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German paper that ignored fall of Berlin Wall still stands up for Socialism

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Via Financial Times

Wolfgang Hübner returns from the archives of the Neues Deutschland newspaper clutching a rare treasure: a thick binder containing one of the biggest misses in journalistic history.

Mr Hübner has unearthed the edition of Friday, November 10 1989, the day after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It is the most consequential moment of the decade, yet that day’s ND — the official organ of the Socialist party of East Germany, boasting a circulation of more than 1m — contains not a word on the event.

The following day, Saturday, the paper’s front page carries only a bottom-corner photo below the bland headline: “Lots of traffic at the border crossing”. Inside, a short article describes the scene at a Berlin checkpoint, where the paper claims to find crowds chanting their support for Egon Krenz, the soon-to-be-deposed prime minister of the German Democratic Republic (GDR).

“It was surreal,” admitted Mr Hübner, ND’s editor, who was a junior reporter on the paper at the time and spent that historic November night proofreading pages filled with transcripts of party speeches. Remarkably, no one thought it necessary to send a reporter to cover the dramatic scenes at the border a few kilometres away. 

No less remarkable is what has happened to ND in the years since. Despite brutal circulation decline, heavy financial losses and massive job cuts, the paper survived the transition to capitalism and democracy. Though the Socialist state it served is long defunct, the ND masthead still proudly proclaims its role as the “Socialist Newspaper” of Germany.

“At the end of the day the ND is unsinkable,” says Mr Hübner, one of the few veterans from the GDR era.

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Neues Deutschland has survived the transition to democracy despite circulation decline and financial losses
Neues Deutschland has survived the transition to democracy despite circulation decline and financial losses © Jan Zappner/FT

To its rump of 25,000 readers, mostly elderly and living in the East, the paper offers a rare symbol of continuity — daily reassurance that they are not alone in resisting the prevailing post-1989 historical narrative. As Germany prepares to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the fall of the wall, the ND’s coverage reflects the complex blend of emotions — nostalgia, disillusionment and accommodation — felt by many of its readers.

“Our readers expect us to look back [at the fall of the wall] in a way that does justice to their own experience and to their memories of the GDR. They don’t wish the GDR back in the way it was, and they mean that. There is a widespread feeling that things went wrong,” said Mr Hübner.

“But they also think that there were some basic ideas [underpinning the Socialist system] that should be back on the agenda. People say: the GDR never took part in a war. There were no homeless. There was no unemployment.” 

There is, he admits, a strong current of Ostalgie — nostalgia for East Germany — running through his readership. Mr Hübner’s view of the past, however, is more nuanced.

“As a journalist I am very happy that we can now run a newspaper that can decide freely what it wants to write about. And that we can have debates here,” he said. “I sometimes say this when we have events with readers: the paper as it appears today could not have been published in the GDR.”

The idea that the editor of the ND would urge his readers to see the upside of unification carries a certain irony. From its foundation in 1946, the paper served as a powerful tool in the East German propaganda machine, under the direct control of the central committee of the ruling Socialist Unity party (SED). 

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“People here had critical discussions on the corridors, and there were complaints about shortages and things like that. But everyone knew what the limits were. None of this made it into the paper because people knew what you could write and what not,” said Mr Hübner. ND’s journalists were required to be party members.

“People were convinced that socialism was the right thing,” he added. “There were only very few — and I was not one of them — who said at the time: this is not going in the right direction. Things should be different.” 

Neues Deutschland sees itself as a committed voice of Socialism in a capitalist society
Neues Deutschland sees itself as a committed voice of Socialism in a capitalist society © Jan Zappner/FT

For all its journalistic shortcomings, ND was hugely influential and closely read, not just in East Berlin. Much like Pravda, its Soviet counterpart, the paper was watched for small but potentially crucial political shifts in coverage. “Everything that was written was scrutinised, also in West Germany and abroad, because the paper was used as a channel to send messages. Sometimes we had pieces that were incomprehensible to normal readers. They were essentially addressed to certain individuals, or contained a reply to reports in the western media.”

Today, ND sees itself as a committed voice of Socialism in a capitalist society, as well as an advocate of eastern Germany. It continues to be owned and financially supported by Die Linke, the far-left party that has its roots in the Socialist party of East Germany.

The paper’s readership is shrinking steadily, reflecting the advanced age of the subscriber base. ND loses between 1,000 and 1,500 readers every year, said Mr Hübner. 

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His office at ND’s imposing headquarters contains tributes and tongue-in-cheek mementos to the GDR. Also on display is the official portrait of Erich Honecker, the hardline GDR leader from 1971 to 1989, who was removed from office just weeks before the wall fell. The picture is hung upside down, and — after decades of exposure to the sun — has faded to near invisibility. 

To Mr Hübner it has assumed a strange significance, a measure of Germany’s slow progress towards bridging the gulf between east and west: “My thesis is: when the portrait has faded so much that you don’t recognise the face any more, that is the moment that the GDR will have disappeared, and German unification is complete.”

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