By letting the decades-old ban lapse, democratic Germany is further defanging a once dangerous book.
It was widely noted during the contretemps over the novelist Gunter Grass's recent effusions about Israel being a threat to world peace that a divide emerged in Germany. On the one side were the intellectual and political elites that condemned his comments. On the other side was the public, which tended to sympathize with Grass and complain about a "cudgel" being wielded to silence debate about the German past.
Now, Germany is taking a new step toward what is often called "normalization." The state of Bavaria has announced that in 2015 it will publish Hitler's Mein Kampf, which first appeared in 1925. A second volume was issued in 1926. The book was written in Landsberg prison, where Hitler was incarcerated after his failed putsch in 1923.
Hitler, you could say, was made in Bavaria. He left Austria and served in the Reichwehr rather than the Austrian army, which he was officially obliged to join. After World War I, Hitler began his rise in Bavaria, where he launched the Beer Hall putsch and where he was fawned over by a number of local aristocrats, including the Bechsteins, who helped finance him and the Nazi Party. Bavaria was a hotbed of right-wing movements in the postwar era, which Hitler welded into the Nazi party. His talent, which no one had accomplished in Germany, was to unify the various splinter groups into a mighty organization. Munich itself was known as the "Haupstadt der Bewegung"--capital of the movement. So Bavaria has much to contemplate and rue when it looks back at the past.
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Is its decision to publish Hitler's autobiography a sign that Germany is backsliding? Not at all. Mein Kampf has been banned in Germany since World War II, and the Bavrian justice system recently prevented the English publisher Peter McGee from publishing excerpts from it in Munich. But the ban, it must be said, no longer makes much sense. The book can be easily acquired abroad or on the Internet. In announcing the publication of the book, Bavarian finance minister Markus Soeder says that he wants to contribute to the "demystification" of it. In 2015, the Bavarian state's copyright to the book will expire. The idea is to publish a scholarly version that will help stem its appeal for commercial publishers.
Hitler himself would surely be displeased to know that his book was, in effect, being further defanged by a democratic Germany, which is treating it in a calm and clinical manner. The truth is that the book itself is an unedfying farrago of the various anti-Semitic books that Hitler, a tireless autodidact, had read over the years, a topic that Timothy Ryback covers in his book Hitler's Private Library. The title itself crystallized Hitler's worldview of a social Darwinist struggle for power and survival, a message that resonated in a postwar Germany humiliated by the Treaty of Versailles and bludgeoned by economic crisis. In the 1920s and 1930s, the book was a smash sensation and made Hitler rich. Whether it will arouse much interest or even sell many copies today, though, may be wondered.
More important for the future of Germany and Europe is how a new German chancellor, Angela Merkel, will respond to the economic crisis that once more assails the continent. As Germany sticks to its calls for fiscal austerity, right-wing political parties in Greece and France are on the move. It would be ironic if Germany, in its quest to avoid the inflation of the Weimar years, ended up creating the circumstances for the resurgence of the political Right in other European countries by adhering too rigidly to restrictive monetary policies.
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