By Isaac Greenman
Cover Photo: Deutsche Welle and Mumkey Cinematic Universe
In 2015, Lutz Bachmann, the head of Germany’s self-proclaimed Neo Nazi movement Pegida, posted a photo of himself groomed as Adolf Hitler – moustache and all. The caption read: “He’s back.”
In what is noticeably a return of right-wing extremism surging across Europe, the talk of the town is becoming increasingly centered on freedom of publication. From fake news, flooding tactics, bots and trolls to artificial intelligence, the legal and moral implications of potentially libelous content are growing. But amidst the brouhaha, an old acquaintance is surreptitiously making its way back onto the scene or rather, the bookshelves.
Bachmann would be happy. Us capricious liberals, not so much. The reality is, Hitler’s programmatic autobiography Mein Kampf, in which he delineates his political and ideological vision for Germany, was republished in 2016. What many call a monstrosity, the controversial text from one of history’s most loathed men, has sold 85,000 copies in its first month in bookshops across Germany. And ever since, publishers have been jostling to bring it to the U.S.
Charlotte Knobloch, chair of the Jewish Community of Munich and Upper Bavaria, was virulent in calling the book “a Pandora’s box, which should be closed forever in the ‘poison cupboard’ of history.” The concern is understandable for members of the Jewish community, who continue to lament the Holocaust, mass shootings in Pittsburgh, or spray-painted swastikas in Columbia University faculty offices. But the reappearance of Mein Kampf has a healthy consequence: It exposes those eager to constrain freedom of expression in what ought to be a free society.
Granted, today’s Mein Kampf is not the original; this one incorporates its own rebuttal. Historians at Munich’s Institute of Contemporary History have annotated the book with more than 3,500 comments, exposing and debunking the old Führer’s raving lunacies. The implications for freedom of speech, and long-term political strategy, are eye-opening. Stephen Pollard, in a December 2015 opinion piece, explains this. The author claims, in a rebuke to Knobloch, that “[his] principles tell [him] that republishing [Mein Kampf] is fine. At the very least, Mein Kampf is – obviously – an important historical work … Ideas, however awful, cannot be locked away. They have to be defeated.”
Here is how: because it is an annotation of the Hitler’s original conspiratorial content, the revamped book is being preserved for pedagogical purposes. “We intend to defuse the book” said Christian Hartmann, who led the Munich team. “This way it will lose its symbolic value and become what it really is: a piece of historical evidence—nothing more.”
But the new “Kritische Edition” of Mein Kampf can be so much more. By becoming a beacon for absolutist freedom of expression, it is showing political and civil society that it is possible to maintain absolute free speech, but also debunk, kill and eradicate detrimental ideas. If an annotated edition of Hitler’s book is allowed to be published, but its core ideas are debunked forever, then why not apply the same method to fight off dangerous political parties?
A 2017 Bloomberg News article shows that Europe’s map is being “redrawn” by this danger, with France, Switzerland, Austria and Eastern Europe increasingly voting for far-right parties. Even Germany, imbued with institutional and civil distaste for the far-right, has seen Alternative für Deutschland votes tally close to 30% in its Eastern states around Dresden, which is also Pegida’s turf. However, the country as a whole stays solidly below 15%, and a new Mein Kampf-type mechanism aims to keep it that way.
Germany uses such methods to take care of its far-right tendencies – and we should all be taking notes. As the book’s larger function of dissecting dangerous ideas rather than propagating them suggests, Merkel’s CDU coalition took considerable steps in 2017’s federal elections to severely cut state funding to the National Democratic Party – the remains of the Nazi party. Rather than attempt to ban the party as a whole, which was deemed unconstitutional by the Federal Constitutional Court (FCC), it was decided by a 502-77 vote in the Bundestag that the Constitution would be amended to cut federal funding to parties that threatened democracy. Does it sound familiar? Like Hartmann and the new Mein Kampf, Germany has understood that it is possible to undermine the core ideas of a hate-inciting party without direct censorship of their right to speak.
This is not to imply causality. The new Mein Kampf is simply the prime example of how, rather than muzzle expression and scapegoat its potential perverse downturns as the root cause of extremism, we can find efficient ways to target and neutralize the core ideas that may power libellous speech. This time around, consider how the book is used as a tool for political science, not simply a historical artifact.
The remaining barrier to Pollard’s proposition – and it is substantial – is what happens if there are no facts that education can use to counter damaging ideas? Our struggle to preserve absolutist free speech may very well become a struggle to preserve truth rather than what can or cannot be said. In the meantime, let us focus on getting the new Mein Kampf on bookshelves across Europe and the United States, look the past in the eye, and use the relics of history as building tools for the future.
Isaac Greenman is currently an undergraduate studying political science at in the Dual Degree Program between Columbia University and Sciences Po Paris.