Hitler Theatre Project: "You don’t need to read ‘Mein Kampf’ to set fire to a refugee camp”

Von Anke Dürr

08.01.2016 / SPIEGEL ONLINE


About the group

The theater group Rimini Protokoll is made up of the directors Helgard Haug, 46, Stefan Kaegi, 43, and Daniel Wetzel, 46. With their playful brand of documentary theatre – also referred to as “investigative theatre” of late – they have permanently changed the face of German theatre. Onstage, there are no actors, but rather so-called “everyday experts” playing themselves; the perspectives on a theme are always personal. Wetzel and Haug consolidate the stories and anecdotes into a piece during the rehearsal process, but not before. Their performances, interactive installations and productions in public space have won many awards, as have their pieces for radio.
The members of Rimini Protokoll studied together at the Institute for Applied Theater Studies in Gießen in the 90s. They work on projects together, in pairs, and alone. “Mein Kampf” (“My Struggle”) was developed by Haug and Wetzel with the dramatic advisor Sebastian Brünger and the performers themselves. The production premiered in Weimar in September.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Ms Haug, Mr Wetzel, where did the idea come from to give “Mein Kampf” the leading role in your current theatre project?
Haug: More than anything, we were interested in how the book has been handled since 1945: How do you treat a book that is not only a book, but also a symbol for an era and a set of beliefs – and then you want to get rid of it? The occasion, of course, was that it entered the public domain this year; the copyright laws expire seventy years after the author’s death, and now pretty much anyone can print it.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: So you were aiming to demystify “Mein Kampf”?

Haug: Yes. The aim was to remove the book’s power by opening it up and exploring it without a preformed opinion that we could hide behind. We had to admit that we had no experience with the book, we don’t know how it works or what danger it actually could give rise to. You can always say “naughty, naughty”.

Wetzel: Of course, we also had our qualms about being in close contact with it. That already started when we were typing the subject line for our emails: are we allowed to write ‘Mein Kampf’ now? For a while we were calling it ‘Kämpfle’ (‘little struggle’) or ‘MK’. But in the end we could even sit on the train and talk about ‘Mein Kampf’ normally.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: But the ‘Brown Bible’ will never be just a regular book, will it?

Wetzel: That’s not the point, either. Our piece is a contribution to the question: How do we deal with National Socialism in Germany? The expiration of the pro-forma ban by copyright law will be the litmus test: How will society deal with it? And then the larger question that always comes up when censorship is being discussed: How much impact does a book have? How does society respond to a text? Where is the self-confidence?

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You don’t consider the book dangerous, then?

Haug: You don’t need to read “Mein Kampf” to set fire to a refugee camp and publically incite people to hatred; it would be a mistake to believe that you did. If you ask experts on right-wing extremists where in the book neo-Nazis might find something, they’ll tell you that it isn’t the antisemitic sections or the ‘People and Race’ parts – there are other, accessible books where those are much more extreme. No, it’s the sections that question or mock democracy and parliamentarianism. These can actually be very dangerous. It’s important to study the notions and the vernacular carefully and to stay sensitised to them. When Pegida stirs up hatred about the ‘lying press’, it’s not all that far off from the “rag press” and “gutter and trash press” in “Mein Kampf”.

Wetzel: I also find the arguments that Thilo Sarrazin used there. Certainly, it’s interesting that it seems so familiar, but that’s exactly why I don’t need to read “Mein Kampf” – unless I want to refer to something specifically. There is this myth that even just looking in the book will infect you immediately. It’s related to biologistic thinking, and perhaps the worry is warranted. But not everyone who reads “Mein Kampf” will become a Nazi; the same way that not everyone who plays Egoshooter will become an assassin, but rather the other way round: maybe would-be assassins play Egoshooter games.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: It’s also improbable that people will find Hitler’s 800-page book impossible to put down, because it’s allegedly miserably written and practically impossible to read. Was that your experience?
Wetzel: Reading the text is difficult. You constantly have to force yourself to go on – but finding your orientation in it is very easy: there is an exhaustive index and there is an overview on every page. Strangely enough, of the people we spoke to, mainly the men had found it muddled and unreadable. Then there were two women who said: No, “Mein Kampf” is not difficult to understand, and its messages are anything but confusing. One of them is the lawyer Sibylla Flügge, who is also one of our onstage experts. She talks about how she read and summarised the book when she was 14. She says that “Mein Kampf” is not a book that seduces, but rather a book for seducers. It is a plea for hate as a means, confusingly enough.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What do you think: Will “Mein Kampf” make it to the German bestseller list?

Wetzel: Never. Like other historical trash that is sold without restriction – Hitler’s speeches, Goebbel’s speeches and so on – it will prove its own irrelevance. But that is not the point. The book has always been there! Available to everyone who wanted to read it. Looking away doesn’t help. Looking directly at it and giving clear answers has always been a better strategy.

Haug: What’s more interesting is the question of how courts will determine whether the book incites hatred. Until now there has been no highest court decision regarding “Mein Kampf” and the incitement of hatred. There have been individual cases, where for example an appalled citizen reported someone for selling “Mein Kampf” at a flea market. These have been dismissed on the grounds that the book was pre-constitutional: since it already existed before the German constitution, it cannot infringe upon it.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What is your reaction when you see “Adolf Hitler Mein Kampf” in lights over the entrance to the Berliner Hau Theatre?
Wetzel: Well, we’re giving the book a stage. The dilemma remains. But it isn’t ours – it is a societal dilemma, and looking at it straight on is a societal responsibility.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You have already premiered in other cities. How did the audience react?

Wetzel: The performances have been received very benevolently, and with interest – there have been some complaints, usually in the reviews, that it should have been more provocative. In the context, I don’t understand it at all, but in a way I do. We’re excited about the performances in April in Athens, where the crimes of Germany are still very present in people’s memory.


Translation by Justina Bartoli


Adolf Hitler: Mein Kampf, Band 1 & 2