Over the forty years of its existence, the German Democratic Republic (GDR) seldom enjoyed a good press in Britain. Even allowing for some variation in line with party political allegiance or leanings, British press coverage of the GDR can generally be characterised as critical and hostile, and the image of the GDR portrayed to British public opinion was very largely a negative one. The principal reasons for this lie in a combination of Cold War politics where an anti-GDR position formed part of a broader anti-Soviet stance, an enduring sense of moral outrage at the existence of the Berlin Wall with all its anti-humanitarian implications, and a deep and, as it happens, well-founded, suspicion of GDR international sporting success.
There were, of course, some exceptions at different times; during the late 1950s, for example, large numbers of Labour backbenchers were invited to visit the GDR and on their return some of them published positive reports of GDR economic and social development in the British national press – and attracted hostile reactions from their readers in return.
This paper examines the impact of the context of the Cold War on the journalists and the news organisations themselves, how they operated, what support was available to them and what restrictions were placed on them. Using some mini case studies as examples, the aim here is to analyse the way in which the British press reported the GDR at some critical points in its history and to assess the significance of this reporting for the development of relations between Britain and the GDR. In conclusion it describes how the GDR tried to counter negative and hostile press coverage by projecting a positive self-image to Britain, as to other Western countries, for broader political purposes.
The Context for British Press reporting of GDR
Broadly speaking, the context for British press reporting of the GDR was not significantly different for that obtaining for all Western journalists covering developments in Germany. While most major Western newspapers had correspondents based in Bonn and/or West Berlin, who, prior to the building of the Berlin Wall, enjoyed freedom of movement across the whole of Berlin, access to other areas of the GDR was very restricted. The GDR was always sensitive to the way in which it was perceived in the West and sought to keep British and other Western journalists at arm’s length.
It was different, of course, for British journalists whose reporting was not expected to be hostile and the GDR extended invitations to journalists regarded as sympathetic to visit the GDR and see for themselves throughout the period of the GDR’s existence.
Fortunately for the GDR there was a more compliant British journalist on hand, who proved himself a very loyal and effective propagandist for the GDR over a period of almost twenty-five years. From 1952 until 1975, John Peet, an Englishman and chief of Reuters’ bureau in West Berlin until he defected to the GDR in 1950, published a free fortnightly newssheet, Democratic German Report (DGR).
In May 1959 Reuters reporter Peter Johnson was posted to East Berlin as the first accredited Western correspondent in the GDR who was not a communist. In his memoir of this period, Johnson describes the timing as significant for Reuters’ competitive advantage over other Western news agencies at a time of anticipated crisis over Berlin in the coming months.
For the GDR the opening of the Reuters office in East Berlin was both a quid pro quo for the opening of the office of the GDR’s own news agency the Allgemeiner Deutscher Nachrichtendienst (ADN) in London which took place in 1957, an event which the GDR regarded as enhancing its status and presence in the UK, and a major contribution to the development of relations between the UK and the GDR. However, though ADN retained its presence in London until after unification, in early 1962 the East German staff had their visas withdrawn as part of a NATO protest against the building of the Berlin Wall. For the remainder of the non-recognition period the office was staffed by the Daily Worker/Morning Star.
The opening of the British Embassy in April 1973, an event which went almost unnoticed in the British press, provided British journalists with access to an official British presence in the GDR.
Reporting the GDR: The Foundation of the Republic
Turning now to the nature of British press reporting of the GDR, as indicated above, from the moment of its foundation to its eventual demise, much of it was critical and hostile. The founding of the GDR on 7 October 1949 was almost unanimously presented in the British press as an illegal act; both the republic and its government were seen as lacking in any democratic legitimacy. For some parts of the British press, there were lamentable parallels between the SED and the Nazi Party of the Third Reich.; for others, there were also some lighter moments.
However, in terms of the legitimacy of the GDR, the broadsheets were fully in tune with the official views of the Western Allied High Commission for Germany who issued an official declaration on the founding of the GDR on 10 October 1949. In the view of the Commission:
“The so-called Government of the German Democratic Republic is an artificial creation […] which is devoid of any legal basis and has determined to evade an appeal to the electorate, has no title to represent Eastern Germany. It has an even smaller claim to speak in the name of Germany as a whole.”
In general, the British press supported the reunification policy; the division of Germany was regarded as a deeply regrettable but necessary and, hopefully, temporary measure. However, there was an interesting range of views on the role of the GDR in the process. Predictably, the Daily Worker, which reprinted a letter from Harry Pollitt, General Secretary of the CPGB, congratulating Wilhelm Pieck on his appointment as President of the GDR, emphasised the party’s support for a socialist and united Germany.
However, at various times from the second half of the 1950s onwards, there were increasing calls in the British press for recognition of the GDR as a separate German state. The arguments for doing so were based on recognition as a means of easing East-West tension and for the perceived benefits of a normalised relationship to bilateral trade. A particular feature of this press coverage was the contribution of British Members of the Parliament (MPs) to the debate and their involvement in what was eventually to become an organised campaign for recognition.
Reporting the GDR: The Campaign for Recognition
From 1955 when the Federal German government adopted the Hallstein-Doktrin, which prevented states from maintaining diplomatic relations with both German states, to 1972 when the two German states signed the Grundlagenvertrag, which paved the way for all Western states to recognise the GDR and establish diplomatic relations, securing diplomatic recognition by the West, and particularly by the three Western Allies, was the single most important objective of the GDR’s Westpolitik.
Where the campaign for recognition in Britain was concerned, the GDR initially focused its efforts on MPs, particularly on those with interests in trade relations with the GDR, such as Ian Mikardo and Arthur Lewis, both Labour, or Burnaby Drayson, Conservative.
Though the visits themselves attracted little comment in the British press at the time, the use the East Germans made of MPs for propaganda purposes was the subject of extensive and critical reporting by the Sunday Telegraph during this period.
While most arguments for recognising the GDR derived mainly from a belief that non-recognition was a barrier to trade relations, the role of the British press in arguing for some form of recognition at that time was also influenced by the prevailing East-West political climate, characterised as it was by growing East-West tension over Berlin. The reporting of the second Berlin crisis of 1958–1961 engaged directly with the question of de facto recognition of the GDR as a way of revitalising stalled East-West dialogue and in the interest of safeguarding British and Allied rights in Berlin. There was widespread public debate on the topic both in the press and in parliament with something of a cautious consensus emerging that some accommodation to the reality of divided Germany might be possible. In his memoir Reuters correspondent Peter Johnson notes the attitude of the West German Foreign Office to any suggestion in the press that the West might accept a form of recognition of the GDR. Following a visit to Willy Brandt, then Governing Mayor of Berlin, by the CDU Foreign Minister, Heinrich von Brentano, in November 1958, Brentano had met foreign journalists and had indicated possible Western acceptance of the use of GDR ‘agents’ of the Soviet Union in Berlin. Johnson had filed a report to London to that effect and this was published but it did not go down well in Bonn. The Federal German Foreign Office even protested to Gerry Long, Reuters chief correspondent in Germany, about the report.
The West Germans had plenty of other cause for concern in relation to British attitudes to recognition. In 1961, shortly after the building of the Berlin Wall, both the Liberal and the Labour Party conferences passed resolutions in favour of ‘de facto’ recognition.
“It is high time that responsible politicians in the West should begin to talk sense about Germany, even if this involves agreeing with the Communists… We should propose a temporary solution of the Berlin problem, under which the Russians underwrite the whole status quo in return for our de facto recognition of the GDR.”
Crossman was echoing the thinking of the SPD, then still in opposition, and its advocacy of a policy of ‘Change through Rapprochement’ (Wandel durch Annäherung), as outlined in Egon Bahr’s seminal speech in Tutzing in 1963. These ideas were eventually to be enshrined in Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik, the instrument by which the GDR did eventually achieve diplomatic recognition by all Western countries, including by Britain, in 1972/1973.
Reporting the GDR: Early Days of the Diplomatic Relationship
By the early 1970s the view that recognition was only a matter of time was a widely held one. Recognition itself had also ceased to be anything like the hot topic that it had been in the press ten or more so years earlier, despite the activities of committed supporters and organisations within and outside Parliament.
At the time diplomatic relations were established in February 1973, it was expected that bilateral trade would increase, and indeed the first formal agreement between Britain and the GDR was the Co-operation Agreement of December 1973 which established the formal framework for conducting bilateral trade.
Fleet Street editors did, however, take the view that the GDR remained much of an unknown quantity to the British public and in the early days of the diplomatic relationship some of them carried informative and thoughtful pieces on aspects of life in the GDR and the challenges of international recognition. The GDR might not always have agreed with the conclusions British journalists drew about its social development or its relationship with the West, or even have liked the frank tone of some reports, but had no serious grounds for objecting to the messages conveyed. However, this was to change quite dramatically during the second half of 1974 and hostile press reporting was cited by the GDR as the major factor in the lack of progress in developing the bilateral relationship. The incident prompting this turn of events was the arrest and subsequent imprisonment of two British nationals, Allan Watson and Susan Ballantine, on the charge of aiding illegal border crossing of East-German nationals. The arrests, the circumstances surrounding Ballantine’s trial and the severity of her sentence of five years in jail were all the subject of extensive, and often hostile, reporting in the British press. In particular, the delays in securing consular access,
The pressure of press and public opinion led Harold Wilson as Prime Minister to send a personal letter to Horst Sindermann, the Chairman of the Council of Ministers, in which he stated:
“I am confident that an act of clemency would contribute greatly to relations between our two countries […].”
“… that, in view of the exceptional smear campaign against the GDR in the British mass media, there was no basis for a sympathetic examination of the request for clemency.”
Susan Ballantine was, in fact, released from prison in December 1974 and Allan Watson in March 1975, largely as gestures of good will designed to get some momentum back into the otherwise stalled diplomatic relationship. But though the details of these two cases were soon to fade from public memory, the image of the GDR as a ‘formidable police state’ – as the Daily Telegraph described it in 1985 – was now firmly rooted in British public opinion and would remain the dominant one for the remainder of the GDR’s existence.
With the development of reform policies in the Soviet Union and other Eastern block countries in the 1980s, the GDR was increasingly seen both as out of step with its allies in terms of its domestic politics and the view of the GDR as a police state under Soviet control and continued revulsion at the existence of the Berlin Wall were the continuing pre-occupations of British press coverage of the GDR in the second half of the 1980s. There was little press interest in any other aspects of life in the GDR; indeed, East German attempts to organise a small group of British journalists to cover the celebrations of the 750th anniversary of Berlin in 1987 had to be abandoned through lack of interest.
Writing in 2005, Rainer Oschmann, the London correspondent of Neues Deutschland from 1981–1985, described British media coverage of the GDR as cliché-ridden and based on stereotypes of the GDR as “a drab grey country inhabited by goose-stepping soldiers with its citizens trying to jump over the Wall.”
Finally, what remains in Britain as a legacy of the GDR’s image in the British media almost thirty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall? The answer is a curious mixture of repression, exploitation and surveillance based on what we now know about the Stasi, on the one hand, plus promotion of opportunities to travel to the interior of the former GDR, following the unification of Germany, on the other. Media attention includes the serious and the factual, such as a two-part BBC World Service programme on the enduring legacy of East German doping of athletes for the Olympic movement, to the entirely fictional storyline of a former Stasi informant featured in an episode of the ITV detective series ‘Lewis’.
Zitierweise: Marianne Howarth, The British Press and the German Democratic Republic. Curiosity and Condemnation 1949–1974, in: Deutschland Archiv, 31.12.2017, Link: www.bpb.de/261931