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Bertelsmann’s Revisionist

by Her­sch Fis­chler & John Fried­man

On Octo­ber 30 in Atlanta, the Anti-Defama­tion League, self-described as the world’s lead­ing orga­ni­za­tion against anti-Semi­tism, will hon­or the Ber­tels­mann Foun­da­tion. The foun­da­tion, which is close­ly linked to Ber­tels­mann AG, the glob­al media empire and own­er of Ran­dom House, Ban­tam Dou­ble­day Dell and oth­ers, will receive an award from the ADL’s Inter­na­tion­al A World of Dif­fer­ence Insti­tute.

The award will specif­i­cal­ly rec­og­nize Rein­hard Mohn, the founder of the foun­da­tion as well as a mem­ber of the found­ing fam­i­ly of the Ber­tels­mann firm. It is sur­pris­ing that the ADL should so hon­or Ber­tels­mann at this time. Con­trary to the com­pa­ny’s offi­cial his­to­ry, Ber­tels­mann coop­er­at­ed with the Nazis in the late thir­ties and ear­ly for­ties, pub­lish­ing a range of Hit­ler­ian pro­pa­gan­da [see Her­sch Fis­chler and John Fried­man, “Ber­tels­man­n’s Nazi Past,” Decem­ber 28, 1998]. Cur­rent Ber­tels­mann activ­i­ties raise more dis­turb­ing ques­tions.

In 1980 Ber­tels­man­n’s Stern mag­a­zine pub­lished poems and illus­tra­tions sup­pos­ed­ly writ­ten and drawn by Hitler dur­ing World War I under the title “Rhymes by Pri­vate First Class H” (“Gereimtes vom Gefre­it­en H”). Dirk Baven­damm, a 61-year-old Ger­man his­to­ri­an who had been instru­men­tal in help­ing Stern obtain the mate­r­i­al, wrote an accom­pa­ny­ing arti­cle not­ing that the poems and draw­ings show Hitler as an ordi­nary sol­dier. In one illus­tra­tion a Ger­man sol­dier gen­tly holds a baby; in anoth­er, a sol­dier helps a moth­er lying in bed while a baby nes­tles in a cra­dle. Sub­se­quent­ly the poems and draw­ings were deter­mined to be forg­eries. (Lat­er, Mohn gave the green light to a Ber­tels­mann divi­sion to pur­chase the Hitler diaries, by the same forg­er, which also showed a milder Hitler. They were pub­lished in Stern in 1983.)

Baven­damm’s career was not affect­ed. His book Roo­sevelt’s Way to War (Roo­sevelts Weg zum Krieg) was pub­lished in 1983. Rewrit­ing his­to­ry, he stat­ed that Roo­sevelt, not Hitler, had caused World War II. He also wrote that Amer­i­can Jews “con­trolled most of the media,” and he claimed they gave a false pic­ture of Hitler.

Did the book impress Mohn, then the major­i­ty share­hold­er of Ber­tels­mann? The firm hired Baven­damm as its house his­to­ri­an, and in 1984 he com­plet­ed a his­tor­i­cal study, 150 Years of Ber­tels­mann: The Founders and Their Time–with a fore­word by Mohn. A year lat­er, Baven­damm edit­ed the fir­m’s offi­cial his­to­ry, which set forth the untrue sto­ry that the firm had resist­ed the Nazis and had been closed down by them. Mohn also asked Baven­damm to write the autho­rized his­to­ry of the Mohn fam­i­ly, pub­lished in 1986 under the title Ber­tels­mann, Mohn, Scip­pel: Three Families–One Com­pa­ny.

In a sec­ond book, Roo­sevelt’s War (pub­lished in 1993, reis­sued in 1998), Baven­damm accus­es the US Pres­i­dent of enact­ing a plan to start World War II. In the same book he sug­gests that Hitler’s threats in ear­ly 1939 against Euro­pean Jew­ry were a reac­tion to Roo­sevelt’s strat­e­gy against Ger­many.

After the rev­e­la­tions about Ber­tels­man­n’s Nazi past appeared, the com­pa­ny announced that it had asked “the his­to­ri­an and pub­li­cist Dr. Dirk Baven­damm to look at the new infor­ma­tion and begin to rein­ves­ti­gate the role the pub­lish­ing house played in those days” and defend­ed his work. It also set up an inde­pen­dent com­mis­sion to inves­ti­gate Ber­tels­man­n’s World War II activ­i­ties.

The com­mis­sion, chaired by Saul Friedlän­der, a his­to­ry pro­fes­sor at UCLA, insist­ed that it could not con­tin­ue unless Baven­damm depart­ed. Pro­fes­sor Friedlän­der said that he had read some of Baven­damm’s work, but he declined to cat­e­go­rize it. He not­ed that his objec­tion was pro­ce­dur­al rather than based on con­tent. “We asked very firm­ly that we should be the only research enti­ty, and Ber­tels­mann accept­ed our request imme­di­ate­ly,” he said.

Baven­damm said in an inter­view that he could not “remem­ber exact­ly” what his role had been in the pub­li­ca­tion of the fake Hitler poems and draw­ings. Dis­cussing Roo­sevelt and Hitler, he described his views as “non­con­formist and inde­pen­dent.” He added, “All the world is under the impres­sion that Hitler was in the main respon­si­ble for the out­break of World War II. But I see it in a big­ger frame­work of the Unit­ed States mov­ing to the sta­tus of a super­pow­er.”

A spokesper­son for Ber­tels­mann said Baven­damm is not now employed by Ber­tels­mann or any relat­ed enti­ty and that his affil­i­a­tion with the firm “end­ed with for­ma­tion of the Inde­pen­dent His­tor­i­cal Com­mis­sion.” The spokesper­son described the cor­po­rate his­to­ry Baven­damm wrote as “nev­er intend­ed to be a defin­i­tive schol­ar­ly cor­po­rate his­to­ry of the com­pa­ny.”

Caryl Stern-LaRosa, head of the ADL’s A World of Dif­fer­ence Insti­tute, admit­ted there was “soul-search­ing” about the award. Although the Ber­tels­mann Foun­da­tion donat­ed about $1 mil­lion to the ADL for projects in Ger­many to pro­mote democ­ra­cy, human rights and tol­er­ance, she not­ed, “it is their moral com­mit­ment we are hon­or­ing.” She also point­ed out that the award rec­og­nizes the cur­rent pro­grams and lead­er­ship of the Ber­tels­mann Foun­da­tion and not the past activ­i­ties of the com­pa­ny.

Yet it is high­ly iron­ic that at the same ADL con­fer­ence where the Ber­tels­mann Foun­da­tion is sched­uled to receive its award, Emory Uni­ver­si­ty pro­fes­sor Deb­o­rah Lip­stadt will address the group on “the ever-grow­ing dan­ger of Holo­caust revi­sion­ism.” In any case, the Friedlän­der com­mis­sion should widen the scope of its inves­ti­ga­tion of Ber­tels­mann to bring it clos­er to the present, and Ber­tels­mann should imme­di­ate­ly per­mit inde­pen­dent researchers into the com­pa­ny’s archives.


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