Adolf Hitler’s manifesto of hatred against Jews, Mein Kampf, went on sale last week in Germany for the first time since 1945. The annotated edition proved a bestseller, we hope because people intend to take a critical look at the ideas that drove their country to apparent mass insanity.
The reissue has been controversial, not surprisingly, but, as a practical matter, banning material these days is impossible. Mein Kampf is available to anyone with an internet connection, so the act of banning it in recent years has been a statement of principle rather than an effective means of keeping it from interested eyes.
Nevertheless, the book is an historical document that should not be hidden away. The ideas it contains were the seeds of one of humankind’s greatest atrocities. This suggests it has a power that those who would ban it justifiably fear. Yet, again, since banning it is not feasible, better that the opportunity be welcomed to analyze it and try to understand, confront and negate the ideology it represents, which is clearly the intent of producing a heavily annotated edition.
In fact, news of the book’s reissue has already sparked some welcome, thoughtful reflections on the nature of antisemitism, ideological hatred and also the matter of free expression itself. One lesson is that words matter. They have power. This is certainly the undergirding reason the book has been banned in Germany for 70 years.
It may seem a conflicted philosophical principle we have taken on this page for many years to stand firmly in the court of free expression – the right of people to express themselves free of undue constraints by governments, mobs or the threat of violence – while contending at the same time that people should police their own self-expression. It is not conflicted; in fact, it is a primary tenet of democratic, pluralist societies. It is the axiomatic idea that with freedom comes responsibility.
The proof that words matter is evident every time a Jewish person is stabbed in Israel. Palestinian society is being saturated by calls to kill Jews, including publications that demonstrate the most effective means of stabbing a Jew. Of course, Palestine is not a democratic, pluralist society where freedom and responsibility are sides of a coin, so this may be one of the reasons Western voices have for decades given a pass to rampant incitement.
But, tragically, we see it far closer to home. Some of the language around the arrival of Syrian and Iraqi refugees to Canada has gone beyond the realm of what most Canadians probably like to imagine is our tolerant, liberal approach to “others.” At a welcoming event for Syrian refugees in Vancouver last week, an individual pepper-sprayed people milling about outside the venue. It seems an act of such deliberate cruelty to undermine the confidence and well-being of people seeking a better life. It is impossible to know the precise factors that motivated this attack, but we can be fairly certain that some of the language used recently about refugees and Muslims did little to dissuade a person inclined to violence that such behavior was unacceptable. Donald Trump, according to opinion polls one of the people most likely to be the next U.S. president, has made obscene, inexcusable statements about refugees and Muslims. Such words do not fall on deaf ears.
We are at a time in human history where the very nature of words seems to be changing. Everyone can send their opinions out into the world in ways never imaginable even two decades ago. At the same time, long-form reading seems to be declining precipitously and we, in Western societies at least, may be forming our opinions more on bite-sized slogans than on deep consideration.
It’s hard to pinpoint what it means that the erstwhile banned rantings of Mein Kampf flew off German bookshelves. Hopefully it means people aim to use this annotated version to critically assess their country’s history.