Germany's surprise bestseller: a critical edition of 'Mein Kampf'

A two-volume annotated edition of Hitler's manifesto has sold about 85,000 copies and spent 35 weeks on Der Spiegel's best-seller list.

Michael Dalder/Reuters/File
The owner of a book shop looks through an annotated version of Hitler's "Mein Kampf" in Munich, Germany.

As a decades-long printing ban drew to a end, Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” returned to shelves in 2016 in an expanded, critical edition, becoming one of Germany’s best-selling non-fiction works of the year.

The decision to revisit the manifesto, in which one of history’s most loathed leaders argues for the establishment of a superior race, was a controversial one. Bavaria gained rights to the work, the title of which translates to “My Struggle,” in 1945, after the Allies took over the main Nazi publishing house following Germany’s defeat in World War II. For 70 years, the state refused to allow further publication of the work, but at the close of 2015, it fell back into the public domain.

While some argued that fully acknowledging and studying the work as a historical piece could educate younger generations about the horrors of Nazi hatred and the roots of the Holocaust, others worried that making the book readily available could bring renewed favor to its author's views, and give Neo-Nazis a piece of literature to rally around.

The newly printed work, which includes annotations from historical scholars, spent 35 weeks last year on Der Spiegel’s best-seller list, selling a total of around 85,000 copies. Now, publishers say the success of the annotated version and its historical merits show that the former hope, rather than the latter fear, has largely come to fruition.

“We are very happy that the ambitious bridge between fundamental academic work and historical-political explanation appears to have succeeded,” Andreas Wirsching, the director of the Institute of Contemporary History in Munich, which published the work, told The New York Times. “The discussions about Hitler’s worldview and dealing with his propaganda presented an opportunity – at a time when authoritarian political beliefs and far-right slogans are again gaining in popularity – to re-examine the ominous roots and results of such totalitarian ideologies.”

Publishers initially only printed 4,000 copies, seriously underestimating public interest in the work, the AFP reported. During the 20 years between the work’s publication and its subsequent ban, some 12.4 million copies were printed in Germany, and the state began gifting copies to married couples in 1936.

By the end of this month, the new edition will enter its sixth printing cycle.

The edition, which contains some 3,500 annotations, has been widely discussed and read at museums, schools, churches, and memorial sites, prompting publishers to believe many who purchased it are seeking to fill historical gaps.

But authorities remain wary of the double-edged sword its rhetoric presents. In Leipzig, state prosecutors have launched investigations into a right-wing publisher who began reprinting the original work, trying to determine whether they can bring propaganda charges against the company, as the Times reported.

For now, publishers plan to publish the work only in German, French, and English, although they’ve been inundated with inquiries to translate the work into other languages.

"It would be irresponsible to just let this text spread arbitrarily," Wirsching told DPA, a German news agency.

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