Money from a Madman
Houghton Mifflin's Mein Kampf profits
Late one night last May, John Bendix sat by his computer at his home in Philadelphia, wearily thumbing through a handful of government reports from the 1940s. Bendix, a researcher for the Presidential Advisory Commission on Holocaust Assets in the United States, wasn't studying the headline-making money trail of the Nazi era, the missing Swiss bank accounts, the Nazi gold train, or the purloined works of art. No, his assignment--to read the annual reports of the long-defunct Office of Alien Property Custodian--had all the allure of a night spent curled up with the U.S. tax code. But as he plowed through a 1945 report detailing the assets and copyrights that the U.S. government had seized during World War II, Bendix made a startling discovery. During the war, Uncle Sam had held more than $20,000 in royalties from the sales of Adolf Hitler's odious antisemitic memoir, Mein Kampf. Bendix promptly fired off an E-mail to his boss and fellow researchers, asking, "What do you suppose actually happened to these royalties?"
No one had an answer. But with the help of documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, U.S. News has reconstructed the strange tale of Hitler's royalties in the United States, most of which has never been reported before. It turns out that the Justice Department continued to quietly receive the royalties on the American edition of Mein Kampf for 34 more years, amassing more than $139,000 by 1979. Over time, the monies were transferred into the War Claims Fund, with the royalties then paid out on a pro-rata basis to claimants, in many cases American ex-POWs.
But the story doesn't end there. In 1979, Houghton Mifflin, the American publisher of Mein Kampf, paid more than $35,000 to purchase the royalty rights back from the government. Since then, the firm has reaped hundreds of thousands of dollars from sales of the book--which, even in the 1990s, averaged about 15,000 copies a year. Questioned last week about the propriety of cashing in on Mein Kampf, Houghton Mifflin's executive vice president, Wendy Strothman, dismissed the firm's profits as modest and staunchly defended the need to keep the book in print as an unflagging reminder of Hitler's evil. But Strothman also pledged that the publisher would soon start donating the Mein Kampf proceeds to charity, as the British publisher of the book has done for decades. "Perhaps Houghton Mifflin had not realized the moral implications of what they were doing those many years," says Elan Steinberg of the World Jewish Congress. "But for obvious reasons, Mein Kampf is not a book they should be making a profit from."
Wealth for Hitler. Quite apart from the book's infamy, the royalties are controversial because they formed the basis for Hitler's personal fortune. After Hitler came to power in 1933, sales of Mein Kampf skyrocketed, making him a rich man. In Germany, where newlyweds received a copy of the book from the government, 6 million copies had been issued by 1940, and by 1942, Hitler himself boasted that Mein Kampf had the largest sales of any book in the world--apart from the Bible. By one estimate, Hitler received $1 million a year in royalty payments alone.