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Bild, Merkel and the Culture Wars: The Inside Story of Germany’s Biggest Tabloid

The newspaper Bild has long poured vitriol on the country’s left-wingers and ‘do gooders.’ But now it has a new target: the chancellor.

The Guardian

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks to the media following talks at the Chancellery on July 2, 2020 in Berlin. Photo by Christian Marquardt / Pool / Getty Images.

It would be ideal if you could hit a deer,” Julian Reichelt, editor-in-chief of Europe’s largest tabloid, Bild Zeitung, told his chauffeur. “Guardian readers could do with a bit more colour.” We had reached escape velocity out of ice-encrusted Düsseldorf. The Mercedes S-Class locked into place like a bobsled on the Autobahn. I sat shotgun with Reichelt’s assortment of sports gear, a hockey stick between my legs. “We are lucky in our driver today,” Reichelt said, deadpan. “Last time we hit a wild boar and the boar and the car went flying.”

I was travelling with Reichelt on one of his publicity tours across Germany. For the past two years, he has made an appointment once a month to commune with groups of Bild’s 1.3 million readers. “You have to feel their emotions,” he told me from the backseat. “You have to listen to their hearts.”

Reichelt, who is 40, made his name as a war reporter in Syria, but today confines most of his battle courage to Twitter, where he enjoys needling the German political establishment and barging into leftwing echo chambers. In person, Reichelt exudes a twitchy exuberance, like a fighter pilot who has managed to smuggle champagne into the cockpit. His eyes restlessly gauge the world around him, clocking who he needs to avoid and who he needs to attract. Into his phone, he volleys directives to subeditors, assistants and the band of young male disciples he sends around the world to collect stories. “The leading populist in western Germany,” is how Albrecht von Lucke, editor of the prestigious left-liberal monthly Blätter, describes him.

Available at train stations, supermarkets, bakeries, kiosks, factories, Portuguese beach resorts, online, and everywhere else Germans buy things, Bild Zeitung squats like a large toad on German life. Bild, which was partly modelled on the Daily Mirror, is the largest newsprint publication in the world that uses Roman characters. Unlike its closest analogue in Britain, the Daily Mail, it has no real national competitors. Twenty regional editions seep into every pore of the country. Each month, its website attracts about 25 million readers. Bild is the prize battleship of Axel Springer, the German company founded in 1945 by the rightwing publisher of the same name. Today, Axel Springer is the largest media publishing firm in Europe, and is valued at about €7bn. Last year, the US private equity firm KKR acquired a 44% stake in the company.

For decades, Bild was an object of scorn for any self-respecting West German of social democratic orientation. In a political culture more conformist and decorous than most of its western peers, Bild functioned like the Las Vegas strip, concentrating all of the Federal Republic’s seediness in one place. Seven days a week, Bild pumped free-market mantras, alongside ads for car tyres and chicken wings, into the stiff arteries of cold war West Germany. Bild decried long hair on men and the marriage of its top models to foreigners. It genuflected before South African apartheid, Greek dictatorship, Bavarian sedans and American Pershing missiles. Above all, Bild dedicated itself to the destruction of communist East Germany, and fought a long battle against what it viewed as enemy collaborators in the leftist student movement at home.

Such was the stature of Bild in West Germany that in 1965, after the daily rose in price from 10 to 15 pfennigs, Axel Springer, who referred to Bild as his “dog on a chain”, proposed to Chancellor Ludwig Erhard that the state introduce a special 15 pfennig coin to make it easier to purchase the paper. Meanwhile, the East German Stasi was so impressed by Bild as a state propaganda tool that it crafted its own – imaginatively titled – NEUE Bild Zeitung, which was sold at the border with West Germany, where it conspicuously failed to wean class enemies off the original.

Today Bild is paradoxically less influential than it was in the 60s, but more politically important. “I read it first in the morning because it is the agenda-setter,” says Josef Joffe, the publisher-editor of the liberal weekly, Die Zeit. “Politicos in Berlin probably read it first in the morning as well.” The paper enjoys a close relationship with the German political elite. The former German chancellor, Helmut Kohl, was one of the best men at the wedding of former Bild editor, Kai Diekmann, and in 2008, Diekmann performed the same role for Kohl at his wedding. “Kohl rules with Bild,” the Nobel laureate Heinrich Böll wrote, and Kohl’s successor as chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, affirmed the practice: “To govern I need Bild, Bild Sunday’s edition, and the telly,” he once said.

Bild’s intimate relationship with some of Germany’s most powerful figures is a vestige of its days as the country’s decisive reputation maker-and-breaker. The former defence minister, now the president of the European commission, Ursula von der Leyen, has shown up at one of Reichelt’s dinner parties at the Bild offices in Berlin, and for the past few years Bild has hosted part of the annual Munich Security Conference, the equivalent of Davos for the global defence industry. Although Angela Merkel has not ingratiated herself with the Springer complex — despite receiving early political support from Bild — her husband is nevertheless paid €10,000 a year to grace the board of the nonprofit Friede Springer Foundation, named after Axel Springer’s widow.

Despite its traditional proximity to power, Bild has mutated into something beyond a stalwart defender of the German status quo. Now, says Joffe, it is “an equal-opportunity anti-establishment force”. “Previous Bild editors made their alliances more based on personal feeling,” says the journalist Stefan Niggemeier, who in 2004 co-founded the BILDBlog, a website that corrects Bild’s factual errors and misrepresentations. “But Reichelt is different. He is an actually political person.”

Reichelt’s agenda is marked less by novelty than by a chest-crunching resuscitation of Bild’s core commitments: pro-US, pro-Nato, pro-Israel, pro-austerity, pro-capital, anti-Russia, anti-China. According to the Bild worldview, the best way to counter the left is to portray its demands as totalitarian, and the best way to kill off the far right is to cannibalise its grievances. While Bild prints relatively little material that a supporter of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party would object to, Reichelt sees the party as a threat to his effort to remake the German political scene. “We want nothing to do with the imbeciles of the AfD,” he told me. “The way to destroy them is to make room for their voters in what used to be the political mainstream of this country.”

Bild’s main attack targets remain Germany’s “Gutmenschen” – the do-gooders, vegetarians, Greens and 1968ers who are treated as parasites and irritants to Germany’s robust economy and middle class. More recently, the paper’s sights have also turned on Merkel and her party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU). “The paper’s constant targeting of Merkel, but also its current take on refugees and all sorts of minorities definitely reproduces rhetorical elements of the AfD,” says Fatma Aydemir, a novelist and columnist for the leftwing daily Tageszeitung, known as Taz. In the absence of serious challenges from within Merkel’s own party, or from other parties – she has been chancellor for 14 years, a tenure surpassed only by Kohl and Bismarck – Bild has attempted to make itself into that opposition. Yet any populist challenger finds itself in the hard position of convincing Germans that Merkel’s very successful form of reactive politics has run out of historical steam. “We are the voice of ordinary people,” claims Reichelt. “If we didn’t exist, they would really think the whole system is against them.”

We pulled into the fire station in the proud town of Sprockhövel, about 18 miles north-east of Düsseldorf, where a few dozen people greeted us, most of them in firefighter gear. Bild beer steins, Bild lighters and other Bild paraphernalia had been laid out on the firefighters’ bar. Reichelt marched out to the garage with the fire engines, where a small table stood. He took a sip of beer, and addressed the group with aplomb.

“It’s an honour to be among you because, as you know, I like to meet our readers face to face,” Reichelt said. He wanted to know why they had become firefighters. “It’s that feeling that we’re brothers,” said one of the younger firefighters. “That we have each other’s back. You don’t get that feeling elsewhere.” Yes, Reichelt agreed, courage was in short supply in Germany. Courage: that was a virtue Bild could get behind.

“The only trouble we have with Bild,” said another, old fireman, “is your picture contest!”

Reichelt made a show of pricking up his ears. “Oh really? Is there something we’re doing wrong? I welcome your criticism!”

“It encourages people to send in the most sensational photos possible, but people block the way to fires because they’re trying to take photos for Bild!”

Reichelt’s face registered the gravity of the charge. He moved like a matador, coaxing anyone else with negative things to say to hurl them at his face. “Look, that’s terrible, and we’ll have to stop that. I’ll get on that immediately,” he told the man who complained about the photo contest.

After Reichelt had presided over dinner in the firefighters’ hall, we got back into the Mercedes and sped into the dark. I asked him why he goes out of his way for pow-wows with his readership. “Bild is the last national campfire experience in German life,” he told me. “It’s the last thing that Germans can come together for.” It was a curious way of viewing a newspaper that has, for decades, polarised a country otherwise committed to “consensus politics” into two camps: Bild readers and Bild haters. Yet Reichelt delivered this well-greased lump of Springer-speak with what seemed like sincerity.

The experience of reading Bild is a sugar-rush of gossip, accompanied by the clanging gong of headlines. As is traditional, scandals are designated for the front page, but in Bild’s current iteration, fear-mongering appears to be privileged over celebrity soup: “Germany’s most dangerous gang leader is free again” reads a typical headline. Alongside the main stories, the front page also lists the dollar exchange rate and the price of gold, as well as the “winners” and “losers” of the day. A loser might be Prince Charles, whose charity, according to the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, may have received dark money from Russians. (“Bild says: black money for blue blood!”) Or a loser might be Sergei Lavrov, the foreign minister of Russia, claiming that there is a “large, coordinated campaign” by the German government to fund misinformation in Russia: “Bild says: what nonsense!” Winners tend to be businessmen making big deals or celebrities being nice to children.

The most reliably absurdist section of Bild typically falls on page 3 or 4, with a report from Paul Ronzheimer, Reichelt’s star protege. There one finds Ronzheimer posing in front of a Brazilian forest fire; Ronzheimer posing in front of the Venezuelan opposition leader; Ronzheimer posing in front of a Hong Kong street fight; Ronzheimer posing in front of Syrian refugees; Ronzheimer disbursing fake Drachmas to poor Greeks encouraging them to leave Europe. His stories appear as little frames of text under giant, hard-won selfies, as if to declare: Bild was here! “Ronzheimer does have a discernible function,” says von Lucke. “He makes Bild readers feel like they’re reading a paper that has incredible access, that Bild has a global presence.”

As editor, Reichelt sees himself less as a news impresario than as an emotional entrepreneur. “Journalism is basically about emotions, as all of the other news outlets in this country seem to have forgotten,” he told me. Reichelt likes to point out what he sees as the shared delusions of the more “respectable” German press. “Take Merkel,” he said. “Here you have this completely mediocre mind, and the press has created this elaborate mythology around her. That she’s some sort of savage wit in private – which is not true, by the way – and that she’s fantastically clever – which is not true either. She’s just capable of identifying the direction of prevailing winds.”

For Reichelt, Merkel represents the depoliticisation of German society, a process that has obscured the faultlines between conservatives and liberals. For almost two decades, at a series of decisive moments, Merkel has deftly stolen her antagonists’ platforms out from under them. In 2003, she phased in a neoliberal agenda in the CDU, but when it nearly backfired at the polls two years later, she started to introduce programmes from the Social Democrats. In the wake of the Fukushima disaster, Merkel became anti-nuclear overnight. Merkel’s response to the 1 million migrants entering Germany in the summer of 2015 has been widely interpreted as an instance of principle over pragmatism – a chancellor seizing the chance to make amends for her nation’s past – but even then, Merkel had carefully weighed German public opinion, and promptly ramped up anti-refugee legislation once the middle class’s pro-refugee enthusiasm had subsided. The leftwing sociologist Wolfgang Streeck once described Merkel as “a postmodern politician with a premodern, Machiavellian contempt for both causes and people”.

This shape-shifting has made German politics a much more difficult game to play, and Reichelt sees it as his job to restore the old pre-Merkel divisions. To this end, he has made Bild into a loudspeaker for some of the chancellor’s fiercest critics. In early September 2018, in the wake of violent far-right demonstrations in the Saxon city of Chemnitz, Reichelt met with Hans-Georg Maassen, the head of German intelligence, and offered him the the pulpit of Bild when Maassen wanted to contradict Merkel’s account of anti-migrant “hunts” that had allegedly taken place in Chemnitz. Maassen’s attempt to cast doubt on the chancellor’s version of events got him removed from his post, but it transformed him into one of the most vocal martyrs of the German right.

The real trouble for Merkel’s rightwing critics within her party, however, is that she remains the most popular politician in the land – with her approval ratings reaching 80% during the coronavirus pandemic, considerably higher than her closest European peers. Meanwhile, their own political position – a kind of xenophobic neoliberalism that would stress the free movement of capital over the free movement of “undesirable” people – has been vigorously touted by the AfD. It will take some doing to wrangle their copyright back.

Since his earliest teenage years, Reichelt dreamed of becoming the editor of Bild Zeitung. I asked him how someone like himself, born in Hamburg in 1980 – when Bild was still considered radioactive by most teachers and students across Germany – could have concocted such an ambition. “I was born into a family of journalists,” Reichelt told me. “In our household, Axel Springer was a hero, and Heinrich Böll was an enemy.” Reichelt, who perfected his English abroad at Cushing Academy, a boarding school in Massachusetts, looked up to young Bild reporters as bourgeois paladins pitted against the leftwing rabble of 1980s Hamburg, a city teeming with wealth, but also one of the hubs of the country’s anarchist left.

“You must understand that Bild was right about the three major questions of postwar German life,” Reichelt said. “We backed Israel to the hilt, which you can hardly say for the international left. We backed the USA to the hilt, which the student protesters didn’t want. And we were convinced that German reunification could work, unlike those leftist worthies, [Jürgen] Habermas and Günter Grass.” Reichelt is correct that Bild had confidence in a reunified Germany that could purge itself of any lingering leftwing utopian residues in the East. “The German left basically gave up on reunification in the 1980s,” Niggemeier told me. “The cause became almost quaint for them. Meanwhile, Axel Springer built the Bild headquarters right smack up against the Berlin Wall – and now, look, it’s in the middle of Berlin. So they can say: ‘We never gave up.’”

It is hard to think of an institution more tightly bound up with the history of the Federal Republic than Bild Zeitung. The first introduction that some young Germans get to the paper today is Günter Wallraff’s withering exposé, Der Aufmacher (The Leader-writer), which continues to be taught in a few secondary schools four decades after its publication. In 1977, Wallraff went undercover in order to try to expose Bild as a giant fabrication mill. Instead he discovered an underworld of cynical publicists intent on becoming cheerleaders of the postwar German economic boom. In one scene, which describes a regular day at the Bild office, one of the Bild reporters listens to a distressed caller who has called into a fake suicide-prevention hotline that Bild has set up, and whispers to Wallraff: “He’s about to jump off the balcony any minute, he’s nearly there!”

I visited Wallraff last year in his light-filled studio in the Ehrenfeld neighbourhood of Cologne. His office is full of African art, and the books of his heroes, such as Upton Sinclair. “In the 1970s and 80s, Bild was in total control of the media, and there was very little being done about it,” Wallraff told me, over a game of ping-pong in his workshop. “If you were their enemy, they made you into a terrorist.”

We retreated back into Wallraff’s studio, where he had the latest copy of Bild. The headline was about Boris Johnson’s hair: “This mop now rules Britain”. “I haven’t flipped through it in a while,” Wallraff told me. “But I can see it’s taken a more civilised tone. You should have seen it in the 1970s: all of the articles in support of the dictatorship in Greece and Chile, the articles in favour of apartheid.”

Wallraff remains a heroic figure for many Germans who remember Bild as an enemy of the student protesters of 1968 – whom the newspaper referred to as “rioters”, “a radical danger”, and “left-academic fascists”. One of Springer’s main targets was the Marxist thinker and activist Rudi Dutschke, who was shot in 1968 in Berlin by a rightwing fanatic inspired by the murderer of Martin Luther King Jr. A few days before the attack, Bild had referred to Dutschke as “State Enemy #1”, and it had previously run headlines such as “Stop Dutschke now!” After the shooting, tens of thousands of people took to thestreets of Berlin, chanting, “Bild shot as well!”. Dutschke suffered brain damage from the attack, and died years later as a result of his injuries.

“West Germany in the 1960s was a completely authoritarian state,” said Gretchen Dutschke-Klotz – Dutschke’s widow, and an author of several books about 1968 – when we met in Berlin earlier this year. “Bild was the symbol of that.” Dutschke-Klotz agrees with Wallraff that Bild is a milder publication today, and that the 1968ers triumphed over it. “Society was full of old Nazis then,” she said. “It was full of people who, outside of the Weimar Republic, had barely lived in a democracy. Bild has been beaten in the cultural sphere, especially if you consider the place of women in society now, or climate politics.”

But in the 60s there were others who took a different view: that what they were witnessing was the irreversible Springerisation of society. Heinrich Böll devoted not one, but three books, including one of his literary masterpieces – The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum – to denouncing Bild, which he credited not only with poisoning public life, but also with wrecking the German language itself with “primitive bon-mot-ism”. Bild, wrote Böll in 1972, was “no longer crypto-fascistic, no longer fascisoid, but naked fascism: incitement, lies, garbage”.

The most visible element of West Germany’s hard left, the Red Army Faction, and its leading voice, Ulrike Meinhof, took Böll’s criticism a considerable step further. In May 1972, after calling for the expropriation of Springer, and holding public hearings against the company, the Red Army Faction bombed the Axel Springer offices in Hamburg, injuring at least 17 people. Meinhof declared the attacks were in the name of Springer’s victims: communists, Palestinians, foreign workers. “Who else were they going to attack?” Dutschke-Klotz told me. “The mayor of Berlin? He had already apologised for attacking student protesters. Bild was the obvious target.”

That was almost 50 years ago. After the cold war, Bild became a celebrity rag, which former adversaries could dismiss as a more innocuous symptom of a depoliticised culture than an ideological lodestar in its own right. Kai Diekmann, who edited the paper from 2001 to 2015, neatly exhibited the contradictions of German conservatism in the Merkel era. A faithful page of Helmut Kohl, he wanted to maintain Germany’s position as the prime European reaper of globalisation – the country’s export model depends on taking advantage of a currency weakened by its fellow Eurozone members – but also attacked expressions of globalisation within Germany’s borders.

In his 2007 screed, The Great Self-Deception, Diekmann railed against the usual suspects of the German right: Muslims, “multi-kulti” liberals and environmentalists. Diekmann’s idea was that the leftwards shuffle of the political consensus – exemplified in Merkel’s long-standing coalition with the Social Democrats – needed to be beaten back by an elite-led populist movement that would restore German conservatives to their former glory. The dream was to bring back good old-fashioned German values, but keep the settings of German economic dominance in place. As the political face of this movement, Diekmann favoured Merkel’s defence minister, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, whose impeccably aristocratic credentials and Ted-talk persona would make him the ideal patrician-tribune of Germany’s silent majority. But the dream collapsed in 2011, when Guttenberg fell into disgrace after it was discovered he had plagiarised his doctoral dissertation. Today, the man who was once due to make German conservatism great again runs an investment firm in Manhattan, and lives in Greenwich, Connecticut.

Reichelt took over Bild in 2018, after his immediate predecessor, Tanit Koch, who tried to steer the paper in a more anodyne, Merkel-friendly direction, left the position. (Koch has spoken of her exit in cool terms, telling a German news website that she felt she did not have the support of the Axel Springer CEO.) Under Reichelt’s tenure, the paper quickly established itself as a battering ram against Merkel. Bild once again plays the game of guiding and reflecting public opinion on a host of questions. Among its enthusiasms are German cars and the arms industry. “At last! The Leopard-2 tank in Idlib and possibly soon in the fight against Assad’s Russian tanks (T-55, T-62, T-72 and T-90),” tweeted Bild’s political editor about recent events in Syria. “As always, it takes a Turk to use a German tank for what it was built for.”

In the higher echelons of German media, Reichelt is perhaps best known for his dogfights on Twitter, where, until recently at least, he spent a lot of time. “You never win anything on Twitter,” he told me, a bit mournfully, like a recovering addict. On the platform, Reichelt can still be relied upon to submit world events to the logic of the Marvel universe. “Runaway Ed” Snowden is “the hero of global terrorism”. Trump’s assassination of the Iranian military leader Qassem Suleimani “freed the world of a monster”.

There are a few non-populist positions Reichelt takes that have the appearance of principle. “He has staked out anti-Putin, pro-Nato, pro-Israel positions well beyond the standard German line,” says Niggemeier. But the majority of the paper’s content is an ever-shifting attempt to harness popular discontent rather than indoctrinate readers in any specific programme. Reichelt himself has, for instance, repeatedly come to Merkel’s defence on her decision not to close the border to Syrian refugees in 2015, describing it as an ethical “no-brainer”, but the paper goes to great lengths to associate migrants with crime, and to demand deportations. On the environment, one day Bild might be lamenting Merkel’s call to shutter coal factories by 2038 (“The coal deadline is going to cost us!” ran a headline about the prospective job losses.) But another day you might read that “Our government officials are destroying the environment!” atop an article detailing the 200,000 yearly flights German officials take between ministries in Berlin and Bonn. Like Merkel herself, Reichelt is an arch-opportunist, congenitally averse to letting crises go to waste.

Several German journalists I spoke to attributed Reichelt’s heightened focus on Bild’s politics to a desperate attempt to counteract falling readership numbers. One of Reichelt’s heroes, he told me, is Franz-Josef Strauss, a legendary conservative postwar politician, who was famous for his political mantra: “Never allow a party right of the Christian Social Union”. Bild’s competitors on its right today come from Breitbart-esque news blogs such as Politically Incorrect. Bild seems to have done its best to outflank these outlets by covering the same kinds of stories as them, often in much the same tone. In more than one case, these articles have been false. In 2017, the paper ran a story about a mob of Arab men assaulting women in a Frankfurt restaurant, which police subsequently confirmed never happened.

On the international front, Bild echoes the calls of prominent German centrist liberals who believe Germany must assume a leading role in world affairs. “You have this ongoing performance whereby they call for Germany to be in the middle of the action, but have no sense of responsibility for what that would entail,” says Blätter editor Albrecht von Lucke. “As soon as you have German troops deployed anywhere, even on the most humanitarian mission imaginable, who will be the first to cry out about it when the first guys fall in the war? Who will demand they come home and that it’s all been a mistake? Bild. You can count on that.” It is the same mentality that led one Bavarian AfD politician earlier this year to tweet against the banning of a beer festival because of Covid-19 – only to go on to sue the city of Rosenheim for the rise in cases after the beer festival did take place.

The coronavirus pandemic initially caught Bild – and the German right – off guard. After the government’s strong response to the crisis, Merkel seemed immune to criticism. Bild turned its focus to China. In April, Reichelt published a public letter demanding €149bn in reparations from Beijing for the economic impact of Covid-19. “You shut down every newspaper and website that is critical of your rule,” Reichelt wrote in the letter, “but not the stalls where bat soup is sold.” The stunt made headlines around the world, and predictably enraged the Chinese embassy in Berlin. (A more expansive version of Bild’s letter by Springer’s CEO, calling for the decoupling of western economies from China, appeared in Springer’s respectable daily, Die Welt.) It’s this willingness to play fast and loose with geopolitics, now in a populist vein, that makes Bild, according to von Lucke, “much more dangerous than it ever was before”. (Not that Bild neglected the domestic front. “Despite corona restrictions, 300 people gather at mosque for prayer”, read one headline in April. “Churches closed for fear of Ramadan-chaos,” ran another.)

When public impatience with closed schools and shops began to mount in late May, Bild, having failed to gain traction with its usual scapegoats, changed tack. Its new target was Germany’s leading virologist, Christian Drosten, who had become an unexpected celebrity thanks to his measured media interviews and his advisory role to Merkel’s government. On 25 May, one of Bild’s reporters sent him an email, claiming that other experts had serious criticisms of his latest study on Covid-19. The reporter demanded that Drosten respond within an hour. Instead, Drosten published the email on Twitter and said there that he had “better things to do”. The subsequent article, which tried to blow up minor statistical disagreements into a public assault on Drosten’s reputation, backfired drastically. The German mediasphere rallied to his defence: #Ichhabebessereszutun (#betterthingstodo) became a hashtag. Georg Streiter, a former deputy government spokesperson who also used to work at Bild and still praises the paper, called it a baseless smear campaign, and put the blame squarely on Reichelt. “It’s like dog owners,” he said. “The problem is usually at the top of the leash.”

“We’re read by more German professors than any other publication,” Reichelt told me when I visited his office in the Axel Springer building in Berlin last year. “We’re read by the businessmen and the workers – and if some read us for ironic reasons, well, that’s fine, too.”

The Springer building is a giant glass structure that towers over nearby restaurants and embassies. (A new Springer building, designed by Rem Koolhaas, which resembles a damaged glass cube, has been recently erected across the road.) Outside is a statue of a vaguely leprous-looking Axel Springer. A few streets over, extending more than five storeys up the side of the headquarters of Taz, the leftwing daily, stands another piece of Bild lore: a giant high-relief sculpture of Kai Diekmann’s penis. This ostentatious invasion of the former Bild editor’s privacy, unveiled in 2009, sprouted out of a long conflict that had begun seven years earlier, when Diekmann sued Taz for publishing a satirical article claiming he had undergone penis enhancement surgery in Miami. (At the time the judge ruled that, as the nation’s leading purveyor and profiteer of gossip, Diekmann must learn to live with this jab at this dignity.)

With its smartly dressed assistants and ample supply of alcohol, Bild’s headquarters in Berlin succeeds in transmitting a throwback aura. “In case there’s any doubt that I’m a real tabloid editor,” Reichelt said, flashing me his lighter with a naked woman on it, as he lit up a Gauloises Blue in his office. The room was strewn with Americana: a Kennedy photograph, a Reagan biography. On top of a pile of books lay a child’s car seat, next to a contemporary military-grade helmet that Reichelt wore when he covered the Syrian war for Springer. On the floor was a copy of the Financial Times. (“It repays the attention you give it every morning,” he told me. “It’s such a great product.”) I asked him why, in the past couple of years, Bild has reduced the number of naked women in the paper. “It wasn’t for any politically correct reason,” said Reichelt. “It’s just that when so much of your staff is female, and they’re all very professional, it just gets slightly awkward having to rank naked women with them day in and day out.”

For the daily editorial meeting, we entered a conference room, where about 12 staffers were seated around a long table, overlooking the Berlin skyline. “What have we got?” Reichelt asked. An image of Ursula von der Leyen was displayed on a big screen. “Can we give her a bit more brightness in her face?” asked one of the women at the table. “She looks a bit lugubrious.” “There we go, there we go – more gravitas now,” said another woman.

“What’s going on in that?” Reichelt said, looking at a photo of a musician wearing lederhosen and a high-and-tight haircut. Reichelt was munching on chocolate now. I had been told that Bild editorial meetings could be rough going, but this one was running smoothly.

“That’s the folk singer Andreas Gabalier,” said another man at the table. “He going to be awarded the Karl Valentin prize in Munich, but apparently he’s some kind of rightwing hardliner.”

“What’s he doing in the photo?” Reichelt asked.

“Apparently he’s contorted his body into the form of a swastika,” the man replied.

“I don’t quite see it,” Reichelt said.

“Couldn’t it just be a walk-like-an-Egyptian dance move there?”

“Yes, it’s all a bit unclear.”

“All right, we’ll just say that some people interpret it as a swastika.”

“OK, got it.”

“Anything on the crime front?” Reichelt asked.

“We’ve got a paedophile paediatrician who sexually abused young boys for 15 years.”

“What was the ruling on this guy?” Reichelt asked.

“Judge has put him away for ever.”

“Nice. Great judge. Can I see a photo of him?” A photo of a grey-haired man named Roland Christiani flashed up on the screen. “What a great face! He looks like a professor,” Reichelt said. “Let’s give him a bump in the headline.”

“How about ‘Judge locks paediatrician away for ever’?”

“I like it!” said Reichelt.

“Can I get a show of hands of how many of you are for the proposed speed limit?” Reichelt asked his lieutenants. Merkel’s government was threatening to impose a speed limit on German cars. A few hands went up. “God, it’s just like the country at large – we’re completely divided on this,” Reichelt said. “Why are you against it?” He trained his eyes on an editor.

“People just drive too fast. I’m tired of being scared on the autobahn when a car comes by doing 200km/h.”

“The trouble is that if you lower the speed limit I can’t make it to Hamburg in two hours any more,” another editor said.

“You drive to Hamburg in two hours? That’s insane: maybe there should be a limit,” Reichelt joked.

The trouble with the speed limit, Reichelt later told me in private, was that it interfered with the fundamental German ideal of freedom, which is that, within the rules, you can do what you want. “There are too many Germans now waking up to find that if they eat meat and love their car, they’re suddenly Nazis,” Reichelt said. “And that’s exactly how the German left speaks. They speak of their fellow citizens as criminals, as people committing crimes against future generations, and they even want to see if they can perhaps introduce punishments – to formally make this into a crime. But what about all those people who aren’t waiting for the delivery of their new Tesla?”

Next year will almost certainly be Merkel’s last as chancellor. She has already relinquished her position as the secretary of the CDU. When it came to the struggle to determine her successor last year – specifically, who would fill the role of secretary – Reichelt personally favoured the millionaire businessman Friedrich Merz over Merkel’s chosen successor, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer. But Reichelt hastened to point out that his favourites don’t get special treatment in Bild. “Did I want Merz to replace Merkel? Probably. Did we hesitate to destroy him? No. Bild ran the interview that fatally damaged his campaign when he claimed he was a millionaire but still middle-class. The power to destroy is Bild’s most valuable weapon, and I would not sacrifice it for anything – not even my own political preferences.” It was a nice line, but Reichelt’s resort to journalistic principle seemed a convenient way to gloss an interview that had, quite unexpectedly, taken on a life of its own.

With Merkel’s departure on the horizon, the fight is already brewing at the political centre, as German regional leaders try to outbid each other with the comprehensiveness of their coronavirus crackdowns in a headlong appeal to the aged voters who still determine German politics. In the face of this political future, Reichelt is sanguine. “Trump has shown that anything can happen – that’s just a fact,” he told me. “There is no reason that the future has to be dictated by Green parties and child protesters.”

But there seems little chance that Bild will be able to retrieve any viable vintage of German conservative leadership from the cellar. “We have to hope that the radicalisation of Bild, like the rise of autocrats around the world, represents the last gasp of patriarchal thinking,” says Tania Martini, a media critic for Taz. As Bild’s sputtering failure to derail Merkel and her scientists during the pandemic showed, the German public is largely unwilling at present to diverge from what it takes to be the steady course. Threats to Bild’s position as Merkel’s leading critic are closer to home: the most scathing recent critique of Merkel’s government has come from outside any established political platform, in the form of a blue-haired, 27-year-old internet influencer who castigated the German political establishment for its record on climate change, welfare, and migration in a 55-minute, copiously annotated YouTube video, which has been viewed more than 17m times.

The last time I saw Reichelt in his office, last summer, he wanted to talk about his preferred enemies. “There is Putin,” he told me. “He wants to weaken our German institutions and interfere with our elections. You know why? Because he knows he lives in a piece of shit country – that he has made his country into shit – and so he wants other countries to come down to his level so that his disastrous record can be less easily seen.”

Before he could get any further in his diatribe, a Bild reporter lunged into the office. “Piëch is dead,” he announced. The family owner of Porsche, Ferdinand Piëch, had apparently died.

“Really? Piëch? Reichelt said. “How?”

“In a pizzeria,” said the reporter. “It seems it was a heart attack.”

“That’s fantastic. A pizza restaurant!”

“It seems so.”

“Can we get confirmation?” He suggested giving Gerhard Schröder a call.

“Sure, we’ll get confirmation.”

Piëch had not died in a pizzeria after all, we learned a few moments later, somewhat to Reichelt’s annoyance. But then he quickly picked back up the thread. “Then we have the spineless left at home, that just wants to let Putin and Assad run roughshod over the whole liberal western order. They want to bring the German car industry to a screeching halt, freeze rents in Berlin, starve the economy and keep Germany from doing anything in the world. I remember meeting with some people here in the defence ministry when I got back from covering the war in Syria. Let’s build a no-fly zone in northern Syria, I said. Let’s go do it alone if we have to. But no one in Germany with power knows how to use it – or even wants to use it.”

“What about Bild?” I asked.

“With Bild,” Reichelt smiled, “it’s the other way around.”

Thomas Meaney is a historian and author.

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This post originally appeared on The Guardian and was published July 16, 2020. This article is republished here with permission.

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