Money from a Madman
Houghton Mifflin's Mein Kampf profits
In the United States, the Trading with the Enemy Act empowered the government to seize and control enemy properties that might be used in the war, and the Mein Kampf royalties were among the first such assets vested. But with the infamous came the innocent. During the war and its aftermath, the U.S. government confiscated or held the royalties of hundreds of foreign authors, songwriters, and filmmakers. Payments for Nazi official Joseph Goebbels's diary were retained, but so were the royalties of poet Rainer Maria Rilke and novelist Marcel Proust, and the proceeds for the Babar children's series.
After the war ended, the Office of Alien Property Custodian began returning copyrights to authors and artists who had not been hostile to the United States. No one, however, seemed sure what to do about Mein Kampf. The Saturday Evening Post suggested in a 1947 editorial that letting the royalties "disappear unmarked and unnoticed would be like using Attila's spear for a clothespole." The following year, the War Claims Fund was established, but the return or liquidation of seized assets proceeded slowly. In 1962, an impatient Congress required the Justice Department to return any remaining copyright interests--excepting the works of a handful of high-ranking Nazi officials, including Mein Kampf.
A slew of nations--Sweden, Norway, Switzerland, and Hungary among them--have banned sales of Mein Kampf. But in the United States, Houghton Mifflin has kept the book in print since 1933. In April 1979, Austin Olney, then editor in chief of Houghton Mifflin's trade division, wrote the Justice Department asking that it lower the hardback royalty from 15 percent to 10 percent, allowing the firm to maintain Mein Kampf's list price and sales but cover rising manufacturing costs. "Sales in our hardcover edition which have been running at a rate of 1,500 a year have provided a useful return for us as well as for you," Olney reminded the government. The Justice Department rejected Olney's request but soon came back with a proposal of its own--did Houghton Mifflin want to buy the royalty rights back? On Oct. 1, 1979, Houghton Mifflin agreed to pay the attorney general $37,254 to end the firm's payments to the government.
Vital testimony. It's hard to say how much Houghton Mifflin has made from Mein Kampf. The publisher wouldn't give sales figures from the 1980s, but in the late '70s and '90s it sold about 15,000 copies a year, so it has probably sold about 300,000 in the past 20 years. Indus- try sources say that after subtracting Houghton Mifflin's costs and bookseller discounts, the publisher probably netted, on average, $1 to $2.50 a book, or $300,000 to $700,000 since 1979. In Houghton Mifflin's defense, Strothman says that's not much money to a big publisher. "We're not publishing the book to get rich," she says. Strothman believes it's vital that Mein Kampf stay in print because "there is no stronger argument against people who would deny the Holocaust." She notes the firm has also kept Winston Churchill's memoirs in print for decades.
Houghton Mifflin may have to donate the Mein Kampf profits anonymously, since some charities would be reluctant to take income derived from Hitler's poisonous polemic. Strothman has yet to decide whether to donate the publisher's proceeds from earlier years as well. But there is a precedent of sorts. From 1939 to 1942, Houghton Mifflin leased its rights to Reynal & Hitchcock, which published the first unabridged U.S. edition of Mein Kampf and donated the profits to the Children's Crusade, a group that aided refugee children. And by coincidence, Random House, whose United Kingdom division holds the British rights to Mein Kampf, announced last week it was donating $1 million to the Holocaust Survivors' Memoirs Project. It might be fitting if Hitler's royalties were used to help the Jews, Gypsies, and other persecuted groups that Hitler so hated and tried to destroy.