Adolf Hitler’s notorious book is about to get a new lease on life. The copyright for Mein Kampf, which has been held for 70 years by the government of the German state of Bavaria, expires at midnight on December 31, 2015. From that moment on, any publisher interested in reprinting the Nazi leader’s virulently anti-Semitic, racist tome will be free to do so.
That realization has spawned understandable fears, especially in Germany itself, where the work has been banned since the author’s death. But in January it will be republished in the country for the first time since World War II ended, albeit in heavily annotated form. Some worry that Mein Kampf will once again be a bestseller in the lands where the Holocaust occurred, a symbolic posthumous victory for its author. At a time when anti-Semitism, racism, and xenophobia are on the rise in Europe, its republication could foment ethnic and religious hatred. The growth of militant populist right-wing parties throughout Europe, including in Germany, shows that such fears have a basis in fact.
But the history of the book, and of Hitler’s words more generally, demonstrates that there’s no clear-cut relationship between banning speech and halting the spread of ideas. The Nazi party grew despite Germany’s early efforts to curb Hitler’s speech; by the same token, today, his ideas are repudiated around the world despite being more widely accessible than ever before. The story is instructive as Europe and the United States continue to grapple with the question of how to combat newer extremist ideologies.