After officially banning Hitler’s autobiographical screed Mein Kampf since the end of World II, Germany will finally, formally permit its publication in 2015. As reported in a piece by Peter Ross Range in yesterday’s New York Times, the book’s copyright expires next year, which means that from then on anyone in Germany can publish the book, whether quality publisher or a group of neo-Nazis.
Of course while for historical reasons Germany has banned the book, it has been freely available elsewhere. In fact I have assigned it, or parts of it, in one of my classes, specifically in a course I developed at the Harvard Kennedy School titled, “Leadership Literacy.”
The point of “Leadership Literacy” is to familiarize students with the great leadership literature – I mean the really great leadership literature. Literature that has stood the test of time and has come to be considered classic. Some of this literature is about leadership – for example, works by Confucius, Machiavelli, Shakespeare and, yes, Freud. Some of this literature is, itself, an act of leadership – for example, Paine’s Common Sense, Stanton’s Declaration of Sentiments, and Carson’s Silent Spring. Finally is the third major category, words penned by leaders, or spoken by leaders, that are so powerful, so memorable, that they will linger forever. Of course Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” is in this group, and so is Churchill’s “Adamant for Drift,” and so is King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
Which returns us to Mein Kampf. For me there was never any question that Hitler’s infamous book, which ranks among the most persuasive pieces of propaganda of all time, belonged in the course. Is Mein Kampf great? The answer depends of course on how you define great. What we can say in any case is this: in its own time, from the late 1920s to the mid-1940s, the book was a powerhouse. Even in our time the book remains fully alive, an object of continuing fascination.
Mein Kampf is best known for its virulent anti-Semitism. But if it were no more than that, no more than an anti-Semitic rant, I doubt it would it would have had the same original impact. And I similarly doubt it would be of any significant interest today. But it is more than a rant: Mein Kampf is of inherent interest for several reasons, among them Hitler’s discussion of the purposes of propaganda, and his exegesis on how to organize a political movement. I would argue in fact that anyone who wants to understand the man and his moment must take into account his manifesto.
Given my conviction that the great leadership literature should underpin all leadership learning, I edited a collection based on the canon, Leadership: Essential Selections on Power, Authority, and Influence. When I submitted my manuscript for publication I was told it was fine, excellent in fact – with one exception. The exception was the excerpt from Mein Kampf. The publisher did not want me to include it – and I reluctantly agreed to omit it. My mistake. Mein Kampf is widely available anyway, which is just as well. It’s the ultimate cautionary document – conclusive proof that words matter.