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In Amazon’s Bookstore, No Second Chances for the Third Reich

SAN FRANCISCO — Amazon is quietly canceling its Nazis.

Over the past 18 months, the retailer has removed two books by David Duke, a former leader of the Ku Klux Klan, as well as several titles by George Lincoln Rockwell, the founder of the American Nazi Party. Amazon has also prohibited volumes like “The Ruling Elite: The Zionist Seizure of World Power” and “A History of Central Banking and the Enslavement of Mankind.”

While few may lament the disappearance of these hate-filled books, the increasing number of banished titles has set off concern among some of the third-party booksellers who stock Amazon’s vast virtual shelves. Amazon, they said, seems to operate under vague or nonexistent rules.

“Amazon reserves the right to determine whether content provides an acceptable experience,” said one recent removal notice that the company sent to a bookseller.

Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have been roiled in recent years by controversies that pit freedom of speech against offensive content. Amazon has largely escaped this debate. But with millions of third-party merchants supplying much of what Amazon sells to tens of millions of customers, that ability to maintain a low profile may be reaching its end.

Amazon began as a bookstore and, even as it has moved on to many more lucrative projects, now controls at least two-thirds of the market for new, used and digital volumes in the United States. With its profusion of reader reviews, ability to cut prices without worrying about profitability and its control of the electronic book landscape, to name only three advantages, Amazon has immense power to shape what information people are consuming.

Yet the retailer declines to provide a list of prohibited books, say how they were chosen or even discuss the topic. “Booksellers make decisions every day about what selection of books they choose to offer,” it said in a statement.

Gregory Delzer is a Tennessee bookseller whose Amazon listings account for about a third of his sales. “They don’t tell us the rules and don’t let us have a say,” he said. “But they squeeze us for every penny.”

Nazi-themed items regularly crop up on Amazon, where they are removed under its policy on “offensive and controversial materials.” Those rules pointedly do not apply to books. Amazon merely says that books for sale on its site “should provide a positive customer experience.”

Now Amazon is becoming increasingly proactive in removing Nazi material. It even allowed its own Nazi-themed show, “The Man in the High Castle,” to be cleaned up for a tribute book. The series, which began in 2015 and concluded in November, is set in a parallel United States where the Germans and the Japanese won World War II.

“High Castle” is lavish in its use of National Socialist symbols. “There’s nothing that there isn’t a swastika on,” the actor Rufus Sewell, who played the Nazi antihero, said in a promotional video. The series promoted its portrayal of “the controlling aesthetic of Hitler” in its nomination for a special effects Emmy.

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Credit…Amazon
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But in “The Man in the High Castle: Creating the Alt World,” published in November by Titan Books, the swastikas and eagle-and-crosses were digitally erased from Mr. Sewell’s uniform, from Times Square and the Statue of Liberty, even from scenes set in Berlin. A note on the copyright page said, “We respect, in this book, the legal and ethical responsibility of not perpetuating the distribution of the symbols of oppression.”

An Amazon spokeswoman said, “We did not make editorial edits to the images.” Titan, which wanted to market the book in Germany, where laws on Nazi imagery are strict, said Amazon approved the changes.

Some fans of the series said they found reading the book as dystopian as the show itself. “If you can’t even have swastikas shown in a book about Nazis taking over America, please do not make books ever again,” wrote one reviewer.

When Amazon drops a book from its store, it is as if it never existed. A recent Google search for David Duke’s “My Awakening: A Path to Racial Understanding” on Amazon yielded a link to a picture of an Amazon employee’s dog. Amazon sellers call these dead ends “dog pages.”

Some booksellers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation, said they had no problem with the retailer converting as many offensive books to dog pages as it wished.

Mr. Delzer, the proprietor of a secondhand store in Nashville called Defunct Books, has a different view. “If Amazon executives are so proud of their moral high ground, they should issue memos about which books they are banning instead of keeping sellers and readers in the dark,” he said.

The bookseller said he only knew Amazon was forbidding titles because he received an automated message from the retailer, saying two used books he sold seven years ago — “Conspiracy of the Six-Pointed Star: Eye-Opening Revelations and Forbidden Knowledge About Israel, the Jews, Zionism, and the Rothschilds” and “Toward the White Republic” — were now proscribed.

“This product was identified as one that is prohibited for sale,” Amazon told him. Failure to immediately delete listings for these books, the company said, “may result in the deactivation of your selling account” and possible confiscation of any money he was owed.

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Credit…Kristine Potter for The New York Times

Amazon said it didn’t really mean any of that about “Toward the White Republic.” “We did not intend to imply the book itself could not be listed for sale,” it said in a statement.

As for “Conspiracy of the Six-Pointed Star,” which is widely available from other online booksellers, Amazon said the book did not comply with its “content guidelines.”

Mr. Delzer said the email, which he posted on an Amazon forum, was clear and Amazon was dissembling about “White Republic.”

A bookseller since 2001, Mr. Delzer said he does not condone white supremacist material but believes people should be free to read what they want. The biggest seller in his shop at the moment is by Greta Thunberg, the young climate activist.

“Amazon wants its customers to trust Amazon,” he said. “The place that sells books doesn’t want much critical thinking.”

In 1998, when Amazon was an ambitious start-up, its founder, Jeff Bezos, said, “We want to make every book available — the good, the bad and the ugly.” Customers reviews, he said, would “let truth loose.”

That expansive philosophy narrowed over the years. In 2010, when the news media discovered the self-published “Pedophile’s Guide to Love and Pleasure” on the site, the retailer’s first reaction was to hang tough.

“Amazon believes it is censorship not to sell certain books simply because we or others believe their message is objectionable,” it said at the time.

That resolution wilted in the face of a barrage of hostility and boycott threats. Amazon pulled the book.

Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, said Amazon has the same First Amendment right as any retailer.

“Amazon has a First Amendment right to pick and choose the materials they offer,” she said. “Despite its size, it does not have to sponsor speech it finds unacceptable.”

Physical bookstores rarely stock supremacist literature, for no other reason than it would alienate many customers. The question is whether Amazon, because of its size and power, should behave differently.

“I’m not going to argue for the wider distribution of Nazi material,” said Danny Caine of the Raven Book Store in Lawrence, Kan., who is the author of a critical pamphlet, “How to Resist Amazon and Why.” “But I still don’t trust Amazon to be the arbiters of free speech. What if Amazon decided to pull books representing a less despicable political viewpoint? Or books critical of Amazon’s practices?”

Amazon’s newfound zeal to remove “the ugly” extends beyond the Nazis. The order page for the e-book of The Nation of Islam’s “The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews” stated last week, “This title not currently available for purchase.”

“The Man in the High Castle” was based on a 1962 novel of the same name by Philip K. Dick, whose stories are often about the slippery nature of reality and how it will be controlled in the future by governments and corporations. One character in the streaming series was Mr. Rockwell, the American Nazi Party founder.

In photos in “Creating the Alt World,” the tribute book, the swastika around Mr. Rockwell’s neck was removed. The real life Mr. Rockwell has been largely removed from Amazon’s bookstore as well.

After a complaint by a member of Congress in 2018, a children’s book that Mr. Rockwell wrote disappeared from Amazon. So did his book “White Power.” Other Rockwell material, like The Stormtrooper Magazine, is described as “currently unavailable.”

Some sellers circumvent the blocks by listing titles with a word or two changed, other booksellers said. One seller said he recently received a message from Amazon that several titles by Savitri Devi, also known as “Hitler’s Priestess,” were forbidden. But they are now on the site. And a copy of “Toward the White Republic” recently popped up on Amazon, for $973 plus postage.

There is still an abundance of other Nazi material available on Amazon, much of it with favorable reviews. There is the “SS Leadership Guide,” many editions of Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” and Joseph Goebbels’s “Nature and Form of National Socialism,” to name just a few.

That only underlines how hard it can be to tell exactly what Amazon’s rules are. The confusion is reinforced by AbeBooks, the biggest secondhand book platform outside of Amazon itself.

Some of the books dropped from Amazon are available on Abe. Recently, there were 18 copies of Mr. Duke’s books on Abe, at prices up to $150. Amazon, which owns Abe, declined to comment.