Europe’s largest media group Bertelsmann, headquartered in the small provincial town of Gütersloh in north-west Germany, admitted Monday that its rise to prominence was founded on close contacts with the Nazi regime during the second world war.
These contacts enabled its founding Mohn family to transform the company from an obscure publisher of religious tracts to the largest supplier of literature for Hitler’s wartime military machine – a commanding position from which it expanded post-war to become the world’s largest book publisher whose worldwide tentacles extend into the TV, magazines and press sectors.
That the Mohn family and its cohorts ‘Sieg-Heiled’ their way into the commercial bigtime will not surprise too many people, although the company’s official history had hitherto insisted Bertelsmann had opposed the Nazi regime.
Says Bertelsmann ceo Gunter Theilen: “I would like to express our sincere regret for the inaccuracies the [historical] 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.”
Just three years old in 1945 when the war in Europe ended, Thielen clearly played no part in the events that propelled the Bertelsmann dynasty to fame and fortune; but the revision of the company’s history casts a new light on the group’s founder Heinrich Mohn.
Characterized as a devout Christian and staunch opponent of Hitler who fell foul of the Nazis by publishing banned texts, the original whitewash claims that Mohn’s opposition to Hitler’s rule led the Nazis to close the company.
But the new history reveals that far from opposing Hitler, Mohn supported a number of Nazi causes with donations and was even a member of a group called the SS Sponsors Circle, providing financial backing to Hitler’s elite military corps. He also published a number of antisemitic works after the existence of concentration camps became widely known.
And although the company was banned from publishing new books toward the end of the war, this was not due to its heroic opposition to Nazism as previously claimed - but for illegal hoarding of paper. Bertelsmann’s lucrative printing business remained in operation and, according to Reinhard Wittmann, one of the new history’s authors, “the war years brought the company an explosion in profits”.
Mohn, however, was never a member of the Nazi party despite his financial backing for various party organizations, nor did he or Bertelsmann acquire confiscated Jewish property. Furthermore, he is known to have intervened when an employee’s wife was sent to a concentration camp.
The revised history admits that Bertelsmann printing presses used in the Baltic states exploited Jewish slave labor, although there is no record of its doing so at its Gütersloh plants.
Data sourced from: The Wall Street Journal Online; additional content by WARC staff