Apart from the sheer mass of the Clintons’ earnings, perhaps the most intriguing revelation contained in the release of the Clinton tax data last week was that Bill Clinton received a whopping $15 million advance in 2001 for what would become his autobiography, My Life. As even the New York Times noticed, this was significantly “larger than previously thought” — or, more exactly, than previously reported. For example, an August 7, 2001 article in the Times puts the figure vaguely at “over $10 million.” A Wall Street Journal report from the following day cites a more concrete figure of “close to $12 million.” The New York Times does not bother to ask why Clinton or his publisher would have misled the public about the true size of the advance when the book deal was signed. The most obvious explanation, however, is the appearance of impropriety that such a mammoth payout could create, especially so soon after the then financially-strapped former president left office. Indeed, the originally reported $10-12 million figure would already have represented the largest advance for a non-fiction book in the history of publishing. In the Wall Street Journal article, industry insider Roger Strauss was quoted as saying that he did not “see how [the book] could make money.” Strauss added that the size of the advance was “particularly strange,” since no competitive auction had been held.
Who would pay such an enormous sum to Bill Clinton — thus, in effect, erasing in one fell swoop the well-known financial burden of his outstanding legal fees? The answer is that Germany’s Bertelsmann Corporation would. The identity of Clinton’s financial benefactor was in fact largely obscured in the American coverage of the book deal, which as a rule only named the reassuringly familiar and prestigious American publisher Alfred A. Knopf as the purchaser of the book rights. And Alfred A. Knopf is indeed the publisher of the Clinton volume. But Knopf is in fact nowadays just a division of Random House, and Random House in turn was acquired by the German media giant Bertelsmann in 1998.
And there is the rub. For when Bertelsmann put in its bid for Random House, it already owned the American publisher Bantam Doubleday Dell. The combined assets of Bantam Doubleday Dell and Random House would give Bertelsmann control over dozens of American book imprints, including — in addition to those brand names already mentioned — such other well-known names as Vintage, Anchor, Ballantine, and Pantheon. According to the estimate of the Authors Guild, the merged companies would account for some 36% of the general adult trade book market in the US. Such an unprecedented situation of market dominance would clearly seem to have required intervention from American anti-trust authorities. Despite the warnings and complaints of authors, however, the Clinton White House permitted the deal to go ahead unhindered.
Some two and a half years later, on January 31, 2001, Joel Klein, the former head of the anti-trust division in the Clinton justice department, was named chairman and chief executive officer of Bertelsmann’s American operations. Klein — in the meanwhile schools chancellor of the city of New York — had no previous experience in media. The appointment was made barely one week after Klein’s ex-boss left office. (Klein himself resigned his anti-trust post a few months earlier; this presumably in order to diminish the obvious appearance of impropriety.) Some six months later, Clinton received his big check from Bertelsmann.
A privately owned company, Bertelsmann is fully controlled by a single family: the Mohn family from the small town of Gütersloh in North Rhine-Westphalia. Roughly a quarter of the company’s total capital is held directly by family members, and the remaining three-quarters has been attributed to the family-run non-profit organization, the Bertelsmann Foundation. In the aftermath of the Random House deal, the American media of reference dutifully repeated the standard talking points of the firm’s own official history, according to which, family patriarch Heinrich Mohn was supposed to have built up Bertelsmann as a publisher of pious Christian books before being forced to cease operations by the Nazi regime. Thanks to the dogged efforts of German researcher Hersch Fischler, however, it quickly emerged that this official history was a brazen misrepresentation of the far less innocent reality.
In fact, Bertelsmann had massively profited from a close collaboration with the Nazi regime, serving notably as the principal supplier of so-called “front literature” for the Wehrmacht. Heinrich Mohn, it turned out, had himself been an honorary member of the SS — an “honor” obtained by virtue of his generous financial donations to the Nazis’ elite paramilitary force. More damningly still, as Fischler and co-author Franck Böckelmann discuss in their 2004 book-length exposé of Bertelsmann, the current family patriarch, Reinhard Mohn, helped to cover up his father’s ties to the Nazi regime from the Allied occupation authorities, thus permitting the company to resume publishing after the War. Reinhard Mohn’s role in this latter connection makes the company’s subsequent pleadings of ignorance about its Nazi-era history appear particularly disingenuous.
When confronted by the results of Fischler’s research, Bertelsmann went into damage-control and announced that it would undertake a reinvestigation of the company’s history in light of the “new information.” Revealingly, however, the Mohns proposed to assign the task to none other than Dirk Bavendamm. Bavendamm is a German revisionist historian, who — in keeping with his thesis that it was the USA and not Germany that was responsible for the Second World War — has described WWII as “Roosevelt’s War.” (For more information on Bertelsmann and Bavendamm, see here and here.)
As so happens, large swathes of Bertelsmann’s American book catalogue seem to be imbued with a similarly revisionist, even revanchist, spirit. President George W. Bush, needless to say, replaces Franklin D. Roosevelt as favorite whipping boy in the more recent crop of denunciations of American “war guilt,” “war crimes,” etc. Nicholson Baker’s Checkpoint, a novelistic meditation on assassinating President Bush, is a case in point. It was published by Alfred A. Knopf in the very midst of the 2004 presidential campaign and only months after Knopf’s celebratory launch of the Clinton memoirs. In light of Bertelsmann’s own corporate history, it is at least ironic to discover Edwin Black’s IBM and the Holocaust — subtitled “The Strategic Alliance between Nazi Germany and America’s Most Powerful Corporation” — among Bertelsmann’s offerings.
It should be noted that Bertelsmann/Random House also publishes a generous sampling of high-profile “pro-American” and/or “conservative” authors, including Republican presidential candidate John McCain. But by giving prominent exposure to writings that would previously have been confined to left-wing fringe publishers or university presses, Bertelsmann has undoubtedly made a substantial contribution to the recent sea-change in American political culture, which has seen European-style anti-Americanism, in effect, move into the mainstream in America itself.
Bertelsmann is nowadays not just any private German firm, but without question the most politically influential corporation in Germany. Via the Bertelsmann Foundation and the Foundation-financed Center for Applied Policy Research (CAP), the company plays a role of unparalleled importance in defining the political agenda not only in Germany, but in Europe as a whole. In the eyes of many critical German observers, the company has taken on the dimensions of a veritable “state within the state.”
In this connection, it is worth noting that the last years of the Clinton presidency were marked by a series of major concessions to German policy priorities. The most important of these was undoubtedly American backing for the 1999 NATO bombing campaign against Serbia. By bombing Serbia, NATO served as air support for the ethnic separatist guerilla of the Kosovo Liberation Army, a paramilitary formation that Clinton’s own Balkan envoy, Robert Gelbard, described as a terrorist group only one year earlier. Reflecting the importance attached by the German government to the Kosovo intervention, then German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder would go so far as to call it [German link] the “founding act” of a new Europe. Equally significant in this connection was President Clinton’s decision to place his signature on two pet German treaty projects — the Rome Statute for the creation of an International Criminal Court (ICC) and the Kyoto Protocol — even though neither had any prospect of ratification in the US Senate. (For the German role in promoting the ICC, see my discussion here.) Indeed, given what he himself called “significant flaws” in the Rome Statute, Clinton — after signing the treaty on the last day it was open for signature — declined even to submit it to the Senate. Such bizarrely inconsistent behavior served to put his successor immediately on the defensive vis-à-vis Germany and the EU in the matters of so-called international criminal justice and “climate change.”
In light of all the above, the $15 million from Bertelsmann could be viewed as payment for services rendered.
The Clinton campaign’s summary of the Clintons’ 2000-2007 income data indicates that the former president has been paid a total of over $23 million for My Life. This figure suggests that despite the initial skepticism of publishing industry experts, Bertelsmann did in fact eventually earn back its massive advance and then some. There is no obvious way of verifying this, however. For the moment, we have only the global income figures cited by the Clintons; we do not have any detailed disclosure from Bertelsmann. Moreover, even though My Life appears indeed to have sold well, most Americans will remember the ubiquitous hype that accompanied its release in 2004. Any realistic assessment of whether sales have been sufficient to make money for the publisher would also have to take into account the costs incurred by Bertelsmann in going to such extraordinary lengths to move the book.
Bill Clinton is reported to have earned $6.3 million from his 2007 volume Giving, which is likewise published by Knopf. This would bring Clinton’s total income from Bertelsmann to nearly $30 million. Just how or why Bertelsmann would pay Bill Clinton $6.3 million for Giving constitutes perhaps an even greater mystery than its $15 million advance for My Life. As of this writing, just over six months after its release, the book is languishing at #1,953 on the Amazon.com sales chart.
Incidentally, a large chunk of Barack Obama’s income — far outstripping his Senate salary — is also reported to come from a book deal. In late 2004, shortly before joining the Senate, he signed a deal for three books that promised him a healthy $1.9 million in advances. This included $850,000 for what would become The Audacity of Hope. Obama’s publisher is the Crown Publishing Group, yet another division of Random House. Or in other words, Bertelsmann.
John Rosenthal is Translations Editor and a contributing editor for World Politics Review.