I’ve had a soft spot for banned books for many years. It started in high school when my English teacher produced from the dank and cloistered School Board file room a list denouncing certain books as verboten because my fragile teenage mind would be forever ruined by the filth contained on the pages therein.
Needless to say, I spent the next day in a used bookstore locating and purchasing as many of the verboten as I could find. And I am proud to say my home library has since become a cornucopia of evil tomes that the thought police would love to use as kindling. As an aside, and in deference to pop culture, if you want to read a book about kids killing each other, skip The Hunger Games and read Lord of the Flies instead. All the unsettling imagery and none of the teenage fan-girl bullshit. But I digress.
Having a constitutional republic form of government has made Americans lucky enough to have the concept of individual freedoms that many others do not enjoy- particularly relating to speech. The First Amendment, for the most part, prevents said government from banning the publication of books based on their content. OK, I’m still hoping that a magic fairy will drop an uncensored first edition copy of Operation Dark Heart on my doorstep, which will never happen, but barring the odd exception, Americans are free to choose what they will read, no matter how offensive or disgusting it may be to another person. Book banning in this country is, by and large, limited to the handful of frustrated malcontents who don’t want schoolchildren reading this book or that, usually because it has language harsher than “oh, dear” and some flavor of sexual…well…anything.
Citizens of other countries are not so lucky, which brings us to Bavaria. And Mein Kampf. And I do mean Mein Kampf. The famous and controversial
screed memoir Adolf Hitler wrote while in prison was first published in 1925. By the time he became Chancellor in 1933, it was immensely popular, and was made much more so during the Third Reich. Then, when World War II ended, the Bavarian government was given the copyright to the book, which it promptly used to squelch the sale, publication, ownership, and distribution of. And it has continued to do so ever since. Please understand that this is perfectly acceptable in Germany; it has no First Amendment and certain kinds of speech in Germany are actually considered criminal, including anti-Semitism and hate speech. So it kind of makes sense a book riddled with both would be kept out of the hands of the public.
The copyright term of protection in Europe is life of the author plus 70 years, as it is here in the States. On April 30, 1945, Der Fuhrer did us all a favor and shuffled himself lose the mortal coil, which gives the Bavarian Government three years to do…something…before Mein Kampf is yanked from its grasp and unleashed upon the unsuspecting masses. In light of this, and to make sure it maximizes its ability to control the work, the Bavarian government has decided to publish, for the first time since World War II, the weird, whiny ramblings of a man-child with serious daddy issues. Source 1. Source 2.
Hooray. But there’s a huge caveat. The Bavarian government’s version is going to be heavily annotated and edited, which is for the explicit purpose to “keep it from being abused for political aims – and to limit profits for future publishers”. This means that what Germans are really going to get is a watered-down, cleansed version with an instruction manual telling them to how to read and what to think. By publishing its version a mere three years before it loses the rights forever, the Bavarian Government admittedly hopes to make future German editions as “commercially unattractive” as possible. And Karl Freller, the director of the Foundation of Bavarian Memorials, said he would seek “intense” discussions with bookshops and publishing houses in the hope that they would voluntarily avoid selling or reprinting un-annotated versions of Mein Kampf when its copyright expires. Oh, irony, how I love thee.
I, for one, am dubious of any government-approved version of a book that it previously deemed socially or politically unacceptable for the masses to read. I am inherently resentful when anyone, especially the government, tries to tell me what to think and it sends a chill up my spine to think that some nameless faceless conglomerate could have the power to deem what should be printed and what should remain hidden. And I believe that Germans are intelligent enough to make their own decisions; there is no need for commentary or editing to prevent frowned upon “political aims”. As a friend of mine recently said, “sunshine is the best disinfectant”. Nobody needs a Disney-fied version of Mein Kampf- they need the original work. And the Bavarian government is doing a large disservice to its citizenry with its attempts to control the dissemination and future publications of the work. They had 67 years to sort it out and chose the “you’re too stupid to read this” route. This reminds me once again just how important the First Amendment is and why we fight so hard to defend it.
I’ve actually read Mein Kampf. I chose to read the English translation as approved by the Third Reich, not some slanted interpretation where a fuzzy-brained academic tells me what it means. And I can tell you Mein Kampf is an exhausting and manic read. It’s ugly, stupid, and in all other ways time better spent cleaning the catbox. Rumor has it Benito Mussolini said the book was boring and he was right. Mein Kampf is boring. And dense. And whiny, rambly, grammatically incorrect, and in all other ways a chore to read. But I forced myself to finish it. Not for some sick need to delve into the macabre, but because it’s that important. That whiny rambling lunatic inspired a nation and went on to kill millions without so much as a “by your leave”. Let that sink in for a minute.
It sets a dangerous precedent to plug our ears and minds to words we don’t want to hear. It is absolutely terrifying to permit a government to do it for us. How can you face and prevent an evil from reoccurring if you don’t understand what seeds it the first place? How can you fight evil if you blindly believe everything you’re told? If we can learn anything from Bavaria it is how important it is to not let the government think for you. I don’t need bureaucrats to tell me what Mein Kampf means and neither do you. I am aware that World War II is a touchy subject in Germany, so perhaps I’m being insensitive. But the proper answer to hateful speech is more speech, not less. Perhaps I’m taking for granted the freedoms we Americans have with our literature. We can choose to read Hitler’s words or we can choose not to. The Bavarian government is not giving its citizens a choice and that makes me sad. An unedited version of Mein Kampf provides a unique glimpse into the mind of one of the most important figures in world history. It deserves to be examined as it was written, not neutered and then swept under the rug.
The point is, you can’t protect yourself and society from evil words and deeds by pretending they don’t exist. You can’t cleanse through commentary the horror of genocide and the evil of complacency. While many Americans willingly bury their heads in the sand, in other places in the world, it is done for you. Remember that next time you want the government to step in and silence a viewpoint you hate. Can you imagine what this country would be like if the government had the power to tell you what to read?
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go re-read 1984. You should, too