WASHINGTON — Nearly 50 years ago, a failed Austrian artist sued an American reporter in a U.S. court for publishing his book. The author was Adolph Hitler, the book was "Mein Kampf" and the newsman was Alan Cranston.
Hitler won the lawsuit, went to war and ended his own life in a bunker in Berlin. Cranston lost the suit, quit journalism, went into politics and now--almost half a century later--is a Democrat representing California in the U.S. Senate.
In the summer of 1934, Cranston, then a junior at Stanford University, visited Munich and found himself in the same room with Hitler.
"I saw this man with a glazed look of power in his face," he recalled.
By 1939, Cranston had served as a foreign correspondent in Ethiopia, Italy and Germany for the International News Service. He returned to the United States, "intent upon getting into politics, if I could."
"I quit journalism," Cranston said in an interview, "because . . . I was too concerned about events unfolding in the world with Hitler and Mussolini to spend my life just recording such events. I'd rather be involved in the action."
Abridged English Edition
"Early in 1939, I was in Macy's bookstore in New York and I saw a big display of 'Mein Kampf' for sale--the English-language version, which I had never seen. I'd read the German-language version."
"Mein Kampf" (German for My Struggle ), was Hitler's rambling, raging plan for the Nazi domination of Europe.
"As I picked it up, I knew it wasn't the real book because it was much less weighty, it was much thinner. It turned out it had been edited so that a good bit that Hitler wrote was left out," including sections that showed Hitler's plan for the world.
To get out the truth, Cranston said, he conspired with a "friend, Amster Spiro, who was a Hearst (newspapers) editor" to publish "an anti-Nazi version of 'Mein Kampf.' " Unknown to them at the time, two other publishers were doing the same thing.
"I wrote this, dictated it (from Hitler's German text) in about eight days, to a battery of secretaries in a loft in Manhattan," recalled Cranston.
"One of these secretaries (a young Jewish woman) apparently thought, 'My God, what am I mixed up in?' . . . . She went to the Anti-Defamation League (of B'nai B'rith)" and Benjamin R. Epstein, later to direct the ADL for 30 years, soon was poking around the loft, asking questions.
"I was shocked," Epstein said, that Spiro, also Jewish, was involved in publicizing Hitler.
Then Epstein met Cranston. "Once I realized he was really on our side," he said, "I opened our files and we worked very closely together" to produce the full text. They started their own company, Noram Publishing Co. Inc., to market the book.
"We have slashed Hitler's 270,000 words to 70,000," they declared in their forward, "but nothing important is omitted!" The 32-page tabloid edition, copyrighted in 1939, was a "Reader's Digest-like version (showing) the worst of Hitler," said Cranston. He noted that the book contained illustrations and notes showing Hitler's "propaganda and distortions."
"It sold half a million copies in 10 days," at 10 cents apiece, Cranston laughed.
Authorized Version Pending
Meanwhile, Hitler's authorized American publisher, Houghton Mifflin Co., was "going to pay him a royalty and . . . make money off the book" at $3 a copy. Cranston's book pledged: "Not 1 cent of royalty to Hitler," and said that all profits would go to help refugees from Hitler's Reich.
By January, 1939, "Mein Kampf" was a best-seller in Germany and had earned the pauper-turned-dictator, once rejected by Austrian art schools, about $3 million.
Early that year, Cranston recalled, "The people representing Hitler--in effect, because they had his copyright--sued us, because we were obviously undercutting their market." Houghton Mifflin also sued another American bootlegger of "Mein Kampf," Stackpole Sons Inc.
Hitler was legally a man without a country when he wrote "Mein Kampf." He had lost his Austrian citizenship in 1918 for serving in the German army during World War I, and did not take up German citizenship until 1932, two years before he took over Germany as chancellor.
The Stackpole Sons' lawyer told a federal judge that because Hitler was "stateless" when he wrote his book, under U.S. copyright law it was in the public domain and Hitler had no rights to defend.
Cranston said that his Noram Publishing Co. made the same argument, also noting that their 10-cent tabloid was hardly competition for the yet-incomplete, $3 Houghton Mifflin hardback.
The trials were among the oddest in American jurisprudence. Their arguments set precedents and provoked a spate of stories in newspapers, popular magazines and legal journals.
In June, 1939, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York ruled that Stackpole Sons indeed had infringed on Hitler's copyright. In July, the U.S. District Court followed suit and ordered Cranston's bootleg press stopped.
"Then we had to throw away half a million copies," Cranston said, laughing. But the truth had gotten out.
While the wheels of U.S. justice turned, Nazi troops marched across Europe in the war Cranston had warned was sure to come.