Heidi Tworek. News from Germany: The Competition to Control World Communications, 1900-1945. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2019. 344 pp. $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-674-98840-8.
Reviewed by Christian Heinrich-Franke (Universität Siegen)
Published on H-TGS (April, 2020)
Commissioned by Benjamin Bryce (University of British Columbia)
News from Germany
The relationship between politics and media is a flourishing field of historical research. In recent years, a number of studies have dealt with global communications, transnational telecommunication networks, news agencies, journalism, or propaganda since the beginning of electronic communications in the nineteenth century. Many studies have analyzed communications as an important instrument for political, economic, and cultural aims. Much research on competition in global communications has been focused on “information warfare” during the Cold War. Heidi Tworek’s study, News from Germany: The Competition to Control World Communication, 1900-1945, adds another important piece to this field by focusing on German news agencies in the first half of the twentieth century.
News agencies emerged in the mid-nineteenth century when submarine telegraph cables connected the world. They became “gatekeepers who controlled the flow of information” because newspapers could not afford to station journalists across the globe (p. 3). Such news, however, was neither neutral nor uncontested. In fact, the boundary between news and propaganda was blurry. Therefore, control over submarine telegraph networks and control over news agencies was considered to be the easiest way to influence people and achieve political, economic, and military goals around the world. Increasingly global infrastructures and audiences transformed the world into one communication space that transcended national borders, legislation, and languages. International power and influence required international communication facilities. Both the networks and the agencies were in the hands of British, American, and French companies. In the historiography, this influence has been used to explain these countries’ dominant position in world affairs. By shaping news and information, these countries were able to increasingly strengthen their role in the international area. Nevertheless, networks and institutions were not static but rather dynamic. The most important changes and hopes for changes were triggered by technical innovations like wireless communication.
Tworek challenges the master narrative of “Anglo-American dominance over international media in the modern age” by focusing on the “latecomer” Germany (p. 5). As a nineteenth-century continental power, Germany (and the different German kingdoms and principalities) took up its interest in influencing global communication at a time when submarine cables and news agencies were already in British, American, and French hands. German elites became interested in global connectivities when their own “view on the world changed around the turn of the century” and “the world became a battlefield for national interests” (p. 6). News politics and colonial politics were two sides of the same coin.
In her book, Heidi Tworek traces the emergence, expansion, and expiration of what she calls the “German news agency consensus,” namely the belief that controlling news could “fulfill broader geopolitical, geoeconomic and cultural aims” (p. 14). Tworek’s book charts the German attempts to change how news worked around the world from 1900 to 1945 and “how elites used news for political and economic power” (p. 9). The German case is particularly revealing as it shows the focus on new technology (wireless) and the efforts to challenge the international balance of power. By researching and investing in technical innovations, Germany had an opportunity to bypass the British, American, and French cable and agency dominance.
The structure of the book is more or less a chronological one. The first two chapters explain the German “news agency consensus” by discussing the political economy of news in the second half of the nineteenth century and the German attempts and visions connected with the building of a global wireless network. Chapters 3 to 7 illustrate the development and different phases of German news politics by presenting numerous (often unknown) stories of the political economy of German news agencies. Tworek shows the important role of the Wolffsches Telegraphen Bureau during the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II as well as its limited influence on the Kapp-Putsch in 1920. In the Weimar Republic, the foreign office made the press an “indispensable instrument of cultural diplomacy” and subsidized the news agency (p. 140). Politicians like Chancellor Brüning and media pioneers like Hans von Bredow were convinced that state control of media content would help to deescalate political tensions and draw a positive picture of Germany in the world. At the same time, however, words increasingly became an economic and political weapon that did not shy away from false news if it served national purposes. The Nazis finally merged the agencies into the Deutsches Nachrichtenbüro as part of their attempt to fully control information flows. Finally, chapter 8 underlines the often forgotten or neglected success of German news agencies on a number of occasions in the first half of the twentieth century. For example, during the First World War they were quoted on numerous occasions in American newspapers.
Heidi Tworek’s News from Germany is a well-written and detailed book that combines different disciplinary perspectives (media history, the history of technology, and international history) into a coherent narrative. It offers fascinating and manifold insights into German attempts to gain world power from the turn of the century to the end of the Nazi regime. Key to a convincing narrative is her broad archival research and the combination of different (national) perspectives, which illuminate connections and aspects that have remained rather unknown. Nevertheless, the reviewer did get the impression that the study would have benefited from a more differentiated representation of Germany and Germans, who were shaped by the different kingdoms, principalities, and their individual traditions and opinions. One might also argue that the five cautionary tales, which are presented in the conclusion as a kind of historical compass to our current time of fake news and increasing competition over communication spaces, are rather simple and not surprising for (historical) research. Nevertheless, perhaps we should never tire of repeating it so as to keep a critical eye on media systems. Tworek reminds us not to underestimate the media’s influence on public opinion nor to forget “that in both, the news past and the present, the networks and the businessmen behind the news influenced news consumption and democratic discourse far more than we have often recognized” (p. 229).
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Christian Heinrich-Franke. Review of Tworek, Heidi, News from Germany: The Competition to Control World Communications, 1900-1945.
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