New owner of Random House under scrutiny for wartime past

CLEVELAND (JTA) — Bertelsmann A.G., the German media empire that bought Random House last March and is a partner with Barnes & Noble in its Internet bookstore, has joined the ever-lengthening list of corporations being confronted with their wartime past.

Although Bertelsmann has said it was closed by the Nazis for refusing to go along with the Third Reich, just the opposite is true, a German sociologist and researcher has reported.

The company published Nazi propaganda before and during the war, issued anti-Semitic works and produced special lightweight editions for German soldiers at the front, he charges.

"There is no evidence they were ever closed," Hersch Fischler said in a telephone interview from Germany.

In 1943 the publisher was forced to close its theological division. "But they were publishing books throughout the war, at least through 1944. They were the largest supplier to the army and issued books for the SS," Fischler said.

After Fischler's charges were published in a Swiss magazine and in the Dec. 28 issue of The Nation magazine, Bertelsmann chief executive Thomas Middelhoff called for an investigation into his company's wartime past.

The company, which Fischler said has $14 billion in annual revenues, has removed from its Internet site a corporate history that detailed its opposition to the Nazis.

While Middelhoff still maintains the company was closed by the Nazis, he said he will appoint a panel of three historians to look into its past, according to the New York Times.

Bertelsmann points to the arrest of several of its senior executives as proof of the company's resistance to the Third Reich.

But Fischler maintains that the executives were imprisoned because they were war profiteers, not because they opposed the Nazis.

"They were mostly Nazi Party members, imprisoned because the German army found out they were involved in bribery and profiteering and organizing against the war regulations," he said. "Bertelsmann hoarded paper and made illegal trades."

There is no evidence that Bertelsmann protested any of the Nazi actions such as book burnings, Fischler adds. "They made very big profits during the war. This was what was driving them," he said.

Heinrich Mohn, the principal owner and chief executive during the war, was a "passive" dues-paying member of the SS, Fischler alleges.

Mohn's son, Reinhold, who still controls the majority voting power of the company, was captured by the Americans in 1943 and released in 1946.

"I don't think he was involved" in the company's dealings with the Third Reich, Fischler said.

Bertelsmann managers "were not fanatic Nazis, but they were profiteers, like many other German industrialists," the researcher said.

"They were afraid to [be part of] the Resistance. So Bertelsmann is not better than the other ones. They have some nasty parts of their history. But they are promoting themselves as clean."

A rival German media empire, the family-owned Georg von Holtzbrinck Publishing Group, has in the last decade purchased several American publishers, including Henry Holt, St. Martin's Press and Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Holtzbrinck, like Bertelsmann, is proud of its history. Holtzbrinck claimed it was "almost a member of the Resistance" and was stripped by the Nazis of its license to publish, according to an article published in the June 1998 issue of Vanity Fair.

The magazine reported, however, that Georg von Holtzbrinck was a member of the Nazi Party since 1933, and throughout the war operated several profitable publishing companies and published Nazi-sanctioned magazines.