In Other Words

Marking German Time

Die Zeit 60th anniversary inserts Vol. 61, Nos. 8, 9, 10 February 16, 23, and March 2, 2006, Hamburg Hamburg was covered in ashes. In July 1943, the northern German city was bombed for 10 relentless days. Code-named “Operation Gomorrah," the Allied campaign incinerated 8 square miles in a turbulent firestorm, killed more than 45,000 ...

Die Zeit
60th anniversary inserts
Vol. 61, Nos. 8, 9, 10
February 16, 23, and March 2, 2006, Hamburg

Hamburg was covered in ashes. In July 1943, the northern German city was bombed for 10 relentless days. Code-named “Operation Gomorrah," the Allied campaign incinerated 8 square miles in a turbulent firestorm, killed more than 45,000 people, and left more than a million civilians homeless. It was the heaviest assault in the history of aerial warfare. Hardly a single structure remained standing.

It was from these unlikely, ignoble ruins that Die Zeit — which would become Germany’s most widely read weekly publication — was born. A group of young Hamburgers, disturbed by the Teutonic acquiescence they witnessed under Adolf Hitler’s rule, decided they needed a public forum from which they could openly debate and critique authority without fear of reprisal. Over the next 60 years, their newspaper became Germany’s foremost venue for intellectual exchange.

Reviewing the heady days of its past, this winter Die Zeit published three tabloid-sized inserts as part of its 60th anniversary celebration. In addition to a chronology of the paper’s history and select articles from its archives, it includes reader profiles, such as the story of the 100-year-old subscriber who claims that she remains mentally swift because she’s read every issue of the paper since its inception. The anniversary pages also feature words from some of Germany’s most decorated leaders, including President Horst Köhler and Chancellor Angela Merkel. Writer Günter Grass, Formula One driver Michael Schumacher, and actress Franka Potente also sing the praises of the sexagenarian publication. Part of Die Zeit‘s appeal is its inclusive bent; the newspaper has not only provided a venue for journalists and politicians to state their views but has also printed essays from philosophers such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Michel Foucault. That kind of combination of writers is unlikely to ever appear in an Anglo-American publication.

It is fortunate that it ever appeared anywhere at all. When the newspaper was started in 1946, assuring freedom of the press was a personal moral obligation for one of its founders, attorney Gerd Bucerius. His legal career was ruined by the Nazis when he married a Jewish woman; he was forced to send his wife to England for safety after Kristallnacht; and several years later, he was notified of his in-laws’ deaths under Hitler’s regime. "I had always loved my country," he recalled. But toward the end of the war, "I stood on my roof wishing for the destruction of one of its most beautiful cities."

Known to have voiced anti-Nazi sentiments, the young lawyer was granted a publishing license by the Allied powers. The first issue of Die Zeit — an initial run of 25,000 copies produced in the basement of a half- demolished building with no heat — consisted of only eight pages of rationed paper that had to pass the scrutiny of British censors. Once it hit the streets of Hamburg, it met an unglamorous fate. Everyday supplies were so scarce that fishmongers were among the publication’s most enthusiastic buyers; at 40 pfennigs, Die Zeit was cheaper than paper.

Although he hit several financial stumbling blocks throughout his 49-year-long stewardship, Bucerius was undeterred. Three years after founding the paper, he was elected to the Bundestag; he didn’t hesitate to use his ensuing social contacts to keep the paper afloat. Fashioning business deals at various times with other publishing companies, such as Gruner + Jahr and Bertelsmann, his sole concern for the next several decades was keeping Die Zeit alive. "A paper like this is always threatened," Bucerius once lamented, "That it exists at all is but a lucky coincidence."

In addition to Bucerius, another figure stands out in Die Zeit‘s history: the fiery and tireless Marion Gräfin Dönhoff, who began writing for the newspaper at its founding. Except for a short stint at London’s Observer in the mid-1950s, when she became disenchanted with Die Zeit‘s temporary rightward shift, Dönhoff wore assorted hats at Die Zeit — writer, editor in chief, political editor, and copublisher — until her death at age 92 in 2002. Her critiques saw no boundaries, even at the expense of creating discomfort. In 1962, at Dönhoff’s urging, Die Zeit publicly called for the resignation of popular West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer for his blasé reaction to the construction of the Berlin Wall. It was a brave stance. Bucerius was not only in the same political party as Adenauer; the two were close friends. But Dönhoff never backed down from her insistence on dealing more closely with East Germany. Later, Chancellor Willy Brandt would vindicate her stance, telling her, "It was you and Die Zeit that prepared people for Ostpolitik."

Today, under the guidance of a group of publisher-editors — former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, esteemed foreign-policy analyst Josef Joffe, former culture minister Michael Naumann, and editor in chief Giovanni di Lorenzo — Die Zeit boasts more than 480,000 subscribers and nearly 2 million readers from Canada to South Africa. For all the talk of a dwindling global media market, its readership continues to climb.

Although it can sometimes veer toward the excessively ponderous, Die Zeit stands out from the rest of the crowd by taking a comprehensive view of culture, politics, and history — a wider lens lacking in nearly all other German news media. "As a weekly, Die Zeit can present background and context, as well as reasoned opinions, that transcend the breathless commentary of the hour," says Joffe. "Its ‘slowness’ is its greatest asset, allowing it to frame issues in a more comprehensive manner than the dailies and certainly TV." That slowness, of course, allows for greater depth of understanding. But what is most remarkable now — touching, even — is that the democratic ideals that the paper upheld six decades ago are the very ones it is admired for today.

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