In 1975, West Germany was often under varying degrees of lockdown. Roadblocks were set up at autobahn exits and identification was checked; groups of heavily armed police were seen in city centers holding machine guns and looking menacing; and airports were under armed guard. The reason given for this military-like presence was the existence of a leftist terror group known as the Rote Armee Fraktion. While the State response was disproportionate to the actual strength of the group, one would never know this given the governmental response. Besides the ever-growing presence of police in the citizens’ daily lives, there was also the creation of the Bundeskriminalamt, which was something like the 1970s German equivalent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and today’s Department of Homeland Security in the US. A powerful agency at its inception, its strength grew even more after the passage of the Radikalenerlass (Anti-Radical Decree) in 1972, which forbade civil employment for anyone the State considered to be linked to several primarily leftwing political organizations. The law, which reminded Germans of the Berufsverbot laws under Hitler, was opposed by a substantial percentage of the nation’s residents and was the target of a concerted campaign by writers, artists and intellectuals to end it.
Another aspect to West Germany’s political culture in the 1970s had to do with the activities of the media. During the decades after World War Two the best-selling newspaper in West Germany was Das Bild. This tabloid was published by the Springer publishing company, which was owned and managed by the right-winger Axel Springer. Das Bild’s articles and editorials regarding the student movement, the counterculture, and various other manifestations of German society that did not agree with its publisher’s worldview fanned the flames of the reactionaries in the country. The best comparison to today’s media would be the news outlets owned by Rupert Murdoch, with Fox News and the New York Post being the most like Das Bild. Among other charges, leftist radicals considered the paper to be partially responsible for the attempted assassination of Rudi Dutschke in Berlin in 1968.
Among the writers involved in the aforementioned campaign to abolish the Radikalenerlass was Heinrich Böll. Perhaps best known for his novels Billiards at Half-Past-Nine, The Clown and Group Portrait With Lady, Böll was a left-leaning Catholic from a pacifist family dedicated to freedom of expression and civil liberties. His works are examinations of how ordinary people deal with religious and political authoritarianism, war, terror and other manifestations of modern centralized society. His support for due process in the arrest and treatment of members of the Rote Armee Fraktion led to him being equated with the group by various elements of West Germany’s media, government and the law enforcement establishment.
I recently watched the 1975 film made from Böll’s novel The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum for the first time since its appearance in US theaters. Starring Angela Winkler as the film’s primary character, the story centers on a young woman who works as a housekeeper for a well-established attorney and a rather conventional past. Divorced, quiet, with a sick mother, the only blemish on her otherwise pedestrian life involves an affair with a powerful businessman named Straubleber and her chance meeting with Ludwig Goettens, a fugitive German terrorist. It is the latter which gets her into trouble and the former that enhances the suspicion the security police have based their entire investigation, especially since she refuses to divulge the existence of the affair. Another element in her life is that her employer is an attorney who represents the businessman whose mistress she was.
While the story is a look at the conspiracy between the media and the modern national security state, its context is the broader and less specific conspiracy of capital and authoritarianism. Like his contemporaries in fiction and elsewhere, Böll’s presentation makes clear that this authoritarianism is part of the western capitalist society as much as the more brutal form of authoritarianism was part and parcel of the Stalinist regimes to the East and the dictatorships of Spain, Portugal and Latin America. In The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, this link is represented in the personage of the executive and academic Straubleber.
Although the book is somewhat nuanced, examining Blum’s somewhat sympathetic employers and the essentially authoritarian nature of Straubleber, the film focuses primarily on the press. While the interior security police are reprehensible as individuals and as an entity, it is the right wing and alarmist media who are the worst of the establishment criminals in this film. Besides seeing terrorism under every rock and in any unconventional human situation, its incapability of seeing the truth because of an ideologically driven agenda and ultimately petty understanding of human relationships is what makes it an effective tool of the State. When one adds an assumption of character based on the loosest of associations, the destruction of individuals becomes self-fulfilling. As the Blum character says in the film, the role of the media is “to rob innocent people of their honor.” Indeed, it is not just the destruction of the privacy of the accused and their acquaintances by media outlets like these, but also their humanity and even their sanity that is at stake. Indeed, near the end of the film, driven to madness, she kills the news reporter whose stories have been the most damning of her. One wishes she had done the same to the much more dangerous national security state and its corporate sponsors.
If we fast forward to today, the parallels should be obvious. Although leftists are no longer the perceived threat they were in the period of Böll’s book, followers of the Muslim religion are. In fact, the recent killings in Ottawa at the War Memorial and in the Houses of Parliament provide an excellent example of how the modern media establishment does its best to paint any unusual activity undertaken against government officials as Islamic terrorism. It wasn’t but an hour or so after the US media got ahold of the story that reporters, newscasters and establishment “experts” were speculating as to the attacker’s religious affiliation. Even after the only possible connection found to extreme Islamism was that the attacker was a Twitter follower of a radical Islamic preacher, the talking heads on FoxNews, CNN and even MSNBC were attempting to turn this inconsequential link into a terrorist conspiracy. As of this writing, nothing has come of this blatant manipulation of fear and truth. Even more indicting are the numerous cases of entrapment of young men (some quite obviously emotionally disturbed) by state security agencies in Britain and the United States. Like the arrest of Katharina Blum in Böll’s novel, these instances, some of which are documented in the Arun Kundnani’s book The Muslims Are Coming! serve a dual purpose. Not only do they enhance the national security state secret police apparatus, they also help maintain a state of fear among the general population—a fear that encourages them to look the other way when rights are violated in the name of safety.
The role of media in any society is a more complex one than merely reporting the news. The overtly ideological reporting of organizations like FoxNews and the German Springer Publishing Group make this even clearer. The profitableness of these two corporations has convinced others to follow their lead, thereby shrinking the ideological spectrum of the mainstream press ever shorter.
Ron Jacobs is the author of the just released novel All the Sinners, Saints. He is also the author of The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground and Short Order Frame Up and The Co-Conspirator’s Tale. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His third novel All the Sinners Saints is a companion to the previous two and is due out in April 2013. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.