It was a foretaste of how the raw tone of the U.S. electoral campaign could also be coming to Germany.
“REVEALED: 1,000-MAN MOB ATTACK POLICE, SET GERMANY’S OLDEST CHURCH ALIGHT ON NEW YEAR’S EVE” shouted a January 3 headline on the U.S. right-wing news website, breitbart.com.
Loud as always, aggressive as always, all caps as always: This was, after all, Breitbart, the journalistic mudslinger that supported Donald Trump during the U.S. election campaign like no other media outlet.
In its German story, Breitbart claimed that a crowd of “more than 1,000 men” chanted “Allahu Akbar” and massed “around the flag of al-Qaida and Islamic State collaborators the Free Syrian Army.”
The message was clear: Jihad Terror in the Ruhr District!
The only truth in the report involved time and place. The church wasn’t the oldest in Germany (as Breitbart later acknowledged) and Allah’s praises weren’t sung by a thousand men but only by a few refugees. The Free Syrian Army, whose flag was held up by a young Syrian, is not affiliated with Islamist terrorist groups but for years numbered among the allies of the U.S. army. And no church burned down, instead a protective netting that covered a scaffolding on Dortmund’s Reinoldkirche caught fire when a New Year’s Eve firework got tangled in it. According to police, the evening had actually proceeded “rather average to quiet.”
So nothing to worry about then?
Not at all. Because the report from Dortmund was only the prelude to a media offensive intended by Breitbart to shake up Germany before the parliamentary elections in September.
According to analytics company Alexa, Breitbart.com is one of the 250 most-visited internet addresses in the world and with its shrill headlines it has climbed ahead of even The Washington Post to rank as the 35th most visited U.S. news website.
And now it is preparing its expansion to Europe.
In Mr. Bannon’s view of the world, Communism has been replaced by Islam as the great enemy.
Offices are planned in Germany and France in addition to those already in London, Rome and Jerusalem. Since the U.S. elections, Breitbart has increased the number of its employees from around 40 to nearly 100. It has developed from an ultra-conservative startup with ties to the Republican Party into a multimedia empire worth billions and exercising a global influence.
The journalistic conquest of Europe is part of an agenda pursed by 63-year-old Steve Bannon. Until last autumn, he was its chief executive and today serves as Donald Trump’s chief strategist. This means a radical nationalist has gained entry to the White House, someone who aims to destroy the elites and restore the United States to the system of values from the 1950s, when the American economy began to flourish and a white Christian majority dominated society. In Mr. Bannon’s view of the world, Communism has been replaced by Islam as the great enemy. He believes the United Nations is a gathering of losers and communities of states such as the European Union are foolish, ill-fated projects.
The German government learned just what Mr. Bannon thinks of the European Union recently when the German ambassador in Washington, Peter Wittig, made his first visit to the Trump White House. Mr. Bannon urged that Germany and the United States “must work together” – but as two strong, independent nations and not in connection with the European Union, which the American government doesn’t consider to be an equal negotiating partner, and with which there will be no economic agreements. He also made it clear that Angela Merkel’s refugee policy is looked upon as a catastrophe.
Insiders report that there was consensus between the two only in one area: their evaluation of German philosophers. Mr. Bannon revealed that he reveres Friedrich Nietzsche and also holds Hegel in high esteem. Because Mr. Bannon’s office in the West Wing of the White House was occupied, the one-hour conversation took place in the office of Reince Priebus, Mr. Trump’s chief of staff, next to the Oval Office. Mr. Priebus looked in briefly but didn’t correct Mr. Bannon’s hostile picture of the European Union.
Mr. Bannon’s remarks indicate not only the new U.S. government’s agenda but also Breitbart’s view of Europe. After Mr. Trump’s victory in November, editor in chief Alexander Marlow announced the intention of shaking up the public in Europe. “The first job interviews have taken place,” Breitbart’s Rome correspondent, Thomas Williams, told Die Zeit. The goal is to open an office in Germany in the next six to eight months.
The question no longer seems to be if but only when Breitbart is coming. Will management be able to start operations before or only after the German parliamentary elections? And what influence will Breitbart have on the German public?
Regarding the incident on New Year’s Eve in Dortmund, one could argue that the report was simply a case of journalistic negligence. The text was cobbled together in Breitbart’s London office with no reporter on site and no research; it was based on a blog entry by a local reporter with the Ruhr Nachrichten, who immediately distanced himself from Breitbart’s version. But things aren’t that simple.
Breitbart doesn’t care about uncovering the truth but causing a political uproar. Its headlines are aimed at firing up civil society; and the Dortmund example shows that this strategy works. The U.S. website was inundated with a wave of criticism from the Bild tabloid all the way to the journalists’ association; even the police reacted to and corrected Breitbart’s depiction.
Causing this indignation is intentional. It is designed to split Germany’s public into “them” (elites, mass media, state) and “us” (simple folks, victims of globalization and political correctness) and to exacerbate the culture war that Mr. Bannon has proclaimed.
The former investment banker, also known as “Darth Vader” in Washington, embodies the fight against the establishment like no other member of the new American government. Mr. Bannon took over the media company in 2012 after the death of its founder, Andrew Breitbart, and turned it into a mouthpiece for the far-right rebels that have grabbed hold of America. “Bannon turned Breitbart into a Trump Pravda,” says the former Breitbart columnist Ben Shapiro. “He is a consummate manipulator.”
Mr. Shapiro, who came to Breitbart while it was still being run by its founder, describes Mr. Bannon as a “sociopath” who at the same time can be “extremely warmhearted and charming,” likes to swear and in the past was often intensively involved in the day-to-day running of the website. Mr. Bannon’s home in Washington, furnished in a baroque style and located near the Capitol, and internally known as “Breitbart Embassy,” long served as an editorial head office, where young conservatives in pleated trousers and button-down shirts composed the soundtrack for the conservative revolution. With headlines such as: “Ten Things I Hate about Islam,” “WHO Report: Trannies 49 Xs Higher HIV Rate,” or “Young Muslims in the West Are a Ticking Time Bomb.”
Breitbart plays a central role in Mr. Bannon’s crusade against the European Union. Breitbart’s natural target group in France is National Front voters; in Germany, the supporters of Alternative for Germany (AfD) and fans of Thilo Sarrazin, the former SPD politician who wrote a book attacking immigration.
Breitbart doesn’t care about uncovering the truth but causing a political uproar.
It’s obvious how Mr. Bannon would benefit from a triumph of these forces. If Marine Le Pen wins the French presidential election in May, post-war, united Europe would to all intents and purposes be over. And for both Mr. Bannon and Mr. Trump, German Chancellor Angela Merkel symbolizes the liberal aberration. From their viewpoint in Washington, a breakup of the European Union as a moderating counterpart would make it easier to reorder the world entirely.
For Mr. Bannon, Breitbart plays a role similar to that of the Kremlin-financed broadcaster Russia Today for the Russian president Vladimir Putin. Both platforms use manipulative headlines to undermine trust in liberal democracy. The U.S. electoral campaign demonstrated how discourse can be influenced in Western democracies. Breitbart acted as “Trump’s rapid deployment force” and always conformed to the candidate’s agenda, says former Breitbart spokesman Kurt Bardella.
The question now in Germany is how successful media agitprop from the right can be here once Breitbart goes online. It will become a practical test of German society’s powers of resistance.
Just as in the political landscape, where after World War II no party to the right of Bavarian conservatives, the Christian Social Union, has managed to enter Germany’s parliament, no significant journalistic voice has been able to establish itself on the far right.
But what is true in politics applies to the media as well. Things are in flux, much seems to have become possible.
Parallel to Donald Trump’s rise, since last summer there has been a constant increase in the number of visitors to German far-right sites such as Politically Incorrect, which has now entered the list of the 500 most-visited addresses in Germany.
Breitbart has, at the very least, the potential to become the daily rag of the AfD and all those individuals who reject Ms. Merkel’s refugee policy and believe Europe is involved in a culture war with Islam.
A professionally designed website financed from the United States and featuring a mixture of journalism, polemics and fake news would shake things up in this country. It would constitute another step in the direction of a parallel public domain such as Steve Bannon envisions. In a recent interview with The New York Times, he said that for him, the media is now the real opposition party – of course with the exception of Breitbart, which this week was granted an exclusive interview with Donald Trump.
In reaction to criticism over the reporting about Dortmund, the head of Breitbart’s London editorial office riled that German journalists had refrained from an honest depiction “for ideological reasons” and were thereby “protecting criminals, an ineffective police force and governmental failure.” This is President Trump’s narrative about the sleazy, corrupt elites of the state, politics and media which Breitbart is attempting to now transfer to a German context.
Yet the company’s bosses had imagined the leap across the Atlantic to be somewhat easier. The head of the editorial office in Rome, Thomas Williams, says it is “hard to manage job interviews and logistical preparations from the United States.” Since almost no one in the executive suites of the company speaks German, it is “crucial to find the right person for the top position”; the personnel issue is currently at the top of the agenda. There is also internal discussion at Breitbart about what language a German edition should appear in. While reports from Rome and Jerusalem are in English, there is apparently little trust in the foreign-language capabilities of the German target audience.
In addition, Breitbart is having to struggle with the side-effects of its success: Mr. Bannon formally gave up control of the company last fall, but he continues to pull the strings behind the scenes. Yet since he became chief strategist in the White House, he is often unavailable for editorial decisions, one Breitbart journalist complained, because the secret service insisted that he reduce communications with the outside world. And for security reasons, Mr. Bannon’s home can no longer serve as an unofficial Washington editorial office.
In Germany, the website can be expected to have difficulties developing an online presence with its own name. For years, a software entrepreneur from Hesse has owned the URL www.breitbart.de. And a Berlin photographer grabbed the address www.breitbartnews.de, which then redirects visitors to a site that unmasks fake news on far-right internet forums. Moreover, activists have registered nearly a dozen further German Breitbart addresses. Their aim, says one of them, is to stop “men such as Steve Bannon meddling in politics here.”
This article first appeared in Die Zeit. To contact the authors: firstname.lastname@example.org