Last week a patron came up to the desk and said, “I have a kind of a weird question.”
“Oh?” I asked.
“Does your library carry a copy of Mein Kampf?”
This patron’s question is particularly timely. In 2015, Mein Kampf – which has been the property of Bavaria since Hitler’s death in 1945, along with all of his estate – becomes public domain. It will no longer be subject to copyright laws, and theoretically, can be published by anyone.
Since the original confiscation of Hitler’s property, over 12 million copies of Mein Kampf have been sold, yet no actual legal copies have been produced since 1945.* Bavaria has for the most part adamantly opposed publication, halting government funding in 2013 for an initially-supported scholarly edition. Germany’s reaction to this 2015 turnover is understandably aggressive. According to Jean-Baptiste Piggin and Martina Rathke’s article in Haaretz, the Interior Ministers of the sixteen German states “vow prosecution for any publication of Mein Kampf” even after it becomes public domain.
Coming back to our patron’s original question – whether or not we have copies of Mein Kampf in our library system – I will quote the American Library Association’s Freedom to Read Statement (I have quoted this before, and I honestly can’t read it enough):
It is in the public interest for publishers and librarians to make available the widest diversity of views and expressions, including those that are unorthodox, unpopular, or considered dangerous by the majority.
Publishers, librarians, and booksellers do not need to endorse every idea or presentation they make available. It would conflict with the public interest for them to establish their own political, moral, or aesthetic views as a standard for determining what should be published or circulated.
It is contrary to the public interest for publishers or librarians to bar access to writings on the basis of the personal history or political affiliations of the author.
There is no place in our society for efforts to coerce the taste of others, to confine adults to the reading matter deemed suitable for adolescents, or to inhibit the efforts of writers to achieve artistic expression.
It is not in the public interest to force a reader to accept the prejudgment of a label characterizing any expression or its author as subversive or dangerous.
It is the responsibility of publishers and librarians, as guardians of the people’s freedom to read, to contest encroachments upon that freedom by individuals or groups seeking to impose their own standards or tastes upon the community at large; and by the government whenever it seeks to reduce or deny public access to public information.
It is the responsibility of publishers and librarians to give full meaning to the freedom to read by providing books that enrich the quality and diversity of thought and expression. By the exercise of this affirmative responsibility, they can demonstrate that the answer to a “bad” book is a good one, the answer to a “bad” idea is a good one.
While Germany has an understandably complex relationship to Mein Kampf, in our library system Hitler’s book is available. Why? Because even Hitler’s hate-filled manifesto is a historical document, representing someone’s voice and opinion. To uphold the library’s mission to provide information, we must remain neutral in our acquisition of material. Our responsibility to our patrons is to provide as much information as possible, while it is our patrons’ responsibility to engage with material and make their own judgments.
* In an amendment to my initial statement – “no actual legal copies have been produced since 1945” – the legality of production varies country by country. In Germany it is currently illegal to copy or print the book, and the state of Bavaria has contested publication in a number of countries with limited success. For example, in Sweden there was a case which went to the Supreme Court of Sweden, and which ultimately ended in favor of the publisher rather than the state of Bavaria. In the U.S., Houghton Mifflin bought the rights to the book from the U.S. government in 1979, and 15,000 copies are sold a year. In some countries, even the ones in which copying or reprinting the book is illegal, libraries are allowed to carry and circulate copies.