How 'Mein Kampf' Changed the World

On this day in 1939, World War II began as Nazi Germany invaded Poland. Each Monday, this column turns a page in history to explore the discoveries, events and people that continue to affect the history being made today.

Aside from the Bible, few books over time have stirred up such controversy as one composed from the cell of a German prison.

It is a poorly-written mess, according to literary critics, but the ideas contained within Adolf Hitler's 1925 tome "Mein Kampf" (or My Struggle) sadly would resonate well beyond the book's quality of prose.

Mein Kampf was the manifesto from which all of Hitler's atrocities stemmed, a tinderbox of a book that may have disappeared from the annals of history had the author not actually gone on to carry out the ideas presented in his tirade against all things non-German.

Because he did, however, the notorious book remains banned in some parts of the world, more than 80 years later, and has sparked ongoing debates about literary freedoms.

Hitler passes the time behind bars

Hitler rose through the ranks of Germany's small but powerful National Socialist (Nazi) political party to become its bombastic leader in the early 1920s. Believing that Germany's central Weimar government had let the country be ridiculed by a series of post-World War I punishments handed down by the victorious Allies, the Nazis attempted a coup d'etat in 1923. The famous "Munich Beer Hall Putsch" failed and sent Hitler to jail for high treason.

While imprisoned, Hitler read piles of books on history and philosophy, consolidating his own set of beliefs all the while. He didn't consider putting his political ideas down on paper, however, until his business manager suggested that an autobiography might be a fruitful way to pass the time in prison. At the urging of his manager, Hitler's original title for his work, "Four Years of Struggle Against Lies, Stupidity and Cowardice," was also changed to the more marketable "My Struggle." Hitler did not, in fact, write the book himself, but dictated to his friend Rudolf Hess, who was imprisoned alongside him.

Part autobiography, part political manifesto, the patchwork pages of "Mein Kampf" were put to print in 1925. By that time, Hitler had already been released from prison upon growing pressure from members of the Nazi party.

A gift for the newly-married couple

Despite being repetitive, long-winded and difficult to read, "Mein Kampf" had become a popular read throughout Germany by the late 1920s, disseminating Hitler's main theories to a large audience.

In "Mein Kampf," the future chancellor of the Third Reich goes on at length about his youth and the early days of the Nazi Party, but it was his visions for a Germany of the future that resonated most with its readers.

Chief among his ideas was the absolute, innate superiority of the Germanic race, which Hitler called Aryan, over every group of people. "Mein Kampf" singled out Jews as the source of many of Germany's ills and a threat to Aryan dominance. The Aryans had a duty to restore Germany's former glory and enlarge its territory by winning back the land it had during World War I and gaining new area by expanding into Russia.

"Mein Kampf" gained enormous readership in the early 1930s and once Hitler gained power as Chancellor of Germany in 1933, became the de facto Nazi bible. Every newly married couple received a free copy on their wedding day, and every soldier had one included as part of his gear. At the outset of World War II, the book had been translated into 11 languages and sold 5 million copies.

The debate goes on today

"Mein Kampf" was a clear-cut warning to the world of Hitler's intentions for war and genocide, which may have been recognized and prevented had more people read it outside of Germany, some historians say. Publishers in the United States and the U.K. did produce copies in English prior to the War, but were held up by copyright lawsuits by Hitler's publishers.

Since the war, the book has remained a flashpoint of controversy, especially in Germany and the former Axis nations.

Worried over its use as propaganda by neo-Nazi groups, Germany and Austria have banned the possession and selling of "Mein Kampf" outright, while some countries restrict its possession to people using the book for academic purposes only. Opponents of the ban argue that the book is a valuable historical document, and that keeping it unavailable only makes it more desirable to right-wing groups.

The debate over the book's ban has flared up again in Germany in recent months, with some groups calling for an edition carefully annotated by academics to be produced before 2015, when the book's copyright officially expires in Germany and it will become available to anyone in the general public to own and reprint.

Heather Whipps
Heather Whipps writes about history, anthropology and health for Live Science. She received her Diploma of College Studies in Social Sciences from John Abbott College and a Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology from McGill University, both in Quebec. She has hiked with mountain gorillas in Rwanda, and is an avid athlete and watcher of sports, particularly her favorite ice hockey team, the Montreal Canadiens. Oh yeah, she hates papaya.