the real worry is that Nazi literature is inherently inflammatory or that the availability of certain texts will somehow increase the probability of fascism returning to the country.

To address this concern, distributing Nazi texts for non-educational purposes actually is banned, and has been for quite some time. That's why both of McGee's projects have included commentary from current historians, and why the publisher is so keen to promote the latest publication's educational aspect in interviews. "It is a sensitive subject in Germany but the incredible thing is most Germans don't have access to Mein Kampf because it has this taboo, this 'black magic' surrounding it," McGee told Reuters earlier this week. "We want Mein Kampf to be accessible so people can see it for what it is, and then discard it. Once exposed, it can be consigned to the dustbin of literature."

Even if you think McGee is just using this argument as cover for a clever publicity stunt, the argument itself is irrefutable from any rational, long-term perspective -- and Germans sounding off on the topic in the papers have said precisely this. Sven Felix Kellerhof recently lamented in Die Welt that such a "poorly written and scattered book" as Mein Kampf has "acquired through the ministry's rigid policy the aura of a 'banned book.'" Kellerhof declared that "the only way to deal with Mein Kampf" is to accept whatever attention McGee's project gets, and follow it up with "a full, commentaried work directed at the wider public, in addition to a scholarly addition."

Meanwhile, David Hugendick has argued in Die Zeit that "the belief that contact with the book will immediately precipitate a return to darker times" is a "fiction," and a "dangerous" one at that: it not only lends Hitler's writing that "mystical, toxic aura" Kellerhof also talks about, but in addition "reproduces [...] the as-yet popular superstition that Germans during the Second World War were simply victims of that seductive hocus-pocus, and have to be protected from it even today." That's a frightening misreading of history, and not one likely to do any good as we aim for a brighter future.

To put it simply: fighting reprints is no protection against fascism, or even against poor taste and inflammatory rhetoric. Quite the contrary. This latest debate has a particularly nonsensical ring, as the attention has already been drawn -- and the entire work is available on the internet anyway. But don't let the nonsense obscure what is truly an important point: either you believe in liberalism or you don't. And even if the letter of the German law isn't one of censorship -- though legislating against the swastika and Holocaust denial suggests otherwise -- the Bavarian state is misusing its power. This sort of illiberal policy made even the postwar  occupying powers pretty squeamish when they removed propaganda from public libraries -- and that was when the wounds were still fresh, and onetime Nazis plentiful. Today, there's no excuse.

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Heather Horn is a former senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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