June 5th, 2011

Germany has a strong socialist and social-democratic heritage and tradition. The main German social-democratic party, the SPD, is one of the oldest in the world, and its history mirrors much of the grim history of Europe in the twentieth century. East Germany, after its foundation in 1949, was built in part on a doublethink of simultaneously recognising and denying this heritage of preexisting worker’s movements.

One of the familiar tactics of the GDR’s ruling party, the SED (itself a product of a forced marriage between the east german communist and social-democratic parties) was to assume control of existing worker’s institutions and other popular social institutions and transform them into loyal stalinist organisations. This happened to trade unions, professional organisations, church-related groups, youth organisations and more, but one of the most obvious places where this change took place — obvious because of the very nature of the institutions being transformed — was with newspapers. Overnight, previously social-democratic media became party mouthpieces, giving the official line and standing loyally by the SED leadership.

Volksstimme is one example of this phenomenon. This paper, founded in 1890 in Magdeburg, was social-democratic in outlook and became the main daily newspaper of the Saxony-Anhalt region in the early twentieth century. After being banned by the Nazis in 1933, it did not publish again until 1947, when it emerged as a proxy of the SED. Their front page from December 1st, 1979, looked like this:


The status of the paper as the voice of officialdom is captured in the masthead’s perfunctory slogan, “Organ der Bezirksleitung Magdeburg der Sozialistischen Einheitspartei Deutschlands” — “Organ of the Magdeburg leadership of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany”. It seems to have been a pretty dreary read, as many eastern-bloc papers of the era were. However, historical hindsight sheds some light on some of the editorial choices.

It leads on a story about George McGovern, the US senator regarded — then and now — as a left-liberal democrat, objecting to the stationing of NATO missiles in western Europe. At the dawn of the Reagan era, this seems to have been an attempt by the Volksstimme editors to praise their enemy’s enemies.

The other stories range from similarly ‘ideological’ stories (‘Meeting of the Supreme Soviet ends’, ‘Communist delegation from the Netherlands’) to more mundane fare (‘Japanese rail-speed record of 304 km/h’).

Volksstimme went through another fundamental change of direction after the Wende, when it was bought by the Bauer Media Group and relaunched as a mid-market regional tabloid. It still exists today as one of Saxony-Anhalt’s main regional papers (with numerous local editions) and if you feel like it, you can talk to their staff on Twitter right now.

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