My Struggle

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” ~Requiem For A Nun

I have always loved Faulkner’s oft-recounted quote, since it is true on so many levels.

With that in mind, here is an odd present-day story that started almost a century ago, and is neither dead nor past.

Adolf Hitler wrote the draft for his 720-page autobiographical manifesto, Mein Kampf (My Struggle), while imprisoned after the failed coup of 1923. It represented his vision and blueprint for a National Socialist world, and was not at first a best-seller when released in 1925 (9000 copies). Once Hitler rose to prominence, however, the Nazis mandated its distribution to soldiers, newlyweds, and schools nationwide, and it started to generate large sums in royalty. Over Hitler’s lifetime, it is estimated that the book sold 10M copies (and ~$430M for its author, adjusted for inflation, all of it tax-free since he was in charge and made the rules).

Fast forward to May 1945. Hitler was dead and the war was fast closing. Bavaria, as the jurisdiction of Hitler’s official residence (Munich), seized all of his property, including the rights to the book. None of Hitler’s distant surviving heirs cared to contest this confiscation. And through assertive de-Nazification efforts, the Bavarian government promptly prohibited the publication of Mein Kampf, now their book, anywhere in (then-West) Germany.

But of course, that had little binding effect on other countries, where the tome continued to be printed and sold to varying degrees, both by previously-licensed publishing houses and bootleg operations [strangely, it has enjoyed strong sales in both Turkey and India]. Those international licensees then generated royalties for the legal copyright holder – the reluctant Bavarian state.

[sidebar: Bavaria holds the copyright for most of the world, but things are a little different in the U.S. and U.K. More on that in a moment…]

So, what to do with the tainted gains? Bavaria started to quietly donate all proceeds to charity.

In the U.S., Houghton Mifflin purchased the rights to Mein Kampf in 1933. The U.S. government seized the copyright in 1942 under the Trading With The Enemy Act – even though Houghton Mifflin is an American company based in Boston – and amazingly held it until 1979, placing the $139,000 generated in sales over those years in the War Claims Fund. In 1979, with no fanfare or press release, Houghton Mifflin bought back the rights from Uncle Sam for $37,254, and then proceeded to pocket over $700,000 in sales over the next two decades. When this was publicly revealed in 2000, the chagrined publisher said that they were distributing the monies to charities that promote “diversity and cross-cultural understanding,” and a host of other things that Hitler would have hated. Still, many of those charities – the Red Cross amongst them – refused to take the cash, leaving Houghton Mifflin wondering if buying back the rights was such a good business idea after all.

In the U.K., Hurst & Blackett (Random House) had purchased the rights to a translated English version from Hitler’s publisher also in 1933, still retaining that right in the post-war years; as with the Bavarians, H&B gifted all proceeds to charity. Interestingly, the Jewish charities initially selected didn’t want the money, so H&B started gifting anonymously (and it remains uncertain if the recipients ever knew the source of the donations).

Under U.K. law, the copyright on Mein Kampf expired in 1995. And under both U.S. and German copyright law, Mein Kampf is scheduled to enter the public domain in seven weeks, on January 1st, 2016. But while that will sever any direct connection between the text and Hitler’s estate, publishers, or those who directly dealt with them, it doesn’t mean that the book will not still be printed and sold.

Meaning that, ninety-two years after first conceived, the hate-filled diatribe of a fallen dictator dead for seventy years is still churning out income… that no one wants.

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[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]