Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2375:
HITLER'S COPYRIGHT

by Richard Armstrong

Today, a twisted case of copyright.  The Honors College at the University of Houston presents this program about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them. 

Copyright works on a simple principle, and that is: suppression. You see, it protects an author by giving her an exclusive right to her work’s reproduction and by suppressing all other editions. It’s literally a right to copy. Now, the life of a copyright may run longer than the life of the author. This is so her heirs or publisher may continue to collect royalty money before the copyright expires. When it finally runs out, the work falls into the public domain and anyone can reproduce it.

But imagine a book so heinous, so toxic, that the owners of the copyright act to suppress any reproduction of the work. They’re legally entitled to do so, but what book could possibly be that offensive or that dangerous?

Book cover of Hilter's <i>Mein Kampf</i>Well, how about Adolf Hitler’s book, Mein Kampf? Hitler wrote this 700-page account, called “My Struggle,” while in prison, years before coming to power. The book reads like a blueprint for Nazi Germany. Its toxic combination of extreme nationalism and anti-Semitism drips ominously from every page. But it’s not just a collection of horrific ideas. It became a cult object in the Nazi era. Copies were presented to soldiers and newly wed couples. Such mandatory presentations made it a bestseller—by force. The royalties ran into the millions and made Hitler a wealthy man. As dictator, he never had to pay taxes on that income.

Authorities suppressed Hitler’s book in post-War Europe, just like other Nazi symbols. Today, the German State of Bavaria has claim to the copyright, and uses this to thwart any attempt in Europe to publish the work. Bavaria’s gone to court to this end in Sweden, the Czech Republic, and Poland. But it’s not been successful in enforcing a total ban.

Mein Kampf remains on sale in the new Russia, in spite of the Soviet Union’s devastating war with Germany. It’s also sold well in some Arab countries, and became a best seller in Turkey. This has stoked fears of a new wave of political anti-Semitism. When the copyright runs out in 2015, the fear is that Mein Kampf will explode like a plague around the globe, with no way to curb its evil influence. German professors suggest releasing an edition with critical commentary to refute Hitler’s arguments. But skinheads probably don’t read footnotes.

French edition of Hitler's Mein KampfBut maybe these fears are exaggerated. While you still need special permission to read this infernal book in Germany, anyone is free to read it in an English-speaking country. The US and Britain seized the English copyrights during the war, and the book earns its publishers royalties to this day. These profits have been quietly shunted to charities for years. Yes, there is a serious ethical question about Hitler’s royalties. No one should profit from distributing his hateful screed. But to suppress Hitler’s turgid book is to look away from the ugly truth. We may fear that the book has sympathizers, but free speech always comes at a risk. Let’s leave book banning to the Nazis.

I’m Richard Armstrong, at the University of Houston, where we’re interested in the way inventive minds work.

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Note: When Mein Kampf suddenly becomes available in a cheap edition and its sales soar, as recently happened in Turkey, one should realize this could be the effect of a publishing novelty. For this reason, one cannot assume the book’s sales are a brute indicator of anti-Semitism. In 2007, however, the State of Bavaria successfully halted the further sale of Mein Kampf in Turkey, according to Istanbul Today’s Zaman.

“Hitler Book Bestseller in Turkey.” BBC News, March 18, 2005.

Dermot McEvoy. “Is it Time to Republish Mein Kampf in Germany?” Publishers Weekly August 1, 2007.

Julia Pascal. “Unbanning Hitler.” New Statesman June 25, 2001.

“Protest at Czech Mein Kampf.” BBC News, March 23, 2000.

David Gordon Smith. “Should Germany Republish Mein Kampf?” Spiegel Online July 17, 2007.

Helena Smith. “Mein Kampf Sales Soar in Turkey.” The Guardian March 29, 2005.

David Whitman. “Money from a Madman: Houghton Mifflin’s Mein Kampf Profits.” US News & World Report Oct. 16, 2000.

Jay Worthington, “Mein Royalties.” Cabinet Magazine Online 10 (Spring 2003).



The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2008 by John H. Lienhard.