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A risky proposition: When Elsevier began its academic publishing with banned books

By Colleen DeLory, Elsevier | Sept 21, 2016

Post WWII brochure of the Elsevier Encyclopaedia of Organic Chemistry


As I read through some listserv discussions on whether academic libraries should promote Banned Books Week (the answer being a resounding YES!), I wondered whether Elsevier had any banned books in its history. After all, the modern-day publishing company has been operating since 1880. And I discovered — via colleagues in the Amsterdam headquarters — a tale that I hadn’t known about. 


In the years preceding World War II, as the Nazis rose to power in Germany, Elsevier Director J.P. Klautz acquired some of the back catalogues and new manuscripts of authors who had been blacklisted by the German government because of their Jewish heritage or affiliations that did not align with Nazi ideology. After extensive study of archival materials, Elsevier historian Sjors de Heuvel believes Klautz was motivated by a sense of fairness and responsibility, in addition to business acumen. Within a few years, as the publisher of banned books in the German-occupied Netherlands, Klautz was jumping out windows and living in hiding to avoid the German Security Police.


Much of what I’ll share below comes from an Elsevier company history that de Heuvel is writing. He has not only studied decades’ worth of board minutes, letters and annual reports, but also interviewed surviving relatives of company leaders and consulted other books1 written on the topic.



From journalist to publisher


J.P. KlautzJ.P. Klautz began his career as a journalist and only joined Elsevier in an attempt to become more respectable in the eyes of a young lady’s parents who did not want a journalist to darken their doorway. In his successful 1928 application to the company, Klautz’s ego and flair for the dramatic come out as he proclaims, “summing up my qualities would go against the modesty you demand [in your advertisement], but I find the publishing industry very appealing.”


After devoting himself to learning the publishing business and demonstrating a knack for modernizing the business, Klautz was appointed director in 1931 after only three years at Elsevier. From that point on (with the backing and mentoring of former Director Herman Robbers), he was the driving force behind the evolution of a modest 20-person Dutch company publishing literary works into the world’s leading international scientific publisher. 



Buying banned books


A turning point in Elsevier history came in 1936, when an Amsterdam bookseller proposed to Klautz that Elsevier publish three German-language manuscripts by banned historians, two of whom had fled Germany and one who was deceased: 


  • Veit Valentin, the former director of the German national archives in Berlin (moved to US) — Bismarcks Reichsgründung im Urteil englischer Diplomaten (Bismarck's Unification of Germany According to English Diplomats)
  • Heinrich Cunow, a Marxist university professor (moved to Amsterdam) — Geschichte und Kultur des Inkareiches (History and Culture of the Inca Empire)
  • Friedrich Gundolf, a literary historian (died in 1931) — Anfänge deutscher Geschichtsschreibung (Beginnings of German Historiography)


Klautz was intrigued by the thought of entering into academic publishing, which could transform the publishing company by moving beyond a relatively small region for sales to a global market. After acquiring additional works, such as Säuglingskrankheiten (Infant Diseases, 1938) by H. Finkelstein, and speaking with scholars, publishers, booksellers and government officials in Austria, Czechoslovakia, Germany and Switzerland, Klautz decided to proceed despite the risks.


With the rise of Nazism in Europe, any publisher stepping up to publish banned authors would become a target, warned Nazi government officials. Though Klautz was undaunted he still needed to persuade Elsevier’s Board of Directors. Klautz was equal to the task. In a speech to the board members he spoke eloquently: “Someday the historian of the twentieth century will ask himself if the refugees of today, just as occurred in earlier times, found a material or intellectual harbor in the Netherlands.” 


The board approved the plan; however, the German imprint was short-lived. The tide was turning from German-language publications as authors fled to the West and censorship peaked within Germany and occupied nations. English was to become the new lingua franca of academic publishing.



A new direction


In de Heuvel’s history of Elsevier he notes, “… after the Anschluss and Kristallnacht events of 1938, Klautz announced that no more contracts would be made for the publication of books in the German language.” The company was to move forward with English translations of German authors, including those banned in Germany, and founded offices in London and New York. These foreign operations lay dormant during the war as by 1940 the Elsevier headquarters was located in a German-occupied territory.


As Elsevier continued to support persecuted authors during the occupation, Klautz became a target of German Security Police. He evaded them once by jumping out a bedroom window and hiding in a neighbor’s chicken coop and subsequently by living in a hotel and bookstore. Before and during the war, he was able to help some Jewish colleagues escape, such as Maurits Dekker, the bookseller who helped found Elsevier’s New York office, while sadly others were lost, including Edith Josephy, one of the original editors of Elsevier’s Encyclopaedia of Organic Chemistry, who was killed in Auschwitz.


Starting with the German publications and then the English translations, these banned books became part of the foundation for a new Elsevier focus on scientific publishing that would flourish into the 21st century.



Freedom to speak, freedom to read


Elsevier was not the only publisher to reach out to authors who were persecuted; trade publishing firms Querido and Allert de Lange, among others, also published authors and works that were banned in Germany. Throughout the history of the world, I believe that for every vocal and violent book banner or burner, there have been many more steadfast souls who wish to preserve and protect knowledge.


A Canadian librarian on the listserv commented that Canadians refer to Banned Books Week as Freedom to Read Week. The American website for Banned Books Week also makes that connection with the tagline “Celebrating the freedom to read.”


I like this idea of celebrating what we have. If there is one thing that looking back at a time when voices were silenced reminds us, it’s the importance of shining a light in dark corners and speaking out about the things we value … like books and libraries and the people who bring them to us.



Sjors de HeuvelSjors de Heuvel (1987) joined Elsevier in 2013 after completing his degree in publishing studies at Leiden University in the Netherlands. One of the caretakers of the Elsevier Heritage Collection, he is working on several projects related to Elsevier's history through the Global Communications team.



1.Dutch science historian C.D. Andriesse, in Dutch Messengers: A History of Science Publishing 1930-1980 (Leiden: Brill, 2008), introduced (part of) this history to an international audience.