German Skepticism about America's Intent and Goals in Iraq: One Headline Called It 'The Worst Invasion of Baghdad since the Mongols.' (Coverage of War)

By Gehlen, Martin | Nieman Reports, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

German Skepticism about America's Intent and Goals in Iraq: One Headline Called It 'The Worst Invasion of Baghdad since the Mongols.' (Coverage of War)


Gehlen, Martin, Nieman Reports


The cover page of Der Spiegel displayed the globe as a broken egg. "Pax Americana--The new world order," read this influential magazine's headline days after the fighting in Iraq ended. On the inside pages of this German publication, editors made the point that the majority of the German public and most German media share: "The allies have won the war against Saddam, but the fight over the post-war future of the country is far from over."

Skepticism and criticism about the military campaign in Iraq and its goals are widespread in the German media, although most publications did not hold an uncritical attitude towards the Arab world, in general, or sympathy towards Saddam Hussein's Iraq, in particular. In many newspaper stories the crimes and oppression of Saddam and his inner circle were described in vivid ways--the human rights violations, the torture and assassination of political opponents, the wars against Iran and Kuwait, and the gas attacks against Iraqi Kurds and Iranian soldiers. Other news reports focused on the backwardness of Arab societies, the growing anti-western sentiments, and the influence of fundamentalist Islamic movements.

In the German media, most editorial writers and news reporters have not been convinced that a connection between September 11th and Baghdad exists or that Iraq, after 12 years of United Nations sanctions, still posed a threat to its neighbors, to the United States, or even to the world. The performance of the United States in the U.N. Security Council was viewed by most in the media as reckless propaganda of the superpower using false or even fake information to push its war agenda. Widely covered by German news organizations, too, were also the failed American attempts to blackmail weaker U.N. Security Council members to secure their votes for a second resolution. Even the U.S. goal of democratizing Iraq (and potentially the entire Middle East) is regarded as pure rhetoric or seen as hopelessly idealistic and naive.

In its daily coverage, the German media's focus was very much on the horrors of war and of the potential casualties of the air bombardments, the propaganda being put forth by both sides, and on the worldwide protests of the peace movement. Reporting also dealt with the criticism made by various church leaders against President Bush's use of religious language to justify the military engagement and the fierce diplomatic tensions between the U.S. and British allies on one side and Russia, China, France and Germany on the other.

Several papers printed a notice each day for their readers to inform them about the specific problems and limits of war coverage when the military controls the news and when, as was written in Berlin's Tagesspiegel, "the number of official lies increases drastically--on all sides." There is no "clean" war; there are no "surgical" air strikes. "Shock and awe" means death and horror, and that was the message the media tried to forward to their readers. Many thousands of people were killed. The nation's infrastructure was in ruins, with Iraq bombed back to the oil lamp economy of the 19th century, as one paper wrote.

War is always a defeat for mankind, Pope John Paul II said, and this message was the hidden red thread of considerable parts of the German media coverage. Stern Magazine used the line, "God's Warriors and their Victims," as the title for a series of three photos, each of which was at least a full page in size. …

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