The Netherlands’ Surprise New Best Seller: Hitler's ‘Mein Kampf’

A new annotated and critical edition of the manifesto is stirring controversy, with Dutch booksellers reluctant to even display ‘Mijn Strijd’

Shai Simpson-Baikie
Shai Simpson-Baikie
The new Dutch translation of “Mein Kampf,” on sale in an Amsterdam bookstore, August 2018.
The new Dutch translation of “Mein Kampf,” on sale in an Amsterdam bookstore, August 2018.Credit: Remko de Waal/ ANP/ AFP
Shai Simpson-Baikie
Shai Simpson-Baikie

After being banned in the Netherlands for over 70 years, a new Dutch translation of “Mein Kampf” hit bookstores across the country in August.

It didn’t take long for Hitler’s political manifesto, written in 1924, to become a best seller and stir controversy in the country. Even though booksellers are reluctant to even display it, the translation, “Mijn Strijd,” has been on the country’s best-seller list since its release – peaking in third place in mid-September.

With an introduction to each chapter by historian Dr. Willem Melching, the new Dutch edition of “Mein Kampf” is more than just a translation of Hitler’s work.

Its publisher, Prometheus – which also publishes Anne Frank’s diary – writes that Melching’s introductions “place the book in its historical context,” providing the reader with a “trustworthy” way in which “to become acquainted with this influential book.”

Nevertheless, the book has caused controversy in the Netherlands, with Op-Eds and television debates questioning whether the introductions are adequate and whether the book should have been published at all.

“I was alarmed to read that the book has become a best seller,” says Hanna Luden, the director of CIDI, the Netherlands’ main anti-Semitism watchdog. “Our main concern is that it will become a cult book, and we hope that people will read it with the relevant information on hand. The publisher has a commercial interest, not necessarily an ideological one. I hope they have good intentions,” says Luden.

Prof. Frank van Vree, head of the Amsterdam-based NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies, is sure “Mein Kampf” should be available to the public.

“If you want to fight evil, you have to look it in the eye. That’s what this critical edition is aiming for,” says van Vree. According to the professor, who was a member of the scholarly advisory board that oversaw the book’s publication, the edition’s new introduction, critical chapter intros and footnotes make “Mijn Strijd” suitable for a wider audience, including high school students.

Caroline Reeders is the director of Athenaeum, one of the Netherlands’ largest bookstores and one of the book’s carriers. She also describes “Mijn Strijd” as a responsibly published historical source. “The book should be made available, but in a responsible way – nobody should be confronted by it,” she says. “The book hasn’t been put on display and customers searching for it have to ask.”

She says Athenaeum has sold dozens of copies since the book was released, which she calls a lot for a book on World War II.

A bookseller in the history section at another prominent Dutch bookstore, Scheltema, has adopted a similar approach. She says that while “Mijn Strijd” technically belongs in the store’s top 10 section, she chose not to place it there.

“You just can’t put ‘Mein Kampf’ in between Jewish authors [like Amos Oz and Yuval Noah Harari], who populate most of the top 10,” she says, adding that she instead displays it surrounded by books written as critical commentaries to the original.

“Mijn Strijd” follows the publication of the German critical edition of “Mein Kampf” in 2015, 70 years after Hitler’s death and expiration of the copyright under German law.

The German version, which also became a best seller, expanded Hitler’s original text to double the amount of pages, with a team of academics heavily annotating the work in an effort to highlight the Nazi leader’s propaganda and factual errors.

Copies of "Mein Kampf," Adolf Hitler's autobiographical manifestoCredit: Matthias Balk / dpa / AP

Van Vree says that while “Mijn Strijd” was not as heavily annotated as the German edition – which he describes as a “cordon sanitaire” – the version in the Netherlands is “adequate for a Dutch audience.”

Luden, however, wonders whether the German approach may be better. She highlights that while a whole team of experts was hired to annotate the German version, only one historian ended up writing introductions for the Dutch translation.

“I hope the introductions do the job and that people will learn how damaging such an ideology is,” says Luden. She believes knowledge about Nazism has decreased over the past few years, while the number of people downplaying the Holocaust – for example, by comparing the Israeli government to the Nazi regime – has increased. At the same time, Luden adds, the Netherlands has seen a very slight rise in anti-Semitism.

The bookseller at Scheltema says she hasn’t seen any “neo-Nazis with shaved heads and scary tattoos” come in to buy “Mijn Strijd.” Moreover, she finds it unlikely that people who nourish dangerous ideologies will seek out the book.

“People with hateful intentions are intellectually lazy and it’s unlikely they will spend the time and money to actually read the book,” she says.

Van Vree echoes this sentiment and notes that racists or anti-Semites already knew where to find the book. “Copies were already available in scholarly libraries and neighboring countries like Belgium, and could easily be downloaded from Dutch and other neo-Nazi websites, often hosted in the United States,” says van Vree.

Moreover, he says he finds it highly unlikely that the book will cause an uptick in racism or anti-Semitism. “They generally don’t need books to be persuaded. One may even doubt whether any German in the 1920s was turned into an anti-Semite just by reading Hitler,” he adds.

The bookseller at Scheltema characterizes the majority of people buying “Mijn Strijd” as “learned types, old men who study war and wear long raincoats – you know the sort.” A bookseller at Athenaeum says some people asking for the book feel the need to apologize, explaining that they don’t agree with Hitler’s ideology.

Despite her concerns about “Mijn Strijd,” Luden says the book does have the potential to increase knowledge about the horrors of the Holocaust. While education about that period is on the decline, she says, she has observed a growing trend toward remembrance and memorials, and says the book may help.

“The number of people coming to ceremonies grows every year,” says Luden. “People want to know and it’s a good time to provide more information, which is what we should focus on: How to inform the public about damaging ideology and its effects.”

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