Annotated edition of “Mein Kampf” “Much was already mapped out”

The editors (from left to right): Thomas Vordermayer, Othmar Plöckinger, Christian Hartmann, Roman Töppel
The editors (from left to right): Thomas Vordermayer, Othmar Plöckinger, Christian Hartmann, Roman Töppel | Photo: © Institut für Zeitgeschichte/Alexander Markus Klotz

70 years after Adolf Hitler’s death, copyright has run out on the propaganda publication that is considered to be “the world’s most dangerous book”. As soon as the copyright expired at the beginning of 2016, historians from the Institut für Zeitgeschichte (i.e. Institute of Contemporary History) in Munich brought out a critical edition. An interview with Christian Hartmann, who headed the project.

Mr Hartmann, as expected, your plan to publish a critical edition of “Mein Kampf” was met with some concerns. Among other things, it was claimed that this would once again give a voice to the demon which was Hitler. And that even if the text is “peppered with footnotes”, as you say, its basic tone would remain.

When such criticism comes from Holocaust survivors who simply never wish to see the book again, it needs to be taken seriously. At the same time, all I can say is that the book does exist. Many copies have survived, translations can be found on the Internet, and it can be purchased all over the world. There was a risk when the copyright came to an end that the market would be flooded with reprints or annotated versions which would back up and agree with Hitler. People are now reading our edition. The question is what the alternative would have been.

The edition has provoked huge interest. Hasn’t almost everything already been said about Hitler?

For us, it was less about new facts and more about bringing together 70 years of research. I see three reasons for the high level of public attention. Firstly: Mein Kampf is a taboo. Secondly: the book is widespread and many people want to know what all the fuss is about. Thirdly: there is relatively little theoretical material about the National Socialist ideology, and Mein Kampf is regarded as the “grail of evil”. This book, people think, will allow them to understand the ideology and get a grip on the phenomenon.

“The seeds for the mass murder decision are at least sown”

To what extent does the book reflect the policies later pursued by the Nazis? Does it already give any indication of the genocide?

In the mid-1920s, when Mein Kampf was written, the National Socialist ideology had not been fully developed, though much was already mapped out. There were already four basic ideologies: racism, imperialism, violence and dictatorship. They were clearly defined and scenarios for the upcoming war were elaborated. We know that the path to the Holocaust was not linear. Of course, Mein Kampf does contain that infamous passage, claiming that “12,000 of these Hebrew corruptors of the people should have been held under poison gas”. The decision to commit mass murder was only taken sometime between June and December 1941, however. The seeds for this decision are at least sown in Mein Kampf.

Which external influences are evident in the book?

Hitler was the product of a particular environment, and Mein Kampf is a collage of these influences. Among other things, he was shaped by radical anti-Semites with völkisch (i.e. populist/racialist) attitudes. Still in a minority during the German Empire, their ideas became more socially acceptable during the First World War. The roots of National Socialist ideology date back well into the nineteenth century or – as far as certain anti-Semitic stereotypes are concerned – into the Middle Ages.

“Absolutely blatant lies”

You have revealed many inaccurate claims in “Mein Kampf” – which astonished you the most?

I was generally surprised by the absolute blatancy of this man’s lies. For example, he claims that no-one had been interested in the causes of the First World War after 1918 and that only he and his party had repeatedly reminded people about them. And yet that was the most widely discussed topic in Germany at the time.

There has always been a great deal of speculation about how many Germans have actually read “Mein Kampf”. What is your opinion?

I believe it was a book that was both read and not read. 240,000 copies were sold before 1933. That sounds like a lot, but is a relatively small number when one considers that there were twelve million people who voted for Hitler. Many did so because of his speeches or for other unclear reasons. I cannot really believe that a book of this kind would be read in its entirety; not only because it is badly written and in some cases is simply boring and stupid. What is more, Hitler constantly jumps back and forth – between the party’s genesis, general thoughts, his own situation, foreign policy. At the time, “treatise literature” of this type was very widespread – how the political situation would develop is something that preoccupied people. Over the years, Mein Kampf is also likely to have been read by a million or more people, yet it was never “the book of the Germans” that the Nazis claimed it to be.

“Not an edition for specialists, but for everyone”

Can your edition help young people to better understand the National Socialist era?

We certainly designed the project with a popular science philosophy in mind: this is not an edition for specialists, but for everyone. The layout is reader-friendly and the language is readily understandable. Of course, there are 3,700 annotations on 2,000 pages – there was no other way of doing it. My impression is that the concept is a success. I am always delighted to receive letters from people who have discovered minor errors. Anyone who notices a missing comma on page 1712 must have truly read the book.

The edition also provoked many international reactions.

Among other things, we have received many enquiries about translations, and are now initially looking at the possibility of an English version. There is great interest around the world in how we in Germany analyse and work through our past. This is particularly true of countries in which critical engagement with the aftermath of a dictatorship is likewise an existential necessity. I believe it is important that we have shown one way of approaching this process.