BLINDLY FOLLOWING DER FÜHRER: A BIZARRE WOLFSONIAN ARTIFACT TO COMMEMORATE WORLD BRAILLE DAY

As today marks the 205th anniversary of the birth of Louis Braille (Jan. 4, 1809-Jan. 6, 1852) and the official celebration of World Braille Day, I scoured our library in an attempt to find some book in our collection appropriate for the occasion. But anyone who has had the opportunity to peruse the Wolfsonian museum’s online databases knows that while it is easy to find some extraordinarily rare artifact in the collection, the provocative nature of our propaganda holdings often makes that selection process a delicate matter.

And so as I struggled to find some tome that would recognize Braille’s contributions to helping the visually impaired people to read and write, I came across an ironic item in our collection and thought I might try to shed some light on one of the most bizarre contradictions of twentieth-century history: the publication by the National Socialists of a braille version of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf (My Struggle).

TD1988.107.15_000

MITCHELL WOLFSON, JR. COLLECTION

Hitler originally dictated the text of his now infamous Mein Kampf to Rudolf Hess and other of his fellow inmates between 1924 and 1925 while he was serving a sentence in the Landsberg am Lech prison for his involvement in a failed “Beer Hall Putsch” (or attempted coup).

XC2010_11_1_010

GIFT OF MARTIJN F. LE COUTRE

Hitler’s original title, Four and a Half Years of Struggle against Lies, Stupidity, and Cowardice, is far more revealing of his frustrations, attitudes, and temperament.  Edited and amended by his entourage, the first volume of Mein Kampf was published in July 1925. The first couple of printings were not very successful, and it was only in 1930 (when his National Socialist party won enough votes in the elections to become the second-largest party in parliament) that the work became a “best-seller” in Germany. When Hitler was appointed chancellor in January 1933, the book was assured a receptive market; by 1936 it was regularly given as wedding gifts for German couples, and by 1945 an estimated 10 million were sold in Germany—roughly two copies for every household! But copies in braille? True, I’d always assumed you had to be blind to follow Hitler blindly!

XC2010_11_1_023

GIFT OF MARTIJN F. LE COUTRE

Our own extraordinarily rare six volume set of Mein Kampf in braille was based on the Franz Eher Nachfolger Munich edition, and was published and printed in Marburg by the Blindenhochschulbücherei in 1933, the year of Hitler’s rise to power. So how does one explain the publication of a braille book in Germany under the leadership of a dictator we all know to have been diabolically determined to eliminate persons the Führer deemed to be “defectives”?

TD1988.107.15_000b

MITCHELL WOLFSON, JR. COLLECTION

There appear to me to be several plausible explanations. Firstly, it is possible that the book was published by advocates for the blind to curry favor with the newly installed chancellor, before he consolidated power and showed his true nature. Secondly, it is possible that Hitler and the National Socialist Party promoted the publication of the braille book to demonstrate the “Socialist” credentials of the Nazi Party, just as the Winter Relief programs attempted to do.

TD1988.107.15_000d

MITCHELL WOLFSON, JR. COLLECTION

My own personal theory, however, is that the seeming contradiction can be resolved by knowing something about Hitler’s personal history. Hitler had enthusiastically enlisted to fight in the Great War in 1914. As the First World War drew to a close, in October 1918 Hitler was temporarily blinded during a mustard gas attack and was hospitalized in Pasewalk, Germany. While recovering in that hospital, Hitler learned about the armistice and Germany’s capitulation and, by his own account, suffered a second bout of blindness. The braille version of Mein Kampf may very well have been published, not for the benefit of those with birth “defects,” but for WWI veterans who had permanently lost their sight in glorious service to the state.

TD1988.107.15_001

MITCHELL WOLFSON, JR. COLLECTION

Regardless of the motives behind the publication in braille of the Nazi leader’s infamous political tract, few of the original editions have survived. The Third Reich Collection at the Library of Congress includes a braille copy of Mein Kampf among its miscellany of books, albums, and printed materials. The items originally came from the Reichskanzlei Library in Berlin and from a cache of books from the private libraries of prominent Nazis that had been moved to and hidden (alongside other looted artwork) in a salt mine near Berchtesgaden during the final stages of the battle for Berlin at the end of the Second World War. A new film co-written and directed by George Clooney has just been released based on the true story of the so-called Monuments Men, a U.S. platoon tasked with recovering art pilfered by the Nazis and marked for destruction should the Third Reich fall.

~ by "The Chief" on January 4, 2014.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

 
%d bloggers like this: