5th March 2007
John Seymour Chaloner died recently on February 9th, 2007, aged 82. His obituary in The Times on February 17th mentioned that he was 'best known for founding Der Spiegel (the German news magazine) after the war.'
This extraordinary story deserves to be better known. A longer and more detailed obituary was published in Der Spiegel itself.
A few weeks earlier, in Issue Nr. 2, 08 01 2007, Der Spiegel celebrated its 60th birthday, with an extensive feature covering its history from then to now, including the early days in Hannover. An accompanying CD included an interview with Chaloner. Here is an extract from the interview, (taken from the CD 'Bonus Material')
"The Spiegel was my baby. I told them how to do the magazine and what it should look like, by producing a dummy. This was the famous 'Probenummer' ... I used my, what I will call 'sweeping powers' that I had, to commandeer offices, commandeer people, recruit people from all over the zone and push them into this one title, that I wanted to be a success, if nothing else, and it was."
At the time, in 1946, Chaloner was only 21 years old. He was the youngest major in the British army and press chief for Hannover, (working for PRISC - the Public Relations and Information Services Control division - of the British Control Commission and Military Government).
Rudolf Augstein, editor and later to become owner of Der Spiegel, was 22, only one year older. The two men clearly got on. Chaloner liked Augstein because he was prepared to stick to his own opinions and talk back to the British, instead of agreeing with everything they said.
Chaloner believed that an independent press was essential for the future development of Germany as a democracy, and this meant having the freedom to criticize the British occupying administration, without censorship.
Because there was a shortage of paper, Chaloner decided to set up a weekly paper and showed Augstein and a few of his colleagues copies of 'Time' magazine, and a short-lived British publication 'News Review' as examples they should follow.
At first, the magazine was called 'Diese Woche' (This Week) and was published under the auspices of the British. But when the magazine published articles criticizing the French administration in Germany for forcing prisoners of war to work in the mines, the Russians for deporting skilled German workers to the Soviet Union, and the British for providing starvation rations to workers in the Ruhr, there was an outcry from the higher levels of the Allied Military Governments, and Chaloner was told to close the magazine.
Instead, he persuaded the British authorities to transfer ownership 'into German hands'. As an independent magazine it would be possible to say things which would be unacceptable coming from a magazine published by the British themselves. The magazine was transferred to Augstein and two other licence holders, and renamed Der Spiegel. The first issue of the new publication appeared on 8th January 2007.
In the following 60 years Der Spiegel has acted as a champion of press freedom in Germany, but that's another story.
When Chaloner returned to Britain he had a varied career, importing foreign publications into Britain, writing childrens' books and novels, and running a 130 acre farm in Sussex.
However, his foresight in recognizing that democracy can only be built through allowing criticism, and his willingness to trust people who had been his former enemies to present a 'German point of view', even when this was highly critical of the British Military Government he was part of, is remarkable. As I wrote last week in the context of British efforts to restore democracy to local government in Germany, the best members of the British Administration in Germany after the war recognised that "totalitarian means could not be used to make a totalitarian society more democratic. Change had to come from within, and the role of the British was to advise, influence and persuade, not to compel."
For another blog discussing this story see Digital Soapbox