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Top German weekly was a Nazi haven

Germany's leading news weekly, founded by British occupation forces after the Second World War in an effort to foster liberal values, saw the world through brown-tinted spectacles in its early years, and operated as an advice centre for Nazis on the run.

To mark Spiegel's 50th anniversary next week, the Berlin newspaper Tageszeitung published documents yesterday listing prominent Nazis who held senior positions in the 1950s. The international department was headed by a former SS officer who helped plan the invasion of Britain; the foreign editor, another SS man, was a top agent in occupied Norway.

The Berlin correspondent was in his previous incarnation a Nazi official in charge of the foreign press corps. Spiegel's Latin America correspondent, Wilfred von Oven, also had excellent contacts among the burgeoning German diaspora on his patch. During the war he was chief adjutant to Goebbels.

The magazine's SS contingent knew each other before the war and had first met in Konigsberg, formerly East Prussia, while developing the theology of "Scientific National Socialism". One of them, Horst Mahnke, was charged at the Nuremberg war-crimes trials with the murder of 38 Jewish intellectuals in Russia in 1941.

During the war he was in the group that developed Operation Sealion, the proposed invasion of Britain. His job was to draw up lists of British Jews, MPs and other "undesirables". Had Hitler invaded, Mahnke was the man marked out to implement Britain's "purification".

In 1952 he joined Spiegel as international editor, and remained on staff until 1959, when he switched to another magazine. He retired as chief business manager of the Association of German Magazine Publishers, and died in 1985 a thoroughly respected man.

His SS chum Georg Wolff, who spent the war in Norway, retired from Spiegel in the 1970s after a glittering career and died last summer.

Long after the war, he continued to hold curiously familiar views, as he betrayed in an essay about Africa: "The Negro is intelligent, skilful and eager to learn, but he is lazy," Wolff said in a scholarly journal.

Karl Friedrich Grosse, the Berlin correspondent, and von Oven in Latin America also clung on to their respectability, despite attempts to expose their pasts. As senior figures in Germany's most powerful media organ, Spiegel's Nazis were well- placed to deflect public campaigns against relics of the Third Reich. The network looked after its own, frequently springing to the defence of any member of the fraternity under attack.

The boys from Konigsberg turned their magazine into a "letter-box" for the Nazi elite, littering the pages with coded messages. Spiegel functioned, according to Tageszeitung, as a "beacon in the democratic state", helping Nazis to find their bearings in the new world.

They did their job well. The Nazis became democrats, and Spiegel, the fearless, somewhat pompous, champion of liberal principles, remains the most influential magazine today, selling 1 million copies a week.