You won’t see Adolf Hitler peering back at you from the featured display tables at Barnes & Noble any time soon. But browse the most popular e-book stores these days and Der Führer’s mug is seemingly unavoidable. For a year now, his magnum manifesto has loomed large over current best-sellers on iTunes, where at the time of this writing two different digital versions of Mein Kampf rank 12th and 15th on the Politics & Current Events chart alongside books by modern conservative powerhouses like Sarah Palin, Charles Krauthammer and Glenn Beck.
In fact, all seven of Beck’s books trail Herr Hitler’s nearly century-old tell-all, which consistently holds its own against new e-blockbusters like Game Change by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, This Town by Mark Leibovich, and Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise.
Mein Kampf hasn’t made The New York Times nonfiction chart since its U.S. release in 1939, the same year Germany invaded Poland, and its print sales have fallen steadily ever since. But with a flood of new e-book editions, Hitler’s notorious memoir just clocked a banner digital year. One 2012 English-language version is currently the number one Propaganda & Political Psychology book on Amazon. Another digital selection is a player in the Globalization category.
Or to put it another way: On Amazon, there are more than 100 versions of Mein Kampf for sale in every conceivable print and audio format, from antique hardbacks to brand-new paperbacks. Of those 100 iterations, just six are e-books—yet all six of them rank among the 10 best-selling versions overall. And those are just the ones people are paying for.
So what exactly is going on here? Are people reading Hitler on their smartphones and Kindles? Is this what happens when Mein Kampf becomes available in the privacy of our own iPads? Could it be a cultural curiosity much like what’s happened with sleazy romance novels, which surveys show are increasingly consumed in more clandestine e-form?
The first Kindle edition of Mein Kampf surfaced in late 2008, selling for $1.60. Shortly after that, another version popped up for $1.58 and rocketed up Amazon’s Legal Thrillers chart, then suddenly vanished in March 2009, along with a slightly pricier rival version, after a blogger at CNET acknowledged its burgeoning success. At the time, Amazon did not respond to CNET, which found it “unclear who uploaded the Kindle Edition of Mein Kampf.” Nevertheless, the e-book behemoth removed the virtual versions while continuing to offer a range of cloth and paperback printings, the overwhelming majority of which sold poorly if at all.
Houghton Mifflin, which holds the copyright of an English translation favored by scores of academics, hasn’t published a softcover of Mein Kampf since 1998, and U.S. sales declined in the mid-1990s, when retailers moved an estimated 15,000 annual print copies. But as tablets gained popularity in the late-2000s, the e-book’s presence grew and then soared. Besides the iTunes and Kindle-compatible versions, hundreds of txt and pdf files are available for download from thousands of online sources. More than a dozen free English-language versions of Mein Kampf have been downloaded in excess of 100,000 times from the nonprofit Internet Archive alone.
Despite the vast availability of no-cost copies, paid editions of Mein Kampf have crept up on hot lists since companies like Barnes & Noble and most recently Apple launched aggressive e-reader campaigns. One of the purged electronic editions from 2008 has since returned to Kindle and regularly registers on the Communism & Socialism charts. Another pick, “The Official 1939 Version,” was listed by the U.K.-based Coda Books in September 2011 and is currently the 17th best-seller in Nationalism in any format. And an “unexpurgated” edition of Mein Kampf that showed up on Amazon two years ago continues to hold in the Philosophers rankings.
Hitler’s big comeback, though, came in 2013, when a 99 cent Kindle version released in January started charting among World War II books and Historical Biographies & Memoirs. Its publisher, a California company called Elite Minds Inc., uses the dollar e-book to promote more expensive original translations of Mein Kampf they retail in print and audio packages. In an email to Vocativ, Elite Minds President Michael Ford says, “Sales are great,” but notes that he faces “a moral dilemma in promotion” in that he fears advocating “something that could be misused.” He says, “I have not heavily promoted the book and decided, for the most part, to let it spread among those who have a true historical and academic interest naturally.”
While the Amazon and iTunes algorithms are proprietary secrets—and the best-selling e-publishers of Hitler’s work declined to share figures with Vocativ—current rankings suggest Mein Kampf could be following a similar trend to that of smut and romance novels. People might not have wanted to buy Mein Kampf at Borders or have it delivered to their home or displayed on their living room bookshelf, let alone get spotted reading it on a subway, but judging by hundreds of customer comments online, readers like that digital copies can be quietly perused then dropped into a folder or deleted. “I think I waited 45 years to read Hitler’s words,” writes one reviewer. Another sums it up thusly: “Curiosity killed me to get this book.”
NOW READ THIS: APPLE KNOCKOFFS YOU WON’T SEE AT CES
Similar comments have been made about the erotic smash hit 50 Shades of Grey, which in June 2012 became the first book to move 1 million units on Kindle. According to the Romance Writers of America, “Romance buyers are buying e-books to a greater extent when compared with other major fiction subgenres,” with e-book sales in the genre doubling annually. An October 2013 Book Industry Study Group report titled “Consumer Attitudes Toward Book Reading” yielded comparable results, finding that “more than 50 percent [of subjects] surveyed say they prefer romance and erotic fiction in digital,” while “less than 10 percent preferred print.”
There are other rational explanations for Hitler’s success in the digital realm, like the fact that tablets are much less cumbersome than, say, the hulking 694-page Houghton Mifflin hardcover. But Mein Kampf’s electronic popularity is more likely a result of the 50 Shades phenomenon coupled with latent curiosity that’s easily sated with a click. In a 2010 talk at Harvard, Rice University sociologist Elizabeth Long noted that stigmatized genres like “mystery, science fiction and especially pornography” have forever been “sentenced to back corners, stuffed away out of sight,” and predicted that taboo titles would migrate off physical bookshelves and into the cloud. Compared to Mein Kampf, books about chains and leather seem pretty soft core.
Translating in English to “My Battle,” Mein Kampf initially debuted to lackluster public interest. Hoping book profits could help cover mounting legal fees, Hitler began writing his memoir in prison in 1923, shortly after his then fledgling Nazi battalion was captured while trying to seize power in Munich. Annual sales of the first volume, a 400-plus-page screed printed in 1925, failed to exceed 10,000 copies. A 1927 volume with a key addition outlining Hitler’s nascent extinction agenda sold 55,000 copies in 1930, and sales jumped exponentially after Hitler became chancellor in 1933. In a surefire marketing strategy, throughout the remainder of the decade the Third Reich bought and distributed 6 million copies of Mein Kampf to German citizens, including complimentary hardcovers for couples on their wedding day. By the time of his suicide in 1945, Hitler’s book had earned him the modern equivalent of $152 million.
EXPLAINER: The 'Mein Kampf' Copyright
A translation of Mein Kampf by Nazi sympathizer James Murphy was published in 1939 in the U.K., quickly becoming “the big sensation.” But it was soon swept up in a legal battle with two rival versions. Houghton Mifflin, which secured the U.S. copyright to Mein Kampf in 1939, published its own deluxe translation curated by 10 distinguished “editorial sponsors,” but the publishing giant wound up in court fighting yet another competing edition by Stackpole & Sons, a Pennsylvania imprint that claimed the work was in the public domain and not protected by copyright. The ensuing decision in the 1939 case, Houghton Mifflin Co. v. Stackpole Sons, Inc., set a precedent for Hitler and all other people of questionable statehood, whom the court ruled are “entitled to the benefits of American copyright laws.”
Even before Hitler offed himself in 1945, Houghton Mifflin was persuaded to direct profits from the book to Jewish refugees. From that point on, it became unofficial protocol to redistribute money made from Mein Kampf, and in 1979, the U.S. War Claims Fund paid out $139,000 in confiscated Hitler royalties to American ex-POWs. As noted, reparations and donations continued into the 2000s. After that, in addition to there being less confiscated Hitler royalties to go around, some charities began roundly rejecting proceeds from the book. Still, here and in various places abroad, booksellers—sometimes skirting the law and sometimes adhering to copyright (as with U.S. sellers of public domain versions like the 1939 Murphy edition, or their own proprietary translations)—have largely stayed under the radar. One possible exception is Amazon, which retails more than 100 versions and makes between 35 to 70 percent royalties on each copy.
Several generations later, Mein Kampf remains a seismic and unnerving force. Nowhere has it caused more contention than in Germany, which banned new production of the book upon inheriting copyright ownership in 1945 and maintains national exclusivity until 2015. Lawmakers there had pledged to release an annotated version of Mein Kampf to coincide with the expiration of their rights. Last month, however, officials iced the plan out of concern that any acknowledgment of Hitler could project the wrong message, particularly at a time when German leaders are struggling to suppress an electorally active neo-Nazi faction from infecting the republic.
“At the very least, this episode illustrates the ongoing absurdity of the situation around the publication of Hitler’s book in Germany,” noted The Guardian’s Berlin correspondent. The government, he wrote, “can do nothing about the thousands of scans uploaded outside Germany that remain just a keystroke away for those within the country.”
Trying to curb Hitler’s sales has proven a futile exercise worldwide. Since showing up in Asia 15 years ago, Mein Kampf has sold in excess of 100,000 copies in India. In 2005, the debut of the first-ever Turkish translation sold 100,000 copies in the first two months. And now, with the e-book revolution in full swing, readers are downloading Hitler everywhere. But who exactly is pocketing the profits?
In the past, sales have understandably drawn scrutiny from Holocaust survivor advocates and Jewish groups. Random House, which holds the U.K. copyright on the most popular English translation, has donated in excess of $1 million to the Holocaust Survivors’ Memoirs Project. In 2000, members of the World Jewish Congress convinced Houghton Mifflin to share the wealth. Thirteen years later, the WJC has adjusted its strategy to the changing times. Rather than petitioning for philanthropic reparations, the international organization is now asking the world’s largest online retailer, Amazon, to stop selling Mein Kampf and other hate books altogether.
“Amazon is a powerful and iconic company,” says WJC CEO Robert Singer, who emphasizes theirs is not a call to ban the book, but rather a “corporate responsibility campaign.”
“Amazon chooses not to sell many titles, such as pornography and books promoting incest, because some find that material offensive,” says Singer. “We’re just asking the company to stop profiting from the sale of other offensive materials.”
The WJC hasn’t heard back from Amazon. A spokesperson for the company responded to initial inquiries from Vocativ, but ceased communicating after we specifically mentioned Mein Kampf. So too did Montecristo Publishing, an obscure Brazilian outfit that specializes in re-packaging public domain manuscripts, whose 99-cent version of the book currently ranks 15th in the iTunes Politics & Current Events category, where it’s gaining on Palin and has already edged out Ann Coulter and Newt Gingrich. Like Amazon, Montecristo stopped emailing Vocativ after we asked how many copies they’ve sold and if they share profits with charities.
Michael Ford, president of the other major e-publisher of Mein Kampf on iTunes, Elite Minds, explains that he prefers “to use the earnings to develop other products that help people” and has “an issue with giving profits to one group or another.”
“This is a historical book,” says Ford. “To claim that some particular group, museum or activist cause should be entitled to money from it just because of its place in history is illogical to me.”
Chris Faraone is the News and Features Editor of DigBoston. His most recent book, I Killed Breitbart, has been getting spanked by Mein Kampf on Kindle and iTunes for the past three months.