Hitler and Censorship: Is there Value in ‘Mein Kampf’?

Access, Authors, Banned and Challenged Books, Censorship, International issues

By: Lisa Hoover

The main gates at Auschwitz concentration camp, where an estimated 1.1 million people were murdered during the Nazi regime.
The main gates at Auschwitz concentration camp, where an estimated 1.1 million people were murdered during the Nazi regime.

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).

The central panel of the Ghent Altarpiece looted by the Nazis and recovered from Altaussee mine in Austria by the Allies. Photo from the National Archives.
The central panel of the Ghent Altarpiece looted by the Nazis and recovered from Altaussee mine in Austria by the Allies. Photo from the National Archives.

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.

Mein Kampf CoverBefore 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 recent German edition of Mein Kampf, printed without Hitler’s image.
The recent German edition of Mein Kampf, printed without Hitler’s image.

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.

 

References:

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 HooverLisa 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.

13 comments

  • ” elected chancellor of Germany from 1933 to 1945″

    This is debatable; he was appointed.

    As for elections after his appointment, these were elections in name only given the ‘Reichstag Fire Decree’, the arrest of the 81 Communist deputies and the eviction of certain Social Democrat deputies, the ‘Law to Remedy the Distress of People and Reich’ (or Enabling Act), the ‘Law Concerning the Highest State Office of the Reich’.

  • You’re right, and that was a poor choice of wording on my part and misleading/over simplification at best. Thank you for the correction!

  • Opposition to National Socialism has reached the status &
    Restrictions that National Socialist Germany used. Book
    Banned & restriction of speech & expression in most
    European nations. Public condemning of politically views
    ( National Socialism ) by politicians / Government and
    Prominent people. The irony is the people who hate
    Totalitarianism have become totalitarian!
    Over 70 years later National Socialism is alive and well
    Worldwide. These tactics seem to fail as opposition !

  • Dear Lisa, You raise some important points and I appreciate your perspective. Thanks for the article! Perhaps you might be interested in my debut work of narrative nonfiction, HOW HITLER WAS MADE, released by Prometheus Books in June of 2018. Among other things, the book explores how Hitler created a false narrative in MEIN KAMPF to cover up his activities immediately following the First World War. To learn more, please visit, https://corytaylor.com

  • Thanks Cory, that sounds pretty interesting. I am a big fan of Ullrich’s Hitler Ascent, and yours sounds like it tracks the same time period – I’ve added it to my “to read” list.

  • The list of authors whose works have been banned is extensive, including: Salman Rushdie; D. H. Lawrence; Franz Kafka; John Steinbeck; Radclyffe Hall; and Henry Miller. At the same time, however, I’m not being completely honest, because there are books that I don’t want to see on the shelves of my local bookstore or available on the internet.

  • Banning “Mein Kampf” is like sweeping our darkest hours under the rug praying they will not come back. Until we forget and fascism creeps back, as it is now.
    Mein Kampf should be read to understand how societies can collapse in horror, remeber the horrors, and take concrete action to safeguard democracy.

    Remember that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it

    https://www.voanews.com/europe/far-right-extremists-try-enter-german-parliament
    The beast is not dead, it just waits for us to fall asleep.

  • It is telling that most on the right actually believe that the Nazis were far-LEFT-extremists, and atheists to boot, rather than 97.5% Christian, as the German census data of ’39 supports. The Conservapedia article on socialism mirrors the view popular on the right that the Nazis were atheist and liberal/leftist. This is precisely why we need books like Mein Kampf available to us. You can’t fight a thing effectively without understanding it. Fortunately the peoples of our world still regard Hitler as the greatest villain the planet has ever known, according to a survey put out in 2015.

    https://phys.org/news/2015-05-einstein-hitler-hero-villain-world.html

    The odd part is when I have succeeded in convincing a few self-identified conservatives that the Nazis were conservative Christians- they didn’t move away from conservative Christianity but rather toward it, and also toward Nazism in general. I’ve found it is better to call the Nazi’s a “Christian Identity” group and allow Christians to call the Nazis atheist.

  • When, where and how is the display of Hitler’s Mein Kamph serve a socially redeeming purpose to affirm the dangers of banning and even burning books? This question confronted me as I excited a neighboring town library the final Saturday of Banned Book Week. A large glass book display organized to show Banned Books featured Hitler’s manifesto, an unusual publication the size of a large picture book for young readers, the only of this size, set at a child’s eye level, one of about 8-10 books sparse set to ensure each were in clear view. This library, a beautiful relatively new building, is located in the heart of an Aryan Nations comeback in the US. I contacted the director of the library by phone to inquire about this particular featured publication which appears to be intentionally designed for young readers, seeking reasoning for this particular choice among the other examples including To Kill a Mockingbird and a bible. I have made an assumption regarding the books that would likely be featured in keeping with the purpose of BB week, a criteria of the socially redeeming value of these literary contributions. I plan to visit this library tomorrow to informally meet the director in person and see this book more clearly. I cannot find it on-line. I am a retired educator committed to the inextricable link of literacy and critical thinking. I welcome thoughts on what I witnessed and the role our library’s have in social responsibility.

  • Hi Vicki,

    Mein Kampf generally wouldn’t be for/appeal to kids – content aside – I have not read the entire thing myself, although I feel I should some day, but it’s pretty heavy/dense reading – and it’s long. It talks about police and economics and such, not stuff that’s going to appeal to most kids or even teens. I am guessing the placement was just coincidence?

    Ultimately it definitely has been a banned book, and it sounds like the books in the display are likely intended to be thought provoking – when, if ever, is it appropriate to “ban” a book? And, as you pose, what is the value – if any – of this work? I would argue the more diverse books we can include in a discussion of banned books the better; it’s easy to laugh off book “banning” when it seems silly to most of us, like in the case of Harry Potter – it prompts a lot more intellectual discussion/thought when it’s something like Mein Kampf that many of us would see as dangerous or disturbing.

  • I agree with all the above. I could not help but wonder who Hitler’s manifesto was featured, the only oversized book, in this particular display of banned books in a library located in a part of our country where the Aryan sentiment as a public disposition is growing as evidenced by audacious demonstrations addressed at buildings where the business of city governance occurs, vitriol spewed interrupting local council meetings such that police security is needed to escort public leaders to safety, racial and homophobic bullying increasing in schools, health care providers accosted for fulfilling their promise to care for the sick and dying and diminish the spread of this pandemic. The chances that the choice to include it prominently is slim to none. I have visited this library twice since my posting. One of the librarians in charge was rather removed as she engaged in showing me where to find the publication in a special section for oversized books, in the realm of the adult biography section. The director of the library was very helpful and responded to each of my inquiries with support and mutual respect. As an educator dedicated to literacy and critical thinking and as a citizen of the world, librarians are my heroes. Thank you for your replies to my posting. Wishing us all a more humane humanity.

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