Bertelsmann’s View of America?

Posted by John Rosenthal

Last week, Medienkritik noted the irony of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies (AICGS) at Johns Hopkins University giving a prize to Bertelsmann CEO Gunter Thielen. The AICGS is, according to its own mission statement, dedicated to “strengthening the German-American relationship in an evolving Europe and changing world”, whereas Bertelsmann publications in Germany, as Medienkritik has amply documented, have been some of the chief purveyors of anti-American bile and phantasms. I would add to the observations on Medienkritik that Bertelsmann is not only a – indeed the – major player in the German and, more generally, European media landscape, but also a major player in the US media: notably, via its ownership of Random House, America’s largest book publisher. It was Random House imprint Alfred A. Knopf – and hence Bertelsmann – that in 2001 paid Bill Clinton the astronomical advance of $10 million for the literary (and presumably commercial) dud that would be his “My Life” memoirs. It was also – coincidentally or not – Bertelsmann, via Knopf, that last year in the middle of the American election season, published Nicholson Baker’s Checkpoint, a novelistic dialogue about killing President Bush.

Three years ago, William Safire, writing in the New York Times, warned of two German conglomerates – Bertelsmann and Holtzbrinck – establishing a “stranglehold” on American book publishing. Safire concluded somewhat optimistically, however, that the two publishers were, after all, only driven by the “profit motive”. Would that it were so, in which case there should be no more reason to be distressed by these German companies investing in American book publishing than by any other companies doing so.

But as a matter of fact, despite its massive holdings, Bertelsmann – like Holtzbrinck, for that matter – is a family-controlled company. It is not publicly held. This is to say that its decisions need not in all cases be guided by the “profit motive”, but may rather reflect the whims of the owners: in this case, namely, those of Bertelsmann patriarch Reinhard Mohn and his wife Liz. Reinhard Mohn has long been know to resist plans to take even just part of the company public and it is presumably for this reason. Industry insiders have frequently commented on precisely the uneconomic character of so many Bertelsmann moves in the American book trade: including the very purchase of Random, at what was widely considered to be a price that overvalued the company’s assets, and, of course, the $10 million Clinton advance. (For another example of Bertelsmann seemingly rewarding a prominent former member of the Clinton administration – indeed the very former member of the Clinton administration who as head of the anti-trust division of the Justice Department could have, but did not, attempt to block Bertelsmann’s purchase of Random House – see my “Bertelsmann or Who Does Not Understand the Meaning of ‘Nein’” on the old Trans-Int.)

Reinhard Mohn’s personal views on America are not well know and it is even sometimes suggested that he has been inspired in the management of his publishing empire by American business philosophies. But it is interesting to note that Bertelsmann’s favored in-house historian was for many years one Dirk Bavendamm. Bavendamm published a commissioned history of the Bertelsmann enterprise in 1985 (1835-1985: 150 Jahre Bertelsmann) and an additional commissioned history of the Mohn family one year later. In the late 1990s, after investigations by the journalist Hersch Fischler revealed that – contrary to the company’s official history – Bertelsmann had massively profited from a close collaboration with the Nazi regime during the Third Reich, Bertelsmann announced that none other than Bavendamm would be asked to “look at the new information and begin to reinvestigate”. (For an account by Fischler and American journalist John Friedman, see here.)

By this time, however, Bavendamm had already established a solid reputation as a revisionist historian and Nazi apologist. In 1993, he published a volume with the interesting title “Roosevelt’s War. American Politics and Strategy 1937-1945″ (Roosevelts Krieg. amerikanishe Politik und Strategie 1937-1945). As the dates suggest, the “Roosevelt’s War” in question is, of course, the Second World War. The title for a 1995 Bavendamm contribution to the Deutschland Journal [pdf-file; link in German] makes the author’s point still more explicitly: “Hitler’s War or Roosevelt’s War?”. Bavendamm’s response to his rhetorical question: “Roosevelt pushed Hitler ever further toward war…. [T]his was the real aim of his peace plan.” Indeed, Bavendamm finds that the roots of what he calls the “actual world war”, starting in 1941, go all the way back to “1776, when the American colonies declared their independence from Great Britain as the ‘United States of America’.”

In their recent book length study of Bertelsmann (Bertelsmann. Hinter der Fassade des Medienimperiums), Frank Böckelmann and Hersch Fischler describe the thesis of Bavendamm’s book as follows (pp. 221-22):

For Bavendamm, Roosevelt was the ace among practitioners of power politics and understood like noone else how brilliantly to camouflage the imperialistic aims of the United States by presenting them as humanistic ones. For Roosevelt the secret to peace, freedom and well-being lay in establishing a world order in which all powers lived together as good neighbors – under the hegemony of the United States…. Roosevelt helped the USA to develop a positive image and global hegemony. His scientific advisors, according to Bavendamm, became the helpmates of a politician [i.e. Roosevelt] dedicated to the expansion of US power and the establishment of worldwide [US] domination – without the public catching on.

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