The shimmering, gold-colored high-rise building that publisher Axel Springer had built in the 1960s is just a stone’s throw from the offices of Berlin’s legendary left-wing Tageszeitung newspaper, more commonly known simply as the “Taz.” But for someone looking from the 17th floor of the Springer building, where the main editorial offices of the influential tabloid newspaper Bild are located, a few trees block the view of the gray building that houses the editorial offices of the Taz, a publication that appears to believe even today that it has the right to dictate what it means to be left-wing in Germany.
But what exactly does it mean to be “left-wing” these days? Is it left-wing to attach to the outside of the Taz building a sculpture of Bild editor-in-chief Kai Diekmann showing him naked, wearing red glasses and cheap brown loafers and equipped with a penis that extends all the way up the front of the Taz building? Or is it just in poor taste?
Diekmann, 45, is standing in front of the Taz building on Rudi Dutschke Street. He is wearing a gray pinstriped suit and brown brogues that look like they cost several hundred euros. He tilts his head back to take a look at his enormous pink doppelganger. “I came all the way down here to see it because there are trees blocking my view,” says Diekmann. “But I still haven’t quite figured out who the sculpture on the front of this building is supposed to depict.”
Well, Diekmann himself, of course.
At this moment, Diekmann looks a little like the American comic actor Buster Keaton, who always looked slightly sad. But there is also a trace of triumph and irony in his face. “It can’t be me,” he says. “The artist, Peter Lenk, expressly denied that it’s me.”
‘A Six-Meter-Long Schlong’
An odd dispute has been the source of excitement in Berlin’s media community in recent weeks. On the one side of the dispute is Taz, published by a cooperative, constantly on the verge of bankruptcy and with a paid circulation of 65,000. On the other side is the editor-in-chief of Europe’s biggest newspaper, Bild, the cash cow of the Springer Group, with a circulation of more than 3 million.
Lenk, 62, an artist from Lake Constance, attached his anti-Springer installation, “Peace Be With You,” to the façade of the building with the approval of Taz management. It didn’t take long before the installation had triggered anger and outrage — but not from the gold-colored high-rise nearby. In fact, the displeasure over Lenk’s piece came from the fifth floor of the Taz building, where Ines Pohl moved into an office four months ago as the publication’s new editor-in-chief.
“I’m going to have to lock up my bike every morning under a six-meter-long schlong for the next two years,” says Ines Pohl, the recently appointed editor-in-chief of the Taz.
“If the artist Peter Lenk has his way, I’m going to have to lock up my bike every morning under a six-meter-long schlong for the next two years,” Pohl says. “What a pathetic provocation. How tedious. I’m just not interested in this inflated smugness that revolves around the sad, never-ending male rivalry over who has the longest penis.” She wants the sculpture removed.
Diekmann can hardly believe his luck, now that his adversaries are turning their weapons on themselves. The satire that was intended to expose him has become a comedy about the Taz editors and their image of themselves. While chaos was erupting at the Taz, Diekmann began a game of self-deprecating jujitsu on his blog.
In a blog entry titled “The Naked and the Reds,” Diekmann scoffs at his counterparts at the Taz, who have apparently “become so humorless and bitter recently that you have to ask yourself: Are these people truly brothers in spirit?” In another entry, entitled “How Much Dick Is Acceptable?”, he gleefully commiserates with his esteemed colleagues over at Taz: “I had a feeling this would happen. Now my Taz comrades are tearing each other apart over that naked monument.”
Pranksters and Reactionaries
The world has been turned upside-down on Rudi Dutschke Street. The team that likes to claim that its job is to stir things up in bourgeois society now finds itself with its back against a wall adorned by an art installation it approved. Meanwhile, the supposedly reactionary die-hards at Bild are using the tools of the modern prankster to stir things up at the Taz. The casual observer could be forgiven for being confused by the strange goings-on at the two papers. Who exactly are the revolutionaries here, and who is bourgeois?
Kai Diekmann, at any rate, appears to derive a certain Mephistophelian glee from playing the Springer prankster. When he walks through the door of Sale e Tabacchi, an Italian restaurant on the ground floor of the Taz building, he seems about as energetic and self-confident as if he owned the place.
The restaurant was once a favorite of the editors at Taz, who had worked out a deal with Sale e Tabacchi whereby they could get lunch for a bargain €3.50 ($5.20). Germany’s poorest editorial staff once had the country’s best cafeteria. But then they began finding fault with the food. Nowadays Diekmann uses Sale e Tabacchi as a living room of sorts, and he even launched his book “Der grosse Selbstbetrug” (“The Great Self-Deception”), a critique of the German student protest movements of the late 1960s, at the restaurant.
“Enemy territory? Not at all,” says Diekmann. For some time now, Taz employees have been eating lunch in their own cafeteria, where “Fennel au gratin with gorgonzola béchamel sauce, bulgur and vegetable pilaf” can be had for €5.95.
A Long-Lasting Culture War
It is quite possible that Berlin is now the scene of the last battle in a culture war that has lasted more than 40 years, a battle between the left-wing scene and Bild, which berated the protesters during the student unrest of the 1960s and sparked popular anger against people who were perceived to be deadbeats. The student activists held Bild and its headlines responsible for the death of student protester Benno Ohnesorg and the attempted assassination of the legendary student leader Rudi Dutschke. Even today, more than 40 years later, there is little reason to see these events differently.
The journalistic heirs of Axel Springer are still wrestling with the past today, despite all efforts to modernize the group’s publications. Thomas Schmid, the editor-in-chief of Springer’s flagship conservative newspaper Die Welt, is a former confidant of the leftist politician Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the head of the Greens in the European Parliament. And Springer CEO Mathias Döpfner invited veteran German left-wing activists Christian Semler and Peter Schneider to attend a “Springer Tribunal” at the media conglomerate’s headquarters — although his offer was flatly rejected, because Semler and Schneider felt that they would be paraded around like trophies.
There have always been, and still are, many unsettled accounts between Taz and Springer. Most of the time, Springer came away looking foolish because the writers and editors at Taz managed to expose their rivals with humor, impudence and chutzpah. For example, the Taz team, despite opposition from the Berlin branch of the conservative Christian Democratic Union and the Springer Group, managed to have a section of Kochstrasse, the street where their offices are located, renamed Rudi Dutschke Street as a tribute to the left-wing hero.
The Limits of Satire
In recent years, Diekmann was usually their most prominent victim. They gave him unflattering nicknames and accused him of cozying up to the “brutal George W. in Washington” and “whispering ass-kissing words” to him.
Diekmann takes a bite of his sandwich. “I’ve become more prudent and have matured in the last seven years,” he says. “I have allowed myself to be convinced that satire can be given a great deal of latitude. But that has to apply across the board, not just to the satire at Taz.”
In 2002, Taz reported in its satire column that the Bild editor-in-chief had had his penis enlarged in Miami. “In the operation,” Taz wrote, “the veins, erectile tissue and flesh from the genitals of a male corpse were supposed to be implanted into his body, but the operation went badly, and it resulted in the castration of the patient.”
Things only became worse for Diekmann when he sued for an injunction against Taz and demanded €30,000 ($44,700) in damages. The court ruled against him. Until then, it was only a few people in the leftist scene who had been laughing at him. Now one of the most powerful editors-in-chief in Germany was looking like a fool.
The Anti-Phallus Contingent
The day after Diekmann walked down to inspect his alleged likeness, a company meeting was held at Taz to discuss what to do about the art installation. A number of readers had expressed their irritation, and the pink monstrosity had become a source of embarrassment for many of the editors. But hardly anyone wanted to give Diekmann the satisfaction of seeing the sculpture being taken down.
A decision to remove the installation was postponed. There are now two camps at Taz. On the one side are those who no longer want to be made fools of by their arch-nemesis and who berate the anti-phallus contingent as “neo-bourgeois and prudish.” On the other are people like editor-in-chief Ines Pohl who just want to see the thing removed. Almost all of them find the discussion embarrassing, but even after debating the issue for almost two-and-a-half hours, they haven’t come up with an effective response to Diekmann.
After the meeting, Pohl is standing in the cafeteria. She is wearing a green parka and her eyes seem glazed over. She shrugs her shoulders. One staff member, she says, suggested installing a fountain into the tip of the penis, but that isn’t an option. For now, she says, the unwanted sculpture is staying where it is.
It is Pohl’s first experience of what it’s like to be in charge at a publication where direct democracy rules. In other words, she doesn’t have much say at the paper. Pohl was brought in four months ago to shift Taz a little further to the left. Many editors complained that Pohl’s urbane predecessor, Bascha Mika, had become more interested in going on talk shows than in taking part in the fight against nuclear power.
Pohl, on the other hand, is not so interested in the spotlight. She has attended anti-nuclear and peace rallies in Mutlangen, the former site of a US military base in southwest Germany, was the women’s affairs representative at the University of Göttingen and has worked for various regional newspapers. Pohl balks at the idea of promoting herself as a public figure, something that seems to form part of the job of an editor-in-chief today. She seems somewhat outclassed in the dispute with Diekmann.
Sympathy for the Devil
Diekmann, on the other hand, comes across as if he has been preparing for his job as Bild editor-in-chief his whole life. When he was only 14, he held a microphone up to the face of his idol, former Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Today Kohl is practically part of the family; Kohl was Diekmann’s best man at his wedding in 2002, and Diekmann returned the favor when Kohl married for a second time in 2008.
By the age of 36, Diekmann had made it to the top at Bild. Since then he has assembled a small team around him. They run a blog together with Diekmann, where he also sells hot pants imprinted with the inscription “I Heart KD” and shoulder bags with the inscription “Sympathy for the Devil.”
Six months ago, Diekmann — in complete seriousness, of course — joined the Taz cooperative, which owns the newspaper and currently has over 8,900 members. “We wanted to reach the target of 9,000 cooperative members by the end of the year,” Diekmann told SPIEGEL. “We are currently being forced to abandon this goal,” he said, adding, in a reference to the artist who created the penis sculpture, “I’m afraid the Lenk campaign is backfiring. That’s something we need to talk about.”
In 2003, he was even guest editor for one issue of the Taz, which garnered record circulation figures. But now many at the Taz have the feeling that they made a pact with the devil at the time.
Meanwhile, the sculpture will stay up for another two years — at least. Peter Lenk, the artist, has cited a verbal agreement with Kalle Ruch, the managing director of the Taz. “If anyone touches it before then,” says Lenk, “it’ll cost them €130,000 — and that would be a special price because we’re friends.”
Lenk is sitting in the kitchen of his house on Lake Constance. He worked on the piece for one year, and at the end, when he had accumulated material costs of close to €28,000, he even hocked his sailboat. His bawdy satirical pieces have made Lenk a folk hero on Lake Constance.
Last year, he installed a triptych depicting an orgy in front of the city hall in the southwestern city of Ludwigshafen. In the piece, a naked Chancellor Angela Merkel is grabbing former Bavarian governor Edmund Stoiber’s genitals, while former Volkswagen works council member Klaus Volkert gropes Brazilian whores — a reference to a much-publicized scandal at the carmaker. The piece attracted such large crowds that the city administration collected €6,000 in fines for illegally parked cars in the first eight weeks alone. The city has since installed a small viewing area with benches in front of the sculpture.
Lenk is an anarchically minded left-winger of the old school. He attended demonstrations in Stuttgart where he would shout obscene slogans. He was later fired from his job as a teacher because he was allowing his students to give themselves grades. Lenk has been a sculptor since then.
With his populist art, Lenk is a kind of Kai Diekmann of the Lake Constance art scene. But this isn’t enough for him anymore. Now he wants to make his mark in Berlin.
“The ball is on the penalty spot, ready to be kicked straight into the executive floor of the the Springer building,” says Lenk. “Right under the nose of those people who are obsessed with schadenfreude and tawdry sex.”
Ines Pohl, says Lenk, wants to turn the Taz into a serious newspaper. “But me,” says Lenk defiantly, “I’m not serious.”
Diekmann seems to believe that the outcome of the culture war has already been decided — in his favor, of course. For this reason, he has invited the Taz staff to attend a party to bury the hatchet, with free beer courtesy of Bild.
The thought alone turns the stomach of Taz old hand and blog manager Mathias Bröckers. “We’ve always had better parties,” says Bröckers. “Now we’ve got this pecker hanging on the wall for the next two years.” After it comes down, he says, there will still be time to make up with the people at Bild.
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