Bertelsmann’s Revisionist

Bertelsmann’s Revisionist

The Investigative Fund of The Nation Institute provided research assistance.


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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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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