Breaking News: Germany Aims for Empire


Review of News from Germany: The Competition to Control World Communications, 1900-1945, by Heidi J.S. Tworek

Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2019


“Media empire” is a phrase often invoked but rarely reflected upon in popular conversations about our contemporary media environment. It calls to mind Rupert Murdoch, Michael Bloomberg, or their historical forebears like William Randolph Hearst, E.W. Scripps, or Frank Gannett. But when we call these conglomerates “empires” we do so as an exercise in metaphor. Few mean to suggest that media corporations such as these are direct instruments of state expansion, colonial subjugation, or the extraction of raw materials beyond the borders of a metropolitan state. 

In News from Germany, Heidi Tworek invites her readers to take the phrase literally. When it comes to news and telecommunications in the early 20th century, she argues, we must recognize information flows and telecom infrastructure as key domains of geopolitical competition between imperial states, and a means by which imperial metropoles sought to expand and consolidate their influence. 

In a stunning eight-chapter panorama, Tworek argues that, in order to understand German political history and its pretensions to imperial power, we must look to the news agencies that supplied German news, the state bureaucracies that regulated information flows, and the technological infrastructures that distributed international news. In so doing, she tells a new story about the relationship between information, state power, and imperial ambition from the Wilhelmine era to the fall of the Nazi regime. 

In her first chapter, Tworek traces the rise of the Ring Cartel—the first international consortium, made up of British Reuters, French Havas, and German Wolff (later joined by the American Associated Press), which cartelized the sale of international news. Carving up the world into fiefdoms of news collection and distribution, the cartel relied on a patchwork of monopoly contracts with subsidiary and partner news agencies across the globe. Reuters collected news from across the expansive British Empire; Havas from within its own colonial domain, along with Spain and South America; and Wolff collected news from Continental Europe and its comparatively smaller empire in Africa and the Pacific. The three agencies pooled this news for shared use, and retained the exclusive right to sell news from that pool to agencies within their respective domains. 

Geopolitical and economic power defined the distribution of power within the Ring Cartel. This made intuitive sense: the extent of each empire’s telecommunications infrastructure determined each news agency’s “reach” in news collection, and therefore value to the collective. Britain’s hegemony in cable infrastructure put Reuters at the helm, with Havas playing second fiddle and Wolff in a decided third place. But Bismarckian elites soon came to perceive the relationship between geopolitical power and news agency power as dialectical. Their third-tier status in the Ring Cartel, they believed, perpetuated their third-tier status among European empires, and vice versa. As German elites' sense of economic competition and embattlement with Great Britain and France intensified between the 1870s and 1910s, their criticism of a news cartel system in which Germany was a junior member grew louder. 

At the same time, seismic changes shook Germany’s domestic press. Thanks to innovations in printing technology and the advent of advertisement-based newspaper financing, new urban newspapers popped up like daisies, lending the appearance of increasing diversity in political opinion and popular culture. But ironically, and unbeknownst to most readers, all across Germany the raw content of news was becoming all the more uniform, as the vast majority of these newspapers took subscriptions to the very same wholesaler of news: Wolff. 

In Chapter 2, Tworek shows how World War I convinced German officials of the need for a German-owned world-wide wireless network—one that would be invulnerable to the wartime practice of cable-cutting, and would leapfrog Britain’s hegemony in submarine cables. Wireless infrastructure, they believed, could also be a means of expanding Germany’s cultural, political, and economic influence beyond its colonial holdings in Africa and the Pacific, into hitherto “neutral territories” like Latin America and East Asia.

But to extend political and cultural influence through this infrastructure, the state needed a steady pipeline of news. Officials found their supplier in Wolff. The news agency had volunteered itself as a tool of state censorship and information distribution during World War I, emerging from the war a decided intermediary between the government and the public. In the years that followed, “Weimar and Wolff” became only more mutually reliant. The government relied on the news agency’s unparalleled access to German newspapers and Ring Cartel distribution networks. Wolff, in turn, depended on state subsidies for telecom network use, and for the prestige that came with being Germany’s only semi-official news agency. 

But as Tworek shows in Chapter 3, the deep relationship between the two institutions was also a liability. Wolff’s close relationship to the wartime state meant it was made to blame for the war’s loss. On the right, nationalist critics questioned whether the Wolff/government relationship, as it stood, was sufficient to meet Germany's postwar ambitions. The 1920 Kapp Putsch, Tworek argues, broke the dam with criticism from the center and left, fracturing the “news agency consensus” that had legitimated Wolff as a semi-official news agency. Wolff capitulated to the Putsch; and its obsequious, misplaced obeisance convinced politicians and bureaucrats that Wolff was a hold-over from the imperial regime: a "beacon of imperial bureaucratic obedience that was not adapting adequately to democracy" (97).

Impatience with Wolff, however, did not disrupt the notion that news agencies were a crucial tool of political power. Instead, disillusionment with Wolff simply spurred political operatives across the ideological spectrum to look elsewhere for news—for example, to the hyper-conservative Telegraph Union. This shift toward nationalist news agencies quickly began to push the timbre of German political news rightward.

Chapter 4 traces the German state's attempt to manage the emergence of radiotelegraphy, radio broadcast, and the wireless distribution of financial news through “Eildienst” (Swift Service). Officials believed that Eildienst’s direct-to-consumer financial news service could help restore Germany’s regional economic power—a subtle workaround to Versailles restrictions. But Eildienst also posed significant problems, both to existing norms in German communications governance and to the global news cartel system. Tworek shows that while the German Foreign Office incubated the fledgling Eildienst, the Post Office guaranteed its success, helping to shield Eildienst from competition, while guiding it toward privatization. But soon after Eildienst was set on independent feet it was gobbled up by the Ring Cartel agencies, which were keen to neutralize prospective competition with their own financial news services. 

In the second part of the chapter, Tworek reveals the fascinating story of how radio regulation figured in the Weimar state’s efforts to “depoliticize” the news. In the 1920s, Weimar officials came to see radio broadcasting as a uniquely powerful and evocative medium, as capable of inciting lawlessness and violence as it was of educating and entertaining. In order to keep political news off the airwaves and contained to the printed page, the Radio Reform Act of 1926 delegated radio oversight to the Postal Ministry, which filtered out political news from radio broadcasts on the local level. News regulation, meanwhile, became the province of the Interior Ministry. Ironically, Tworek argues, Weimar officials' attempts to depoliticize news constructed a bifurcated regime of media governance that became exceptionally easy to control and mobilize for the Nazis' own purposes when they came to power.  

Chapter 5 takes the reader on a sojourn to Istanbul. There, through the experience of one (deeply misogynist) press official, Ernst von Ritgen, Tworek traces how German officials in the Foreign Office instrumentalized news agencies and press professionals to perform covert cultural diplomacy abroad. Ritgen, a sometime Wolff employee whose salary was secretly funded by the German Foreign Ministry, was tasked with all manner of jobs to place German news in Turkish newspapers, or otherwise increase Germany’s profile in the Middle East. Ritgen’s duplicitous appointment inspires Tworek, in a delightful rhetorical flourish, to dub Ritgen a “press officer in Wolff’s clothing” (140).

The intimate case study here yields two fascinating insights. The first is a sort of social history of journalistic laborers contra their counterparts in the diplomatic corps. It was common at the time, as other historians have noted, for both state officials and journalists to portray news workers as diplomatic intermediaries in their own right. But clear power differentials persisted between diplomats and news professionals on the ground. While diplomats often relied on newspapers and journalistic labor to conduct their jobs, they simultaneously demeaned journalists as poorly educated and lower class (often tinged with an insidious dose of antisemitism). It is an instructive portrait of the way ideologies of class difference were reconstructed and reinforced abroad, even while “formal” and “cultural” diplomats were ostensibly sent to serve the same master. Second, the episode demonstrates just how deeply intertwined telecom infrastructure projects were with cultural diplomacy efforts. Where telecom infrastructure failed (German news broadcasts, Tworek reveals, never reliably reached Istanbul), journalists’ and press officers’ physical presence had to suffice—and became all the more crucial as a means of diffusing state talking points overseas. 

The sixth chapter delves into the origins of the far-right Telegraph Union news agency, uncovering how its founder, Alfred Hugenberg, destabilized German newspaper culture. Media scholars have long debated how well the Gramscian theory of ideological reproduction applies to the industrialized news industry of the 20th century—whether newspapers did, in fact, absorb and reproduce ideologies of the managerial class. Some have insisted that it is overly reductionist to draw a line of direct and unilateral causation between media owners’ politics, the tone of news, and readers’ interpretation of news content. In fact, some press historians have argued that the rise of industrial newspaper production and advertising-based financing made news less “political,” not more. Moving away from funding structures based on political patronage compelled newspaper owners and publishers to toe more ambivalent political lines to attract the widest possible readership. 

But here Tworek makes the opposite argument—and it’s utterly convincing. By their nature, she shows, European news agencies were financially precarious, which made semi-official agencies like Wolff vulnerable to the whims of government patrons. But Alfred Hugenberg—one of the first press barons of his kind in Germany—evaded such financial woes by vertically integrating his entire media enterprise, owning the means for each stage of news production outright (paper, printing, news collection, and advertising). Telegraph Union could therefore afford to be a losing business. Hugenberg wasn’t just inventing new rules for news agency financing: he was playing an entirely different game. While Wolff had to constantly reconcile its obligations to government benefactors, on the one hand, and commercial clients’ demand for reliable, accurate news, on the other, a single animus inspired Telegraph Union’s editorial policy: to promote the interests of German industrialists. Veracity was secondary. This created a potent mix of ideological single-mindedness and an ambivalence about truth that made Telegraph Union uniquely poised to produce dishonest, biased news on an industrial scale.

And that it did. Tworek’s sixth chapter chronicles the life cycle of one of Telegraph Union’s “viral” false news reports. Reports such as these, Tworek argues, spurred a sort of crisis of verifiability in German news culture: a broader pessimism over newspapers' capacity to produce credible, truthful, accurate information, which "laid the groundwork for nationalist politics in general" (168). To counter Telegraph Union's challenge to Wolff and official news, and to capture some of the creeping disillusionment over German news' trustworthiness and the viability of social institutions, in the early 1930s Weimer officials finally made Wolff a government news agency outright. In Chapter 7, Tworek argues that nationalizing Wolff created a regulatory climate primed perfectly for totalitarian takeover. 

Once the Nazis assumed power, Tworek shows, they consolidated and emulated the existing news system, rather than dismantling it altogether. The Nazis set up their new state news agency (the “German News Bureau,” or DNB) by simply merging Wolff and Telegraph Union, promoting Nazi-sympathetic journalists through the ranks, firing its Jewish employees, and tightening the reins of censorship that Weimar officials themselves had “fitted to the horse,” so to speak. Crucially, Nazi officials preserved Weimar-era technologies and contracts with the world's most powerful news agencies. Using the Hellschreiber—a teletypewriter that could broadcast news to multiple receivers at once, and was a capstone of Weimar attempts to counteract British cable hegemony—the Nazis could diffuse their news far and wide. In short, the Nazi Party benefitted from the very press system whose economic and bureaucratic infrastructures it rose to popularity critiquing, finding them incredibly well-suited for totalitarian ends. 

In Chapter 8 Tworek once again makes a transnational pivot, narrating the history of Transocean, Wolff’s subsidiary for international news distribution. Tworek makes two key insights here. First, while historians have sometimes dismissed US officials’ fear of Nazi propaganda in Latin America—either calling it overblown, or simply a pretext for preserving American hegemony in the region—Tworek shows that such anxieties were substantially well-founded. Germany not only supplied a stunning proportion of Latin American telecom infrastructure; by the end of World War II, Transocean broadcast news from its powerful Nauen transmitter to stations as far north as Mexico and far south as Brazil (201-209), and supplied more hours of news in Spanish per day than it did in any other foreign language (212). Tworek’s second insight is how the German/Japanese alliance achieved Germany’s longstanding aim of distributing news to East Asia. It was a short-lived breakthrough, however, and circumscribed by Japan’s intent to shore up its own authority as head of the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.”  

News from Germany is an empirical tour de force. The footnotes are exhaustive, boasting a familiarity with German, French, and English-language scholarship alike. The book draws from at least nineteen different archives in no fewer than seven countries. Its archival depth is formidable, and Tworek’s attention to detail scrupulous. Readers looking for a bold overhaul of existing theoretical frameworks, however, may struggle to find an explicit one here—a set of lessons for the present comes at the expense of an explicitly historiographic intervention in the text. But, sitting at the crossroads of a number of historical sub-fields, with additional tributaries from outside disciplines, Tworek’s empirical contributions to the history of German politics, wireless telecommunications, and the international press are immense. 

Tworek’s work sits most comfortably in the well-established field of business history—specifically, the business history of communications. It’s a sub-field that Dwayne Winseck has described as the “information nation school”—a tradition that applies Weberian and Chandlerian analyses of the private institutions and public bureaucracies to uncover states’ and business’ efforts to “gather, store, and manage information” from the 18th century onward. News from Germany lends two signal insights to this field. 

First, Tworek’s work reveals that the ideological timbre surrounding telecom and news regulation in Germany was remarkably consistent, with slight adaptation, from the late 19th to mid-20th centuries. In the American context, Richard John has argued that this period saw discourses and sensibilities around telecommunications regulation become “naturalized” and “depoliticized,” under the “seductive dogma” that only technological and economic constraints did—and should—dictate norms in telecom governance. But Tworek’s work suggests, by contrast, that German officials across the Wilhelmine, Weimar, and Nazi eras were perpetually, explicitly, and painfully alive to the political and cultural implications of telecom and news networks. They did everything in their power to ensure telecom technologies and news infrastructure schemes flowed from the state’s political goals, rather than pursuing technological innovation for its own sake, or building regulatory apparatuses after the fact. German telecom policy—both foreign and domestic—was overtly and explicitly calibrated to make a show of influence and order both within the metropole and beyond it—a dogma less seductive and dissimulating than it was explicit and obligatory. 

Second, Tworek disaggregates the history of cable and wireless telegraphy from its more conventional narrative pairing. The history of telegraphy has most often been studied in tandem with other telecom technologies (like the telephone) to pose questions about technological change, international politics, and the shrinking of time and space in modern imperialism and industrial capitalism. Or it has been analyzed in conjunction with public institutions like the Post Office, and regulated monopolies like AT&T and Western Union—caught up in broader questions of monopoly regulation and contestations over the notion of the “public good.” The history of the telegraph has also been of increasing interest to historians of capitalism and finance, who analyze telegraphy’s role (especially wireless ticker services) in the making of national and global financial markets and the history of speculation and credit.

Tworek’s work, instead, highlights the news industry—and specifically the news agency—as a crucial stakeholder in, and driver of, telecommunications technologies. Powerful news agencies like Wolff, with their allies in government, often drove the demand for cable and wireless services, deciding where infrastructure would be built, what kinds of technological standards it would employ, and what kinds of users it prioritized both at home and abroad. This methodological move helps loop the history of information and news into broader conversations on technopolitics, corporate power, and government regulation. And it makes a compelling case for doing away with the habit of lumping news and information under the category of “soft power” in international relations.

Tworek’s emphasis on news agencies stems, in part, from her deep engagement with the recently reinvigorated history of the press and journalism. Over the last decade or so, this field has blossomed. What distinguishes this new wave of scholarship from its earlier iterations is a careful attention to the political economy of international news gathering and distribution; news markets’ relationship with imperial ambition, colonial expansion; and the commercial news product’s careful management through cartelized firms. 

Until recently, however, even this new iteration has remained problematically Anglo-American in focus. Tworek’s work joins an incipient move to push beyond the United States and Great Britain to study the creation and character of other deeply interconnected news networks—from continental Europe to Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East. Her signal contribution here is a look at Wolff from the perspective of Germany’s domestic politics and geopolitical ambition. Tworek reveals the highly fraught position Wolff occupied as an intermediary between the state and international news cartel, on the one hand, and the domestic German public, on the other. She also reveals the fascinating and complicated culture of press ethics in Germany, showing how news agencies like Wolff invited the state to dictate its editorial practices in exchange for financial security and prestige. Far from believing that such oversight undermined principles of a free press, state officials and press workers alike believed such measures would promote and stabilize democracy in the fractious Weimar period.

Tworek’s work also engages a set of analytical preoccupations that have animated sub-fields within an adjacent discipline for decades: the political economy of communications (PEC) school of communication studies. In fact, scholars in this discipline were some of the very first to take news agencies as a primary site of analysis back in the 1970s and ‘80s, inspired directly by contemporaneous critiques of Western European and American hegemony in global news production and distribution. Tworek’s focus on news agencies draws directly from communication scholars like Oliver Boyd-Barrett, Tehri Rantanen, Kaarle Nordenstreng, Vincent Mosco, Mohammad Musa, and others. The focus on imperial competition over telecommunications infrastructure, meanwhile, follows from inroads made by scholars like Herbert Schiller, Daniel Headrick, Jill Hills, Dwayne Winseck, and Robert Pike. 

Here, Tworek is doing a double service. She introduces crucial insights from critical communication scholarship to historians, who often fail to interrogate the technological, financial, and regulatory regimes that carried international news to newspaper pages, whose digitized form we use as primary sources. She also lends some much-craved archival specificity to communications scholarship, which has sometimes struggled to move beyond attempts to measure Western influence in global news provision, either by quantifying disparities in the global distribution of news, or applying qualitative textual analysis to the tone and ideologies embedded in Western news coverage of the Global South. She is building a bridge between disciplines that have been siloed for too long, to the immeasurable benefit of both.

My sole critique of the book emerges from this historiographic entry-point. “Empire” has long been a watchword of communication scholarship on news agencies and international information flows, in part because these sub-fields were borne directly of anti-imperial activism. As Tworek points out in her conclusion, discontent with the international order of communications became a key point of consensus and collaboration between anticolonial movements in the 1970s, with a demand for a New World Information and Communication order—a self-described corollary to the New International Economic Order. Many of the participants in the NWICO campaign ultimately became critical communication scholars in their own right, and have published scores of volumes that seek to theorize the way international information flows grow from, and thereafter sustain, asymmetrical power relations between the Global North and South. 

Though Tworek engages deeply with the communications studies field on an empirical level, News from Germany stops short of engaging critically with some of its theoretical frameworks that seek to explain the nature of imperial power in news flows on a North/South axis, focusing instead on Germany’s sense of imperial competition with Britain and France. There are moments, for example—particularly in Chapters 2 and 8—when Tworek seems to participate in, rather than thematize, German officials’ feelings of colonial empty-handedness. The tone strikes slightly oddly, as on the eve of World War I the German empire’s reach extended to Africa, Asia, and the Pacific, and indeed commanded a not insignificant amount of telecom infrastructure beyond the German metropole. The way the narrative centers Germany’s colonial anxieties in relation to their competition with the British and French may risk underselling the real extent and power of Germany’s telecom empire, which—when viewed from the perspective of colonial populations, if not from anxious German officials—was substantial.

The focus on European inter-imperial rivalry also comes at the expense of a sustained look at Germany’s relationship with its colonies. I was left wondering, for example: what happened to telecommunications infrastructure in the course of decolonization, or transfer to League of Nations trusteeship? Did ownership over the remaining cables or radio towers in places like German South West Africa, German Samoa, the Solomon Islands, Tsingtao, or Chefoo change hands? If so, to whom? What might this indicate about the stickiness or malleability of telecom and news infrastructures as sites of imperial power transfer?

Furthermore, Tworek insists that German officials over-estimated news’ effects on foreign audiences, arguing that German telecom and news largely failed to achieve the consolidating, hegemonic effects German bureaucrats hoped for. Perhaps German officials’ high expectations indeed outstripped reality. But insistence upon Germany’s failure sits uncomfortably alongside critiques that Latin American, African, and Asian journalists and officials consistently leveled against Western news agencies like Wolff since as early as the 1910s and ‘20s. The Ring Cartel’s vast technological and financial advantages, Southern critics observed, choked local news agencies’ potential to get their own news, in their own perspective, both to local newsreaders and to newspapers abroad. Tworek’s own chapters are full of examples in which German telecom infrastructure and news content made significant inroads in Latin America, the Middle East, and to a lesser extent in Asia. How might we reconcile Tworek’s dismissal of Germany’s “news effects” with these subaltern observers’ criticism of news agencies—like Wolff—for their outsized influence?  This remains a question for future historians of Germany’s telecom empire to sort through, perhaps requiring work in a slightly different set of German, Tanzanian, South African, or Samoan archives. 

These questions are less an indictment of Tworek’s book than they are an indication of how many exciting theoretical and empirical questions her magisterial work helps open up—the hallmark of any great book. Her work makes it impossible to deny that news provision is a political enterprise—and that we must look at claims of news’ and telecom’s political neutrality with steady skepticism. News from Germany is sure to be an indispensable source for students and scholars of German politics, international telecommunications, and global news flows, and a starting place for future conversations on the politics of news and information in the 20th and 21st centuries alike.



Posted on 23 September 2020

SARAH NELSON is the Ambrose Monell Fellow for Technology and Democracy at the Jefferson Scholars Foundation. She is a PhD candidate in 20th-century US and international history and a joint-PhD candidate in Comparative Media Analysis and Practice at Vanderbilt University.