Reinhard Mohn: Publisher who transformed the fortunes of Bertelsmann after the Second World War

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The Independent Online

Reinhard Mohn turned his family's war-ravaged religious publishing company, Bertelsmann AG, into one of the world's largest media conglomerates employing more than 100,000 people in more than 50 countries world-wide and with revenues of approximately €16bn [£14.45bn] in 2008.

Mohn put much of his success down to the maxim "You have to persuade people". And that is what he did throughout much of his life. From the beginning he saw himself as a partner to everyone who worked with him at Bertelsmann. He was even a frequent presence in the company cafeteria, eating lunch alongside everyone else. Mohn understood how to motivate people by granting them the freedom to follow their own instincts rather than be dictated to – a philosophy borne out of his dislike for the blind obedience to authority he witnessed during the Nazi regime.

It was Mohn's great grandfather, Carl Bertelsmann, who established the company in north-eastern Germany in 1835. At that time it was the purveyor of hymn books and religious material. Around the turn of the century, Johannes Mohn, Reinhard's grandfather, married into the Bertelsmann family and took over the running of the business.

Reinhard Mohn, the fifth of six children, was born on 29 June 1921 in the quiet town of Gütersloh, North Rhine-Westphalia. At the start of the Second World War in 1939, aged 18, he was drafted into the Wehrmacht and soon became a lieutenant in Erwin Rommel's Afrika Korps. He was later captured by US forces in Tunisia in 1943.

Following his return from a prisoner-of-war camp in Kansas in 1946 aged 24, he dropped his ambition of becoming an engineer and acquiesced to his father's wishes and began an apprenticeship in book retailing. The following year, Mohn took over the management of his family's printing and publishing company. Unable to get enough funding from banks to rebuild the premises and machinery, which had been devastated by the Allied bombings, Mohn turned to former employees to invest their labour in return for a share in profits. For this he earned the moniker "Red Mohn".

In June 1950 he started the Bertelsmann Lesering book club. The idea was very simple: by joining the book club, customers could buy books at a discount, but they had to agree to buy books on a regular basis. Within four years it had over a million subscribers. The book club became an icon of Germany's Wirtschaftswunder, or post-war economic miracle.

The revenue generated by the book club sales allowed Mohn to expand the company and the range of Bertelsmann's business. As a result, in 1962 the book club Circulo de Lectores, launched in Spain and then seven years later in South America. The French book club France Loisirs was set up in 1970 and soon became the largest club outside Germany. At their height, the book clubs had over 25 million members around the world. This setting up of affiliates outside Germany was the prelude to global expansion.

With these steady revenue streams Mohn was able to expand the company still further and acquire other media properties. By 2003, the Bertelsmann corporation owned the large American publisher, Random House, the German TV broadcaster RTL – one of Europe's largest broadcasters – the magazine publisher Gruner + Jahr and the Direct Group book and media clubs. In addition, at one point it also owned 50 per cent of the music company Sony BMG.

Following the war, there had always been some speculation over what Bertelsmann had published in Hitler's Germany, despite Mohn being known as having few sympathies for the Nazi regime. Thus, with Mohn's approval, a commission of historians was appointed by the company to look into the matter. In 2002 they established that Bertelsmann had had extensive dealings with the Nazi regime and that Jewish slave labour was probably used in some of its plants. Furthermore, Mohn's father, Heinrich, belonged to a group that donated money to the Nazi party. The revelations, however, had no affect on him or the company, as having run the company from 1947-81, he was close to withdrawing as the active manager of the Mohn family interests, which controlled Bertelsmann through a foundation set up in 1977. His second wife, Liz, was to take up the reins later with their daughter Brigitte also joining the executive board.

In March 2009 in its annual rich list, Forbes magazine estimated that Mohn and his family were worth $2.5bn, making them the 261st wealthiest family in the world.

Reinhard Mohn was recognised internationally for his good works and was given numerous awards including the Commander's Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1994 and the Order of Merit with Star of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1998, and he was also named an honorary member of the Club of Rome in April 1996. In 2001, he was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Münster. He received awards for his achievements as a thinker, a philanthropist, a citizen and company founder. And in 1998, he was named Entrepreneur of the Century.

Mohn was married twice and fathered three children with his first wife, whom he married in 1949. He met his second wife, Liz Mohn, at a company function when she was 17 and he was 38. He had three children with her and finally married her in 1982. He is survived by her and six children.

Martin Childs

Reinhard Mohn, publisher: born Gütersloh, Germany 29 June 1921; married twice (six children); died Steinhagen 3 October 2009.