SUPPLEMENT: GERMANY; The 50th anniversary of the german free press

Hans Georg Stolz traces the history of German newspapers over the past 50 years and finds that, between Nazi propaganda and Allied paternalism, journalists and publishers have had an uphill battle to establish freedom

Hans Georg Stolz traces the history of German newspapers over the past

50 years and finds that, between Nazi propaganda and Allied paternalism,

journalists and publishers have had an uphill battle to establish


Politics and freedom of the press go hand in hand. If you want to know

how democratic a country is, just looking at how autonomous its

newspapers are is a good indicator. Surprising, then, that a country as

‘modern’ as Germany has only had that freedom enshrined in the

constitution for the past 50 years.

To understand this, we have to go back to the Second World War. By the

end of the Weimar Republic in 1933, there were more than 4,000

newspapers in Germany. Twelve years later, after the downfall of the

Nazi regime, this number had fallen to a mere 977. This whittling-down

process started with the Ministry of Propaganda, which had been

established by the Nazis in 1933. Part of its remit was to ensure that

only newspapers sympathetic to the Nazi cause were published. It also

introduced a law, the ‘Reichsschriftleitergesetz’, which prohibited Jews

from publishing and made all reporters responsible for spreading the

Nazi doctrine.

When the Nazis were defeated, the Allied Forces took control of the

publishing industry. They instituted a programme to free the press from

the Nazi regime, which included a ban on the publishing of any editorial

that supported the Nazis, and the launch of their own Allied-controlled

newspapers. The intention was eventually to deliver the media back into

the hands of the German people, albeit under Allied stewardship.

With the launch of Aachener Nachrichten in 1945, the Americans were the

first to put this principle into practice. A few months later, the

Soviets approved a licence to allow Communist Party sympathisers to

publish TŠgliche Rundschau, and the French followed with the

Mittelrhein-Kurier. Licences were only granted to people with no history

of Nazi involvement and each one included regulations about the

structure of the newspaper’s organisation and editorial line.

Although journalists and publishers who worked on magazines before the

war were disqualified from obtaining licences, they tried to build up

their own organisations outside of this system. Their main objective was

to publish their traditional newspapers again - papers that had been

commandeered by the Nazis during the war as propaganda vehicles. They

wanted to be ready for when the licence period was phased out and the

constitutional freedom of the press returned.

This happened in spring 1949, when the licence system was dismantled and

replaced by the ‘Grundgesetz’. Article 5 of this law guaranteed the

freedom of the press and, as a result, hundreds of new newspapers were

openly distributed, mainly published by those pre-war editors who had

been unable to obtain licences.The result was a competitive circulation

war between the licenced newspapers and the new ‘free’ papers.

This competition for readers has significantly contributed to honing the

credo of the German news press, which holds three main tenets above all

else - to be informative, independent and to make industry and

government accountable. Although three of the four main national daily

papers - Frankfurter Rundschau, Suddeutsche Zeitung, Die Welt and

Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung - grew out of the Allies’ licence system,

the competition means they have evolved to represent the whole range of

Germany’s political spectrum. And, by the end of 1996, 73 of the

original licensed newspapers will have been able to celebrate their 50th


Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, or FAZ, which is now one of the leading

national quality newspapers in Germany, is a good example of this

success story. It was launched, after the licence period, on the 1

November 1949 with a paid-for circulation of 9,000. By 1950, this had

risen to 42,040; a decade later it had reached 220,000 and, today, the

circulation stands at 390,000.

The German press has improved steadily over the past 50 years. As well

as the four national daily papers already mentioned, there has been a

strong consolidation among the titles that have joined the IVW (the main

circulation audit body). Although there is the same number of titles -

444 - in 1995 as there were in 1985, the combined paid circulation

during this time has increased from 26.5 million to 32.4 million. There

has also been nearly a doubling of the net advertising expenditure for

newspapers in the same period,to DM12 billion (pounds 5.4 billion).

Another German publishing success story is the news magazine, Der

Spiegel, which was published for the first time in 1947 with a

circulation of 15,000. It was the brainchild of the British authorities

in Hanover in the guise of one Major Chaloner, who wanted to establish

an objective weekly news and opinion magazine. The licence was handed to

the then 23-year-old, Rudolf Augstein, in 1947, and since then, it has

pledged itself to a form of journalism that does not restrict itself to

printing just the facts, but embraces in-depth analysis of the

situations and people active in the wings of the German political and

economic scenes.

Der Spiegel stands for incorruptible critical journalism of a high

quality, answerable to no-one and entirely independent of any political

or economical institution. The quality of the magazine ensures a one

million-plus paid-for circulation each week, and it is the leading

magazine in its sector. Augstein has, over the years, steadfastly stuck

to his ethic of investigative journalism and the belief that, in a

viable democracy, government should not be left to its own devices and

that the media should act as a fourth estate, a watchdog keeping an eye

on both the controlled and the controllers. After almost five decades,

Der Spiegel has become a German institution, two years older than the

federal republic itself.

So, returning to our original premise - that the freedom of the press

can be seen as a benchmark for the political freedom of the country in

which it operates - the successful development of the German press,

exemplified by a section of its national newspapers, certainly mirrors

the open and accountable nature of Germany’s political system now.

Hans Georg Stolz is the director of qualitative services at HMS Carat

Media-Service, Wiesbaden


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