Reviewed by Hans-Dieter Kübler
The fact that the political reunification of the two German states – or, more accurately, the GDR’s accession to the Federal Republic of Germany – on October 3, 1990 was preceded by economic annexation or infiltration in the form of fusions, joint ventures, pricing policy, and confidential agreements with the financially strong West is sufficiently known and has been the subject of a great deal of research. The author of this book argues that one particularly symptomatic and momentous example – as a paradigmatic conflict between the market interests of large-scale journalism and small publishing houses on the one hand and alternative reform concepts and noble democratic ideals of press freedom on the other – is the aggressive annexation and restructuring of the GDR press market using West Germany as a template. This publication is a revised version of her dissertation, which she wrote and had approved at the Institute of Communication Research (ICR) at the University of Illinois, with the support of Michael Meyen at LMU Munich.
Much research has already been conducted into the fusion of the two press markets, including the reports by Beate Schneider et al on the press (1991/92) and by Michael Haller et al (1994) on the newspaper press, both on behalf of the Federal Ministry of the Interior, and Bernd Klammer’s study on Pressevertrieb in Ostdeutschland [Press distribution in East Germany] (1998). Although the author reviews these briefly in a short literature report at the start, she still perceives various gaps and fields that justify her work.
For one thing, she would like to see an exploration and assessment of the transformation chiefly from the perspective of actors from the GDR, i.e. less of the »victors« and more of the »vanquished.« After all, she argues, despite all attempts made to achieve dispassion, neutrality, and intersubjectivity, history can never be written entirely objectively. Instead, for the sake of academic balance, it must be as »transparent« (30) as possible about its inevitable subjectivity. As she was born and grew up in East Berlin, the author continues, she is in a better position to understand the myriad efforts made at reform to achieve a sovereign, democratic, and socialist GDR – efforts that also included a changed press that was close to the people and as unconcentrated as possible.
In order to examine the many controversies and conflicts in more detail, continues the author, she has also shone a spotlight on the key actors in both the GDR and West Germany, focusing on how they acted in their respective economic and political interests. She does so by reviewing countless sources – in particular material that is (now) accessible in official and private archives – and by conducting interviews (17 in all) with actors from the time. All these sources are listed in the appendix. Through her research, writes the author, it became clear that the »lynchpin« (267) was press distribution, to which little attention has been paid up to now, and »the political and economic struggles« (38) for dominance over the press market in the GDR. She thus sees her work as »a story of the reunification period,« not »the reunification story« (32) – although she does reflect on what language is appropriate in light of such terms (43). This is the considered, nuanced, and methodical way in which Mandy Tröger approaches her work.
The two chapters that follow present the facts. The second chapter describes the historical context of German-German relations at the time of reunification and presents the most important institutions in media policy in the GDR. It is not written chronologically – a chronological overview is provided at the start of the book – but instead presents key events, bodies, and actors as a way to outline the economic and political interests that shaped the transformation of the GDR press. The GDR’s constitution did, in fact, (formally) guarantee freedom of opinion and the press, albeit under the terms of democratic centralism. The press thus largely belonged to the SED and parties and organizations close to the SED, with only church publications having a limited degree of independence. Distribution was the role of the state post, while licensing, allocation of paper (which was always in short supply), and thus circulation figures were controlled by the state. The sole source of news for all East German media was the Allgemeine Deutsche Nachrichtendienst (General German News Service, ADN).
The follow-up meeting to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) in January 1989 was intended to open up the GDR market for capitalist media, too. With so many efforts to achieve reform in the time around reunification, the period after 1989 was a hotbed of ideas and concepts both for democratic, authentic, and sovereign GDR media (including internal press freedom) and for a free press exchange between the states. The »Round Table,« the Medienkontrollrat [Media Monitoring Council], and various committees of journalists and publishing houses discussed the drafts, while the governments of Modrow and de Maizière worked with the Volkskammer and its committees to try to pass a media law. But all of them reckoned without the businesspeople of West Germany.
As soon as the Berlin Wall fell on November 9, 1989, the large West German publishing houses Bauer, Burda, Gruner & Jahr, and Springer in particular began supplying their products in the GDR through a combination of joint ventures, informal contacts, and rock-bottom prices. They were thus in direct competition with the ›old’ GDR and SED newspapers, most of which were stuck with old technology, poor paper, and limited access to international news, making it hard for them to keep up with the pressure to modernize and adapt to the new formats. But they were also equally in competition with the reform pamphlets and new publications that emerged, most of which were produced by amateurs and lacked capital, journalistic expertise, and technology. GDR representatives complained of »Wild West methods,« while West German agents rhapsodized about the introduction and stabilization of a »free press.« The central arena was the GDR postal service’s monopoly on press distribution.
In the third and largest chapter (over 160 pages long), the author describes and analyzes the tricks and controversies of the various actors. It often reads like a crime novel. The reader learns a great deal not only about the strategies and weaknesses of the GDR actors, but also about the machinations of the West German publishing houses (including their effective collaboration with government-backed bodies). The crux of the issue was whether press distribution should be organized independently of the publishing houses, as it was in West Germany, or should be more or less dependent on publishing houses – the system that the large publishing houses had already established with their own investments and exchange transactions.
Everyone knows the result. The author sums it up as follows in her fourth and last chapter: Although the ›Big Four‹ did ultimately have to largely give up on their unilateral goal under pressure from the (West German) Bundeskartellamt [competition authority], her analysis shows »how large [West German] publishing houses not only influenced the legislative process, but changed an entire economic order (at least in the press sector) and adapted it to their own goals and interests« (280). This market logic, she argues, strangled numerous reform concepts and »radical democratic visions of a free press« (280).
It would probably be useful now to discuss whether and to what extent the author selected, edited, and evaluated the sources from a point of view that is neutral and as ›objective‹ as possible. However, as she herself points out, there are already so many studies from a Western point of view. It thus can only aid the cause of pluralism in the writing of history if a contribution is made from a reflective and distanced (Eastern) perspective.
This review first appeared in rezensionen:kommunikation:medien, April 8 th 2021, accessible at https://www.rkm-journal.de/archives/22738
About the reviewer
Hans-Dieter Kübler, born 1947, Dr. rer soc., was a Professor of Media, Cultural and Social Sciences at Hamburg University of Applied Sciences (HAW), Faculty of Design, Media and Information, and is Chair of the Institute of Media and Communication Research (IMKO). His work focuses on media and cultural theory; empirical and historic media research; and media pedagogy. He has published numerous works and has been a publisher of the semiannual magazine Medien & Altern (Munich) since 2012.
Translation: Sophie Costella
Schneider, Beate et al.(1991/1992): Strukturen, Anpassungsprobleme und Entwicklungschancen der Presse in den neuen Bundesländern. Forschungsbericht für den Bundesminister des Inneren, 2 Bde. Hannover u. Leipzig.
Haller, Michael; Ludwig, Johannes; Weßler, Hartmut (1994): Entwicklungschancen und strukturelle Probleme der Zeitschriftenpresse in den neuen Bundesländern. Forschungsbericht für den Bundesminister des Inneren. Bd. 1, Leipzig.
Klammer, Bernd (1998): Pressevertrieb in Ostdeutschland. Die wirtschaftlichen und politischen Interessen beim Aufbau eines Pressegroßhandelssystems nach der Oktoberwende 1989. München: Saur.
About the book
Mandy Tröger (2019): Pressefrühling und Profit. Wie westdeutsche Verlage 1989/1990 den Osten eroberten. [Press spring and profit. How West German publishing houses conquered the East in 1989/1990]. Cologne: Herbert von Halem, 360 pages, EUR 25.