Review of Nicolai Hannig, Die Religion der Öffentlichkeit: Kirche, Religion und Medien in der Bundesrepublik 1945- 1980

ACCH Quarterly Vol. 17, No. 3, September 2011

Review of Nicolai Hannig, Die Religion der Öffentlichkeit: Kirche, Religion und Medien in der Bundesrepublik 1945- 1980 (Göttingen: Wallstein Verlag, 2010), 454 Pp., ISBN 978-3-8353-0799-5.

By Mark Edward Ruff, Saint Louis University

Nicolai Hannig’s pioneering book, The Religion of the Public Sphere: Church, Religion and Media in the Federal Republic of Germany, 1945- 1980, helps untangle the extremely complicated relationship between the Protestant and Roman Catholic churches and the burgeoning German mass media. Strongly informed by scholarship from the last decade on the German media, Hannig’s work delicately modifies common perceptions of the media as merely a mirror of society and of journalists as individuals who simply reported on what had taken place. The mass media, he convincingly shows, consisted of individuals with the power to create discourses, alter perceptions and even shape events themselves. These television reporters and producers, journalists at newsmagazines and radio-men comprise what he calls the new “media ensemble.” Hannig pays careful attention to all three genres—television, radio and print—but especially to the writers, editors and owners of the weekly news and influential illustrated magazines like Stern, Der Spiegel, Quick, Twen, Konkret, whose names will be familiar to Americans who have spent some time in the Federal Republic.

The genius of this book lies in Hannig’s application of the fruits of ongoing media research to the major issues plaguing both major German churches in the postwar era. Accounts of the German churches had long been driven by secularization narratives bleakly positing religious decline and putting forward pictures of empty church pews. Contesting scholarship has been more apt to underscore the revitalization of religion through the emergence of nontraditional alternatives ranging from the New Age to Pentecostal and evangelical movements. Seeking neither to dispel nor confirm these competing theories, Hannig turns instead to the role of the media in creating and disseminating narratives of decline and vitality. In the 1950s, the media conjured up images of religious revival, overlooking undercurrents of decline in youth organizations and elsewhere. “The revitalization of the religious in the postwar era and the 1950s,” he states, “was in this way to a significant degree a phenomenon of the media public” (100). Television broadcasts and articles in news-magazines even proudly featured scientific experts who claimed to prove the truths of biblical stories such as Noah’s ark or to demonstrate that the Virgin Mary’s final resting place lay in Western Turkey.

But from 1958 through 1966, sooner in the print media than in television, such affirmative and faith-enhancing portraits quickly became passé. The newsmagazines, in particular, exposed a church in “crisis,” one beset by a fall-off in religiosity and acrimonious conflicts between reformers and conservatives. The amount of coverage devoted to the churches, not surprisingly, grew dramatically. The aims of such reporting, particularly from 1966 through 1972, accordingly changed. Many journalists, it seems, deliberately strove to push the church out of politics and larger society as much as possible. But from the early seventies onward, coverage dropped off markedly. The media paid increasingly less attention to the institutionalized churches. It chose instead to profile cults, sects, gurus and evangelicals, alternative forms usually far removed from church doors.

How does Hannig account for what at first glance would seem to be an increasingly negative and even acerbic coverage of the churches? Why did such increasingly dismissive and marginalizing accounts ironically find resonance at the exact moment that the Roman Catholic Churches in the wake of the landmark Second Vatican Council were consciously striving to open themselves up to the modern world? Hannig convincingly lays out the significant structural transformation in the German media landscape that began around 1958 and redrew the media map in the 1960s. As a new younger generation of editors—often men in their late twenties and early thirties—assumed new leading positions as editors by the second half of the 1950s, German journalism was suddenly catapulted from a model of consensus to one of criticism. Drawing on critical formats from the Anglo-Saxon media world, including hard-hitting roundtables, open panel discussions and investigative reporting, German journalists no longer saw it as their duty to hobnob with leading politicians but to investigate, expose, and engage a critical public. Bearing out this transformation were the manifold media “scandals” of the 1960s which put politicians on the spot, brought to light wrongdoing and uncovered tarnished pasts. At the same time, the rise of television drastically altered the media landscape. While it did not immediately displace the more established radio and print mediums, it made the traditional mediums all more likely to ratchet up criticisms in a bid for readers, listeners and relevance.

But there were additional reasons for why the mass media came to look askance at the role of the churches in society and politics. The churches had been important players in the media world from the time that the Allies reorganized the German media. Most state governments created agencies to oversee radio and eventually television broadcasting. The churches dispatched their representatives directly into these agencies, where they ensured the live broadcasts of masses and church services in an astoundingly successful at outreach to those who rarely or never attended their local parishes. It becomes clear from Hannig’s account that secular journalists (an astounding forty percent were by the 1970s formally un-churched) had been chafing at the bit. Hoping to free themselves from clerical directives, they sought greater autonomy in the media sphere.

Yet one of the most impressive features of Hannig’s book is the gentle manner in which he debunks widespread perceptions of a secular anticlerical media pitted against the religious establishment. He adeptly illustrates this significantly more complicated relationship between the new media culture and religion in the Federal Republic in his depiction of Rudolf Augstein, the hard-driving founder and legendary driving force behind the prominent newsweekly, Der Spiegel. Well-known for wielding the axe against the Roman Catholic Church in various polemics, editorials and leading articles, Augstein almost single-handedly ushered in a new era of critical religious reporting. He devoted a cover of Spiegel and fourteen ensuing pages in 1958 to the Qumrum texts discovered nearly a decade before. In marked contrast to most religious reporting from earlier in the 1950s, this Roman Catholic made no attempt to show how modern society could corroborate stories from the Bible. With characteristic lack of humility, he put his magazine forward instead as a new agent of enlightenment, claiming sensationally that there were no historically verifiable truths about Jesus. But Hannig also brings to light a less familiar side to the Spiegel editor who had become infamous in religious circles. Augstein appears here as a defender of religious orthodoxy. His reputation as a provocateur notwithstanding, Augstein openly criticized the “modern theology” of the Protestant theologian, Dorothee Sölle. He granted access to the pages of Spiegel to the Protestant theologian Walter Künneth, who argued that Christian parishes needed to draw their sustenance not from the hypotheses of theologians but from the “bread of the bible.”

Augstein’s pronouncements deftly illustrate a larger theme of this book: the manner in which media giants sought to determine the essential quality of religion—what functions it should serve and the balance between transcendence and immanence in religious teachings. For Augstein as well as for many critical intellectuals of the late 1950s and 1960s, the churches had made the mistake of extending their grasp into virtually every domain of modern life, including charity and politics. As Augstein put it in a lecture, “How I imagine Christians,” delivered before two thousand largely Protestant academics, “the churches push themselves into charity, for whose purposes they ask for ever greater sums of money from the state, into the Kindergartens, in the senior citizens’ homes and in welfare … They found academies, city missions, pay attention to what is going on in radio and television, warn about drunkenness at the steering wheel and about excessive celebration at Carnival” (348). In so doing, they had not only misused their newly gained power but had overlooked their transcendental mission of saving souls for the hereafter. The irony here should be apparent: Augstein’s assessment dovetailed with those of conservative Christians opposed to the worldly focus of religious progressives determined to reconcile religion with modernity through heightened political activism and campaigns for social justice.

Vast sections of this book spell out the manner in which the media exhumed topics in a manner often unpleasant to church leaders. Journalists had much to say about “clericalization,” “confessionalism,” confessional schools and sexuality. They criticized, they challenged and they broke taboos. Naked bodies became a regular feature of the illustrated news magazines by the 1970s. Even more instrumental was the media’s role in bringing to light the Roman Catholic church’s past during the Nazi era. Hannig argues that it was less the controversy over Rolf Hochhuth’s play, The Deputy, that marked a decisive caesura than subsequent lesser-known controversies about the tainted backgrounds of Karl Fürst zu Löwenstein, a central figure in the Zentralkomittee der Deutschen Katholiken, and Matthias Defregger, an Auxillary Bishop in the archdiocese of Munich who had been present as a Captain in the Wehrmacht at a massacre of Italian hostages in June, 1944. Once the Defregger scandal unfolded in 1969, it was clear that probing publications like Spiegel, whose own research on the topic had been voluminous, had sought to leave the moral legitimacy of the Roman Catholic Church in shreds.

Even as comprehensive a work as this could not delve into every aspect of the relationship between the German churches and the media over such a broad swath of time. Left out of this work—and left open for future researchers—are additional dimensions to the church-media relationship. In focusing on radio, television and the weekly illustrated magazines, all weighty subjects in their own right, Hannig tended, with some exceptions, to exclude the daily newspapers and wire services from his focus. Also absent, except for a few cursory pages, is the role of the Roman Catholic and Protestant media: the diocesan newspapers, the religious magazines and above all, the Katholische Nachrichtenagentur (KNA), a Catholic news service that served as a significant historical actor and interacted with the secular media in a complex and often combative manner. Each of these topics, however, could warrant its own scholarly monograph, and Hannig rightly made the decision to keep his focus limited to the secular media.

It is rare for a dissertation not only to display such scholarly command and to retain a remarkable even-handedness on charged terrain. Hannig’s book is also eminently readable, even in spite of its indebtedness to media theory and the ideas of Pierre Bourdieu. On the occasions that he lapses into jargon, he does so deliberately and almost apologetically. Through the soundness of its research and its scholarly breadth, this impressive book will easily go down as one of the most important and weighty new works in German religious history of the last decade.