By Gene Mater

The Freedom Forum

In less than a lifetime, the German media moved from one of the most restricted in the world to one of the most open. The media played a key role throughout. This is the story of a nation becoming free:

Nazi censorship

‘‘The state must not ... let itself be confused by the drivel about so-called freedom of the press .. it must make sure of this instrument of popular education and place it in the service of the state.’’

-- Adolf Hitler in Mein Kampf

Press freedom begins to disappear in Germany in 1932, the year before Adolf Hitler takes power. By 1933, the Nazis decree the virtual end of a free press. The government turns editors and journalists into servants of the state. Bureaucrats decide what may be published. Publishers can’t hire or fire journalists. Only the government can.

The Nazis slash the number of daily newspapers from 2,500 in 1933 to 1,500 in 1937. That makes them easier to control. Then, because of the war, the number is cut again to 800 by 1943.

The major Nazi newspapers are the Voelkischer Beobachter, the official party organ started in 1920; Der Stuermer, a lurid and frequently pornographic anti-Jewish weekly publication; and Der Angriff, the daily Labor Front mouthpiece of Joseph Goebbels, German minister of propaganda.

The government has run German radio since it started in the 1920s, so the Nazis easily take over, using radio to "re-educate" the German people. Much of the broadcast day is centrally controlled, covering news, political talks, communiqués, music and entertainment, with some features of local interest.

Says propaganda minister Goebbels: "With the instrument of radio you can make public opinion. Perhaps even conquer a country."

Clash of ideology

"It was the desire of Military Government to restore press and radio to German hands as rapidly as constitutions and laws guaranteed their freedom... Perhaps in no other field except school reform was the German inability truly to understand democratic freedoms better illustrated. It seemed impossible to secure legislation which would not leave the press at the mercy of the government in power."

-- Gen. Lucius D. Clay, U.S. Military Governor, Germany, 1945-49

In May 1945, as World War II ends, the four Allied Powers — the U.S., Great Britain, France and the Soviet Union, each with an occupation zone -- prohibit all means of public communication, information and entertainment "except as directed or otherwise authorized."

Radio, newspapers, magazines, movie house, theaters -- even circuses -- are shut down until licensed by Military Government.

The Allies begin licensing newspapers and other means of communication in their individual occupation zones but the approaches vary. As the military’s grip loosens, a free press system is established in West Germany. But in the Soviet Zone, media are forced into a Communist system of state and single party control.

Free-media versus controlled-media positions harden quickly. In February 1946, the Unites States starts a German-operated radio station in West Berlin that for years is symbolic of the two systems. Called "Radio in the American Sector" and better known as RIAS, the station is for many years the primary source of news and information not only for West Berlin but also for the truth-starved population of East Berlin.

West Berlin is a capitalist island in the Soviet sea of East Germany, and in 1948, the communists try to starve it out of existence, starting a blockade of supplies into the city. The western Allies begin the famous airlift, flying a daily average of 8,000 tons of food and other necessities of life to the 2.5 million residents of West Berlin. The airlift works. In May 1949, the blockade is lifted.

Differences between East and West Germany become more pronounced. More than 3 million people from the east flee to the west. East German attempts to stop the flow fail.

On Aug. 13, 1961, the East German government start construction of a 27-mile long wall across the city. Initially built of barbed wire and bricked-up buildings, the wall goes through various phases of construction, eventually becoming a 12-foot-high structure, with a rounded top to prevent people from climbing over. It features a barbed wire "death strip" with mines, overseen by 300 watchtowers manned by armed guards.

It is the only wall of its kind, built not to protect its people but to keep them trapped inside.

News helps the wall fall

"Everyone shall have the right freely to express and disseminate his opinion by speech, writing and pictures ... Freedom of the press and freedom of reporting by broadcasts and films are guaranteed. There shall be no censorship."

-- Article 5, Federal Republic of Germany Constitution, 1949

The Berlin Wall is strong enough to stop a tank, but it can’t stop the truth from getting into East Germany.

The free-media system in the west spews news eastward, news that no wall can stop. It comes by word of mouth, by smuggled message, by phone, by radio, by TV.

The controlled media of East Germany distort the news they present. But they can’t control the flow of information. West German radio and television can be received in most of East Germany. By 1973, an estimated

90 percent of East Germans watches West German television. The regime virtually stops campaigning against foreign media.

Radio in the American Sector (RIAS) and Sender Freies Berlin (SFB) are important western news sources for the people of East Germany. They carry the famous President John F. Kennedy "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech of June 26, 1963, as well as President Ronald Reagan’s speech of June 12, 1987, at the Brandenburger Gate, when he urges the prime minister of the Soviet Union, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"

In the 28 years of the wall, about 5,000 people manage to escape but 246 die in the attempt, killed by East German border guards. Then it happens. On Nov. 9, 1989, at the end of a rambling press conference, a senior East German official says that people can cross into

West Berlin. No one knows what it means. No orders have been given to the border guards. There is complete confusion. Crowds mass at the crossing points. Finally, at 11 p.m., the order is given. The gates are open. That night and for days later, the public takes hammers and sledge hammers to tear down the wall.

The fall of the Berlin wall also is the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union, of the Soviet domination of East Europe and of the Communist regimes that have ruled in the region since 1945.

America’s legacy: Freedom flourishes

"The U.S. proposes ... the establishment of a fund for independent broadcasting and a free press. Our goal is to support cooperative development of commercial and non-profit radio and television broadcasting and a free press ... in Central and Eastern Europe."

-- U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, 1990

The sudden burst of freedom in a divided Berlin, followed by similar changes in the east, is not without its problems.

Germany reunites on Oct. 3, 1990. The democratic aspects of the west, including media, quickly move to the east. Radio and television networks are linked, West German newspapers start circulating in a united country and

newspapers of the former East Germany take on a new look.

But for central and eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, the transition to democracy is not easy, particularly in those areas where it has never existed.

Using a free press as a benchmark, changes in the east fall into three basic categories. There are the success stories of independent media and the democratic societies of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. Then there are the countries struggling to find their way, to institute their own forms of democracy with occasional setbacks, in countries such as Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, Ukraine and in Russia itself. There are other countries where government control has become obvious and strict, including Serbia, Belarus and the smaller nations of the Caucuses.

The Unites States continues to spend millions to help develop independent media, not simply teaching journalism but rather they philosophy of an open marketplace of ideas. Perhaps the most compelling end to this story is that there isn’t one: It’s up to each generation in each nation to shape its political future, either continuing to open its society, or, in a spasm, to shut it down again.

Gene Mater, a veteran newsman and CBS broadcast executive, worked in Germany for nine years.