In Berlin

Philip Oltermann

The day before the latest elections in Athens, the German tabloid Bild published an open letter. ‘Dear Greeks,’ it read, ‘Please don’t do anything stupid … The only reason that you are able to get euros out of your cash machines is that we, the Germans, and other euro states have put them there … Tomorrow you have a choice. But it isn’t really a choice. Because the only alternative to seeing reason, however painful, is total destruction. We worry you still haven’t understood that. Love, Bild.’ A Greek translation was posted on the paper’s website. Syriza’s leader, Alexis Tsipras (‘the man who has everyone quaking in his boots’), couldn’t have dreamed up a better election-day ruse. Bild is Germany’s bestselling newspaper, and according to the latest ABC figures, it has the highest circulation of any publication in Europe: 2.67 million people buy it every day, the Sun comes close at 2.61 million. It is also one of the country’s few national dailies.

Many critics of Merkel’s Germany and the part it has played in the eurozone crisis see Bild as responsible for the widespread notion that Germany is working itself into the ground while the feckless Greeks go on holiday or take early retirement. Its readers, they say, have little idea of German banks’ implication in the Greek debt, or, to put it differently, of the extent to which Germany has benefited from the common currency. In 2010, the Bild reporter Paul Ronzheimer stood in a street in Athens handing out drachmas: he wanted to see how many people were tempted to return to their old currency. ‘This week,’ he says in a diary from Athens printed alongside the open letter, ‘a Greek colleague asked me where I got those old notes from, because he wants to try the same thing now.’ Another criticism that’s made of Bild is that it’s helping to spread complacency in Germany as the rest of Europe goes down the tubes. Bild isn’t strictly a tabloid: it is published in the same format as the Telegraph, and its lead story is usually written in white Helvetica Inserat on black, underlined in red. The open letter appeared on page two of the 16 June edition. On the front page there were 23 different items. They included a story about a father who killed his four children with a knife (‘The crime that has shocked the whole of Germany’), a story about the star of a TV dance show who may have a new lover, as well as a ‘quote of the day’ from Lorca (‘Wasting time is a terrible thing’). There is no mention of the eurozone crisis on the front page, or anywhere else in the paper, except for the two items on page two. The biggest domestic news story under the front-page fold is a parliamentary row over Betreuungsgeld: Merkel’s party is suggesting that families who look after their children at home instead of sending them to Kindergarten should receive additional financial support (they already get at least €184 a month Kindergeld). In Britain, the coalition has abandoned the principle of universal child benefit; the German government is agonising over whether it should spend more money on mothers who can afford not to work.

Bild celebrates its 60th birthday on 24 June, and it would be tempting to say that little has changed since its heyday in the 1960s and 1970s, when, like Axel Springer’s other papers, it showcased Germany at its arrogant worst, and Heinrich Böll wrote novels in which young people’s lives were blighted by the attentions of its reporters. During the Cold War, Bild was reliably right-wing but it has long since been trying to capture the centre ground. It has made peace with its enemies from the student movement of the 1960s, and some of them are now on the payroll: Stefan Aust, the former Spiegel editor who wrote the definitive history of the Baader-Meinhof gang, is writing a history of the paper. Springer modelled Bild on the Mirror, and one of the paper’s priorities is to address the worries of the workers who read it in the morning on their way to the factory. Many of the stories it carries would be considered too boring for the British press – a series of short reports on negotiations between the steelworkers’ union and Opel, for example. With twenty offices outside Berlin, Bild is consistent in its coverage of regional industrial policy. And who’s to say that stories like that don’t tell us more about the long-term health of a national economy than the whims of the rating agencies?

Its cultural values, too, are different. It’s hard to imagine the following headline in the Mail, the Sun, or even the Star: ‘My husband is gay and lives in our family with his schatzi.’ There’s a picture of husband Ewald and schatzi Gotthard lying naked on one side of the bed while wife Erika and son Elmar sit fully clothed on the other. Bild’s trademark tone is a characteristically tabloid moral indignation combined with a saccharine empathy that Sun journalists would struggle with. Two days before it printed the open letter, it ran a full-page feature on Greece: patients who have to pay for their own drugs, rising suicide rates and the spectre of the far right – tears all round. Nothing better summarises Bild’s hypocrisy than a headline the day after Germany beat the Dutch 2-1 in the European Championships: ‘Poor Holland.’ After decades of mocking the Dutch and their campervans, Bild printed a couple of anti-Dutch jokes taken from the internet (a picture of an Edam cheese captioned ‘Made in Holland’ and a cheesegrater captioned ‘Made in Germany’) and asked: ‘Have they deserved this kind of mockery?’ The stock-in-trade of the Bild universe is ‘Darf man das?’ Talk about ditching the euro? Complain about immigrants? Bash the Greeks? Wave the German flag at international fixtures? Are we Germans allowed to do that? Darf man das?

It’s easy to blame Bild, but it’s worth bearing in mind that Germany’s highbrow weeklies – Der Spiegel sells just under a million copies every week, Die Zeit half a million – come to much the same conclusions. A few days before Bild’s Greek letter, Die Zeit’s publisher, Josef Joffe, weighed up the call of ‘European solidarity’ as against ‘economic reason’: ‘Let’s hope Germany can long continue to pay,’ he wrote, ‘and that the debtor nations use the time to do their homework.’ The top story in that week’s edition was entitled: ‘The whole world wants our money. Here’s what Germany can deliver, and what it can’t.’

According to a recent survey, more than 50 per cent of Bild readers buy the paper mainly or only for the sports section, and anyone who wants to know how Germany thinks in 2012 should take a look at its football coverage. In the run-up to the European Championships, Bild ran a number of stories about Jérôme Boateng, a sleepy-looking defender with a Berlin accent. A week before Germany’s opening match against Portugal, Bild published pictures of Boateng, whose father is from Ghana, going into a Berlin hotel at 2 a.m. to meet a former model and It Girl called Gina-Lisa Lohfink. Germany’s coach, Jogi Löw, castigated his player: ‘Er hat eine Bringschuld’ – he owes the team a strong performance. The literal meaning of Bringschuld is ‘a debt to be repaid at the domicile of the creditor’. It also carries the double meaning of Schuld, both ‘guilt’ and ‘debt’. Boateng apologised, which is to say he entschuldigt or ‘de-guilted’ himself, and played very well in the match, safeguarding Germany’s 1-0 victory with a tackle on Cristiano Ronaldo. Anyone who thinks Germany may be about to soften its stance on Greek debt repayment should read what Löw said the next day: ‘Bringschuld dauert ein bisschen länger.’ A debt can’t easily be redeemed.