Speak, Memory

8 Nov

All that’s solid melts into air.

Schocken Verlag* was a German publishing house established in 1931 by Jewish department store owner Salman Shocken. In 1939 it was shut down by the Nazis. It slowly made its way to New York, where it eventually became Shocken Books. In 1987 Shocken was acquired by Random House. Eleven years later, Random House was acquired by Bertelsmann.

During World War II, Bertelsmann was the largest publisher of Nazi propaganda, including “The Christmas Book of the Hitler Youth.” It also made use of Jewish slave labor in Latvia and Lithuania.

Confronted about the company’s past in 2002, a Bertelsmann spokesman said, “The values of Bertelsmann then are irreconcilable with the company today. The company is now a global player in the media industry.”

Because the one thing the Nazis definitely were not were global players.

“Common sense tells us,” wrote Nabokov, “that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.”

* I learned of this history in the London Review of Books, and gleaned additional details from Wikipedia and the BBC.

17 Responses to “Speak, Memory”

  1. joanna bujes November 8, 2013 at 10:24 am #

    If it’s one thing I learned from Gravity’s Rainbow it’s that WWII is not over. It explains a lot.

  2. Michael November 8, 2013 at 10:29 am #

    Speak Memory may be the English language’s finest autobiographies.

    _____

  3. gigiistheone November 8, 2013 at 10:39 am #

    Amazing, Corey; thank you for sharing it!

  4. Rahul (@rlpkamath) November 8, 2013 at 11:05 am #

    Read a couple of times and (think I) finally get it. You are drawing a parallel between the Nazis and multinational corporations. Very clever, but I’m not sure that, poetry aside, its very true.

    • Corey Robin November 8, 2013 at 11:11 am #

      Not exactly. Primarily I was telling a story about how a Jewish publisher that was hounded out of Germany by the Nazis is now owned by a German publisher that worked closely with the Nazis. Secondarily I was struck by the fatuity of this Bertelsmann defender’s response, in which he says that our values today are irreconcilable with the Nazis, and the reason we know this is that we are global players in today’s media. As if being a global player was irreconcilable with supporting Nazi values.

      • Anand Toprani November 8, 2013 at 10:37 pm #

        As someone who admires your work, it pains me to say this: I think if you had any familiarity with the copious secondary literature on economics in the Third Reich, you would be ashamed to make such facile comparisons. Why not try reading Adam Tooze’s Wages of Destruction before spewing such nonsense? Either that, or leave History to the historians.

  5. Jonny Butter November 8, 2013 at 11:55 am #

    The company is now a global player in the media industry.”

    The flack just used the wrong code words. “Global player” is an hilariously impolitic error. She/he should have used the magic words ‘international community’ – i.e. the entity in which we all speak English instead of all speaking German.

  6. 21stcenturytheater November 8, 2013 at 1:53 pm #

    Reblogged this on 21st Century Theater.

  7. Corey Robin November 8, 2013 at 11:06 pm #

    Anand Toprani: Can you enlighten me as to which “facile comparisons” I am supposed to be making? I’ll be happy to leave History (whatever that is) to the historians, once I have some evidence that you’ve actually understood my post.

    • Anand Toprani November 11, 2013 at 10:46 pm #

      Professor, the comment to which I object is:
      “Because the one thing the Nazis definitely were not were global players.”
      I gather — like Rahul before me — that beneath your snark was an assertion that the ambitions of a modern multinational are not utterly irreconcilable from those of the National Socialists. You subsequently confirmed my suspicion:
      “[I] was struck by the fatuity of this Bertelsmann defender’s response, in which he says that our values today are irreconcilable with the Nazis, and the reason we know this is that we are global players in today’s media. As if being a global player was irreconcilable with supporting Nazi values.”
      My objection has nothing to do with your assessment of either Bertelsmann’s history or its contemporary operations (upon which I am not qualified to comment). Nor, I wish to stress, do I have any particular problem with the idea using the Third Reich as a point of comparison within a contemporary context. That being said, if one is to make such a fraught comparison, it is incumbent upon them to do so upon a solid historical foundation.
      In this regard, I do not expect you to have an intimate familiarity with Gottfried Feder’s ponderous reflections upon the evils of “interest slavery” or to be able to quote Hitler’s memorandum on the Four-Year Plan from memory. In fact, even though you’re a Yale man, I would not be chagrined to learn that you had never read Henry Turner Ashby’s work on big business and the rise of Nazis.
      What I do expect, however, is that you display the requisite historical sensibility to grasp that the Nazis explicitly and consistently rejected the idea that Germany should ever again participate within the wider global economy. Hitler and his coterie expressed their disgust at what they perceived as an Anglo-American-dominated liberal international political economy on numerous occasions and sought to construct a hermetically sealed and self-supporting sphere of influence that would obviate the need for further engagement with the global economy (which they asserted — and not entirely without justification — had contributed to Germany’s impoverishment). In those instances where they did consent to transnational corporate collaboration (most notably in the case of the cartel agreements between IG Farben and Standard Oil), their assent was always grudging and guided by expediency — specifically, the hope that such partnerships were temporary and would ultimately further their ambitions to remove Germany from the prevailing international economic order. For this reason, any German firm that chose to privilege its transnational interests over those of the Volk was, by definition, not “supporting Nazi values.”
      It is for this reason that I took offense to your apparently off-hand remark — not because I thought it was in bad taste, but rather because it was bad History (or history, if you prefer) and — if you will forgive my presumptuousness — reflected poorly on your standing as a scholar.
      Sincerely,
      etc.
      P.S. You’re reading far too much into the fact that capitalize nouns when referring to academic disciplines.

      • Corey Robin November 12, 2013 at 1:47 pm #

        “beneath your snark was an assertion that the ambitions of a modern multinational are not utterly irreconcilable from those of the National Socialists.”

        I suppose that’s true in the sense that the following assertion is also true: insofar as modern-day Americans wish to breath and keep breathing, one can say that the ambitions of modern-day Americans are not utterly irreconcilable with those of the National Socialists.

        But what I said was something else altogether: there is an assumption in the Bertelsmann quotation that it is by virtue of being a global player that Bertelsmann is completely different from the Nazis.

        And that of course is not true. The Nazis did have global ambitions. Not economic ambitions (and nothing I said implied that they did; I have in fact written on the very topic you speak about — the disgust of Hitler with international political economy — on multiple occasions), but political ambitions.

        So having concocted this little tempest in the teapot of your own head, you can go simmer down.

      • Anand Toprani November 12, 2013 at 9:37 pm #

        I’ll confess to getting a little worked up – wouldn’t be the first time (although this is hardly the ideal venue). On the other hand, misrepresenting the evidence with a dollop of condescension may fool your undergraduates, but you’ll have to try harder with me. The quote in question from the Bertelsmann spokesman made reference to the “values” of the company today compared to the National Socialists. You’ve offered no evidence (sophistry aside) to rebut my argument that that is true insofar as we assume that the company’s aims are roughly the same as an average multinational.
        As for the Nazis’ global ambitions, that’s besides the point – I was referring only to their relationship to the Anglo-American-dominated world economy. But since you’re apparently an expert on that, too, I’m having trouble understanding why you don’t concede that you could have made your point more carefully. Surely someone who studied the topic would choose their words better? Especially since you now claim that you were referring only to the Nazis’ political agenda, even though such a distinction is lacking from your original post (not to mention any evidence pertaining to Bertelsmann’s political agenda in order to make a plausible comparison – although that seems like a stretch if the company espouses neoliberal banalities).
        (On the other hand, I must confess that we could both be missing the point, since the spokesman referred to the company’s relationship to the global media industry. I honestly don’t know enough about the politics of German cinema during this period, although I gather Goebbels would have relished the role of a global media magnate.)
        As for your copious scholarship on the history of German political economy, well, I’m sure I would enjoy it. In leaving the last word to you, while I’m happy to take my licks, I hope you’ll show some collegiality and refrain from dismissing a fellow scholar with such demeaning language.

  8. dm November 10, 2013 at 3:10 pm #

    Interestingly, the Bertelsmann Foundation (in a complexly semi-illegal way very closely entangled with the corporation) is now one of the biggest think tanks and non-profits in Germany, propagating an extreme neo-liberal, pro-business agenda. Its very influential and well-connected. On the other hand, it is despised on the far right for its activism for “multiculturalism” and tolerance. So in a sense the spokesperson is right – it’s a very 21st century kind of organisation.

    And yes, “Speak, Memory” is a marvellous book.

  9. Corey Robin November 12, 2013 at 9:41 pm #

    Anand Toprani: I’m more inclined to show collegiality and refrain from dismissing a fellow scholar when said scholar doesn’t write, as an opening salvo, statements like this: “If you had any familiarity with the copious secondary literature on economics in the Third Reich, you would be ashamed to make such facile comparisons. Why not try reading Adam Tooze’s Wages of Destruction before spewing such nonsense? Either that, or leave History to the historians.”

    Next time you want collegiality, show some.

    • Anand Toprani November 12, 2013 at 11:03 pm #

      And I can accept to when I’m in the wrong — although I still think your scholarly assessment was lacking (facile, even), I regret my intemperate language.

    • Escott December 2, 2013 at 12:46 pm #

      Corey, for me this discussion with Anon and other commenters triggered associations, outstandingly illustrated in Greece, regarding the tendency of banking interests to corrupt National economies with credit, ultimately tending to irritate Citizens into devastating solutions, faced with the burdensome debt, as was the situation in Germany, from what I gathered.

    • Escott December 2, 2013 at 1:08 pm #

      Sorry, I meant discussion with Anand.

      Would you think the US economic situation another example of credit corruption tending towards rash solutions ? For decades we’ve enjoyed social benefits – thanks to borrowed money while real wealth concentrated towards the top. Now the destruction of ” big Government” is proposed as the solution.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 5,024 other followers