August 9, 1999
Sale of Nazi Books in Germany Is Assailed
Contending that the two
largest online booksellers are violating
German laws against the distribution of
hate literature, the Simon Wiesenthal
Center has called on Barnesandnoble.com
to stop selling books like "Mein Kampf" to
customers in Germany.
In a letter this month to Germany's
minister of justice, the center, an
educational group in Los Angeles that
anti-Semitism, wrote that "the books
ordered by Internet are sent directly to
the homes of the customers, thereby
circumventing the German laws."
With electronic commerce making
international transactions far more
common, the case raises questions about
the extent to which cyberspace merchants
are bound by terrestrial laws.
Officials of both online booksellers
said that their policy is to sell any book
in print to any customer who wants to buy
"We are a U.S. store," said Lizzie
Allen, an Amazon spokeswoman. "We view
this as though a German was on vacation
here and went into a physical bookstore
and bought the books." She said Amazon's
German-based site, www.amazon.de,
would not sell any literature that was
banned in Germany.
The issue arose when a German-based
researcher for the Wiesenthal Center
successfully ordered "Mein Kampf" and
other banned books from the two online
booksellers. Rabbi Abraham Cooper,
associate dean of the center, said he had
received confirmation on Friday from a
German official that the Justice Ministry
intended to investigate. The companies
declined to say whether they had received
any other German orders for the books.
Liz Young, a spokeswoman for the
German-based media giant Bertelsmann AG,
which owns an equity stake in
Barnesandnoble.com, said that the company
was also investigating after receiving a
letter from Cooper.
"Our lawyers are looking into the
applicable law to this specific question,"
she said. "We want to give a correct
response to the letter."
circumstances are expected to arise
with greater frequency as more
companies market their products online.
But Jack Goldsmith, an expert at
the University of Chicago Law School,
said plenty of precedents exist. When a
merchant ships a product, he said, the
merchant is obligated to uphold the
laws of the jurisdiction to which it is
"The questions are the same but the
answers are more important, because
transnational transactions are going to be
more important," Goldsmith said. "It used
to be consumer transactions across borders
were rare unless someone was traveling
Mueller von der Heidi, a lawyer
for the 7,000-member German Booksellers
and Publishers Association, said he
believed that it was illegal for Internet
companies to ship Nazi propaganda into
"It's not permitted to distribute 'Mein
Kampf' in Germany," he said. "Our members
have long been
distribute this book."
In a letter to Amazon, Cooper also
objected to the Amazon.com feature that
recommends books to customers based on the
selections of other customers who
purchased a given title.
The researcher who ordered "Mein Kampf"
from Amazon received e-mail suggesting
that he might also like "White Power," by
the American Nazi leader George Lincoln
Rockwell, for instance.
"We never had to worry before that the
Book of the Month Club was going to take
the lie of the century and make it a
selection," Cooper said. "That's what
Amazon has done, and to me it raises
serious alarm bells."