French publisher releases new Mein Kampf edition to ‘confront’ Nazism

French publisher Fayard will release a new translation of Mein Kampf on Wednesday after years of delay over the controversy over publishing Adolf Hitler’s racist, anti-Semitic screed. But historians behind the project say it will be a valuable service in clarifying – and thereby disarming – the Nazi ideology for French readers.

Fayard was so keen to emphasize the scientific nature of the edition that Hitler’s name is not even on the bare white cover of the book. Nor is it titled Mein Kampf: the book is instead called Historiciser le mal, une edition critique de Mein Kampf (“Putting Evil in Context: A Critical Edition of Mein Kampf”)

This is especially appropriate because most of the text is, in fact, historians’ commentary on Hitler’s writings, explained Hélène Miard-Delacroix, a professor of German history at the Sorbonne University in Paris. “The fruit of a decade of historical research, these notes and critical annotations make up two-thirds of the book, so it would be inaccurate to describe it as just a new translation,” she said.

Hitler wrote Mein Kampf (German for “My Struggle”) in 1924-25, while in prison for his leadership over the failed Putsch at the Beer Hall in Munich in 1923. The text is a manifesto for his Nazi ideology, which led to the murder of about 6 million people in the Holocaust. Mein Kampf also has an autobiographical dimension: Hitler talks about his childhood in Austria and experiences as a German soldier in the First World War.

‘Spotting Hitler’s Lies’

Bookstores will not stock the edition on their shelves: it is only available to order. It is also inaccessible to many readers, priced at €100 euros. Fayard does not profit: all proceeds go to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation. Instead of a launch party, there was a gloomy event at the headquarters of the Paris think tank, the CNRS, on May 19 to mark the publication of the book.

Miard-Delacroix agrees that French readers now have this source of insight into Nazism. “As fewer and fewer people are learning German as a foreign language, it’s important to provide historians, educators, professors, students, and those just curious about history with a reliable translation of this text,” she said.

The first French translation of Mein Kampf was a heavily modified text published by Nouvelles Éditions Latines in 1934 – preserving the racist, anti-Semitic ideological content but changing the writing style. “The translator was trying to improve the literary qualities of the text, because Hitler had no literary ability,” said Miard-Delacroix. Fayard produced another modified edition in 1938, omitting Hitler’s Francophobic passages.

In contrast, the new Fayard version – by Olivier Mannoni, known for his translations of Franz Kafka, Sigmund Freud, and Stefan Zweig from German to French – stays closer to the original, emphasizing Hitler’s limited vocabulary and repetitive style.

A committee of ten historians worked on the scientific aspect. A long introductory essay highlights the changes of Nazi ideology that occur in each of Hitler’s 27 chapters. About 2800 footnotes contextualize the original text. These additional materials are crucial, Miard-Delacroix said, in providing the reader “all the necessary information to understand the nature of Mein Kampf by mocking Hitler’s lies and omissions — the fact, for example, that he was not the great heroic figure in the First World War He Claimed To Be ”.

‘Mein Kampf is part of our reality’

English-speaking readers have been able to research Hitler’s manifesto for decades. The British publishing house Hutchinson (now part of Penguin Random House) published a translation by the German-Jewish émigré Ralph Mannheim in 1939, which wanted to give readers a better understanding of the ideology they fought in World War II.

The US government bought the US copyright to Mein Kampf during the war through the Trading with the Enemy Act – collecting more than $ 139,000 in royalties, which were mainly paid to US ex-POWs in Nazi Germany before it became sold to publishing house Houghton Mifflin.

In France, the 1934 version of Nouvelles Éditions Latines is available with a few clicks on the Internet. Widely regarded as far-right, this publishing house sold nearly 5,000 copies last year alone — another compelling reason to publish a scholarly, critical edition, Fayard said.

French copyright on Mein Kampf entered the public domain in 2016 – meaning anyone can publish an edition. France ruled in 1980 that each new edition requires an introduction of at least eight pages to put Hitler’s work into context, but that seems a small requirement given the extreme content. This factor made it “urgent that an edition with an excellent critical apparatus fill the vacuum”, Miard-Delacroix.

France is not the only one to have released a new scientific edition of Mein Kampf in recent years. Editions Bellona publishing house in Warsaw published a new 1,000-page critical version in Polish in January. A new 2000-page, two-volume critical edition in the original version was published in 2016 by the Munich-based IfZ historical research institute.

The French project was completed several years ago. But the publication was repeatedly delayed due to opposition from prominent figures.

In 2015, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the hard-left party La France Insoumise, denounced the Fayard project: “It’s not morally acceptable,” he told TV station i-Télé. “People in France are not allowed to wear Nazi badges, so why publish Mein Kampf?” Melenchon continued.

Several Jewish associations criticized the project in 2019, citing the need to honor the memory of Holocaust victims – prompting Fayard to delay publication.

With that publication finally going ahead, some voices in France have criticized Fayard’s decision to go ahead shortly after the latest flare-up of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Paris police banned a planned march through the east of the city at the height of the fighting last month – as French authorities feared a repeat of the ugly scenes of protests during the 2014 Gaza conflict, in which synagogues were attacked and hymns of “death to Jews”.

But the new edition cannot be postponed indefinitely, as understanding Mein Kampf is a more valuable resource than ever in helping people cope with Nazism, Miard-Delacroix underlined.

“Whether characters like Mélenchon like it or not, Mein Kampf is part of our reality,” she said. “The critical notes and essays of the Fayard edition provide crucial weapons to deconstruct Nazism.”

This article has been translated from the original into French.

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