For 70 years after the end of the Second World War, the brutal dictator’s manifesto remained unpublished in Germany.
Its copyright was owned by the state of Bavaria, which prevented new editions from being printed in Germany for fear of reinvigorating Nazi sentiments.
But when its copyright expired – 70 years after the death of the author, as is standard – an annotated version was printed for the first time again last year by the Institute of Contemporary History (IfZ) in Munich. And the publisher quickly began to sell out, rushing to print more copies to meet the high demand.
Over the past year, around 85,000 copies have been sold, much to the surprise of the institute. The IfZ had at first only printed 4,000 copies, and now it's heading for its sixth print run.
In April, the book become number one on Spiegel’s bestseller list.
“The number of sales has overwhelmed us,” the director of the IfZ, Andreas Wirsching, told DPA on Tuesday. “No one could have really predicted it.”
Partly autobiographical, Mein Kampf outlines Hitler's ideology that formed the basis for Nazism. He wrote it in 1924 while he was imprisoned in Bavaria for treason after his failed Beer Hall Putsch.
The book set out two ideas that he put into practice as Germany's leader going into World War II: annexing neighbouring countries to gain Lebensraum, or “living space”, for Germans, and his hatred of Jews, which led to the Holocaust.
In its heyday, around 12.4 million copies were published in Germany and from 1936, the Nazi state gave a copy to all newlyweds as a wedding gift.
'Mein Kampf readers are not right-wing radicals'
There was concern leading up to the re-publication that releasing an un-annotated version would allow Hitler’s assertions to go unchallenged. Jewish groups questioned why the anti-Semitic text – already accessible for academics – should again be widely distributed.
“It turned out that the fear the publication would promote Hitler's ideology or even make it socially acceptable and give neo-Nazis a new propaganda platform was totally unfounded,” Wirsching said in a statement.
“To the contrary, the debate about Hitler's worldview and his approach to propaganda offered a chance to look at the causes and consequences of totalitarian ideologies, at a time in which authoritarian political views and right-wing slogans are gaining ground.”
The IfZ edition is intended to be a critical look at the written work, including analysis and commentary from experts.
“It would have been irresponsible to allow this text to go freely,” said Wirsching.
And by the end of the year, Wirsching noted that those who bought the book turned out to be mainly readers interested in politics and history, including many teachers, not “old reactionaries or right-wing radicals”.
Recently the project even won the “Society needs Science” award with a €50,000 prize for how it “reveals Hitler's false statements and distortions, corrects factual errors and explains the contemporary context.”
Wirsching said his institute’s edition has over the past year driven academic debate, some positive and some critical of the annotated work. He also said he would consider doing an English translation of their version.
But the IfZ is not the only group working with the text that now lies in the public domain. A right-wing publishing house in Leipzig called Der Schelm released a version without commentary, stating that readers should “have the courage to come to your own understanding”.
The Bavarian state is also working on a guide for history classes on how to use excerpts from the book in education.
“The aim is to handle a very difficult and historically weighty source in a sensitive way,” said a state education spokesman.