The Giftschrank

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
On May 8th, 1945, the Allied Powers declared victory in Europe, putting an end to the Nazi regime. President Truman addressed the nation.

Harry S. Truman:
“General Eisenhower informs me that the forces of Germany have surrendered to the United Nations. Much remains to be done.”

Sam Greenspan:
There was a lot to be done: rebuilding Europe, setting up a provisional government, and getting Germany to be less, well, Nazi-ish.

Roman Mars:
Our producer, Sam Greenspan, is just back from Deutschland.

Sam Greenspan:
And to that end, there was one thing that the Americans and the British and the French and the Russians all wanted out of Germany. It was a book.

Roman Mars:
Mein Kampf, or ‘My Struggle’, was Adolf Hitler’s fictionalized autobiography, and in it, he outlines his political ideology and plans for Germany’s future. It’s a synthesis of his hatred for Jews and other groups, and it was everywhere.

Sven Felix Kellerhoff:
The whole number of sold copies of Mein Kampf, only in Germany, at the end of the World War II was 12.45 million, and around one million copies in many, many different editions and translations in other languages.

Sam Greenspan:
This is Sven Felix Kellerhoff, a journalist and author of a book about Mein Kampf. He says that according to one survey after the war-

Sven Felix Kellerhoff:
Every fifth German, one of five, have read Mein Kampf.

Sam Greenspan:
Mein Kampf was given out to people when they joined the Nazi Party, and in some cities, the government would even give it as a wedding gift.

Sven Felix Kellerhoff:
I gift a copy to freshly married couples.

Roman Mars:
As World War II drew to a close, a lot of Germans threw away or burned their copies of Mein Kampf. No one wanted to look like a Nazi to the occupying armies.

Sam Greenspan:
Still, the Allies felt the need to ban the book.

Sven Felix Kellerhoff:
The Allies, especially the American military government, made a law in fall of ’45, which bans the Nazi Party itself and also this law banned the Mein Kampf.

Roman Mars:
Now, Mein Kampf was only banned outright for a few years. After all, the Third Reich had been infamous for censorship and banning books, and the last thing the new German republic wanted was to look like Nazis.

Sam Greenspan:
Hitler’s intellectual property, including Mein Kampf, was ultimately given to the government of Bavaria, the state in southern Germany where Hitler rose to power. And the Bavarian government decided that as the copyright owners, they would not publish any new German editions of Mein Kampf, and they would seek to limit and control who had access to the book. That way, they could make sure it was used only for scholarship and not in an attempt to revive fascism.

Roman Mars:
And it just so happened that Germany had the perfect tool for the job, something to help them deal with sensitive information that’s neither censorship nor open access: the Giftschrank.

Sven Felix Kellerhoff:
“Here it was once upon a time.”

Sam Greenspan:
“Oh, this is the room?”

Sven Felix Kellerhoff:
“Yes.”

Sam Greenspan:
“So we are in the Giftschrank.”

Sven Felix Kellerhoff:
“Yes.”

Roman Mars:
Giftschrank. “Gift” meaning poison, “schrank” meaning case or cupboard or cabinet, a “poison cabinet”, or in this case, a room in the basement of the Bavarian State Library.

Sam Greenspan:
The word Giftschrank can actually mean a few different things. In a pharmacy, it’s a place for keeping controlled substances, but one of the oldest usages of this word, going back hundreds of years, is a Giftschrank of a library, a box or place to lock away materials deemed unfit for the public.

Roman Mars:
These materials were set aside not so much to protect them from people, but to protect people from them. Little biohazard zones for information.

Sam Greenspan:
Over the course of centuries, these poison cabinets in German libraries have emptied and filled up, emptied again and filled up again, their contents speaking volumes about what German society considers dangerous at any given moment.

Stephen Kellner:
You can read the Giftschrank as a cultural history of morality of behavior.

Sam Greenspan:
That’s Stephen Kellner, a staff historian at the Bavarian State Library and author of a book about its Giftschrank.

Stephen Kellner:
The name of my book is ‘Der Giftschrank: Erotik, Sexualwissenschaft, Politik und Literatur – Die weggesperrten Bucher der Bayerischen Staatsbibliothek’.

Roman Mars:
‘The Giftschrank: Erotics, Sexuality, Politics, and Literature – Hidden Books of the Bavarian State Library’.

Stephen Kellner:
This story begins in this library shortly after the foundation in 16th century.

Sam Greenspan:
At this time in the 1580s, Bavaria was a kingdom inside of the Holy Roman Empire, which didn’t want the public reading works that they considered heretical. They put aside authors like Martin Luther and Galileo.

Stephen Kellner:
Even some Catholic authors which were not okay for the Catholic Church.

Sam Greenspan:
But while these anti-clerical writings may have been prohibited, the powers that be didn’t just round up all the copies they could find and burn them. They thought it would be good to hold onto them.

Stephen Kellner:
You have better arguments if you know what the other side thinks.

Roman Mars:
At the order of the Duke of Bavaria, the library took all the forbidden literature and put it in a locked box and called it-

Stephen Kellner:
‘Der Giftschrank’.

Roman Mars:
The ‘poison cabinet’.

Sam Greenspan:
The box contained about 500 works opposed by the Catholic Church, which were kept around only as a means of reference for those working to oppose the people who opposed the Church.

Stephen Kellner:
And they may not be used without permission of the Duke of Bavaria.

Sam Greenspan:
But over time, the Catholic Church’s grip over Europe got weaker.

Roman Mars:
By the 1800s, the Giftschranks of German libraries were less concerned with protecting us from the Protestant writings of Martin Luther and more concerned with protecting us from sex.

Sam Greenspan:
And this came to the fore when the King of Bavaria acquired a private collection of books that had belonged to a guy named von Krenner.

Stephen Kellner:
Franz von Krenner.

Roman Mars:
And the King wanted the library to house Franz von Krenner’s collection, which was an assortment of books for adults.

Stephen Kellner:
Books concerning love in all perspectives. Marquis de Sade, of course, and something about whipping and so on, which was-

Sam Greenspan:
Something about what?

Stephen Kellner:
Whipping. People who like to be whipped and… Okay.

Roman Mars:
Unwilling to throw these controversial books out and unwilling to make them readily available, librarians found a home for von Krenner’s erotica collection in the Giftschrank, and they were very serious about keeping its contents secure.

Stephen Kellner:
There were two keys, and only if they were together they could open the Giftschrank.

Sam Greenspan:
It’s like a nuclear launch.

Stephen Kellner:
Yes. (laughs) Yeah.

Sam Greenspan:
And some people believe that the books inside the Giftschrank were so dangerous that they could literally make you sick.

Stephen Kellner:
There was one librarian at the time who got crazy, Joseph Shira, and he got mentally ill, and after he was in the hospital, his friend went to his room, opened the cupboards, saw many of Krenner’s books inside, and said, “I think that must have been the reason for his illness.”

Sam Greenspan:
Time passed. Germany fought and lost World War I, and from the rubble of that defeat grew a liberal counterculture.

Roman Mars:
Dadaists proclaimed that art was dead. Expressionist films explored the darkness of the soul. Berliners passed late hours at cabarets. Nudists challenged traditional modesty.

Stephen Kellner:
Berlin in the 1920s, it was center for forms of different life experiments.

Sam Greenspan:
And at the center of all this was a physician named Magnus Hirschfeld.

Stephen Kellner:
And he founded an institute for all those people which had another sexual orientation than usual.

Roman Mars:
Hirschfeld also promoted acceptance of transgenderism, STD prevention, contraception, and women’s emancipation. He wrote that-

Voiceover:
‘The woman who needs to be liberated most is the woman in every man, and the man who needs to be liberated most is the man in every woman.’

Sam Greenspan:
But this liberal renaissance in Berlin would not last for long.

Roman Mars:
As the Nazi Party rose to power, Hirschfeld’s Institute for Sexual Sciences had become a target.

Stephen Kellner:
Magnus Hirschfeld was very famous at the time. He was gay, he was a Jew, and he was leftist.

Roman Mars:
In May of 1933, the German Student Union, a group affiliated with the Nazis, raided Magnus Hirschfeld’s institute. They threw many of his books onto the street and burned them. This was four days before Nazis all across Germany started burning books by Jewish authors in public rallies.

Sam Greenspan:
But even so, the new regime didn’t get rid of everything.

Stephen Kellner:
Bavarian State Library, they said, “We have to keep them because we have to know what the enemy writes to fight with them.”

Roman Mars:
So of course, Magnus Hirschfeld’s books went into the Giftschrank. Twelve years later, in 1945, the Nazis had lost the war, and now their own literature, including, of course, Mein Kampf, was thrown into the Giftschrank. The hope was to de-Nazify Germany and build a new society.

Sam Greenspan:
But Germany did not become a new society. It became two new societies.

Archival Tape:
“As the communist barrier between East and West Berlin grows higher and stronger, the more determined grows the will of those in the East to escape. Along the border, East Berliners are forced to evacuate their homes as the communist police move to prevent their escape.”

Roman Mars:
The two Germanies would eventually each have their own government, their own culture, and, of course, their own libraries, and the contents of each side’s Giftschrank became a mirror for what was deemed dangerous in East and West.

Sam Greenspan:
So the Nazi stuff, Mein Kampf and the writing of Joseph Goebbels and Alfred Rosenberg, this could be found in Giftschranks in both West and East Germany.

Roman Mars:
But while West Germany actually thinned out their Giftschrank over time, allowing more access to so-called pernicious information, in East Germany, it was the opposite.

Elena Demke:
East Germany was a dictatorship, so there was a very obvious and strict censorship. Western print material wasn’t normally accessible.

Sam Greenspan:
This is Elena Demke. While she was a student at university, she was looking to read some banned Czech poetry, and with the help of an idealistic professor, she was able to get access to the room where the university library kept its banned material.

Elena Demke:
Well, the nickname was Gifthome, ‘poison room’, where I remember being really nervous and excited when I went there. It’s a very big, representative 19th century building, so you have to go to the major staircase, and you go up the major staircase…

Roman Mars:
And keep going up…

Elena Demke:
Then there’s a smaller staircase, and you go up the smaller staircase…

Roman Mars:
Until you reached a spiral staircase…

Elena Demke:
You had to climb up a spiral staircase, and all of a sudden, you’re standing in front of a bunker door. It was made of iron. It had a big circular glass window made of very thick glass, and it had two huge bars, which you had to push down at the same time in order to open the door.

Roman Mars:
Past the bunker door was a dark room. A stern-looking lady checked to see if your name was on the list, then she got your book and let you go through another door.

Elena Demke:
And then you went into the small reading room, which was, strange enough, in a little glass dome, so it was a very light, very, very pleasant, sunny place.

Roman Mars:
In East Germany, the Giftschrank had become a place you could visit, and in this library at the University of Leipzig, the Giftschrank was actually a pretty lovely place to be.

Elena Demke:
Was the best reading room in the house, actually.

Sam Greenspan:
Were you trying to see what people were reading?

Elena Demke:
Of course I was.

Sam Greenspan:
Elena had been hoping to meet other counterculture types who were also there to read politically conscious literature.

Elena Demke:
I was disappointed realizing that the other people were not reading politically relevant literature, and when I saw pretty students reading fashion literature, I thought, “Okay, she chatted up her professor to get access to the poison room to read fashion magazines from the West.”

Sam Greenspan:
Within about a year of Elena visiting the poison room, the East German government had collapsed, the border was opened, and Germany was reunified. All across the former East, Giftschranks shrank. Literature critical of the East German government, magazines that showed life in a capitalist society, they were taken out from behind iron bunker doors and returned to normal circulation.

Roman Mars:
Today, the physical rooms and cabinets that once served as Giftschranks all across Germany are mostly empty, their contents returned to the regular stacks. But not everything. Today, Mein Kampf is kept in what Stephen Kellner calls-

Stephen Kellner:
A sort of virtual Giftschrank.

Roman Mars:
A virtual Giftschrank.

Sam Greenspan:
Meaning there’s no physical box or even a particular room cordoning off the books from the user.

Roman Mars:
Rather, the library relies on the infrastructure of their catalog and checkout system to create a series of checkpoints between the user and books that the library wants to keep an eye on. When you search for Mein Kampf in the database, you can’t just order it.

Sam Greenspan:
You have to go see Susi. Susi Köhlbeck was the librarian on the desk that day, and she said the first thing to do…

Susi Köhlbeck:
First, I want you to go to our chief to have the permission to lend it-

Sam Greenspan:
And as long as you don’t seem like a Nazi, you can get a copy of Mein Kampf, no problem.

Roman Mars:
The process of accessing Mein Kampf from the Bavarian State Library should feel pretty familiar to anyone who’s ever gotten material from an academic library, but if you’re underage…

Susi Köhlbeck:
Under 18, they need the signature from the parents.

Roman Mars:
Or you’re dressed like a goth…

Susi Köhlbeck:
If he has a Gothic costume, you know….

Roman Mars:
Well, good luck getting through Susi.

Sam Greenspan:
If someone says, “I want to get this book because I want to learn how to be a Nazi…”

Susi Köhlbeck:
No. No, no. Then comes a no.

Sam Greenspan:
Though if you do go through the trouble of checking out Mein Kampf, just don’t go in expecting too much.

Susi Köhlbeck:
I read it. (wishpers) It’s boring. (laughs) It’s really boring.

Roman Mars:
These days, of course, you don’t need a library to read Mein Kampf in Germany. It’s not hard to find a copy at an antiquarian bookstore, and the text has been on the internet for at least a decade.

Stephen Kellner:
Of course, you can get Nazi literature in the internet and so on.

Sam Greenspan:
But even if the book is readily available on the internet, Stephen Kellner says the library still has a responsibility to try to control who reads their copies and for what purpose.

Stephen Kellner:
Even if it’s a bit anachronistic, we have to be a little careful. Not a little. We have to be careful with this part of our library.

Sam Greenspan:
And now, for the first time since Hitler was in power, new copies of Mein Kampf are on sale in Germany.

Roman Mars:
On January 1, 2016, the copyright of Mein Kampf expired, which means this book is now in the public domain. The Institute for Contemporary History in Munich has just published a new critical edition of Mein Kampf. This edition is big, it’s heavy, it’s expensive. It’s two volumes with 1,500 pages of footnotes and commentary meant to disprove and contextualize all of Hitler’s claims.

Sam Greenspan:
There’s no way you could mistake it as anything other than serious scholarship. It makes you work through layers and layers of critique in order to get to Hitler’s writing.

Roman Mars:
It’s almost as if the publisher’s wrapped a Giftschrank around the new edition of Mein Kampf so that the world would be inoculated from its poison.

Roman Mars:
99% Invisible was produced this week by Sam Greenspan with Katie Mingle, Avery Trufelman, Delaney Hall, Kurt Kohlstedt, Sharif Youssef, and me, Roman Mars. We have so many people to thank this week, many of whom have names that I cannot pronounce, so I asked Sam to do it.

Sam Greenspan:
Thank you to Tobias Kolb, Wilhelm Hilpert and Peter Schnitzlein at the Bavarian State Library. Magnus Breschtken and Simone Paulmichl at the Center for Contemporary History in Munich. Sarah Borree, André Krebber, Romy Kunert, Luisa Beck, Pat Mesiti-Miller, Ulf Schwekendiek, Daniel Wetzel, Siegfried Lokatis , Bernd Florath, Dagmar Hovestädt, Michelle Krasowski and Jeremy Ott.

Roman Mars:
Thank you one and all.

Credits

Production

Producer Sam Greenspan traveled to Munich and Berlin, Germany, and spoke with Sven Felix Kellerhoff, author of Berlin Under the Swastika and Mein Kampf: The Career of a German Book (English edition forthcoming); Stephen Kellner, a staff historian at the Bavarian State Library, and author of The Giftschrank: erotics, sexuality, poliics and literature: Hidden books of the Bavarian State Library; Elena Demke, former student of literature in East Germany and Federal Commisioner for the Records of the State Security Service of the former German Democratic Republic; and librarian Susi Köhlbeck.

Music

“Not Yet”- Melodium
“Let Go”- Melodium
“Eye of the Beholder”- Mute Mornings
“Red Air”- OK Ikumi
“Bourree”- Michael Praetorius
“Limbs”- Melodium
“Pythagorean Theorem”- Podington Bear
“Regenwurm”- Roedelius
“As if it Would Have a Universal and Memorable Ending”- Upstream Color (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
“Qualm (Long Version)”- Melodium
“Grounds”- Poppy Ackroyd
“Grisangle”- Melodium
“Sarah”- Melodium

  1. Darin McNabb

    Fascinating story. And I so love that I didn’t see that perfect poetic ending coming. A critical edition of Mein Kampf as Giftschrank! Great job!

  2. At the beginning of the episode, Roman refers to Mein Kampf as a “fictionalized autobiography”. Why does he refer to it as fictionalized? I’m curious what parts were invented. Do you have a reference I can read?

    1. Sam here: I’ve only read parts of part of it, but Sven Felix Kellerhoff wanted me to stress that Mein Kampf is less an autobiography than it is a Bildungsroman (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bildungsroman), and a heavily fictionalized one at that. The story of the book itself is also quite fascinating, but unfortunately couldn’t fit in this story about the Giftschrank.

      If you read German, pick up a copy of Kellerhoff’s just-released “Mein Kampf: Die Karriere eines Deutschen Buches” (Mein Kampf: The Career of a German Book): https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/26857457-mein-kampf—die-karriere-eines-deutschen-buches
      The English edition is coming out later this year, I believe.

  3. Justin

    This has been happening ever since the site upgrade. Why does streaming the episode from the player automatically stop playback at 1 minute? In the case of this episode, it also stops plaback at around 3:16 in and won’t play any further.

    I just tried playing it on the Stitcher webapp as well and encountered the same problem. This is the only podcast that I listen to where I’ve experienced this, the others seem to work fine.

  4. Nate Reyher

    FYI, Mein Kampf is widely available in India, at least in bookstands in most every major train station I’ve seen in the subcontinent, which is quite a few. Always on the go at the time, I’ve never gotten around to asking why.

  5. Gab

    I found this episode very interesting. Thank you. One thing had me halt and raise my eyebrows. Why don’t they let goths read Mein Kampf in the library? I am a goth from Bavaria and I read tons. I am very interested in history. Why should the way I dress affect what I am allowed to read? This whole subculture does not have a political direction. Yes, there are military gothic types, but so are… “hippie” goth types.
    I would like to know the reason for this. I only have a guess: maybe the wide spread heavy boots seem military? The SS had black uniforms with skulls. But usually a skull on black lets me think of (romanticized) pirates first.

  6. Brian Mikolajczyk

    The Stephen Kellner link seems to be broken. Is there a English version of his The Giftschrank book?
    Is there a RSS feed, twitter feed, blog, or something that would have updates about the progress of Sven Felix Kellerhoff’s forthcoming English edition?
    Has the IfZ published an english edition of the Kritische version of Mein Kampf yet? Any feed for updates about that?
    Thanks.

  7. Michael

    Hello,
    why is there a video about the east germans fleeing the gdr? This is somewhat unrelated to the topic….

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