By Craig Whitlock and Shannon Smiley
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 13, 2009
BERLIN -- The news is really old -- from the 1930s -- but it's as shocking and controversial as ever. So controversial, in fact, that German censors are working overtime and police have raided newsstands across the country to cover it up.
Last month, a British publisher broke a long-standing German taboo by reprinting contemporary newspaper accounts of Hitler's rise to power. Among them: reports from the Voelkischer Beobachter, the Nazi Party house organ, breathlessly covering the Feb. 27, 1933, arson in the Reichstag, the German parliament.
"Enough is enough!" screamed the headline, blaming the blaze on communists and heralding Hitler as Germany's savior. Included in the reprints was a full-page Nazi campaign poster featuring a large swastika. Hitler used the Reichstag fire as a pretext to gain emergency powers.
The stated purpose of the reprints, collectively titled Zeitungszeugen, or Newspaper Witnesses, is to reeducate the public about the darkest moments in German history by giving them a view of how the news was reported at the time by various sources.
In addition to the Nazi screeds, the reprints include coverage of the same events by newspapers across the political spectrum, as well as modern-day commentary and analysis by respected historians. An issue costs about $4.50. A new one is published weekly, each covering a different event from when the Nazis held power between 1933 and 1945.
But the publisher, Albertas Ltd., quickly ran into trouble. The swastika has been banned in Germany since the end of World War II; any display of the symbol can land offenders in jail. Also, copyrights for the Nazi newspaper and other assorted propaganda churned out during the Third Reich are held by the state government of Bavaria, which was not consulted in advance.
On Jan. 22, the Bavarian Finance Ministry announced criminal and civil charges against Albertas and ordered police to grab any unsold copies they could find. The ministry fiercely guards its copyrights, which were granted to the Bavarian government after the war by the Allied powers. Usually, officials give permission to excerpt Nazi publications only to selected academics and researchers, under closely monitored conditions.
The restrictions are necessary to prevent neo-Nazi groups and other extremists from spreading Hitler's propaganda, said Judith Steiner, a spokeswoman for the ministry. "We believe there is a real danger of abuse wherever Nazi material is reproduced," she said.
Sandra Paweronschitz, the Vienna-based editor in chief of Zeitungszeugen, said her publisher did not try to obtain authorization in advance because it assumed Bavarian officials would reject the request.
She said Albertas had filed a complaint to challenge the ministry's copyright, which she asserted rested on dubious legal grounds. Some researchers have long questioned Bavaria's right to restrict publication of Nazi materials, including "Mein Kampf," Hitler's autobiography.
The copyrights do not extend to the United States and Britain, where researchers and publishers freely make use of the material. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, for example, has a major new exhibit on Nazi propaganda.
"In Germany, they are still afraid of this stuff," Paweronschitz said. "In 2009, it should be possible to discuss such things and not just lock the news in the archives, away from the public."
Demand for the newspapers has been brisk. Readers bought about 250,000 copies of the first issue, Paweronschitz said, though police confiscated most of the press run for the second edition.
Zeitungszeugen has continued to publish weekly since then, reprinting newspaper accounts of 1933 events from non-Nazi publishers that are not protected by copyright.
Albertas, the London-based publisher, has reprinted local-language newspapers from the 1930s in other European countries, including Greece and Belgium, without drawing controversy.
The firm ran a similar project last year in Austria, publishing German-language papers from 1938, the year that Hitler and the Nazis annexed Austria into the Third Reich. The Austrian reprints, which included some Nazi Party propaganda, had the blessing of the Austrian Ministry of Education, which consulted on the project.
Holocaust survivors and Jewish groups have spoken out against the German project, saying the reprints don't include enough explanatory side material from historians.
Stephan Kramer, secretary general of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, cited the copy of the Nazi poster embedded in the second issue. Extremists, he said, could easily cut out the posters and hang them up on their walls.
"How can I describe it? I'm shocked," he said, adding: "I have doubts that some people in Germany are mature enough to read the commentary" that accompanies the reprints.
He said he also had his doubts about the motives of Albertas, the publisher. "They know damn well that Hitler sells very well."
Udo Wengst, deputy director of the Institute for Contemporary History in Munich, said he generally supported the idea of being able to reprint Nazi materials. He said his institute tried a few years ago as part of an academic project to republish every issue of the Voelkischer Beobachter, which means the People's Observer in German, but was denied permission by Bavarian officials.
But Wengst criticized Zeitungszeugen for not supplying enough historical context and said he was troubled by its for-profit approach. "It can be dangerous if it lands in the wrong hands," he said.
Other German researchers have come out firmly in support of the project, including a panel of prominent European historians hired by Albertas as advisers.
"It is ridiculous that more than 70 years after these events people are filled with so much fear," said Hans-Ulrich Wehler, a history professor at the University of Bielefeld. "Why let fear dictate what is published? If neo-Nazis want access, now all they have to do is go to certain used-book stores."