At the same time, Der Spiegel departed significantly from the U.S. model, using its reporting power for political ends and mixing hard facts with innuendo and scathing sarcasm. One favorite target was the conservative Bavarian politician Franz Josef Strauss, who became defense minister in the late 1950s and who aimed to turn Germany into a nuclear power. Der Spiegel went after Strauss relentlessly, combining diligent reporting with blatant fear-mongering. One cover story characterized Strauss as “amiable and engaging when he is in the mood to deploy his rustic Bavarian charm” and then asked ominously: “Is it necessary to add that the world has repeatedly been messed up by Germans who could be amiable when they felt like it?” Strauss, who was a bully, tried to take revenge on Der Spiegel. When a 1962 cover story detailed the weaknesses of West Germany’s military-defense strategy against a Soviet attack, the police ransacked the magazine’s headquarters and detained Augstein and six colleagues on charges of treason. Public protests, led by students and intellectuals, forced the government to release Augstein after 103 days in jail, thus solidifying the magazine’s reputation as a bulwark of press freedom.

The West German political establishment hated Der Spiegel, but couldn’t ignore it. Chancellors Konrad Adenauer and Willy Brandt, who differed on most things, both called the magazine “a filthy rag.” But Der Spiegel’s influence on the nation’s elites since then has been on the wane. A survey of 1,500 journalists, conducted by the University of Hamburg in 2005, showed that the magazine had been supplanted as the most influential news outlet, with 35 percent calling the Munich daily Süddeutsche Zeitung their publication of reference and only 34 percent naming Der Spiegel. “Der Spiegel once dominated in German politics far more than, say, The New York Times did in the U.S.,” says Lutz Hachmeister, director of Berlin’s Institute for Media Policy. “Now it doesn’t anymore—and that’s very painful.”

Given how digital media have changed the informational power equation, of course, it may be impossible for a single outlet to dominate a news agenda the way some once did. But in Germany as in the U.S., the debate about how best to adapt to the editorial and commercial challenges of this new era is at full boil. And in Der Spiegel’s case, many of the magazine’s traditionalists blamed Aust for abandoning the best journalism in favor of a mass-market mentality.

On a January afternoon—one of his last days at work, as it turned out—Aust met me in his corner office on the eleventh floor of Der Spiegel’s office tower. The night before, a local paper had reported that the employee committee would pick Mathias Müller von Blumencron, the editor of Spiegel Online, and Georg Mascolo, a Berlin-based Spiegel reporter, to succeed Aust. “These are good boys,” Aust said, keeping his cool. Both had worked under him for years, and he’d hired Mascolo as a cub reporter. Yet the circumstances of his firing clearly still rankled. “If I’d had to sack myself, I would have handled it differently—faster, more smoothly, and decently,” he said, referring to the fact that the committee had contacted potential successors without first informing him of his impending dismissal.

Aust is sixty-one years old, a short and wiry man who comes across as relentlessly confident though not exactly charismatic. Asked once on a talk show whether he was capable of self-criticism, Aust deadpanned: “Me? What an absurd idea. Haven’t you read the newspapers?” Aust’s critics call him a conformist, and they like to contrast his left-wing past with his more recent predilection for schmoozing with powerbrokers. In reality, though, Aust’s path from the student rebellion of the sixties to the political mainstream is somewhat typical of his generation, mirroring the careers of other public figures such as the former German cabinet members Joschka Fischer and Otto Schily. Like Fischer and Schily, Aust once moved in radical circles close to the Baader-Meinhof gang—an experience that came in handy when he wrote his best-selling book about the terrorist group. In the seventies, Aust joined public television and made his name as a thorough investigative reporter. Taking over Spiegel TV, the magazine’s cable-television program, in the late eighties, he witnessed firsthand how privatization changed the German media business. Suddenly, ratings mattered, and Aust adapted by supplementing political reporting with sex-and-crime stories that broadened
Spiegel TV’s appeal.

Konstantin Richter is a freelance writer in Berlin. His first novel, Bettermann, was published in Germany in 2007.