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Home Page > Articles in English > Front Line Berlin


The German Press On the War with Iraq 
Front Line Berlin

By Tekla Szymanski

Spiegel cover, one year laterEven though most Germans were (and still are) fervently opposed to the war, immediately following the attack on Iraq, German papers turned to a barrage of reporting with a lot of background information and facts, paired with less critical commentary than before the fighting had started.

One year later, however, German papers referred to the quagmire in Iraq as "Bush's Vietnam" (see Der Spiegel's cover of April 19, 2004 at right) and published gruesome pictures of American and Iraqi casualties.

At the beginning of the war, most German papers provided a balanced picture and gave voice to different opinions, however, they didn't shy away from acid, sarcastic opinion pieces. All of the web sites of the papers gave space to the antiwar protest, some in form of picture galleries or "pictures of the day.” Germans believed that they had a right to speak out against the war because that's what the United States had envisioned for Germany all along after WW II: to become a democratic, independent country, thinking for itself while fostering peace and reconciliation.

Eight days into the war, German papers still gave a lot of background info about the fighting and military strategies, but the stories about troop movements were replaced by accounts about the death of Iraqi civilians and allied soldiers, the lack of food and water, the daily hardship of the people in Baghdad, the distribution of humanitarian aid, and the antiwar movements in Germany and the United States.

In addition, the media reflected on how the war had affected Germany directly, and the papers shifted to domestic issues that surfaced because of the war.

But the war had had also the opposite effect: It had moved the attention from Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and his controversial economic policies and domestic social reforms, which, before the start of the war, made all the headlines. More than that: Because of his steadfast stance against the war, the chancellor gained many points with the German public.


The Information Barrage Begins

Der Spiegel "Blood for Oil"All major papers had a special war section on their web sites and gave their special reports very different headers:

Die Welt (conservative daily, Berlin): "Iraq War," a pop-up window, including maps, timelines, and news.Die Zeit (liberal weekly, Hamburg): "Iraq Conflict," maps and extensive links and a press review, polls, discussion forums and archived material from the paper.

Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (conservative daily, Frankfurt): "War in Iraq," also with timelines, maps, updated reporting on troop movements, pictures.

Frankfurter Rundschau (FR, liberal daily, Frankfurt)): "War Against Iraq," the paper published a supplement on the war on 3/12/03. It gave more comments and was a bit more critical in its opinions. In the introduction to its special war coverage on the web, FR was the only paper that had placed a disclaimer, saying that all reporting passed the censor of the parties involved in the conflict. "We ask our readers to bear this in mind while reading the articles."

Der Spiegel (liberal newsmagazine, Hamburg): "Attack on Saddam," gave maps, background, timeline, reports etc. and featured also an Arabic press overview" on its site. A special edition of the magazine devoted 70 (!) pages to its lead package on the war, headlined "Bombing Terror for Freedom. The American Attack on Iraq " The web site offered an English version, with summaries of the stories featured in the magazine on the war: http://www.spiegel.de/spiegel/english/0,1518,241644,00.html

Stern (liberal newsmagazine, Hamburg): "War in the Gulf," had more sarcastic and critical comments on the war. The main story of Stern's special package on the war was a commentary: "...George W. Bush sleeps peacefully and is never in doubt. Why shouldn't he be? The U.S. president—a former drinker and happy-go-lucky—believes he fulfills a higher mission with his 'fight against evil.' "

The site gave extensive background, maps, timelines, and a forum "Is this war against international humanitarian law?" where angry readers could voice their opinion.

Die Tageszeitung (taz, left-wing daily, Berlin) was the only paper openly declaring its opposition to the war, to the point of boycotting its coverage. Its web site featured no special section on the war, besides a few news reports and short comments. On its homepage it had a link in red  "No War With Iraq," and new subscribers or subscribers who renewed their subscription received the book "Iraq, choice of a wanted war. How the world was manipulated and international law was broken" by taz-correspondent (!) Andreas Zumach.

Süddeutsche Zeitung (SZ, centrist daily, Munich): "War in Iraq," maps, timeline, forum and a poll: "Is the war against Iraq a just war?" 10,161 (as of 3/27) of its readers answered: 10% - yes; 46% - no; 40% - there is no just war. The lead commentary on SZ's homepage (3/21) was headed: "The Price of War: Why There Can't Be a Clean War."


Quotes of the Day

Der Spiegel "Operation Rambo"(3/21/03):
SZ: by Stefan Kornelius: "…The second American-Iraqi war lacks the political, legal, and military basis, as well as a believable vision for the day after. The risks of the war are too great, the scenarios for the day after too vague."

SZ: by Kurt Kister, headed "Germany and the War": "…Schröder needs to muster the courage for a personal talk with Bush. On the other hand, Germany can't avoid engaging itself in the reshaping of law and order in Iraq after the war as well as involvement in humanitarian aid."

taz: "…Bush and his team are not only hard-line realists but also ardent ideologists. They believe in their mission: The liberation of the world according to America's worldview. We will be able to stop U.S. politics in the future. But we need patience."

taz: "If the US Government no longer feels itself bound by international law, but insists on the law of the jungle, then it also insists on it not only in relation to the U.N. Security Council but also in its war against Iraq."

Die Welt: "Bush lacks moral leadership strength... The warlord from Washington provides his decisions with an aura of universal significance; before the war, he argued in a placating way, superficially and apparently effectively, citing values such as democracy and human rights. In truth, he wants only one thing: to show who's got the power."

Tagesspiegel (centrist daily, Berlin): Under the headline, "Bush Is No Longer My America", the paper carried a commentary by Peter Boenisch critical of U.S. actions in Iraq, in which he says that the American ambassador to Berlin must not be disappointed in recent German foreign policy, but rather that the Germans must be disappointed in American actions. But after reciting the various democratizing reforms that the U.S. has brought to Germany over the last 58 years, he says that despite recent events, "Our image of America is overwhelmingly positive."

Die Zeit: Tanja Rupprecht-Becker wrote that Germans felt helpless in the face of the war. But, "everywhere you go in the last few days, there is only one subject: The war." Handelsblatt (financial daily, Hamburg): Julius Endert commented that media coverage of the war in Iraq had gotten out of control. An example cited was the television commentary of a German news channel as Iraqis tried to kill a downed U.S. pilot in the Tigris. He compared the commentator's recital of events to a report on a soccer game. "Some journalists sit in tanks to observe the battles, and seem enthralled by the mission."(3/25/03):

Berliner Zeitung (liberal daily, Berlin) defended the country's government against the opposition charge that the threat to withdraw German AWACS crews from Turkey undermines Nato. The Nato treaty, the paper wrote, prohibits the use of force if it is contrary to the will of the U.N. It also argued that since September 11, all members of the transatlantic alliance have been pursuing their own interests and the German government has to do the same. "Its declaration on the AWACS helicopters is in line with the principle that Germany did not want the war in Iraq," the paper argued. "The chancellor has repeatedly hit the wrong note during the Iraq debate, but in essence his position is unambiguous and clear, which cannot be said of the Christian Democrats or the Free Democratic Party."


The Second Week of the War

Into the second week of the war, German commentators were pondering what would happen once the war was over and asked: "Who will clean up the mess after the Americans?" Will it be like Kosovo and Afghanistan—or Germany after WW II? Der Spiegel remarked cynically (3/28) in one of its headlines on the web: "Reconstruction A La Rumsfeld: Others Will Foot the Bill."

According to Süddeutsche Zeitung (3/28), "Whoever destroys, has to rebuild." The paper urged countries opposed to the war to resist the temptation to stand aloof from post-conflict reconstruction. "Such a stance sounds consistent, but would be fatal," it argued. "The people of  'Saddamistan' must not become the victims of power struggles in the U.N. Security Council. They have suffered too much." But if the United States and Britain "are to be helped in dealing with the consequences, they should not regard this as approval for their actions."


America's Naiveté and Military Setbacks

The German print media were more restrained in their comments than German TV, especially the talk shows, which were highly emotional and almost uniformly against the Allied effort to oust Saddam Hussein. They stressed Allied setbacks and Iraqi successes and that the Americans were too optimistic, underestimated the enemy, were surprised that the war could last much longer and that the Iraqis showed greater resistance than anticipated. On 3/28, the papers also prominently displayed Richard Perle's resignation.

The lead story in the papers on 3/28 was that the United States was forced to increase its troops and felt the need to implement "Plan B"—which seemed to prove that the Allies were struggling. Süddeutsche Zeitung ran the headline (3/28): [The war is] "A Bit Different From How it Looked in the War Games."

But the financial Handelsblatt (3/27) warned not to put the blame on the allies just yet for the shift in U.S. military strategy: "Many assessments on German television are tremendously naïve from a military standpoint. No battle plan survives the first encounter with the enemy, as experienced generals know. What is so astounding about the fact that the Americans and the British had to revise their plans several times in the first days of the war? The same holds true for allied losses, which had to be expected in a campaign of this size. This much is certain after the first week: This is a conventional war despite high-tech U.S. weapons and swift progress on the ground."

The center-right Nordsee-Zeitung of Bremerhaven (3/26), added that "It is surprising to see the naiveté that the Americans are showing when they expect to be received with gratefulness by the Iraqis. It is correct that the population in wide parts of Iraq want to see Saddam go to hell. But the Americans are for many anything but trustworthy liberators. The people in southern Iraq have not forgotten that Washington encouraged them to revolt during the first Gulf War, but then refused to give support."

Some leftist papers were openly against the war. Freitag, Berlin's leftist weekly (3/28), featured on its web site the logo "War Without End. Not In Our Name," and its lead package was entitled "Not Since Vietnam."

And Berlin's taz continued to stubbornly ignore the war aside from occasional, short antiwar comments. 


The Media And Human Losses

In many papers, graphic reports of civilian casualties were given great prominence, as well as pictures depicting the suffering of civilians. Most Iraqi and other Arab claims of Iraqi successes were given as undisputed truths, while American and British reports of progress were hedged about with such qualifiers as "alleged", "claimed", and so on. The straight news was larded with a diversity of comments, as in most European newspapers and magazines. Great emphasis was placed on the humanitarian crisis in Iraq, and although no one said that Saddam Hussein was a saint, all the blame was laid at the feet of the Allies, who refused to go the diplomatic way. One reason given that the United States was quick to resort to war was, according to Germany's Defense Minister Joschka Fischer, was "they didn't have their own Verdun" [The WW I "Battle of Verdun" is considered the greatest and lengthiest in world history. It lasted from Feb. 21, 1916, until Dec.19, 1916, and caused an estimated 700,000 casualties].

An increasing number of articles scrutinized the role of the media, the embedded journalists, and the use of graphic footage, after the first "awe" at the opening bombardment and the intimacy of TV-war reporting faded. One paper, the Berliner Kurier, a boulevard paper, published a gruesome picture of a dead Iraqi. The caption pointed to the fact that the editors of Berliner Kurier debated for a long time whether to published the picture or not. They decided to do so in order "not to cover up the brutality of war and to show the whole truth." (The picture, however, was not placed on Kurier's web site).


How Things Have Changed in Germany

On March 28, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and U.S. President George W. Bush met at Camp David to discuss the war and the postwar reconstruction of Iraq. German papers commented on the summit, because the tension between the United States and Europe—between the "coalition of the willing" and the "axis of weasel"—and between Britain and the other European countries in particular, was of concern to the German press. However, according to Die Welt (3/28), the British prime minister deserved more recognition for his role in trying to mediate between the United States and Europe. "Where would Europe and the United Nations be without Tony Blair?" it asked. "Tirelessly, he tries to prevent the gulf between America and Europe from becoming a chasm. Hardly anyone in Germany is able to appreciate his efforts. Most see him simply as a warmonger." To the point that the country was weighting to build up a separate European defense force, with France—but without Britain. Relationships between Britain and Germany soured.

The fallout of the war and its immediate effect on Germany's domestic political agenda was also beginning to make headlines. Angela Merkel, the leader of the Christian Democratic opposition party, had offered guarded support for U.S. military action against Saddam, and had criticized the government in its handling of the war and its antiwar stance. Die Welt rejected the public outcry over Merkel's remarks, by stressing that "the almost total unanimity between the government and public opinion in their rejection of war is becoming worrying…. Anybody who falls out of line and tries to admit that the war of the Americans and British has even a hint of legitimacy is attacked with hitherto undreamed-of aggression." In this atmosphere, Merkel's courage in going against majority opinion is to be welcomed, the paper argued. "It is good that the Christian Democrat leader has not allowed herself to be moved from a stance, which is 'Atlanticist' and European. It will be needed even more in future."

Süddeutsche Zeitung, on the other hand, was unimpressed by Merkel's remarks, dismissing them as a relic of postwar Germany's unquestioning loyalty toward America. "A form of 'atlanticism' verging on self-denial was an article of faith for two generations of German foreign policy-makers," it said. Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's government, the paper believed, finally recognized that times have changed since the end of the Cold War, and that Germany must pursue its own national interests. It contrasts this with the Christian Democrats, who were "unable to come to terms with the emancipation of the country's foreign policy also means that it must sometimes distance itself from America."

In light of the war and the changing realities in global power distribution, Chancellor Schröder proposed an increase in the country's defense budget to boost its outdated Bundeswehr and to rethink its role. The war caused heated discussions on the future military role that Europe, and especially Germany, Britain, and France, would soon have to play, because, as Süddeutsche Zeitung put it, "America Needs a Counterweight."

"War Is Coming to Germany," proclaimed Der Tagesspiegel (3/27). "The German initial 'no' to the war that has made the coalition so proud, has had more repercussions than anybody realizes. Whoever says 'no' to American dominance, must say 'yes' to European responsibility and has to face up to difficult realities. That won't be possible without soldiers and better equipment." And, according to Schröder, the aftermath of the war and the reshaping of global order will have to include a remake of the United Nations.

Germany's split attitude toward the war was mirrored in the so-called "AWACS-debate," which was widely reported in the German media: German soldiers and their AWACS helicopters were stationed in Turkey, and the German government hinted that it would not allow their use for surveillance purposes to help NATO partner Turkey in the war with Iraq. Then, the government changed its mind saying that the helicopters would not be used in the war itself but in helping Turkey secure its southern border with Iraq, meaning Germany would take part in "defensive operations" only.

The opposition applied to the Supreme Court to give German soldiers in Turkey more legal backing, but their petition was denied. The German public was vigorously debating if and how German soldiers should be involved in Turkey or in any other military deployments in the future.

Now, months after the war and to the consternation of the Bush administration, Germany continues to take the liberty to reject military assistance in post-war Iraq.


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