philthecow: (spiral)
[personal profile] philthecow
Yesterday the only substantial reading I did was a ten-page segment of Mein Kampf for my German Studies class.

Then I went out and beat up some Jews.

Just kidding. But it strikes me that Mein Kampf is an interesting book to discuss both in terms of its potential persuasive power and in terms of its iconographic power over time. Our professor asked us, "He's obviously a terrible writer. So why did Hitler write this book?"

None of us could get past "Because he hates Jews?" to start with, and then she said something like "Because every aspiring dictator needs to write a book," which is an interesting point. Is it true? I don't know enough about dictators. Might it be true in a highly literate society like Weimar Germany, part of whose national mythos has always included Gutenberg and the birth of the book? The nation of "Dichter und Denker"? Yeah, I could start to believe that.

According to Wikipedia, the German edition of the book managed to sell a quarter-million copies before 1933. Ten million copies were distributed before the fall of the Reich. The English translation that was produced was apparently bowdlerized so that Hitler wouldn't seem like such a bad guy, so then this reporter from California who spoke German got all angry and decided to produce his own unabridged translation, and then Hitler's publisher sued him for copyright infringement and won.

But this is all less interesting than the copyright situation today, and the iconographic pull that it suggests. Bavaria owns all of the copyrights except to the English and Dutch editions, and Bavaria tries really hard to make sure the book doesn't get printed anywhere. Apparently owning the book is legal in Germany, but illegal in Austria, France forbids it to be sold unless it's in a special "historical" edition with commentary, Amazon.com used to sell it to Germans but doesn't anymore, those Arab nations can't get enough of it, in Mexico you can only get it in "pirate" bookshops, and so on and so forth, with all sorts of legal intricacies about what can be done with what edition of the book in what country and what's publically acceptable.

This all seems very weird to me; I understand that Neo-Nazis are still around and I understand why selling the book in Germany might be a bad idea, but does it really still have that iconographic hold over people that it did in the 1930s? Does Bavaria have to tread lightly when going after people who sell the book for fear of being called modern-day-Nazis? How is it possible that in this age, which is all about the "freedom of information," we still have "livres philosophiques" that can only be found in pirate bookshops?

Maybe I'm invoking the wrath of Godwin's Law here, but why is Mein Kampf what it is, and what other books of the 20th century have earned the same status? How should texts with this sort of power be handled? How do governments justify prosecuting people who sell them? What difference does the context make--would an anti-Semite really care whether it was in a "historical" edition or not? Wouldn't a non-anti-Semitic person be able to read it "historically" whether or not it said that on the cover?

How do those Bavarians feel about my using it for language practice?

Date: 2007-03-07 10:22 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] midge7227.livejournal.com
i feel like if anything Mein Kampf would provide good insight which could, you know, stop the same thing from happening again. i mean, most people acknowledge that it happened (though of course there are more than a few doubters) and that it was generally bad, so i feel like not allowing people to read Hitler's book would be taking away valuable insight into our culture that could be super useful, if that makes any sense. and any book can be misused - i think north korea was using "the diary of anne frank" for a while to prove to schoolchildren that americans were like nazis and bush was like hitler. so yeah...you dont have to agree with Mein Kampf to read it, and any book can be used for less-than-okay purposes if someone really wants to use it...and that's the basic crux of my argument, only it was muddled by my brain.

Date: 2007-03-07 10:32 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] deaminerva.livejournal.com
...but does it really still have that iconographic hold over people that it did in the 1930s?

I'd look at the Holocaust Deniers conference held in Iran (and the seemingly increasingly noisy "scholars" and people pushing these claims), and I'd say yes.

That said, I think banning 1 book that is clearly offensive presents a slippery slope and means that those societies are more inclined to ban other books they consider 'offensive' but might actually be a part of useful discourse.

Date: 2007-03-07 11:00 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] arctangent.livejournal.com
You've hit the nail on the head for why I don't think much of European countries as bastions of freedom and basic human rights and such. They seem all too willing to sacrifice things like freedom of speech or religious expression in order to express the will of the majority (see the headscarf scandal).

Date: 2007-03-07 11:09 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] polyhymnia.livejournal.com
Freedom of information is much more theoretical than actual. This is true, sadly, throughout the world, including Europe and the US.

Read BoingBoing.net regularly for a while, and you'll see lots of examples.

Date: 2007-03-08 12:24 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] philthecow.livejournal.com
Note the quotation marks. I love quotation marks.

But yeah. It's unfortunate that freedom of information is a really unsexy cause which most of the activists don't care about, or maybe something would be done.

Date: 2007-03-08 08:39 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] arctangent.livejournal.com
I suppose it would be inappropriate for various reasons to extol the virtues of the Free Culture movement to you at this point.

Date: 2007-03-08 02:56 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] philthecow.livejournal.com
Oh, I know the virtues. I also know the problems.

1. It's way unsexy.

The rest of the problems pale in comparison.

Date: 2007-03-08 01:32 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] noachoc.livejournal.com
Firstly, I think it's not just aspiring dictators who write books but, nowadays at least, pretty much all aspiring leaders. Hillary's got a book. Obama's got a few. In fact, it's pretty hard to throw a rock in Washington without hitting someone who has written or is writing a book, either memoir or political.

Secondly, I wonder if banning Mein Kampf in places like Austria is roughly analogous to refusing to publish How I Did It, If I Had in America (you remember, the OJ Simpson book), in that some people find it tasteless to allow someone so awful to profit off of his awfulness. Of course, Hitler's dead, so he's not profiting financially, but perhaps they'd prefer he stay dead and not be allowed to spread his ideas further.

Also, I get the impression that Hitler in Europe is rather like... for lack of a more PC example, the gay cousin at a staunchly Catholic family reunion. No one's seen him for years, everyone knows about him, but they're all trying to act like he never existed.

Me, I think they should publish it anyway, but I can sort of quasi-understand why they don't want to.

Date: 2007-03-08 05:03 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] justice-fishy.livejournal.com
So, that'd make sense as to why you slapped me yesterday Lauren...I keed, I keed.

As for writing it, I think it's like Dianetics...(ha! Godwinning Scientology!)...at least in terms of popularity. I'm too sick to really think of anything constructive to say...I guess...
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