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The scandal involved a conflict between Franz Josef Strauß, then Federal minister of defense, and Rudolf Augstein, owner and editor-in-chief of Der Spiegel magazine, Germany's leading weekly political magazine. The affair would cost Strauß his office and, according to some commentators, put the postwar German democracy to its first major test.
Minister Strauß and editor Augstein had already clashed a year earlier, when, in 1961, Spiegel raised accusations of bribery in favor of the FIBAG construction company, which had received a contract for building military facilities. However, a parliamentary enquiry then found no evidence against Strauß.
The quarrel then escalated on 8 October 1962, when the 8 October issue of Der Spiegel was published an article by the magazine's military expert Conrad Ahlers, titled "Bedingt abwehrbereit" ("Partially Ready to Defend,"), about a NATO exercise called "Fallex 62". The piece uncovered the sorry state of the Bundeswehr (Germany's armed forces) facing the communist threat from the east. At that time, the armed forces had been given the grade "prepared for defense to only a limited extent", the lowest possible NATO-grade.
The magazine was accused of treason. At 9 p.m. on 26 October 1962, the magazine's offices in Hamburg as well as the homes of several journalists were raided and searched by 36 policemen who confiscated thousands of documents. The offices would remain shut down for weeks. Augstein and the then-editors-in-chief Claus Jacobi and Johannes Engel were arrested. The author of the article, Ahlers, who was vacationing in Spain, was arrested in his hotel during the night. Augstein would remain in custody for 103 days.
Federal Chancellor Konrad Adenauer was informed of Strauß's actions. However, Wolfgang Stammberger, the Minister of Justice, belonging to the smaller coalition party FDP, was deliberately left out of all decisions. News of the arrests caused riots and protest throughout Germany. Strauß initially denied all involvement, even before the Bundestag: Adenauer, in another speech, famously complained about an "abyss of treason" ("Abgrund von Landesverrat").
Strauß was finally forced to admit that he had phoned the German military attaché in Madrid and urged him to have Ahlers arrested. This was clearly illegal – as Minister of the Interior Hermann Höcherl famously paraphrased, "etwas außerhalb der Legalität" ("somewhat outside of legality"). Since Strauß had lied to the parliament, on 19 November, the five FDP ministers of the cabinet resigned, demanding that Strauß be fired. This put Adenauer himself at risk. He found himself publicly accused of backing the suppression of a critical press with the resources of the state.
On 26 November, the police ended its occupation of the Spiegel offices, while Augstein, Ahlers and three others remained under arrest – Augstein until 7 February 1963. In December 1962, Adenauer formed a new cabinet without Strauß (and Stammberger).
On 13 May 1965, the Bundesgerichtshof (highest German court of appeals) refused to open trial against Augstein and Ahlers, ruling that during the affair Strauß had exceeded his competencies and committed Freiheitsberaubung (deprivation of personal freedom); however, because of his belief of acting lawfully (Verbotsirrtum), he was exempt from punishment. The case also came before the Federal Constitutional Court of Germany, which issued a groundbreaking ruling that laid down the basics of the freedom of the press for decades to come.
The scandal temporarily halted Strauß's political career and was remembered by many when Strauß ran for Bundeskanzler in 1980, clearly losing against his SPD opponent (and incumbent) Helmut Schmidt. However, it is mostly remembered for altering the political culture of post-war Germany and – with the first mass demonstrations and public protests – being a turning point from the old Obrigkeitsstaat (authoritarian state) to a modern democracy. The British historian Frederick Taylor argued that Federal Republic under Adenauer retained many of the characteristics of the authoritarian "deep state" that existed under the Weimar Republic, and that the Der Spiegel affair marked an important turning point in German values as ordinary people rejected the old authoritarian values in favor of the more democratic values that are today seen as the bedrock of the Federal Republic.
Augstein became one of International Press Institute's 50 Hero of World Press Freedom laureates in 2000 for his role in the Spiegel scandal. The scandal was the closure of a reactionary period and the parochial culture in West Germany.
- Michael Marek; Birgit Görtz (10 October 2012). "A scandal rocks the young federal republic". Deutsche Welle. Retrieved 26 August 2013.
- Gunkel, Christoph (21 September 2012). "50th Anniversary of the 'SPIEGEL Affair': A Watershed Moment for West German Democracy". Der Spiegel. Retrieved 26 August 2013.
- Taylor, Frederick Exorcising Hitler, London: Bloomsbury Press, 2011 p. 371
- Laudatory submission for Hero of World Press Freedom Award Free Media, Rudolf Augstein
- Esser, Frank; Uwe Hartung (2004). "Nazis, Pollution, and no Sex: Political Scandals as a Reflection of Political Culture in Germany". American Behavioral Scientist 47 (1040). Retrieved 4 October 2013.
"BVerfGE 20, 162 1 BvR 586/62, 610/63 and 512/64 Spiegel-decision". 5 August 1966. Retrieved 8 December 2010.