Should Germans read “Mein Kampf”?

I learned from this article in the New York Times that Germany has been officially suppressing Mein Kampf since German government was reconstituted after World War II.  I’m sure that doesn’t mean that the full text isn’t available online.  But the copyright expires at the end of next year and when it does, anyone can publish it and you can be sure someone will.

So…now what?  Peter Range thinks that Germans really shouldn’t get up tight about the whole thing.

But while the prospect of the Führer’s words circulating freely on the German market may shock some, it shouldn’t. The inoculation of a younger generation against the Nazi bacillus is better served by open confrontation with Hitler’s words than by keeping his reviled tract in the shadows of illegality.

kampf 2Inoculation is certainly one of the possible effects.  Another is for deeply frustrated Germans to find in Hitler’s promises just the kind of rhetoric that will focus their fears and steel their wills.  That is, after all, what happened last time.

“Inoculation” sounds to me very much like Justice Holmes’ “the test of the marketplace.”[1]  Inoculation works by summoning the body’s natural defenses to defeat a mild threat.  There are no “pro-smallpox” organizations in your body who will collect the virus you introduce and greatly amplify its effect and if there were little “pro-smallpox” clusters, inoculation would be incredibly risky.

And it turns out that in society—in “the body politic”–there actually are such clusters.  There are regions, classes, and groups that will welcome the “virus,” that will take the teachings of Mein Kampf and urge that they be put into practice.  That means that the discussions that are most likely to occur are between ardent proponents, on the one side, and representatives of the status quo on the other.

Why?  The publication of Mein Kampf will cause changes along two dimensions.  The first may be called “salience.”[2]  The questions that so urgently engaged Hitler will rise in importance.  They will be debated where they were ignored or suppressed before.  They will appear in magazines and on talk shows that would not have included them before.  That means that Germans who would rather not talk about it will have an issue to deal with because the new salience of Mein Kampf means that the question will no longer be whether to talk about it, but what to say about it.

The second dimension is often called “direction.”  It refers to the positive or negative kampf 1effects of the new prominence.  The direction may be pro or con; positive or negative.  One result of the new discussions—certainly the result Peter Range is hoping for—may be a contemporary rejection of Hitlerism and all it ever stood for.  The publication is a “crisis,” a decision point, and in this scenario, the arguments of Hitler are rejected by a new generation of Germans who had never faced this particular argument before.  Are there really Untermenschen?  Are Aryans a legitimate racial category?  Is Hitler a “World-Historical Individual,” to use a category Hegel provided, and therefore justified in writing his own rules.  Does Germany “deserve” Lebensraum and because of that is justified in taking it by force?

These are central contentions of Mein Kampf and Range’s argument is that they should be confronted by each new generation of Germans and rejected over and over again.[3]  I’d like to see that and, frankly, I don’t think there is an alternative, but I think we need to take seriously the possibility that the direction is going to be negative, rather than positive.  In this scenario, many Germans would respond to the newly salient arguments by embracing them.  If they are prevented from electing representatives who will express their views, they will take their argument to the streets and do it the way Hitler did it.

So I come down on the same side of the immediate issue as Range.  The book should be published and the discussion should be allowed.  There should be a “free marketplace of ideas” in which some win and others lose.  But a “free marketplace” doesn’t happen by itself and distorted marketplaces do.  Actual marketplaces very often are not “pure” markets; they are alloyed with fraud, deception, monopolistic domination, and physical or legal coercion.

kampf 3If there is going to be a market in the ideas of Nazism, competitors will have to be willing to come into that market and compete and most of the new competitors will have to be drawn from categories of people who would rather the issue had not arisen at all.  They will be inclined to argue for balance among views, for the historical setting of these rhetorical flourishes, and for a general sense that we have “moved past that.”  They will be up against people with flame in their eyes and grievances in their hearts.  No one has moved past the grievances and they will not take kindly to being told that their anger should be expressed in politically correct forms.

Really awful things are going to be said in public about Untermenschen.  Since Hitler’s time, quite a few Untermenschen have been invited to Germany under a “guest workers” program.  The question of whether they are “really German” has been raised both by the workers, many of them Turkish, and by other Germans whose ancestry is more clearly local.  So far as I know, no one wants that discussion, but I see it becoming topical once again as Mein Kampf is discussed in its newly published versions.

In the end, I’m on Range’s side.  This is a discussion that cannot be indefinitely delayed.  Each new generation needs to see it and hear it and talk about it.  Some will fight about it, but that cannot be helped.  Pretending that this text never had an ardent and effective audience will not work.



[1] Dissenting in Abrams v. United States, Justice Holmes proclaimed that “the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.”   So says Thomas Wuil Joo, of the University of California at Davis, who concludes, “Economic markets thus provide a poor analogy for the deregulation of speech.”
[2] The Latin root, salire, means “to jump” and that is captured by the expression “it jumped out at me” to refer to a salient passage.
[3] Thomas Jefferson felt the same way about constitutions, by the way.  His idea that there should be a new governing document every twenty years was based on the notion that the debates on one generation should not bind the next; that every generation—hence the twenty years—has the right to have its own debate and reach its own conclusions.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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6 Responses to Should Germans read “Mein Kampf”?

  1. swanpride says:

    I am honestly confused….My Kampf is an indexed book. Being on the index means that it is not allowed to sell in Germany, no matter who publishes it. I really don’t see how becoming a free domain text would change this. Unless someone decides to remove it from the index, it stays forbidden as far as I know.

    I am against the index in principle, no matter for what (I am for a strict age control for certain books, though), and that naturally includes “Mein Kampf”…but I honestly don’t see a problem with the book either way because, well, it is really not well written. As Schwanitz once pointed out, it is the only book which is influential because nobody bothered to read it. If people had, they would have realized what kind of idiot Hitler was early on. But since it is mostly incoherent drivel, nobody really bothered until it was to late.

    To clarify: Despite what some people think, only a minority of the German public actually elected Hitler. He was then put into power through political manoeuvres, used violence to get rid of the opposition (and some of the people who stupidly thought that they could use him as a puppet) and used a loophole in the German law to declare himself dictator. It is really hard to tell how many Germans actually bought into his ideology, how many simply didn’t care and how many were afraid to speak up (we have a pretty good idea how many did speak up or decided to flee the country, though).

    In any case, it was not the book which lead to Hitler’s reign. He preached his ideology later on and some people caught on. But if you really want to understand the mechanism, one has to read his public speeches, not his book.

    • hessd says:

      You raise some really interesting points. I agree that Hitler’s speeches are a better guide to his actions than the rant he dictated in the 1920s. On the other hand, the speeches have the same theoretical foundation as the rant. A book about Hitler’s 1932 election campaign (The Logic of Evil) argues that Hitler kept all the crazies in the back room until he had political dominance.

      My understanding is that it is legal to own a copy of Mein Kampf in Germany. It is not legal to sell it or to publish it, but I downloaded a copy in German this morning, and I would have been allowed to do that in Germany.

      The election of Hitler is a little dicey for Americans because it Germany is a parliamentary system. Hitler’s party, the NSDAP, did win the largest number of votes in 1932, but to be Chancellor, you have to be appointed by the President and the President, Hindenburg was a lot more popular than Hitler. Still the NSDAP were a united faction in the legislature and everyone else was divided, so Hindenburg did finally and legally appoint him. So he did go through all the proper legal steps. All during the election, there was mayhem in the streets so the formal legality at the top is not the whole story.

      Finally, I’m with you on banning books. Let’s not. Let’s provide a context for understanding them. Thanks for your thoughtful response. I had to look up some things just to respond to you.

      • swanpride says:

        If you really want to, you can get more or less everything on the index…you just have to buy it in Austria or another neighbour state.
        You should look up the famous speech of Otto Wels (and Hitler’s polemic answer)…Those in combination tell a lot about the situation in Germany back then.

      • hessd says:

        Great reference! Thanks so much for Wels’s speech. I had never heard of it and it is magnificent.

  2. elioa says:

    Very interesting post!
    I believe one thing to highlight is that one cannot erase history, but it is perhaps acceptable to portray Nazism in a less-than-favorable light, that is, being biased towards morality.
    I really appreciate the notes at the end!
    The 3rd on Thomas Jefferson is very intriguing and you may even want to write a whole post discussing its ideal and practical validity.
    Great work! Keep it up!

    • hessd says:

      I agree completely that the Germans are under no obligation to present Nazism in a favorable light. I think that would be irresponsible. On the other hand, ignoring the issues that ignited Hitler’s followers will blind us when the same issues move us too strongly. I think “Where will this lead?” is almost always a good question to ask.

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