BROOKE GLADSTONE: There's a tradition of books being supplied to the battlefield; during the Second World War German soldiers were favored with a selection of more than a thousand pocket-sized tomes. Dozens of those including one called The Christmas Book of the Hitler Youth were published by Bertelsmann. Now a global media giant, Bertelsmann owns Random House which means Alfred Knopf, Anchor, Ballantine, Crown, Doubleday, Bantam, Dell, Dial [sp?], Fawcett and the combined Book of the Month Club and Literary Guild. It also owns the BMG Music label which stands for Bertelsmann Music Group. For years Bertelsmann presented itself as a victim of Nazi terror. A recent report proves that the company was in fact enriched by it. Interestingly the report was issued by a group of experts convened by Bertelsmann itself, determined to find the truth about its own past. Mark Landler reports from the Frankfurt Bureau of the New York Times and he joins me on the line - welcome to the show!
MARK LANDLER: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So Bertelsmann began as a publisher of hymnals; it was a Lutheran company and since its beginnings it always presented itself as a company with particularly high moral values.
MARK LANDLER: Yes. This is a unique company in Germany, and it's also unique in the media industry in that it sees its mission as not just commercial but also social. One of the notable things about Bertelsmann is that it has a very large foundation that is funded through the private fortune of the founding family of Bertelsmann. So it's a very big part of the company's self-image.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:In fact it was after a speech given by Thomas Mittelhoff [sp?], Bertelsmann's then-president, praising the company's resistance to the Nazis that they convened the commission. Apparently historians grumbled, and they decided to find out what the truth was.
MARK LANDLER: Yeah, that's right. He came and gave a speech in New York in the middle of 1998 where he repeated an oft-told story about Bertelsmann which is that from I think it's 1942 through 1945 the company was effectively shut down by the Nazis, and it was later proven by an independent corporate gadfly if you will, that not only had Bertelsmann not been shut down but that Bertelsmann had thrived during this period by supplying books as you pointed out earlier to the German Army. And this was keenly embarrassing for Mr. Mittelhoff who at that time was cultivating a very global image for the company. And I think that drove him to say we need to do something extraordinary to set the record straight. Saul Friedlaender, a historian at the University of California/Los Angeles was the chairman of this commission. He's a-- a, a well-known scholar of the Holocaust and a very tough critic on these matters, so putting him in charge -- giving him a large budget --complete autonomy -- was really going beyond a garden variety investigation. This commission that Bertelsmann convened is, is similar to a process that's happened at many other notable German companies as they have come to grips with their past and realized that they can't paper it over.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The kind of companies you're talking about are generally heavy industry, right? Daimler Benz and Krup --
MARK LANDLER: Yeah.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:-- these supported weaponry; they used slave labor which apparently Bertelsmann may have too. How did publishers manage to dip under the investigative radar all these years?
MARK LANDLER: Well it may have to do with the fact that the research of the war time book publishing industry in Germany is a very small field. As to the question of why they have come public so late, I think that has to do with the fact that unlike, say, Daimler which is a major industrial corporation with shareholders, Bertelsmann is still majority owned and controlled by the Mohn [sp?] family and necessarily an investigation into their Nazi past becomes a referendum on the record of the founder and the 82 year old patriarch Reinhard Mohn [sp?]. That makes it a very painful exercise for his descendants who are in senior positions in the company.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:And so now another German-based international publishing house is beginning its own self-investigation -- that's the Von Holzbrink [sp?] Group which owns Farrar Straus, Henry Hold, including half of Times Books and St. Martin's Press.
MARK LANDLER: I think that the Holzbrink exercise is a bit different. They have a, a single author working on a project; they have not named him - or her for that matter. We know nothing about the credentials of this person, and I think that the key difference perhaps is that Holzbrink is a farm more private and low profile company and has always been so in Germany. That's a major contrast to Bertelsmann, and in some ways the way that they're approaching this question of their war time history is very much reflective of the profile they have in general in this country.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And so mea culpas aside, how do these revelations affect business?
MARK LANDLER:The honest answer is not at all. The Bertelsmann company is a hugely successful enterprise. The assets it owns, notably Random House and Bertelsmann Music Group, operate really outside the shadow of this whole issue. Random House, for example, says it has not lost a single prominent author because of worries about being associated with a former Nazi company.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Okay. Mark Landler is the European economic correspondent for the New York Times and we spoke to him from the Frankfurt Bureau. Thanks very much, Mark.