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Nazi-era papers trigger German row

Copies of Zeitungszeugen
Thousands of the reprints attached to Zeitungszeugen have been confiscated

By Tristana Moore
BBC News, Berlin

The word "censored" is splashed across the front page of the current edition of the Zeitungszeugen, or "Newspaper Witnesses".

As you flick through the paper, it is pretty thin because the controversial reprints of Nazi-era newspapers have been removed - leaving only some commentaries on them.

Ever since the papers hit the news-stands here in Germany in January, there has been a bout of national soul-searching about the country's Nazi past.

Jewish groups and commentators have questioned the project's historic value, claiming that the reprints of the Nazi-era newspapers will play into the hands of far-right groups who could use the papers for their own propaganda purposes.

Because of our country's history, there are regulations in Germany's criminal code which govern the use of Nazi symbols
Wilfried Krames
Bavarian Ministry of Justice

The authorities in the state Bavaria went one step further and announced that they would press criminal proceedings against the publisher of Zeitungszeugen.

The authorities confiscated more than 3,200 reprints of an edition of the Nazi newspaper, Voelkischer Beobachter (People's Observer), in the second issue of Zeitungszeugen in Bavaria.

This edition was deemed to be the most contentious because it contained the reprint of the paper along with a Nazi propaganda poster.

Hundreds of other copies of the reprints attached to Zeitungszeugen have also been confiscated across Germany.

'Quality analysis'

Zeitungszeugen is the brainchild of the British publisher, Peter McGee.

Peter McGee holds up a copy of Zeitungszeugen (29 January 2009)
We are in no way caving in - we want a speedy court ruling on this issue
Peter McGee
Publisher of Zeitungszeugen

The idea was to reproduce copies of Nazi-era newspapers harking back to a specific historical event, ranging from left-wing papers to Nazi publications, such as Der Angriff (The Attack), which was founded by Joseph Goebbels in 1927.

The publishers are keen to provide a historical overview of the media in Nazi Germany and make history more accessible to the public.

"Zeitungszeugen should be read by people who would never read a contemporary history textbook, but still value quality analysis of the information," Mr McGee says.

His London-based publishing company sought advice from renowned German historians and experts on the Third Reich.

The first editions, which cost 3.90 euros (£3.40), included commentaries which examined the historical context and the Nazis' propaganda methods.

However, the state of Bavaria claims that it owns the rights to the Nazi paper Voelkischer Beobachter and the rights to Adolf Hitler's book, Mein Kampf.

Signed copy of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kamp (2 June 2005)
Bavaria claims that it owns the rights to Adolf Hitler's book, Mein Kampf

Prosecutors in Munich have launched legal action against the publisher of Zeitungszeugen on the grounds of copyright infringement and the publication of Nazi emblems, such as swastikas, which is a punishable offence in Germany.

"The criminal proceedings are under way and the prosecutors are taking this case very seriously," says Wilfried Krames, a spokesman for the Bavarian justice ministry.

"Because of our country's history, there are regulations in Germany's criminal code which govern the use of Nazi symbols."

"Even a reprint of a Nazi newspaper is unconstitutional because the publisher is still reproducing Nazi emblems and this also represents a breach of copyright law," Mr Krames adds.

Anti-propaganda laws

Since the end of World War II Germany has had strict laws banning Nazi propaganda.

Adolf Hitler salutes competitors at the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games in Berlin on 1 August 1936
Using propaganda of unconstitutional organisations is illegal in Germany

According to the German Criminal Code (Section 86), the dissemination of propaganda of unconstitutional organisations - such as the National Socialist German Workers' Party, or Nazi Party - is a criminal act, punishable by imprisonment of up to three years, or a fine.

In addition, under Section 86a of the German Criminal Code, the use of symbols of unconstitutional organisations - such as the Nazi swastika - is punishable by imprisonment of up to three years, or a fine.

But for Mr McGee, freedom of the press is at stake here.

He insists that he will not be intimidated by the Bavarian authorities and he is determined to continue his legal battle.

Mr McGee's lawyer has appealed against the order of confiscation and the case will initially be heard in Munich's regional court, but it could end up in Germany's constitutional court.

The purpose of the project is scientific
Ulrich Michel
Lawyer for Zeitungszeugen

"There are strong doubts about whether the state of Bavaria actually owns the rights to Nazi newspapers from 1933-45," says Ulrich Michel, a partner at the firm, Noerr Stiefenhofer Lutz.

"And even if the state of Bavaria were the rightful owner, under German copyright law, you are allowed to use and publish these works for scientific purposes."

"The purpose of the project is scientific. Zeitungszeugen was compiled with the help of 10 renowned historians and other scientists, including the director of the Holocaust Research Centre at the Royal Holloway College in London," he adds.

'Educational purposes'

Mr McGee's lawyer dismisses the allegations that the reprints of the Nazi-era newspapers represent an infringement of the German criminal code.

As a Holocaust survivor, these texts for me are more than interesting historic sources... They are part of a gruesome reality
Charlotte Knobloch
German Central Council of Jews

"Two expert opinions of university professors in criminal law have confirmed that this is absurd, because the law only applies to propaganda material which was published after the German constitution was drawn up in 1949, and not to material which was published before," he says.

"And the law does not apply when the publishing is done for educational purposes."

The publisher launched a similar project in eight other countries, including Austria, where the ministry of education co-operated with the publishing house in order to bring Zeitungszeugen to schools, and the state of Bavaria did not lodge any complaint.

"We are in no way caving in," Peter McGee insists. "We want a speedy court ruling on this issue."

Neo-Nazi holds a German Reich war flag during a protest in Berlin (29 January 2000)
Many worry the newspaper will foment right-wing sentiments in Germany

For now, the debate continues and the Zeitungszeugen project has raised many provocative questions.

Is one allowed to reproduce and distribute Nazi newspapers in Germany, and if so, how?

Do 70-year-old Nazi publications pose a danger to a democratic society?

The head of the German Central Council of Jews, Charlotte Knobloch, says she supports the confiscation of the reprints of the Nazi-era papers.

"As a Holocaust survivor, these texts for me are more than interesting historic sources," she says.

"They are part of a gruesome reality that I was able to escape. Millions of other Jews were not. As a publisher, you should be aware of that," she adds.

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