The German Press and German Opinion

JULY, 1918



ATTEMPTS to gauge the public opinion of Germany from its newspapers lead to but qualified conclusions. Though the press of that country probably mirrors the views of the people more accurately than many Americans imagine, it is by no means an infallible index of popular sentiment. The government censors military facts, discourages unauthorized discussions of military measures, enforces courtesy usages in references to persons in high authority, and publishes a mass of what is known in Germany as tendenz literature, which is intended to shape the opinion of readers and to maintain national morale. Nevertheless, the Berlin papers attacked the Prussian food administration last winter quite as savagely as any American papers attacked the mistakes of the War Department. Peace policies, economic measures, political reforms, and social movements are argued with vehemence and abundant citation of facts.

These facts are sometimes of a kind to encourage Germany’s enemies. The Czechs are accused of disloyalty and charged with deserting en masse; an attempt of wealthy men to stipulate for food favors in return for loan subscriptions receives comment; soldiers at the front are said to be refused furloughs unless they subscribe to the war-loans; the immense profits of automobile-makers and other manufacturers of military supplies are criticized, and comparisons are made to prove that the United States has succeeded better than Germany in checking the extortions of government contractors. Writers of standing publish sweeping condemnations of the bribery and other official corruption that has made enormous headway in the public service, on account of the temptations of warspeculation and the great changes of personnel forced upon the government by war-conditions.

Depressing statistics find their way abundantly into the newspapers. A well-known authority publishes figures showing that two million fewer babies were born in the German Empire during the first forty months of war than during the last forty months of peace; precise data are given of the high mortality caused among the civilian population by deficient nourishment; statistics are printed indicating that the amount of land under cultivation in the Empire has decreased ten per cent since 1913; the breakdown of the railway system is ventilated by interviews with complaining shippers and manufacturers; and budget deficits and insecure financial policies are discussed and attacked with the greatest freedom.

While the official accounts of mili tary events issued by Germany’s enemies are given equal publicity with those of its own higher command, oddly distorted descriptions of American conditions are occasionally printed. Let it be remarked in passing that the war has made no change in the minor place that American news holds in European newspapers. Only occasionally does a telegram repeated from the United States find a corner among current items. The single exception to this rule is that the President’s messages on the war receive extended editorial comment. But, to return to current news from America, Vorwärts, which is sufficiently international in its sympathies to be awake to items of foreign interest, recently enumerated Texas among the Spanish-American countries that had been commercially and financially subjugated by the United States in the course of the war! On the other hand, the German papers printed correctly Secretary Baker’s testimony before Congress as to the present and prospective strength of our army at home and abroad.

When the American press blunders as to German conditions, these errors are featured as evidences of our provincialism. All Americans, from President Wilson down, are assumed to be hopelessly ignorant of European conditions. Many will recall a dispatch widely printed in our country, to the effect that the President’s January message was to be distributed over hostile territory by Allied airmen, and that the German government threatened reprisals upon aviators captured while thus engaged. The newspapers of the Central Powers headlined these dispatches with sarcastic comments upon American ignorance and prejudice. The truth is, that the message was immediately printed in the Reichsanzeiger, which is the official gazette of the Imperial government, and was widely reprinted and commented upon in Germany.


But while the newspapers of the Central Powers discuss questions of domestic and foreign policy, and describe home-conditions, with the same apparent freedom as in times of peace, nevertheless, the restraint that characterizes the press of every country at war is reinforced in Germany by the type of docility that hears a master’s voice. That voice is often transmitted through the mouth of a banker rather than of an official; for high finance and big industry control most organs of public opinion. This is an especially serious evil at present; for the press of Germany is coming under the control of militarists,—annexationists and indemnity advocates, — who have invested part of their enormous warprofits in newspapers in order to promote war. Thus the Krupp group, which has long had important press organs in Germany, has now extended its holdings in Berlin, where it controls the formerly liberal Lokal-Anzeiger, shapes the policy of the Bremen Weser Zeitung and the Düsseldorfer GeneralAnzeiger, and still more recently has begun to annex the press of AustriaHungary. Its agents are reported to dictate the policy of the Vienna Fremdenblatt, a semi-official newspaper subsidized by the Austrian government; to have bought a newspaper at Prague in order to fight the Czechs; and to have purchased smaller newspapers in Austrian provincial towns.

These multimillionaire war industrialists are also extending their press influence by liberal advertising in small country weeklies and professional and trade papers. Thus, a small periodical, read almost exclusively by poultrymen or beekeepers, or by the members of a local coöperative society, will have full-page advertisements of aeroplanes, cannon, and munitions; and such insertions are reported to be paid for at more than ordinary rates. Naturally, the same papers complete their obligations to their financial benefactors by printing propaganda material designed to foster the warspirit and to encourage the German people to hold out for a ‘strong peace’ of conquest and tribute.

Unrecorded influences have changed the policy of the most important SocialDemocratic newspapers. Not only Vorwärts, whose forced conversion to a programme acceptable to the government is well known, but also the Bremen Bürger Zeitung and the Braunschweiger Volksfreund have recently passed from candid opposition to the tempered friendliness of unembarrassing criticism. Last autumn Die Neue Zeit, a weekly which for thirtysix years has represented the pure orthodoxy of Karl Marx in Germany, printed an article by Eduard Bernstein, one of the pioneers of Social Democracy, discreetly indorsing the President’s reply to the Pope’s peace note. In this article Bernstein reviewed the historical precedents for foreign intervention in the domestic affairs of another nation, and justified such intervention in the interests of democracy on abstract Social-Democratic principles. The succeeding issues of Die Neue Zeit have appeared under auspices more agreeable to the government.

During the January strike the authorities impartially suspended Radical and Conservative newspapers which commented too freely on that occurrence. At the time of the Crown-Council crisis in Berlin in the same month, when the militarists defeated the advocates of a moderate peace policy and forced an aggressive campaign against Russia, the press was officially cautioned not to discuss the situation in a too illuminating or critical manner.

The strike suspensions caused active opposition to the censorship in the Reichstag; and during the debate the charge was made by members of all Liberal and Radical groups that the government was using its authority over the press to favor the circulation of Pan-German literature. The Frankfurter Zeitung thus summarized the sentiment of the majority parties: —

‘So long as censorship is considered indispensable, it should be limited to purely military matters. Above all, it should keep its fingers out of other things and cease its attempts to gag the organs of public opinion. Otherwise its effect is to discredit the press both at home and abroad, and to raise doubts as to the latter’s independence. Confidence in the press is too important an asset for Germany to sacrifice to the blunders of censors.’

However, the control exercised by the German government over this field of public influence is more than negative. Not only is there an inspired press, but some writing in nearly every newspaper is inspired. This tendenz literature characterizes editorial and newswriting in peace as well as in war, and may play no more part in shaping sentiment to-day than it did before hostilities began. Able writers, many of whom carry the authority of high academic positions, conduct these press campaigns. Science and sophistry have been closely allied in Germany since the former became the handmaid of governmental opportunism. Yet it would be unjust to say that all writing for political ends is so controlled as to lack spontaneity and candor. The German mind, especially the academic mind, is easily moulded to officially planmässig forms, and intellectual docility supplements the political docility of the German character.

To give our enemies their due, academic freedom has defenders in high places. Professor Foerster retains his chair at the University of Munich, although he speaks and writes actively against the war, and in a way most unpalatable to official Germany. He asserts that America and England are fighting primarily to abolish war, and that they are inspired by an ‘ethicaldemocratic’ idealism incredible to Germans blinded by ‘war romance.’ He insists that the Entente refuses to accept Germany’s proffers of peace because it ‘ lacks convincing moral guaranties ’ of Germany’s sincerity; and that the entire civilized world believes that ‘the whole history of Prussia has nourished the superstition that methods of force lead to national greatness. The success of these methods has burned its way deeply into the German soul, creating a romantic faith in the sword and slaughter, which can be shattered only by the hard lesson of military disaster.’

The bitter attacks that such charges naturally arouse have not sufficed to drive Foerster from his professorship at Munich University; and during a recent campaign against him in the Bavarian Parliament, the Minister of Education refused to endorse measures to that end, since no just complaint had been made against his work as a teacher.

Professor Bonn, who was in the United States until we declared war against Germany, has published articles in the Munich newspapers interpreting sympathetically America’s attitude toward the war. He also has been assailed by the bellicose press of his country, but no suggestion has been made that he be deprived of the high academic position that he holds.

Courageous men can speak out in Germany quite as freely, perhaps, as elsewhere. But this does not affect the fact that official influences and court favor mould academic opinion and teaching, and that, as a rule, the intellectual leaders march the goose-step as obediently as Prussian grenadiers.


During the first months of the war, all Germany, except a numerically negligible group of Radicals under Liebknecht, and a still smaller circle of English sympathizers in high position, united in what it believed to be a defensive struggle against premeditated attack.

Pre-war issues therefore lost significance. They had divided the Reichstag into several fractions, ranging from reactionary Junkers to radical Socialists. Thus parties became for the moment traditional forms unrelated to current questions, and their leaders agreed to drop political differences. This was the ‘civic peace,’ which lasted until a new issue divided Germany into two camps — and that issue was the policy and purpose of the war itself.

How soon the sober and thinking people began to recover from their original war-madness, and to view the conflict objectively, is hard to determine. Naturally some acquired a new attitude sooner than others. Neutral sentiment began to modify German opinion through International Socialist conferences, and the Vatican’s influence made itself felt among the Clericals. The glorification and cult of war — so far as it existed — was but a passing phase of sentiment. Doubt as to Germany’s entire guiltlessness of precipitating this horror on Europe began to arise — and probably has been considerably increased by Prince Lichnowsky’s revelations. Truth is gradually penetrating Germany, and self-criticism promises to make rapid headway when it gets started. Nevertheless, questions relating to the origin of the war will not change the attitude of the German people toward its present prosecution or its eventual conclusion.

War-weariness now weighs upon the people. Numerous small but significant incidents suggest how public sentiment has changed since the days described by the author of Christine. At the Leipsic fair this spring children no longer wanted tin soldiers and war toys: their interest had turned to building-blocks, carts, and games. A Berlin educator tells us: ‘The inspiring patriotism and spirit of voluntary service, which at the beginning of the war revealed itself in its fairest aspect among our schoolchildren, has disappeared. Everywhere we hear lamentations over the increasing distaste shown by our youth for military things. Patriotism no longer inspires them even to collect articles needed by the war office. They must be encouraged by rewards to make these collections.’

Another influence that has destroyed the glamour of war is its disintegrating effect upon public and private morals. The Prussian Minister of Justice states that more than half a million persons have been sentenced in that kingdom for violating war-regulations, — especially for illegal trading, — and that more than a quarter of a million persons have been committed to jail or prison for these offenses. Bribery is said to be rife in the public service. The burglary-insurance companies of Berlin report that more than 300 housebreakings into insured premises alone occur in that city daily. Burglars do not hesitate to commit murder to avoid detection. Many of the criminals are deserters from the army, desperate men with little regard for human life, and accustomed to using weapons.

The Prussian state railways, though they have limited their liability to the utmost, were forced to pay 57,000,000 marks last year for lost or stolen articles, as compared with about 4,000,000 marks in times of peace. The imperial parcel-post expenses for the same item have risen from 100,000 marks to considerably over 3,000,000 marks during the war. Juvenile crime has more than doubled; and a surprising number of murders are committed by young men. Lawlessness is encouraged by lax home discipline, inadequate police protection, and the great demand for merchandise, which makes it easy for burglars to dispose of their loot, ‘and no questions asked.’ Sanitation, formerly the pride of German cities, is perforce neglected. In Leipsic recently 7,000 cesspools were officially reported to be overflowing for want of attention; and conditions in Hamburg were somewhat similar.

Peace sentiment in Germany has a geographical aspect, a class or vocational aspect, and moreover a certain periodicity — seasons when it rises or declines. It is fairly certain that this sentiment is stronger in Austria-Hungary, in South Germany, in the industrial districts of the Rhine country and Saxony, and in the larger cities, than in the Agrarian-Conservative fastnesses of Prussia and Brandenburg. Wageearners and the middle classes — who are said to have become radical-minded during the war —want immediate peace; and certain banking and conservative commercial circles support them in this desire. The captains of industry, who are making enormous profits from government contracts, and the great landlords, who are fattening their purses while city consumers grow lean, want war to the limit. Small farmers, who have made their little profit out of the food-crisis, and who, as ‘self-suppliers,’ have fed themselves better than the city population, are not so urgent for peace. The ignis fatuus of a huge indemnity from England and America is held before them, as the only alternative to a heavy direct levy on property, to reduce the unendurable burden of the war-debt.

During the long lightless and heatless nights of a German winter, when food runs low and the death-rate of the civil population runs high; when the overburdened and dilapidated railways refuse to deliver coal and raw materials, and factories close down; when there is more or less enforced idleness both at home and at the front, the discomfort of war becomes almost beyond endurance for the poorer population, and the demand for immediate peace becomes insistent. Such a crisis was reached last January, when thousands of workers throughout Austria and Germany laid down their tools as a political demonstration against the war.

These periods of discouragement are followed by periods of pro-war reaction, when peace sentiment declines, — at least in appearance; for its public expression almost ceases, — and under the stimulus of military success the people are inspired with fantastic hopes of what is to be attained by holding out a little longer. We should cherish no illusions as to Germany’s sober belief in its military invincibility, its absolute confidence in its army leaders, and its assumption that any peace will be dictated by its own political needs, and not by the demands of its enemies. There is no peace sentiment of submission in Germany as yet. The ground is not even prepared for sowing the seed for that crop. The advocates of peace in that country do not go beyond the policy of granting terms to the Allies that will place Germany in the light of a beneficent dispenser of bounty, instead of a stern demander of the last pound of flesh.

Just where the balance stands between these qualified pacifists and the ultra-militarists is a matter of conjecture. We know only that in every recent mid-term election for the Reichstag, in districts at all doubtful, the peace candidates have won and the militarists have been defeated. These campaigns have been fought bitterly upon the direct issue of the war. Last February, at Coblenz, where the Centre party is in control and is dominated by the prowar wing of that organization, and where the whole influence of the clergy was exerted in favor of the regular nominee, a bolting ‘Erzberger,’ or peace, candidate of the same party carried the election. In the fifth Saxon district, which has been Conservative or AntiSemite almost from the beginning of the Empire, a Social-Democrat has just been elected. On the other hand, the Independent Socialists, who are radical opponents of the war-policy, — and the only outright and consistent pacifists in German politics, — seem to be losing ground to the Government Socialists.

Meanwhile the Pan-Germans, who are an organized body of war propagandists financed liberally by munitionsmillionaires and great landlords, are as active as they seem to be unpopular. Their doctrines are said, in their own home, to account for the hatred of Germany which has flamed up in all parts of the civilized world since the war began; and they are at the same time the most influential and the besthated group of agitators in the Empire. Even a pro-war newspaper has recently admitted that ‘It is only necessary to say “Pan-German” to produce the same effect as waving a red flag before a bull. The most reasonable proposition falls into disrepute as soon as some demagogue brands it “Pan-German.”’

The recent meetings of this party have been pretty regularly broken up by mobs in some parts of Germany. When the police appeared to quell recent disorders of this kind at Frankfurt-on-the-Main, they were greeted with cries of ‘Down with Hindenburg! Down with the Kaiser! Hurrah for the Republic! We want no kings and kaisers!’ This incident was reported in the press.

Naturally the significance of all this depends upon what the peace party wants. That question takes us outside the peace conditions which are discussed in the speeches of presidents, premiers, and chancellors, before international audiences.

The masses in Europe — and most of all in the Central Powers— have come to view the war as but an episode in a larger movement. Americans are too remote to realize the intimate, personal, continuing effect of the war upon the common people of Europe. We do not see how prominent other issues than winning battles have become for them. These greater issues are rapidly assuming more influence than the war itself in determining the alignment of German political opinion.

We have a vague mental view — some second-hand picture caught cloudily from telegraphic dispatches and special articles — of what has occurred in tortured and transforming Russia. The Germans know the story by word of mouth, from thousands of returning prisoners and from communication across the lines. In Austria repatriated prisoners are mentally quarantined for a period — placed under sufficient restraint to prevent their spreading revolutionary influence. Germany does not anticipate a Russian revolution within its own borders: the masses of German workers have been more deterred, perhaps, than attracted by what has occurred in the neighboring country. But the common people of Europe have been permanently influenced by the inspiration and tragedy of Russia’s experiences. Last January, when the regular Social-Democratic politicians tried to moderate the Austrian strikers, they were hooted down in the Vienna mass meetings by cries of ‘Speak Russian!’ The Bolsheviki have thousands upon thousands of active sympathizers in the Central Powers, who view the recent harsh peace forced upon Russia, and Germany’s armed intervention in behalf of the propertied classes in Finland and the Ukraine, as a defeat of class-interests as dear to them as a national victory. However, these Radicals are by no means the only dissenters from the cult of militant patriotism in Germany and Austria.

Doctor Dernberg, who a year or two ago tried so assiduously and unsuccessfully to cultivate American friendship for the Teuton cause, has recently toured Germany in a pro-Liberal campaign. The most quoted phrase of his speeches is, ‘Wherever you find an annexationist and a big-indemnity man, there you find a reactionary in domestic politics. ’

It is a significant phase of the warferment that Prussia, Saxony, Brunswick, and Hungary are simultaneously discussing franchise reforms; and perhaps equally significant that Liberal ministers who advocate these reforms are falling during the wave of reaction, guided from high political circles, which has accompanied the spring offensive on the West. Women are appealing for the vote more vigorously than before. Indeed, how can Germany, while preaching the self-determination of nations, while professing to temper its annexation programme in Russia by an appeal to all the voters of the border nationalities, and while conducting a separatist campaign in Flanders under the pretext of liberalizing the institutions of Belgium, deny to its people at home the rights that it advocates for the people it is trying to subjugate? Even the most docile German is wide awake to such inconsistency as this. The common people are demanding larger influence in the government, because the war has given government policies unprecedented personal interest for the private man.

Because the masses of Germany are in the eyes of the militarists liberal and peace-loving; and because they probably at heart desire to be just to other nations, the Conservatives and peaceby-force advocates of that country are opposing desperately measures that would give the common people greater control than at present of the policies which the government shall pursue.

So much for the alignment on political reforms. Even more significant is the alignment on social policies.

During the war Germany and Austria have brought production and distribution under official control to an extent never anticipated except in the dreams of Government Socialists. We are seeing something of the same tendency in this country; but in Germany the interference of the bureaucrat in private business —whether for weal or woe — surpasses anything that modern society has attempted elsewhere. In many respects Germany has become an Inca state.

Now the question arises, shall this government control be continued, and perhaps increased, during the period of reconstruction,— that is, for an indefinite time ahead,— or shall ante-bellum conditions be restored as soon as the peace treaty is signed? The position of the Social-Democrats, who form the most numerous political party in Germany, is clear. They wish to nationalize production permanently. But they have been reinforced by an important and powerful ally. This unanticipated aid comes from the bureaucracy of Germany — one of the most influential and efficient bureaucracies in the world. When the government once gets hold of the steering-wheel, it does not like to let go.

German officialdom has two arguments to support its case. One of these is that German commerce and industry cannot be restored to prosperity on a competitive basis. Great economies, to be secured only by unified and regulated production, by non-competitive buying of raw materials, by systematic adjustment of internal and foreign transportation to industrial needs, will be required to enable Germany to overcome the great handicaps in international trade resulting from its present destitution of raw materials, its huge losses of capital, its reduced labor-power, and its inflated currency and unfavorable exchange.

The second argument is that the burden of the public debt can be carried only through an enormous increase in public revenue, which ordinary taxation cannot supply. The only practicable way of obtaining this income is to monopolize the main industries of Germany, so that all labor will be made to contribute directly to the treasury. That is to say, the government would cover into its coffers practically all profits from mining, manufacturing, and wholesale trade, after allowing existing capital a moderate interest. Even part of the capital may be confiscated by a direct levy on property to reduce the principal of the public debt.

These are not fanciful proposals. They are matters of sober discussion. The measures suggested are advocated by men of such prominence as Walther Rathenau, President of the General Electric Company and head of the War Raw-Materials Board, whose recent book, Die Neue Wirtschaft, is perhaps the most debated recent publication in Germany. Rathenau believes in subjecting the whole industrial organization — mines, manufacturing plants, railways and canals, and distributing agencies — to the same sort of centralized efficiency control which is being introduced under the Taylor system into single plants. He would relate these industries to each other in an organic whole, eliminating all less productive plants, all unnecessary transportation, all expensive advertising, all other unneeded costs of distribution — in a word, he would make the state the sole captain of industry in Germany.

Such questions as these are absorbing more attention than the war itself in the newspapers of the Central Powers. They have become, in a certain sense, the main war-issue.

Naturally such proposals encounter opposition. The Hansa League, and the great industrial organizations of the Rhine country, are stimulated, not only to defend the old system of industry, but to advocate more urgently annexations and indemnities, which might relieve the public treasury of its cravings for private profits. One reason why the Social-Democrats want to stop the war is in order to get to work on this social revolution. One motive of the Conservatives for prolonging the war is to postpone this day of reckoning as long as possible, and to secure a gambler’s stake of territory and tribute that will make the economic reconstitution of Germany unnecessary.

However, annexations present difficulties. Austria-Hungary has been exposed to decentralizing influences throughout the war. The self-determination of nations is working havoc with old Hapsburg policies. The idea of a federal state is emerging as a possible solution of this difficulty. Germany sees too many nationalist and separatist troubles ahead, if it pursues an expansionist policy in the Baltic provinces and Poland, to enter such a path without misgivings. The collapse of Russia has brought immense military and economic relief to the Central Powers. They will in due time receive from that country bread for their tables, labor for their factories, and many needed raw materials for their looms and furnaces. They will acquire markets that may revivify their silent machinery and stir an active current in trade-channels now stopped or sluggish. But they are reaping a crop of political controversies, of new international jealousies between Germany and Austria, and of social-revolutionary propaganda of unmeasured possibilities, from the same fields that grow the cattle, wheat, and rye they covet.

The self-determination of nations, equal universal suffrage, the nationalization of great fields of production and distribution, are all interwoven with war-policies, and are gradually dividing the German people into two great camps, whose internal tension may possibly become greater than the tension between Germany and its present enemies. In fact, even among the militarists contradictory forces are at work. Some Conservatives see in an agreement with England and America — countries supposed to be wedded to the protection of vested interests — possible rescue from the radical movement at home.

How can all these conflicting interests, this surging up of the molten lava of a new social and political formation through the crust of traditions and precedents, be measured and confined within a formula? It is impossible. The immediate ending of the war may be conventional and commonplace — viewed merely in its external aspects; or it may be quite different from the ending of any other war. But, in any event, the German press reveals the present military struggle as but an episode in something bigger — though what that something bigger is, neither the people of that country, nor our allies, are as yet able to forecast.