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This is the second and last in my series on freedom and speech under the GDR.

In his book Bending Spines, Randall Bytwerk outlines in some detail how the German Democratic Republic (GDR) tried to function as a society – and failed.

13897422-flag-of-german-democratic-republic-close-upWorking under the auspices of the SED, Neues Deutschland (ND) was the official state newspaper of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), with a readership of around 1-million people. If you worked at ND it’s because the state deemed you to be “politically reliable.” Bytwerk notes in his book that there was a shortage of socialist journalists at the outset; something that was soon remedied with the construction of a “trustworthy cadre”.

Goebbels once said that “any man who still has a residue of honor will be very careful not to become a journalist.” Setting aside the humorous possibility of becoming a journalist by accident, this foreshadowed what was to become of the media under the SED.

DDR/ Zeitungen WILDER“The media in totalitarian societies have catechetical functions,” writes Bytwerk. Their job was not to present their readership with news, but with state-controlled stories of a political nature (often of things that never happened). “That which is presented,” continues Bytwerk, “must agree with the reigning worldview.” So, if the facts didn’t line up with the official line of the government, they were either changed so that they did or they went unreported.

As if we have learned nothing, this still occurs in countries like Great Britain that issue “D-Notices” to newspapers, preventing them – by convention – from running a story that will allegedly cause harm to state security.

Just a month ago, British Security Services walked into the offices of The Guardian newspaper in London and demanded that computers be destroyed as part of their campaign to end the leaks coming from Edward Snowden’s files. Was this state intimidation? Yes, and it was shocking how similar it was to the intimidation that went on under the GDR.

That may seem a bit of an aside, but I think it has application to our present discussion on state-controlled stories and the catechetical functions of newspapers. In any event, GDR newspapers were very strictly controlled and were intended not to impart news, but to educate the public in a state-sponsored way that maintained the readers’ dim, cramped-circle worldview. State-held journalistic conferences ensured that this would remain the case on a year-on-year basis.

afs1How close we are to this in contemporary American journalism isn’t clear, but the conduct of the executive branch is very worrying in that respect.

The United States regularly orders the killing of people abroad, some of them Americans, using unmanned drones.  How cowardly and sick. The British government is engaged in a wholesale campaign of intimidation of the press for vague national security reasons.

We celebrated when the Wall came down. I can still remember it and how it made me feel as though a new and exciting world was before us. There was hope for humanity again. The GDR and its tactics were no more.

And now, perhaps because we know no better, we have started it all over again.