50th Anniversary of the 'SPIEGEL Affair': A Watershed Moment for West German Democracy

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Fifty years ago, police raided SPIEGEL headquarters in Hamburg and arrested some of the magazine's top journalists. The affair, which marked a watershed in postwar German democracy, would cause the government to collapse and the powerful defense minister to resign.

Photo Gallery: The SPIEGEL Affair Photos
DPA

They were given names like Dragonfly, Fly and Wasp. Five teams with codenames like "Pentathlon" and "Einstein" were on their trail in a secret operation by Germany's Military Counterintelligence Service (MAD), one of the country's three federal intelligence agencies, that was dubbed "Sabotage." The hunt had begun.

The affair that happened in West Germany in October 1962 sounds like a spy thriller from the pen of John le Carré, who at the time was working on his bestseller "The Spy Who Came in from the Cold." But at the time, the height of the Cold War, German intelligence really believed they were on the trail of a large-scale conspiracy. They thought that SPIEGEL founder Rudolf Augstein (codenamed "Dragonfly"), as well as SPIEGEL reporters including Conrad Ahlers ("Fly") and Hans Schmelz ("Wasp") had betrayed West German military secrets.

The resulting SPIEGEL affair, as it was later dubbed, would cost the defense minister his job, make the magazine famous around the world and mark a watershed moment in the history of West German postwar democracy.

But the meticulously planned MAD operation began with a gaffe. At 6:15 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 26, an elderly gentleman rushed from a Düsseldorf department store to his Mercedes in the pouring rain, carrying a duck for his Sunday roast under his arm. Suddenly he was stopped by officers from the Federal Criminal Police Office.

The police were sure they had caught Augstein. After all, the Mercedes was parked in front of SPIEGEL's Düsseldorf office and had Hamburg plates. It all fit together: Augstein lived in Hamburg, where SPIEGEL has its headquarters, and he also had a second residence in Düsseldorf.

But the suspect vehemently denied that he was Augstein. He kept insisting that his name was Erich Fischer, and that he was an advertising salesman for SPIEGEL. He could not prove anything, however, because he did not have his identity papers on him.

"You can make things easier for yourself and for us in this lousy weather," said one of the investigators impatiently. "Just admit that you are not Fischer!" Fischer reacted with black humor. "If I make a confession, do I get less time?"

It took almost two hours before the error was cleared up, even though the burly Fischer did not physically resemble Augstein, who was thin and 15 years younger.

An Attack on Press Freedom

Thus the biggest political scandal in Germany's postwar history began with an embarrassing mistake that set off a chain of further gaffes. For example, investigators searched the beds of SPIEGEL editor in chief Claus Jacobi' children, seizing their drawings as evidence. On other occasion, police chased a car all the way across Hamburg until the vehicle finally stopped in an area of community gardens. The man who emerged from the car was not the alleged traitor Augstein, but a harmless construction foreman.

The affair often resembled the Keystone Cops more than a le Carré novel. But the scale of the accusations, the high-handed actions of the authorities and the lies and half-truths of some of the parties involved meant that SPIEGEL's staff and many Germans didn't think it was funny.

Never in the history of postwar West Germany had the state acted against journalists in such an unscrupulous way. And never before had the population's displeasure made itself felt with such force on West German streets. An unlikely alliance of conservatives and leftists, students and academics publicly protested against the attack on press freedom. The media affair became a government scandal. It caused the government of Chancellor Konrad Adenauer to collapse and led to the resignation of the most powerful man in the Cabinet, Defense Minister Franz Josef Strauss.

The whole thing was triggered by a somewhat dry and detail-heavy SPIEGEL cover story published in the Oct. 8, 1962 issue. The authors Conrad Ahlers and Hans Schmelz analyzed the state of the German armed forces, the Bundeswehr, over the course of 17 pages. They came to an alarming conclusion, quoting the assessment of NATO high command that German forces were only "partially ready" to defend the country. There was a lack of weapons, troops and, in particular, the right strategy. The NATO exercise "Fallex 62," which had been held a short time before, had shown that the West German lines would quickly collapse in the event of an attack by the communist East.

Nevertheless, even some SPIEGEL editors considered the article to be long-winded and not particularly controversial. Similar material had been reported in another SPIEGEL story and in an article by a German Sunday newspaper, without any apparent consequences. This time, too, the reaction was subdued at first. There was no public debate and no denials were issued. But in the background, the magazine's opponents were getting ready to act.

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