Oxford University Press faces up to the Nazis
By Simon Eliot
Ever since the end of the First World War Oxford University Press had been keen to re-establish some sort of presence in the German book trade. Germany had been a significant market for its academic books in the nineteenth century, and a number of German scholars had edited Greek and Roman texts for the Press. Nevertheless the depressed state of the German economy and the uncertainty of its currency had made this impossible in the first few years after 1918.
However, by 1927 economic conditions were sufficiently improved in Germany for OUP to open an office in Leipzig and appoint H. Bohun Beet, the Press’s representative in Copenhagen, to it, though he still retained responsibility for Copenhagen. Both Humphrey Milford (the Press’s London publisher) and Kenneth Sisam (Assistant Secretary to the Delegates in Oxford) were enthusiastic about Leipzig. The Germans had ‘a very strong local feeling’ but also practised advanced trading methods from which the Press might learn. Additionally, it was the German ‘University professors of English who secure the buying of our solid books’.
Despite that initial optimism, within five years the ‘strong local feeling’ had made the Press’s position in Leipzig untenable. By 1933, Nazi influence on the German publishing system was considerable, and its penetration of the Press’s Leipzig office substantial. That development did bring temporary benefits, as a wry aside from Sisam to Milford made clear: ‘I am returning Beet’s excellent letter. With a group of Nazis depending on him for wages, I think he is safe to get his permits.’ But he wasn’t safe for long. The German book trade organization, the Börsenverein, had been Nazified, and now required every publisher to become a member. Beet took a clear and clean line:
We as an English firm and I as an Englishman have no real right to belong to such organizations, which sooner or later may be antagonistic to us politically, if not today. I have therefore declined to become a member, as I refuse to be Nazified.
. . . I know they want to Nazify the whole earth in due course but I prefer to be left out.
Beet’s heroic stance appealed to Chapman: ‘I have not construed all of Beet’s defiant letter, but I applaud it . . . The blood of all the Bohuns beats in his veins’.
But the pressure continued to increase; Beet reported to Milford: ‘I shall be obliged to become a member [of the Börsenverein] or be sent perhaps to a concentration camp to keep company with other disobedient people and the business would be closed.’ Telephone calls and a face-to-face meeting with a ‘Dr Hess’ — an official whom Beet reported as being a ‘little hopeful’ that a compromise could be reached — followed. By March 1934, Beet was able to report on an arrangement of sorts that kept OUP out of both the Börsenverein and the Riechsschrifttumskammer (an organization for authors, journalists, and publishers involved in producing books in German).
It proved to be a temporary stay, and within a few months Sisam and Milford had agreed on the need to close the Leipzig office. The Delegates authorized Milford to give the necessary notice in order to vacate the premises by the end of 1934. Milford acknowledged that ‘owing to the difficulties in the way of doing business in Germany we have considered it advisable to close down our Branch there for the time being.’ He then expressed a forlorn hope: ‘May we soon see a return to normal conditions!’
Beet stayed on for a couple of years, perhaps sustained by a similar hope, but had given up by the autumn of 1936, when he returned temporarily to Copenhagen. In his final letter from Germany, Beet declared prophetically:
Of course they all want . . . what does yet does not belong to them and that is why the British Empire must be strong enough in arms to keep these military mosquitoes at bay and when will the lethargic British public wake up to their duty as citizens of the Empire. We shall not have so much breathing time as in 1914 that is quite certain.
Simon Eliot is Professor of the History of the Book in the Institute of English Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London. He is general editor of The History of Oxford University Press, and editor of its Volume II 1780-1896.
With access to extensive archives, The History of Oxford University Press is the first complete scholarly history of the Press, detailing its organization, publications, trade, and international development. Read previous blog posts about the history of Oxford University Press.