By: Lisa Hoover
This month, which happens to be the month of both the birth and death of Adolf Hitler, several news agencies are reporting that many Americans “don’t know basic facts about the Holocaust” (Huffington Post, 2018), “Americans are forgetting about the Holocaust” (NBC, 2018) and “two-thirds of Millennials don’t know what Auschwitz is.” (Washington Post, 2018).
Ironically, I first saw these headlines when I was researching the history of banning Hitler’s Mein Kampf for a blog post to coincide with Hitler’s birth and death. Before this, I might have expected that Hitler and the Holocaust needed no introduction.
Hitler was born April 20, 1889 and later was elected chancellor of Germany from 1933 to 1945, overseeing the death of an estimated 6 million Jews during World War II in the genocide known today as the Holocaust. He died April 30, 1945, committing suicide as Allied forces advanced on Berlin (Biography.com).
In addition to the tragic cost in human lives, Hitler and his Nazis looted and hid important cultural works and nearly destroyed many of them. One mine in Altaussee alone hid more than 6,500 paintings, 2,300 drawings, 954 prints, sculptures, arms, furniture, tapestries, books and other treasures. These treasures only narrowly escaped destruction after Hitler issued the Nero decree, which stated that “all military transport and communication facilities, industrial establishments and supply depots, as well as anything else of value within Reich territory, which could in any way be used by the enemy immediately or within the foreseeable future for the prosecution of the war, will be destroyed” and the Nazi district leader attempted to bomb the mine (Morrison, 2014). Unfortunately, as I have discussed before, this type of cultural looting and destruction is not uncommon during war and dictatorships.
Before all that, Hitler served nine months in prison in 1924 for a failed putsch in Munich. During that time, he wrote his political manifesto, Mein Kampf (My Struggle).
Mein Kampf was translated into 11 languages and sold more than 5 million copies by 1939. The book addressed Hitler’s plans to transform German society through expansion and discussed his anti-Semitic worldview.
As we know today, this worldview culminated in World War II and the mass murder of millions of Jews, LGBT people, people with disabilities and others Hitler considered “undesirable” (Biography.com).
Given the content of the book and the legacy of the man who wrote it, Mein Kampf has been banned at various times and locations in the decades since the Nazi defeat. After the Nazis were defeated in 1945, the Allies gave the copyright in Mein Kampf to Bavaria. Bavaria banned reprinting of the book in Germany until the copyright expired in 2016 (BBC News, 2017). The book was also banned in Russia in 2010 (Schaub, 2015).
In 2015, Thomas Docherty of British Parliament urged a “debate” over whether Mein Kampf should be banned in the UK.
“‘I’m not saying it should be banned, I am saying we should absolutely have a debate about whether or not it should be banned,’” he said. “‘I think this is a debate we should have, and there is an irony if we censor a debate about the limits of free speech’” (Schaub, 2015).
The book has remained legal and in print in the U.S. (Schaub, 2015) and saw sales of 85,000 copies in Germany during the first year after the Bavarian copyright expired, raising concerns for some that Hitler’s propaganda is making a comeback in Germany (BBC News, 2017). Similar concerns have been raised following marches by “white nationalists” in the United States in recent years, such as the Charlottesville protest in October 2017 (Stevens, 2017).
So, what do we do? Should we ban Mein Kampf? There is no doubt that it contains hateful language and concepts that could bring up painful memories or fears for many, especially in Germany. We’re also seeing challenges in the United States toward other books that have been written by controversial authors, and it’s hard to imagine an author more deserving of such treatment and less deserving of a platform for his speech.
While the study represents a relatively small sample size of 1,350 people (McGee, 2018), I think the recent headlines regarding a lack of knowledge about the Holocaust just serve to reinforce how important it is to continue to allow access to and discussion of Mein Kampf. Only by remembering what happened and by studying Hitler’s mindset and psychology can we understand — as much as is possible — what happened, and thereby try to prevent it from happening again. And any consideration of banning Mein Kampf should also consider the fact that book banning (and burning) was an early part of Hitler’s reign, too.
Why did Hitler feel his country was entitled to conquer neighboring countries? Why did he feel entitled to steal and hide away the cultural heritage of hundreds of years and several countries (not to mention the individual owners), saving it only for himself and his “superior” race? Why did he feel a need to suppress art and speech he saw as “undesirable?” Why did he feel that he could — and should — order the murder of millions of people he saw as “less than?”
These are important questions, not only to understanding Hitler himself but to help understand and recognize others like him that could arise today or in the future. How better to understand him than to study his own words? How better to show the next generation the danger of dictatorship and megalomania than to show them what has come in the past and how it began as an ideology?
And, of course, therein lies the problem with book bans in general. If we can find value in Mein Kampf, is there any work in which we cannot find value? Just because one reader cannot find value doesn’t mean that another reader might not. And what might be painful and offensive to one reader might provide insight and understanding to another.
Anytime we choose to ban a book, or any expression, we risk removing knowledge from the world. Certainly knowledge and ideas can be dangerous. I imagine this is why Hitler himself feared and controlled books and art. But ignorance is dangerous, too.
BBC News (2017). Germany Sees ‘Overwhelming’ Sales of Hitler’s Mein Kampf. BBC News. Retrieved April 13, 2018 from http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-38495456
Biography. (2017). Adolf Hitler Biography. Biography.com. Retrieved April 13, 2018 from https://www.biography.com/people/adolf-hitler-9340144
Boboltz, S. (2018) Many Americans Still Don’t Know Basic Facts About the Holocaust, Survey Finds. Huffington Post. Retrieved April 13, 2018 from https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/many-americans-still-lack-basic-holocaust-knowledge-survey-finds_us_5acfa79ce4b016a07e9a71e1
McGee, C. (2018) Study Shows Americans Are Forgetting About the Holocaust. NBC News. Retrieved April 13, 2018 from https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/study-shows-americans-are-forgetting-about-holocaust-n865396
Morrison, J. (2014) The True Story of the Monuments Men. Smithsonian. Retrieved April 13, 2018 from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/true-story-monuments-men-180949569/
Schaub, M. (2015) Should Britain Ban Hitler’s Mein Kampf? Los Angeles Times. Retrieved April 13, 2018 from http://www.latimes.com/books/jacketcopy/la-et-jc-britain-hitler-mein-kampf-ban-20150127-story.html
Stevens, M. (2017) White Nationalists Reappear in Charlottesville in Torch-Lit Protest. New York Times. Retrieved April 13, 2018 from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/08/us/richard-spencer-charlottesville.html
Zauzmer, J. (2018) Holocaust Study: Two-thirds of Millennials Don’t Know What Auschwitz Is. Washington Post. Retrieved April 13, 2018 from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2018/04/12/two-thirds-of-millennials-dont-know-what-auschwitz-is-according-to-study-of-fading-holocaust-knowledge/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.8fa1fc399c68
Lisa Hoover is a Public Services librarian at Clarkson University and an adjunct professor in criminal justice at SUNY Canton. In addition to her MLS, Lisa holds a JD and an MA in political science. She began her career as an editor and then manager for a local news organization, adjunct teaching in her “spare time.” She teaches courses in criminal procedure, criminal law and constitutional law. She is passionate about 1st Amendment issues. She recently began her career as a librarian, starting at Clarkson University in June 2017 teaching information literacy sessions and offering reference services. Lisa and her husband Lee live in Norwood, New York with their cats Hercules and Pandora and pug-mix Alexstrasza (Alex). Find her on Twitter @LisaHoover01.