BERLIN – Germany officially opened its winter party season last Friday with the annual Bundespresseball, the national press ball. The occasion has been bringing together politicians, journalists and social butterflies since 1951, and after almost a decade away from Berlin, I jumped on the chance to hobnob with the movers and shakers of Angela Merkel’s Germany.
Some 2,500 guests packed the halls and lounges of the Intercontinental Hotel, quaffing champagne, slurping oysters and hoping for a glimmer of glamor in dowdy Berlin. President Joachim Gauck had the first dance, the traditional waltz.
Big band, gospel and 1980s rock then resounded from three different stages. Wine bottles outnumbered partygoers two to one. By midnight, inhibitions had dropped enough that everyone was indulging in currywurst, Berlin’s dubious contribution to world cuisine.
This ritual extravaganza to celebrate Germany’s fourth estate would have been a great night out – were it not for the fact that the country’s media are facing their biggest crisis since World War II.
Just hours before the ball, the publisher Gruner + Jahr announced it was shutting down the Financial Times Deutschland, the German edition of the Financial Times, after the newspaper failed to make a profit in 12 years of existence. Over the past two months, DAPD (Germany’s second-largest news agency) and the Frankfurter Rundschau (the liberal rival of the stodgy Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung) have filed for bankruptcy.
The mood at the party was gloomy. All anybody could talk about was what would happen to their colleagues who would soon be out of work and which media giant would fall next.
It was a good excuse to party all the harder.
While I was working on a cheese platter in the Fireplace Room, a middle-aged couple sat down next to me on the couch. I realized the man was a very important somebody. With my knowledge of German promis – as prominent people are known – hopelessly outdated, I decided I must be sitting next to the TV journalist Günther Jauch.
To make sure, I mouthed a question to a friend nearby: “Sunday night talk show host?” He frowned, I hesitated, and it’s a good thing that I did, because the man was Germany’s defense minister, Thomas de Maizière.
Reporters who correctly identified de Maizière that night asked him what he thought about the crisis facing German journalism. “There are many crises,” the defense minister was later quoted as saying. “I’m concerned with the crises in the world.”
De Maizière had a point. The threats facing traditional German media are by no means unique. Yet German journalists are only now realizing the scope of the crisis that has gripped news organizations in other countries for more than a decade.
The luxury of denial hasn’t prevailed just in the media industry. Conservatism and wealth have fostered the illusion among Germans that they are buffered from the hard realities that afflict the rest of the world, like toxic bank assets, crossborder migration and international terrorism. While some countries in southern Europe teeter on the brink of insolvency, the German government is boasting record-high tax revenues and low unemployment.
Few here want to hear the warnings that the euro crisis won’t leave Germany unaffected.
At the Bundespresseball, journalists hit the hard stuff as the night wore on. Although every guest got an invitation to the katerfrühstück – the hangover breakfast – the next morning, it was easier to sleep through it.