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CASE STUDY: The `Spiegel Affair'. One man's disinformation may be another's free press

By Elizabeth Pond / February 28, 1985

London and Hamburg

FRANZ Josef Strauss and the magazine Der Spiegel -- quite a few West Germans think -- deserve each other. Both are convinced of their own importance, and of their own rightness. Neither suffers critics gladly. Mr. Strauss has long been a hero of the right and a bogeyman of the left. Der Spiegel's publisher, Rudolf Augstein, has been a hero of the iconoclasts and a bogeyman of the establishment.

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The ``Spiegel Affair'' that pitted these two giants against each other came in 1962. In the past year it has been widely presented in Britain and the US as a classic exhibit of Soviet disinformation.

But is it?

Certainly West German conservatives do not refer to it as such. And an exploration of the convolutions of the affair suggests considerable difficulties with the thesis of disinformation.

Back in 1962 the magazine had been carrying on a vendetta against Strauss for some time. But the article that pre-cipitated the storm was less a personal attack than a report on the inadequacies of the fledgling German armed forces as displayed in the fall exercises just past.

Conventional forces could not hold in case of a Warsaw Pact attack, Defense Ministry evaluators wrote in internal studies. This judgment reinforced the conclusion of an earlier supersecret ministry report, commissioned by Strauss, speculating that a preemptive nuclear attack by the West might be needed to reduce West German losses in a war -- and that Bonn should be able to trigger that nuclear preemption if the US lacked nerve.

The leak about the fall exercises was given to Der Spiegel by a north German Army colonel who mistrusted Strauss's Bavarians (and the Air Force) and thought -- mistakenly -- that the ministry's musings about a preemptive nuclear strike had never been shown to the West German chancellor.

After a lag of two weeks Der Spiegel was charged with revealing 17 official secrets. There was a night raid on the weekly; Augstein and editors were arrested. The main author of the article, Conrad Ahlers, was in Spain on vacation, and Strauss telephoned the West German military attach'e in Madrid after midnight on a weekend to arrange for his arrest. Strauss said he was calling on the authority of the chancellor and the foreign minister (neither of whom knew about the call) and that the proper Interpol warrant was on its way (even though the international police organization had not been contacted). Ahlers was picked up at his hotel at 3 a.m. and sent back to West Germany.

West Germany was a different country then than now. It had been a democracy for only 13 years. In that time it had had only one chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, and his conservatives regarded themselves as the country's rightful governing party. The German propensity to obey authority may have been bitterly challenged by intellectuals, but not by the other institutions, including, by and large, the press. Der Spiegel was an exception. It saw -- and sees -- itself as the crusading political adversary of the government in power.

Der Spiegel had checked its story with Defense Ministry, intelligence, and other government sources and deleted some material on request -- a precaution it would probably be embarrassed to take today. One of those deletions appeared shortly in Die Welt -- and brought no prosecution for Die Welt.

The Federal High Court eventually acquitted Der Spiegel and all the defendants -- and the US Judge Advocate's Office in Heidelberg categorically denied the Spiegel article had endangered US troops. Augstein's arrest politicized a generation of students, however. During his six weeks in jail there were demonstrations for his release, and thereafter he was lionized at universities.