News from Germany: The Competition to Control World Communications, 1900–1945
By Heidi Tworek
Our current information environment seems unprecedented to many. Attempted Russian interference in the Brexit referendum and the 2016 US election still dominates headlines. Outlets like Al Jazeera, the Chinese news agency Xinhua, or RT (Russia Today) are challenging more established European and North American media networks around the world. These developments have dovetailed with broader questions about how we can distinguish between news and propaganda or how we really know who is supplying our news on social media.
The last few years have forced us to confront the networks behind the news. This has often led to the erroneous assumption that now is the first time we have experienced such intense international competition over information. My book challenges that assumption. It examines how Germans tried to control world communications in the first half of the twentieth century – and nearly succeeded. I also show how political and economic forces shaped the very meaning of news itself. News had always meant more than novelty. The word “news” in English derives from a contraction of “new things.” The German word for news, Nachrichten, more accurately reflects the role that news played in international relations. Nachricht emerged from the verb darnachrichten and means to direct, orient, or control something (the German term Neuigkeiten conveys the idea of “new things” or personal news).
There were no simple distinctions between news and information, propaganda, espionage, sensationalism, and opinion. Definitions of “news” have changed over time and space, and have been affected by political, economic, cultural, social, and technological factors. The interwar period saw heated debates about whether propaganda was an acceptable method of persuasion or a nefarious instrument for liars. These decades also saw heated debates about the values of news: objectivity and neutrality or, as in Germany, a belief that journalists had to interpret news for the readers and work with an ethics of conviction (Gesinnungsjournalismus, as Max Weber called it). Battles over what is legitimate news still rage on today. One person’s news is another person’s gossip. One person’s fact is another person’s fake news.
While we often take news at face value, any given news item has emerged from a complex interplay of political, economic, technological, and cultural forces. I examine how and why German politicians, industrialists, academics, and journalists came to see news as a cornerstone of political, economic, military, and cultural power at home and abroad in the first half of the twentieth century. I focus less on newspapers than the networks behind the news, specifically one type of media business: the news agency. News agencies emerged in the mid-nineteenth century at almost the same time as submarine cables spread around the world. These firms supplied most newspapers with their international and national news. Because it was so expensive to collect and send international news, there were only a handful of news agencies. That handful included the British Reuters (still a major firm today) and the German Wolffs Telegraphisches Bureau that initially focused on continental Europe. To lower costs, the agencies created a cartel. They divided the world between them; each gathered news from their assigned areas and exchanged it with the other agencies.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century, Germans became increasingly dissatisfied with this cartel system. German political and economic aspirations had changed. Many increasingly saw their country as an aspiring colonial and global power. They sought news agencies to bolster that status, believing that the British and French were using news agencies to malign Germany in places like Latin America, where news from Germany never reached directly. Many industrialists thought that they would export more products if more German news were sent to a particular region. Starting around 1900, a consensus on news agencies emerged among German elites—a belief that news agencies were not simply media businesses, but could achieve broader political, economic, and cultural goals. German elites often disagreed on how to control news agencies or what political and economic goals their news should achieve. But they agreed that news played a central role in public life and international relations.
The book looks at five news agencies that delivered different types of news to different publics. Eildienst supplied financial news to Germany and Central Europe. Telegraph Union sent right-wing news in Germany and to German minorities in Central and Eastern Europe in the interwar period. Wolff became an instrument to proclaim a new German state and to abdicate the Kaiser in November 1918. The Deutsches Nachrichtenbüro (DNB) was a Nazi instrument to spread propaganda and gather information for the state. Transocean sent news abroad to improve the image of Germany around the world. These firms generally did not achieve the goals that the elites had hoped, but they remained key components of German statecraft and economics.
Geographically, I show that news was never simply national. The networks behind the news offer a concrete way to explore transregional connections. By looking at how news networks were built and whom they targeted, we can understand how different parts of the world were connected or disconnected. Before World War I, the German government used new wireless technology to create colonial networks between disparate German colonies in Africa and the Pacific. During World War I, Germans sought to create world wireless networks that connected China, Suriname, and Mexico. The national and international were intertwined: German visions of the world shaped where they sent news; these visions often differed from British, French, or American priorities. After 1918 and until 1945, one news agency, Transocean, focused on South America, East Asia, the Middle East, and the former German colonies. The French, Americans, and Germans competed over supplying news to Latin America; the French, British, and Germans competed over China. Transocean aimed to foster anti-imperial sentiment against the British in the Middle East. Under the Nazis, Transocean became the most printed news agency in Japanese-occupied China. Connections were and are not always a priori a good thing.
Chronologically, the news agency enables me to trace continuities across time. Much had changed between the semi-authoritarian/semi-democratic Imperial Germany, the democratic Weimar Republic, and the authoritarian Nazis. But each kept the belief in news agencies as a way to achieve broader geopolitical and economic goals. The Nazis dramatically changed the content of news. But it is striking that they retained news agencies and saw them as tools for geopolitical power. This connection ended for Germans in 1945. After the creation of the two Germanies in 1949, both still had news agencies. They were not, though, instruments of international politics for German leaders. International circumstances fostered German political and economic interest in news agencies around 1900; international circumstances destroyed that interest 45 years later.
Since the 1990s, the phrase “soft power” has become ubiquitous. Coined and popularized by Joseph Nye, it referred to the cultural aspects of a country’s influence. This was supposed to contrast with the “hard power” of economics and the military. The idea has become so widespread that Portland, a PR firm, and the USC Center for Public Diplomacy have calculated a soft power index for the past four years. The index measures perceptions of a country abroad along with other factors like education, international engagement, and culture.
But soft and hard power have long blurred together, particularly in the realm of news. At the very latest, the US election in 2016 revealed to a broader public that controlling information flows could confer political power too. Yet, states using news as a form of international power has been the norm since 1900, not the exception. News was never neutral and its production never uncontested. As we think today about how to address disinformation, we might remember that the political, economic, and technological networks behind the news fundamentally shape the news itself.
Heidi Tworek, News from Germany: The Competition to Control World Communications, 1900-1945, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2019.
Heidi Tworek is Assistant Professor of International History at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada. She works on media, international organizations, and transatlantic relations. She is a member of the Science and Technology Studies program, the Language Science Initiative, and the Institute for European Studies at UBC. She is a Visiting Fellow at the Joint Center for History and Economics at Harvard University as well as Non-Resident Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States and the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.
Heidi Tworek, News from Germany: The Competition to Control World Communications, 1900-1945, in TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 14.08.2019, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/19381.