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Historians have pointed to the dire implications for research of the royalties claim being brought by the heirs of Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s minister of propaganda, against the publisher Random House Germany.

The claim concerns extracts from diaries quoted in the biography Goebbels by Peter Longerich, professor of modern German history at Royal Holloway, University of London. The English edition is due to be published next month. 

The lawyer acting for the Goebbels estate, Cordula Schacht -- the daughter of Hjalmar Schacht, Hitler’s minister of economics, who was acquitted at Nuremberg -- is seeking just over €6,300 ($6,925) for the material quoted. The Higher Regional Court of Munich will pass judgment in July. 

Many historians have hitherto assumed that no such claims would be made. It had never occurred to Saul Friedländer, emeritus professor of history at the University of California at Los Angeles -- and one of the leading authorities on the Holocaust -- to “ask for an authorization from the Goebbels estate to quote from his diaries.”

Dan Stone, professor of modern history at Royal Holloway, said that he had “ordinarily simply assume[d] that published works and papers of Nazis are citable without any copyright issues. I regularly cite works by Nazi race theorists, some better known than others, in my work, and I do so on the assumption that there are no copyright issues.” 

All this may now be set to change. Much of the legal dispute has focused on the technical question of whether Goebbels’s diaries -- like all the papers of Hitler and Stalin, for example -- are now owned by the state and so can be freely quoted. Yet many also point to ethical issues about payments to relations of leading Nazis and the likely impact on serious biographical and historical research, particularly if the family demands copy approval of a text in return for giving permission to quote. 

A Lacuna in German History

“Historians will be reluctant to cite Nazis’ writings if doing so means being obliged to reward their heirs financially,” suggested Stone. “The consequences of not citing them, however, are obvious: a partial and incomplete analysis of the past.” 

That point was echoed by David Cesarani, research chair in history at Royal Holloway. “There is no question that the heirs and estates of Nazis who left published works or unpublished writings -- such as diaries, letters, prison statements -- could exert a chilling effect on serious scholarship into the period, and this trend must be fought vigorously. In some ways, the question is less about copyright than it is about the motives for enforcing it,” he added. 

“If the owners of copyright want acknowledgment or token payment, that is fair enough. If they want fees that are then paid to a good cause, that is irksome but reasonable. However, if they want to profit personally from the writings of Nazi ancestors, criminals, and/or to control the extent of usage, that is unacceptable and verges on the obscene.”

Robert Gellately, Earl Ray Beck Professor of History at Florida State University, who has written extensively about both the Nazi and Soviet eras, noted that copyright issues were “the bane of the historian’s existence.”

“Russia has renewed the copyright of certain materials such as the Marx-Engels, Lenin and Stalin collected works. At least Lenin’s and Stalin’s works are regarded as the property of the Russian state. As of today, no Stalin heir has come forward to claim proprietary rights. But stay tuned!” he said.

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