Sunshine in Bavaria

Sunshine in Bavaria

August 27th, 2012 in Opinion Free Press

Adolf Hitler is still making news in Germany, or at least his book is. After more than half a century of censorship, the state of Bavaria has decided to let copies of "Mein Kampf" be sold openly, though it'll be fully annotated with tendentious footnotes as a kind of inoculation against its ideas.

It seems Bavaria inherited the copyright to Herr Hitler's masterpiece of rabble rousing at the end of the WWII, and has been trying to keep it under wraps ever since. In vain. The full text of "My Struggle," as the title translates in English, has been available for some time over the Internet, and now even the Germans have come to realize that their ban on the printed version has become futile.

What our German friends may not realize is that forbidding publication of Hitler's manifesto -- it's actually more an extended diatribe -- was a bad idea to begin with. Nothing increases interest in a book like banning it. Besides, its sales offer a reliable guide to which parts of the world are most susceptible to its particular brand of hatred. (Sales are high in the Arab world, especially in the Palestinian territories and parts of Turkey.)

A repressive government can pay a good book no higher compliment than censoring it, as the late unlamented Soviet Union discovered when it tried to gag its best and brightest - including Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

The most ineffectual response to a great book, or even a bad one, is to ban it. That is only a compliment to its power. In the case of a bad book, it's an undeserved tribute.

Bad ideas need to be exposed to the sunlight, to open inspection and criticism and ventilation in general, the way any form of rot should be. Keeping bad ideas under wraps only lets them fester. Letting bad, even dangerous, ideas be published also provides fair warning of the political viruses out there -- like a public-health report on the state of the body politic. The publication of "Mein Kampf" allowed vigilant types like Winston Churchill to sound the alarm early.

Before Americans start looking down on Europe's fondness for censoring the censurable, let's note how easily we, too, fall into the same trap. Look at all the Speech Codes that American universities were adopting only a few years back. And still are. An advisory panel at the University of California has just recommended that the university "seek opportunities to prohibit hate speech on campus."

That recommendation, inspired by some of the uglier aspects of anti-Israel protests on campus, embodies the same mistake censors always make. They fail to recognize that the best response to bad ideas is better ideas, not a gag rule. After half a century, the Germans seem to have caught on.

How long will it take Americans to recognize that the Founders had a better idea than censorship? It's called the First Amendment, and, among its other wise provisions, it prohibits Congress from passing any law "abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press . . . ."

Censorship of political ideas, even the worst, is not only wrong in principle but in practice. Instead of snuffing out bad ideas, it only makes them more attractive. As forbidden fruit always is.

Thomas Jefferson said it in his First Inaugural: "If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it."

Let us have the same faith in freedom that Mr. Jefferson did. In the end, it will prove not only the idealistic but the practical course. As the Germans have finally realized. Their permitting "Mein Kampf" to be published at last is not a sign that their republic is weak, but that it is stronger than ever. And growing stronger. And wiser.