Though it is respected abroad as an authoritative news source, Der Spiegel has long peddled crude and sensational anti-Americanism, usually grounded in its brand of knee-jerk German pacifism. Covers over the years have impugned the United States as “The Conceited World Power” (with an image of the White House bestriding the globe), repeated the hoary “Blood for Oil” charge as the rationale for the Iraq War, and, in the run-up to George W. Bush’s reelection campaign, asked, “Will America Be Democratic Again?” When Edward Snowden leaked information detailing U.S. surveillance practices several years ago, Der Spiegel went on a crusade unlike anything in its recent history, railing about U.S. intelligence cooperation with Germany and demanding that Berlin grant Snowden asylum. (The magazine demonstrated none of the same outrage when, two years later, Russia hacked the German parliamentary computer network). Last year, Der Spiegel notoriously featured a cartoon of Trump beheading the Statue of Liberty on its cover. And this May, one of its columnists misappropriated the memory of those who struggled against Nazism by calling for “resistance against America,” quite a demand for a magazine from the country that started World War II.
The biases that Relotius stoked in his stories are ones that Europeans, and Germans in particular, have voiced about America since the first colonists set foot here hundreds of years ago. “European elites have consistently and passionately expressed the same negative sentiments about America for centuries,” the scholar Andrei Markovits observed in his 2007 book Uncouth Nation: Why Europe Dislikes America. “In both substance and tone, what stands out is this continuity, rather than change.” Among the negative traits Europeans have long associated with America, Markovits writes, are “venality, vulgarity, mediocrity, inauthenticity,” along with the perception that the country is a “threatening parvenu.” America’s frontier spirit and radically democratic ethos frightened European elites, who distrusted their own masses with political power. “You dear German farmers!” the 19th-century poet Heinrich Heine, who never visited America, implored his countrymen. “Go to America! There, neither princes nor nobles exist; there, all people are equal; there, all are the same boors!”
This sort of reflexive anti-Americanism matters. Relations between the United States and Germany are at their lowest point since the early 1980s, when the deployment of American Pershing nuclear-tipped missiles on German soil sparked the largest protests in the history of the Federal Republic. While Trump’s singling out of Germany for rhetorical abuse is obviously a huge part of the lamentable decline in transatlantic relations, so are the latent anti-American prejudices routinely aroused by Der Spiegel’s brand of yellow journalism masquerading as high-minded critique.