The United States’ complicated publication history of “Mein Kampf,” Hitler’s blueprint of genocide, began in 1933 when Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, then known as Houghton Mifflin, acquired the rights to the book. Hitler wrote “Mein Kampf,” which translates as “My Battle,” during his brief 1923 imprisonment for a failed coup attempt, known as the “Beer Hall Putsch.” Ten million copies of the book sold during Hitler’s lifetime, making him a wealthy man.
Throughout the book’s eight decades in English translation, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has grappled with the thorny question of what to do with the royalties earned from the book. The answer has not always been straightforward. Before the outbreak of World War II, Houghton Mifflin sent royalties directly to Hitler’s German publisher. At the time, the book had appeared in 11 languages and sold 5.2 million copies.
After 1939, the U.S. government cited the Trading with the Enemy Act and U.S. royalties went directly to the Department of Justice. The DOJ eventually sent the money to the War Claims Fund to assist refugees and prisoners of war. “Mein Kampf” royalties were not issued again until 1979, when Houghton Mifflin bought them back from the government for approximately $37,000.
The publishing house went on to earn between $300,000 and $700,000 in royalties, until a 2000 report in U.S. News & World Report publicized the windfall. In response, Houghton Mifflin promptly announced it would donate all subsequent royalties to Holocaust education and programs preventing anti-Semitism. Some cynics might have interpreted the move as Houghton Mifflin desperately counteracting negative publicity. I like to think it was a gesture of goodwill, a gesture of doing the right thing.
But earlier this year, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt inexplicably changed its mandate and announced it would underwrite projects not necessarily associated with Holocaust education. The company reached out to local organizations, including the Boston Children’s Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts.
The decision was troubling. More than ever, Holocaust education is crucial. When the history of the Holocaust is distorted or denied, it is simply anti-Semitism dressed as a wolf in sheep’s clothing. And Holocaust deniers are among the most devious and prolific of haters. They cloak their anti-Semitism in pseudo-academic language to challenge the veracity of Hitler’s genocide against the Jews. Their arguments are all the more insidious for the way they assert that the 6 million Jewish deaths during the Holocaust are grossly exaggerated. They proclaim that gas chambers never existed at Auschwitz and the Holocaust was a ploy to garner the world’s sympathy.
Over the years, legitimate-sounding groups have disseminated this ugliness with names like the Institute for Historical Review. These anti-Semites try to make inroads particularly at universities. They try to pass off their hate speech as free speech. Although they have had little success at chipping away at the bedrock history of the Holocaust, these deniers are tenacious and, above all, obsessed. And their obsession has made them as dangerous as outright neo-Nazis or skinheads.
Seven decades after the end of World War II, “Never Again” is more than a slogan. It calls up the imperative to keep the memory of the Holocaust forever relevant. I have no doubt that Houghton Mifflin Harcourt meant well in its decision to extend its resources to organizations fighting racism in general and educating about the overall effects of intolerance.
But just this week the company reconsidered its decision to give funds to general anti-hate programs. Houghton Mifflin will now donate the profits of “Mein Kampf”—a book that has been continuously in print since its publication and to this day has robust sales all over the world—to Jewish Family & Children’s Service, where they will be used exclusively to help aging and needy survivors of the Holocaust.
Profits from “Mein Kampf” have often been described as “blood money,” and disbursing such money carries a moral responsibility. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt was right in reversing its decision. The money should be funneled to a Jewish cause. But the publisher should also return to its previous policy and fund Holocaust education programs.
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