The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Germany, how government support for news media turned into government control

An operator demonstrates a new teletypesetter machine in 1928. In Germany and elsewhere, news agencies used such technologies to expand their reach, often with government support.
An operator demonstrates a new teletypesetter machine in 1928. In Germany and elsewhere, news agencies used such technologies to expand their reach, often with government support. (AP)

Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer.

On the evening of the 2016 presidential election, I sat in my apartment playing a virtual-reality game. My vibe was complacent. I was sure that Hillary Clinton would win the presidency, so I didn’t track the early results. For months, I’d taken solace in daily newspaper polls that showed her with a sizable lead. Around 10 or 11 p.m., I removed my headset just to confirm my belief. Embarrassing as it is to say, I couldn’t grasp what I saw. I refreshed my phone repeatedly, thinking there must be something wrong with the projections, as two images popped into my mind: The first was of Republican strategist Karl Rove’s prolonged inability to countenance that Barack Obama had won Ohio in the 2012 election. The second was the famous line from Karl Marx’s “Manifesto of the Communist Party”: “All that is solid melts into air.” Judged from the perspective of Heidi J.S. Tworek’s “News From Germany: The Competition to Control World Communications, 1900-1945,” I’d committed the mistake of conflating published opinion with public opinion — a classic folly.

Tworek’s book examines how, at the dawn of the 20th century, political, business and military elites realized the influence of published opinion on public opinion. And how from this understanding arose attempts to control the supply of news available to the masses. Using state and business archives, Tworek demonstrates how German bureaucrats and businessmen came to fix their attention on the news agencies that were responsible for gathering domestic and international stories for dissemination to regional and national newspapers. Her book reaches back to the second half of the 19th century when three pioneering news agencies were formed: Agence Havas, Wolff Telegraphisches and the Reuters Telegraph Company. These French, German and British companies, respectively, transformed the journalistic landscape by broadening the news available to readers and bringing it to them at a faster pace.

According to Tworek, as late as 1926, “90 percent of all newspapers had no correspondents abroad or in Berlin.” The high costs of maintaining a stable of international reporters and dispatching their reports over telegraph conferred particular value to the three news agencies that could afford to do so. Telegraphy, as Tworek points out, was the first technology that allowed information to travel faster than people. Because these communications required significant infrastructure to operate and maintain — in the form of undersea cables that facilitated wired telegraphy — the three major news agencies were heavily dependent upon their respective governments for access to technology. In scholarly detail, Tworek traces how successive German governments from the 1860s until the early 1930s variously supported Wolff’s enterprise. This involvement spurred the creation of other institutions and prompted government-funded research into other technologies, such as wireless telegraphy and radio.

Many contemporaries viewed Wolff as the lesser of the three agencies, which in 1870 formed a cartel to divvy up their areas of activity. Tworek notes that in 1890, “Wolff had to cede 25 percent of its annual profits to Reuters and Havas . . . as it used so much of their news.” Around 1900 German leaders began to wonder if Wolff’s lesser status was undercutting Germany’s ambition to move from a Eurocentric power broker to a major player on the world stage. Such concern led government and business leaders to look toward investing in wireless telegraphy as a way to circumvent Britain’s superior network of telegraphic cables.

The outbreak of World War I prompted all of the major antagonists to look closer at the news that was being produced within and outside their borders. At this time propaganda began to flourish as the warring governments rallied their citizens to support the conflict’s expense and loss of life. During and after the war, many German elites believed that the international news system had sullied the reputation of Germany abroad. Some felt that the best way to counter this trend was to spread German news farther afield, particularly to neutral countries.

“The News From Germany” illuminates how this strategy led to increased government intervention. Tworek reveals how officials in the Weimar government, believing they were acting in the best interests of democracy, created structures to oversee and regulate news supply. This led to policies, such as restricting political advocacy from the radio, intended to forestall inflaming partisan passions. Ironically, it was the state’s tight control over the news supply that allowed the Nazis to swiftly take over the country’s communications channels and remake them to serve their interests.

Tworek shows how access to the main levers of the news supply sometimes helped to distort reality, as when a telegram disseminated through the Wolff agency convinced the German population that Emperor Wilhelm II had abdicated in early November 1918, nearly three weeks before he in fact stepped down. She also highlights the inefficacy of such control of information. “Readers,” she notes, “did not react positively to Nazi measures and complained bitterly about the monotony of their news.”

Though Tworek is sensitive to propaganda’s ability to restrict opposing points of view, she is mindful that readers are not automatons and that news is something individuals interpret in their own way. As I reached the end of “The News From Germany,” I remembered a line from Jacques Ellul’s ever-timely book “Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes.” “Propaganda,” he writes, “ceases where simple dialogue begins.”

By Heidi J. S. Tworek

Harvard. 333 pp.