Given that it is now nearly seventy years since the end of World War II, you might think that everything about Germany’s Nazi past has already come out. You would be wrong.
To this day certain powerful elements in German society have continued to discourage frank discussion of the Hitler years. The point has been underlined in highly belated disclosures in the latest issue of the German business magazine WirtshaftsWoche. The magazine has documented how some of today’s most respected German corporations built their rise to global greatness on slave labor in the Nazi era. A total of close to 300,000 slaves were exploited, many of them Jews. They labored in horrific conditions and were often worked literally to death. Among the corporations most heavily implicated are Volkswagen, Daimler (parent company of Mercedes-Benz), Bayer, Krupp, and Bosch. Meanwhile Deutsche Bank is identified as having benefited hugely from the expropriation of Jewish-owned businesses. For a shocking English-language account of what WirtshaftsWoche has published click here.
Why has all this come out only now, rather than say forty or fifty years ago? The answer in part lies with the nature of German publishing. Journalists, authors, and editors in Germany do not enjoy quite the same degree of independence and freedom as their counterparts in the English-speaking world.
That is a worry in itself – but what makes it particularly troubling is that the German publishing industry has now quietly established control over the commanding heights of the U.S. book business.
Take, for instance, Bertelsmann. Based in the little-known Westphalian town of Gütersloh, Bertlelsmann is now probably the world’s largest book publisher. Employing more than 100,000 in almost fifty countries, it has bought up countless English language publishing companies. Although in its own right it is hardly known outside Germany, many of its subsidiaries are household names in the English-speaking world. Not the least of these are Random House and Penguin, two of the Big Six of global English-language book publishing. Random House alone is a vast operation that subsumes Crown, Knopf, Doubleday, Ballantine, Bantam, Vintage, Dell, Pantheon, and Everyman’s Library, among countless other famous imprints.
Michael and clerks, Half-timbered, 17th-centur…
Gutersloh, hidden book capital of the world. (Photo credit: gruntzooki)
What is even more startling is Bertelsmann’s past. According to WirtshaftsWoche, Bertelsmann grew rich in the 1930s by publishing pro-war books for Hitler Youth members and other key Nazis.
Then there is Holtzbrinck, another hidden German giant of English-language publishing. Based in Stuttgart, Holtzbrinck owns a slew of famous imprints, not least Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Henry Holt, Metropolitan Books, Times Books, Macmillan, St. Martin’s Press, Palgrave Macmillan, Pan, Faber & Faber, and Picador.
Holtzbrinck is notable for its deep penetration of educational publishing and in particular owns both Scientific American magazine and its British counterpart Nature.
As for the rest of the English-speaking book business, the only major house still under unambiguously American control is Simon & Schuster, a division of CBS. (News Corporation, which owns HarperCollins, is, of course, these days technically based in New York but in reality is based anywhere the peripathetic Rupert Murdoch happens to hang his hat.)
Does it matter who publishes our books? In an age of globalism, a lot of people think not – which, of course, is why the foreign takeover of the American industry has attracted so little attention.
But there are still some holdouts who believe that nationality matters. None of the tiger economies of East Asia, for instance, has ever offered much house-room to foreign publishers.
Interestingly for our purposes Germany has followed a similar script. The German establishment has long made it clear that the German publishing industry is not for sale. Thus for all his global wheeling and dealing, even Rupert Murdoch has never been able to establish much of a presence in the German publishing market.
The London-based Pearson group has not had much luck either: when it tried to publish a German-language edition of its Financial Times newspaper, for instance, it felt obliged to partner with Bertelsmann, with the latter enjoying increasing editorial control. Even then, its advertising sales proved disappointing and it was forced to close in 2012. It is probably fair to say that few members of the German establishment shed tears.
As a practical matter, the only significant non-German-owned publishing companies with any presence in Germany are based in Austria or the German-speaking cantons of Switzerland. And even they are hardly more than a token presence.
The Germans clearly think that nationality still matters. Do they know something the average American writer or editor does not? Perhaps.
The truth is that the world is not globalizing. While the United States, Britain, Canada, Australia, and other English-speaking countries have tended to take globalization at face value, most of the more prosperous and significant nations outside the English-speaking world take a very different view.
With few exceptions they pursue avowedly national policies aimed at boosting their own success at the expense of other nations. Such policies are often radically at odds with Anglophone ideas of fair play. These nations subtly or unsubtly protect their home markets. They implicitly or explicitly encourage the development of local cartels. Industry and government work hand in glove in the business of creating good jobs at home, stemming the leak of technology abroad, and targeting foreign export markets. They laugh at the obsession of Anglophone economists with “getting prices right.” In James Fallows’s phrase, such nations deliberately set out to “get prices wrong.”
The full significance of what they do cannot be explained in a few paragraphs but what is clear is that their agenda is seriously at odds with that of the Anglophone world.
How does this bear on the U.S. publishing market? It is hard to be sure. But for those of us who believe that the Washington establishment is remarkably naïve about globalization, the fact that much of the U.S. book publishing industry has succumbed to takeover by a nation that is less starry-eyed about globalization is certainly chastening.
Of course, no one is suggesting that German society is monolithic. It should be pointed out, for instance, that some German corporations have been more forthcoming than others. Thus as far back as 1986 Daimler, for instance, admitted that it had employed 40,000 slaves.
But the fact remains that national interests are constantly in conflict. If a nation is to address the difficulties effectively, it should approach them with a clear head.