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Facing up to Hitler

Germany's leading Jewish group is backing a proposal to lift the country's ban on publishing 'Mein Kampf,' a courageous stand that reflects the need to confront evil head-on.

August 14, 2009

In the aftermath of World War II, Germany approved a series of rules and restrictions designed to give teeth to the slogan "never again." More than 60 years later, it remains illegal to wear the swastika or to give the stiff-armed Nazi salute. Denying the Holocaust is punishable by a prison term. Since 1945, it has also been verboten to publish "Mein Kampf," Adolf Hitler's notorious autobiographical manifesto.

These rules were put in place with the best of intentions; after a war that killed tens of millions of civilians, including 6 million European Jews, it seemed a small price to pay to help ensure that Nazism did not reappear.

But a liberal democracy cannot tolerate such bans on free expression indefinitely. Last week, Stephan Kramer, the secretary-general of Germany's Central Council of Jews, the country's leading Jewish organization, said his group now backs a proposal to publish a new edition of "Mein Kampf," albeit with a scholarly introduction and notes that put it in context. The book, which Hitler wrote while he was serving a four-year sentence in a Bavarian prison in 1924, offers a chilling preview of his thoughts on racial purity and the Jews, as well as his belief that Germany needed to conquer new territory to fulfill its historic destiny. After Hitler came to power in 1933, millions of copies of "Mein Kampf" were sold (bought in many cases by the state and given out to newlyweds and soldiers in the Third Reich, making Hitler a millionaire).

Kramer's decision is understandably controversial in a country where neo-Nazi groups have gained some ground in recent decades. The southern German state of Bavaria, which holds the copyright to "Mein Kampf" until it expires in 2015, opposes lifting the ban on the grounds that publication could strengthen the far right. Nevertheless, we believe Kramer's decision is both courageous and correct. As Sir Ian Kershaw, a historian and respected Hitler biographer, told Germany's Stern magazine: "A grown-up democracy like Germany does not need to fear that Hitler's damaging treatise would somehow constitute a threat to society."

That doesn't mean that Europe should relax its guard against racism, xenophobia or anti-Semitism. Only 64 years have passed since the end of the war, and it must remain a central goal to ensure that nothing like it happens again.

But stifling information is often counterproductive and rarely succeeds in stopping the spread of noxious ideas. "Mein Kampf," for instance, is easily available on the Internet, and all the laws that have banned the signs and symbols of Nazism in recent decades have not stopped Europe's extreme right from espousing similar ideas.

Banning books raises questions that are difficult to answer. Why should Hitler's works be banned but not those of Stalin or Mao? Why should a government assume that its citizens need to be guarded against ideas, or that they can't judge right from wrong? What's the value of banning publication if the book is available in neighboring countries?

And here's another reason Kramer is arguing in favor of publication: When the copyright on "Mein Kampf" expires, the right to publish it could be opened to anyone -- which suggests that an annotated version today might be a far more responsible introduction to the work.

"Mein Kampf" will be immediately recognized by most readers for what it is: long-winded, repetitious, dense and, not to put too fine a point on it, evil. That was the thinking of California's future U.S. senator, Alan Cranston, when he published an unexpurgated and annotated translation of "Mein Kampf" in 1939, believing it would alert Americans to Hitler's nefarious intentions. (When Cranston was subsequently sued by Hitler's publisher for copyright violations, he lost.)

Winston Churchill also believed that "Mein Kampf" was essential reading. He called it "turgid, verbose, shapeless, but also pregnant with its message" and said that, at the time the war began, "there was no book which deserved more careful study."

Even today, studying the ideas and conditions that brought Hitler to power -- rather than seeking to squelch such a discussion -- remains the best way to ensure that Nazism stays dead.

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