Not Even Mein Kampf: Why Hateful Books Should Not Be Banned

In perusing the American Library Association’s list of banned and challenged books, I’m Banned Books Weekstruck by the agenda underlying many of the objections. The general notion is that parents have a right, even an obligation, to prevent their children from reading material that contains unacceptable ideas. By far, the majority of challenges were in the classroom or school or public libraries. According to the ALA, of the 4,312 challenges between 2001 and 2009:
1,413 were due to “sexually explicit” material
1,125 to “offensive language”
897 to material deemed “unsuited to age group”
514 due to “violence”
344 due to “homosexuality”
269 because of their “religious viewpoints”
109 because they were “anti-family”

It’s all too easy to say, “If you don’t want your kids to read that stuff, don’t let them, but it’s fine for mine,” or “If your viewpoint is that narrow, it deserves to be broadened!” Such responses close off the possibility of dialog by dismissing the sincere concerns of the people raising the challenges. People who don’t share those opinions, who see nothing objectionable in the works in question, often fail to appreciate the distress and fear of those who see a threat to their children and to their values.

I believe that all of us, if we read enough and live long enough, will encounter books that offend us, outrage us, and sometimes terrify us. Sometimes this is due to the content of the books, the opinions expressed therein, the negative portrayal of people or ideas we hold dear (or, conversely, the positive depiction of what we believe odious). I could rattle off a dozen such books on my personal list and I’m sure you could, too. Most of the time, I’m able to shrug and say, “Not my cup of tea.”

Sometimes, however, it’s that’s not so easy. It’s one thing for a book to contain ideas I find loathsome, and quite another for people to take action on the basis of those ideas, action that has monstrous consequences. Books (and the burning of books) can also become symbols, rallying cries, incitements to run out and take revenge on either the people who owned them, the people who wrote them, or the people who burned them.

First case in point: Adolph Hitler’s Mein Kampf (original title: Four and a Half Years (of Struggle) Against Lies, Stupidity and Cowardice). Originally published in 1925 and 1926 in two volumes, Mein Kampf articulates Hitler’s hatred of what he believed to be the world’s twin evils: Communism and Judaism. It was widely distributed in Germany during the Nazi regime, even given free to every newly married couple. Today it is considered by many as evil not only for its ideological content but because it was used as a justification and blueprint for the Holocaust.

Is the book to blame for the deaths of millions of people? Should it be available today? Could it inspire antisemitic violence?

As an interesting historical point, the US government seized the copyright during World War II under the “Trading with the Enemy” Act and then sold it to Houghton Mifflin in 1979. In Germany, its sale is still illegal, although according to the Simon Wiesenthal Center, it’s readily available from internet booksellers.

One of the strongest arguments against banning books like Mein Kampf is that banning does not work. Instead of making offensive books unavailable, it increases their influence. Even before the internet, copies of such books circulated among people least likely to examine them critically. Being forbidden added to their appeal and conspiracy paranoia enhanced their credibility. If the government is so anxious to keep us from reading this, the argument goes, it must be real.

Moreover, another reason states, removing a book from public discourse eliminates open critical analysis and deprives us of the tools needed to identify lies and answer spurious arguments.

Second case in point: “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” First appearing in Russia around 1903-1905, this virulently antisemitic text has been proven to be a literary forgery and hoax as well as a clear case of plagiarism. Yet because it purported to be a legitimate record of a worldwide Jewish conspiracy, it was circulated internationally during the 1920s and 1930s (and still is today in certain areas of the world). Hitler cited it as factual in Mein Kampf, although it had been irrefutably exposed as a forgery in 1921 by the London Times.

This issue is particularly difficult for me because my father lived in Ukraine about the time it became an incitement for renewed and widespread violence against Jews. In his later years, my father wrote of his horrendous experiences as a child surviving the pogroms following World War I, the times he narrowly escaped execution, the scenes of brutality he witnessed.

How much of this viciousness was fueled by the “Protocols”? How many people might be killed or traumatized in the future?

An even more difficult question: How many Muslims today are threatened or attacked or live in fear of their neighbors because of similar lies?

The operant word here is lies. My father eventually became a printer and taught me, among other things, how easy it is to publish a lie. You just set it in type. Nowadays, you upload it to the internet (although I am happy to see increasing skepticism of what’s written there).

Lies gain authority when they are set down on paper. Lies increase in power even more when they are suppressed. They fester in the dark, hidden from the light of historical accuracy, logical analysis, critical thought, and dissenting opinions — not to mention compassion and common sense.

Do I wish the “Protocols” and Mein Kampf had never been written? Do I wish they would simply disappear from history? Do I believe that by banning them I can undo their harmfulness, past and future? Yes, yes, and no.

Quakers coined a wonderful phrase: “Speak truth to power” (American Friends Service Committee, 1955). I think this is our most powerful weapon against lies: speaking the truth. Not trying to make the books go away, but calling hatred and intolerance what they really are, exposing them, debating them, showing how they are harmful. Only then can lies be seen for what they are and thereby lose their power.

That’s why Mein Kampf, that vile and delusional tract, should not be banned.

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Not Even Mein Kampf: Why Hateful Books Should Not Be Banned — 20 Comments

  1. Ms. Ross,

    Thank you for this excellent and thoughtful commentary. I can across it from a tweet by Vonda McIntyre. Yours is one of the few editorials which I have seen simultaneously recognize the true fears and concerns the “banners” have, while also explaining why banning the books is not really the answer to those concerns. Keep up the good work.

    .Nevets.

  2. And sooo much depends on the kid. Different children can handle different things. I also let my kids read anything they felt they could handle; the house is stuffed with books so their selection is huge.

  3. Last year my then-13 year old daughter came home from the library with Mein Kampf.

    “Hmm,” I said. “What’s this about?”

    “Oh, I figured it was all influential and stuff, so I should read it.”

    Okay, well, that’s not an alarming reason to have the book in the house. “Let me know if you want to talk about it,” I said.

    The book sat on the coffee table in the living room until the kid got two Overdue notices, then went back to the library. She read the first two pages and didn’t read any further. “What I don’t get is why it was so influential. It’s incredibly boring.”

    Granted, I don’t think my daughter was Herr Hitler’s target audience. Even if she had bulled her way through the book I doubt very much it would have swayed her in some ugly direction. But there’s no glamor of forbidden-ness about it. She tried it, rolled off it, and barring an assignment in history class or something like that, it’s a done issue.

  4. I was just thinking of the Protocols yesterday, wondering when someone would speak out against it on the Internet in a manner that would penetrate the consciousness of those who currently spout it.

    I totally agree with you about why we must never ban books. Yet I do sometimes wonder, late at night, if in a world with instant access and the ability to research without leaving home, if there is another Communist Manifesto or Mein Kampf out there, about to rise and influence another generation. Can a modern audience see the pitfalls in time? It is so easy for the herd instinct, the “Us” against “Them” to overpower so many people.

    Kudos, Mad, for being so cool about her sudden interest. I have a sudden vision of Calvin from Calvin & Hobbes bringing home an album of absolutely vile music to leave laying around the house to distress his parents. He does toss out the record itself, tho, after assuring Hobbes that he’d never actually listen to that crap! Only the album jacket remains to have the desired effect.

  5. Kathi–I was a little less cool about some of her junk tv viewing–The Kardashians, My Super Sweet 16, that sort of thing, until I sat down and watched a) the shows and b) the daughter. Who seems to view them as outsize morality plays (“My God, do you believe the way that girl’s acting? Omigod!”)

    I think a lot of it comes down to having faith that the values you’ve given your kid will provide guidelines for viewing the weird stuff.

  6. Funnily enough, I read Mein Kamf at about that age… From the school library, and didn’t discuss it with my mom and dad, but told my grandmother that it was the best argument against Nazism in the world. Of course being Jewish, I’m far from the target audience. But I agree. Forbidding such books only lends them a mystique and a perverse sort of legitimacy, whereas reading them dispels it.

  7. @ C.N.Nevets — I need constant reminding that no matter how wrong-headed I think someone is, his ideals are as precious to him as mine are to me. When I come from a position of respect, when I am able to listen with the sincere desire to understand, I find that creates the possibility of finding common ground. Screaming at one another or being scornful or dismissive of one another’s beliefs only polarizes the situation even further.

    @ Mad — Hooray for you! “Boring,” yep. And tedious and self-indulgent and just plain wacko. That reaction may be our most powerful defense.

    @Kathi — It’s scary that people are still buying into the “Protocols,” especially in the Arab world. Anyone who knows anything about Judaism will spot the hoax the moment the “Elders” start referring to Vishnu (the Hindu god). I’d love to see more discussion and presentation of the facts.

    I live in eternal optimism that we humans can learn to use our hearts and minds to make the world better instead of more miserable for one another.

  8. I had a go at reading Mein Kampf once, and found it (even in English translation) the worst-written book I had ever tried to read. A little later, I tried reading a book on role-playing games (a how-to, not a rulebook) by Gary Gygax. They both had the same incredibly awful prose style, boring obsessiveness, and overbearing pomposity, and the same tendency to rant about the One True Way of doing things.

    Maybe Hitler should have been a game designer; then we could appreciate him better as a joke. I certainly got a good laugh out of watching Gygax (metaphorically) strut around and Sieg-Heil himself over the ‘correct’ way to play tabletop RPGs.

    Needless to say, I wouldn’t ban either of those books. As Attackfish says, Mein Kampf is the best argument against Nazism. It makes Hitler’s colossal stupidity so blazingly obvious.

  9. And Hitler had a -bad- ear for a title. The book was originally titled Four And A Half Years of Struggle Against Lies, Stupidity and Cowardice. His editors pruned it down, probably so that it would fit onto a book spine.

  10. I read parts of DeSade when I was about 16–I think a friend gave it to me–and thought that it was the most self-indulgent gawdawful silliness I’d ever read. (Not, at age 16, that I’d read much to compare with it.) Talking with the friend when I returned the book I think I told him it was “so sexy I forgot to laugh.”

  11. Stomp them flat! Die, evil cockroaches . . . oh, no, I forgot that cockroaches are one of the few living things likely to survive nuclear war. Maybe we should be nice to them.

  12. Madeleine, most readers of Mein Kampf had a very similar reaction to your daughter. They never got very far and just stopped reading, because it was boring and badly written. Surviving vintage copies sometimes still have bookmarks, usually somewhere within the first 50 pages.

    And Mein Kampf is banned in Germany via copyright law. The copyright is owned by the Bavarian state who do not allow any new editions in German (though they do allow translations), which means that there are no new legal copies about. There are, however, vintage copies and illegal printings. It’s also in university libraries, though access may be restricted.

    The Bavarian state also does not allow an annotated edition of Mein Kampf, so historians have to rely on vintage copies or illegal editions, which are frequently distributed by NeoNazi groups, a.k.a. the sort of people you don’t want to give money.

    What will happen when the copyright runs out in 2015 and Mein Kampf enters the public domain is anybody’s guess.

  13. Cora: my guess is that someone will scramble to secure the rights in hopes of making cash, there will be a print run, people will buy it out of curiosity, be bored out of their skulls, and it will end up in piles at used book stores and remainder tables, except for the crackpots who already have copies.

  14. I suspect it will be come one of those books that is reprinted for history and sociology courses, on the theory that those who haven’t at least some sense of the past are going to start trying to write the book all over.

  15. A wise cover choice on the part of the new publisher (I suggest foil swastikas and a cutout with the author’s portrait inside) will ensure that lots of people buy the thing. If they find out later that it’s unreadable, well, caveat emptor. The publisher will have got his money and will be laughing all the way to the bank.

  16. You couldn’t do the foil swastika thing, because displaying swastikas is still forbidden in Germany except for such lofty purposes as high art. That is, Nazis with swastikas in Downfall or even Inglorious Basterds is okay, but videogames (even if the aim of the videogame is to shoot as many Nazis as possible) and comics (including a manga that used the swastika in the sense of an ancient solar symbol) cannot use it. There even was a courtcase a while back whether selling anti-fascist stickers and t-shirts with a stick figure throwing a swastika into the trash constituted a forbidden use of the symbol.

  17. In good old Soviet Union, Mein Kampf was banned while Lenin’s works were touted. Guess which everyone had read by the age of 16? Instead of Comrade Brezhnev’s great literary achievements we read illegal, dim copies of badly translated Castaneda. No one in their right mind would have voluntarily read the Communist Manifesto but everyone had read at least parts of the Bible (it wasn’t actually banned but seriously frowned upon, and you sure couldn’t get it from a school library).

    Sex was another hushed topic. ‘We don’t have sex in the Soviet Union!’ as a fervent Paty member, a rather frumpy middle-aged woman, put it during the Moscow Olympics. Well, we were about nine or ten when we found a pre-Soviet gynaecology textbook and read it at school, in the girls’ WC. And everyone who owned a VHS player watched pure pirated porn on it, often inviting friends and family. I still get sleepy and bored by pornography — all those long teenage evenings spent ignoring the video and watching my boyfriends get drunk while salivating at flickering, blocky images on the screen.

    I agree: banning books (and movies, and music, and other works of art or philosophy) just makes them more popular. That’s probably not exactly what the censors wished . . .

  18. Thanks for your commentary. This is a good reminder that we need to engage in constructive dialog with those who would ban reprehensible content as well as those who spew it. Having a clear view of the original content seems to be a great way to show how silly the objectionable ideas often are.

    @ Tom Simon
    “Maybe Hitler should have been a game designer; then we could appreciate him better as a joke.”
    I would certainly laugh more about Hitler if that were the case. Though some friends who are game enthusiasts might try to drag me into a round for the “full historic experience.”