Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day, marking the Jan. 27 anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp, where more than 1 million Jews were killed in the Nazi gas chambers.
The deaths at Auschwitz and dozens of other death camps across Europe were the tragic culmination of the theories of racial superiority and anti-Semitism Adolf Hitler set forth as early as his notorious 1925 autobiographical manifesto, “Mein Kampf.”
This unreadable piece of National Socialist propaganda should have been relegated to the dustbin of history long ago. How ironic, then, that there has been a sudden newfound interest in Hitler’s memoirs, at least among devotees of e-books.
E-book sales of “Mein Kampf” have boomed, grabbing the top spot on Amazon’s propaganda and political psychology chart and entering the top 20 bestselling iTunes politics and events titles.
Though the number of downloads may illicit initial shock — “Mein Kampf,” after all, is full of the twisted thinking that would later form the basis of Nazi and National Socialist ideology and chock full of anti-Jewish themes — we should not conclude that it reflects a rise in anti-Semitism.
That said, it is disturbing that so many people are downloading a book with such a sordid history. (Hitler, who notoriously used many forms of propaganda, never imagined the power of 21st-century technology.)
Aside from their many benefits to avid readers and to advancing digital literacy, e-books also seem to be providing another vehicle in which Hitler’s message can continue to entice new hordes of readers thanks to the technologies made possible by computers and the Internet.
In an introduction to the 1998 English translation of “Mein Kampf,” published in the U.S. by Houghton Mifflin, I noted the book’s surprising endurance despite its atrocious style, puerile digressions and narcissistic self-absorption.
Despite these inherent faults, Hitler’s manifesto has not faded away as just an outdated political text.
Though its theories have long since been discredited and its current influence is limited to the furthest fringes of society, it remains controversial, sparking protests and sometimes lawsuits for remaining in print. Mention it and conversations can turn awkward; say its name and tempers can rise.
And not without reason: to some extent, the book’s contemporary ability to offend results from its lasting ability to inspire. “The Bible of National Socialism” has found new generations of devotees in neo-Nazis, racists and Third Reich enthusiasts. Aware of this, many would prefer that “Mein Kampf” not be reprinted, to keep it away from those who would revive the movement its author started.
As Americans, we cherish our First Amendment rights and find censorship anathema — but many European governments have employed it to varying degrees as a protective measure. The Bavarian Finance Ministry, which holds the continental European copyright to “Mein Kampf,” routinely denies requests to reprint it; the copyright is set to expire in 2015. Other nations restrict the sales of existing copies to qualified scholars.
Considering that, unlike America, European nations had to confront Nazism and other destructive social movements on their own soil, we can respect their efforts to control extremism, even if their methods are not ours.
But in the age of the Internet, it’s not so simple. If the e-book ceased publication, there is no doubt pirated versions would proliferate. Already, known anti-Semitic and neo-Nazi groups have made numerous copies available as free downloads.
People embarrassed to express open interest in “Mein Kampf,” who may not have the pluck to buy it from a bookstore or borrow it from a library, can now download and read it discreetly, which might explain at least some of the spike in sales.
But even if most readers are motivated only by harmless, morbid curiosity, one cannot ignore the many instances of anti-Semites holding it up to affirm their bigotry — just as we cannot overlook Hitler’s infamous powers of persuasion.
To minimize the pernicious potential of this text, governments should make it a priority to keep the public informed about the Holocaust, stressing the dark history of “Mein Kampf” and the dangers of its rhetoric.
As an important historical document, “Mein Kampf” must remain available to the public — but not without the essential supplementary texts; the introductions and addendums that put Hitler’s writings into context and explain their relevance today.
That is the only way we can try to ensure the unensurable — that we can remain confident in our assertions of “Never Again.”