An academic edition of Mein Kampf is turning out to be a surprise hit in Germany.
Adolf Hitler’s notorious manifesto is legally back on German bookshelves for the first time since the end of World War II, after the copyright to the book expired. And despite the hefty €59 ($64) cover price of the academic edition, there were more than 15,000 advance orders placed (paywall)—nearly four times the initial print run.
The new 2,000-page page annotated version of the Nazi text is set to land on Der Spiegel’s non-fiction bestseller list. A single copy of the critical edition is currently being resold on Amazon’s German site (link in German) at prices ranging from €599 to €990.
Hitler wrote Mein Kampf—which translates to “My Struggle”—in 1924, when he was imprisoned for leading a failed coup. The book would go on to become a bestseller in Germany, selling more than 5 million copies by 1939.
Though Mein Kampf is widely available online and across the rest of the world, it had been illegal to republish the book in Germany. Under European law, the copyright for a piece of work runs through the life of the author and for 70 years after his death. The copyright to the book was given to Bavaria’s regional government when the Allied forces defeated the Nazi government in 1945, which had refused to allow the book to be reprinted.
The republishing of the book marks a turning point; 70 years after Hitler shot himself in his bunker, Germany is once again forced to grapple with its Nazi past.
In anticipation of neo-Nazis reprinting the book for their own aims, the Bavarian government organized a meeting with Jewish and Roma representatives in 2012 to discuss what to do once the copyright ran out. The groups involved agreed with the government funding an academic edition of the book to deconstruct Hitler’s text. The Institute of Contemporary History in Munich was chosen and a team of historians were hired to carry out the project.
Among those editing the book was Dr. Roman Toeppel, who tells Quartz the main aim of academic edition is “to explain to the reader where his ideology comes from.” The team went to great lengths to trace the source of Hitler’s ideology, expose the myths surrounded the book, and compare the “new world order” he sketches out in Mein Kampf to the genocidal policies he would go on to enact.
As Toeppel and the rest of the team got to work, the Bavarian government withdrew its funding for the book in 2013, after Horst Seehofer, then the president of Bavaria, visited Israel, where some victims’ groups voiced their opposition to the annotated book.
Toeppel and the rest of the team continued with the book. While Hitler is famed for his powerful, oral polemics, the book is riddled with turgid prose that are difficult to decipher. The result of the project was a critical edition with more than 3,000 scholarly notes.
“When we initially talked about the first edition and how big our print run should be, I thought 2,000 copies would be more than enough,” Toeppel explains. They settled on an initial print run of 4,000, which instantly sold out. The immediate success of the book has come as a shock to everyone involved.
This odd fascination, and at times obsession, with Hitler isn’t particularly surprising. “Hitler, to put it very simply, is becoming increasingly normalized in our popular culture and intellectual world,” Gavriel Rosenfeld, a professor of history and director of the undergraduate program in Judaic Studies at Fairfield University, tells Quartz.
He suggests there’s a dominant trend where Hitler is separated from a moral and historical context, where Hitler becomes somewhat of “a pop phenomenon that makes him desirable as a commodity.” There are plays about the book, comedians performing satirical readings, and a manga version being published in Japan.
While Toeppel attributes part if the success of the book to the media attention it has gotten, he isn’t exactly sure as to who is buying it. There’s clear interest from academics, but could the book’s popularity also be fueled by the far right? Toeppel points to a report by the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (link in German), which believes the book means far less to neo-Nazis today than it did 20 years ago.
“Mein Kampf is more of a symbol for neo-Nazis,” he said, especially original copies from the 1930s. “They’re not really interested in the text itself.”
Despite this, booksellers have been uneasy about putting the book on shelves; some have refused to stock it at all. One bookseller told The Guardian that customers would have to specifically order the book. One who did so asked about it “as if he was asking us to produce explicit porn from behind the counter.”