West German Police Raid Magazine Offices Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Commonly described as one of the most serious domestic crises to confront West Germany, the unconstitutional occupation of the offices of the magazine Der Spiegel and the arrests of its publisher and several editors for publishing an article critical of the government attracted worldwide attention and prompted widespread protests. The affair damaged the careers and reputations of its chief government instigators but also demonstrated that the rule of law and respect for civil liberties had taken hold in West Germany’s young democracy.

Summary of Event

On October 8, 1962, Der Spiegel (the mirror), a highly popular West German newsmagazine with a reputation for reporting government abuses, published an extensive critique of the Federal Republic’s military preparedness in the event of an attack by the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies. Written by Conrad Ahlers, Der Spiegel’s editor of defense-related stories, and based on secret military documents apparently provided by a colonel in the West German army, the article reported on the poor performance of the Bundeswehr (the German army) at a North Atlantic Treaty Organization North Atlantic Treaty Organization military exercise, Fallex 62. The article, “Conditionally Prepared for Defense,” questioned West Germany’s overreliance on U.S. nuclear forces, which in Der Spiegel’s estimation had led those responsible for the Federal Republic’s defenses to neglect conventional forces despite the enormous sums spent for military purposes. [kw]Spiegel Magazine Offices, West German Police Raid Der (Oct. 26, 1962) Spiegel, Der (magazine) Treason;and Der Spiegel[Spiegel] Strauss, Franz Josef Ahlers, Conrad Augstein, Rudolf Adenauer, Konrad Spiegel, Der (magazine) Treason;and Der Spiegel[Spiegel] Strauss, Franz Josef Ahlers, Conrad Augstein, Rudolf Adenauer, Konrad [g]Europe;Oct. 26, 1962: West German Police Raid Der Spiegel Magazine Offices[01150] [g]Germany;Oct. 26, 1962: West German Police Raid Der Spiegel Magazine Offices[01150] [c]Law and the courts;Oct. 26, 1962: West German Police Raid Der Spiegel Magazine Offices[01150] [c]Publishing and journalism;Oct. 26, 1962: West German Police Raid Der Spiegel Magazine Offices[01150] [c]Civil rights and liberties;Oct. 26, 1962: West German Police Raid Der Spiegel Magazine Offices[01150] [c]Politics;Oct. 26, 1962: West German Police Raid Der Spiegel Magazine Offices[01150] [c]Communications and media;Oct. 26, 1962: West German Police Raid Der Spiegel Magazine Offices[01150] Stammberger, Wolfgang

University students in Munich call for the resignation of Defense Minister Franz Josef Strauss for his actions against Der Spiegel. The signs read, from left, “calls for Strauss’s resignation” and “please sign here.”

(Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Almost three weeks later, on October 26, federal police forces launched a midnight raid on Der Spiegel offices in Hamburg, Dusseldorf, and Bonn. Police confiscated files and proofs of the next issue of the magazine, and arrested six editors and executives, including Rudolf Augstein, Der Spiegel’s esteemed founder and publisher. All were charged with high treason. Simultaneously, Spanish authorities, at the request of the West German military attaché, arrested Ahlers, who was vacationing with his wife at Malaga on the Spanish coast. Jailed for twenty-eight hours, Ahlers was returned to West Germany, though no extradition agreement for political crimes existed between the latter and Spain.

West German federal police also searched private residences of Der Spiegel staffers, ransacking them in an attempt to uncover incriminating evidence. Thus began the Spiegel affair, one of the most serious domestic political crises in West Germany’s forty-year history.

The instigator of the raid was Franz Josef Strauss, the controversial minister of defense since 1957. Born in Munich in 1915, Strauss rose from humble origins to achieve prominence and power in post-World War II West Germany. He was a founding member of the Christian Social Union (CSU), a conservative Bavarian party that had been in alliance with Chancellor Konrad Adenauer’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) since the establishment of the Federal Republic in 1949. Ambitious and arrogant, Strauss’s authoritarian proclivities and questionable behavior made him a frequent target—as was the Adenauer government as a whole—of Der Spiegel criticisms. Strauss interpreted “Conditionally Prepared for Defense” as yet another unwarranted political attack by Augstein and thus ordered, with Adenauer’s blessing, the raids, confiscations, and arrests that commenced on October 26. Strauss did not, however, inform Wolfgang Stammberger, the minister of justice. According to West Germany’s constitution of May, 1949, Stammberger enjoyed exclusive authority to issue federal indictments, and he controlled the federal police.

The heavy-handed, highly unconstitutional actions of October 26, ominously reminiscent of the Nazi era, were perceived as exclusively political and therefore provoked a widespread public outcry. Sensing that the relatively new constitutional democracy and the civil liberties upon which it rested were in danger, West German newspapers lambasted the Adenauer government, declaring that it had humiliated itself and questioning whether a coup d’etat had occurred. The intellectual community, especially university professors and students, also criticized the government and engaged in various protest activities, including demonstrations and sit-ins. In one location, Hamburg, seven to eight thousand university students gathered on successive nights outside the jail where Augstein was incarcerated to hear protest speeches.

Within the Bundestag, West Germany’s parliament, angry elected deputies greeted Strauss, Adenauer, and Minister of the Interior Hermann Hocherl with cries of “Gestapo!” and “Neofascist!” and subjected them to three days of intense questioning (November 7-9). Government accusers not only failed to prove the charge of high treason leveled against Augstein and his Der Spiegel colleagues, but the minister of defense, after initially denying involvement, finally acknowledged his complicity by admitting that he had personally telephoned the Federal Republic’s military attaché in Madrid and thereby set in motion the process that produced Ahlers’s detention. Adenauer exacerbated the situation and damaged his own prestige even further when, while defending the government’s actions, he accused Augstein of profiting by committing treason and downplayed the illegality of Ahlers’s arrest and extradition from Spain.


On February 7, 1963, after 103 days in jail, Augstein was released, making him the last of those arrested to be freed. Prosecutors, however, would go after Augstein, and two other editors, with formal charges of treason in October, 1964, but those charges were dismissed in May, 1965, by West Germany’s federal supreme court. The court cited insufficient evidence that Der Spiegel had published military secrets. Later, in August, 1966, the federal constitutional court, by a vote of 4-4, rejected the magazine’s claim that the arrests and searches had violated the constitution. Even with this rejection, the federal court’s ruling in the case led to increased press freedom in West Germany.

For Strauss and Adenauer, the Spiegel scandal did grave damage to their political careers and reputations. On November 19, 1962, in the wake of the initial Bundestag hearings, the Free Democratic Party (FDP) withdrew its five ministers, including Stammberger, from Adenauer’s cabinet and announced its intention to go into opposition unless the elderly chancellor dismissed Strauss. Faced with the prospect of losing power, Adenauer agreed to replace Strauss and promised he would not remain in office beyond 1963. The Spiegel affair sullied irredeemably Strauss’s reputation and effectively ended any chance he had to become chancellor, a position for which he had been frequently mentioned prior to the scandal. Adenauer, West Germany’s first chancellor and the person who had done so much to shape the Federal Republic’s development, both domestically and internationally during the first decade-plus of its existence, resigned on October 15, 1963, the Spiegel scandal obscuring much of what he had accomplished since 1949.

Beyond the immediate political crisis it produced, and the damage done to Strauss and Adenauer, the Spiegel affair represented a telling moment in the history of West Germany. Founded in May, 1949, a child of allied occupation and the Cold War, the Federal Republic was twentieth century Germany’s second experiment in political democracy and representative government, the first being the Weimar Republic of 1919 to 1933, which had never achieved a consensus among the German population and had thus been destroyed easily by Adolf Hitler Hitler, Adolf and the Nazi movement.

The illegal and unconstitutional actions against Der Spiegel initiated by Strauss and approved by Adenauer constituted a direct violation of the rule of law and the basic civil liberties, freedom of the press in particular, upon which the Federal Republic was theoretically based. That these actions had engendered a hue and cry throughout West Germany, that the intellectual community and elected delegates to the Bundestag had rallied in support of the rule of law and basic civil liberties and thereby forced Strauss and Adenauer, for all intents and purposes, to admit their guilt, and that the federal supreme court ultimately exonerated all those falsely accused of treason demonstrated conclusively that Bonn (capital of the Federal Republic) was not Weimar. Spiegel, Der (magazine) Treason;and Der Spiegel[Spiegel] Strauss, Franz Josef Ahlers, Conrad Augstein, Rudolf Adenauer, Konrad

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bunn, Ronald F. German Politics and the “Spiegel” Affair. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1968. An early analysis that focuses on the West German press, arguing that the Spiegel scandal exposed several issues, including freedom of the press versus national security needs and the press as an agent in framing issues.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sa’adah, Anne. “Hope, Disappointment, and Self-Restraint: Reflections of the Democratic Experiment.” In The Making and Unmaking of Democracy: Lessons From History and World Politics, edited by Theodore Rabb. New York: Routledge, 2002. Focusing on the creation of democratic systems in modern Europe, Sa’adah’s chapter places the Spiegel scandal in the context of post-World War II West Germany’s struggle to establish a viable democracy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schoenbaum, David. The Spiegel Affair. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Press, 1968. Like Bunn’s book, an older analysis, but one that offers a broader perspective, placing the Spiegel affair in the general context of West German politics.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Winckler, Heinrich August. “Two States, One Nation, 1961-1973.” In Germany: The Long Road West, vol. 2. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. Discusses the Spiegel affair as a turning point, specifically as a catalyst for a new and liberal, as opposed to the existing conservative, view of the state.

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Categories: History