Media and the State: News, Control, and Publicity in Three Germanies, 1848–1933

Conference Group for Central European History 4
Friday, January 6, 2012: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Parlor D (Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers)
Brendan J. Karch, Harvard University
James M. Brophy, University of Delaware

Session Abstract

From the mid-nineteenth to the early twentieth century, the German state developed in constant interaction with increasingly diverse and thriving print media. Interpretations of this relationship have ranged from characterization of the media as a "fourth estate" to their portrayal as the puppet of authoritarian regimes. Empirical research on the topic has tended to refute such extreme arguments, but only in recent years have historians attempted to provide a more nuanced picture of the complex dynamics between media and the state and the significance of this relationship for modern society. Examining journalists, publishers and editors as political actors, historians have integrated neglected players into their analyses, thereby winning new perspectives on both German political culture and the international political arena. Through our investigation of journals, newspapers, and news agencies, our panel aims to broaden further this evolving research field to include lines of communication and working relationships between journalists, editors and bureaucrats; the dynamics of scandal and "media events"; and, last but certainly not least, the negotiation of ethical boundaries in press coverage.

"Ernst Keil vs. Prussia: The Amazone Scandal and Berlin’s Ban of the Gartenlaube," by Chase Richards (Penn), shows how the 1860s controversy surrounding an article on the sinking of a ship in the Prussian navy, published in the Leipzig-based Gartenlaube, did more than simply test the rule of law in post-1848 Prussia; it also revealed the power of the high-volume printing press to thwart Prussian censorship from afar.

In "Contested Boundaries of the 'Sayable,' " Sonja Glaab (Brown) explores the negotiations between the German mass press and the Imperial authorities over the accepted ethical boundaries of what was publically "sayable" in times of perceived political crises. Such crises, more specifically periods of alleged threats against state and society that raised the specter of political violence, forced journalists as well as the authorities to rethink their respective approaches to the spread of sensitive information. Shifting the focus of historical media research to such troubled times sheds light on divergent understandings of the modern press's role in society.

In her concluding paper "Spreading the Revolution: News Agencies and Politics in Weimar Germany," Heidi Tworek (Harvard) demonstrates how both pro- and anti-democratic forces in the early years of the Weimar Republic saw news agencies as the best method to reach and influence Weimar citizens, and the fatal consequences of the end of this consensus for the creation of a cohesive democratic citizenry.

By considering the German state's impact on the media, our panel will contribute to wider debates about the extent of modern state power and the ability of bureaucratic structures to react to modern challenges, such as changing reading publics or the construction and construal of political threats via mass media. Conversely, our panel will show the importance of the media not only for public perceptions but state actions. We aim to illustrate how modern media not only contributed to informing their public, but also influenced the actions of the state, shaping these more than historians typically realize.