History is one of our most powerful tools when it comes to learning about and understanding one another. It is living and breathing, shaping the way we interact with and process the world.
There are extremely painful chapters in humanity’s story. There are artifacts that remain so heavy to carry, so difficult to comprehend, that we may wish to expel them from our collective memory.
Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf’’ is one of those artifacts.
Earlier this year, an annotated edition of the autobiography was published in Germany for the first time since 1945; the Bavarian government had previously held the copyright and simultaneously banned publication.
Since 1933, Houghton Mifflin (now Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) has held the US publishing rights, and has kept the work in print. The decision to continue printing and disseminating “Mein Kampf’’ has not been without deep consideration, protest, or critique. And the debate is an important one. In making Hitler’s autobiographical account, rooted in racism and extremist ideology, available and accessible, do we ensure that we learn from the ugliness of the past, or do we run the risk of inspiring hate? Do we offend, or do we find strength in remembrance?
Sadly, we cannot be naïve when it comes to history’s lessons; our world remains complex and often volatile. From global conflict to national political discourse to bullying in our schools, the narratives we develop, that we write and speak, have wide-reaching impact. Words matter. They are so influential, in fact, that they simultaneously hold the power to oppress and to liberate, to express love and to fuel hate. They also grant us the means to educate, to communicate, and to connect with one another.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, as a learning company first and foremost, remains steadfast in our belief that the value in making “Mein Kampf’’ accessible lies in its potential for ongoing education and awareness. As an artifact, the book challenges us to deepen dialogue and to examine the contemporary sociocultural and political landscape in which we live.
In an introduction to the work in 1998, Abraham Foxman, then national director of the Anti-Defamation League, and a Holocaust survivor, tackled these important issues, writing “we preserve ‘Mein Kampf’ in [the] spirit of remembering; we study it in the hope of securing a brighter future for humanity.”
We believe that institutions and individuals have a shared responsibility to contribute to the brighter future Foxman writes about. We also believe that no entity should profit financially from the sale of “Mein Kampf.’’ This is why we donate all royalties and profits from the book.
This hope of securing a brighter future is also why we have decided to expand the reach of these funds to organizations that help shape the wider cultural and societal dialogue here in Boston and beyond. Our goal is to support programmatic efforts that will facilitate conversations, education, and increased awareness around issues of bias and intolerance. By partnering with organizations that have a wide reach, that serve our communities and our visitors, we aim to touch more individuals, spark meaningful discussion, and highlight how essential cross-cultural exchange, understanding, and community are in combating discrimination and hatred.
Yes, we can acknowledge that the study of “Mein Kampf’’ offers historical perspective, but we must also understand that the book is an ugly, concrete symbol of extremism and terror. Historical narrative eschews easy definitions and classifications. And perhaps because of its complexity, we owe ourselves a closer look at the way the past informs the future, at the patterns of ideology we see around us, and at the ways in which the stories we share with our community shape public opinion.
We — civic leaders, businesses, cultural institutions, individuals — owe one another the opportunity to ensure today’s narrative is one that is rooted in the goodness of humanity and embraces diversity. We have the power to write this story together, here in our city and beyond, to share it with classmates and family members, to learn from and care for one another, and ultimately to cultivate a “brighter future.” Our words matter, and it is our responsibility to choose the right ones.
Linda K. Zecher is president and chief executive officer of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.