BERLIN, Jan. 19 (JTA) — A new page has been written in the history of a German media giant — and it is not a pretty story.
Historians hired by Bertelsmann have revealed that the firm — which had painted itself as an opponent of the Nazis — was actually the largest producer of books and propaganda for the German army during World War II.
The material was produced under the supervision of Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels.
The historians’ preliminary report, released at a news conference this week in Munich, countered previous company claims that it had been shut down because of its opposition to the Nazi regime.
Instead, the researchers tentatively concluded that Bertelsmann was closed in 1944 because it was not considered essential to the war effort.
Company chief executive Thomas Middelhoff told reporters Monday that the reason for the firm’s closing in 1944 “was unknown to us before.”
He said he regretted that “our corporate history has in part been misrepresented as a result.”
The research team, led by historian Saul Friedlander of the University of California at Los Angeles, also found that Bertelsmann’s wartime chief, Heinrich Mohn, donated heavily to the Nazi SS.
He was a “contributing member,” said the historians, adding that Mohn’s reasons for doing this may become clear as research continues.
The historical commission was created in 1999 by Middelhoff, after several news articles had suggested Mohn’s SS connections.
According to the historical commission, the firm, already known in the 1920s as a conservative and often anti-Semitic publisher, produced more than 20 million books and other materials for German soldiers during the war.
Of the 130 publishing companies that profited from doing business with the Nazi regime, Bertelsmann ranked No. 1 — ahead even of the official publisher of the Nazi Party, the Eher-Verlag., the commission found.
During the Nazi regime, the firm published some religious texts that dealt with the idea of a Volk, German for people, having a God-given greatness — a cornerstone of the Nazi ideology.
After the war, Heinrich Mohn’s son, Reinhard, returned to Germany from an American POW camp. He revived the firm and turned it into a successful business based on American models of free enterprise, said theologian Trutz Rendtorff, a member of the independent commission and a professor emeritus at the University of Munich.
Based in Guetersloh, Germany, Bertelsmann is now the third-largest media conglomerate in the world. It owns Random House, record company BMG Entertainment, and magazine and newspaper publisher Gruner & Jahr.
It also is involved in a joint European Internet venture with America Online and recently announced plans to bring this joint project to the stock market soon.
The news about Bertelsmann has raised questions about whether the firm, like thousands of others, used slave laborers during the war years.
Rendtorff said it is unlikely that Bertelsmann itself — then a small company — directly used forced labor.
But it is possible, he said, that printing houses hired by Bertelsmann to publish the wartime propaganda did use such labor.
He added that the discoveries by historical commissions, while essential, can also have negative consequences that must be dealt with.
“It is a crucial situation,” he said. “If you talk to younger people, as I have a chance to do at the university, you hear them ask, ‘Are we still guilty? Do we have to pay for that?’ “
Today, Bertelsmann is known in Jewish circles as the publisher — through subsidiaries — of a liberal Hebrew-German prayer book in 1997; the collected works of German-Jewish philosopher Leo Baeck in 1998; and of the German-language edition of historian Daniel Goldhagen’s controversial best-seller, “Hitler’s Willing Executioners.”
The firm’s chairman, Frank Woessner, has received numerous awards from major Jewish organizations, among them B’nai B’rith International, for his dedication to liberal Jewish causes — including support for dialogue between Jews and Palestinians.
Bertelsmann is one of many German firms — including Volkswagen and Dresdner Bank — that in recent years have hired historians to dig into their archives to uncover the company’s wartime dealings.
“One interesting phenomenon which is difficult to explain is, why only now” are they doing this, said Rendtorff.
Rendtorff told JTA that one possible explanation is that “Germany is now so rooted within the Western European and North American culture that it has a completely unproblematic attitude toward its own terrible past.”
Secondly, he added, “The younger generation is very curious to learn about this.”
The field may well expand soon, with more firms expected to open their archives as part of the recent agreement by the German government and German firms to pay compensation to wartime slave laborers.