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?