The top ten of book journalism Recommendations for books by journalists

By Fritz Hausjell and Wolfgang R. Langenbucher

The idea of selecting and presenting the best books written by journalists is a project of the Institute for Journalism and Communication Studies at the University of Vienna, co-founded by Hannes Haas (1957-2014) and compiled by Wolfgang R. Langenbucher and Fritz Hausjell. The project published its first recommendation list in 2002 in the quarterly journal Message, founded by Michael Haller. After the journal’s discontinuation, the selections were doc- umented in the magazine Der österreichische Journalist [The Austrian Journalist] starting in 2015. In 2020 and 2021 the publication of the recommendation list had to be temporarily suspended due to the Covid-19 pandemic. It found its new home, Journalism Research, in 2022.

Translation: Sophie Costella

Places 1 to 3

1. Reinhard Bingener, Markus Wehner (2023): Die Moskau-Connection. Das Schröder-Netzwerk und Deutschlands Weg in die Abhängigkeit. [The Moscow connection. The Schröder network and Germany’s road to dependence.] Munich: Verlag C.H.Beck, 300 pages, EUR 18.

The two authors of this explosive book, both writers for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), waste no time in revealing an astonishing finding. The foreword states: »There has been no shortage of well-researched reporting on Germany’s policies on Russia and energy over the last 20 years. Almost every problem has been cited clearly and early. The claim that Putin deceived ›everyone‹ is not true« (p. 9). Co-author Wehner is himself a reliable witness in this regard, having been his newspaper’s Moscow correspondent for many years and written an insightful book upon his return (Markus Wehner: Putins Kalter Krieg. Wie Russland den Westen vor sich hertreibt, [Putin’s cold war: How Russia controls the West], Munich 2016). The book was published as part of Knaur’s »Klartext« [straight talking] series. When viewed from a 2022/23 standpoint, it is a bitter irony that economic and political leaders’ notorious skepticism towards »news hacks« clearly prevented them from taking this kind of journalistic evidence seriously.

This book is all about why, despite the unmistakable crimes committed by the Kremlin, it took more than two decades before this ignorance was overcome. It reveals a corrupt, conspiratorial network that remained almost totally unrecognized by the world of daily news. Deep-dive journalism like this is only possible through years of extremely patient, long-term research, supported by the professional team of a respected medium like the FAZ. Most of the sources are oral – and certainly not official. Over the decades, the institutions have built up communication departments the size of political editorial offices with the purpose of idealization, rather than information. It usually takes hundreds of interviews to get to the bottom of a story.

One finding is especially frightening: The fact that Putin came from the KGB and that the KGB’s »secret service methods, lies, deception, manipulation,« as well as »rewards, flattery, blackmail, intimidation, punishment and violence, even murder« were now being used as political instruments (p. 40) was completely ignored. Yet despite all the journalistic efforts, the two authors still do not understand one thing: How can a former German Chancellor continue to act as Schröder does to this day? Is it defiance, greed, stubbornness? They are certainly the ongoing, disastrous and expensive actions of a network, here made mercilessly transparent.

2. Michael Thumann (2023): Revanche. Wie Putin das bedrohlichste Regime der Welt geschaffen hat. [Revenge. How Putin created the world’s most threatening regime.] Munich: Verlag C.H.Beck, 288 pages,  EUR 25.

Moscow has traditionally – regardless of changing political circumstances – been well populated with correspondents from German media. Many of these journalists have risen to prominence through their work, which is difficult yet attracts a great deal of interest. Many have worked in the country for years, returning there repeatedly after periods away. Their books about their time in Moscow or upon their final return to the newspaper that sent them would fill entire bookcases, beginning with works like The Anatomy of Soviet Man (1958) by the well-known journalist Klaus Mehnert (1906-1984). One reliable contributor to this imaginary journalistic library is Michael Thumann, who has reported from Moscow and Russia time and again as foreign correspondent for Die Zeit since 1990.

His latest book rose rapidly up the bestseller lists, especially as Putin’s war of aggression against Ukraine led to a sharp rise in interest in the aggressive regime. Thumann makes drastically clear how urgently we in the West need this knowledge after decades of self-delusion: »The hybrid war is primarily directed against us. Putin wants to bury liberal democracy. He is attacking Europe’s way of life, its security, and its livelihood« (p. 10). The author provides a detailed portrayal of something ignorantly and naively suppressed outside Russia: Through his manipulative treatment of the essentially democratic constitution of the post-Soviet state, Putin has over the decades become a »classic example of an authoritarian ruler« (p. 37). Even economic development fell victim to the ruthless expansion of his power. The conditions for this have far-reaching consequences: »The life of the individual is now worth nothing« (p. 139). This system has now been in place for more than two decades, resulting in a »frightening pathological state of mind« (p. 171). The evidence is shocking, especially given the way that television programs have now morphed into absurd propaganda. Common everyday threats include predictions of the »nuclear pulverization of London, Washington, or Berlin« (p. 267). As Thumann soberly notes, we simply do not know what the 70-year-old ruler, sitting in his nuclear bunker, will decide to do next. This book certainly uses all the tools of the journalistic trade to remove our blinkers, supported by countless sources and the realistic viewpoint of an astute observer. Thanks to this book, readers will be immune to the »arts« of a secret service agent and his many abettors.

3. Anna Sauerbrey (2022): Machtwechsel. Wie eine neue Politikergeneration das Land verändert. [Transition of Power. How a new generation of politicians is changing the country.] Berlin: Rowohlt Berlin Verlag, 320 pages, EUR 22.

By using the term »generation,« the journalist – a member of weekly newspaper Die Zeit’s political department – picks up on a theory developed by a big name in sociology: Karl Mannheim (1893-1947), who was born in Austria and emigrated to England in 1933. This alone, and her placement of the thirteen sections (plus an introduction and conclusion) of what is, as she explicitly states, her first book on such a challenging intellectual foundation, gives it its journalistic class. Furthermore, she herself is part of the generation that is the subject of her portrait and analysis. These portraits are as enjoyable as they are informative to read. Admittedly, this kind of journalistic product is also found in daily media production. What makes her analytical, reportage-saturated, original access to her subjects stand out is signaled in the ten pages of notes, which demonstrate both Anna Sauerbrey’s thorough research and extensive reading, and her innovative, intellectually acute analysis. A meticulous and precise observer, she outlines the psychology of day-to-day politics – psychology that is impossible to see when looking at a series of current news stories, but that here provides a look behind the political scenes. One of the most momentous insights: The generation of politicians that is laid on the journalistic couch here relies on a sense of time that is not »experienced history, but taught history« (p. 47). The difference this makes is fundamental. The transformation is intensified by (un)social media, which conducted highly problematic »hyperpersonalization« (p. 213) during the federal election campaign in 2021. Without a doubt, anyone who wants to understand what connects the »key figures of the governing coalition« (p. 238) as a generation and how they fundamentally differ from the previous generation should turn to this brilliant journalist. She herself speaks of the making of the book as an »adventure« (p. 320). With a debut like this, it surely will not be the last.

Places 4 to 10

4. Lutz Herden, Wolfgang Herles, Luc Jochimsen, Michael Schmidt (2023): Der aufhaltsame Abstieg des öffentlich-rechtlichen Fernsehens. Berichte von Beteiligten. Mit einem Vorwort von Daniela Dahn. [The resistible fall of public service television. Reports from those involved. Foreword by Daniela Dahn.] Berlin: edition ost im Verlag Neues Berlin, 281 pages, EUR 20.

Coming from different public service broadcasters, the three authors and Luc Jochimsen are united in their anger and disappointment at the state of those broadcasters and their current programming, for which the authors were once responsible. Over the last few months, this has been compounded by a series of scandals that put ARD and its regional broadcasters in the headlines, and continues to do so. The four polemics contain an impressive wealth of arguments – both on the broadcasting policies of the federal states and on programming planning, which is the responsibility of the regional broadcasters and their shared institutions. The four authors are particularly enraged over the issue of programming, yet still maintain an almost desperate hope that this institution – with its rich tradition and tough demands on communication policy – could still be capable of reform.

5. Richard C. Schneider (2023): Die Sache mit Israel. Fünf Fragen zu einem komplizierten Land. [The thing about Israel. Five questions on a complicated country.] Munich: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 192 pages, EUR 22

Schneider, a former Israel Correspondent for ARD, introduces himself on his website as a journalist, author, and filmmaker. His bibliography shows that, alongside reporting on current events, he has been a reliable producer of book journalism since the 1990s. As an observer, Schneider is as acute as he is critical. »Israel« is notoriously one of the most controversial topics in Germany and Austria, loaded with cliches and stereotypes with various origins and levels of explosiveness. Five of these are tackled here, with a wealth of material and a sophisticated approach. Anyone who wants to know about the relationship between Palestine and Israel should inform themselves here before joining the next discussion. The same applies more generally: The historical background to the current unrest in Israel regarding judicial reforms makes it clear that the country’s democratic future is at stake.

6. Simone Schlindwein (2023): Der grüne Krieg. Wie in Afrika die Natur auf Kosten der Menschen geschützt wird – und was der Westen damit zu tun hat. [The green war: How nature in Africa is being protected at the people’s expense – and what the West has to do with it] Berlin: Ch. Links Verlag, 256 pages, EUR 20.

Born in 1980, journalist Simone Schlindwein has lived in Uganda since 2008 and is part of the editorial office of die tageszeitung (taz). Followers of her work admire and value her as one of the few people – others include Bartholomäus Grill with Ach, Afrika (2003) – to report as a correspondent from an enormous continent that has seen notoriously little exposure from journalists. Simone Schlindwein focuses on a specific topic that receives little coverage in current reporting: the creation of more and more national parks in various African countries and the problems this presents. »This book is the result of years of sometimes highly perilous research into national parks in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and of numerous discussions and interviews with those active in nature and species protection worldwide« (p. 11). A well-researched alarm call detailing how honest intentions can give rise to circumstances dominated by violence and militarization – now that should really be a topic for the news.

7. Christian Buckard (2023): Egon Erwin Kisch. Die Weltgeschichte des rasenden Reporters. Die Biografie. [The global history of the racing reporter. The biography.] Berlin/Munich: Berlin Verlag, 445 pages, EUR 28.

Does a biography of this scope (still) count as journalism? With more than 40 pages of tightly printed notes in the style of an academic monograph? Using an impressive wealth of primary and secondary literature? It is worth remembering that the life and work of Egon Erwin Kisch was covered back in the 1990s by Germanist and historian Marcus G. Patka (1997) in a voluminous lexicon-style book. Reading and comparing the two reveals that the more recent study certainly counts as journalism in the sense that, despite being based on research more akin to an academic text, it is written in an easily accessible style that is exciting to read. Kisch became a cult figure as the »racing reporter« thanks to his ingenious self-marketing; an enemy as a »communist« (there is particularly intensive research on this difficult topic); and a style-defining figure as a journalist. Christian Buckard is a brilliant narrator, transforming Kisch from a legend into an epochal figure of German-language journalism.

8. Patrick Bahners (2023): Die Wiederkehr. Die AfD und der neue deutsche Nationalismus. [The return. The AfD and the new German nationalism.] Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 540 pages, EUR 28.

The same question as for the book on Egon Erwin Kisch must also be asked here: Is this (still) journalism? Authors in social sciences could fill entire bookcases on this topic. Patrick Bahners is a trained historian and, as he says in his acknowledgements, still well-connected in that world today. Stretching to more than 500 pages, the book goes far beyond the scale typical even for book journalism. A detailed bibliography indicates his systematic way of working, while an eight-page register of names provides more access to the content. Yet Patrick Bahners, born in 1967, has been part of the editorial office of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), where he is responsible for the liberal arts, since 1989. His book is the big hit of a sensitive observer, thorough reporter, and acute analyst. He warns against seeing the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) [Alternative for Germany, a right-wing populist political party, positioned on the radical right] as a phenomenon with a limited shelf life. Taking a sophisticated historical view, he instead sees in its rise elements that return again and again in German history and society, and that demand a democracy »willing to defend itself.« Many university-based historians are also able to write in this readable way, but Bahners’ craftsman-like writing is of a different quality: journalistic quality.

9. Gunter Hofmann (2023): Willy Brandt. Sozialist – Kanzler – Patriot. Eine Biographie. [Willy Brandt. Socialist – Chancellor – Patriot. A biography.] Munich: C.H. Beck, 518 pages, EUR 35.

The author – a true elder statesman of the profession, born in 1942 – has already written numerous books, many of which have been honored here. His work has always given rise to the question: Is that (still) journalism? His latest is a biography of Willy Brandt. Hofmann was Chief Correspondent at weekly newspaper Die Zeit until 2008 and, with this book, has remained true to his journalistic roots even as an author. As German democracy has grown older, (political) journalism has built up a tradition over multiple generations, and media have become established, it has become traditional for journalism and contemporary history writing to become identical. The benefit of this for readers is that journalism can work with the experiences of contemporary witnesses, rather than being limited to archives. Brandt’s first journalist biographer, Peter Merseburger (2002), demonstrated this. In addition, journalists do not require particular courage to replace historic objectivity with a clear judgment. This fascinating biography shows how stimulating this is – as well as highlighting the politics of Willy Brandt (1913-1992), which is once again the subject of contentious discussion.

10. Kai Diekman (2023): Ich war BILD. Ein Leben zwischen Schlagzeilen, Staatsaffären und Skandalen. [I was BILD. A life of headlines, scandals and affairs of state.] Munich: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 544 pages, EUR 34.

Yet again, a highly unusual book leads us to ask ourselves: Is this (still) journalism? Almost 550 pages in the format of a large dictionary, notes in justified small print, a documentary appendix, and extensive references; its style a jumbled mix of autobiography, reportage, quotes, and descriptions. But the author was BILD. Even those who have never read that newspaper, or do not know who its Chief Editor is, must admit that this star of tabloid journalism not only created plenty of outrage, but also proves with this book that he is a documentarian with an outstanding memory, a dramaturg capable of clever arrangements, a brilliant writer, and a sophisticated apologist for himself. Readers who are unaware of the tabloid BILD will be especially astonished to find what an enormous political role it has often played. Indeed, this book is not a »trivial collection of anecdotes,« but a collection of »stories that tell stories. Contemporary history« (p. 510). And it shows the »mechanism of power« in a frightening way (p. 512). With astounding openness, Diekmann uncovers the backstage world of media and politics.

Extra: a translation

Evan Osnos (2022): Mein wütendes Land. Eine Reise durch die gespaltenen Staaten von Amerika. [Wildland. The making of America’s fury.] Translated from English by Stephan Gebauer. Berlin: Suhrkamp Verlag 2022, 638 pages, EUR 32.

Born in 1976 and today a member of the editorial staff of The New Yorker magazine, Evan Osnos reported from the Middle East and the People’s Republic of China for many years beginning in 2002. Now he has written a book on today’s America. Its method is a result of Osnos’ many years living in other countries: »Coming home always holds the promise of a new way of seeing« (p. 12). The author refers explicitly to the work of John Gunther (1901-1970), a legend of American journalism, who reported from Europe in the 1940s and later other continents, publishing a series of books entitled »Inside….« During periods he spent in the United States between postings, Gunther found he felt like a Martian – a viewpoint he used in 1947 to publish the book Inside U.S.A., which became a sensational bestseller.

Thanks to Gunther’s method, Osnos developed a fine nose for the tiny details that make his picture of America so lush and colorful. Most of the material for this comes from interviews: a key method that has given rise to many products of high-level journalism. »This account is based on thousands of hours of conversation over seven years, from 2014 to 2021,« (p. 24). When analyzing and working on the method, a concerning question arises in Evan Osnos as he remembers how often he has stood up for his country: »When I returned to the United States, I began to wonder if I had been lying all those years to people around the world – and to myself« (p. 26). Mein wütendes Land, notes Osnos in his extensive acknowledgements, is a book about public life, seen through the prism of personal experiences (p. 577). The book does not leave the reader feeling optimistic, but may help them to gain a realistic picture, not least given the election year coming up. Not to forget that the commented list of »sources« stretches to 35 pages – evidence of the true qualities of this culture of journalism!


Grill, Bartholomäus (2003): Ach, Afrika. Berichte aus dem Inneren eines Kontinents. Berlin: Siedler Verlag.

Merseburger, Peter (2002): Willy Brandt 1913-1992. Visionär und Realist. Munich: dva.

Patka, Marcus G. (1997): Egon Erwin Kisch. Stationen im Leben eines streitbaren Autors. Vienna: Böhlau.

Wehner, Markus (2016): Putins kalter Krieg. Wie Russland den Westen vor sich hertreibt. Munich: Knaur.

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Fritz Hausjell, Wolfgang R. Langenbucher: The top ten of book journalism. Recommendations for books by journalists. In: Journalism Research, Vol. 6 (3_4), 2023, pp. 343-351. DOI: 10.1453/2569-152X-3_42023-13645-en




First published online

December 2023