1835 to 1933
The original C. Bertelsmann Verlag company logo as it appears on Carl Bertelsmann's tomb in Gütersloh.
The nucleus of the corporation is the C. Bertelsmann Verlag, a publishing house established in 1835 by Carl Bertelsmann in Gütersloh. Carl Bertelsmann was a representative of the "Minden-Ravensberger Erweckungsbewegung", a Protestant revival movement, whose writings he published. The C. Bertelsmann Verlag, originally specialized in theological literature, expanded its publications to include school and textbooks, and in the 1920s and 1930s increasingly entered into the field of light fiction.
1933 to 1945
During the Third Reich, the publishing house gained a prominent position with its affordable "Bertelsmann Volksausgaben" ("people's editions"). In particular, war adventure books such as Werner von Langsdorff's "Fliegerbuch" on aviation were a commercial success. Heinrich Mohn belonged to the patrons' circle of the SS and sought to turn his company into a National Socialist model enterprise. During World War II, the C. Bertelsmann Verlag became a leading supplier to the Wehrmacht, even surpassing the central publishing house of the NSDAP Franz Eher. Especially in the years between 1939 and 1941, the revenues of the C. Bertelsmann Verlag skyrocketed. Jewish slave laborers were not forced to work in Gütersloh, but in printing plants in Lithuania with which the C. Bertelsmann Verlag cooperated. In 1944, the Reichsschrifttumskammer (Reich Chamber of Literature) closed the publishing house to "mobilize all powers for victory". Another essential reason for this was criminal paper racketeering by some publisher's employees, which led to a trial in 1944.
1945 to 1970
After the dictatorship of Adolf Hitler and World War II, the company portrayed itself to the Allied Control Authority as a Christian publisher that was part of the resistance to Nazism and allegedly persecuted. Ties to National Socialist organizations were initially denied. After it became known that erroneous, or at least inadequate, statements had been made, Heinrich Mohn stepped down as the head of the publishing house. Reinhard Mohn, one of his three sons, took over the C. Bertelsmann Verlag, as Hans Heinrich Mohn had been killed in the war and Sigbert Mohn was still a prisoner of war. In 1947, the Allies finally granted the company a publishing license. After the currency reform in 1948, there was a market slump in the book trade that also led to the next existential crisis for the C. Bertelsmann Verlag. Under these conditions, in 1950 Bertelsmann launched the Lesering (book club) to stimulate sales. The customers ordered books via subscription, and in return, received discounted prices. The business increasingly shifted from the publishing house to the sale of books, which was decisive to further growth.
In 1959, the C. Bertelsmann Verlag was restructured: From that point on, theological literature was published in the Gütersloher Verlagshaus, a new publishing house which was consolidated with the Rufer Verlag. Fiction, poetry and art came under the roof of Sigbert Mohn Verlag. The C. Bertelsmann Verlag focused on nonfiction books, in particular dictionaries, guidebooks, reference books and journals. The 1950s and 1960s, Bertelsmann expanded its activities into new business areas: Thus, 1956, the company entered the music market with the Bertelsmann Schallplattenring (record club). Two years later, Ariola, one of the most successful German record labels was launched, and virtually at the same time, the Sonopress record pressing plant was established. With the Kommissionshaus Buch & Ton (book and audio commissioning company), from which the Vereinigte Verlagsauslieferung (VVA) emerged, Bertelsmann laid the cornerstone for its service business. In 1964, Bertelsmann purchased the already broken-up UFA from the Deutsche Bank and built on its presence in cinema and television. In 1969, Bertelsmann acquired shares in the magazine publisher Gruner + Jahr. A merger with Axel Springer, also planned at the time, for which a loan for millions had been taken out temporarily from Westdeutsche Landesbank, failed in 1970.
1971 to 1983
Starting in 1971, Bertelsmann operated as a joint-stock company ("Aktiengesellschaft" or "AG"), becoming Bertelsmann AG. The increasingly diversifying book publishers were bundled in the Verlagsgruppe Bertelsmann publishing group at the end of the 1960s. In 1972, this company moved from Gütersloh to Munich. Key divisions remained in Gütersloh, for which a new office building was built in 1976 at the Group's official location. To this day, it has remained the Bertelsmann headquarters, referred to as the Bertelsmann Corporate Center. The rapid growth of Bertelsmann led to structural and financial problems. In the 1970s, financing requirements reached their peak. From 1975 to 1980, for example, the return on sales fell below one percent. Bertelsmann also encountered new regulatory rules in its home market, in particular through laws governing mergers. Larger acquisitions became practically impossible. At the same time, there was an increasing saturation of the German market for the Bertelsmann Lesering, whereas the foreign book clubs earned the lion's share of revenues in this corporate division.
The internationalization of Bertelsmann, initiated in the 1960s, was taken further: Among other things, Bertelsmann acquired shares in the publishing houses Plaza & Janés based in Barcelona and Bantam Books from New York City. In the United States, a location was established for Ariola and Arista Records was acquired. In the period of the 1979–1980 recession, there was discussion concerning the succession of Reinhard Mohn. In 1981, he finally moved over to the supervisory board. Manfred Fischer, who had previously headed up management of Gruner + Jahr, became the new chairman and chief executive officer. With this move, Bertelsmann, for the first time, was led by a manager who was not a member of the owner family. Mark Wössner became Fischer's successor as chairman and chief executive officer of Bertelsmann in 1983. The affair concerning the forged Hitler diaries occurred at the beginning of his tenure, which damaged the reputation of Gruner + Jahr and Bertelsmann as a whole.
1984 to 1993
Mark Wössner brought the subsidiaries closer to headquarters in Gütersloh. In particular, this involved business development and controlling. Under the leadership of Mark Wössner, Bertelsmann also took a stake in RTL plus, the first private TV broadcaster in Germany. In 1986, Bertelsmann acquired a majority in RCA Records and merged its activities in the music market with the new Bertelsmann Music Group. Sonopress, a company established in 1958 to manufacture records, was not part of the Bertelsmann Music Group, rather it was assigned to the print and industrial division. With Doubleday, another well-known publishing house was acquired. As a result, the Group ascended to become a well-known international company, and Bertelsmann was temporarily the world's largest media group.
In the financial year of 1990/1991, Bertelsmann had over 45,000 employees and reached sales of 14.5 billion Deutsche Mark annually. 63% involved business outside of Germany, and the United States was the most important foreign market. After the German reunification and the end of the Cold War, Bertelsmann also expanded to East Germany, as well as into Central and Eastern Europe. For example, in 1989 the first branch outlet of the Club Bertelsmann opened in Dresden. The later development of Bertelsmann in the 1990s was marked by the spread of the Internet as a mass medium, as well as changes to the ownership structure. In 1993, Reinhard Mohn transferred the majority of capital shares to the Bertelsmann Stiftung and assumed its chairmanship. The foundation itself was financed by profits of the company.
1994 to 2000
In 1994, Gruner + Jahr acquired the magazines of The New York Times, whereby Bertelsmann was once again able to expand its presence in foreign markets. From 1995, there was a new business division of multimedia at Bertelsmann. Its centerpiece was AOL Europe, a joint venture of America Online and Bertelsmann. Prior to that, Bertelsmann had already acquired a direct share in America Online. The multimedia division also included mediaWays and Pixelpark. In 1997, UFA merged with Compagnie Luxembourgeoise de Télédiffusion (CLT) to become a joint entertainment group based in Luxembourg. With CLT-UFA, Bertelsmann was able to decisively diversify its business. In 1998, Thomas Middelhoff succeeded Mark Wössner as Bertelsmann Chairman and Chief Executive Officer. Thomas Middelhoff had previously already been a member of the management board of the multimedia division. Mark Wössner joined the supervisory board of the company and also became Chairman of the Bertelsmann Stiftung.
This management change coincided with the takeover of Random House. With this, the group advanced to become the largest publishing group in the English-speaking world. Random House was merged with Bantam Doubleday Dell, and the global headquarters of all Bertelsmann publishing houses were relocated to New York City. In 1999, Bertelsmann acquired the publisher Springer science media, which, among other things, was the market leader for mathematics and physics. In the year 2000, Bertelsmann dissolved its joint venture with AOL Europe. The sale of the shares in the joint venture to America Online yielded billions to Bertelsmann. In the same year, Bertelsmann and Pearson formed the RTL Group from their TV subsidiaries. Bertelsmann initially owned a minority in the company, and gradually built up its share. Later, Bertelsmann secured the majority of the shares in RTL through a share swap with the Groupe Bruxelles Lambert (GBL), which as a result owned 25.1% of Bertelsmann.
2001 to 2007
Under the leadership of Thomas Middelhoff, Bertelsmann increased its involvement in the Internet, whereby above all the investment in Napster received major media attention. The aim of the acquisition, among other things, was to stem the illegal spread of copyrighted material. In 2001, the service nonetheless had to be shut down due to legal disputes. Bertelsmann faced several claims for damages by the music industry. In order to finance additional growth of Bertelsmann, Thomas Middelhoff raised the idea of going public, which led to fundamental disagreement with the Mohn family. In 2002, Gunter Thielen became the new Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Bertelsmann, and some members of the media viewed the change critically.
A consolidation phase followed, in order to solve the problems with the core business. For example, Bertelsmann sold unprofitable e-commerce firms like the online shop of Barnes & Noble, among others. Gruner + Jahr sold the Berliner Zeitung, and the scientific publisher, BertelsmannSpringer, was spun off. In the 2003 financial year, Bertelsmann announced that it was investing its music business in a joint venture with Sony. Bertelsmann and Sony each owned half the shares. With this transaction, the stakeholders sought to respond to declining sales in the music market. In addition, Gunter Thielen initiated the buyback of the shares from Groupe Bruxelles Lambert, so that the Mohn family regained complete control of Bertelsmann from 2006. This measure was also financed with the sale of the music rights business to Vivendi. During the tenure of Gunter Thielen, the number of employees at Bertelsmann exceeded 100,000 for the first time.
2008 to 2016
In 2008, Hartmut Ostrowski was appointed Chairman and Chief Executive Officer. Bertelsmann sold its shares of the record label Sony BMG, and since then the company has operated under the name of Sony Music Entertainment. In 2008, Bertelsmann acquired the rights to the Brockhaus Encyclopedia, and from that time on, this reference work was published by the Wissen Media Verlag. At the end of 2011, Hartmut Ostrowski suddenly announced that he was leaving Bertelsmann for unspecified personal reasons. In 2012, Bertelsmann went from being an AG to its current incorporation as a partnership limited by shares ("Kommanditgesellschaft auf Aktien" or "KGaA"), with the general partner being a European stock corporation ("Societas Europaea" or "SE"). Also, since 2012, Thomas Rabe has been Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Bertelsmann.
In 2013, Bertelsmann floated part of its shares in the RTL Group on the stock exchange, in order to finance additional growth from the proceeds of the sale. In the year 2013, Penguin Random House became the world's largest publishing company. Gruner + Jahr was taken over completely by Bertelsmann in 2014. Furthermore, under the leadership of Thomas Rabe, Bertelsmann increasingly invested in the education sector: In 2014, for example, Relias Learning was acquired. The company belongs to the Bertelsmann Education Group, established in 2015. The Club Bertelsmann was wound up, and individual distribution partners are taking legal action against it. In 2016, the printing business was bundled in the Bertelsmann Printing Group.