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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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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James Kirchick, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, is a columnist at Tablet magazine and the author of The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues and the Coming Dark Age. He is writing a history of gay Washington, D.C. His Twitter feed is @jkirchick.