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“Fiktionen für das Volk”

Two new books on journalists and journalism in the GDR

Munich, 04/28/2011

Willing servants of the regime, compliant communicators of the wishes of their political masters, dutiful propagandists. These judgments turn up in most estimates of the role of journalists in the German Democratic Republic. The damning verdict they imply seems set in stone, not least because reporters and editors did often treat their readers to barely credible stories and virtually unreadable journalism. But “Fiktionen für das Volk” and “Die Grenze im Kopf”, two new books edited by LMU communication specialists Professor Michael Meyen and Anke Fiedler, sketch a more complicated picture. “Crucial for us was the fact that, even 20 years after the end of the regime, no history of journalism in the GDR is available, no systematic study of the role of those who translated and transmitted the ideological norms for everyday use,” says Meyen. “Yet nobody would deny that the SED’s claim to hegemony was based exclusively on ideology. And no one doubts that dissatisfaction with the attitude of both Party and Government to providing the public with trustworthy information was a major factor in the upheaval that erupted in the autumn of 1989. It only took a few conversations with former journalists from the GDR to make it clear that, quite apart from the goal of our immediate project, we were opening up a whole new area of research.”

In “Die Grenze in Kopf”, Hans-Dieter Schütt, former editor-in-chief of “Junge Welt”, is quoted as saying: “Such a dictatorship is bad for everyone, irrespective of one’s occupation, but for no profession is it so humiliating as for ours.” For the book, Meyen and Fiedler, both of whom teach communication science at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität (LMU) Munich, conducted interviews with people who were on the editorial staffs of various publications or involved in the affairs of the Party and its organs, including its various committees, the Press Office, the Propaganda Department of the Central Committee and the Commission for Political Agitation, and were responsible for digesting and interpret the contents of official reports, files and other documents.

More than 30 interviews and biographies illustrate how prominent journalists in the GDR found their way into their profession, and how they saw their role and impact, and they illuminate the atmosphere and working conditions that molded their professional lives. One of them, Günther Böhme, was for several years responsible for the coverage of foreign affairs in the daily paper Neues Deutschland, and recalls that “It was strange, especially in relation to the diplomatic recognition of the GDR. Countries that recognized the GDR, even the most benighted, were to be presented in an entirely positive light, and our writers would ask: ‘Do you really expect me to write such rubbish?’ Many of them felt totally frustrated.”

The GDR’s daily newspapers – Neues Deutschland, Neue Zeit, Junge Welt and Der Morgen – are the focus of “Fiktionen für das Volk: DDR-Zeitungen als PR-Instrument”. “This book is not going to revolutionize the conventional view of the daily press in the GDR, but that was not our intention,” say its editors. “Readers on the lookout for the established cliches will find them in the case studies presented. All of these papers were highly politicized, and their front pages in particular – with their boring headlines, catchphrases and slogans – had little to do with real journalism. Stories about individuals or natural disasters, or anything that might interest readers at a personal level, were conspicuous by their absence.” ´

Similarly, there was little information on the state of the economy or the mood of the country as a whole, and no references to artists or athletes who had fallen foul of the regime. Nevertheless, as the book also shows, the press in the GDR did evolve. The selection of topics treated and the tone of voice changed over time. Following completion of the Berlin Wall – and especially after the signing of the Grundlagenvertrag of 1972 that formalized relations between East and West Germany, and the subsequent admission of both to the UN – direct attacks on the Federal Republic were gradually replaced by less specific and less intemperate criticisms of capitalism. “Reappraisal of the history of the press in the GDR will take time,” says Meyen. “But we have taken an important step towards understanding why and how these papers became such an integral part of the daily life of people in the GDR.” (suwe)


"Fiktionen für das Volk: DDR-Zeitungen als PR-Instrument"
Anke Fiedler, Michael Meyen (Hrsg.)
Lit Verlag, 331 pp, published 29 March 2011
ISBN: 978-3643110770

Die Grenze im Kopf. Journalisten in der DDR
Michael Meyen, Anke Fiedler (Hrsg)
Panama Verlag, 400 pp, published 20 December 2010
ISBN: 978-3938714164

Professor Michael Meyen
Phone: +40 (0) 89 / 2180 – 9455

Responsible for content: Communications & Media Relations