Goebbels estate wins lawsuit over diaries' copyright

The estate of notorious Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels won a lawsuit against Random House publishing company in Munich on Thursday.

The case was brought against Random House Germany by the estate because royalties were not paid out for the use of Goebbels' personal diaries in a biography published in 2010. The book, written by Nazi historian Peter Longerich and originally written in German, was republished in English by Penguin Random House UK and its imprint Bodley Head in May of this year causing the Goebbels estate to sue Random House for royalties it had not paid to for either version.

Cordula Schacht, daughter of Hitler's minister of economics Hjalmar Schacht, brought the suit against Random House Germany and its imprint Seidler on behalf of the Goebbels estate in April of this year. The estate is thought to consist of the direct descendants of the propagandist's four siblings as Goebbels and his wife Magda committed suicide in May 1945 after murdering their six children.

Goebbels, who is known as one of the architects of the Nazi Final Solution, which led to the deaths of roughly six million Jews and five million others, began writing a diary in 1923. He kept detailed accounts of his experiences and activities working with Hitler and the Nazi regime until April 1945, a month before his suicide. The diaries are one of the most significant sources of the internal workings of the Nazi political machine ever discovered.

Rainer Dresen, the lawyer representing Random House Germany, argued for the suspension of copyright laws in this case on legal and moral grounds. "We have more than a purely moral argument," Dresden told Newsweek: "The name of Goebbels appears on a list, written by the Allied Control Council [the authority which governed Germany in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War], of war criminals whose estate was banned from financial transactions."

Dresen made a private and public offer to Schacht for Random House pay the royalties, so long as the funds were donated to a Holocaust charity rather than going toward the estate, but she refused.

The Munich district court ruled in favor of the estate's claims, although it pointed out that the royalty rights to Goebbles' writings would expire at the end of 2015, 70 years after his death.

Dresen has pointed to evidence from a journal entry from 1936 when Goebbels sold the rights to Nazi state publishers. He believes this should transfer the copyright to the Bavarian government. "Bavaria is not interested," he told Newsweek, "'Show me the author's contract' they said, knowing the archives were destroyed at the war's end."

Dresen was adamant in April about the dangerous precedent a case like this could pose to individual access to historical research. Additionally, the lawyer questioned why the estate had not come forward with sooner.

Random House intends to appeal the case at the German Supreme Court. If it is successful, Dresen says, other media organizations could be examining the royalties they have been paying the Goebbels estate for their publications. "The court's ruling would declare the estate's position null and void, necessitating refunds," he says.

"Ideally," Dresen adds, "the courts will transfer the copyright to the Bavarian state, which would freely grant licenses for scientific use."

Goebbels' diaries were published posthumously between 1993 and 2008 in 29 volumes spanning the period 1923-1945. The documents, which had been copied onto microfilm at Goebbels' request in 1945, and buried to avoid their destruction during the war, were discovered in 1992 by German historian Elke Fröhlich in Moscow. The microfilm had been transported from their burial place in Potsdam Germany to the Russian capital where they were discovered in the archival library following the collapse of communism. It took between 1993 and 2008 for the full collection of text to be published in German.

Correction: This article was amended to make clear that Random House had never paid the Goebbels estate, but other media organisations who had may seek refunds if the Random House appeal is successful.