The Spiegel Affair of 1962 (German: Spiegel-Affäre) was one of the major political scandals in West Germany after World War II. It stemmed from the publication of an article in Der Spiegel, Germany's leading weekly political magazine, about the nation's defense forces.
The scandal involved a conflict between Franz Josef Strauss, federal minister of defense, and Rudolf Augstein, owner and editor-in-chief of Der Spiegel. The affair cost Strauss his office and, according to some commentators, put the postwar German democracy to its first successful test of press freedom.
Strauss and Augstein had clashed in 1961, when Spiegel raised accusations of bribery in favor of the FIBAG construction company, which had received a contract for building military facilities. A parliamentary enquiry, however, found no evidence against Strauss.
The quarrel escalated when the 8 October 1962 issue of Der Spiegel presented an article by Conrad Ahlers, "Bedingt abwehrbereit" ("Partially Ready to Defend"), about a NATO exercise called "Fallex 62". The piece "included details about the performance of West Germany’s defense forces" and "a NATO commander’s assessment that found the West German forces to be only partially ready to defend the country."
The magazine was accused of treason (Landesverrat) "by publishing details that a hastily compiled Defense Ministry document claimed were state secrets." At 9 p.m. on 26 October, its offices in Hamburg, as well as the homes of several journalists, were raided and searched by 36 policemen, who confiscated thousands of documents. Augstein and 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 was in custody for 103 days. The offices remained shut for weeks.
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, 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 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 coalition with the Social Democratic Party. Left out of power was the Free Democratic Party as well as 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 in August 1966 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 the 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 favour 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.
The Spiegel Affair was adapted into a German television movie, Die Spiegelaffäre: Das Duell, which was broadcast in May 2014 on Arte and ARD. The film was criticized by Franziska Augstein for containing many historical inaccuracies, in particular for inappropriately focusing on personal conflicts between Strauss and Augstein over covering the actual political and judicial conflict in the society.
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