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Mein Kampf’s next chapter

As Hitler’s opus enters the public domain, Rimini Protokoll invites Berlin to HAU1 on Jan 7-10 to discuss Germany’s most infamous best-seller. What do we do with it? Should we ban it or engage with it? And is it still dangerous?

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Photo by Candy Welz

As Hitler’s opus enters the public domain, Rimini Protokoll invites Berlin to HAU1 on Jan 7-10 to discuss Germany’s most infamous best-seller.

There are some books that we keep hidden in the second row on the bookshelf. The first row makes us look smart, curious and well-read. Behind these books, we shove our romance novels, trashy best-sellers and, maybe, a family copy of Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Helgard Haug and Daniel Wetzel of the performance collective Rimini Protokoll turn the bookshelf around in their upcoming production Adolf Hitler: Mein Kampf, Band 1 & 2 at HAU1.

The piece tackles the book’s material status as a physical object, its symbolism, its publication history, the translation rights. And holding it all together, six experts share their very personal and professional relationships with Hitler’s opus.

Though the piece was commissioned for a festival in Weimar last September, the Berlin production could not be more timely: Mein Kampf fell out of copyright at the end of 2015. As of this month, anyone can publish a copy of this heretofore unpublishable book: either one annotated with information about its obvious untruths (a project from Munich’s Institute for Contemporary History), or one stripping it of all context that might lend fodder to other far-right groups around the world. Some call for a ban on new editions, shutting down this issue altogether.

But Mein Kampf exists. And so the question remains: what do we do with all the existing copies? Co-creator Haug explains the conundrum quite clearly. “What does one do with a family copy of Mein Kampf that has all the birthdays and weddings written in it, like the Bible? Do you throw it away? Do you make a little cover for it? Should we read it?” The theatre – particularly the documentary theatre of Rimini Protokoll – is an ideal venue to connect these thorny legal and ideological questions to the visceral emotional responses we have to Mein Kampf.

The approach is voracious and curious. Rimini Protokoll’s investigation of Mein Kampf has taken them from neo-Nazi web forums to Tel Aviv. On stage are six real-life experts, including a human rights lawyer with a specialty in social justice, a bookbinder and an Israeli son of Holocaust survivors who voraciously consumes books and articles about Nazism. The history and future of Mein Kampf raise a host of dizzying questions, which the six players explore on stage: how did there come to be a Hebrew translation? Does the book live on in contemporary political rhetoric? (Yes, the piece demonstrates, word for word). Is it dangerous? Is it infectious?

More than anything, Mein Kampf is a mystery. Few Germans read it. Most of the copies in antiquarian bookshops in Germany are bought up by tourists. It’s not assigned in schools. The language itself is a slog, a puzzling mix of autobiography and fascist political programmes in old German. But for the artists, it was important to include this language – and not just the most famous excerpts – within the piece to demystify the text, to bring it onto the stage in a public, theatrical way.

Haug mentions that the conflict between the six experts onstage and the antagonist drives the theatrical event. Is the antagonist Hitler? “No,” she says. “I would say, rather, it’s the 12 million people who owned the book.” Adolf Hitler: Mein Kampf, Band 1 & 2 isn’t about Hitler. It’s about us.

ADOLF HITLER: MEIN KAMPF, BAND 1 & 2 Jan 7-9, 20:00; Jan 10, 17:00 | HAU1, Stresemannstr. 29, Kreuzberg, U-Bhf Möckernbrücke