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International Socialism, Summer 1967


Stephen Castles

German Mirrors


From International Socialism (1st series), No.29, Summer 1967, pp.37-38.
Thanks to Ted Crawford & the late Will Fancy.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Die Spiegel-Affäre
Edited by Jürgen Seifert
Walter-Verlag, Olten und Freiburg im Breisgau

On 26 October 1962, security police occupied the offices of the Hamburg news magazine Der Spiegel. Files were confiscated, the office was sealed off and the proofs of the next issue were subjected to censorship. The publisher, Rudolf Augstein, was arrested in Hamburg while the editor Conrad Ahlers was torn from his bed by the Spanish police near Malaga, where he was on holiday. Both were charged with treason and bribery. This was the beginning of the Spiegel Affair, the greatest political crisis in the history of the German Federal Republic. The timing – during the Cuba Crisis – and the implications of the Affair for press freedom and the power of the opposition shook West Germany to the core and revealed the weakness of a democratic structure held in contempt by those who are appointed to defend it. These two thick volumes – a third is in preparation – give a detailed and well-documented analysis of the events under the various aspects of State power and its Control’ and the Reaction of Public Opinion. One should not be put off by the size of the work – it consists mainly of extracts from court records and newspapers, and the actual narrative and theoretical sections are relatively short. Nonetheless, the great thoroughness has been gained partly at the cost of clarity, and the multi-authorship gives rise to a certain amount of repetition and confusion.

The ostensible cause of the police action were articles in Der Spiegel, following the NATO exercise Fallex 62, suggesting that West Germany could not be defended for long in a European War. This could hardly be called a secret and suspicions were quickly roused that the real power behind the attempt to silence Der Spiegel was the then Defence Minister, Franz Josef Strauss, the right-wing Bavarian backwoodsman. At this time the abdication of the official opposition in the shape of the post-Bad Godesberg SPD, which was bending over backwards to seem respectable after a long period in the wilderness, had left a vacuum, which the press was to some extent trying to fill. Here the leading part was taken by Der Spiegel, which in style and appearance closely resembles Time magazine. It had long been master of the exposé calculated to embarrass the Government. Its main target was Strauss whom they had attacked for incompetence, corruption and for his desire for H-Bombs. Strauss and his ministry denied having any part in the action, particularly in the (illegal) arrest of Ahlers. In the weeks that followed more and more Spiegel staff members were arrested, those remaining were not allowed to use their offices and the Government, from Adenauer downwards, conducted a campaign of vituperation against the magazine. It was obvious that the Government and the CDU were more interested in ruining Der Spiegel than in trying traitors.

They would no doubt have been successful in stifling the opposition, if they had not immediately been countered by a storm of protest lead by the press and by left-wing intellectuals. There was almost universal condemnation of the Gestapo-type action and protest demonstrations took place throughout the country. The SPD and FDP were prodded into questioning the aims and methods of the executive. The strength of public reaction abroad caused the Bonn politicians to fear for Germany’s newly won democratic respectability. It was shown that the Government had acted illegally and that Strauss had lied to parliament about his part in it. The CDU-FDP coalition broke up and after some weeks of negotiation, in which at one stage a ‘Grand Coalition" of SPD and CDU seemed likely, was reformed on condition that Strauss should not be included.

The most interesting part of the work is Jürgen Seifert’s article on the Spiegel Affair as a State Crisis. He shows the significance of the attack on press freedom as an attempt by reactionary forces to change the constitution, which he defines as the ‘cease fire’ conditions in the struggle for power in society. The West German Constitution is not merely the Basic Law, which was laid down at a time when the strength of militarism and big business had been weakened’ by the collapse of Nazism. Because of the increasing integration of state and society which marks the phase of organized capitalism, the constitution also includes apparently private organs of communication as well as parties, and employers’ and workers’ organisations. The attack on Der Spiegel is therefore a miniature coup d’état, an attempt to bring the constitution into line with the real position of the contending classes, following the restoration of the capitalist oligarchy during the period of the ‘Economic Miracle.’ The fervent defence of Der Spiegel by left-wing and liberal public opinion is in reality, despite its apparent success, an expression of the weakness of progressive forces in the Federal Republic, for their only aim is to try to prevent an erosion of the very limited democracy which was achieved after the War.

Although Seifert sees this correctly, he fails to explain the consequences of it for the German working-class movement, or to suggest an alternative course of action. The Grand Coalition and the return to power of Strauss last Autumn are further signs that the so-called radical democrats are fighting a losing battle. The mere defence of a constitution which is in contradiction to the real structure of power can be neither an adequate nor a successful goal for the working-class movement.

The second volume, by Ellwein, Liebel and Negt, attempts to show how public opinion both in Germany and abroad was mobilised and is an interesting case study of the potential and limitations of liberal public activity. It also gives a useful collection of material on treason and censorship laws in various countries.

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