Bertelsmann’s Nazi Past Gets Ho-Hummed in U.S.

On Dec. 14, Peter Olson, Random House Inc.’s mild-mannered chairman

and chief executive, issued a memo addressed to “everyone” at the

company, having to do with Random House’s corporate parent, German

media giant Bertelsmann A.G.

“Over the weekend,” Mr. Olson began, “published reports

raised questions about Bertelsmann’s publishing program in the

30′s and 40′s and the alleged affiliation of one of its former

senior executives with German political organizations during the Nazi

era.” He was referring to information contained in two articles, one

that appeared in October in the Swiss weekly magazine Die Weltwoche

and one that ran in December in The Nation . The accusations had been

tough: Contrary to Bertelsmann’s assertions on its Web site that

during the 1930′s and 1940′s the company had been “a

constant embarrassment to the ruling NSDAP” (Nazi Party) because it

had refused “to toe the party line,” Düsseldorf-based

journalist Hersch Fischler, author of the piece in Die Weltwoche and

co-author of article in The Nation , wrote that Bertelsmann had

published “a wide range of Hitlerian propaganda,” including

titles such as People Without Space , which whipped up

enthusiasm for Hitler’s attacks on Germany’s neighbors,

and Between the Vistula and the Volga , which claimed

Jewish people had murdered scores of Ukrainian women and children.

After Mr. Fischler published his findings, a follow-up report on

European TV station 3sat included the news that Bertelsmann, which had

begun in 1835 as a publisher of prayer books and hymnals, had published a

book called Sterilization and Euthanasia: A Contribution to Applied

Christian Ethics in 1933.

Mr. Olson was clearly concerned that Random House employees might be a

bit queasy about the unsavory facts about their new owners. (Bertelsmann

bought Random House last March for an estimated $1.4 billion.) So after

quoting a statement from Bertelsmann’s 45-year-old chairman and chief

executive Thomas Middelhoff, in which Mr. Middelhoff promised “an

independent critical review” and conceded, “During the Nazi era

there were clearly some titles published by Bertelsmann which were not

consistent with our values,” Mr. Olson listed his office phone number

and invited any Random House employee to call him personally and he would

“address any concerns” and “answer any of your

questions.”

But since then, no one has called. Random House spokesman Stuart

Applebaum told The Observer , “Neither he nor I got a single

call from authors, agents, special-interest groups–not an e-mail, not

a letter to this day.” What was Mr. Olson’s reaction? “He

said he didn’t know what to make of it,” said Mr. Applebaum.

There was also not a peep from any of the Authors Guild’s more than

7,500 members. Guild president Letty Cottin Pogrebin said she is keeping

her eye on the situation. “From what we gather, it’s absolutely

appalling that they’d choose to cover up their Nazi history, but it

isn’t so surprising given what we know about corporate interests and

the Nazi regime,” she said. “We don’t want to trust

secondhand reports–we’re waiting to see original

documentation.… Authorsdoing deals with Bertelsmann are going to have to make their own decisions.

This is 50-year-old history, but some writers have 50-year-old

memories.”

In Germany, Bertelsmann’s home turf, the reaction has also been

muted. “It was very strange to have so reputable a newspaper publish

it, and then not have it show up in our own newspapers,” said Stephan

Russ-Mohl, a professor of journalism and media management at Freie

Universität Berlin. “It’s funny how it worked so slowly,

compared to how it usually works. That wouldn’t have happened if it

were Daimler-Benz.” Asked why he thought the story took so long to

catch on in the German press, Mr. Russ-Mohl said there were a few reasons,

but he thought that “the most important is that Bertelsmann is the

most powerful media company in Germany, and the most attractive media

company, where most journalists would like to work.”

He was speaking of the fact that Bertelsmann owns six of Germany’s

newspapers, as well as one of its most popular newsmagazines, Stern .

“You think twice about saying something critical about your potential

future employer,” said Mr. Russ-Mohl.

Bertelsmann has long proclaimed itself in the pink of moral health. Its

company history, penned for its 150th anniversary in 1985, says that

Bertelsmann was forced to close in 1944 and that some senior employees were

jailed. Mr. Fischler countered that the company continued to publish, and

the arrested employees, who had been accused of black-market paper trading,

were freed after Joseph Goebbels intervened. And while the corporate

history mentions entertaining pocket editions for the armed forces such as

Memoirs of a Good-for-Nothing and The Foolhardy Mouse ,

Mr. Fischler reported that among these rousing war tales were some with

less folksy titles ( With Bombs and Machine Guns Over Poland ;

German Tanks Enter Hell ) and that Bertelsmann was the largest

supplier of books to the German army, and also supplied the SS. And where

Mr. Fischler reports that Bertelsmann founding family member Heinrich Mohn

was a “passive” member of the SS and a supporter of Hitler Youth,

the company history asserts that Mr. Mohn “concentrated mainly on the

Christian education of the young, not publishing any proponents of

‘German’ Christianity while Adolf Hitler was in power.” His

son Reinhard Mohn, a Luftwaffe soldier who was an American P.O.W. from 1943

to 1946, retains control of the company at age 77.

While Mr. Middelhoff’s statement quoted in Mr. Olson’s memo

did promise accountability, he reasserted the company line that

“Bertelsmann was not in any way an active supporter of the Nazi regime

and, in fact, for a time during World War II, the Nazi party closed down

the Bertelsmann publishing operations and jailed three of its senior

executives.”

In any case, the independent commission promised by Mr. Middelhoff is

under way. Prominent Israeli historian Saul Friedländer, author of

1997′s Nazi Germany and the Jews: The Years of Persecution,

1933-1939 (Volume 1) , told The Observer he has chosen his team:

Norbert Frei, a historian at Ruhr University in Bochum, a historian

specializing in the Nazi period; Reinhard Wittmann, a professor at the

University of Munich whose expertise is in German literature and the

history of publishing; and Trutz Rendtorff, a professor of theology at the

University of Munich. Mr. Friedländer said that Bertelsmann has

promised him full access to the company archives and complete control over

the final product and how it is publicized and published. “We are not

submitting it for their O.K.,” he said, adding, “Mr. Middelhoff

has been extraordinarily supportive.”

Farrar, Straus & Giroux is another publisher whose parent company,

the Stuttgart-based von Holtzbrinck Group, has a Nazi past. According a

June 1998 Vanity Fair article by David Margolick, company founder Georg von Holtzbrinck was a member of the Nazi Party who published

Nazi-sanctioned magazines and produced books for German soldiers. However,

the von Holtzbrinck heirs have not tried to do damage control.

Farrar publisher Roger Straus said the issue of publishers with Nazi

pasts was not a simple one. “When you’re manufacturing

propaganda, you could do considerable harm. When you’re manufacturing

airplane engines, you do a different kind of harm,” said Mr. Straus.

“There seems to be some conversation about who lied when and about

what. In all fairness, the [Bertelsmann] managers are very concerned. At

least they’re making the right noises. The interesting thing to find

out is, Is there any publisher in Germany that went through the Hitler

period and survived and came out clean?”

New Press director André Schiffrin asked the same question.

“Company histories are company histories,” he said.

“What’s needed is an objective look at German publishing, like

they have in France.” (France has a comprehensive overview titled

French Publishing During the Occupation .)

Andrea Heyde, project director at the German Book Office on Fifth

Avenue, whose mission is to get more German authors read stateside, said,

“German publishers should face their past, and not just when

they’re forced to. If it’s a factory, it’s one thing. But

these are people who work with the written word.”

The U.S. publishing community’s reaction to the Bertelsmann

findings may simply be a case of sanguine acceptance that corporations are

hardly receptacles of virtue. “If you and I had a nickel for every

company that’s spun the truth, we’d have a home in every

fashionable resort town in the universe and a Gulfstream V to get us from

one to the other,” said a von Holtzbrinck Group employee. “How

could this possibly come as a surprise? Any company that came through the

war would have to have had some dealing with the Nazis. Georg von

Holtzbrinck was a really smart businessman who knew he had to get in bed

with the Nazis to stay in business. He practiced Realpolitik .”

Since World War II, Bertelsmann has been an assiduous supporter of

humanitarian organizations and causes. The company recently received the

International Humanitarian Award from the World Union for Progressive

Judaism for promoting understanding between Jews and non-Jews. Several

weeks ago, Bertelsmann announced a major donation–500,000 Deutsche

marks–to help Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Visual

History Foundation establish a presence in Berlin.

As for the people who ostensibly matter most in

publishing–authors–there has been no outcry as yet. Farrar author

Grace Paley said, “I feel very far from Holtzbrinck, I have no

feelings about my relation to them at all. It was what was happening in

Germany, and everyone with money thought they could get away with it.”

Ms. Paley was speaking from her home in Thetford, Vt. “Everything I

see in this house is made by an innocent person that’s owned by some

bad person, or by some greedy corporation or some corporation that tries to

sell us the idea that it’s innocent.”

Gore Vidal, a Random House and Modern Library author, hadn’t heard

anything about the dust-up at his home in Ravello, Italy. “The only

thing that disturbs me is that they were publishing Christian

hymnals,” he quipped. “I’m anti-Christian.”

The silence comes with its own irony. “I’m kind of surprised

there hasn’t been a reaction,” said one New York-based scout.

“What’s funny about it is that books on the Holocaust continue to

do so well.” She mentioned three books that sold in December alone:

A Life in Pieces , by Blake Eskin, sold to W.W. Norton; The

Borders of Time , by Leslie Maitland, which sold to Houghton Mifflin;

and Witness: Voices From the Holocaust , edited by Joshua Greene and Shiva Kumar, sold to the Free Press. And last

spring, William Morrow’s Rob Weisbach Books paid about $500,000 for

The Nazi Officer’s Wife , by Edith Hahn.

Mr. Schiffrin thought that when it comes to Bertelsmann, it’s a

size thing. “Does a 1,000-pound gorilla have more trouble sitting down

because it was a Nazi?” he said. “They’re very big.

They’re very powerful. People are careful about criticizing what is by

now the biggest firm in American publishing.”

“What’s most dismaying is that [Bertelsmann] now owns so much

of American publishing. I think it’s bad for American publishers to be

in the hands of foreign conglomerates in any case, but in this case

it’s particularly lamentable,” said Jonathan Brent, editorial

director of Yale University Press. He mentioned Random House Inc. imprint

Schocken Books, founded in Berlin in 1933 and shut down in November 1938 in

the wake of Kristallnacht. “Schocken is a publisher that truly was

persecuted by the Nazis, and now to be owned by a publishing company that

collaborated with the Nazis is rather a horrible thing to

contemplate.”

Schocken publisher Arthur Samuelson said of the independent commission,

“I think Bertelsmann is going about this the right way.”

Mr. Brent remained skeptical. “I would hate to know what would

happen if one of these conglomerates became part of a tyrannical foreign

power,” he said. “What if 40 percent of the American publishing

had been owned by German firms in 1932? Things like this happen and happen

and happen and happen. We can’t somehow be free of the past. We think

it’s over and then it’s not over.”

You can reach the Publishing column at

emanus@observer.com.