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What to Do With 'Mein Kampf'?

10/07/2014 17:14 BST | Updated 09/09/2014 10:59 BST

What are we to make of the imminent reissue in German, 70 years after the death of Hitler, of Mein Kampf - the book that symbolizes like nothing else the destructive genocidal ambitions of the Nazi regime? What does the decision to re-publish tell us about contemporary Germany's relationship to the Nazi past? The question of how to handle this uniquely toxic text goes to the heart of a problem that, in some respects, is as sensitive as ever, yet in others is unmistakably changing in quality.

When the post-war Federal Republic of Germany assumed responsibility for the material and moral legacies of the Third Reich it made rejection of Nazi racism, imperialism and violence the cornerstone of its own political culture; grappling with the inheritance of the past and the obligations that created was, indeed, a central means by which a new democratic society was slowly but surely forged in the post-war era. From war crimes trials to compensation claims, from exhibitions to school curricula, from monuments to television culture Germans used arguing about the past as a means of making a different, better present.

But now the challenge of handling that past has surfaced in an unusually bald and unavoidable form. The vagaries of copyright law have conspired to ensure that, just at the moment when the generation of perpetrators and victims of Nazi genocide are finally passing from the scene, the Bavarian state government's undisputed control over the dissemination of the German text of Mein Kampf will shortly end.

The expiry of copyright at the end of 2015 presents Germany with a dilemma which encapsulates that of democratic politics more generally, of course. The problem of how a liberal political culture deals with illiberal writings or illiberal politics is hardly confined to Germany, after all. But in these instances the tension between the need to protect democracy and the desire to respect the free circulation of ideas is profoundly entwined with the burdens, legacies and hauntings of an appalling past that still determines an unmistakable condition of 'being German', as everyone there still knows, and everyone there still carries through the world - an unspoken, yet permanent condition of being that is still defined by the burdens of the past.

It is to the credit of Germany's political, educational and cultural establishment that the problem has been discussed with openness, respect for the reasoned views of others and the appropriate levels of sensitivity, yet at the same time with passion, commitment and a strong sense of just how much is at stake. This testifies, in turn, to the accumulation of much experience in dealing with a history which thinking Germans - and most Germans do think very hard about these things when the moment demands - wish above all that they did not have. It is not always perfect, there is still occasional scandal, and blind spots remain, but it is now hard to think of a country that has worked harder to face up to its historic crimes

In this particular instance, part of the caution that has characterized the debate reflects a shared sense that the arguments are very finely balanced. As all sides acknowledge, there are many good reasons to perpetuate the ban, one way or another. If the experience of the interwar Weimar Republic taught Germans one thing, it was that a democracy has to be capable of defending itself - that commitment is hardwired into the constitution of the Federal Republic itself - and banning manifestations of political extremism on both Left and Right has been central to that commitment since the 1950s. Symbols matter too, and maintaining the ban on Mein Kampf has always been about something more than political pragmatism: it encapsulated the commitment of post-war West Germany to democracy and human rights. It would be unfortunate indeed if the decision to permit republication were somehow taken to imply a weakening of those commitments.

Yet it would be fundamentally mistaken to assume that the decision to permit the republication of the book signals the onset of complacency, or a mood of growing indifference to crimes that are now fading into history. Rather, permitting its publication is a symbolic gesture of its own - a gesture of faith in the strength of German democracy, faith in the vitality of German civil society, and faith in the strong consensus against authoritarianism and imperialism that underpins German politics.

That faith seems to me to be entirely legitimate: in the last twenty-five years or so Germany has weathered the massive challenge of reunification, witnessing only a brief, if troubling, resurgence of nationalism in the process; it has weathered enormous structural economic change, as have all western industrial societies, whilst retaining a greater degree of social cohesion that that achieved in many other places; and it has gone through the greatest crisis of capitalism in living memory with its political culture remaining remarkably untroubled (if we are looking for radical nationalist politics, or a resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe, we must look elsewhere).

Ultimately, though, the strongest arguments for permitting republication are not those that rehearse in more-or-less generic fashion the view that in a democratic society there must be a strong presumption in favour of free speech and the free circulation of ideas. Yes, of course, one has to combat ugly ideas with better ideas. But even for those in disparate far right circles around the world Mein Kampf does not live on through its ideas. Rather, it lives on through its aura, through its negative mystique. That surely stems, as much as anything else, from its forbidden status. What everyone wants, in Germany more than anywhere else, is for this book to fade into the oblivion of history, which is where it belongs. Counter-intuitive as it may be, the best way to accelerate this process is probably to permit its circulation.