Herzog on the Pathologies of the German Press

A while ago, I was leafing through the playbill to the Duesseldorfer Schauspielhaus’ stage adaptation of Bunuels classic 1962 film The Exterminating Angel – a typical afternoon’s pursuit here at the Joy Division.

There, I found a reprint of a speech (G) given on April 26, 1997 by then-Federal President Roman Herzog. The Federal Presidency is an odd office. He’s the titular head of state, and thus performs the sort of official functions a king might perform in a monarchy. His role has also, however, developed into the scold/cheerleader/conscience of Germany. Federal Presidents usually have a political background, but are supposed to put that off, as much as possible, when they take office. They’re meant to look at Germany from an Olympian perspective, praising what is admirable and denouncing what is not.

Probably the biggest scold of the past few decades has been Roman Herzog, who was President from 1994-99. His political origins lay in the mainstream-conservative CDU/CSU, so he’s a cherished whipping-boy of the left. Whatever you think of him politically, there’s no question that he was one of the greatest scolds that ever scolded. In this 1997 speech, Herzog begins by describing the optimism he encountered on a recent trip to Asia, and then comparing it with German society, where he laments: "the loss of economic dynamism, the paralysis (Erstarrung) of society, and an unbelievable mental depression." Instead of approaching new technologies and challenges soberly, he continues,

…we fall prey to fear scenarios. There’s hardly a single new discovery which does not first provoke questions about the risks and dangers – but never about the opportunities. There’s hardly a single reform effort that is not immediately suspected of being an “attack on the social state.” Whether atomic energy, genetic technology, or digitalization: we suffer from the fact that our discussions are distorted into unrecognizability – to some extend ideologized, to some extent simply “idiotized.” Such debates no longer lead to decisions. Instead, they end up following a ritual, which always seem to play out in the same seven-step pattern:

1.            In the beginning, there is a reform proposal which would require some sacrifice from some interest group.

2.            The media registers a wave of “collective outrage.”

3.            Now (at the very latest) the political parties jump onto the bandwagon, one of them in favor, one against.

4.            The next phase produces a blizzard of alternative proposals and empty symbolic gestures of all kinds, going all the way to mass demonstrations, petition drives, and questionable blitz-polls.

5.            A general lack of orientation follows; citizens become insecure.

6.            Now, from all sides, come the appeals toward “prudence.”

7.            Finally, at the end, the problem is put off. The status quo is maintained. Everyone waits for the next big subject.

These rituals would be amusing to watch, if they didn’t also dangerously cripple the ability to actually make decisions.  We fight about the unimportant things, in order to avoid having to concentrate on the important ones.

I find Herzog’s description spot-on. In fact, you can classify many German news stories precisely according to which of the above 7 steps they embody. Now you know why I rarely read German newspapers…

2 thoughts on “Herzog on the Pathologies of the German Press

  1. Herzog’s speach became known as Ruck-Rede over here. That’s ruck as in Hau ruck! (Heave ho!), as he felt that Germany needs to be jolted – ruck also translates as jolt. Herzog’s description is spot-on indeed, though you find these memes in most European countries, transposed to the local scales.

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