On January 1st of 2016, publication of Mein Kampf became legal in Germany. On January 8th, the first German language version released in Germany in 70 years began collecting pre-orders. The publisher received 15,000 pre-orders for the 4,000 copy initial run, and every physical copy shipped to bookstores in the country sold out within a week.
Because upon some graves, the grass never again grows, no matter how many years the soil is left to settle under the elements.
But it’s not that the Bundestag went Reichstag and repealed the bans on publication of Mein Kampf, at least not exactly. Say what you want about the tenets of Angela Merkel, but her ideology isn’t national socialism. See, it wraps back around to copyright in the end.
Copyright takes the perfectly rational idea of a creator owning their own work, and then legal voodoo fucks it into a mystical metaphysical entity bought and sold by corporations long after the grandchildren of the creator died. Thanks Mickey, you syphilitic cultural vermin.
Adolf Hitler held the copyright to Mein Kampf, of course, and that copyright was a legally owned thing that remained attached to his estate after his death. Doesn’t the closeness of history just seem so anachronistic in cases like these? World War II was forever ago, but only two weeks ago Hitler’s copyrights were still in effect. Because even the Civil War was only two old ladies ago and it seems so out of place for an historical figure to have an estate. A man who died in a river of blood and fire, whose very country ceased to exist as it was dissected and distributed, whose own people have spent longer than his own lifespan trying to erase his crimes, for that man to have something so quaintly mundane like an estate is a surreal hilarity.
When Hitler died without heirs (and a lesson to you: make sure your will is in order, because even being the fuhrer doesn’t make you immune to the immortal legal machinery), his copyright for Mein Kampf regressed to Bavaria because it had originally been written in that Munich jail cell. Through the collapse of the Third Reich, the founding of East Germany, the reunification of Germany, and the years since, the copyright has remained in the hands of Bavaria even as the country itself belonged to has changed repeatedly. There’s a gorgeous bureaucratic obstructionism at work here. Any questions of freedom of speech were rendered moot over the decades because the Bavarian government owned the copyright and simply refused to grant the rights to Mein Kampf to anyone else. They weren’t censoring, because they owned the thing they wouldn’t print.
Foreign markets were a different story. In England, before World War II, the German publisher of Mein Kampf produced its own translation that edited out the worst of the anti-Semitism in order to try to appeal to the English. Their English partners sold copies for years during the thirties without paying a single shilling of royalties. Only four months before war was declared, the German publisher demanded the owed royalties, only to have their English partners ignore them and gamble upon war breaking out before legal proceedings could get started. They were right. Of course, that translation ceased being printed in 1942 when German bombers leveled the printing facility that housed the original plates. Touche Luftwaffe, touche.
Hitler didn’t receive much from the United States either. He received a single $2,500 advance payment, and then the American publishers stopped paying him, claiming that since legally he had been a stateless person from 1925 to 1933, that meant his Bavarian copyrights were not legally binding, and that they could do what they wanted. Hitler’s court case against Houghton Mifflin remains a landmark case in the very niche area of the intellectual property rights of stateless peoples. Hitler won. But he never saw any more cash from American sales because once again the publisher gambled on war happening before collections agents. And then the US government seized the American copyright in 1942 under the Trading with the Enemy Act. And then sold it back to Houghton Mifflin in 1979. Hitler’s American copyright has got a lot of mileage, and every time Disney bribes Congress for another extension of Mickey’s lichdom, they also extend Hitler’s copyrights. Remember, a vote for Disney is a vote for Hitler.
The new publication of Mein Kampf in Germany is not a tragedy though, not a triumph of resurgent right-wing bile, but something much more interesting. See, many Jewish groups supported the publication, as did various organizations of historians. The Institute of Contemporary History in Germany has been working on this new edition for the last six years, systematically annotating it so that it would be ready for publication the moment that copyright expired. The resultant text is flooded in an ocean of footnotes, of explaining line by line the factual errors, the lies, the historical context of every statement.
This book needs published, and it needs published in exactly this way, with deep thought and introspection. It’s not just because of the cliche of being doomed to repeat the past if we forget it, but the nuance of not understanding who we are if we excise the horrors. The Third Reich’s legacy is a scar. And scars, for all their pain and the wish that they’d never happened at all, are still parts of us. They are what make us who we are.