The Good Murdoch
Media magnate Axel Springer’s significant, and unheralded, role in repairing German-Jewish relations
On Jan. 28, a day after International Holocaust Memorial Day, Yad Vashem unveiled a German-language version of its website atop the grand Berlin office tower of the Axel Springer Verlag, (publishing house). It might seem odd that it took so long for the world’s leading Holocaust Memorial to launch a website in the language of the people who perpetrated it. Yet it is fitting that its creation was due largely to the Friede Springer Foundation, the nonprofit directed by the widow of Axel Springer, the German media magnate who died in 1985. Aside from postwar Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, no German played a more significant role in the effort to repair his country’s burdened relationship with the Jews, and to ensure its support for their state, than Axel Springer. Through his newspapers, personal diplomacy, monetary contributions, and many other initiatives, Springer fought an uphill battle to orient German public opinion in favor of Israel, a legacy that his eponymous media empire continues to this day.
Springer’s enthusiastic pro-Israel stance, no matter how well-intentioned, caused plenty of controversy among the recipients of his good will. During his first visit to Israel in 1966, he proposed a donation of 3.6 million Deutsche marks ($900,000) to the Israel Museum, which would name an auditorium in his honor. Protesters took to the streets, and the Israeli newspaper La’Merchav declared that the museum should not accept any money from a German and that to do so would amount to a “disavowal of Jewish memory.” (It was ultimately decided that a plaque referencing Springer’s generosity would be installed instead.) In 1981, the American-Israeli caricaturist Ranan Lurie drew a cartoon for Die Welt of a Swastika-shaped, subterranean weed, beside which two characters, labeled, “Society,” declare, “Perhaps we should take care of the roots first.” Without Lurie’s approval, Peter Boenisch, the paper’s editor, altered the illustration by adding the acronyms of the Palestine Liberation Organization and the GDR’s Socialist Unity Party to the root. Lurie sued the Springer Verlag.
For much of his life, Springer, who died in 1985, was one of the most controversial—and widely hated—men in Germany. But some three decades after his death, and as the city he longed to see reunited is whole again, some are beginning to reevaluate the man. Perhaps 23 years after the end of the Cold War and the heated ideological debates it inspired in Germany, attitudes have tempered toward the man. “Axel Springer’s public role and also his public image has changed over the years,” the gay, left-wing Social Democratic mayor of Berlin, Klaus Wowereit, wrote in a special edition publication celebrating Springer’s centenary last year. “It is true today: He is a significant figure of contemporary history, and he was a great Berliner.” Even the legendary student activist and French-German Green Party politician Daniel Cohn-Bendit (aka “Danny the Red”) has grudgingly given Springer his due. “Springer was a German nationalist,” he said in a recent interview. “He wanted to prove that one could be a German nationalist and at the same time love Israel. This was something new for the German conservatives. Many conservatives were against paying reparations.”
Whatever Springer’s motives in earning the position of “the most popular German in Israel,” according to Dmitrij Belkin, the curator of an exhibition about Springer mounted last year at Frankfurt’s Jewish Museum, his legacy lives on in the values of the company he built from the ashes of World War II. “I think he was a very emotional person, and he simply felt that the Holocaust can never be compensated,” Matthias Döpfner, the CEO of the Springer Verlag, told me. “It can never be undone. But we have to do everything in order to avoid that something similar can ever happen again. And that’s why support of Israel is a duty, a German duty.”
On June 10, 1967, the very day the Six Day War came to its stunning conclusion with Israel repelling the attacks of 12 Arab armies and capturing the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Springer made a hasty visit to the Jewish state. He had ordered his newspapers, chief among them the mass-market tabloid Bild, to cover the war obsessively and with an unapologetically pro-Israel bias (after the war, Springer would joke that he simply published Israeli newspapers in German). Arriving in the newly reunified capital of Jerusalem as a special guest of its Viennese-born mayor, Teddy Kollek, Springer displayed more the demeanor of a conquering general than an inquisitive journalist. A famous photograph shows the two strolling through the Old City, while, off to the side, three Arab men stand with their hands against a wall.
As he looked out over re-unified Jerusalem from a perch atop the Mount of Olives, Springer was likely thinking about another city, Berlin, the once and future capital of Germany, where a wall had been constructed in 1961 by the Communist government of the German Democratic Republic (GDR). The parallel between the formerly divided capital of Israel and the recently divided capital of Germany was inescapable, one that would both inspire and haunt Springer until his death in 1985, four years before the Berlin Wall fell.
The story of Springer and the Jews played a prominent role in the centenary celebrations and commemorations of his life last year, among them the Frankfurt Jewish Museum exhibit titled Bild dir dein Volk: Axel Springer und die Juden. (The retrospective’s name is a bilingual play on the word “Bild,” which means, as a noun, “picture,” or, as a verb, “to form.” The exhibition’s title can be taken to mean, “Build your people!” a riff on Bild’s hortatory motto, “Bild dir deine Meinung,” or, “Form Your Own Opinion.”) Belkin, who came to Germany from Ukraine as part of a wave of Jews who moved following the collapse of the Soviet Union, told me that his interest in Springer emerged from his own experiences as a Jewish “migrant trying to understand the German media landscape.”
In that media landscape, Springer was the closest thing that the Germans had to a Rupert Murdoch. Springer’s politics were decidedly conservative: capitalist (though comfortable with the German consensus on a “social market economy”); traditionalist; ferociously anti-communist, and pro-American. Springer also shared a similar business acumen and taste with the Australian media magnate. Like Murdoch, Springer had a knack for knowing what the common man wanted to read and was brilliant at delivering it. While the Springer Verlag is also known for its up-market broadsheet Die Welt, by far its most popular product was and always has been Bild, whose daily circulation of over 3.5 million copies (and 12 million readers) makes it the highest-circulation newspaper in the world outside Japan.
And much as Murdoch has come to embody everything that bien pensant liberals loathe, Springer was hated by the West German left and was also a frequent target of East German propaganda. Over the course of two years from 1968-1970, GDR state television aired a 10-hour miniseries, “I, Axel Cäsar Springer,” depicting the media magnate as the puppet of a secretive, postwar Nazi cabal. As the Murdoch press around the world, Bild is roundly condemned as “boulevard journalism” by right-thinking Germans, who then secretly read it to gauge the mood of the country. Der Spiegel characterizes the paper as “serv[ing] up tripe, trash, tits and, almost as an afterthought, a healthy dose of hard news seven days a week.”
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