As Germany wrestles with whether to finally permit the publication of Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf,” controversies in a number of European countries make it seem as though World War II never ended. One has to wonder if, with the passing of the generation that actually fought the war, the time hasn’t come to set a cut-off date for its use by politicians.
Consider these recent news items:
• In France, the leader of the far-right National Front party, Marine Le Pen had a public falling-out with her father, the movement’s founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, about his statement that the gas chambers were a “detail” of World War II. She called it “political suicide” and elbowed him toward the exit, yet it looked suspiciously like political theater designed to persuade mainstream voters that the Front was no longer part of a xenophobic fringe (Le Pen senior remains the party’s honorary chairman);
• Greece has put a number, 279 billion euros ($297 billion), on its claim for German reparations for damages caused to Greece by the Nazi regime. While Germany has no intention of paying, Russian President Vladimir Putin has expressed his support by giving Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras a historic Greek icon looted by Nazis during World War II;
• In Russia, the owner of a toy store was placed under criminal investigation for selling toys with Nazi symbols. The government department in charge of Russia’s mild form of censorship, Roskomnadzor, had to issue a legalistic clarification explaining that merely showing the swastika without the intent of Nazi propaganda is not a crime. Meanwhile, Russia’s state TV and politicians continue to exploit the still emotive memory of World War II to justify the war in Ukraine;
• In Ukraine, the parliament ruled to recognize the Ukrainian Insurgent Army and a number of other World War II-era groups as “Ukraine independence fighters,” outlawing their public denigration and granting certain benefits to their surviving members and families. The legislation, an appeal to Ukrainian nationalists, failed to mention that the UIA at times cooperated with the German occupying forces and helped them to eliminate Ukrainian Jews.
All of this rings hollow in 2015. If Marine Le Pen comes to power in France and it turns out she agreed with her father about the Holocaust all along, she will not reopen gas chambers. There are plenty of good reasons not to vote for the National Front – it remains xenophobic – without dragging World War II into it.
Modern-day Germany has about as much to do with the Nazi Reich as modern-day Greece with the kings of Sparta, which is why it doesn’t owe Greeks any astronomical amounts of money. Toy soldiers – and, in fact, Nazi memorabilia and costumes – present no danger in themselves, even if to my generation and a couple of previous ones they are instinctively repulsive.
Similarly, parliaments should make no judgments on who was or was not a hero 75 years ago, because it’s their business to write contemporary history, not rewrite its older pages.
For too long, politicians have used World War II references to evoke emotions and drum up support for often pernicious policies. Right now, Putin’s propaganda machine is trying to portray the refusal of most Western leaders to travel to Moscow on May 9, for the 70th anniversary of victory over the Nazis, as a betrayal of the World War II-era alliance. In reality, they are protesting Putin’s meddling in Ukraine (he spent last May 9 in Crimea, after annexing it).
This year, copyright protection runs out for Adolf Hitler’s book, “Mein Kampf,” and the potential for its publication in Germany is causing another bout of World War II-related soul searching. It could be used to finally put the war to bed as a political issue.
The author of “Mein Kampf” died 70 years ago. After his death, all his belongings were handed by the allies to the German state of Bavaria, which has prevented the book from being published in German ever since. In 2013, it withdrew funding from a project by the Munich-based Institute of Contemporary History to publish the 700-page original with 1,300 pages of scholarly comment: Jewish groups were dead set against it, so the matter became political.
Even so, the institute aims to bring out the book early next year. “Commenting on ‘Mein Kampf' is not just a scientific task,” the institute says on its website. “There is hardly another book so overloaded with myth, and that arouses so much disgust and fear, curiosity and speculation, carries such an aura of secrecy and the forbidden.”
They’re right. The publication of “Mein Kampf” in Germany as part of a scholarly project could be a good starting point for ending taboos and their populist use by politicians. Indeed, an updated version of Godwin’s law should apply to political and legislative discourse: No one should refer to World War II, the defeated Nazis or the victorious allies in any contemporary context.
The caps and uniforms of the bygone era that the leaders and intellectuals of today like to use are just props used in a masquerade. These people are too young to know what they’re talking about.
Leonid Bershidsky, a Bloomberg View contributor, is a Berlin-based writer.