The number 4,703 echoed in my mind for several months before I finally made the trip down to the Kreuzberg neighborhood of Berlin on a sunny afternoon last April. I was supposed to meet a friend after work at Markthalle Neun for a street food happy hour but I, unexpectedly, had a few hours beforehand free. Needing to pass the time, I decided to finally search for the famed “Ullstein Haus.”
I had been wanting to find the building ever since I had read “House of Ullstein” in December. Online –I could see that at one point–there was a press museum there and that it had an exhibit documenting the deterioration of the press under Hitler. I tried to get in touch with who curated it. I emailed and called. Nobody responded.
Maybe I’d just go down and see if I could find it. Maybe it would be easier to navigate my terrible German in person.
The Ullsteins were one of the largest and richest publishers in Germany leading up to the first and second World Wars. The book was originally written in German by Hermann Ullstein—one of the sons–as a memoir of his time building the successful media company and his ultimate lonely, penniless escape to the United States.
The publishing house produced books, weekly newspapers and magazines. It developed patterns to make clothes of the fashions women found in the style magazines. It survived the economic downturn after World War I by allowing people to buy just a single paper instead of a subscription, and adjusting the cost of the paper with inflation.
In the book, it is depicted as a bustling and vibrant publishing house. I wanted to see it for myself.
When I came out of the Ullsteinstraße U-bahn station, the building was larger than I had imagined. The massive clock combined with intricate stone carvings gave the building even more grandeur. I wandered around looking for a museum but couldn’t find one in the now converted office building. Yet, standing outside, it’s not hard to imagine this place in its prime: a newsroom inside abuzz with curious reporters and the clacking of printing presses.
The site hosted dozens of the 4,703 newspapers and magazines covering Germany in 1932.
That’s right: 4,703.
In 1932, Germany had a large and diverse press landscape. Many of the publications had partisan slants ranging from conservative to liberal. Some did not. Others were focused on gardening, fashion or society. It was a robust industry with an estimated total circulation of more than 25 million people. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Hitler only controlled three percent of those outlets.
By 1933, there were 3,400 publications.
In 1937, 2500.
I wanted to point these numbers out this week because I believe we sometimes think the German press just changed overnight after the Nazis took power. That it was swift, dramatic and obvious.
If you read Ullstein’s book (or join my virtual book club where we’re discussing “In the Garden of Beasts”) you’ll see how press freedom slowly deteriorated. There were all sorts of factors at play. Wealthy Germans friendly to Hitler were buying up competing papers. There was pressure from propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels to only report the official government line and subsequent self-censorship.
Hitler called the press the “Lügenpresse.”
Ullstein in the book says, to an extent, some newspapers closed because readership was down. If you know what you are reading isn’t true–why bother buying it?
Then there was changing the law so that Jews or those with Jewish Heritage could no longer own publishing houses. Then, the law that only Aryans could serve as reporters.
And then, of course, physically threatening and harming reporters—including taking some to concentration camps.
I can’t find the source of where I read it in German… but in my notes, I have written that between 1932 and 1934, more than 1,300 journalist positions were eliminated.
I’ll try not to completely ruin the book for you—but the end is rather memorable because Ullstein writes that he wrote this book for Americans so they could understand what happened and prevent it from happening here. That statement was rather striking to me since Ullstein couldn’t write that well in English and the book had to be translated. (You’ll see this in parts of the book where the language is a little less polished.)
A further notable moment in the book is a critique written by another writer–providing another view of Ullstein’s part in the demise of the press. It states there were many who criticized Ullstein and the other publishers for not speaking out more strongly against Hitler earlier. Again, I won’t ruin the book–but make sure you stick around for that part because the arguments are rather timely.