Germany’s Leading Magazine Published Falsehoods About American Life
A reporter with Der Spiegel fabricated information in more than a dozen articles—most of which were meant to reveal America’s brutality.
The word spiegel means “mirror” in German, and since its postwar founding, Der Spiegel has proudly held a mirror up to the world. When the magazine published top-secret information about the dire state of West Germany’s armed forces in 1962, the government accused it of treason, raided its offices, and arrested its editors. The resulting “Spiegel affair” led to mass demonstrations against police-state tactics and established an important precedent for press freedom in the young democracy. Throughout its history, the newsweekly has helped set the national agenda, like Time in its heyday.
Over the past weeks, however, the name of the magazine has assumed a new relevance. Der Spiegel has cracked, and revealed ugliness within the publication as well as German society more broadly.
On December 19, the magazine announced that the star reporter Claas Relotius had fabricated information “on a grand scale” in more than a dozen articles. Relotius has been portrayed as a sort of Teutonic Stephen Glass, the 1990s New Republic fabulist. “I’m sick and I need to get help,” Relotius told his editor. While that may very well be the case, his downfall is about more than just one writer with a mental-health problem.
A motif of Relotius’s work is America’s supposed brutality. In one story, he told the macabre tale of a woman who travels across the country volunteering to witness executions. In another, he related the tragic experience of a Yemeni man wrongly imprisoned by the United States military at Guantánamo Bay, where he was held in solitary confinement and tortured for 14 years. (The song that American soldiers turned on full blast and pumped into the poor soul’s cell? Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.”) Both stories were complete fabrications.
And they should have been easily invalidated. According to the Columbia Journalism Review, Der Spiegel’s fact-checking department is the largest in the world, besting that of the vaunted New Yorker. (In 2013, I spent several months on a fellowship working for a now-defunct English-language unit at Der Spiegel). A diligent checker would have at least contacted the purported death-row roadie to confirm her existence. And the U.S. government keeps scrupulous records about the inmates imprisoned at Guantánamo. Yet Relotius’s inventions escaped the scrutiny of his colleagues.
Der Spiegel is conducting an internal review to explain what went wrong. But it seems to me that the blame lies not only with Relotius or a few careless checkers or even the publication’s research methods, but with the mentality of its editors and readers. Relotius told them what they wanted—what they expected—to hear about America; this is a case of motivated reasoning if I’ve ever seen one.
Consider the story Relotius published in March 2017, “Where They Pray for Trump on Sundays.” In 7,300 words, the German correspondent described the town of Fergus Falls, Minnesota, in the manner of an explorer recounting his visit to a remote island tribe untouched by civilization. Some of the “facts” Relotius reported, like his claim that the city voted 70.4 percent for President Donald Trump when the actual figure was 62.6 percent, could have been exposed as false with a few minutes’ research. The same goes for other, too-good-to-be-true details, like the sign warning “Mexicans Keep Out” and a throwaway line about a resident who had “never seen the ocean.” Most of the story was, according to a devastating analysis written by the Fergus Falls residents Michele Anderson and Jake Krohn, “uninhibited fiction.”
An open-minded editor would have doubted this astonishing tale about a town so jingoistic that its only cinema continues to sell out screenings of American Sniper years after the film’s release (another easily disproven lie). The fact that these blatant deceptions were not exposed until nearly two years after publication speaks to the ignorance about America that characterizes a wide swath of elite German society. Relotius, I submit, was able to get away with his con for so long because he confirmed the preconceived notions of people who fashion themselves worldly yet are as parochial as the red-state hicks of their imagination.
Though it is respected abroad as an authoritative news source, Der Spiegel has long peddled crude and sensational anti-Americanism, usually grounded in its brand of knee-jerk German pacifism. Covers over the years have impugned the United States as “The Conceited World Power” (with an image of the White House bestriding the globe), repeated the hoary “Blood for Oil” charge as the rationale for the Iraq War, and, in the run-up to George W. Bush’s reelection campaign, asked, “Will America Be Democratic Again?” When Edward Snowden leaked information detailing U.S. surveillance practices several years ago, Der Spiegel went on a crusade unlike anything in its recent history, railing about U.S. intelligence cooperation with Germany and demanding that Berlin grant Snowden asylum. (The magazine demonstrated none of the same outrage when, two years later, Russia hacked the German parliamentary computer network). Last year, Der Spiegel notoriously featured a cartoon of Trump beheading the Statue of Liberty on its cover. And this May, one of its columnists misappropriated the memory of those who struggled against Nazism by calling for “resistance against America,” quite a demand for a magazine from the country that started World War II.
The biases that Relotius stoked in his stories are ones that Europeans, and Germans in particular, have voiced about America since the first colonists set foot here hundreds of years ago. “European elites have consistently and passionately expressed the same negative sentiments about America for centuries,” the scholar Andrei Markovits observed in his 2007 book Uncouth Nation: Why Europe Dislikes America. “In both substance and tone, what stands out is this continuity, rather than change.” Among the negative traits Europeans have long associated with America, Markovits writes, are “venality, vulgarity, mediocrity, inauthenticity,” along with the perception that the country is a “threatening parvenu.” America’s frontier spirit and radically democratic ethos frightened European elites, who distrusted their own masses with political power. “You dear German farmers!” the 19th-century poet Heinrich Heine, who never visited America, implored his countrymen. “Go to America! There, neither princes nor nobles exist; there, all people are equal; there, all are the same boors!”
This sort of reflexive anti-Americanism matters. Relations between the United States and Germany are at their lowest point since the early 1980s, when the deployment of American Pershing nuclear-tipped missiles on German soil sparked the largest protests in the history of the Federal Republic. While Trump’s singling out of Germany for rhetorical abuse is obviously a huge part of the lamentable decline in transatlantic relations, so are the latent anti-American prejudices routinely aroused by Der Spiegel’s brand of yellow journalism masquerading as high-minded critique.
When Trump was elected president, it seemed to confirm every negative impression Europeans hold about Americans. Here, in the shape of our reality-TV leader, was the ur-American: vulgar, crass, ignorant, bellicose. Trump may be all those things, but to depict his supporters with such a broad brush is akin to writing off half of Germany as a bunch of goose-stepping, would-be fascists. The wildly popular work of Relotius reads exactly like what you would expect a snotty, effete, self-righteous, morally superior, latte-sipping European to say about America. Pardon the stereotype.