The writer measures the success of his work in the number of copies sold. No matter how self-confident he might be, sales at the bookstore matter to him. He can, in the case of commercial failure, take refuge in the idea of being misunderstood, reasoning that posterity might overturn the unjust verdict of the present. He is ahead of his time, and history will vindicate him, perhaps in a posthumous manner. The advantage of such a consolation is that it is unfalsifiable for the author: he must die before the postulate is tested.
Adolf Hitler belongs to this class of author: the breakthrough came when he was alive, but the scale of his success has only become apparent after his death. He wrote his text in the Munich prison, after the failed Beer Hall Putsch of the twenties, and hesitated on the title, finally settling on Mein Kampf. Historians have uncovered that Hitler was not the sole author of his opus: at least several others read it over, even acted as ghostwriters. Of course, that is not in itself disqualifying. The reviewers of the time unanimously panned the tome as poorly-written agit-prop, but if critical opinion were an obstacle to success, our libraries would be empty. The French translator was vigilant not to punch up the text in rendering it from the German. But now, as literary circles are roiled by the racial question in translation – see the controversy over the race of translators in European languages of the African-American poet Amanda Gorman’s work – perhaps the publishing house should have given over the task to a white supremacist.
Hitler’s tract was indeed a flop when it appeared in 1925. The French translation appears today with an over-title, “Historicizing Evil”. The original German version of the twenties bore the subtitle Eine Abrechnung, “a settling of scores”. Let us not attribute too hastily the failure of the book’s first print run to this petty title: the book was put on the market at an exorbitant price for the time (twelve Reichsmarks, and in a time of economic crisis no less). Hitler was able to pay off just a fraction of his debts from the proceeds of the first edition. But sales exploded from 1933 onward (we have some suspicions about the reasons for this), a year in which the volume sold 900,000 copies! Hitler purchased his Bavarian retreat, the Berghof, with the monies. He could finally live as a writer.
Hitler was magnanimous enough to forego his official salary as Reich chancellor. And thus began the civic tradition of Mein Kampf. Twelve million copies had been sold by 1945! From 1936 onward, a copy was given to marrying couples as a present from the state – so do not overestimate the profits due to the author. The low cost or gratis nature of Mein Kampf remained at the core of the marketing strategy, as if to compensate for the faux pas of 1925. Purchases of the volume would be presented until 1945 as an act of civic pride.
In 1945, the author’s literary career came to a sudden halt. I guess we have some idea of the reason why. But who was going to recoup the profits from the title’s sales? The German state of Bavaria was the holder of the copyright until 1945, since it had been named as the deceased’s heir. This time, the civic gesture was repeated, but in reverse: the fewer readers, the better. But the tract nonetheless was printed illicitly, in various languages, finding a consistent audience among activists. Some estimates indicate that the book has sold 100 million copies worldwide through these clandestine publications – so many acts of public spirit in the old mold! But neither Adolf Hitler nor his heir has touched a red cent. What a scandal. The opus has traveled the world, much like a bird having flown the coop. Rivaling the Bible in terms of sales, Mein Kampf is now officially in the public domain as of 2016. And so the machine of inverted public continues to operate. One must not let the godsend of such a canonical work falling into the public domain go unexploited!
The Fayard publishing house has adopted an original strategy for the new French edition: putting out a coffee-table-style book stuffed not with illustrations, but learned essays, culled from previous self-styled critical editions (that is to say, ones released by university presses). And now the inverted public spirit continues (to some degree in an intentional reprise of the failed marketing of the first edition): the book is too expensive to easily purchase, too cumbersome to slide into the living room bookshelf. Instead, it is offered to public libraries, with all proceeds accruing to a foundation. The book will not be sold in bookstores. The individual purchaser must pass through an arduous process: he can first request a free excerpt, and then if he can bear the reading, he can fork over 100€ (the price is high, above all in these times of crisis). But at least no one can blame Fayard for adverse effects or overdose.
The publication has made a splash in the media, which either faults the new edition or avers that it is positive to bring out a critical edition. No one can really debate the quality of the work: it is our common patrimony. Here is the crux of the matter: the whole world wants the republication of Mein Kampf, if only to deplore it. To sell the product or not to sell it. To read it or above all not to read it. Not to forbid one from reading it and to forbid one from wanting to read it. Never will we have seen a book so extracted from market logic, and for that matter from any logic whatsoever. Never will we have seen a publishing house so embarrassed, torn between restrained enthusiasm and triumphal contrition, sending mixed signals with contradictory statements. We come away with this: do not read what I have just published.
The civic passion of the book remains forever and always in evidence. For the happiness of readers and non-readers. Adolf Hitler, in his premature demise, will never know how he beat the world record for non-readers, too, even though there is still a substantial readership. The puerile slogan of the Paris protesters of May ‘68 went “we are all German Jews.” Now we have another rallying cry for our days, “we are all readers/ non-readers of Mein Kampf.” There is, however, one last step: the awarding not of the Nobel Prize for Literature (the opus is no doubt very mediocre in style), but the Nobel Peace Prize. The Peace between a world readership in which enthusiastic readers and enthusiastic non-readers of Mein Kampf will finally be reconciled.
Translated by Daniel Solomon