Last week in Hamburg, Germany, I had the pleasure of lunching with a SPIEGEL editor in the iconic news magazine's iconic canteen, or "Spiegelkantine," as the Germans call it. The extravagance of the interior design (created by Danish designer Verner Panton, who worked with Arne Jacobson, in the 70s) -- a lavish, ultra-red cave with highly disruptive stalactites hanging from the ceiling -- is reminiscent of "Clockwork Orange" and so ostentatiously out of line with the earnest, purist, social democratic SPIEGEL culture that it appears to be almost deliberately cynical -- and that again is very SPIEGEL.
The daily lunch parade in the "Kantine" is one big catwalk for all SPIEGEL staff and their guests. It seems to obey secret laws (for example, don't stand too close to the kitchen door or you will be yelled at by waitresses who happen to be scarier than Lufthansa flight attendants). There is of course also a secret eating order, and violating it can have grave consequences -- the place breeds gossip. It is the stage for the cruelest and most narcissistic (thank you, John Edwards, for bringing this word back to the American mainstream vocabulary) cabal. Just recently, the editorial team ousted its long time and very successful editor-in-chief, Stefan Aust. And it probably began with a conspiracy in the canteen.
The "Spiegelkantine" is a time-stands-still venue that catapults you back into the heyday of investigative journalism. Like the design of its canteen, the SPIEGEL today is a strange mix of nostalgia and progressivism. Although its best days may have passed, you can never write it off: Just lately the magazine left its mark again on the stage of world politics when it ran the much-quoted interview with Iraq president Nouri al-Maliki, in which he backed Barack Obama's Iraq proposal.
Like all great institutions, the SPIEGEL has a difficult personality. It does not necessarily believe in the good in man and yet counters that with truth-seeking fervor. It is up to date on topics but outdated in style. It is ueber-critical and thorough, and at the same time thoroughly negative and pessimistic -- maybe because it usually knows more facts than anybody else.