lady painting

 

Dec 2002 Journal

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SelfExculpAbility (editorial)

When financial clout secured the German publishing octopus Bertelsmann a slice of the American market, some US authors such as Philip Roth expressed concern about the firm’s possible past Nazi connections. To still such fears, Bertelsmann put out a corporate history which laid heavy emphasis on their Catholic provenance and their preoccupation with publishing books of religious instruction for the laity. It also purported to show that they had not only kept their distance from the NS regime, but had actually been closed down on Nazi orders in 1944.

Painstaking research by Professor Saul Friedländer and Hersch Fischler has now exposed this as a threadbare fabrication. During the Third Reich books bearing the Bertelsmann imprint had in fact glorified war. One title read With Fighter Plane and Machine Guns over Poland. With regard to the Jews, Bertelsmann had incurred twofold guilt. They published antisemitic filth – another of their books depicted in pornographic detail the murder of Ukrainian children by Jewish members of the Soviet secret police – and, just as reprehensibly, they had employed slave labour in the Vilnius ghetto. It emerged, moreover, that the firm had only been closed down by the authorities in 1944 because they had amassed large stocks of paper in breach of paper-rationing regulations.

In this Bertelsmann’s owners were typical of nearly all German industrialists. This entire, hugely influential, segment of German society put ingratiation with the Nazi regime for purposes of self-aggrandisement and profits before even the most minimal considerations of humanity.

Since the war some have attempted to clear their corporate name by advancing the argument that in employing Jewish slave labourers they were prolonging their lives. Others took the step, fraught with danger, of actually commissioning reputable historians to write authoritative histories of their enterprise. Scholars ready to undertake this chore were entering a minefield; even Professor Hans Mommsen had doubts cast on his professional integrity when he published a history of Volkswagen. Despite having been a pet project of the Führer, the Volkswagen ‘Beetle’ became hugely popular in postwar Europe. Hitler’s autobahnen were likewise seen as the inspiration behind Britain’s and other countries’ motorway networks. The world’s postwar perception of Germany gradually became a mixture of the contrasting attitudes summed up in two media-generated catchphrases. On the one hand, there was goose-stepping - Basil Fawlty’s ‘Don’t mention the war!’ – and, on the other, the ubiquitous advertising slogan Vorsprung durch Technik.

Vorsprung durch Technik meant, among other things, that the über-manager of the slave-labour programme, the architect Albert Speer, was viewed in a different light from his only marginally more culpable co-defendants at Nuremberg. Respect for technical achievement divorced from any moral considerations also helped ease the integration of Werner von Braun into the top echelon of the US space administration. Technicians of death also benefited – unintentionally – from one of the basic tenets of Magna Carta, namely ‘trial by peers’. It seems that judges, prosecutors and senior civil servants in the Bundesrepublik all felt tied by masonic bonds to colleagues whose crimes had finally caught up with them. This explains how even some participants in the Wannsee Conference – the ‘planning meeting’ for Europe-wide genocide – got off scot-free, and how someone like Dr Globke (responsible for the J in the passports of German Jews which kept them caged inside the Third Reich) became head of Adenauer’s Chancellery.

Under the debris of every collapsed dictatorship lie rotting corpses crying out for burial. In this respect, post-Communist Russia was not totally dissimilar to post-Hitler Germany. The ex-KGB officer who operated a large nickel-mining operation with slave labour has recently been hailed as the founder of the Siberian city of Norilsk.

However, for all that technical experts received similar treatment in both countries, the situation in the arts was different. Of course Russia has no counterpart to Leni Riefenstahl who, having glorified the greatest monster of the century on the silver screen, spent the last half-century protesting her innocence. But it is among the musical elite that the Russians – Shostakovich, Rostropovich – have a far purer ring to their names than do their German counterparts. Richard Strauss collaborated with Leni Riefenstahl by composing music for her 1936 Olympic Games film; Carl Boehm acquired a spacious Jewish apartment in Vienna at a knock-down price; Herbert von Karajan took advantage of the dismissal of Jewish conductors; Wilhelm Furtwängler substituted for the anti-Fascist Toscanini; and Elizabeth Schwarzkopf owed her meteoric rise to Nazi patronage. Yet all these flourished post-1945 without once feeling obliged to intone a heart-felt mea culpa.

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