BLANK spaces in a newspaper can speak as loudly as words. In 1985, the South African anti-apartheid newspaper the Weekly Mail was bombarded one day by the powerful Security Police acting as state censors, who used red pens to cross out numerous words or lines, and whole pictures and stories to prevent publication. Rather than simply comply, however, the paper printed the issue with heavy black lines crossing whole sections, and censored pictures were removed completely, leaving blank spaces.
It was a provocative move; the editor thought the paper might be shut down by the government. But when Security Police arrived the next morning, they saw that the paper had essentially complied with the law. Those massive black lines and blank spaces were a graphic, powerful representation of censorship, displaying to all the world how much had been hidden from them.
The power of a publisher has also been used in profoundly negative ways, such as Der Stürmer, a vehemently anti-Semitic German tabloid published by Julius Streicher from 1923 to the end of World War Two. A significant part of Nazi propaganda, it often ran caricatures of Jews with Stars of David and hooked noses, accusations of blood libel, and sexually explicit, anti-Catholic, anti-Communist, and anti-monarchist propaganda.
The newspaper originated at Nuremberg during Adolf Hitler’s attempt to establish power. From 1923 its circulation grew, reaching a large percentage of the German population, and peaking at 486,000 in 1937. In 1933, Streicher was calling for the extermination of the Jews in Der Stürmer; during the war, he regularly authorized articles demanding their annihilation. After the war, he was convicted of crimes against humanity, and executed.
Ever since, the publication of the Star of David in a German newspaper, whether positively or negatively, evokes shivers in the spines of Jewish readers with a sense of history: might this presage bad things, if German sentiments reverted to what they once were? These sensitivities were aggravated this week when a mass-circulation German tabloid touting conservative values and famous for its past images of topless women, placed an item of potent Jewish symbolism on its front page. The publication, the Bild, said its intention was to protect Jews; it has achieved worldwide acclaim for its imagination.
It was reacting to advice by Germany’s commissioner on anti-Semitism, that Jews shouldn’t wear a skullcap in public in certain places because it is dangerous. So the Bild published a blue cut-out-and-use skullcap on its front page, urging readers, non-Jewish and Jewish, to wear it. It thumbed its nose at anti-Semites, saying, in its editor’s words, ‘the kippa belongs to Germany.’ Like the Weekly Mail 34 years previously, it was standing against powerful right wing forces.
A daily tabloid, the Bild is a powerful paper; in 2018, it printed 2,2 million copies every day across Germany. Founded by journalist Axel Springer in 1952, it has been a major shaper of mass opinion in Germany ever since. It is hardly a conventional political paper, although it plunges into hot political topics. Its trademark identity for 28 years was the pictures of topless women on its front pages; its headlines are large and provocative, its articles short and hard hitting,
The use by Germans of the Star of David will always conjure up frightening images of the yellow ones Jews had to wear in Nazi Germany. Gestures like the Bild’s front page kippa mimic the cheekiness of the Weekly Mail’s blank pages in the 1980s. But in an era when the anti-Semitic pot is boiling, right wing populist papers might print their own yellow Stars of David on their front pages.