Mein Kampf in schools seen as way to demystify Hitlers book

berlin  |  Does “Mein Kampf” belong in German high schools?

With Hitler’s book due out in 2015, freed after decades under copyright protection that prevented its publication in Germany, it’s a question being debated in classrooms and on German TV talk shows.

The discussion has not eased since the Ministry of Finance in Bavaria, which owns the rights, announced plans earlier this year to prepare annotated excerpts for German schools. Scholars at Munich’s Institute for Contemp-orary History are working on the official annotated edition of the approximately 900-page book.

Critics say it’s better not to play with fire: Some youth already have an unhealthy fascination with this chapter of history and don’t need further fuel. But most observers agree that excerpts with expert commentary could help demystify the taboo tome.

Students from St. Ursula high school in Germany view facsimiles of ads for Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” at the House of the Wannsee Conference in Potsdam. photo/jta-toby axelrod

Germany’s Jewish community has no problem with plans for the new edition.

Stephan Kramer, general secretary of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, said it makes sense to publish the book “to prevent neo-Nazis from profiting from it” and to “remove many of its false, persistent myths.”

The move “is absolutely right and overdue,” said Julian Barlen, co-founder of the anti-Nazi website Endstation Rechts and a Social Democratic legislator in the former East German state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. Anyone who wants to read the book can download a copy anyway, he noted, and its ban “probably even raises the fascination with Hitler among some teens.”

Hitler wrote his rant against Jews and communists while in prison in 1923 following his attempted coup in Munich. After he came to power in 1933, many editions were published, including one given free to newlywed couples and one to mark Hitler’s 50th birthday in 1939.

“The Nazis tried to put the book everywhere,” said historian Christian Hartmann of the Institute for Contemporary History, which is advising the state on the educational excerpts.

Following World War II, the Bavarian Finance Ministry inherited the copyright from the publisher and until now has barred publication in Germany in an effort to limit the spread of Hitler’s ideology. But that does not stop publication elsewhere.

Hitler is an object of fascination, Hartmann said. “Evil is always fascinating, and you can’t prevent that.”

Accordingly, the book “is one of the most purchased in the world; more than 12 million copies have been sold. Here, where it was banned, people have read it secretly.”

Hartmann added that “What we are trying to do is demystify ‘Mein Kampf’ and to make it what it is: a historical source and nothing more.”

Amid Hitler’s inaccurate accounts of personal and world history are hints of what would come, he said. “Such things as the Holocaust, the attack on the Soviet Union, relations with France and Italy, attempts to form a union with Great Britain — these are in the book. It is a kind of master plan for his later deeds.”

Documentary evidence of those deeds can be seen at the House of the Wannsee Conference in Potsdam, just outside Berlin. On a glass-topped display table in a ground-floor room are facsimiles of the minutes of the Jan. 20, 1942 meeting where the Final Solution was mapped out.

Students from St. Ursula high school of Geisenheim, their faces reflected in the glass table, viewed the pages intently, taking cellphone shots of them.

“We talked about it in class,” said Nora, 16. “My grandfather told me he got a copy from his bank, signed by Adolf Hitler. He put it away; he found it too extreme. And then he lent it to a friend who never gave it back. He told me he wished he could have shown it to me.”

As for whether it would be useful for students to read the book, “to put it bluntly, no one really needed it up to now,” said her classmate, Eva, 17. “It could be interesting … but I think it is not needed for youth.”

David, 17, said he thought it would be good for students 16 and older to have access to explanations and a “watered-down version.”

The students wandered in silence through the rooms where high-ranking Nazis once discussed the logistics of genocide. On one wall hangs a 1927 ad in facsimile, suggesting: “Get to know Hitler by reading his book.”

It won’t be long before Germans of all ages have the chance to do so — but this time with the knowledge gained in hindsight.

People “could have known” what was coming if they read “Mein Kampf,” said teacher Annette Zschatzsch, looking at the display with her students. “But people did not read it.”

Toby Axelrod

Toby Axelrod is JTA’s correspondent for Germany, Switzerland and Austria. A former assistant director of the American Jewish Committee’s Berlin office, she has also worked as staff writer and editor at the New York Jewish Week and published books on Holocaust history for teenagers.