Who Was WM?

Investigating a Televisionary: The Life and Work of Wolfgang Menge

Gundolf S. Freyermuth
7 min readApr 10, 2024

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“I once killed one too, from a meter away,” writes 31-year-old WM in a manuscript he sends from Tokyo to Hamburg in 1955: “Thank God it never came out.” The North German Radio is broadcasting these sentences as part of a feature on Japan. The author possesses a Close Combat Clasp; his World War II discharge papers attest to this. However, WM was never discharged, at least not by the German Wehrmacht. The story of his life reads as adventurously as his best screenplays.

After all, a quarter of a century later, WM is the most successful author of post-war German television. His stellar career progresses through five media. For newspapers and radio, he writes hundreds of reports and commentaries as a reporter in Hamburg and Berlin and as a correspondent in Tokyo and Hong Kong. Back in Germany, he pens theater plays and a dozen screenplays for popular feature films such as Polizeirevier Davidswache (1964; Police Station Davidswache). Yet, he finds his artistic home in television: The crime series Stahlnetz (1958–1968; fashioned after the American Dragnet), the sitcoms Ein Herz und eine Seele (1973–1976; “One Heart and One Soul”) and Motzki (1993), the award-winning television dramas Die Dubrow-Krise (1969; The Dubrow Crisis), Das Millionenspiel (1970; The Million Game) and Smog (1973) made him known to an audience of millions. In the 1970s and 1980s, known as “Baldy,” WM also becomes Germany’s most distinctive talk show host, notorious for his wit and irreverent banter.

WM in front of his house in Berlin-Zehlendorf; 2008, behind him the author (© Freyermuth)

That’s when I met Wolfgang. He was my ‘oldest’ friend for over 25 years. And I was his youngest. On April 10, he would celebrate his 100th birthday. My biography of him will come out in May. In it, I investigate Wolfgang’s life at close quarters and his work from the critical distance of a media scholar.

Here on Medium, I publish selected chapters weekly. Today, as an introduction, I outline the lesser-known part of WM’s life — the years before he rises to media stardom.

From Outsider to Deserter

Let’s return to the start: How and when does WM find himself in a situation where he kills a man in close combat?

Born in 1924 in Berlin, the capital of the first German democracy, WM is thirteen when the Nazis rise to power. How do you live as a teenager in the Third Reich when your mother is called Golditza and not only comes from a foreign country, the Bulgarian-Romanian East, but is also Jewish? WM loves jazz and secretly listens to banned BBC long-wave radio. He reads German exile authors whose books are smuggled into Hamburg by sailors. But in 1941, he is drafted. Into a special unit. Because according to the oppressive criteria of Nazi racial mania, he is an “M1,” a derogatory term for someone of mixed ancestry, meaning “half-breed of the first degree.”

As the Second World War reaches its final months, WM is on the eastern front. In March 1945, British troops cross the Rhine. Hamburg is under constant bombardment — the house where his parents and little sister live is destroyed. The family flees to the countryside, to the Baltic Sea.

When WM receives the message, his unit is near Vienna. The Red Army is approaching. Now, he carries out what he has been planning for a long time. Two comrades join in. Together, they commandeer a bucket truck. Navigating through the warzone by night, they try to get to Hamburg. However, their most dangerous enemy is not the Allies. Despite all caution, a patrol of SS soldiers manages to track them down.

The three of them know only too well the fate that awaits deserters. Between January 1945 and the German surrender in May, over 8,000 German soldiers are executed for desertion, many of them teenagers. The bodies of those hanged are left dangling from lamp posts and electricity pylons for days as a gruesome deterrent. The three young men in the bucket truck are hardened by years of combat. They open fire on the SS patrol. And prevail.

WM comes of age as a wanted deserter on April 10, 1945, in a lonely hiding place in the basement of the empty Swedish General Consulate, his life in constant danger. One of his two comrades has already been caught and shot.

British troops liberate Hamburg at the beginning of May. As a member of the Wehrmacht, WM is now expected to report to the city’s soccer stadium as a prisoner of war. To avoid the POW camp, he has an art school friend fabricate discharge papers for him with fictitious commendations for extraordinary bravery, including the close combat clasp.

Now, the question of his future career arises. For a while, he buys and sells sugar by the sack. His black marketeering earns him a prison sentence lasting several months. While he does the time, his unusual literacy attracts attention. He is allowed to manage the prison library.

Out of Prison and Into Journalism

Upon his release on parole, he turns his sights to journalism. After all, apart from shooting and driving, he can only read and write. The latter, however, all the better. He lands an internship at the German News Service, a news agency founded by the British, which later became the German Press Agency (dpa). Later, he applies for a young talent scholarship and is allowed to travel to the UK for re-education. After nearly two years, he returns to Hamburg as a British-trained journalist in the fall of 1948.

These are the nascent years of post-war Hanseatic journalism. The young author knows the up-and-coming publishers Richard Gruner, Axel Caesar Springer, and Rudolf Augstein. He is bringing what will soon become his trademark from Great Britain: the ability to meticulous research in the Anglo-Saxon tradition and a talent for irreverent satire.

Initially, he succeeds as a local reporter at the Hamburger Abendblatt (Hamburg Evening Paper) and as editor of Northwest German Radio, a public broadcasting station founded by the British military government and run by returning anti-Nazi exiles. Later, after the restitution to the rightful owners of the publisher Ullstein, which the Nazis had expropriated, he also works at their Berlin B.Z. newspaper.

In 1955, he joins the liberal newspaper Die Welt (The World), which Axel Springer’s publishing company has just acquired. As their East Asia correspondent, he works in Tokyo and Hong Kong. Photos show WM in his early thirties, successful and happy in Asia, sailing on a dinghy, at the tailor’s, or reading on the terrace of the Foreign Correspondents Club in Hong Kong.

WM on the terrace of the Foreign Correspondents Club, 1956, reading a Hamburg Newspaper (© Menge)

However, the increasing political paternalism at Die Welt undermines his enjoyment of being a correspondent. As the first Western journalist, WM travels via Beijing and Moscow on the Trans-Siberian Railway back to Berlin and Hamburg. To resign.

“Journalism is for boys,” he later likes to say, attributing the sentiment to Randolph Churchill.

At the end of the 1950s, WM is no longer a boy. He aims to do more than simply report. He desires to tell stories — true stories, if possible. With ironic criticism and entertaining enlightenment. By chance, shortly before his 35th birthday, he becomes involved in filmmaking. In the early 1960s, he is writing a series of cinema hits (The Green Archer, 1961; Man in the Shadow, 1961; Police Station Davidswache, 1964). However, the West German film industry is experiencing a steep decline in quantity and quality. The primary culprit for this crisis is the rise of television. In the new mass medium, WM finds his artistic home.

When television launches in West Germany on Christmas 1952, it is not owned by private corporations as in the USA, nor is it controlled and financed by the state as in the dictatorships of the time, including the communist GDR. Television adopts the model of West German radio, which is emulating the British public broadcasting system. In the 1960s, TV sets become affordable. The new medium captures the majority of West Germans and the number of license fee payers surges. The public broadcasters are flush with money — and not yet subject to political influence.

In this free media space that opens up for a few years, WM assumes the role of a successful innovator, a televisionary. He sees the future and tenaciously pulls television along — against all resistance from those in charge.

https://www.kulturverlag-kadmos.de/programm/details/wer_war_wm

His edge comes essentially through his ‘Britishness’ — the import and creative adaptation of Anglo-Saxon formats, at that time still unknown in Germany: factual crime thrillers, groundbreaking television dramas that blend fact with fiction, talk shows, and sitcoms. At the height of his success, newspapers worldwide, including The New York Times and Variety, report on him and his creations.

To America?

“Just imagine,” I asked him in the early 1990s, shortly before emigrating to the USA, “if you had your big successes on American television instead of German. How and where would you live today?”

“I don’t even want to imagine that,” Wolfgang grins. “That would just be too much money.” He drew on his pipe. “But that wouldn’t have worked either. I wouldn’t have succeeded in America. You have to know a country inside out to be able to write what I wrote.”

“Curt Siodmak succeeded! Walter Reisch, Billy Wilder and –”

“They had to,” Wolfgang interrupted. “They had no choice. They were driven out, running for their lives. I was never in that situation. At least not after the war. Thank God.”

Next Chapter:

1 Happy Is the One Who Forgets: Memories of Nazi Germany

German-language Version:

Wer war WM? Auf den Spuren eines Televisionärs: Wolfgang Menges Leben und Werk

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Gundolf S. Freyermuth

Professor of Media and Game Studies at the Technical University of Cologne; author and editor of 20+ non-fiction books and novels in English and German