Amazon.com, the Internet bookseller, said yesterday it will no longer ship Adolf Hitler's manifesto "Mein Kampf" to buyers in Germany. The shift in policy followed a complaint by the Simon Wiesenthal Center and an inquiry by German authorities as to whether the shipments might violate German law.
Amazon had been sending English translations of the book to buyers in Germany, but not copies in the original German. Over the summer, quantities reached levels high enough to put the title on a top-10 list for German buyers that the company's computers generate and display on its Web site.
"It's absolutely crystal clear that the German-language version is banned in Germany," said Amazon.com spokesman Bill Curry. "It is not legally definitely clear to us what the status of the English version is. So to ensure that we're in compliance with the laws of a democratically run nation, we are not selling 'Mein Kampf' into Germany from Amazon.com."
Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Wiesenthal Center, which tracks Nazi war criminals and hate groups in general, welcomed the decision. "It's a significant victory," he said. ". . . It is very important that a leading online company like Amazon.com would make that commitment."
Amazon.com's main online competitor in the United States, Barnesandnoble.com, has also sold the book to buyers in Germany and will continue to do so for now. "Our position on it hasn't changed," said Mary Ellen Keating, spokeswoman for Barnes & Noble Inc., part owner of the site. "Our lawyers are reviewing and researching what the law in Germany is."
The Wiesenthal center also complained that people who buy "Mein Kampf" may received follow-up e-mail from Amazon.com, stating that if they liked "Mein Kampf," they might also like to order a book by the late American Nazi leader George Lincoln Rockwell as well.
Amazon said that only a small number of its customers receive such follow-up mail and that it is generated by computer. In the case of "Mein Kampf," Curry said, the practice will be discontinued.
The "Mein Kampf" controversy highlights how the electronic economy is crossing national borders and sometimes clashing with laws and customs of foreign countries.
"Just by virtue of the fact that you can do something technologically--is that its own justification?" asked Cooper. He said it is not justification and in cases like this companies should restrain themselves.
Cooper had spoken on the phone to Amazon.com chief executive Jeff Bezos to urge him to stop selling the book to German customers.
Earlier, Amazon.com had said it believed that shipping English versions of the book did not violate German law, and that in addition the company did not want to regulate what people anywhere can read.
Amazon.com already has a policy of not selling the book from its German-based Web site; the question had arisen concerning orders placed over the Internet with the company's operations in the United States and Britain for shipment to Germany.
The controversy began after the Wiesenthal Center became aware of the traffic and from Germany ordered copies of the book from Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com for delivery there.
German law strictly restricts the activities and speech of Nazis and other hate groups. As a result of the laws, German bookstores do not sell "Mein Kampf."
After receiving the books in Germany, the Wiesenthal center complained to the German government, alleging that the shipments violate German hate law. The government began an investigation but has made no announcement of a finding one way or the other.
Curry said Amazon had not heard from the German government about the issue but had reached its new position after its own consultations.
By some analyses, it is legal in Germany to sell "Mein Kampf" in annotated form--that is, as a historical document with scholarly comment. Asked if Amazon.com would sell the book to Germans in that form, Curry said, "We haven't crossed that bridge."