The language of science hasn’t always been English. In the early 20th century, German academic publishing was flourishing and set to dominate.
But with the rise of the Nazi regime in the 1930s came widespread persecution of the country’s most eminent scientists, halting the publication of their work and destroying the industry. Many exiled German Jewish scientists fled to the US and the UK and began writing in English.
Driven by a desire to serve academics in English and undaunted by the threat of persecution, a bold 33-year-old director at Elsevier was determined to turn the company’s dire financial situation around through innovation – and change the future of academic publishing in the process.
This would be a milestone in Elsevier’s culture of innovation. Featured in a forthcoming book about Elsevier by Elsevier Heritage Advisor Sjors de Heuvel, the story of Ted Klautz reflects the determination and passion with which Elsevier has pushed the edge of publishing and technology throughout its history.
“Under his supervision, Elsevier recovered its sound financial footing in the 1930s, and survived the devastation of World War II in the 1940s,” writes De Heuvel in the manuscript for his book. “It was Klautz, most importantly, who laid the foundations for Elsevier to become an international leader in scientific publishing in the post-war years.”
A swashbuckling leader
In 1931, a daring and ambitious young secretary succeeded his boss as a director at Elsevier at the age of 26. Before joining the company a few years earlier, Johannes Pieter “Teddy” Klautz had uncovered some worrying information about its financial dire straits, and Elsevier was now starting to feel the effects of the Great Depression. Despite this, Klautz was determined to turn the company’s fortunes around. But ultimately, he would take it in a direction that would support the advancement of science – and the integrity of publishing – regardless of the financial risk.
The Nazi regime was already rocking the publishing industry in Germany. Academia had been going strong, but the persecution of many leading academics and businessmen was crushing science – and with it scientific publishing.
Klautz recounted the moment he was introduced to this new world in his 1987 memoir In de ban van mijn schaduw (“Under the spell of my shadow”). He explained how Amsterdam bookseller H.J. van Eijk had asked if he was interested in purchasing three German manuscripts by historians who were no longer able to publish in Germany. The authors were Veit Valentin, who had fled to the US when the Nazis banned his critical vision of German history; Heinrich Cunow, a Marxist scholar who moved to Amsterdam after being fired from his professorship in Berlin; and Friedrich Gundolf, a Jewish literary historian whose books were posthumously banned by the Nazis.
“Klautz, like (his predecessor and mentor Herman) Robbers before him, clearly believed that Elsevier had been given an important responsibility to help authors to disseminate ideas and knowledge – and that it should continue to do so at all costs,” writes De Heuvel.
Forays into scientific publishing
Months later, Van Eijk came with a fourth proposal: Lehrbuch der Säuglingskrankheiten (“Textbook of Infant Diseases”), by the respected German-Jewish pediatrician Heinrich Finkelstein, who was struggling to get the latest edition published.
Klautz looked to a network of experts to offer advice as he began to explore the German academic publishing industry. Amsterdam-based booksellers Dekker and Nordemann, who published an English translation of a German reference work by Swiss metallurgist Alfred von Zeerleder in 1936, advised him to widen his scope because new laws in Germany were putting publishing companies out of business.
Despite mixed opinions about his ventures, in 1937 Klautz gave an impassioned speech to Elsevier’s board of directors, proclaiming that it was Elsevier’s duty to publish the material. In his handwritten speech, he wrote:
… someday the historian of the twentieth century will ask himself if the refugees of today, just as occurred in earlier times, found a material or intellectual harbor in the Netherlands; or if the Dutch were not true to their tradition and the exiles either found shelter for their brainchildren elsewhere, or not at all. We are able to make an important contribution in answering this question. A publisher is not a grocer. If ever, now is the time for him to be aware of his intellectual task!
According to the minutes of that meeting, which likely took place on April 20, 1937, chairman of the board Herman Robbers voiced his concerns: “A consequence of publishing books by German Jews may be that the current German regime will take us less kindly, and this could cause problems in the sale of German rights to our Dutch books.”
Nevertheless, Robbers wanted to cross “Hitler’s clique” more than anything, and supported Klautz in continuing his mission undaunted. Elsevier's very first academic publications – authored by academics outcast by the Nazis – were published later that year.
Elsevier’s first books by Jewish authors fleeing Nazi Germany
Elsevier’s first academic titles were published in 1937; a year later its first English language translations began to appear.
- Bismarcks Reichsgründung im Urteil englischer Diplomaten (“Bismarck's Unification of Germany According to English Diplomats”) by historian Veit Valentin
- Geschichte und Kultur des Inkareiches (“History and Culture of the Inca Empire”), by Marxist politician and anthropologist Heinrich Cunow
- Organic Chemistry, by Nobel Prize winner Paul Karrer
- Qualitative Analysis by Spot Tests, by Fritz Feigl
- The Chemistry of Carbon Compounds, compiled by German chemist Victor von Richter and edited by Richard Anschütz
Innovating in English
Germany’s status as an academic publishing giant was faltering, and the future dominance of the language was looking uncertain. Elsevier’s exile publishing program was also dwindling, as with no experience in international sales and minimal opportunity to sell books in Germany, fewer copies were being sold. The company’s increasing focus on translating banned works into English began to take over.
Through his contacts at Dekker and Nordemann, Klautz acquired the English translation rights for the works of some eminent German scholars for Elsevier. He had made another daring move: hiring two exiled Jewish editors to compile a chemistry encyclopedia, which was set to compete with the leading work of the time. Edith Josephy and Fritz Radt had been fired by a German publisher for their Jewish heritage. Klautz relocated them to Amsterdam to start working on Elsevier's Encyclopaedia of Organic Chemistry in 1937.
In May 1939 – as the Nazis were burning down the Warsaw ghetto and preparing to invade other countries – Klautz established the Elsevier Publishing Company Ltd. in London to distribute these academic titles in the British Commonwealth (except Canada). When the Nazis invaded and occupied the Netherlands for the duration of five years from May 1940, he had just founded a second international office, the Elsevier Publishing Company Inc. in New York.
Neither of these offices got off the ground until long after World War II had ended. Even in the post-war years, when there was increasing demand for English language scientific material, it was difficult for a newcomer to compete with the established publishers in the business. However, one aspect set Elsevier apart from the competition – and would ultimately ensure its steady rise to success from the late 1950s. While Springer continued to work only in German, and publishers in the UK and US were mostly focused on their national markets, Elsevier – based in the tiny Dutch-language area – became the world’s first truly outward-focused academic publishing company.
Daring to be different
Elsevier’s innovation has accelerated ever since, taking it from its humble beginnings as a small Dutch arts and fiction publisher to an information analytics company that empowers institutions and professionals in health and science to explore and discover, make better decisions and deliver better care, and make groundbreaking discoveries that expand the boundaries of knowledge, for the benefit of humanity.
Elsevier was first to start using computers in the 1970s and first to experiment with digital journal publishing in the 1990s. With a long history of bold decisions that support a strong mission to empower knowledge, Elsevier continues to push the boundaries of technology to support researchers around the world.
Elsevier’s history of innovation
Here are a few examples of Elsevier's innovations since World War II.
1937: Elsevier begins publishing the works Jewish German scholars who fled the Nazi regime, translating them into English and marking the start of Elsevier’s international business.
1971: Elsevier becomes the first company in the industry to use computers after acquiring the Excerpta Medica database. This database was developed into EMBASE.
1991: Elsevier launches the TULIP project, the world’s first experiment in digital journal publishing and distribution.
1997: Elsevier launches ScienceDirect, an online full-text database of Elsevier’s entire journal collection, marking a revolution in the way scientists accessed and shared scholarly articles.
2004: Elsevier launches Scopus, the world’s largest abstract and citation database.
2013: Elsevier acquires Mendeley and expands researcher workflow offerings for the London-based startup that created the global research management and collaboration platform of that name.
2016 – Elsevier launches its Open Data pilot and introduces tools that enable researchers to share, cite and get credit for experimental data.