News from Germany: The Competition to Control World Communications, 1900–1945 by Heidi J.S. Tworek
For Hitler and the NSDAP, propaganda was central to the establishment of a totalitarian dictatorship. In March 1933, the Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda was set up under Joseph Goebbels to control the press, radio, film, theater, and art. The editorial independence of newspapers was eroded, communist, socialist, and other oppositional papers were forbidden, and the state-controlled news agency Deutsches Nachrichtenbüro (German news office) shaped newspaper content. Moreover, the Nazis seized the broadcasting system, which was used as a powerful tool for spreading propaganda at home and abroad. Nazi propaganda was also spread abroad through Transocean, a wireless news service directed at foreign newspapers and news agencies. It played a crucial role in the "war of words" during the 1930s and World War II and was particularly influential in Latin America and China, much to the annoyance of the British and American governments.
One reason the Nazis could swiftly seize control of communications in 1933 was the structure of media control built up in Germany during previous decades. As Heidi Tworek reveals in News from Germany, there was a long tradition of government influence on news gathering and distribution dating back to imperial Germany and the Weimar Republic. Since around 1900, German elites—i.e., bureaucrats, politicians, industrialists, military leaders, and journalists—considered news as a key to international power and news agencies a means to achieve broader political, economic, and cultural objectives through the control and spread of information at home and abroad. Hence, Berlin sought to establish an international news network that could compete with its British and French rivals. Building on the new technology of wireless telegraphy, the Germans aimed to bypass the undersea cable networks controlled by Britain and France. The strategic importance of cables was revealed in 1914 when, in the first days of World War I, the British cut all cable connections with Germany and taught a lesson in the importance of wireless communications to German elites.
News from Germany is not a story about newspaper content, but about the news networks that operated in a transnational space and fundamentally shaped what newspapers printed. Those networks were largely invisible to newspaper readers, [End Page 179] since the papers often did not name news agencies as their sources of information. German governments considered this invisibility an advantage because it enabled them to secretly influence public opinion inside and outside Germany, as well as foreign governments, through control of the flow of information. As Tworek argues, German news agencies became the bottlenecks of news provision. Since news gathering was costly, few papers could afford their own correspondents in Berlin and abroad. The majority of the roughly 4,000 newspapers in Germany were dependent on news agency material. This gave news agencies considerable power. At the same time, through state-funding and exclusive access to official information, news agencies were firmly tied to the German government, which enabled the latter to shape newspaper content without having to deal with hundreds and thousands of individual publications.
Tworek skillfully narrates the transnational history of German news agencies. Since the 1860s, Wolffs Telegraphisches Bureau was Germany's principal news agency and exclusive provider of official news. In return for financial support, Wolffs Telegraphisches Bureau agreed to give preferential treatment to government notices and to submit politically sensitive news for approval by the government prior to its publication. During the Weimar Republic, the German government even paid the salaries of several of the bureau's correspondents, whom they considered useful agents of Germany's cultural diplomacy. Wolffs Telegraphisches Bureau formed part of an international news cartel dominated by the British Reuters and the French Havas agencies. Between them, they divided the supply of news, each reporting on an assigned sphere of influence and exchanging their news with the others. In order to circumvent this restriction as well as British-dominated cable networks, the German government turned to wireless technology and in 1915 founded the Transocean news service. During 1915–1917 American newspapers printed more than 20,000 Transocean articles—a remarkable success for German propaganda during World War I. Other influential news agencies founded during the Weimar Republic included Eildienst (Swift Service), a wireless service founded by the government to spread economic news and boost German exports, and Telegraph Union, a right-wing news agency founded by the industrialist, media mogul, and nationalist Alfred Hugenberg. With sensational reports, modern advertising, extremely cheap prices, and high speed in news supply it became highly influential with the German provincial press and German minorities abroad. Telegraph Union's dominance of the news market provoked fears among Weimar governments that Hugenberg's nationalist propaganda might undermine democracy. In 1931 the government decided to take full control of Wolffs Telegraphisches Bureau by purchasing the majority of its shares, thereby hoping to increase the supply of democratic news to the German public. This move, however, would later enable the Nazis to quickly seize control of Wolffs Telegraphisches Bureau. In December 1933 Wolffs Telegraphisches Bureau and Telegraph Union were forced to merge into Deutsches Nachrichtenbüro, which became the principal supplier of [End Page 180] state-controlled news in Germany. While the Deutsches Nachrichtenbüro also catered to European audiences, Transocean continued to gather and spread news overseas, especially in Latin America and China.
Tworek draws on an impressive range of sources in multiple languages from state and business archives in Austria, France, Germany, Poland, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Unfortunately, the references to the secondary literature can only be consulted through the seventy pages of endnotes, which is a rather exasperating experience. This minor criticism aside, this beautifully written book is recommended to those interested in the history of news, communications, and propaganda. It raises awareness that news is not merely the product of journalists and editors, but is significantly shaped by powerful international news networks acting behind the scenes. News should therefore not be taken at its face value, warns Tworek: "Only by venturing behind the printed newspaper can we learn how information traveled the perilous journey from event to news. News was never neutral. And its production never uncontested" (7). This awareness is even more pressing in light of the ongoing digitization of newspaper archives, which has turned news and historical newspapers into an accessible and widely used source. Tworek's book provides the necessary background information to question the creation of this historical source.