Empire of publishing built on barbarism

 

On Tuesday, Bloomsday, I took part in what has become, as an alternative to Paddywhackery, a global celebration of Irish culture, the Irish Times-sponsored readings from Ulysses, moving round the world from Australia to California, and broadcast on the World Wide Web.

In New York I was roped into reading the part of Leopold Bloom in the Cyclops chapter. Because the other readers, Frank McCourt and Brian O'Byrne (from the cast of The Beauty Queen of Leenane), are outstanding examples of Ireland's current cultural prominence, there was a festive air.

Yet it was also a strange kind of celebration. The chapter we were reading is one in which Bloom, an Irish Jew, is attacked by the Citizen, a rabid Irish nationalist and anti-semite. As Dermot Keogh points out in his magnificent new book, Jews in Twentieth Century Ireland, an urgent work of history which every literate Irish person should read, Joyce created Bloom partly in reaction to the anti-semitic ravings which Arthur Griffith published in his paper Sinn Fein.

Although these promptings were immediate and local, it's impossible to read the Cyclops chapter now without thinking of the Holocaust. Especially in New York, which is in some respects such a Jewish city. You can't, without a shudder, read lines like Bloom's "I belong to a race that is hated and persecuted. Also now. This very moment. This very instant. Robbed. Plundered. Insulted. Persecuted."

Right at the very heart of this most cosmopolitan celebration of Irish culture, there is an awareness of how shallow 20th-century cosmopolitanism proved to be. And that awareness continues to haunt us.

Last week one of the world's great publishing conglomerates, the Georg von Holtzbrinck Publishing Group, held its annual meeting in a Dublin hotel. Most people won't recognise the company under that name - I know I didn't - but they will probably know the names of at least some of the imprints it owns: Macmillan and Picador in England, part of Gill and Macmillan in Ireland, Henr Holt, St Martin's Press and Farrar Straus Giroux in the US, the great Fischer Verlag and Rowohlt houses in Germany.

Under these various rubrics, the Holtzbrincks publish writers like Scott Turow, Salman Rushdie, Tom Wolfe, Thomas Pynchon, Thomas Mann and Mario Vargas Llosa. They publish many of the great Jewish writers of this century: Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Joseph Brodsky, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Philip Roth and Grace Paley.

And, on one or other side of the Atlantic, they handle the work of many of Ireland's best living writers: Seamus Heaney, Paul Muldoon, John Banville, Patrick McCabe, Colm Toibin, Colum McCann, Edna O'Brien. The best-selling

US edition of my colleague Nuala O'Faolain's Are You Somebody? is a Holtzbrinck book. So is the US edition of my book, A Traitor's Kiss.

We now know that this great repository of western civilisation was built on Nazism. An investigation by David Margolick in this month's Vanity Fair magazine establishes this.

The founder of the firm, Georg von Holtzbrinck, was until the early 1930s an impoverished student who sold books door to door. He joined a Nazi student group in 1931, two years before Hitler came to power. He became a member of the Nazi Party in 1933, and stayed loyal to it until the end of the war. He published four Nazi-approved magazines. He also produced books for the German army, in which, from 1943 onwards, he himself served.

AS Nazis go, Holtzbrinck was small Pils. He wasn't a mass murderer or a mastermind of anti-semitic propaganda. His company wasn't a Krupps or an IG Farben, an industrial giant which funded Hitler and exploited slave labour. He was probably not even an especially enthusiastic Nazi. He was merely a petty opportunist.

Margolick quotes the German historian Siegfried Lokatis: "Holtzbrinck was not a Nazi war criminal but . . . he cleverly took advantage of a favourable economic situation."

He profited in three ways. First, his publication of Nazi magazines and books for the storm troopers helped him to build up the capital which turned a door-to-door salesman into a substantial publisher.

Second, he managed to squirrel away several tons of newsprint, a scarce commodity which very few people had access to in the aftermath of the war. This gave him a lucrative head start in the race to re-establish publishing operations after the defeat of the Nazis. And third, much of his competition, the great Jewish-owned publishing houses of pre-Nazi Germany, was destroyed.

Georg von Holtzbrinck buried his past so successfully that when he died in 1983, the tributes included one from his good friend, the then mayor of Jerusalem, Teddy Kollek. His three children took over the family empire and expanded it to a point where it now rivals another German firm, Bertelsmann, as a dominant force in English-language publishing. No one currently involved in the firm has any Nazi connections.

Does it matter that such an important international cultural institution was built on the barbarism of the Nazi era? It's tempting to believe that the books that pass through the Holtzbrinck empire are no more profoundly affected by the passage than the air which blows through a Krups hair-dryer. Writers especially like to think that there is no real connection between the pure act of creation and the unfortunate necessities of buying and selling through which their words are transmitted to readers.

In a sense, that's entirely true. Reading is an intimate and essentially private transaction. The publisher's history is, in the midst of that act, utterly irrelevant. But for the author there are other transactions which come between the writing and the reading: agents, contracts, advances, royalties, readings, interviews.

There's nothing innocent or sacrosanct about these parts of the business. They're about money and power and the pursuit of personal advantage. And after Margolick's article, we know that for many important Irish writers they can't be completely extricated from the very worst barbarism.

The past can't be changed. It would be absurd to blame the many civilised publishing houses taken over by the Holtzbrincks in recent years for the sins of their owners' father. But it would also be a shame for writers to simply ignore what has emerged.

Writers, by definition, are committed at least to the idea of honesty. The most disturbing thing about the whole business is not that the Holtzbrinck empire has a dark past, but that it hasn't been honest about it. By denial and evasion, it has contributed its own little bit to the obscuring of the most urgent reality of the 20th century.

One way to really celebrate Bloomsday might be for those Irish writers published by the company to ask its owners to fulfil the greatest duty of the publisher, a graceful acknowledgment of the truth.