"The mood of this place is like Germany in 1945," said Emanuel Eckardt, one of the most respected writers for Stern, West Germany's biggest news weekly, which first published the forged "Hitler diaries."
"We're still in a state of shock, trying to figure out how we drifted into this catastrophe, just as Germans asked themselves after the war why they went along with Hitler."
Six weeks after the diaries were exposed as forgeries, 200 journalists are sifting through the ruins of lost credibility and trying to rebuild the magazine's shattered reputation.
"Nobody stood up and said we should not publish the diaries, even though there are laws forbidding reprints of Hitler works like 'Mein Kampf,' " Eckardt said. "We all accepted putting out the Hitler story, so we all must share in the guilt."
The mammoth task of restoring the magazine to a prominent position has been handed to Stern's new editor in chief, Peter Scholl-Latour, a well-known foreign correspondent for West German television, who says he accepted his new job for its intrinsic challenge and not the $800,000 yearly salary.
"This is going to be a bigger adventure than covering Beirut or Vietnam," said Scholl-Latour as he prepared to take charge this week. "I would never have published the diaries, but that's behind us now, and the real test is to see how we can improve the quality of the magazine."
After traveling around the globe on assignments in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, Scholl-Latour says he was lured into leaving his most recent post in Paris by the challenge of rebuilding Stern's influence at a time when, he believes, Germany is embarking on the most important phase of the postwar era.
"We are on the verge of witnessing important new developments, for the existing empires in East and West are getting weaker," he said. "I think it will be interesting to observe and comment upon events through the pages of Stern, since the German question is again becoming one of the most important aspects of world politics."
For more than three decades, Stern has played a distinctively aggressive role in reflecting trends in postwar Germany. In a country obsessed with identity, it is understandable how a popular magazine can exert a powerful influence over national psyche.
As West Germany grew prosperous in the postwar era, so did Stern. Most issues now run to 300 pages and are fat with advertising. Reporters' salaries have soared in some cases to more than $100,000 a year, and photographer fees can exceed $1,000 a day.
Under the stewardship of Henri Nannen, a former Luftwaffe officer who founded Stern in 1948, the magazine at first concentrated on appealing features full of materialistic promise to a war-weary generation.
Later, as the sexual revolution gathered steam, Stern found that glossy photos of nudes stimulated circulation. In the '60s, the magazine discovered protest politics and took a leftward turn, dwelling on student revolts, attacks on the Vietnam war and better relations with the East.
The magazine also filled another appetite: an inexhaustible curiosity about the Nazi era and its legacy. As the country slowly tried to come to terms with the Third Reich after suppressing Nazi history for a generation, Stern began publishing expose's of Nazi criminals still in hiding and graphic tales of life inside the concentration camps.
While Stern's accounts on the Nazi era adopted a critical tone that bordered on repugnance, Nannen's morbid fascination, according to some journalists who worked for him, came from a desire to justify the past and show how he had changed. It is a trait shared by many elder Germans, grappling for an explanation to their own acquiescence during the Nazi era.
When Stern reporter Gerd Heidemann approached his editors with his bombshell discovery of the diaries after a long search, Nannen and others were highly skeptical. But business interests at the magazine, sensing a blockbuster scoop to bolster advertising, pushed for Stern to publish the diaries.
"They became blind toward any doubts," says Hans Hoyng, a journalist at the rival weekly Spiegel who once worked at Stern. "I know some very bright people there who were trapped by pressure from the executives, the prospect of big money and their will to believe the diaries were real."
The revelation on May 6 by West Germany's Federal Archives that the diaries were "crude, superficial fakes" stunned staff members, who were celebrating a boost in circulation from between 1.65 million and 1.75 million past the 2 million mark with the initial cover story that described the discovery of the "historic find."
Now circulation has fallen to 1.5 million, but Stern executives hope this is due to the summer season more than reader disaffection over the diaries scandal.
Stern's 200 journalists exploded in anger at publisher Nannen when he admitted that the magazine had possessed copies of some diary volumes for two years without seeking outside verification.
When the two top editors in charge of the Hitler project, Peter Koch and Felix Schmidt, resigned in disgrace, Nannen compounded resentment by agreeing to pay them $1.2 million each in a golden parachute that many staff members suspected was nothing less than hush money.
Seeking to salvage Stern's credibility as well as advertisers, Nannen and the board of directors at the parent company, Gruner and Jahr, decided to hire Scholl-Latour and Johannes Gross, publisher of the business monthly Capital, to impose a reassuring tone of conservatism at the magazine.
Stern journalists perceived the move as a threat to their leftish views. They believed that in the wake of the Hitler fiasco, their independence would be sacrificed as management sought to tug Stern to the right in a desperate bid to prevent angry defections by key advertisers.
Copying the tactics of student protesters, staff members occupied the Gruner and Jahr Building overlooking the Alster Bay and demanded that Scholl-Latour and Gross have their job offers rescinded. They asked for new editors subject to a vote of confidence and for written guarantees to protect the progressive nature of the magazine.
"Politics inside a magazine can be very dirty business," said Rainer Fabian, a leader of the revolt. "But we were not prepared to see our integrity made the scapegoat of the diaries scandal when most of us had nothing to do with it. We had to fight for our rights."
A compromise was struck. Gross would leave but remain on the board of directors, Scholl-Latour would take full editorial control, and a statute giving the journalists freedom to express their views in print was drawn up.
Since the conflict was defused, journalists and management have tried to keep the peace. "Morale is good," said Fabian. "We are eager for a fresh start. The troubles of recent weeks have given us all a new sense of unity."
In one of his first acts as editor in chief, Scholl-Latour announced today that four senior journalists from Stern, including Fabian, will serve as his deputies. The move was perceived as a way to ease suspicions among the staff that the new editor would not respect their views.
Colleagues at rival publications like Spiegel have been highly supportive. "There has been no schadenfreude, no gloating by the others," said Stern reporter Almut Hielscher. "If anything, most journalists expressed fear and sorrow over our problems because of the risk of a public backlash against the entire press."
For his part, Scholl-Latour seems eager to put to rest apprehensions among the staff that he is too conservative.
"I do not intend to impose my views," he said. "I may turn out to be much more liberal than they think. Besides, ideology can be hard to pin down."
Nonetheless, there are others who are less optimistic about the truce. "I respect Peter very much as a correspondent, but he doesn't know what he is getting into as a manager," said his friend Dieter Wild, Spiegel's foreign editor. "I don't think he will last more than three months."