What do you do with the devil’s lucre?
That’s the question Boston-based publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has been grappling with for more than 80 years, as it has quietly disbursed the royalties and profits from “Mein Kampf,” the infamous screed Adolf Hitler composed while in prison following the failed beer hall putsch of 1923.
For the past 16 years, the publisher, which first printed the book in the United States in 1933, has addressed the question by donating hundreds of thousands of dollars in proceeds from its sale to groups such as the Anti-Defamation League, the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, and Facing History and Ourselves — specialized organizations that have used the funds as a sort of direct moral equalizer, putting them toward Holocaust education or programs that combat anti-Semitism.
Recently, however, the company has quietly decided to change course, shifting its grant-making focus from programs explicitly related to Holocaust awareness and Jewish education to those that promote tolerance more generally. This delicate pivot has become even more complicated locally, as the publishing house has sought to focus the book’s proceeds in Boston, inviting a handful of area institutions to propose projects for funding. At least one — Boston Children’s Museum — has said no, discomfited by the Hitler connection.
“It just did not feel in the end like a good fit,” said Carole Charnow, the museum’s president and CEO. “This was not a rational decision.”
For Houghton Mifflin, the shift in approach is a bid to diversify and deepen the effect of the book proceeds, doing good from the legacy of evil.
“Our goal was to just go a little bigger and broader with organizations that were working within the public sphere at large,” said Andrew Russell, director of corporate social responsibility for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. “We felt like we had the opportunity to make a broader impact here in Boston.”
The shift to more general antidiscrimination projects has caused concern among some Jewish leaders, who say the funds, given the author’s epochal crimes against humanity, should be devoted to the issue of genocide.
“Holocaust education and Holocaust awareness should be at the top of the list for these profits,” said Robert Trestan, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s New England regional office. “Number two would be anti-bias education.”
Trestan, who said his group received a three-year, $100,000 grant in 2001 from the publishing house, said he was unaware of the firm’s shift in focus until he was contacted by a reporter.
“There are millions of nonprofits in the US,” he said. “There are thousands in Massachusetts. That shouldn’t automatically qualify you for the use of these funds.”
Russell declined to say how many grants the publisher planned to give in this latest round. He also declined to give a dollar amount for the grants. He stressed, however, that the company’s new focus was neither permanent nor exclusive.
“We feel that giving funds to cultural and educational organizations that reach a broad audience can effectively influence the way our society tackles issues of cultural awareness, bias, and discrimination,” Russell said. “It is also important to note that we are not ruling out funding programs that address Holocaust education or combat anti-Semitism, but again, [we are] looking to partner with organizations on programs that can facilitate a larger conversation.”
That larger conversation hasn’t always gone smoothly, as some area cultural leaders have struggled with how — and whether — they can accept profits from a book many view as a blueprint for the methodical slaughter of about 6 million Jews.
Russell declined to say which organizations the publisher has approached — “less than 10 is probably fair.” Only Boston Children’s Museum has so far declined.
Charnow, the museum president, said that after the publisher first broached the idea last summer, the museum was inclined to pursue the funds, going so far as to develop a successful proposal for “Our City,” a media-rich exhibit meant to celebrate the city’s diverse cultural heritage while also tackling issues like bullying and tolerance. As the process continued, however, she had second thoughts about using funds so closely associated with the systematic genocide of Jews during World War II.
“I felt in the end that placing the consequences of this book in such close proximity to the Children’s Museum — with the care of this vulnerable population — I felt personally that this was not the right fit,” said Charnow, who added that the grant offer was “not so small that it was easy” to reject.
Other groups have proved more willing. The Brookline-based Facing History and Ourselves, which creates education modules for use in schools, had previously received $200,000 in proceeds from the book to revamp “Holocaust and Human Behavior,” its core case study. Last summer, the organization submitted another proposal, for a new $150,000 grant, but was turned down.
“It laid out many of the priorities that Houghton Mifflin wanted to hit: far-reaching impact, broadening beyond the Holocaust to other sorts of civil rights,” said Roger Brooks, president and chief executive of Facing History and Ourselves. “We were told at that time we were one of three finalists. . . . We would have loved to have gotten the grant.”
Meanwhile, the Museum of Fine Arts has been circumspect since the publisher first invited it to propose a project last summer. One year later, the museum has yet to submit a proposal.
“We are thinking about the kind of project that might be appropriate, given the funding source,” Karen Frascona, director of public relations for the MFA, said via e-mail. “No decisions have been made yet.”
Although Russell declined to place a dollar value on the controversial grants, a person with knowledge of Houghton Mifflin’s grantmaking practices said that in years past about $60,000 has come into the fund annually. Accrual of those funds resulted in some sizeable grants, including the $200,000 it gave to Facing History in 2012 and the $100,000 it gave to the ADL over three years.
Russell said the grants stand apart from the publisher’s more traditional charitable giving programs; last year, the publisher donated $238,000 in cash and some $87 million worth of books. He said he understands why some recoil from accepting grants derived from “Mein Kampf” sales.
“I really can’t be surprised by anyone’s decision to not accept those funds,” he said. “That book was used to propagate the near-extermination of an entire race of people.”
The current Boston episode is but the latest chapter in Houghton Mifflin’s singular and often controversial relationship with “Mein Kampf” (“My Struggle”), a version of which the firm has published continuously since 1933, the year Hitler was first appointed chancellor of Germany.
In those early years, the publisher was assailed by Jewish leaders, with one editorial accusing the company of trying “to cash in on the misery and catastrophe of an important section of the human family.”
Such criticisms drew the ire of at least one Houghton Mifflin official, who sent a copy of the book to president Franklin D. Roosevelt with a note that stated, in part, “We have had no end of trouble over the book — protests from the Jews by the hundreds, and not all of them from the common run of shad.”
Before the war, Houghton Mifflin sent royalties directly to Hitler’s German publisher, Eher Verlag. The book soon became a best-seller in Germany, where the government purchased copies to give as gifts to newlyweds. By 1939, it had been translated into at least 11 languages and had sold about 5.2 million copies, laying the foundation of Hitler’s vast personal fortune.
Following the outbreak of World War II, the United States seized domestic royalties from the book by invoking the Trading with the Enemy Act. Proceeds from US sales were funneled to the Justice Department, which eventually transferred them to the War Claims Fund to help refugees and prisoners of war.
Meanwhile, Houghton Mifflin guarded and developed its asset, commissioning a full translation in 1943, advertising the book in newspapers, and suing rival publishers to protect its copyright.
After the war’s end, the German copyright eventually transferred to the German state of Bavaria, which blocked its publication in Germany until earlier this year, when the copyright expired.
The book’s US publisher, on the other hand, continued to publish “Mein Kampf” after the war. Sales figures are hard to come by, but the Justice Department received a reported $139,000 in royalties between the outset of the war and 1979, when Houghton Mifflin purchased the royalty rights back from the government for about $37,000.
The publishing house kept the royalties and profits from the book from 1979 until 2000, when US News & World Report revealed Houghton Mifflin’s arrangement, and the company announced it would begin donating the profits to charity.
According to that report, the firm probably made between $300,000 and $700,000 in profits and royalties in the years before the practice was exposed.
“We can’t speak for the specific decisions made by the company generations ago,” said Russell, who noted that the publishing house retroactively donated the book's proceeds from those years. “We believe that the decisions made in recent history are in line with the mission and values of our company.”
Citing company policy, Russell declined to disclose how much money “Mein Kampf” has generated since 1979. He also declined to discuss how many copies of the book have been sold.
According to one industry database, however, Houghton Mifflin has sold about 350,000 copies in hardback and trade paperback since 1998, the year the current version was first published. The same database shows the company has sold more than 6,000 copies of the trade paperback this year.
Ebook sales are similarly robust, with one version (not published by Houghton Mifflin) ranking at No. 10 last week in the “Politics and Current Events” list on the iTunes store. Sales have spiked abroad as well. “Mein Kampf” was a bestseller in Turkey in 2005, and reached No. 2 in Germany when it first returned to print earlier this year. Pirated versions have also proliferated online — many available for free or for a nominal charge — a copyright infringement that Russell said Houghton Mifflin is “not interested” in trying to prevent.
The ADL’s Trestan said that while the book’s continued popularity concerned him, it was important that “Mein Kampf” remain available and be presented in the right context.
“It serves a historical purpose,” he said. “We need to acknowledge the victims of the Holocaust, but we also need to use it as a way to ensure that humanity never repeats the mistakes of the people who were inspired by this book.”
Similarly, although Charnow wants nothing to do with the book’s profits, she says she supports Houghton Mifflin’s efforts.
She added: “To essentially right the wrongs of the book and convert its negative intent to good by supporting efforts to promote racial and religious tolerance — it’s a beautiful vision.”Malcolm Gay can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @malcolmgay.