by Pat Holt

book Friday, January 28, 2000:




Recently a group of historians issued a report that appears to settle the question of what will be the "official" history of the German conglomerate Bertelsmann, the third largest publisher in the world and owner of American book publishers Random House and Bantam Doubleday Dell.

This group of four scholars, headed by UCLA historian Saul Friedlander, was appointed by Bertelsmann in response to an article about "Bertelsmann's Nazi Past" that appeared in The Nation magazine in December of 1998. There Hersch Fischler and John Friedman disputed Bertelmann's contention that the company bravely resisted the Third Reich during World War II and was closed down by the Nazis.

Instead, "the facts are that Bertelsmann cooperated with the [Nazi] regime," Fischler and Friedman wrote, "publishing a wide range of Hitlerian propaganda." They also portrayed Bertelsmann leader Heinrich Mohn as a member of the SS and described Bertelsmann titles that were "patently anti-Semitic works" supportive of Brownshirts, Hitler's pro-expansionist attacks on neighboring countries and Goebbels' propaganda ministry.

Bertelsmann reacted as though stunned by the accusations and appointed the Friedlander committee, which it now calls the "Independent Historical Commission," to investigate the company's history.

The group's first report, issued last week, concludes that Bertelsmann did not resist the Third Reich but instead thrived during World War II by producing Nazi propaganda for the military.

Publishing more than a fourth of the 75 million copies of Wehrmacht-edition books approved by the Propaganda Ministry, Bertelsmann increased its earnings by a factor of 11 from 1938 to 1941. "No other press so extensively furnished the German soldiers with reading matter," the report notes.

The report also concludes that Bertelsmann was closed in 1944 not because it took a political stand against the Third Reich but because it was no longer considered important for the war effort. As for Heinrich Mohn, the Friedlander commission states that this fourth-generation Bertelsmann chief was not technically a member of the SS but rather part of the little-known "SS sponsors circle" that contributed money to the SS every month.

Fischler and Friedman will undoubtedly respond to these conclusions, but for now readers are left with the kind of sticky perception that runs through the mind whenever a company gets caught in the midst of - well, some would call it a "fabrication" while Bertelsmann itself appears to see it is a misunderstanding or innocent inaccuracy.

"We regret that [the commission's finding] was unknown to us before and that our corporate history has in part been misrepresented as a result," stated Bertelsmann's current CEO, Thomas Middelhoff.

Perhaps the great sadness here is that Bertelsmann itself has now become too big to fight or even to change in any substantial way. Nobody wants this conglomerate to turn into a big meanie, so we all get to hope that its current reputation - that of allowing independence among its publishing subsidiaries - holds true. (On the other hand, does the term "allow independence" sound like a self-cancelling phrase?)

Either way, there's no doubt in the minds of many observers that Bertelsmann's motives weren't exactly 100% humanitarian when its foundation gave $1 million to the Anti-Defamation League, which fights anti-Semitism.

This contribution seemed like a - well, here again, language is everything. The word "bribe" wasn't used, but last October the ADL honored Reinhard Mohn, head of the Bertelsmann Foundation and publisher of contemporary publications sympathetic to Hitler (again according to Fischler and Friedman - see #113).

Gee, it used to be that this kind of wheel-spinning took place behind the scenes, but thanks to modern news coverage, we get to see a giant conglomerate attempt to bury its past anew, right in front of everyone.

Such efforts only make it clear that the real power is not going to fall into the hands of Middelhoff or Mohn or anybody at Bertelsmann. What history proves time and time again is that when publishers shift from literature to propaganda, the audience makes its own shift. Instead of buying what they "should" read, people turn away from the "official" story of this or that and end up drawing their own conclusions. That's a kind of subversion no one has been able to suppress.



Dear Holt Uncensored:

I work at an independent bookstore in southern Oregon. Someone brought in hardcopy of your article re Wal-Mart v. Amazon. In this article you also talked about small bookstores launching their own websites.

We've got strong local support, despite a Barnes & Noble 15 miles up the road, and great tourist trade in-season. We've kicked around a website for the store for over two years now, but we can't see how a small, general independent gets any boost from having a website.

Sure, as you enthused, a store can recreate it's special look and feel on the web, but bottom line, is any small independent breaking even, much less turning a profit from its website? I don't mean just the monthly technical costs of having the site up and running, but "all in," staff time and everything, day in and day out? That, to me, and the store owners, is the more important story.

Any numbers on this yet, or is everyone still trying to figure out what it all means financially?

John Gaffey

Dear Holt Uncensored:

In your article #119, Tony Miksak quotes an article out of the Mendocino Beacon as saying that "Civil Code section 1749 of the laws of California States' ... any gift certificate shall be redeemed for cash.' Not partially used and redeemed. Just redeemed." I took the time to look up the code and it actually states, "Any gift certificate ...shall be redeemable in cash for its cash value, or subject to replacement with a new gift certificate at no cost to the purchaser or holder."

The January 1, 1997 code is actually to make it unlawful for anyone to sell a gift certificate to a purchaser with an expiration date. There is an exception for gift certificates issued as award or promotional gifts, on or after January 1, 1998, provided the expiration date appears in capital letters in at least 10-point font on the front of the gift certificate (paragraph c) - with certain qualifications.

Perhaps the Mendocino Beacon misquoted the DA and his Chief Deputy?

Sandy Dodson
Little Professor Book Company
Temecula, CA


Dear Holt Uncensored:

I'd like to call your attention to an item in Independent Publisher's debut electronic edition.

"I Love My Independent Bookstore Because..." Contest Announced

Peanut Butter and Jelly Press of Newton, MA has announced the first ever "Independent Bookstore Contest," and is offering a monthly prize (a $50 bookstore gift certificate) for the best answer to the phrase: "I Love My Independent Bookstore Because..."

The URL for the article is Peanut Butter and Jelly Press is a small independentpress.

Pat Bell
Cat's-paw Press


Dear Holt Uncensored:

Please print Shambhala's e-mail address so we can make inquiries to them?

Luise Landers

Red-faced Holt responds: Gad, I had it in there and for some reason removed it. You can write to Philip Barry or Don Frew of Shambhala Booksellers at


Dear Holt Uncensored:

This is a post I just sent to a friend with whom I have been discussing the sales tax on books question. (I am responding to her post, in which she said that, since the sales tax is applied in a "content-neutral way" there's not much room to oppose the imposition of sales tax on books but not magazines.)

"The point is that, in addition to magazines not being taxed, neither in this state is cable TV or movie tickets. So you will pay tax to buy a copy of Shakespeare or Jane Austin or Phillip K. Dick to read, but not to watch a film in a movie theatre (and, oddly, if you rent the video you will pay sales tax then too, although you are not purchasing but only renting).

"Based on that then, I'm wondering if taxing certain formats (books) and not others (TV, magazines, newspapers) isn't a subtle content censorship, given that books tend to be where writers can disseminate ideas that are far less commercially acceptable than on TV or magazines, which are overwhelmingly advertiser controlled.

"In other words, given that advertisers play a far greater role in determining what ideas are allowed to be put out in magazines and cable TV than they do with books, doesn't the decision to tax one but not the other create a de facto form of government interference with freedom of speech that is not, in fact, content neutral?

"That is, imagine if the government imposed a ticket tax on theatre plays, speeches, and concerts --- while not imposing a ticket tax on movies and sporting events. Of course, we could argue that this tax is neutral because it makes no reference at all to content. But its effect would clearly be to favor some kinds of events (the ones where commercial interests dominate) over others (the ones more likely to promote ideas that are disfavored by commercial interests)."

John Gear