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The Good Murdoch

Media magnate Axel Springer’s significant, and unheralded, role in repairing German-Jewish relations

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Axel Caesar Springer (1912-1985) sits at his desk in his office in Hamburg on Oct. 18, 1958. (AP)
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Finally, like Murdoch, Springer was resolutely pro-Israel and an outspoken opponent of anti-Semitism. When I met with Belkin in Frankfurt last year and asked what inspired him to mount the exhibit, he told me, “I wanted to understand why Bild is the most hated” publication in Germany and yet “the best friend of Jews.”

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Born in 1912 in the town of Altona outside Hamburg, Springer learned the media business at the feet of his father, a well-to-do book publisher. In 1933, he married Martha Else Meyer, who was half-Jewish. They divorced in 1938 for reasons that remain unclear; while the divorce papers list Springer’s infidelity as grounds (he would have five wives over the course of his 73 years) some suspect that it might have had something to do with the Editor Law of 1933, one of the first Nazi-era regulations that banned “non-Aryans” from owning media properties or holding editorial positions.

While Springer was not actively complicit in the crimes of Nazism (he won a medical exemption from serving in the military), his war years, during which time he worked for newspapers owned by his father, cannot be characterized as a demonstration of moral courage. A group photo taken while Springer worked at the Bergedorfer Zeitung as a young man shows him donning the uniform of the National Socialist Vehicle Drivers’ corps. This image, along with anti-Semitic articles published in the Altonaer Nachrichten newspaper while Springer was editor, would eventually be used by Springer’s enemies on the far right to portray him as a fraud.

Bild at printing press
Copies of the Jan. 11, 2012, issue of the Berlin-Brandenburg edition of Bild by on a conveyor belt at the printing press. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

But after the war, Meyer and her mother, who both survived the Holocaust, attested to Allied occupation authorities that Springer did not hold National Socialist sympathies and was therefore fit to run media outlets. In 1946, having been cleared by the Allied Control Council, Springer père and fils started purchasing the media properties that would soon become Europe’s largest press empire. With the help of his childhood friend, a Jewish Holocaust survivor and founder of the postwar Christian Democratic Union (CDU) named Erik Blumenfeld, Axel Springer was able to win support from Adenauer in his purchase of Die Welt, which had been founded by the British occupation authorities after the war and was modeled on the London Times. In 1956, Springer bought a minority stake in the Ullstein book publishing company, a Jewish-owned firm seized by the Nazis in 1934 and that had come into financial difficulties after the war.

In addition to Blumenfeld, Springer’s other close Jewish friend was Ernst Cramer, who emigrated from his native Germany in 1939 and fought with the U.S. Army in Europe. Following the war, Cramer decided to stay in the country of his birth, eventually finding work as a journalist at Die Welt. He soon befriended Springer and rose to a series of leadership roles within the publishing conglomerate. Though Springer would bring several Jewish figures into his close-knit professional and personal circle, he also hired former Nazis. In this respect, the Frankfurt Jewish Museum exhibit explained, Springer was “no exception” in a country where practically every major industry, never mind government agency, counted ex-Nazis in its ranks. This did not stop the Springer papers from reporting on the Nazi War Crimes trials of the early 1960’s, however, a series of stories that they covered in greater depth than any other German media outlet.

It was around this time that Springer began to sharpen his political convictions, namely, strident anti-communism and a commitment to German reunification. The latter cause he adopted as a personal mission, at times behaving like it was a goal he could accomplish single-handedly by sheer force of will. In 1958, taking advantage of the post-Stalin thaw in East-West relations, Springer made a fruitless visit to Moscow in hopes of meeting Nikita Khrushchev, whereby he would somehow persuade the Soviet leader to support a united Germany. During the Cold War, a house rule of the Springer papers was that all references to the GDR be put in scare quotes so as to emphasize that the Soviet-created dictatorship in the East was a puppet, and not a legitimate, state.

Beginning in 1966, Springer started visiting Israel, trips that he would make at least annually until the end of his life. He also started donating money to various cultural projects. Israel, in the words of the exhibit, became “his second home,” a reality that presented Belkin with an arresting paradox: How was “the most popular German in Israel the most unpopular German in Germany?” Springer, Belkin says, was “unhappy in Germany and happy in Israel” as the former was afflicted by a “cloud of death” while the latter was the home of an ancient people reborn. Springer’s deep Christian faith, along with the reunification of the once-divided Jerusalem, Belkin says, inspired his commitment to the Jewish state.

In 1967, Springer announced four principles for his company that every employee, to this very day, must endorse when they sign their contracts: “To uphold liberty and law in Germany, a country belonging to the Western family of nations, and to further the unification of the peoples of Europe,” “To promote the reconciliation of Jews and Germans and support the vital rights of the people of Israel,” “To reject all forms of political totalitarianism,” and “To uphold the principles of a free social market economy.” A fifth principle, “To support the Transatlantic Alliance and maintain solidarity with the United States of America in the common values of free nations,” was added shortly after Sept. 11. While the guidelines, unique among Western media companies, are the target of derision for many in Germany’s media elite—who paint them as a form of corporate censorship—others see it differently. A Springer employee I know said that signing the contract was one of the proudest moments of his journalistic career.

For the German left, Springer’s support for Israel was motivated by cynicism.

The German left’s contempt for Springer originated in part due to a hatred for anything reeking of tabloid journalism. But the core of opposition to Bild, and, by extension, the entire Springer enterprise, is political. And one can look back to Springer’s unapologetic declaration of his values, announced just before the height of the worldwide student-led unrest of 1968, to see why the left detested him so. “In his principles he represented everything that the left wing in the 60’s was against,” Döpfner, the current CEO of Axel Springer told me. “Free market capitalism, America, Israel, and reunification.”

For the German left, Springer’s support for Israel was motivated by cynicism. Ulrike Meinhof, the radical journalist who later rose to international infamy as a leader of the left-wing terrorist Red Army Faction (which in 1972 bombed Springer’s Hamburg headquarters, wounding 17 people), wrote that there existed “three friends of Israel.” First, and most authentic, were leftists like her who saw their sympathy for the Jews as an extension of their anti-fascism. Second, were the Americans, solely concerned with capitalistic geopolitical dominance, who backed Israel because the Arabs had joined the Soviet sphere of influence. Finally, there were German conservatives, Springer foremost among them, who backed Israel because it was anti-Communist. Their support for Israel was only skin deep, she wrote—a trite way of atoning for the Nazi past they had never really rejected.

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Rachela says:

Thank you for writing this – Axel Springer was a remarkable visionary, and even today, the op-eds in Die Welt display a moral certitude that many U.S. papers lack.

Mian says:

Your Headline alone (“The Good Murdoch”) is a slander upon a man who has always demonstrated that he is a friend of Jews worldwide and of Israel. You should be ashamed of yourselves.

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The Good Murdoch

Media magnate Axel Springer’s significant, and unheralded, role in repairing German-Jewish relations