The word spiegel means “mirror” in German, and since its postwar founding, Der Spiegel has proudly held a mirror up to the world. When the magazine published top-secret information about the dire state of West Germany’s armed forces in 1962, the government accused it of treason, raided its offices, and arrested its editors. The resulting “Spiegel affair” led to mass demonstrations against police-state tactics and established an important precedent for press freedom in the young democracy. Throughout its history, the newsweekly has helped set the national agenda, like Time in its heyday.
Over the past weeks, however, the name of the magazine has assumed a new relevance. Der Spiegel has cracked, and revealed ugliness within the publication as well as German society more broadly.
On December 19, the magazine announced that the star reporter Claas Relotius had fabricated information “on a grand scale” in more than a dozen articles. Relotius has been portrayed as a sort of Teutonic Stephen Glass, the 1990s New Republic fabulist. “I’m sick and I need to get help,” Relotius told his editor. While that may very well be the case, his downfall is about more than just one writer with a mental-health problem.
A motif of Relotius’s work is America’s supposed brutality. In one story, he told the macabre tale of a woman who travels across the country volunteering to witness executions. In another, he related the tragic experience of a Yemeni man wrongly imprisoned by the United States military at Guantánamo Bay, where he was held in solitary confinement and tortured for 14 years. (The song that American soldiers turned on full blast and pumped into the poor soul’s cell? Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.”) Both stories were complete fabrications.