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Posted Monday, October 23, 2000

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On the trail of the Mein Kampf royalties

More from the government vaults

By David Whitman

On Oct. 20, 2000, Houghton Mifflin informed U.S.News & World Report that it would donate all royalties from the sales of Mein Kampf that the firm has received since 1979 to an as-yet-unspecified charity. Since 1979, Houghton Mifflin has collected about $400,000 in royalties alone from the sale of Mein Kampf. The publishing house will also donate future royalties from Mein Kampf to charity.

 Mein KampfWHEN Houghton Mifflin announced in July 1933 that it would issue an abridged edition of Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf, the decision prompted letters of protest, threats of a boycott, and even a bomb threat. Within weeks, the venerable Boston-based firm, the publisher of Longfellow, Emerson, and Twain, became the target of a protest campaign by prominent Jewish leaders, the American Jewish Committee, and other groups. Louis Rittenberg, an editor who later supervised the revision of The Universal Jewish Encyclopedia, accused Houghton Mifflin of trying "to cash in on the misery and catastrophe of an important section of the human family."

Rittenberg's reproach was one of the first attacks on Houghton Mifflin's handling of Mein Kampf, but it wasn't to be the last. As James and Patience Barnes recount in their little-known 1980 book Hitler's Mein Kampf in Britain and America, Houghton Mifflin executives were irked by the early protests, and they defended their right to publish the Führer's antisemitic autobiography, at one point going to federal court to stop a rival publisher from issuing a translation of the book. In October 1933, Roger Scaife, a director of Houghton Mifflin, sent President Roosevelt a copy of Mein Kampf with a note that confided, "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."

At the same time that Houghton Mifflin executives defended the publication of Mein Kampf to Jewish organizations, they also sought to reassure concerned representatives of the German consulate that the firm was trying to maximize book sales. To the consternation of the Germans, Houghton Mifflin had issued an edition of Mein Kampf in 1937 with a dust jacket blurb from columnist Dorothy Thompson that stated "As a liberal and democrat I deprecate every idea in this book." Houghton Mifflin, it turned out, had tried without success to find a "favorable" blurb for Hitler's book to couple with Thompson's indictment. In a letter to the lawyer for the German consulate in Boston, Houghton Mifflin executive Ira Rich Kent stated that the firm was trying "to promote the sale and distribution of the book as widely as possible."

For the last 67 years, Houghton Mifflin has continuously kept Mein Kampf in print and vigorously defended its value as a cautionary tale. Houghton Mifflin's book catalog, reprinted on its Web site, says that Mein Kampf is "considered by many to be the most satanic book ever written" but adds that it "must be read and constantly remembered as a specimen of evil demagoguery. . . . It transcends in historical importance any other book of the present generation." But that is not the whole of the Mein Kampf saga. Government files reviewed by U.S. News also suggest that Houghton Mifflin has treated Mein Kampf as a moneymaker for its publishing backlist, albeit one with small returns in any given year.

From 1942 to 1979, much of the profits from the American edition of Mein Kampf -- $139,393 in royalties alone -- went to the government's War Claims Fund to repatriate victims of World War II. But in 1966, the Justice department's Office of Alien Property Custodian approached Houghton Mifflin to ask for the first time whether the publisher wished to purchase back the royalty rights to Mein Kampf, which the government owned for the next two decades. Houghton Mifflin offerred just $15,000 for the rights, a sum less than the prior four years of royalty payments. In 1979, Houghton Mifflin took the initiative to contact the Justice Department, seeking financial relief in the form of a reduction on hardback royalties from 15 percent to 10 percent.

Rising manufacturing costs were then cutting into the publisher's profit margin and had forced Houghton Mifflin to think about raising the book's list price from $15 to $19.95, a move that the firm's executives feared might "drastically" reduce book sales. After the Justice Department rejected Houghton Mifflin's request, Austin Olney, editor-in-chief of the publisher's trade division, wrote an indignant follow-up letter saying that Houghton Mifflin would be forced to raise the hardcover price, even though doing so "seems to be flying in the face of President Carter's anti-inflationary policies." As Olney explained in a July 3, 1979, letter, "In order to maintain the 15 percent royalty . . . and still allow us a small profit on the edition, we must put the price up to $19.95."

Olney's letter arrived just when the Justice Department was closing down the Office of the Alien Property Custodian and disposing of its last remaining assets seized in World War II. The letter prompted the Justice department to once more encourage Houghton Mifflin to submit "a realistic offer" to buy back the royalty rights.

The government's new overture led Olney to commission an analysis of the projected royalties for Mein Kampf out to 1995. In an Aug. 6, 1979, memo to Olney, Mark Kelly of the firm's business department projected that royalties through 1995 would come to $37,254. For several reasons, Kelly's estimate ended up lowballing the profits that Houghton Mifflin would eventually reap; he assumed, for example, that sales of the hardback would fall to zero by 1986, and that just 238 paperback copies would sell in 1994. Nor did Kelly appear to take account of the fact that the list price of the paperback, which almost tripled from 1979 to 1995, might rise substantially.

Nevertheless, Olney wrote that Houghton Mifflin would "be very glad to consider purchasing the copyright" on Mein Kampf and offered $37,254 to forgo the royalty payments. The Justice Department accepted the firm's offer, turning the publisher's check over to the War Claims Fund, along with the last of the biannual Mein Kampf royalty checks. But the strange odyssey of the royalties had one last, curious footnote. The U.S. government, like other "authors," paid taxes to the Internal Revenue Service for the proceeds it garnered from Hitler's hymnal to hate.

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