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HITLER

What the Fhrer means


for Germans today

N GERMANY, as in the rest ofEurope, copyright expires seven decades after the authors year of death. That applies even when
the author is Adolf Hitler and the work is Mein Kampf. Since
1945, the state of Bavaria has owned the books German-language
rights and has refused to allow its republication. German libraries
stock old copies, and they can be bought and sold. But from January 1st no permission will be needed to reprint it.
Those living outside Germany may not immediately grasp the
significance of the moment. Mein Kampf has always been available in translation and is now just a click away online. But that is
not the point. For Germans, the expiry of the copyright has caused
hand-wringing and controversy. The question, as they ring in the
new year, is not what to do about Mein Kampf as it enters the
public domain. Rather, it is what Hitler means for Germany today.
Mein Kampf is a mix of autobiography and manifesto that
Hitler began writing during a rather comfortable prison stay after
his failed putsch of 1923. It was first published in two volumes in
1925 and 1926. The title means My Struggle, and Hitler certainly
struggled with syntax, grammar and style. One contemporary reviewer ridiculed it as Mein Krampf (My Cramp). Much of it is
dull or incomprehensible today. Some phrases demand parody:
Columbuss eggs lie around by the hundreds of thousands, but
Columbuses are met with less frequently.
Woven into the prose are crude Social Darwinism and antiSemitism that resonated even beyond Germany, as well as hints
of the authors murderous potential. Having been gassed by the
British in the first world war, Hitler writes: if some of the Hebrew

The Economist December 19th 2015

Berlin

Seventy years after Adolf Hitlers death,


how Germans see him is changing

corrupters of the people had been held under poison gas, as happened to hundreds of thousands of our very best German workers in the field, the sacrifice of millions at the front would not have
been in vain.
It is not clear how many Germans read the tome. But after 1933,
when Hitler seized power, it became a bestseller. From 1936 some
municipalities gave it to newlyweds after their vows, and by the
end of the second world war about 13m copies were in print.
After the war it fell to the Americans to decide what to do about
the book, because Hitlers last private address, in Munich, was in
their sector. The Third Reich was gone and the Federal Republic of
Germany would not be born until 1949. So the Americans transferred the rights to the government of Bavaria. It banned printing
of the book.
This approach reflected the first post-war phase in the German
treatment of Hitlers legacy. The idea was to suppress anything
that might tempt the Germans to fall back under his spell. The Allies and the new German government followed a policy of denazification, under which known Nazis were banned from important positions. But as the cold war unfolded, West Germany
was needed as an ally. For lack of alternatives, ministries, courtrooms and schools employed former Nazis again.
In the late 1940s and 1950s Germans avoided discussing Hitler.
Many men were returning from captivity. Many women had been
raped. People had been displaced, orphaned or widowed. Germans had been both perpetrators and victims, and had no words
for their state of mind. Many were traumatised and could not bear 1

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Issue Date: 19-12-2015

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HITLER
2 to talk about their experiences. They found it

But this fascination also suggests a new


psychologically easier to dwell in the present
distance. Most of the audience, after all, now
and keep busy with the Wirtschaftswunder,
have no personal recollection of Hitler. This
the post-war economic miracle. Many still
explains another genre: satire. During his lifedenied the full scale of the Holocaust. Actime, it was Germanys enemies who parocording to Thomas Sandkhler, author of
died Hitler, as in Charlie Chaplins film of
Adolf H., a recent biography, a poll in the
1940, The Great Dictator. But in 1998 Walter
1950s found that almost half of West GerMoers became the first German satirist to
mans thought Hitler would have been one
score a hit with a comic strip, Adolf, die Naziof the greatest German statesmen if he had
Sau (Adolf, the Nazi pig). Its producer
not started the war.
called the character the greatest pop star
A new phase began in the 1960s, after the
weve ever created.
Israelis captured, tried and executed Adolf
The latest bestseller is Look Whos Back
Eichmann, a leading Nazi. This made more
by Timur Vermes, translated into English this
details of the Holocaust public. Starting in
year. Hitler wakes up in todays Berlin near
1963, 22 former SS men were prosecuted in
his old bunker. Disoriented at first, he so
Frankfurt for their crimes in Auschwitz. The
amuses everybody he meets, including his
Germans were glued to these cases: 20,000
Turkish dry-cleaner, that he is launched on a
people went to the Frankfurt courtroom durmeteoric career as a comedian. His hip coling the sessions. For the first time Vergangenleagues are convinced that he is a consumGermans
were
glued
to
heitsbewltigung(coping with the past)
mate messed ekta (Berlinish-English for
came to kitchen tables, where it split families. Eichmanns trial. The details
method actor) oering a subtle critique of
Sons and daughters accused their parents
modern media culture.
of the Holocaust it revealed
and professors of complicity and rebelled at
For young Germans the Fhrer has thus
home and on campus. Their elders retreated split families
receded far enough into the past to seem outinto sanitised tales of what they had done or
landish and weird rather than potentially selived through. A husband-and-wife team of psychoanalysts, Alex- ductive. In Look Whos Back, he regurgitates inane phrases from
ander and Margarete Mitscherlich, called this pathology the in- Mein Kampf, such as: The titmouse seeks the titmouse, the
ability to grieve in a book of that title published in 1967. This finch the finch, the stork the stork, the field mouse the field
mired the Germans in an ongoing moral and psychological crisis, mouse But the words and the diction, with its famously rolled
they thought.
r, have no eect other than hilarity.
Ocial Germany found two responses. East Germany adoptOne by one, post-war taboos connected to Hitler are vanishing.
ed the fiction that its righteous communists had resisted the fas- Flag-waving is one. A breakthrough occurred in 2006, when Gercists all along. In eect, it never reckoned with the past. But West many hosted the football World Cup. For the first time since the
Germany accepted its guilt and atoned publicly. It became a pac- war the black-red-and-gold came out everywhere, draping balifist society, often called post-heroic in contrast to the Allies war- conies, prams, cars and bikinis. But so did the flags of the visiting
rior cultures. It also became post-national: West Germans rarely countries, and Germany turned into one big street party. Hosts
flew their flag and barely whispered their anthem at sporting and visitors perceived it as nothing but fun.
events. The young sought identity either sub-nationally (as SwabIn a poll by YouGov this year, Germans were asked what perians or Bavarians, say) or supra-nationally, as good Europeans.
son or thing they associate with Germany. They named VolksBut starting in the 1970s a pent-up fascination with Hitler began wagen first (awkwardly, given subsequent revelations of its cheatto re-emerge. Two biographies and a documentary came out, and ing). Then came Goethe and Angela Merkel, the chancellor, next
in 1979 Germany aired Holocaust, an American television se- the anthem, the national football team and Willy Brandt, a former
ries, which shocked Germans into a new round of soul-searching. chancellor. Hitler ranked a distant seventh at 25%. In the same poll
Many changed their perceptions in a way that Richard von Weiz- 70% of Germans said they were proud of their country. About as
scker, then West Germanys president, expressed in a historic many thought that Germany was a model of tolerance and despeech in 1985, on the 40th anniversary of Germanys surrender. mocracy, and that it was time to stop feeling guilt and shame.
May 8th 1945 was not the date of Germanys defeat and collapse,
he said, but of its liberation.
Forever abnormal
After reunification in 1990the formal end ofthe post-war era And yet 75% also said that Hitlers crimes mean Germany still canthe German public became ravenous for more research. Der Spie- not be a normal country and must play a special international
gel, a weekly news magazine, featured Hitler on its cover 16 times role. This means that many Germans somehow combine both
during the 1990s. A book by an American historian, Daniel Jonah pride and penance. Attempts to resolve this inner conflict shape
Goldhagen, in which he argued that ordinary Germans were Hit- much of German culture today, even when the subject ostensibly
lers Willing Executioners, became a hit. A museum exhibition has nothing to do with Hitler.
about the Wehrmacht, Germanys wartime army, argued that orStart with Germanys political discourse. In contrast to the
dinary soldiers (rather than just the SS) had participated in the Ho- French, British and Americans, Germans worry a lot about surlocaust. Germans queued around the block to see it.
veillance by governments, whether foreign or German. The anxiBut there was a parallel trend towards what Germans call Hit- ety stems from memories of Hitlers Gestapo (and more recently
ler porn and Hitler kitsch. The Fhrer became a marketing tool. the East German Stasi). There is also a wide consensus that GerIt started in the 1980s when Stern, a magazine, published what it al- many has a special responsibility towards Israel. Pacifism runs
leged was Hitlers diary, a sensation that turned out to be fake. through all mainstream political parties.
Since the 1990s the history channel on German television has
Indeed Germany is discomfited by power generally, especially
aired almost nightly documentaries on Hitlers women, hench- its own. At home and abroad it advocates right over might. Hence
men, last days, ailments, table silver or German Shepherd dog its apparent obsession with rules, even to the exasperation of its
(called Blondi). Any footage of the small man with the toothbrush partners (in the euro crisis, for example). Hence also its reluctance
moustache draws an audience. In that way, Hitler has become like to act like a hegemon, as its allies often demand. Asked whether
sex and violence: bait to sell copies or to grab attention.
Mrs Merkel is the most powerful leader in the European Union, 1

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The Economist December 19th 2015

Issue Date: 19-12-2015

Zone: EUNL

Desk: Christmas

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HITLER
2 her spokesman replies indignantly: Those are not the categories

ple squirrel away food amid plenty? Why are they scared of firein which we think.
works or sirens? Why do some women in nursing homes wail unIn political style, too, Germany seems to want constantly to controllably when male carers come to change their nappies at
prove that it has moved on from Hitler. Germans flocked to Barack night? As the Kriegskinder age, he says, old traumas resurface.
Obama when he visited Berlin as a candidate in 2008 in part for
Their children, the Kriegsenkel, have dierent problems. As
his soaring oratory. But they would never accept such rhetoric in they grew up, their parents were often emotionally frozen. The eltheir own politicians, for it would remind them of Hitlers dema- ders came out of the war in a sedated or numb state from which
gogic charisma. Led by Mrs Merkel, the entire German political they never fully emerged, says Sabine Bode, another writer on the
class uses a kind of sanitised Lego language, snapping together topic. This impaired relations with their children, who, by intuitprefabricated phrases made of hollow plastic, says Timothy Gar- ing what must never be said or what was omitted with a sigh, inton Ash, a British Germanophile at Oxford University. Because of herited their parentss trauma. Later, as adults, they askedas Mr
Hitler, the palette of contemporary German political rhetoric is Radebolds daughter didquestions such as: Why were you never
deliberately narrow, cautious and boring.
interested in our little problems? And why do we have nightmares
Domestic life is governed by Germanys post-war constitution, about your firebombings?
which was adopted in 1949 as a direct rejoinder to Hitlers worldIn recent years support groups have formed for the grandview and has become a source of patriotism today. Its first article children of the war. Only about 40% of middle-aged Germans
stipulates that human dignity shall be inshare such transgenerational trauma, says
violable. This translates into police practices
Mr Radebold. But much of the stereotypical
that would count as touchy-feely in America,
German angst and yearning for order and
prisons that resemble low-budget hotels, and
stability originates here. Mrs Bode thinks
one of Europes most welcoming policies tothat many of the Kriegsenkel today have
wards asylum-seekers, despite all the strain
lower life energy.
that this has imposed during the current refuAs Mein Kampf loses its copyright, Gergee crisis.
man society is more complex than ever. One
But because of Hitler, the Germans no
in five Germans today has immigrant roots
longer dare to develop grand visions, argues
and thus no family link to Hitlers time. Many
Stephan Grnewald, a German psychologist
of the young know little history and find Hitand author of Germany on the Couch.
ler alien and fascinating. A fewsomewhat
They resist getting excited about big ideas lest
more in what used to be East Germany
they succumb again to some obsession. Inshout Sieg heil at neo-Nazi rock concerts bestead, Germans publicly don a cool indiercause they are drawn to Hitlers ability to
ence in an atmosphere of stultifying politishock the establishment. Other Germans
cal correctness. They are willing to back big
have complex cocktails of emotions. They
reformsas in the countrys energy transiare extra-keen to do goodby helping refution to renewablesonly when there is no
gees, for example. Yet they remain afraid of
moral ambiguity. Part of them, says Mr Grthemselves and their compatriots.
newald, still yearns to graduate from the hisAnd so Germany remains vigilant, if not
torical position of world destroyer to that of
quite paranoid. Most federal states ban liworld saviour.
cence plates with certain combinations (such
For the football World Cup in
This does not mean that Hitler made toHH 88, code for Heil Hitler). An eort is
2006 the black-red-and-gold as
days Germans boring. Ocial Germany still
under way to ban a neo-Nazi party called
displays virtues the world considers Ger- came out everywhere
NPD, even though it won a mere 1% in the
man, such as punctuality and reliability. But
European elections of 2014.
behind this protective shield, say psychologists at Rheingold SaReleasing Mein Kampf into the public domain was thus nevlon, a market-research firm in Cologne, many Germans adopt er going to be easy. In 2012 Bavaria convened Jewish and Roma
highly idiosyncratic lifestyles in everything from hobbies to sex. representatives in Nuremberg for a discussion. They agreed that
Contrary to stereotype, Germans are often secret eccentrics.
Bavaria should fund a scholarly edition to drive new right-wing
publications out of the market and demystify the book. The state
The hidden Schmerz and Angst
parliament approved the plan unanimously. A research institute
There is, however, an even more intimate domain in which Hitler was selected and got to work. But later that year Bavarias premier,
continues to torment older and middle-aged Germans: their Horst Seehofer, visited Israel, where some victims groups opminds. One generation, defined roughly as those born between posed the plan.
1928 and 1947, is called the Kriegskinder (war children). The other,
Faced with these conflicting attitudes, Bavarian ocialdom
born between 1955 and 1970 or so, consists of their children and is took fright. In 2013 the state pulled out of the scholarly eort,
called the Kriegsenkel (war grandchildren). These terms come which now proceeds without ocial backing. Meanwhile, the jusfrom Helmut Radebold, a psychotherapist who is now 80 years tice ministers of the 16 federal states have said that they will conold. As a war child he was evacuated from Berlin when it was tinue to prosecute anybody hawking the book for incitement of
bombed and then overrun by the Russians. At night his mother the people.
If a country can ever be said to be good, Germany today can.
dug a hole in haystacks, curled up inside and made little Helmut
lie on top of her to avoid being found and raped.
And yet Germans know that whenever others are angry with
In the 1980s Mr Radebold was treating men of his generation them, they will paint a Hitler moustache on posters of their chanfor various psychological ailments. Gradually, he saw connec- cellor. Many Germans are fed up with thiswith being blacktions to the war, because these Kriegskinder had never been al- mailed, as Bild, the leading tabloid, complained this spring, when
lowed to grieve. I myself became depressed and often cried, Mr Greece unexpectedly brought war reparations into negotiations
Radebold recalls. My own history caught up with me. He began about bail-outs in the euro crisis. Other Germans, mainly on the
writing books about the phenomenon.
left, fret about a new post-post-nationalism, as Germany tentaMuch of what seems strange today about some older Germans tively articulates its self-interest abroad. For most countries, this
has roots in these repressed memories, he says. Why do these peo- would count as normal. For Germany, it remains complicated. 7

The Economist December 19th 2015

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