The Good Murdoch
Media magnate Axel Springer’s significant, and unheralded, role in repairing German-Jewish relations
The animosity between Springer and the left took a violent turn in 1968 when a far-right house painter named Josef Bachmann attempted to assassinate Rudi Dutschke, the most famous of Germany’s radical student leaders, shooting him three times at point blank range on a Berlin street corner (Dutschke survived the attack but ultimately died of medical complications in 1979). Though Bachmann was found clutching a copy of the Deutschen National-Zeitung, an extreme-right-wing newspaper, the German left heaped blame on the Springer Verlag for inciting an atmosphere of violent hate (in the weeks prior to the assassination attempt, various Springer papers had published articles calling on Germans to “Stop the Terror of the Young Reds Now!” and “Eliminate the Trouble Makers.”) In his 2004 novel Absolute Friends, John le Carré would have a character claim that, “It was the fascistic rhetoric of the press baron Axel Springer and his odious Bild Zeitung that incited a deranged workman with far right fantasies to shoot down Rudi Dutschke.”
In the aftermath of the Dutschke attack, to the chants of “Dispossess Springer,” student protesters rioted outside the company’s Berlin headquarters—which Springer had constructed a mere 50 yards away from the Berlin Wall as a deliberate finger in the eye of the GDR. (In an ironic testimony to the German penchant for memorialization, the two streets intersecting outside the Axel Springer Haus today are named Axel Springer Strasse and Rudi Dutschke Strasse.) The following year, novelist Gunther Grass declared Springer to be a “co-Chancellor, who is accountable to no Parliament, who cannot be voted out of office, and who has set up a state within the state.” The liberal critique of Springer and his methods was immortalized in Nobel Prize-winning author Heinrich Böll’s 1974 novel The Lost Honor of Katharine Blum, which told the story of a woman harassed by a Bild-like tabloid after sleeping with a man accused of being a bank robber amidst the paranoid atmosphere that took hold of West Germany during the RAF’s terror campaign..
One autumn evening, high up on the top floor of Berlin’s Axel Springer Haus in a wood-paneled room modeled after the old interior of the London Times, about 80 leading lights of the European and Israeli military, intelligence, and intellectual establishments gather at long, elegantly apportioned dinner tables. They are here for the European-Israeli Dialogue, an annual discussion club co-sponsored by Springer and the London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue. The event is presided over by Döpfner and Lord George Weidenfeld, the Austrian-born Jewish philanthropist who founded the Weidenfeld and Nicolson publishing house (most famous for introducing the world to Lolita). The German defense minister is the speaker of honor, and those in attendance include Israeli Minister of National Infrastructure Uzi Landau, NATO Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow, former Chief of the British Defense Staff Lord Guthrie, former Spanish Foreign Minister Ana Palacio, and Amos Yadlin, former head of Israeli military intelligence.
The dialogue is but one of several Springer initiatives aimed at strengthening the bond between Israel, Germany, and Europe. In 2003, the company founded the Ernst Cramer Fellowship, an exchange program for young Israeli and German journalists named after Springer’s closest confidante. In 2007, Springer helped found the EU-Israel Business Dialogue, an annual meeting of over 40 European and Israeli businesses. Such forums are components of the Aussöhnung, or reconciliation, between Germans and Jews that Springer spearheaded.
But where the Springer Verlag is most influential is in its product: journalism. Standing at the entrance to the Frankfurt exhibit last year was a giant, illuminated blow-up photo from the June 19, 2002, front page of Bild depicting the bloody aftermath of a terrorist attack on an Israeli bus. “Look here, you Möllemen!” the headline screamed, a reference to the one-time Free Democratic Party (FDP) politician and president of the German-Arabic Society, Jürgen Möllemann. Weeks before the terrorist attack, Möllemann had said that “hardly anybody reinforces the anti-Semites” more than then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the then-deputy leader of Germany’s Central Council of Jews, Michael Friedman. Later that year, Möllemann resigned as head of the FDP’s branch in the province of North-Rhine Westphalia after it was discovered that he had been operating an illegal slush fund, part of the proceeds from which he had used to distribute anti-Israel brochures to voters. Springer’s newspapers, though not uncritical of certain Israeli government policies (like settlement construction), consistently defend the Jewish state against its many detractors in Germany and abroad.
As the last witnesses to the Holocaust—Jewish and German—dwindle to zero, the task of remembering becomes more difficult yet all the more important. Germany’s postwar reconciliation with Jews and its excellent relationship with Israel today were hardly inevitable. After the war, substantial and vociferous voices on both sides wanted nothing to do with each other. Finding light amid the horrible darkness of postwar Germany will be the most enduring aspect of Axel Springer’s contentious legacy.
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