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Bild birthday

June 22, 2012

Not everyone will congratulate Germany's most popular newspaper on its 60th birthday. The Bild Zeitung continues to divide the nation - some see it as a paper for the everyday German; others see it as cheap propaganda.

A large placard with the words "Bild loves Berlin!"
Image: AP

One thing you can certainly depend on is Bild to publish striking headlines: "Wir sind Papst" (We are Pope) is just one example of a short and snappy headline - used when Joseph Ratzinger was elected head of the Roman Catholic Church in 2005 - indicative of the presumption and desire to shape Germany's identity that one finds routinely in the Bild Zeitung.

"A 'Bild' headline is only good," explains Bild Editor-in-Chief Kai Diekmann, "if it's exclusive, or if it's able to move readers, or strike a nerve. That goes as well for headlines that result from tragedies." This may explain the dicey headline that appeared after the 9/11 attacks that read "Großer Gott steh' uns bei" (Almighty God be with us), one which certainly struck the nerve of most readers.

A woman reads the Bild Zeitung
We are Pope! - a classic Bild headlineImage: AP

From apolitical to very political

Bild's first edition on June 24, 1952 had all of four pages. Axel Springer, the founder of the paper, followed the model of already established tabloids in Britain: rich with pictures, little text, popular topics. Little less than a year later, Bild had already amassed a readership of over 500,000.

Politics played little role at this point. But that changed in the early 1960s with the construction of the Berlin Wall. "Der Westen tut NICHTS!" (The West isn't doing ANYTHING) read the headline on the first day of construction. Ever since, Bild has been a political paper - one which its publisher, Axel Springer, used to propagate his own version of German politics.

This featured from the beginning, in opposition to the policy of then-Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, a call for German reunification.

Did Bild shoot, too?

The political dimension of Bild broadened with the student protests of the late 1960s in Germany, with the paper transcending its own function as mere observer. Bild quickly became a target of student anger when rumors flew that it was involved in the assassination attempt of Rudi Dutschke, a charismatic leader of the leftist protests.

Thousands filled the streets carrying posters that read: "Bild hat mitgeschossen" (Bild shot, too). The unrest led to the paper's Munich office being deserted and its printing headquarters in Hamburg being blocked.

Bild's editorial team learned a lesson from the fiasco and tuned down its emphasis on politics and its meddling in political affairs. However, it tuned up the level of sensationalism in its reporting. And that with oftentimes rather questionable means, wrote the author Günter Wallraf, an erstwhile Bild reporter.

Investigative journalist Günter Wallraff
Wallraff worked for Bild under a pseudonymImage: picture-alliance/Peter Popp

"Bild regularly broke into the private, even intimate sphere of the people it was reporting about," Wallraff said, who admitted having seen suicide notes written by people who had their lives publicly scandalized by the paper. Wallraff said they took their own lives because of Bild. Wallraff, an investigative reporter, worked undercover at Bild to find out how the paper functioned behind the scenes and then published a controversial book about his experience.

The power of Bild

Today, there's no question that Bild carries weight in Germany. If you're in politics in Berlin, there's simply no way around it. Former Chancellor Helmut Kohl's spokesman once said that he never went a day without taking a look at the Bild Zeitung, because in the top headline "one could read the mood of the nation."

Even foreign representatives in Berlin depend on the tabloid. Rob Ellis, of the British embassy, told DW that the topics that Bild takes up are normally the ones that will be on the agenda of the important politicians. And, in turn, these are the topics in Germany that are of interest to politicians in London.

Election posters in Berlin
Bild is a powerful tool for all politicians - but can quickly also become a painful thornImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Bild even has the power, now and then, to bring about the downfall of politicians it deems unworthy. The collapse of former president, Christian Wulff, who tendered his resignation earlier this year, was ultimately the result of a weeks-long Bild campaign against the head of the German state.

That's just water under the bridge for those who claim that it's easy to govern with - but not without - Bild on your side. But one thing's for sure: A paper that publishes over 12 million copies a day is a solid force in German society - one that doesn't necessarily have to be liked, but certainly reckoned with.

Author: Wolfgang Dick / glb
Editor: Gregg Benzow