Nazi minister’s estate sues Random House Germany and imprint Siedler over the use of extracts from his diaries.
The estate of Joseph Goebbels, Adolf Hitler’s minister of propaganda, is taking legal action against the publisher Random House over a new biography, claiming payment for the use of extracts from his diaries.
"We are convinced that no money should go to a war criminal - Rainer Dresen, general counsel of Random House Germany"
Cordula Schacht – a lawyer whose own father, Hjalmar Schacht, was Hitler’s minister of economics – is suing Random House Germany and its imprint Siedler, over the book Goebbels, by Peter Longerich, professor of modern German history at Royal Holloway, University of London.
Longerich, an authority on the Holocaust and Nazi era Germany, drew extensively on Goebbels’ diaries in his biography, which was published in Germany in 2010. Now those same passages from the diaries are set to appear in the English edition, which Penguin Random House UK and its imprint Bodley Head will publish on 7 May.
Rainer Dresen, general counsel of Random House Germany, told the Guardian that an important principle was at stake. “We are convinced that no money should go to a war criminal,” he said.
He recalled his surprise when Schacht first contacted the publisher as a representative of Goebbels’ heirs, demanding money: “I did not want to believe that anyone can claim royalties for Goebbels’ words, he said.
Last September, the district court of Munich ordered Random House Germany to disclose its earnings, but the publisher appealed on legal, copyright and moral grounds, and the case is due to be heard in Munich on 23 April.
Dresen suggested to Schacht – privately and in court – that royalties could be paid if she in turn donated them to a Holocaust charity. But she rejected the idea on the grounds that money should go to Goebbels’ family, thought to include descendants of Goebbels’ siblings.
Goebbels remained with Hitler in the besieged bunker in Berlin, poisoning his six children before he and his wife took their own lives. His diaries, from 1924 to 1945, remain in copyright until the end of 2015. Copies are in public libraries.
Hjalmar Schacht was minister of economics in Hitler’s National Socialist government from 1934 to 1937, and was president of Germany’s leading financial institution, the Reichsbank. Dresen said: “[He] helped Hitler finance his preparation of war.” Captured by the Allies, Schacht was tried at Nuremberg, but was eventually acquitted. He died in 1970.
Jörg Hensgen, Bodley Head’s senior editor, said in reference to the case: “Schacht was acquitted at Nürnberg, but there’s something deeply, morally dubious about the whole thing.”
Dresen believes that other publishers have paid for the use of Goebbels’ diaries. He said: “We’re the first publishing house who avoided that – and have been sued.”
Longerich maintains this case has important censorship implications. “If you accept that a private person controls the rights to Goebbels’ diaries, then – theoretically – you give this person the right to control research,” he said.
He added: “Control of the rights could have included an inspection of the manuscript before publication, which did not happen in this case. But generally speaking we cannot allow such control from private persons, whatever their interests are.
“In this case, we are dealing with the daughter of a cabinet colleague of Mr Goebbels. This is an absolutely unacceptable situation. It’s a question not only of morality, but of professionalism for a historian.”
Part of Random House’s legal argument questions the copyright ownership, because the diaries were supposed to be published posthumously by Hitler’s own publisher. As the offices were destroyed by Allied bombing raids, no publisher’s contract is in existence. But Dresen points to evidence within one of Goebbels’ diary entries of 1936 which confirms the plans for publication, and he argues that the Bavarian government should own the copyright.
Initially, he feared that Schacht would take out an injunction against the book, preventing its publication altogether. Determined to avoid the destruction of any books “on the grounds of a claim from Goebbels”, he agreed to pay her 1% of the net retail price.
He said: “When she wanted to cash in on that agreement, I said that agreement is null and void … It’s against the moral rights … You haven’t been entitled to sell me any words as those words lie within the Bavarian government.”
Asked whether he thought the forthcoming legal case could affect the biography’s UK publication, Dresen said: “From a legal standpoint, it could, because the questions are the same.”
Schacht declined to comment.