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

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.

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.

Strauss made out less well. After denying in Parliament for two weeks that he had been involved in getting Ahlers arrested, he finally conceded his role. The conservatives' junior coalition partner, the Free Democrats, threatened to pull down the government if Strauss didn't resign. The 85-year-old Adenauer, who in any case resented Strauss's ambition to replace him, then forced Strauss out. The Christian Democrats, who had been trying to get Adenauer to yield to a younger chancellor, thereupon insisted that Ludwig Erhard take over to manage the economic miracle.

By 1966 Strauss was back in a new ``grand coalition'' as finance minister -- and press spokesman for the government was one Conrad Ahlers, the Spiegel writer who had been yanked back from his Spanish vacation. Since then, Strauss and Spiegel have continued what Spiegel foreign editor Michael Naumann describes as their love-hate relationship, with Strauss interviews regularly appearing in the magazine, to the profit of both.

Chapter 2 of the Spiegel Affair opened in 1981, when British magazine publisher Sir James Goldsmith said in a parliamentary chamber -- then repeated in print -- that Der Spiegel's infamous article was orchestrated by the KGB (presumably through the whistleblowing West German Army colonel.) According to Goldsmith, the Soviet aim was to force Strauss out because he was too anti-Soviet.

Goldsmith cited comments by Gen. Jan Sejna, the hard-line political chief of the Czechoslovak Army who resisted the Prague reform leadership in 1968 and fled to the West just as he was to be arrested on charges of embezzlement. (Ladislav Bittman -- the deputy head of the Czech disinformation service who defected to the West only after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia -- says the Czechs were privy to no such plot.)

Der Spiegel sued Goldsmith for libel in Britain; the magazine reasoned that Goldsmith could hardly prove that the KGB had the foresight to know that Strauss would arrange for the arrest of a German in Spain, stonewall it in Parliament, and then be fired because of it.

Only after the pretrial investigation had begun, according to Mr. Naumann, did Der Spiegel realize that British law, unlike German law, puts the burden of proof in such cases on the plaintiff rather than the defendant. By the time Goldsmith's lawyers called for evidence from Der Spiegel's files, including several full years of back issues of Pravda and other Soviet-bloc papers -- again according to Naumann -- Spiegel had second thoughts and went for an out-of-court settlement. Goldsmith supporters, like one interviewed in London who asked that his name not be used, say that Spiegel initiated the arbitration and that this amounts to an admission by Der Spiegel and a victory for Goldsmith.

Goldsmith immediately took out full-page ads in major British and American newspapers in October giving the text of the settlement. He didn't mean to imply that Der Spiegel had wittingly disseminated Soviet disinformation, his statement read -- leaving the clear implication that the magazine had still been an unwitting dupe of Soviet disinformation.

In summing up the settlement columnist Gerd Bucerius suggested Goldsmith was himself engaging in disinformation.

``Of course, the KGB tries to spread its true and false assertions everywhere,'' Bucerius said in the weekly Die Zeit. ``The Spiegel campaign against Franz Josef Strauss was at that time so fierce that it often drove me to the side of Strauss, a man I admired. But I never had the impression that Spiegel trafficked in untrue assertions steered by the East.

``Now, however, Sir James Goldsmith shouldn't seek to manipulate us.''

Conclusion: One man's disinforma-mation may be another man's free press.

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