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'Mein Kampf' Enters Public Domain; Arguably, Anne Frank's Diary May, Too

Anne Frank's facsimile diaries, on display during a 2009 press conference at the Anne Frank museum in Amsterdam.
AFP/Getty Images
Anne Frank's facsimile diaries, on display during a 2009 press conference at the Anne Frank museum in Amsterdam.

It's been more than 70 years since the end of the Holocaust, but by a fluke of fate — and international copyright law — two stark reminders of the genocide may be entering the public domain in Europe on Friday. Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler's anti-Semitic manifesto, sees its European copyright expire after Dec. 31; so too for Anne Frank's Diary of a Young Girl, according to several French activists.

Each of the works is covered under European copyright law, which states that a book enters the public domain on the first day of January 70 years after its author's death. Yet neither of the works is set to do so without a fair amount of controversy.

Tobias Schwarz / AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

'Mein Kampf'

Let's start with Mein Kampf: The multi-volume autobiographical work, whose title translates to "My Struggle," was written during Hitler's mid-1920s prison sentence for a failed coup. In it, Hitler lays out his rationale for what would become the twin pillars of his fascist dictatorship just a decade later: lebensraum, or the German need for "living room" — which he used to justify military aggression — and the anti-Semitism that undergirded the Holocaust.

The German state of Bavaria has held its copyright since Hitler's death in 1945, when it was obtained from the Allies; since then, the state has prevented reprints of the book.

With the expiration of the copyright, annotated copies of Mein Kampf are expected to return to German booksellers' shelves on Jan. 8. Reuters reports that the first of these — a 2,000-page behemoth published by Munich's Institute for Contemporary History — bears some 3,500 annotations, intended to lend criticism and context to the edition.

While German public opinion on the ban has long been mixed, many Germans — including Joseph Schuster, head of the country's Central Council of Jews — are embracing the reprints, albeit warily.

"We do not object to a critical edition, contrasting Hitler's racial theories with scientific findings, to be at the disposal of research and teaching," Schuster said in a statement released earlier this month.

In France, where rights to Mein Kampf have long been held by the publishing house Les Nouvelles Editions Latines, the copyright's expiration has inspired calls for caution — and further context.

"Mein Kampf is an important historical document and it should not be erased or forgotten, but it remains important to explain clearly what this work set out to achieve," Philippe Coen, president of the European Company Lawyers Association, tells France 24.

Toward that end, Coen is advocating for the inclusion of an updated introduction in every new edition — and in multiple languages — to situate the work not simply with respect to the Holocaust, but to today's international politics, as well.

In the United States, meanwhile, the copyright has been held since 1979 by Houghton Mifflin, which has told Mental Floss that it donates "all royalties and profits from the book to organizations that promote diversity and cross-cultural understanding. These have included The Gerda and Kurt Klein Foundation and Facing History and Ourselves."

Andrew Burton / Getty Images
Getty Images

'The Diary of a Young Girl'

The case of The Diary of a Young Girl, written by Anne Frank while in hiding during World War II, is significantly more muddled — at least in terms of copyright law.

Olivier Ertzscheid, a French researcher at the University of Nantes, has announced plans to publish the book online in its original Dutch on Friday, according to the Agence France-Presse. The news service reports that French member of parliament Isabelle Attard plans to do the same. Both Ertzscheid and Attard argue that, with Frank's death in 1945, the 70-year copyright is set to expire on Jan. 1.

Anne Frank Fonds, the group founded Frank's father in 1963, begs to differ. The charity holds the rights to the book, and AFP reports that it has threatened legal action, arguing that Otto Frank — not Anne — earned the copyright for his work on the book after his daughter's death.

In comments to The Guardian earlier this year, Yves Kugelmann, a member of the board of trustees, explained:

"After the war, Otto Frank merged, or compiled, the two versions of the diary that Anne Frank left, that were both incomplete and that partly overlapped, into one reader-friendly version. He typed over Anne Frank's manuscripts and with scissors and glue subsequently literally 'cut and pasted' them into the version that was published in English from the early fifties.

"The book he created earns his own copyright. For the purposes of copyright, he is to be viewed as an 'author' of that version. Please note, again, that this does not imply that he 'co-wrote' anything."

Otto Frank died in 1980. So by that rationale, the copyright to Anne Frank's diary would not expire in Europe until 2050. Chances are, both parties will be finding out one way or the other much sooner than that.

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Colin Dwyer covers breaking news for NPR. He reports on a wide array of subjects — from politics in Latin America and the Middle East, to the latest developments in sports and scientific research.