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Germany: Publishing Houses Look Into Their Pasts, And Don't Like What They Find

More than 50 years after the war, German publishers are beginning to examine their relations with the Nazi regime. Bertelsmann, among the world's biggest publishing houses, has admitted its connections to the Nazis and says its official history was wrong to claim that it had resisted them. Germany's second-largest publisher, the von Holtzbrinck Group, says it, too, has begun an investigation into its past. Like Bertelsmann, Holtzbrinck expanded after the war into a large international operation and now owns publishing houses in the U.S., Britain, and Switzerland.

Munich, 16 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Germany's second-largest publisher, the von Holtzbrinck Group, says it has begun an investigation into its history in the 1930s and admits that its founder, Georg von Holtzbrinck, joined the Nazi Party in 1933 -- the year Adolf Hitler came to power.

The revelations have created a minor sensation because von Holtzbrinck enjoyed a reputation after World War II as a friend of Israel who cultivated the support of Jewish leaders and gave financial and other support to many institutions in Jerusalem.

He also built his publishing house into the second largest in the country and took over other publishers in the United States, Britain, and Switzerland. The prestige enjoyed by the publishing house is illustrated by its list of authors --- ranging from Boris Pasternak to Thomas Mann, Jean-Paul Sartre, Ernest Hemingway, and Tom Wolfe.

How much von Holtzbrinck used his publishing house to support the Nazis and whether it used slave labor are among the questions being investigated. The company says the investigation is being carried out by an independent researcher who is expected to complete his work in about one year. It has declined to identify him or provide any information about his nationality or credentials.

The investigation was ordered by von Holtzbrinck's 39-year-old son, Stefan, who is now president of the company. The older von Holtzbrinck died in 1983, apparently without disclosing much about the company's activities during the Nazi era.

A company spokeswoman, Helga Konrad, said the researcher has been promised complete independence and full cooperation from the company, including access to all of its archives. "The company feels it has a responsibility to investigate the past. The researcher will have complete independence and will have total access to the company archives. The results of the investigation will be made known in a public report in about a year."

After the war, the von Holtzbrinck Group grew into Germany's second biggest publishing house, after Bertelsmann. It has five publishing houses in Germany. Its foreign properties include the Macmillan Group in England and two New York publishing houses. It also owns the St. Martin's Press, which is one of the largest trade publishers in the U.S. It also publishes the highly respected liberal German weekly "Die Zeit."

German commentators have largely refrained from speculating about what may be discovered in von Holtzbrinck's past. But some see similarities with this month's revelations about its biggest rival in Germany, the Bertelsmann publishing group. Bertelsmann acknowledged this month that it used its ties with the Nazi regime to transform itself from a provincial publisher of Lutheran religious books into a mass-market publisher.

After the war, it became one of the world's largest media empires, with a portfolio of media properties in Europe and the United States, including the Random House publishing company.

Bertelsmann acknowledged its past after a five-year examination by a historical commission that included an American historian, Saul Friedlander from the University of California at Los Angeles. The commission demolished the claim in the 1985 edition of Bertelsmann's official company history that its wartime chairman, Heinrich Mohn, was a staunch opponent of Hitler who fell into trouble by publishing banned texts. The commission discovered that, in fact, Mohn was a member of a group that supported the Nazi SS special police through monthly donations and also aided other Nazi causes. He never joined the Nazi Party, however.

The commission says Bertelsmann's fortunes were built on publishing heroic and escapist literature for Nazi soldiers. It published 1,200 books with titles such as "Bombers Over Poland" and "Day and Night Against the Enemy." More than 19 million copies of these books were printed.

The commission found no evidence that Bertelsmann used slave labor at its home plant at Gutersloh in Germany. But they said a printing house in Lithuania used for some of its publications did employ slave labor.

Bertelsmann has tried to make amends for its past. It was among more than 6,000 German companies that agreed in the year 2000 to pay a total of $4.5 billion in compensation to laborers forced to work for the Nazis.

The commission that investigated Bertelsmann's past concluded that its approach during the Nazi era was dictated mostly by commercial considerations. "Above all else," the commission said, "during the Third Reich, Bertelsmann remained a business enterprise whose publishing decisions were based on turnover, profit, investments, and other fiscal data."

Publishers have become the latest in a string of German industries that have been forced to face difficult truths about their wartime histories. Others include prominent banks and car manufacturers.

Experts say it has taken so long for German publishers to come under scrutiny because many companies are still family owned. Inquiring into the company's past necessarily means inquiring into the past of a father or grandfather and many Germans are reluctant to do that.