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West Berlin’s Critical Communication Studies and the Cold War: A Study on Symbolic Power from 1948 to 1989

Published onMay 18, 2022
West Berlin’s Critical Communication Studies and the Cold War: A Study on Symbolic Power from 1948 to 1989


This paper examines how the West Berlin communication studies department, for over 40 years, was tied to or “disciplined” by the Cold War, leading to practices of exclusion and hegemony. Drawing on Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of symbolic power, we analyze how anticommunism as a discourse formed the habitus, capital, and field logic of West Berlin communication studies. Sources are archival material from Freie Universität Berlin (Free University of Berlin), minutes of Abgeordnetenhaus von Berlin (parliament), press from East and West Germany, and autobiographical material and academic publications from West Berlin and West German communication scholars. The paper describes how the anticommunist discourse at first helped Emil Dovifat, professor and department director from 1928 on, to protect himself from attacks regarding his Nazi past and to reestablish his reputation after 1945. For his successor, the interim director Fritz Eberhard, the anticommunist discourse caused problems. Eberhard tried to consolidate the poorly reputed discipline at Freie Universität Berlin during the 1960s; however, this effort was weakened because he had to defend himself against press attacks for being a socialist. Finally, the unique geopolitics of West Berlin, together with the anticommunist discourse, help to explain why the West Berlin department developed after 1968 into a (lonely) center of critical theory indebted to Marx and the Frankfurt School, and how these approaches were marginalized by the rest of the field and by the political system in the 1970s and 1980s.


Este artículo examina la forma en que durante más de 40 años el departamento de estudios de comunicación de Berlín Occidental estuvo vinculado o “controlado” por la guerra fría, lo que condujo a prácticas de exclusión y hegemonía. Con base en el concepto de poder simbólico de Pierre Bourdieu, analizamos la manera en que el anticomunismo como discurso formó el habitus, el capital y la lógica de campo de los estudios de comunicación de Berlín Occidental. Las fuentes de este estudio provienen del material de archivo de la Freie Universität Berlin (Universidad Libre de Berlín), las actas del Abgeordnetenhaus von Berlin (Parlamento), la prensa de Alemania Oriental y Occidental y material autobiográfico y publicaciones académicas de estudiosos de la comunicación de Berlín y Alemania occidentales. El artículo describe cómo al principio el discurso anticomunista ayudó a Emil Dovifat, profesor y director del departamento desde 1928, a protegerse de los ataques relacionados con su pasado nazi y a restablecer su reputación después de 1945. Para su sucesor, el director interino Fritz Eberhard, el discurso anticomunista representó mayores problemas. Durante la década de 1960, Eberhard trató de consolidar la maltrecha disciplina en la Freie Universität de Berlín, pero este esfuerzo se vio debilitado porque tuvo que defenderse de los ataques de la prensa por ser socialista. Por último, la singular geopolítica de Berlín Occidental, junto con el discurso anticomunista, ayudan a explicar por qué después de 1968 el departamento de Berlín Occidental se convirtió en un (solitario) centro de teoría crítica en deuda con Marx y la Escuela de Fráncfort, y cómo estos planteamientos fueron marginados por el resto del campo y por el sistema político en los años setenta y ochenta.

German Communication Studies and Societal Critical Theories during the Cold War

When looking at the denomination of chairs—as well as research and teaching commitments—at the communications institute of the Freie Universität Berlin (Free University of Berlin) during the second half of the twentieth century, it becomes clear that societal and media critical theories in the traditions of Marx and the Frankfurt School had no strong footing there. At first glance, this failure might appear unsurprising. From 1948 to 1989, this institute was located in the Western part of a divided city. The Institut für Publizistik (Institute for Media Studies) was established during the so-called Berlin Blockade, a conflict of 1948–1949 during which U.S. authorities, West German politicians, and local journalists invented the narrative of West Berlin as an “Outpost of Freedom.”1 The common story line turned the city’s Western part “into an endangered fort in close proximity to the enemy”;2 commentators considered West Berlin a Frontstadt (frontier city). The name of the new university in the Western part of the city of course perfectly supported the symbolic system of a “free world” fighting against the alleged threat posed by communism. This discursive creation found nourishment in the Khrushchev ultimatum (1958) and the construction of the Berlin Wall (1961), when tanks lined up on both sides of the dividing line.3 It therefore does not seem presumptive to assume that—especially in West Berlin and especially at the Freie Universität, founded in 1948 with U.S. support—Cold War discourse hindered the adoption of theories questioning the cornerstones of the Western system. In the late 1970s, with the policy of détente relegated to the past in Europe,4 the “war of ideas and ideologies” between East and West re-emerged.5 Communication studies throughout West Germany, not just in West Berlin, in fact largely failed to institutionalize these approaches.6 Why, of all communications institutes in the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), should the one in West Berlin have attempted to develop and institutionalize societal and media critical ideas?

In his study on “the inheritors of Adorno,” the German communications scholar Andreas Scheu wrote that, by 1970, the Institut für Publizistik in Berlin had become, at least temporarily, “a clear and rather lonely center of ‘critical communication studies’” in the Federal Republic.7 The Free University (FU) emerged as one of “the hotbeds of ferment” that helped organize the movement of 1968.8 The majority of so-called critical scholars (a term that applied to the Marxist and Frankfurt School approaches) were academically socialized in Berlin or at least somehow connected to the place. The paths of critical scholars usually led to Berlin and, to a lesser extent, to the cities of Dortmund and Hamburg.9

The present contribution elaborates on the thesis that the spread of societal critical approaches and the failure of their institutionalization in West Berlin resulted from the struggle for supremacy between socialism and capitalism in the second half of the twentieth century. We examine how critical communication studies were both facilitated and restrained by the ideological confrontation between East and West and within each bloc.10 We draw on the sociology of Pierre Bourdieu, especially on his concept of symbolic power,11 to clarify how the Cold War structured the history of the institute in West Berlin. Anticommunism emerged as a core element of this war of words on the part of the West.12 The aim was to promote the superiority of capitalist democracy, positioning the United States as the role model.13 Empirically, we analyzed a variety of sources such as autobiographical and biographical material, academic publications, material from the archive of the FU, press coverage from East and West Germany, and minutes of meetings of West Berlin’s parliament. We studied the period from 1948, when the Institut für Publizistik at the FU was founded in the middle of the Berlin Blockade, to 1989, when the era of socialism in the East ended and, roughly at the same time, the institute underwent a restructuring.

Perhaps geographical distance carves out the space for the present study. In his work, Scheu mentioned the Cold War as an external factor, without considering it more deeply when writing his book in Munich, far away from the earlier German-German border.14 We, in contrast, work in Berlin, where the traces of the Cold War are omnipresent. This location, some critics may venture, could lead to an overemphasis on this global conflict. Will our focus on the Cold War reduce the complex development of theory to a simple product of just one abstract external force? Of course, other external influences also shaped the West German field in general and the fate of critical theories of societies in particular. Press concentration and the introduction of television, for instance, led to economic conflicts and media policy debates. Politicians and media practitioners expected communication studies to provide them with numbers and data that they could wield in these debates of the 1960s and 1970s. The shift to descriptive empirical quantitative research (and not to theories of society and the media) in the field was attended by a boom of market research.15 Furthermore, most students taking up communication science expected to get trained as journalists. Their strong practical orientation, even during the 1968 movement, might have contributed to dampening the popularity of theory in the field.16 Finally, after 1945 the discipline wrestled with its Nazi past: in the middle of a legitimacy crisis, closure threatened many of its departments.17 We here take these other influences into account and put them in relation to Cold War pressures.

One might also object that biographies and ideational trajectories were responsible for the development of West Berlin’s critical communication studies. For one, according to a sociology-of-science approach, societal developments influence the establishment or rejection of theories, and they do so via institutions, ideas, or biographies.18 Second, the Cold War had an effect on media content, media structures, and journalists.19 In Berlin, for instance, parallel broadcasts from the FRG and the German Democratic Republic (GDR) targeted each other’s population.20 This effect on the research objects of communication studies was not without repercussions on the field itself.21 It therefore makes sense to assume that the Western “crusade against communism” had consequences for critical, “left” approaches. These approaches did not seem to fit the idea that “mass communication research” could help “build loyalty at home and stable, new, noncommunist nations around the globe,”22 but they nevertheless seemed to have created a distinctive period, at least in West Berlin’s disciplinary history.

The case of West Berlin may contribute to the “collective reflexivity” regarding hegemony and exclusion in the history of communication studies.23 First, the history of West Berlin’s critical communication studies demonstrates the ambivalence of exclusion in the history of the field in the West. Even if the institutionalization of critical approaches ultimately failed, representatives managed to establish such research and teaching, at least partially and temporarily. Moreover, although critical perspectives were largely excluded from mainstream curricula, we cannot consider critical scholars as marginalized actors in principle. They were, in fact, able to gain acceptance by making concessions.24 Second, preventing the institutionalization of critical approaches within the Western scientific community hindered openings for other perspectives and ways of analyzing society and media. It therefore helped maintain hegemony and delimitation, even in a global perspective.

The second section of the present article explains the linkage between external factors and scientific development that Bourdieu provides to avoid an overly simplistic view. In the third section, we describe the sources of our study, followed by a fourth section on findings. There we elaborate on three periods in the institute’s history of critical approaches during which the Cold War and institutional, as well as partly personal, developments intersected.

Bourdieu: Symbolic Power and the Field of Science

Bourdieu’s sociology helps us avoid deterministic assumptions about the Cold War:25 His field-capital-habitus theory emphasizes the world of science as a social world governed by its own rules.26 If we wanted to study how certain approaches developed under particular political circumstances, we would need to unearth these rules at play in the scientific field under study, as well as understand to what extent members of the field managed to shape them. The latitude of a single scholar and the degree to which he or she may influence the rules of the field depend on their social position within the field. According to Bourdieu,27 leading scholars or leading “classic” studies determine the universe of significant research objects, issues, theories, and methods “worth” investigating for all community members. Each social position depends on the available capital and on the way capital is distributed within the field. Reputation emerges as the specific capital granted within the scientific field. This capital, indicated for instance by publications and awards, is convertible to material capital (for example, paid positions or research grants).

The scientific field delineates the place of struggle for domination between orthodoxy and heresy, which, despite dispute, may be linked by solidarity and complicity.28 Bourdieu assumes that societal demands (e.g., for specific problem solutions) do not impart directly on knowledge production but are translated by the field’s own rules. This assumption applies to more or less autonomous disciplines. Some disciplines, especially young ones and those without much prestige, however, are less capable of breaking external influence.29 This leads us to ask: How independent of politics were German communication studies during the Cold War, particularly West Berlin’s Institut für Publizistik?

How do we describe and explain the way critical perspectives in West Berlin were involved in the Cold War? Symbolic power operates via a system of words, signs, and discourses in society. This system of symbolic structures expresses a particular ideology and serves particular interests.30 It exercises power by defining reality, which leads to the reproduction of objective structures. Social actors find symbolic structures in a “market” that serves to steer discursive production.31 The field of power, needing legitimacy, seeks to control this language market. This market operates with a system of specific sanctions and censorship processes.32 Symbolic power does not always operate in the modus of politically motivated and publicly expressed propaganda; instead, it might be embedded in institutions, subjective experiences, and individual consciousness, as well as in everyday practices, which reproduce structures of domination. Symbolic power may thus remain tacit, accepted, and taken for granted. Heretical discourses, engaged in struggles for truth, deploy alternative visions of the world to transform structures of domination. Heretical discourse “presupposes a conjuncture of critical discourse and an objective crisis.”33

Scholars specialize in symbolic production; they contribute to the legitimation of dominant meaning systems and sometimes oppose them within their specific “symbolic universe.”34 Scholars in a field of science may share the language of politics and prioritize overtly normative, moral questions, perhaps motivated by their own political ideas. Contrary to this practice, a “bracketing of overtly value-centered questions” may be sustained by a field of science that gives principal significance to “theoretical questions” and exhibits a commitment to methods and procedures.35 Depending on the discipline’s autonomy, social position, and habitus, scholars may either reproduce the field’s logic to deal with the symbolic power of a particular ideology or challenge it.36 Different forms of discourse bear different opportunities for material or symbolic profit, always according to the social position of the “language producer.”37

This leads to the question of the kinds of experiences West Berlin scholars had with the United States and its institutions (as well as with the East), and how they perceived anticommunist discourse. We also need to ask which role the political field played in the “struggle for authority” during the Cold War.38 The political field would include institutions, such as the local parliament and government. What institutional resources did the institute have, and to what extent did Berlin scholars’ habitus reproduce or attempt to alter both anticommunist discourse and the rules of West German communication studies? Bourdieu himself also raised the issue of how the field at large evaluated critical communication studies in Berlin (for instance, in book reviews).

In sum, we assume that the habitus of Berlin’s communication scholars, the capital distribution at the Institut für Publizistik, and the rules of communication studies all related to the symbolic power of the Cold War. Politics and media constituted central fields in the production and reproduction of anticommunist discourse. Habitus, capital, and field provide insights into the autonomy, as well as the entanglement, of a discipline—in this case of a particular theory tradition—in the reproduction of structures of domination.

Research Categories and Sources

We derived three main research categories from Bourdieu that helped us choose and analyze sources.39 We defined habitus as the first category and focused on key protagonists. We adapted Bourdieu’s distinction of modus operandi and opus operatum. Modus operandi helped us study how protagonists dealt with symbolic power. It led us to the interests of actors, their political and religious beliefs and values, their understanding of communication science (goals of science, research objects, theories, methods), and their academic (teaching, researching, administration) and non-academic engagement (e.g., journalism, political groups). Opus operatum (biographies, key experiences in life) helped us understand why actors thought and acted the way they did.

We considered the scientific capital (reputation) and the social, economic, and cultural capital available to the actors, the institute, and the field of communication studies in West Germany (e.g., its standing within the university) as the second category. This category enabled us to comprehend why anticommunism was reproduced or challenged. The scientific field of Berlin Publizistikwissenschaft (media studies), located within the FU and within the broader field of communication studies in West Germany, served as our third main category. It allowed us to consider the institute’s degree of institutionalization and organization (e.g., appointment procedures). Moreover, the field category included the academic rules of the field: the common conception of communication studies in the FRG, and the role of U.S. mass communication research, which influenced many countries in western and northern Europe after the Second World War.40 By means of the field category we also researched anticommunist discourse produced by the media and the political field, which affected scholars’ practices in West Berlin. These three main categories enabled us to determine how far the discourses of anticommunism and the Cold War influenced the institute’s scientific autonomy.

The categories led to the selection of a variety of sources. First, our material comprised autobiographical and biographical sources. A range of biographical interviews with former professors, academic staff, and some students at the Institut für Publizistik formed part of this material.41 We analyzed scientific publications, a media policy newsletter issued at the institute, articles authored by West Berlin communication scholars in non-academic publications, and the course catalogue. These sources helped us reconstruct the academic work of the members of the institute. Additionally, we considered sources that provided insights into the exercise of symbolic power in the scientific field, the media, and politics: book reviews and other parts of the scholarly journal Publizistik, press coverage from East and West Germany, and minutes of West Berlin’s parliamentary debates. Besides these published sources, we analyzed material from the FU’s archive: reports on appointment procedures, experts’ reports, correspondence internal to the institute, and that exchanged among the institute, the university’s president, management, and Berlin’s Ministry of Science. Furthermore, this archive provided curriculum development documents about student enrollment numbers and internal job and career development, as well as resources pertaining to the student movement, such as student journals, brochures, and posters.

Critical Perspectives: Facilitated and Restrained by Cold War Symbolic Power

We chose two criteria to structure the Cold War history of critical perspectives. One criterion was the turning points of the Cold War (periods of intensive and diminishing symbolic power of anticommunism),42 while the other was turning points in the institutional history of West Berlin communication studies (which partly overlapped with personal change).

Berlin Wall and the Spread of Critical Perspectives

Until the 1960s, anticommunism was one of the cornerstones of the university’s identity. Professors and students agreed on a rejection of the GDR and the Soviet Union. The West Berlin press approved of the university’s positioning in the Cold War. Yet the student movement that arose around 1965 seemed to end the anticommunist consensus. Much as they did all around the globe, students in West Berlin began to criticize Western politics, especially in view of the Vietnam War waged by the United States.43 After the construction of the Berlin Wall, the growing antiauthoritarian student movement reached the small communication studies institute, and students started critically discussing media, society, and their own discipline. The fresh critical perspectives faced no great barriers because the institute’s anticommunist orthodoxist (Emil Dovifat) had retired, while a new professor (Fritz Eberhard) was caught between sympathy and the Cold War requirements in the service of his institute, weakened after the war through an institutional and reputational crisis. Moreover, both students and staff shared a concern about saving their institution.

Interim Professor Fritz Eberhard

The year Fritz Eberhard (1896-1982) started his work as the institute’s new director was the same year the Berlin Wall was erected. From 1961 onward, the number of students from the GDR enrolled at the FU decreased. It did see an influx of students from the FRG, however, who arrived with reservations about the West German establishment.44 As students in West Berlin became more and more politicized, the works of Marx and those coming out of the Frankfurt School became standard literature among them. Although these works did not become part of the literary canon under the media practitioner (rather than theorist) Eberhard, whose career was interwoven with U.S. institutions after World War II, he did not seek conflict with the new generation of critical students. A fellow professor in the Department of Philosophy in fact described Eberhard as a sympathizer of the student movement.45

Eberhard, who had studied economics, did not come from the academic world when he entered Publizistikwissenschaft. He had written a book about radio audiences while serving as director at a regional public broadcasting organization in the southwest of the FRG (Süddeutscher Rundfunk). A lack of qualified communication scholars unburdened by the Nazi past led the appointment committee to consider him a suitable candidate despite lacking scholarly achievements. The committee decided based not on his book but on his journalistic knowledge.46 In the 1920s, Eberhard had worked as a journalist for the socialist paper Der Funke, switching to the BBC in 1937 when, as a member of the antifascist resistance, he had to emigrate to London. Moreover, the commission emphasized his symbolic capital as a politician and public figure who had more than once proven his loyalty to Western democracy and the United States.47

In his BBC broadcasts, Eberhard had raised questions about how to restore peace in Europe. With the help of the U.S. High Command, he returned to Germany in 1945. In Stuttgart, he reported to the American Office of Strategic Services (the U.S. intelligence agency) and became an adviser for the U.S. station Radio Stuttgart. In the following years, Eberhard was active in the political field. He co-founded the Stuttgart Social Democratic Party (SPD), was appointed state secretary in 1947 (in the federal state of Württemberg-Baden), and chaired the Deutsches Büro für Friedensfragen (German Office for Questions of Peace), which operated under the influence of the Western Allies. He became a member of the Parliamentary Council in Bonn, which developed the constitution of the FRG. After vacating his political offices, he served, as mentioned, as the director of a public broadcasting institution in the south of the FRG from 1949 until 1958.48

Eberhard’s appointment sparked media attacks from the conservative camp. Several newspapers questioned his political integrity, not only the radical right-wing Reichsruf but also the Catholic, conservative Rheinischer Merkur, an influential weekly newspaper secretly subsidized by Konrad Adenauer’s government.49 Referring to his activities during his time in exile and denouncing him as a traitor to his country, these media outlets declared Eberhard unfit to lead the institute at the front line of the Cold War. The FU investigated the accusations but eventually defended Eberhard.50 Also, due to his age of 65, Eberhard was seen as a temporary solution. He was not appointed as a full professor, which weakened his social position in the Department of Philosophy, which was divided between an anticommunist camp and a camp willing to reform.51

When Eberhard arrived at the institute in the early 1960s, the field of German Publizistikwissenschaft found itself in crisis. It suffered from lack of reputation, resources, and qualified talent. The discipline had willingly served the Nazi dictatorship, had a poor reputation in science policy, and did not meet with esteem in the university. Starting in the 1960s, a generation of new professors, career changers from the media or neighboring disciplines, tried to save the discipline by attempting to develop it into an empirical social science.52 Fritz Eberhard was part of this generation.53

Under these conditions, Eberhard’s main task was to ensure the survival of Publizistikwissenschaft by finding a permanent successor and to improve the reputation of the discipline. Like almost all of the seven professors in the field in West Germany around 1970, Eberhard supported refocusing the discipline on U.S. mass communication research. In his few scholarly publications, he adapted American narratives of anticommunism and emphasized the importance of communication studies as a weapon in the Cold War.54 Hanno Hardt has ascribed the role model function that mass communication fulfilled in West Germany to the search for political rehabilitation.55 Scholars confessed to a research practice grown on “democratic soil” and tried to abandon the discipline’s Nazi past. Following Bourdieu’s question of why symbolic power is often legitimate power,56 we understand that the need to leave the Nazi past and the crisis behind explains the acceptance of mainstream American research’s supremacy. This refocusing led, among other things, to the exclusion of (critical) social theory.57 In comparison with other institutes, Berlin institutionalized this new focus late. A chair for empirical methods was not established until the late 1980s, as we will explain later.

Given the fragile situation of Berlin’s Publizistikwissenschaft, Eberhard’s weak social position in the Department of Philosophy, and his modest achievements in the field of communication research, he was not in a position to challenge hegemonic discourses and practices, even if he wanted to. Quite the contrary. Next to monetary and material donations, exchange programs intended to facilitate the transfer of U.S. research standards to Europe took shape.58 Eberhard made use of these opportunities. He had wanted to travel to the United States himself, but health issues made him send his right-hand woman instead.59 Elisabeth Löckenhoff had already worked as an assistant under Eberhard’s predecessor, Emil Dovifat, and had supervised many of the department’s organizational and administrative tasks. In 1963, funded by the Ford Foundation, she visited the communications departments at several U.S. universities to find eligible candidates willing to work as research assistants in West Berlin.60

In his few academic texts, Eberhard mostly refrained from an explicit, critical political and economic analysis of communication in Western societies. He did acknowledge the problems of private media ownership and endorsed public broadcasting.61 He also called for critical audiences and publicists.62 Yet his vocabulary remained cautious regarding the “danger” press concentration “might involve,”63 a top issue of the student movement. Instead, in line with prominent U.S. colleagues,64 Eberhard highlighted the need for quantitative media effects research using drastic metaphors.65 The mass media, he explained, were essential elements in the functioning of modern democracies.66 Following this conception of the media, and the typically politicized and generalized use of the term media in Cold War discourse,67 he held a reserved view of the Frankfurt School’s pessimistic outlook on mass media.

Rather, Eberhard introduced his students to books by Paul Lazarsfeld, Harold Lasswell, Wilbur Schramm, and other leading scholars who had built their careers on military and government funds.68 He invited guest lecturers from the other side of the Atlantic and brought Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, a renowned public opinion researcher, to West Berlin, where she taught empirical methods from 1961 to 1964.69 Despite having to play into the Cold War’s symbolic power to save a weak institute, Eberhard successfully created an intellectual climate that allowed young scholars to develop critical views on mass media and society. In fact, one group of student assistants critically analyzed West Berlin’s press coverage of the student movement.70

The Cold Warrior Emil Dovifat

Critical societal perspectives were not Emil Dovifat’s concern either. The conservative Catholic had been appointed professor in 1928, served in that capacity during National Socialism with a short interruption,71 and became professor again in 1948. After Eberhard’s appointment, Dovifat (1890-1969) continued teaching and researching until the mid-sixties. The former director did not understand the critical new generation of students he met in the late years of his career.72 Not only did his political orientation oppose antiauthoritarianism and critical social theory but so did his personal experience of the Cold War. After the Second World War, Dovifat had been one of the founders of the Christlich Demokratische Union (Christian Democratic Union, CDU) and served as the chief editor of the party organ, Neue Zeit, in Berlin. This paper appeared under the license of the Soviet administration. Dovifat lost his position in the editorial office after only three months.73 The Soviet military administration controlled the old Berlin university, where the Deutsche Institut für Zeitungskunde, as the institute used to be called, had had its place before 1945.74 While the Soviet authorities accused Dovifat of essentially continuing the career he had had in Nazi Germany, the newly founded FU offered him the chance to retain his academic standing. The Cold War continued to shape Dovifat’s work after his appointment in West Berlin. Ongoing criticism by East German politicians and press,75 as well as by the field of socialist journalism studies,76 threatened his reputation in the FRG. Criticizing the GDR and the Soviet Union thus became a main motive in Dovifat’s teaching, popular talks, and media engagement, and publications. He distinguished “totalitarian” and “democratic” types of media systems, equating the GDR with Nazi Germany.77 Despite reservations about the commercialization of the press, Dovifat followed this simple dichotomy: he advocated for the Western liberal model of a private press and public broadcasting against that of state-controlled media in socialist countries. As a member of the administrative board of the Northwest German Broadcasting Corporation and subsequently of Radio Free Berlin, he promoted public broadcasting as a counter-propaganda tool against the GDR and the Soviet Union.78

A Critical Habitus among Students of Communications Studies

Walled-in West Berlin had a highly concentrated press market in the 1960s. Students started to discuss the influence of press ownership on opinion-building when they saw their activities portrayed in a biased way. Particularly, the conservative, anticommunist newspapers of the Axel Springer publishing house attacked the student movement and accused it of paving the way for communism and the influence of the GDR in West Berlin.79 In 1967, Axel Springer owned about 70 percent of West Berlin’s print media.80 From 1966 onward, Springer’s headquarters were located directly at the Wall. Students’ growing concern with the power of a concentrated commercial press merged with their demand for more practical education, since most of them aimed to go into journalism.81 A range of self-organized activities fostered politicization, including some regular courses, for instance, on the issue of press concentration.82 At times, tension existed between academic staff and students, but no major conflicts erupted as they did in other parts of the university.83 Löckenhoff, who later became a professor, was not particularly critical, resulting in complaints from some students.84 Having lived and studied in the GDR before coming to West Berlin in 1952, however, she dealt with the socialist media system in her teaching in a more nuanced way than Dovifat. Adopting a system-immanent approach to the GDR, she challenged ruling narratives and most likely raised awareness of the interdependence of politics and science.85

The fundamental ideas in the “critical emancipatory” habitus of the politicized students were based on the reception of Marxist theory and the Frankfurt School. They consisted of:

  • A critical stance toward mainstream communication studies because of its lack of journalistic practice and for serving publishers’ interests;

  • Criticism of a privately owned press, media manipulation, and the reproduction of domination; and

  • The aim of having communication studies contribute to human emancipation and to societal and media change.

Some of these ideas found formulation in student brochures, but mostly they came into being in working groups, discussions, and at congresses.86 Not until the next period of the Cold War and the institute’s history did societal critical perspectives start to gain a foothold. Courses led to graduate theses on critical content analyses of the press, journalism labor unions, critical media policy analyses, press concentration, and so-called Third World issues. A curriculum was developed, and critical students were hired to become research assistants.

The Policy of Détente and the Critical Center

Starting at the end of the 1960s, the department took steps toward institutionalizing critical perspectives. These steps occurred during easing tensions in Europe in the context of the policy of détente.87 The thrust of critical perspectives was also supported by the politicized university, whose new rules were developed in the slipstream of temporarily decreased anticommunism. Travel relief, the result of the Four Powers Agreement on Berlin in 1971, constituted a small building block. It enabled Westerners’ purchase of the “blue volumes,” the GDR edition of Marx and Engels, in East Berlin for little money.88 A university reform law, passed by the Social Democratic West Berlin government in 1969, limited the power of professors and provided parity among them, academic staff (assistants), and students on the university’s boards. Communication studies’ new and very left-leaning Department of Philosophy and Social Sciences even included nonacademic staff in parity politics. Expanded codetermination rights led to the formation of political groups that competed for influence during appointment and employment procedures. For some years, the Aktionsgemeinschaft von Demokraten und Sozialisten (Action Group of Democrats and Socialists), closely tied to the Socialist Unity Party of West Berlin, became the dominant group at the institute.

The sway of critical perspectives also came to bear on the institute’s leadership. After many years of searching, Eberhard had succeeded in finding a candidate who was accepted by the appointment committee and willing to take up this professorship. In 1968, the journalist Harry Pross (1923-2010) was appointed full professor, a decision made during a student strike at the institute. The students had two demands: the appointment of the former director of Radio Bremen and the democratization of appointment procedures. They welcomed Pross as a practitioner and well-known book author.89 Pross, who had studied social sciences and was active in the journalists’ trade union, had made a career of journalism after 1945. He had authored several critical books about German history, politics, and mass media by the time he switched to communication studies. After his appointment, Pross continued to publish, yet neither in a Marxist or Frankfurt School tradition nor in a terminology connectable to mainstream communication studies.90

Pross’s appointment ended the era of the “one-man company.” The institute saw an expansion of paid jobs for professors, assistants, and students. By 1980, the number of professors had grown from one to eight. While professors did not contribute much to the institutionalization of critical perspectives, particularly in the realms of research and publication, students and young academic staff engaged in critical perspectives.91 The number of students greatly increased starting at the end of the 1960s. While the number of students majoring in Publizistik had tripled by the late 1970s,92 the expansion of paid professorships remained insufficient, with only the appointment of a second professorship in 1970 and a total of eight professorships by 1980. Teaching largely rested on the shoulders of student tutors and mid-level academic staff.93

Curriculum: The “Berlin Model” of Journalism Education

Critical theory became an integral part of teaching at the West Berlin institute in the 1970s.94 With the support of Pross, students and academic staff drafted a curriculum that integrated practical orientation and critical approaches. The so-called Berlin Model defined communication studies as part of “critical-emancipatory social sciences” and aimed to educate practitioners for journalism, public relations, and pedagogy.95 Due to the interest of some of the teaching staff, a variety of courses referred to critical theory. Apart from that, courses about critical political economy formed a fixed part of the curriculum.96 These courses were taught by academic assistants. In the 1970s, especially the young sociologists Volker Gransow and Burkhard Hoffmann tried to adapt Marxist theory to communication studies and closely followed the classic works of Marx and Engels. Furthermore, Gransow and Hoffmann were interested in the GDR. Gransow’s sociological dissertation dealt with that country’s cultural policy.97 Hoffmann considered literature from GDR in his attempt to build a materialist communication theory.98

Although Pross, as the institute’s new director, promoted the establishment of the Berlin Model and supervised the work of scholars such as Gransow and Hoffmann, he remained skeptical about the political implications of educational efforts of groups such as the Aktionsgemeinschaft von Demokraten und Sozialisten. Rejecting openness toward the other German state,99 he publicly warned of the politicization of universities and criticized members of his institute who aimed for the kind of “cadre education” practiced in the GDR.100 Pross successfully engaged in the appointment of Ivan Bystřina (1924-2004) from Czechoslovakia, who left his country due to the Prague Spring. Bystřina chaired the institute from 1970 until 1990, but he hardly left behind any traces of his presence.101 Similar to the career of his much older predecessor, Pross’s after 1945 led through U.S. institutions. From 1949 to 1952, he worked in the propaganda division of the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John McCloy, who also promoted financial support for the FU at the same time. Pross served as the editor of the propaganda journal Ost-Probleme. Retrospectively, he wrote that the Americans had employed him because of his knowledge of Marxism. In 1952, Pross traveled to the United States with a postgraduate research fellowship from the private Commonwealth Fund. In his memoirs, he emphasized the discovery of American propaganda research during that stay.102

The Berlin Model became further institutionalized with the establishment of a professorship dedicated to media practice. The appointment of Alexander von Hoffmann (1924-2006) in 1974, however, did not lead to the accumulation of scientific capital according to the rules of the broader communication studies field in the West. The former editor of the renowned news magazine Der Spiegel certainly identified with the critical approach of the Berlin Model, but he focused on teaching instead of publishing.

The critical approach of communication studies met opposition within the university and from the state government. The Academic Senate, the highest board of the university, demanded that the curriculum be in line with the “free and democratic societal order” of the Federal Republic and offer “pluralistic” views.103 The local government of West Berlin never approved the critical curriculum. Among a long list of complaints, the three Social Democratic ministers of science, who were in office until 1981, questioned whether political economy was “at all relevant” for the education of journalists.104 Nevertheless, the Berlin Model remained the basis for teaching. The significant number of students who received this education during this time in West Berlin might prove a key to understanding why the institute was perceived as a center of critical communication studies.

To a large extent, assistants carried out the institute’s teaching. These younger scholars also tried to make contacts with the East. In November 1970, twenty-two students participated in a field trip to Lomonosov University in Moscow. The journey aimed to start a dialogue with scholars of the USSR and establish professional networks. During their week there, however, the Berlin students had only one opportunity to meet with members of the Moscow Faculty for Journalism. With their orientation toward a practical education of journalists, the Moscow students had a different understanding of communication studies than those from West Berlin who were inspired to discuss Marx. Even though the trip did not make for a success, it illustrated the West Berlin students’ interest in a Marxist-Leninist conception of communication science and their willingness to overcome the Cold War in their field.105

It was probably with the same intention that Burkhard Hoffmann,106 part of the self-declared “Marxist-Leninist group” at the institute and working as a research assistant from 1970 to 1975,107 and Klaus Betz, a member of the Socialist Unity Party of West Berlin, traveled to Leipzig. Hoffmann and Betz hoped to engage in theoretical discussions, but they had to realize that Leipzig scholars did not have any interest in theory.108 It was Hoffmann, too, who suggested an exchange program between Leipzig and West Berlin when he met Emil Dusiska, then the director of Leipzig’s journalism institute, at the Association Internationale des Etudes et Recherches sur l'Information et la communication (AIERI) conference in 1970. According to one of Eberhard’s former research assistants, Dusiska declined. He was supposedly more interested in cooperation with scholars who held some kind of power in West Germany, such as Noelle-Neumann, who did not belong to the political opposition.109 According to Katharina M. Mensing, head of the institute’s library, selected GDR researchers received the opportunity to study Western literature at the West Berlin institute. Once a year, one scholar from Leipzig was granted access to the institute’s library for several weeks.110 Our sources did not indicate how often people from the East made use of this opportunity, but a general lack of interest on the side of GDR scholars seems to have prevailed.111 The theoretical approaches of the West Berlin students did not resonate with the socialist model of practical journalism education. An academic exchange and further discussion of possible conceptions of the mass media did not happen.

Scientific Capital: Research and Publications

The young scholars’ engagement with kritische Publizistik (critical communication studies) did not lead to much scientific capital in the form of publications.112 Only some managed or were willing to mobilize other forms of capital for research and publications. High student numbers, temporary employment, and a lack of space contributed to this situation. Moreover, the rules of the politicized scientific field required time spent in practical work: media policy, trade union activism, or journalism. Some professors retreated into private life due to aggressive political fights to obtain majorities in committees (institutional capital). Those fights have led some to remember the institute as a “snake pit.”113 Hanno Hardt from Iowa, who replaced institute director Harry Pross in the late 1970s and later declined an offered chair, remembered that many of the PhD theses remained unfinished.114 Dissertations and graduate theses were nevertheless the first academic forms for young scholars to reflect what kritische Publizistik was all about and to oppose the political situation.115

Some young researchers had social capital and managed to mobilize funding for research and publications. There was a productive milieu with communication researchers and economic scholars at the FU who published on the issue of political media economy and media concentration.116 A group of young scholars, mainly women, was interested in critical qualitative media content and media usage research. Due to their journalistic contacts, they received funding from public broadcasting. Several books, one award-winning, resulted from their work.117 Research assistants collaborated with journalists and journalists’ trade unions, filling edited volumes. These volumes contained essays on issues such as media trade unions, media policy, and journalism education.118 Although Pross co-authored a textbook in which his assistant introduced dialectic-materialist communication research,119 and he also supported some of the critical research initiatives, professors at that time were either not involved in research and theory at all or did not relate to Marxist perspectives.120

The Berlin books by West German authors received mixed reviews in the most important scholarly journal, Publizistik, between 1968 and 1980: while some were descriptive, others openly rejected the material. Most reviewers followed the standards of academic professionalism to which the majority of the discipline subscribed, that is, those based on the U.S. model: mid-range theory, empirical (quantitative) methods, and value freedom. The distinct characteristics of alternative concepts of science, such as materialism, were not acknowledged. A small number of professors, repeatedly engaged in Berlin book reviews, criticized “ideological elements,” which they identified in the application of a political economy approach or in references to Marx and Engels.121 One warned: “Keep away from the role of the political decision-maker.”122

Renewed Tensions and Governmental Reorganization of the Institute

The symbolic power of anticommunism contributed to the end of critical perspectives. In the FRG, the Radikalenerlass (employment ban for left-wing extremists) of 1972 created a new political climate. One of the consequences of this political decision, which targeted persons who participated in activities denounced as anticonstitutional, was political background checks before employment in public service (in Berlin, this was applied until 1979). The threat translated into a potential ban from the profession.123 In the second half of the 1970s, codetermination rights were reduced, and professors had returned to them the majority of votes in decision-making procedures.124 The politicized Department of Philosophy and Social Sciences, to which the Institut für Publizistik belonged, was continuously involved in contentious debate with the Berlin government. Its letter of sympathy to Erich Honecker, which criticized the political conditions in the Federal Republic, became an object of dispute within the political field.125 Politically inspired hiring freezes also targeted Publizistik. The small institute, however, only made for a sideshow, not only in terms of the development of critical theory but also with regard to political fights. For the political field, the symbolic function of the FU became an issue.126

Conservative politicians, in opposition to West Berlin’s parliament in the 1970s, employed anticommunist language. They fought what was, in their view, the FU’s “communist infiltration.” They accused the ruling Social Democrats of colluding with “communists,” for instance, during the university’s presidential election.127 They blamed the Social Democrats for the situation at the Philosophy and Social Science Department, where they claimed “socialist unity science” dominated and the Socialist Unity Party of West Berlin steered employment decisions.128 They demanded the restoration of the “freedom of science,” originally introduced and long been secured, they said, by “our greatest protector, America.”129 In that spirit, a network of conservative parliamentarians and professors campaigned and also sent political reports about the FU to founding institutions in the United States.130 When the FU was founded, donations of hot meals and clothing had come from the United States, and the Radio in the American Sector (RIAS) of Berlin had promoted help for the new institution’s students.131 The university had received millions of Deutschmark subsidies, personally decided on by the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John J. McCloy. In the early 1950s, the subsidies exceeded the financial support received by all other comparable institutions in the Federal Republic.132 Around 1950, money from private and public U.S. sources constituted the second most important financial source after budgetary support from West Germany. The Ford Foundation became a major funder. It financed the construction of large buildings at the Dahlem Campus within the American occupational zone. One of the most famous was named the Henry-Ford-Bau (Henry Ford Building).133 From 1948 to 1967, the United States provided the FU with a total of 79.5 million German Marks.134

The local Social Democratic government defended itself by emphasizing that the Social Democratic Party in West Berlin had pursued strict anticommunist policies from 1945 forward. The governing mayor of West Berlin replied to the conservatives in parliament: “When we struggled with communists in West Berlin and East Berlin, most of you did not even know how to spell the word ‘freedom.’”135 Peter Glotz, the SPD minister of science in Berlin between 1977 and 1981, wrote in retrospect: “The Berlin Social Democrats feared that the conservatives would misrepresent them as communist friendly. Leading civil servants in his ministry had been trained as ‘communist eaters.’”136 Glotz emphasized in his memoirs the same argument applied by parliamentary conservatives at that time: The communist infiltration had become a “severe harm” for the image of West Berlin.137 Also, in view of the federal SPD government, which, together with the federal states, had passed the Radikalenerlass, we can understand why West Berlin’s government had to admit “defects” at the FU, especially in the department to which communication studies belonged.138

It was Glotz, the former communications scholar educated in Munich, who dissolved this “chemically pure left” department.139 Under his direction, and in conversation with members of the institute, plans for a restructuring of Publizistik took shape. He also promised to create more professorships. At the end of Glotz’s time in office, he had managed to fill only one of the seven promised professorships. Jobs for academic staff even saw a reduction. Glotz followed a decision made by the FU’s board of trustees, over which he presided. The institution had identified this academic status group, which advocated for critical perspectives, as having caused the political problem.

According to Bourdieu, symbolic power may have consequences for objective structures. Following this perspective, we can understand the Social Democratic and subsequent conservative governmental interventions into the Berlin institute as a consequence of anticommunist language. In 1981, the local West Berlin government changed from a social democratic to a conservative one; one year later the conservatives also won the federal election. The Christian Democrat minister of science in Berlin personally took care of the “fundamental reorganization” of West Berlin’s Publizistik,140 which he announced in the local newspaper, Der Tagesspiegel. The minister described communication studies as a “concrete problem.”141 He installed an external experts’ committee to make new plans for the institute. Its members were all conservatives, among them Noelle-Neumann, then a professor in Mainz and a conservative party campaign advisor who had written her dissertation under the supervision of Dovifat. The committee’s paper suggested how research and curriculum would achieve the “level of development” of the discipline, “also internationally.” To “reduce ideologization,” it specified, “empirical communication studies” and the “training in methods” should become a priority at the undergraduate level. Given the geographic location of the institute, “communist communication systems” could be a topic for research, though research on this issue was often burdened by “political . . . intentions,” it claimed. Moreover, the external assessment suggested remembering Dovifat’s achievements.142

The minister of science followed these suggestions and appointed three scholars as chairs, which became institutional cornerstones. The chairs were dedicated to empirical research, communication history, and journalism. The men taking up these positions had had nothing to do with communication science until then, and nothing to do with critical perspectives. One of them, a trained quantitative researcher, left the University of Michigan for West Berlin after Noelle-Neumann had approached him.143 In the following years, further professorships continued to enlarge these three cornerstone areas.

The governmental intervention was met with a mixture of protest and relief at the institute. While von Hoffmann, the media practice professor, rejected the intervention in his farewell speech as a final strike of “persistent attempts from the right to smash this department being one of the last places of refuge for left, critical science,”144 other scholars welcomed it. A postdoc researcher at that time said that only this intervention had brought “normal academic professionalism.”145 Sources indicated that the Social Democratic intervention in the 1970s had not already been rejected by all young scholars, especially not by those who had prepared for a career in the discipline. They had to consider the rules of communication studies in the Federal Republic, rules we can also see as a product of the Cold War. The field rejected the ideas of the student movement. Moreover, around 1980, activism for societal critical approaches had diminished, and the number of politicized students in West Berlin had shrunk. Critical young scholars had left the institute because of a scarcity of positions or unfinished dissertations. Few supporters of critical perspectives remained in job positions. Against this background, the revival of the Cold War warrior Emil Dovifat, suggested by the conservative advisors of the minister and supported by some actors within the institute, seem more comprehensible.146


We examined the thesis that the spread of societal and media critical approaches and the failure of their institutionalization at the West Berlin institute from 1948 to 1989 were linked to the Cold War and, particularly, to the anticommunist discourse of the West. Critical communication studies in West Berlin for more than forty years were both facilitated and restrained by the East-West conflict as this conflict experienced periods of high and low intensity.

Three periods describe the history of this linkage. In the first period, when the Berlin Wall was constructed, an impulse emerged for the reception of theories such as Marxism and those of the Frankfurt School among communication students engaged in the 1968 movement. The main orthodox anticommunist at the institute retired at the time, replaced by a new professor caught between sympathy for critical perspectives and the discursive requirements of the Cold War. In the second period, during the policy of détente, the Berlin institute took steps to institutionalize societal critical approaches in the curriculum and in research. A moderate increase in paid jobs and a strong increase in student numbers drove this process. University reform likewise facilitated these steps of institutionalization, resulting in the university’s politicization. At the time, students and mid-level research staff obtained codetermination rights. Political camps fought for institutional capital, for instance, for seats and majorities in appointment committees where decisions over careers and, thus, theory were made. Most professors, actors in positions with long-term contracts and economic capital, did not engage in the accumulation of scientific capital to consolidate (the reputation of) critical approaches. The era of critical perspectives ended during the third period, when Cold War tensions renewed and the state intervened at the institute. In that period, the political field’s anticommunist discourse produced the dissolution of department structures, as decided on by the Social Democratic government. A few years later, the conservative West Berlin government restructured communication studies, leading—following the advice of a conservative external experts’ committee—to the appointment of a group of scholars who had no interest in Marxist perspectives.

Although U.S. institutions and money directly shaped biographies and the foundation of the FU, we have made efforts to avoid oversimplification. Bourdieu’s analytical concepts (habitus, capital, field, and symbolic power) helped us understand the complex and, in part, ambivalent link between the Cold War and the history of critical perspectives. The symbolic power of the Cold War became embedded in the thinking, speaking, and writing of communications scholars; however, depending on the individual opus operatum, it led to different modi operandi with regard to critical perspectives. This insight also applies to actors of the same generation such as Emil Dovifat and Fritz Eberhard. One felt politically convinced by anticommunism and knew that it provided an opportunity to regain a lost reputation. The other interpreted the pro-Western discourse in a way that gave him the scope to sympathize with the student movement. Beyond that, both of these men, who were reaching the end of their careers, still wanted to earn their money. Young scholars around 1970 opposed this discourse, including the U.S. role model and media capitalism. Yet, over time, those opting for a career in the discipline had to reconcile Marxist conformity with the rules of the broader communications field in West Germany. The common conception of this field, which had just started to recover from its deep postwar crisis, implied an orientation toward U.S. mass communication research and a clear distance from Marxist approaches. Furthermore, from Bourdieu’s perspective, linkages with other fields and even other societal systems may have been considered. The symbolic power of anticommunism shaped the Berlin institute through the political field, which intervened via legal conditions, financing, and appointment procedures. Yet politically motivated interventions into communication studies, for instance via appointments, also occurred in other parts of the Federal Republic beyond West Berlin.147 This heteronomy resulted from the field’s general problem accumulating scientific capital and gaining legitimacy in the period under study, as well as from its entanglement with Cold War politics. While we focused on the Western side of the Cold War, the Eastern influence on the institute also warrants an in-depth investigation. In that regard, our analysis suggested that scholars engaged in GDR journalism studies tended to decline collaborative initiatives proffered by young scholars from West Berlin.


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