The Bauer Media Group may be the biggest publishing company you've never heard of, with 600 print publications worldwide, 300 websites and billions of dollars in annual revenue. Though it is based in Germany, Bauer claims to have the highest retail sales of any magazine publisher in the United States, thanks to titles like In Touch and Life & Style, celebrity tabloids that are staple offerings at supermarket checkout lines.
The company's slogan is "We think popular," with a strong appeal to female readers through titles that focus on health, beauty and celebrity gossip.
But an investigation by TheWrap has found that there is a darker side to the privately held company, including publication of at least one magazine appealing to neo-Nazis, as well as significant involvement in the distribution of pornography -- including Nazi-themed porn movies. Also see: From In Touch to 'The Fuehrer Speaks, the People Listen' - a Gallery of Bauer's Holdings (Photos)
These lend perspective to Bauer's legal woes in the United States, including a $50 million defamation lawsuit by Tom Cruise, filed last October after two U.S.-based publications alleged he'd abandoned his daughter Suri. In fact, Bauer generates dozens of legal complaints worldwide each year about invasion of privacy or libel, according to a lawyer who has frequently opposed them. In court filings, Bauer has so far said the Cruise stories it published were "true or substantially true." Among TheWrap's discoveries:
>> A wholly owned Bauer subsidiary publishes Der Landser, a military adventure magazine that specializes in World War II stories sympathetic to Hitler's armies and that enjoys brisk sales among skinheads and neo-Nazis. The respected Germany newsmagazine Der Spiegel once described it as "a specialist journal for whitewashing the Wehrmacht."
>> Until last year Bauer published the far-right magazine Zuerst!, whose publisher, Dieter Munier, has been involved in the German neo-Nazi movement for 40 years. Bauer sold the magazine in May 2012 after a public outcry.
>> Other Bauer wholly owned subsidiaries distribute pornography, including Nazi-themed porn movies. One movie, "Inglorious Bitches," is put out over a Bauer internet service provider and includes a scene in which a pair of soldiers clearly identified as Nazis work themselves into a sexual frenzy by torturing two resistance fighters. When asked via email by TheWrap what percentage of Bauer's profits stem from pornography, Bauer spokeswoman Claudia Bachhausen ignored the question. She also had no response to a question about Nazi-themed porn.
The company rarely mentions its pornography-related holdings, but at least nine German porn websites are easily traceable back to Bauer via online domain-ownership databases. The subsidiary that publishes Der Landser, Pabel Moewig, has been owned by Bauer since the early 1970s. (At left, a Nazi-themed DVD, "Inglorious Bitches.)
According to its own figures, the family-run multi-national operates close to 600 print publications and 300 websites in 15 countries, as well as 50 television and radio stations. It reaches an audience in the tens of millions and generates revenue it estimates at more than $2.6 billion a year.
In Britain, where it claims to be the market leader in print publication, Bauer owns a large number of music titles. In Australia, it recently purchased ACP Magazines, which owns a large segment of the popular market, especially women's magazines. For a company of its size, Bauer has been remarkably successful at staying under the radar. Now in its fourth generation of family ownership, its executives speak out rarely, if at all, and tend to restrict commentary on contentious issues to the courtroom, not to the broader court of public opinion.
Likewise, the company has been successful in minimizing negative publicity. TheWrap heard from a number of current and former employees, as well as union officials in Germany and former business associates in two other countries, all of whom had butted heads with Bauer in one way or another. None, however, was willing to go on the record.
(At right, the Bauer publication "Geschichte & Wissen" ["Science & Knowledge."])
But the drumbeat of controversy is growing louder on both sides of the Atlantic. The Cruise lawsuit poses arguably the biggest legal challenge to date, following earlier high-profile complaints from English soccer superstar David Beckham, who sued In Touch for alleging he'd slept with a prostitute (but lost in U.S. District Court), and German tennis champion Boris Becker, whose mother won 40,000 euros in a libel case for a report alleging that she was an alcoholic.
Critics and plaintiffs' lawyers who have gone after Bauer say such lawsuits are a consequence of Bauer's journalistic standards. Many of Bauer's publications, they say, treat celebrities as commodities to be gossiped and speculated about at will.
Till Dunckel, a Hamburg lawyer whose firm has handled dozens of suits against Bauer, says writers at the company's celebrity publications have a tendency to work from second-hand sources, if not also their imagination. "Much of the content is fiction," he said. "Of course, Bauer knows that prominent people have lawyers to look out for their interests, so they dress up their stories with a lot of questions and expressions of opinion."
Bauer's Bachhausen declined two invitations to respond directly to this allegation, saying only in general terms: "Our employees all over the world take their jobs as journalists very seriously."
(At left, a page from a 1939 edition of the Bauer-owned publication Funk-Wacht.)
But in a rare interview with Der Spiegel in 2009, the family patriarch Heinz Bauer, who recently handed over the reins to his daughter Yvonne, said:
"Magazines fulfill the same function today as was once fulfilled by gossip in the market square. As long as people are interested in other people, rumors are going to be part of their entertainment, and the media is going to make use of them."
Dunckel said he has seen a shift in Bauer's German publications in recent years, with less emphasis on German television personalities -- once the staple of magazines aimed at older, less educated women -- and more on international stars who may be less inclined to take legal action against a distant, German-language publication. Still, he said, he and his colleagues at the Nesselhauf law firm, which represents several German television and entertainment clients, deal with one or two cases every week.
"It's like playing cat and mouse," he said. "We write letters to complain. Bauer responds from time to time to say, 'OK, you are right, this is a bit too much.' They will sign cease and desist letters and pay our costs. But often they refuse, and say, what we have published is fine and if you don't like it, sue us. Then we apply for an interim injunction. That's how it goes with Bauer, week in and week out."
Bauer was invited to comment on this statement but had no response. The association with Nazi themes and subject matter appealing to the far right is something that has dogged Bauer periodically over many decades.
The company came into its own during the Third Reich as a publisher of weekly radio guides that, at the time, wholeheartedly embraced Hitler's regime. Since the war, it has cultivated an image as a publisher of predominantly non-political material.
One glaring exception was a commentary a Bauer-owned magazine wrote in 1985 when President Reagan made the controversial decision to visit a German military cemetery that included the graves of 49 members of the Waffen-SS. Writing about the outcry Reagan's decision had provoked in the U.S., the now-defunct Bauer-owned magazine Quick asked: "How can 6 million American Jews control 209 million non-Jewish Americans?" It pointed to the existence of a powerful pro-Israel lobby in the States but called it the "Jewish lobby" and suggested it had a unique degree of power over U.S. foreign policy.
At the time, Rabbi Marc Tannenbaum of the American Jewish Committee called the Quick article "classic anti-Semitism and classic scapegoating of the Jews." Bauer insisted the article was "not an attempt to make a political statement." A more enduring problem for Bauer is its publication of a magazine called Der Landser, which specializes in military adventure stories from World War II told through the eyes of Hitler's armies. Even before Bauer bought out its parent company 40 years ago, Der Landser had to be mindful of Germany's laws against distribution of overtly pro-Nazi material.
The magazine usually contains a disclaimer that war is hell for everybody, which many critics see as window-dressing.
Clearly, there is a distinction between material that glorifies Nazi-era soldiers and active promotion of neo-Nazi ideology. But Der Landser's detractors point out that the magazine rarely, if ever, refers to the Holocaust or other Nazi war crimes.
They also argue that the magazine is read predominantly by right-wing and far-right ideologues and has served as a useful recruitment tool for neo-Nazis in eastern Germany since the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Nazi themes crop up across other parts of the Bauer publishing empire. The latest issue of the German magazine Geschichte und Wissen (History and Knowledge) has a cover feature on Leni Riefenstahl, the filmmaker responsible for the documentary "Triumph of the Will" and described on the cover as "Hitler's beloved director."
The same magazine has previously run cover pieces on Hitler seizing power (complete with large color photo of the Fuehrer) and on Hitler's family.
Another magazine, Militaer und Geschichte (The Military and History), has run cover stories on Hermann Goering, the Nazi armed forces chief, and on the Nazi party.
While these articles and covers do not connote political sympathy for the Nazis, they are still relatively unusual in Germany where the darkest years of the country's history remain, 68 years after the end of World War II, a subject to be handled delicately or, more often, avoided.