Holt Uncensored

Holt Uncensored


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by Pat Holt

Friday, October 11, 2002


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I have to confess I'm not as intrigued or shocked by the official disclosure of Bertelsmann's Nazi ties (released this week) as I am sorry to have seen newspapers and magazines - particularly the New York Times - fall right back in line with the old Bertelsmann propaganda during the past several years.

It's worth it to remind ourselves how this whole thing started. Here's a brief review:

In 1998, after its megalomaniacal acquisition of Random House, Bertelsmann's CEO Thomas Middelhoff "declared proudly," according to the Independent, that [Bertelsmann] was 'one of the few non-Jewish media companies closed down by the Nazi regime.' "

But later that year, Hersch Fischler and John Friedman wrote in The Nation that during World War II, instead of being "closed down by the Nazis" for "refusing to toe the party line," Bertelsmann had "cooperated with the [Nazi] regime, publishing a wide range of Hitlerian propaganda."

The article went on to say Bertelsmann titles were supportive of Brownshirts, Hitler's pro-expansionist attacks on neighboring countries, and Goebbels' propaganda ministry, publishing "patently anti-Semitic works." Further, several Bertelsmann executives were arrested in 1944 for profiteering, and Heinrich Mohn, a descendant of the founding family and the firm's chief executive, had been a member of the SS, a supporter of the Hitler Youth and member of the National Socialist Flying Corps.

Okay. So what did the company do? Why, they were shocked and dismayed. What a terrible thing, said CEO Middelhoff.

"During the Nazi era there were clearly some titles published by Bertelsmann which were not consistent with our values," he announced. "These books were not at all representative of the thousands of books published by Bertelsmann during that time, and we find their content abhorrent."

Maybe he meant it. Maybe he never knew or wanted to investigate Bertelsmann's complicity with the Nazis. In any case, Middelhoff decided to turn the world's eyes away from the past and toward the future: "We take our social responsibility seriously and will meet this responsibility in the course of an independent critical review of our company's history."

Well, that was about a half a century late, but never mind. The company made a big deal in the media about appointing scholars to an "Independent Historic Commission" to investigate the allegations. That seemed the right thing to do.

But wait: A year later (1999), during which the Commission was supposed to have been hard at work, the world learned that one of the Commission members, "historian and publicist Dr. Dirk Bavendamm," who had been asked by Bertelsmann "to look at the new information and begin to reinvestigate the role the publishing house played in those days," had a little Nazi-lovin' bias of his own.

Fischler and Friedman the wrote another article in the Nation (November of 1999), stating that "Bavendamm is the same 'historian' who has published poems and drawings (later proved to be forgeries) allegedly written and drawn by a nicer, 'mild Hitler.' In the '80s and '90s he wrote books and magazine articles stating that 'Roosevelt, not Hitler, had caused WWII . . . [and] that American Jews controlled most of the media' in which they presented a false picture of Hitler."

Because of Bavendamm's apparent bias, the independent commission's chair, UCLA history professor Saul Friedlander, "insisted that [the investigation] could not continue unless Bavendamm departed." Bertelsmann removed him.

However, by that time, Bertelsmann had pulled one of those - well, one wouldn't call it a "bribe" exactly but let's say a little shell game with the apparent intention of polishing up its image. First, the Bertelsmann Foundation gave a million dollars to the Anti-Defamation League, which fights anti-Semitism. Then, in October of 1999, the Anti-Defamation League honored Reinhard Mohn, son of the Bertelsmann co-founder whom the Nation writers said was once a member of the Nazi SS.

So when the Friedlander commission - finally shed of Hitler worshipper Bavendamm - announced the first part of its findings in January of 2000, the world was astonished at the sight of Middelhoff again sounding like a kid caught in the middle of an obvious fabrication.

"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," Middelhoff announced.

In *part* misrepresented?

Here's what the Commission uncovered in Part I of its report: that Bertelsmann did not resist the Third Reich as the company had said. Instead it had thrived during World War II by publishing millions of Nazi propaganda books for the military. Further, the company 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.

During the Nazi era, 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 Commission noted. One slight difference between the report and the original allegations: Heinrich Mohn was not technically a member of the SS but part of the little-known "SS sponsors circle" that contributed money to the SS every month.

So that was the year 2000. The Commission went back to work on Part II, but its findings began to fade immediately. As Bertelsmann grew larger and more powerful, the New York Times, for example, referred to the company alternately as "a publisher of Lutheran hymnals . . . founded in 1835" or "a 167-year-old printing company based in the sleepy German burg of Gutersloh" (both quotes taken from NYT 7/30/02).

Ah, yes, that "sleepy north-German town of Gutersloh" gets a lot of attention, and why not? What a contrast it provides - what a pastoral setting! One can envision the lion sitting down with the lamb! - for Bertelsmann and its goal of world dominance.

Even if the newspaper or magazine did mention the Commission's findings, the writer speeded right back to business-as-usual. Here's how the Independent, for example, began a lengthy article about Bertelsmann in 1999:

"In a small town in Germany, one of the world's most traditional family companies is shrugging off its staid corporate past and slowly waking up to the fact that it is a major player in global multi-media."

*Staid* corporate past?

The article did refer to disclosures about Bertelsmann's SS connections and its "anti-Semitic tracts" of the Nazi era. But the Independent then took a business-savvy approach: "This is the sort of publicity Bertelsmann does not need as it continues to diffuse its German identity by devouring Anglo-Saxon companies." Yes, give it a chance, poor thing.

So now we come to this week. The final report from the Friedlander commission has been released, and we find that all of the above has been confirmed, plus news that Bertelsmann used "Jewish slave labor" to print its books and was "the single biggest producer of pro-Nazi literature" in Germany at the time.

Bertelsmann has tried to take credit for initiating the investigation itself and surely this kind of language - not the fact it got caught lying and was forced to appoint the Commission - will turn up in the company's corporate history. Also, the world called for an apology, and Gunter Thielen, the new Bertelsmann CEO, offered a beaut:

"I would like to express our sincere regret for the inaccuracies the Commission has uncovered in our previous corporate history of the World War II era, as well as for the wartime activities that have been brought to light."

Man! You can imagine the brainstorming sessions it took to come up with a soul-searching statement like that.

Naturally the first reaction from people like Lord Janner of Braunstone, chair of the Holocaust Education Trust, was a tiny bit negative. Thielen's statement, Lord Janner said, was "pathetically inadequate and disgraceful." He called for Bertelsmann "to make amends" and to "do everything in its power to influence public opinion against racism."

And of course they will.

There is much to learn from Bertelsmann's role as we look around at how the world works now. I'm wearing running shoes that very possibly were manufactured in a Third World factory leased by an agent of an agent of an agent for an American company that doesn't want to hear about 10-year-old workers chained to machines and crammed into "dormitories" - the equivalent of slave labor today. (See #115 about "No Logo" by Naomi Klein).

But if there's no place for self-righteousness, I do think we should be aware that when a company like Bertelsmann tries to buy its way into one industry after another, and tries to cover its intentions by saying, "Don't worry, we're the good guys," our first reaction should be skepticism and investigative articles that push against a tendency to fall on our knees and say We're Not Worthy.

If, as writers in the media, we don't stop letting companies like Bertelsmann off the hook - and you know the Commission's disclosures are going to fade back into that "sleepy town of Gutersloh" again - we do a disservice to literature, independent thought and especially to authors.



Dear Holt Uncensored:

I want to share with you an anecdote that is emblematic of the loss of humanity in the transformation of Barnes and Noble from bookseller to "specialty retailer" in the past 10 years. When Barnes & Noble opened a superstore in Sioux Falls, South Dakota in 1994, no one thought it would succeed, which it didn't at first. But soon, because of the dedication of its staff and a commitment to knowledgeable and efficient service, we made the store a success. The staff was a rarity in any retail environment, as it was comprised primarily of adults--teachers, scholars, writers and others who were simply devoted to the written word.

Among the most beloved booksellers at this store was a man named Fritz Rusch. Fritz was a local college professor and Lutheran pastor who worked at the store solely for the love of bookselling. He thrived on the questions no one could answer. He laughed with customer and colleague alike. He was as comfortable with Robert Jordan or the Executioner series as he was with Paul Tillich or Homer's Odyssey. Tragically, as the store was at the height of its success, Fritz was diagnosed with melanoma and ultimately brain cancer, of which he succumbed.

Shortly after Fritz's death, rumors about our store moving to a more prominent location--the busiest intersection in the city--were confirmed. When we moved into this new, larger store, we wanted to take a piece of Fritz with us in the form of a simple plaque that held a picture of him and a quote in Greek and English from his favorite writer, Nikos Kazantzakis ("I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.") We put the plaque on the inside wall of the foyer, near the cash registers, and no matter how high the sales volume, how stupid the New York office imperative to scrape more work from a bone-tired staff, we could remember that even big box bookselling could be a humane and noble occupation.

It is now 2002 and that seems, at least at the Sioux Falls store, to be a dream. The sub-Dilbert managerial reforms--the weekly memos used to encourage us to "problem-solve the process"--have destroyed morale among those who care about books or at least the people in the store. A change in managers both at the store level and the district level has meant that books no longer matter, Readers Advantage cards do. Which makes sense in a way, as neither district nor store manager reads for pleasure.

All of this is probably not uncommon at B&N. Whole store staffs have walked off the job in the Twin Cities. Tales of theft, incompetence and acrimony are common. This story ends, though, with the unique, yet universal story of the fate of Fritz's plaque.

The new manager took it down because the store was too cluttered.

Martin Schmutterer
Sharon Schulz-Elsing

Dear Holt Uncensored:

My local Barnes and Noble is soliciting holiday gift wrap volunteers with the following notice in their events calendar:

"Calling all Gift Wrapper's [sic]. As we approach the holiday season it is time for our store to prepare for a busy season. Therefore, we are looking for a few volunteers to help us in our store for the holidays. If you are interested in volunteering as a Holiday Gift Wrapper, please contact ... ."

I called the person, who was very pleasant and explained that since these were volunteers they would not be paid. But the store would put out a tip jar encouraging customers having their books wrapped to make a donation.

Talk about Christmas spirit! Is this even legal?

I am stunned. I know people volunteer at places like libraries, hospitals, senior homes, schools. But at your local for-profit bookstore?

Do any indie booksellers do this, trading on the cachet of the book biz to save a couple bucks during their busiest, and most profitable, season? Before we pile on to BN, I'm curious as to whether this is a bookseller holiday tradition.

A Reader

Holt responds: At the bookstore where I worked, volunteers from various charities came in to help with holiday gift-wrapping in exchange for discounts, donation and books they could give to children. But this! Holy cow, B&N!

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Regarding your suggestion to writers to create a "Friends" list: That's something I've been doing, in a way. I've been working on a book ("PLATO People") for a number of years -- it's a book about the history of the first online community, before the Internet, the Web, or AOL even existed -- and I put together a website to document progress and ask questions. The site, www.platopeople.com, has been up for 5 years, and has had over 75,000 unique visitors (35,000 in September 2002 alone). The interest level continues to grow and the search engines are all over the site, thanks to its being around for so long.

I've found having a website for a book that doesn't even have an agent or publisher yet to be a very effective way of a) doing research for the book, and b) generating early interest in the book -- interest that actually is helping me find an agent and publisher! Imagine that! :-)

Brian Dear

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Your "Six Things You Can do Right Now" is sound advice. Let me qualify your point about a "friends list." The average mail order response Ed McMahon delivers for Publishers Clearing House is one-half of one percent. And, PCH actually makes a profit on such a low return. (When I entered the biz 40 years ago, two percent was the average return (read sale) on any mailing.)

But writers have a better mailing list than PCH can rent . . . a list that will yield a much higher return, 7.5 percent to be precise. . . and that list is a combo of their friends list, a Christmas card list, and their personal and professional rolodex. (That 7.5% response source can be found in my book, "How To Market You and Your Book," ISBN 0-913243-14-0.) Mind you, they will hit 7.5% only once, on one mailing. Remailing that list diminish sales significantly -- but it beats the heck out of one-half of one percent.

Your other five tips are part of my curriculum when I teach publishing courses at Santa Barbara City College et al. So here's to empowering authors. I've been singing this tune for the last decade. And, bless your soul, you are adding the chorus.

Richard F.X. O'Connor
Manuscript Consultant, nee Acquiring Editor

Holt responds: I find it fascinating that you've gotten a response rate from a "Friends" list down to an actual percentage. But does that mean 7.5% buy the book or 7.5% continue as advocates for the author? My notion of a "Friends" group is not a way for the author to open a customer base (well, I guess that's included) but to keep in touch with people who are rooting for the author and want to know updates and what they can do to help.

Richard O'Connor replies: The figure is a return sale of the book, i.e., for every 100 names mailed to -- selling one's book -- they can expect to actually sell 6-8 copies. Why? Because the list is a "personal" list. But not on a remail to the same names. (This percentage is the result of many experiences over the years, and hence apocrophal -- but works nonetheless.

And yes, they should also keep a list of those who have said, "When your book is ready, I'll promote it via my (fill in the blank)."

Holt can't help it: Huh. I think the "success" of a Friends list is unquantifiable. If something wonderful happens to the author, these people still want to hear about it. I guess it's a way to continue spreading the word.

Holt Uncensored provides this forum for the free and uncensored exchange of thoughts and ideas from writers of all callings. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Pat Holt or the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association.

"Holt Uncensored" is an online column by Pat Holt
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