January 23, 2009

Republication of Nazi-era newspaper draws lawsuit

German authorities launched legal action yesterday against a British publisher who reprinted and sold a Nazi newspaper featuring fiery remarks by Adolf Hitler's propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels.

The paper - the Voelkischer Beobachter (People's Observer), from March 1, 1933 - is the second in a series of Nazi-era newspapers republished in annotated facsimiles that has sparked a row in Germany over press freedom. The latest edition in the series hit German news-stands early yesterday, with a photograph on the front page of the Reichstag parliament building in flames, seen as a pivotal moment in the rise to power of the Nazis.

The fire was used by Hitler, who had been sworn in as chancellor four weeks earlier, to "prove" that Communists were hatching a plot against the German government and justify a swift crackdown.

"Murder, terror, fire and destruction: these are the terrible things this fanatical party [the Communists] leaves behind it," Goebbels writes in the commentary on the first page.

"We've had enough," cries the headline. "Now we're going to take ruthless and dramatic measures."

Bavaria's finance ministry, which holds the rights to all publications from the main Nazi publishing house, said in a statement it would seek to press charges against the publisher, Peter McGee, for copyright infringement. In addition, it would lodge a civil action to stop future papers being published.

On Jan. 16, the ministry issued a order banning any further publication of Nazi material but the publishers ignored the instruction. Bavaria said it is concerned about the possible offence to Holocaust survivors and the potential misuse of the material by neo-Nazis. While the publication of excerpts of documents from the period was allowed, the complete reprinting of these papers "risks being misused and is not acceptable," the ministry said.

Sandra Paweronschitz, chief editor of the series, said the argument the papers could fuel extremist activity was "as short-sighted as it is wrong." She pointed out that the republications are accompanied by commentary from leading historians putting the papers in their proper historical context.

"We will fight this attack on the freedom of the press with all legal means -- if necessary not only in civil courts but also before the Federal Constitutional Court," she said.

Charlotte Knobloch, head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, said she supported the publication of the paper but hoped people would also read the historians' comments.

"As a Holocaust survivor, these texts are much more to me than just interesting historical documents. They are part of a harrowing reality that I can still recall," she said in a commentary on the publisher's Web site. If people read only the propaganda, she acknowledged, it could be "disastrous."

With many financial commentators comparing the current economic crisis to the Great Depression of the 1930s, the paper also contains a headline about the "American financial scandal" that would not be out of place in today's news.

The Mellon bank -- now known as Bank of New York Mellon -- was ordered to pay US$400-million in a tax-evasion scandal, the paper reports under the headline: "Banking crisis expands even further."

The row over the republished papers follows a similar spat last year over the republication of Hitler's autobiography Mein Kampf ("My struggle"), which has been banned in Germany since the end of the Second World War.

National Post

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