British publisher fights ‘censorship’ of Nazi newspapers

31st January 2009, Comments 0 comments

Pending a court ruling, this week's edition contained no reprints of Nazi party papers but McGee insisted he would not be intimidated.

Hamburg -- A British publisher accused German authorities of censorship and vowed to seek a court ruling on whether reprints of Nazi-era newspapers can be sold on German newsstands.

Addressing a news conference in Munich earlier this week, Peter McGee said he refused to be intimidated by police raids and threats of fines from authorities in the state of Bavaria who hold the rights to Adolf Hitler's estate.

Copies of the current edition of McGee's historical newspaper reprints were delivered to newsstands with the word "Zensiert" (Censored) plastered across the front.

Pending a court ruling, this week's edition contained no reprints of Nazi party papers. But McGee insisted he would not be intimidated.

"We are in no way caving in," McGee said. "We want a speedy court ruling on this issue."

Police raids and efforts to ban the reprints of Nazi-era newspapers have spawned a national debate about whether Germans are ready to cope with their dark past.

Police fanned out at newsstands across Germany earlier this week to confiscate copies of McGee's limited-edition set of annotated reprints of newspapers from the early 1930s after allegations of copyright infringement and publication of Nazi propaganda and Nazi emblems such as swastikas -- a punishable offence in Germany.

The police raids prompted a backlash from German news media amid accusations of censorship and violation of freedom of the press.

But prosecutors in Munich who ordered the confiscations argue that neo-Nazis could use the reprints of such Nazi propaganda papers as Der Voelkische Beobachter for modern-day propaganda purposes.

The publishers of the reprints, however, insist that it is time for Germans to be able to see the headlines that their great grandparents saw. They point out that each issue contains not only replicas of Nazi papers, but also Communist and centrist papers, along with posters.

In addition, each issue contains a supplement with detailed annotation of all the major articles in each of the papers. The annotations are written by historians.

The authorities in Munich argue that the replica newspapers can be removed for separate use. Thus, they are not necessarily "accompanied by" historical analysis, in keeping with the letter of strict post-German laws, which ban all publication of Nazi propaganda.

The replica editions hit newsstands in January with reproductions of newspapers from January 30, 1933, commenting on Adolf Hitler being sworn in as chancellor of Germany.

Nazi papers proclaimed it the beginning of a new era, while left-wing papers warned of a dark new era ahead for Germany.

The initial print run of 250,000 soon sold out and another 50,000 copies had to be printed. The second edition was about to hit newsstands this week when police moved in, citing federal violations.

German law prohibits any and all display of Nazi emblems or utterance of Nazi slogans (such as "Sieg Heil") except under strict limitations for educational purposes or media documentaries or certain dramatic presentations, such as movies or historical stage plays.

Complicating the issue is the fact that, legally speaking, the state of Bavaria holds all rights to Adolf Hitler's estate, since he left no heirs. That means all rights to his book Mein Kampf as well as to Nazi newspapers which arguably had been "owned by" the Fuehrer now belong to the state of Bavaria.

For decades, German courts have been embroiled with cases over whether a swastika can be displayed on a news magazine or on the tail fins of a toy Hindenburg zeppelin.

British author Robert Harris's bestselling novel Vaterland can only be sold in Germany if the swastika on the front cover is not visible, according to a court ruling.

When that ruling was issued several years ago, police fanned out to ensure that book shops had pasted price labels directly over the swastika on each book, so as to obscure it.

"We're a laughing stock internationally with such ludicrous discussions," says Hans Mommsen, a historian who is one of the moving forces behind the project to reproduce the annotated editions.

"And when law-enforcement is called in and the editor faces federal prosecution, it just shows up the German public's neurotic situation when it comes to Nazism," says Mommsen, 78, professor emeritus from Ruhr University and a guest professor at Harvard, Princeton and Berkeley universities.

The major issue at stake is whether German laws inadvertently create an aura of forbidden glamour around Nazi propaganda devices, according to another historian involved in the project.

"I remember seeing Leni Riefenstahl's film Triumph of the Will on prime-time television in Holland back in the 1970s without any disclaimers or commentaries," says Hamburg-based historian Frank Bajohr.

"But when I wanted to show the film to advanced students of history here in Germany, I ran into a maelstrom of restrictions and accusations," recalls Bajohr, who has written books on the Nazi era and is a fellow at the International Institute for Holocaust Research in Yad Vashem.

It is an irony of history that the state of Bavaria has publication rights to Mein Kampf, says Mommsen, who says the book should be published in Germany so as to demystify it.

"In Israel, you can buy Mein Kampf in any book shop but here it is still banned," Mommsen says. "That creates a mythic aura for a book which, when read, reveals its banality from A to Z. To this very day there is no annotated edition of that book in German with explanatory commentary."


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