German historians win battle of quills

July 26, 1996

Leading historians involved in a prestigious multi-volume history of Germany have won their battle to remove the controversial ninth volume on the Nazi period from the series just six months after it was published.

But victory did not come cheap. The Ullstein/Propylaen publishing house paid the author of the volume, Karlheinz Weissmann, DM80,000 (around Pounds 35,500) in a legal settlement which gives him back the rights to his volume Der Weg in den Abgrund - Deutschland unter Hitler 1933-1945.

A new version of volume nine of the Propylaen History of Germany is now to be written by Hans Mommsen, an internationally renowned expert on the National Socialist period. Professor Mommsen is to work on it while he is a visiting professor at St. Anthony's College, Oxford. He takes up the position this autumn.

Dieter Groh, editor of the series, said Professor Mommsen is especially highly rated internationally by younger academics.

Weissmann's book caused a storm of protest from historians when it was published last December. Professor Groh told The THES that Weissmann, a senior school teacher from Gottingen, was a "spokesman for the new right" with no established academic reputation. Previous authors in the series, who are also co-editors of the project, include leading historians Johannes Fried, Hans Mommsen, his twin brother Wolfgang J. Mommsen, and American historian James J. Sheehan.

Originally it had been agreed that Hans Mommsen, a leading specialist on the National Socialist period, would write the volume. He had already written the critically acclaimed eighth volume on the Weimar Republic. But Propylaen cancelled the contract after the manuscript was not delivered on time. Instead they contracted Dr Weissmann to write the book without consulting series editor Professor Groh, even though his contract stated that he should select the authors. In the ensuing dispute several subscribers returned their copies and the dozen reviews that have appeared have universally criticised the Weissmann book, Professor Groh said. Michael Jeismann, in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, called it "a cuckoo in the nest". Ulrich Herbert in Die Zeit said the book "was a long way from the revisionist creations of new right authors". But he criticised a number of Dr Weissmann's assertions such as the number of Jews murdered by the Nazis and his claim that only around 200 people were party to the "Final Solution".

Christian Seeger, of Propylaen, admitted the settlement with Dr Weissmann was expensive but said it would have been more expensive had they been unable to press ahead with the series. "We want to bring out a paperback edition and we can only do that once the series is completed. And we could not finish it without the co-operation of the editorial board of historians," he said. The settlement also marks a change of direction at the company.

Axel Springer Verlag AG, the media giant which owns Ullstein/Propylaen, this year parted company with publisher Herbert Fleissner and resumed direct control of the firm. Under Fleissner the publishing house brought out a number of controversial rightwing spectrum titles.

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