Just in Germany alone, more than 12 million copies of Mein Kampf were published between 1933 and 1945, the period of National Socialist rule. In addition, the book was translated into at least 17 other languages. After the collapse of the Third Reich, all new publications of the book were banned in the Federal Republic of Germany; only its sale on the used book market was permitted.
In view of the singular catastrophe that Adolf Hitler and the National Socialists had inflicted upon Europe and across the globe, that decision was politically understandable. However, in the subsequent decades, it encouraged a growing tendency to mythologise the book. Its restricted public availability and the lure of what was (supposedly) forbidden led to a situation where Mein Kampf became ever more a symbol of “Absolute Evil”. Yet, there was no rational, public debate on this book, in a sense the primal conceptual core of Hitler’s inhuman and murderous ideology. Rather, after 1945, only a small number of scholarly experts chose to deal in detail with the content of this work of more than 700 pages.
Political nervousness mounted as the end of 2015 approached, 70 years after Hitler’s death and thus a juncture marking the end of the legal copyright on Mein Kampf. From January 2016, new printings of the book in German are theoretically possible. Faced with this eventuality, the Institute of Contemporary History, Munich-Berlin, under its own direction and responsibility, prepared a scholarly edition of Mein Kampf. The edition, comprising some 3,700 annotations, was presented to the public at the beginning of January this year.
Why is it useful, indeed necessary, to fully reprint Hitler’s book anew in an annotated edition? First of all, Mein Kampf is one of the central sources of National Socialism and Hitler’s singlemost important programmatic piece of writing. Nowhere else did the later dictator reveal so much about himself and his criminal political aims. This circumstance alone legitimises an intensive and critical encounter with the book. Moreover, nowhere else did Hitler present his own biography as a private individual and a party politician in such a systematically stylised and falsified way. However, many of the corresponding lies and distortions cannot be properly recognised as such without detailed knowledge of the extant source materials and the historical scientific literature. Without a grounded critical explanation, the danger could arise that Hitler’s propagandistic statements, sometimes purely fictional, might enjoy renewed dissemination, as was the case 90 years ago when Mein Kampf was first published.
That danger looms all the more when it comes to Hitler’s account of his political and ideological adversaries — in particular the Jewish minority in Germany and the political elite in the Weimar Republic that arose in 1918 from the ruins of World War I. They were the prime target of Hitler’s rancour. He blasted them with a veritable barrage of defamatory accusations and offensive insults, in keeping with his characteristic perception of the world in a simplistic, black-and-white, friend-foe schema. Respect for the victims who no longer can defend themselves calls for repudiating those obnoxious slurs and reproaches.
Consequently, the objective rectification of Hitler’s countless ideologically motivated assertions is one of the central tasks of the new edition. But that is not its sole aim. A key function of the annotations is, at the same time, to place Hitler’s book within its historical context: How and when did his theories arise? Who can be identified as conceptual precursors? What texts did Hitler rely on while he was working on Mein Kampf? What social backing did Hitler’s statements enjoy among his contemporaries? And importantly: What are the internal contradictions that characterise Mein Kampf?
In essence, these are the questions that have shaped and determined work on this critical edition over the past three years. In addition, the annotations are designed to provide concrete assistance to the reader: Hitler makes mention in Mein Kampf of a multitude of persons and events that he was able to presuppose contemporary readers were familiar with, but which today are largely forgotten.
As a result, the original text often remains at points simply incomprehensible without the corresponding background information. A genuine critical encounter with Hitler’s text only becomes possible here through proper relevant annotation and commentary. Finally, the edition points out the disastrous consequences that Hitler’s proclamations had in the Third Reich — extending to his unconditional will to war for “living space in the East” and the millions of ultimate victims of that boundless and ruthless pretension. Here it becomes evident, if not before, just to what extent Mein Kampf must continue to be taken seriously as a programmatic diatribe against civilisation.