The man on the hill

A new Frankfurt exhibition explores the Israeli-Jewish ties of German publisher Axel Springer and asks: What brings a German patriot, with the Shoah still an open wound, to openly take sides with the Jewish people?’

Springer in Jerusalem, 1967. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Springer in Jerusalem, 1967. (photo credit: Courtesy)

BERLIN — An elegant man stands on a hill and looks down on Jerusalem. In this photo, taken on the Mount of Olives in June 1967, German publisher Axel Springer inspects the reunited city of Jerusalem. It is understandable that this well-dressed gentleman feels a share in the Israeli victory in the Six Day War. He had ordered his newspapers, especially the tabloid Bild, to openly back Israel. When the war began, he commented on the front page of Bild: “The Israelis have the right to live in peace without permanent new Arab blackmails.” A cartoon simplified this message: Egyptian President Nasser strangles an Israeli under the eyes of a passive UN representative.

This photo of Springer opens the exhibition “Create your people! Axel Springer and the Jews” at the Jewish Museum in Frankfurt. (The exhibition’s name is a play on the German word for “make” — “Bild,” the name of Springer’s tabloid.) “There’s no more appropriate an image than this one, taken by Springer’s son Sven Simon shortly after the end of the war,” said curator Dmitrij Belkin. “Springer appears here as the Savior, the new Jesus. When he gazes at Jerusalem, he definitely is thinking about then-divided Berlin.”

The overarching question the exhibition hopes to answer is: What brings a German patriot, with the Holocaust still an open wound, to openly take sides with the Jewish people? It reveals that Springer imposed this editorial policy as early as 1957, long before German students revolted against their Nazi parents.

Bild editor-in-chief Rudolf Michael, who had made it the largest paper in Western Europe, was against “educating the readers,” writes Karl Christian Führer in the excellent catalogue. Nevertheless, the newspaper began, sensationalistically as was its wont, to report on trials against Nazi war criminals and about the wave of anti-Semitic graffiti in West Germany.

In 1960 a report about an unnamed Jewish survivor in West Germany read: “It cannot be that one of us would say: I am afraid!” This report appeared in a time in which only every second West German supported the persecution of Nazi criminals, while every third called to put an end to the debate about Nazi-Germany, and 73% regarded Jews as “a different race.”

The Adolf Eichmann trial in 1961 was the next milestone for Springer’s new path, as the exhibition demonstrates mainly through photos, newspaper clips, documents and video interviews. Curator Belkin stressed that Springer was motivated by his Christian faith and his patriotism.“He thought that Germany could only be united when the Germans admit their guilt for the Shoah and the perpetrators are punished.”

Springer is so interesting because he was a paradox in his time: a pro-Jewish conservative German

Museum director Raphael Gross added that Springer is so interesting because he was a paradox in his time: a pro-Jewish conservative German. The fact that he had never worn a uniform (for medical reasons) nor was he a member of the Nazi party had allowed him to obtain from the British army a license to run a newspaper.

Springer’s first wife, Martha Else Meyer, was Jewish and in 1933 their daughter Barbara was born (she would not cooperate with the museum, Belkin said). The couple divorced in 1938, but apparently Springer supported both Meyer and her mother, who had survived the Theresienstadt concentration camp. “Officially, they divorced because he had been unfaithful,” said Belkin. “But everyone knew that a young and talented editor who planned a great career in the ‘Third Reich’ cannot afford a ‘non-Aryan’ wife. He had massive guilt feelings and I believe that this story was the decisive factor for his future engagement for Israel and the Jews.”

Belkin was not allowed access to Springer’s private archive, unlike that of his publishing house.

Curator Dmitrij Belkin next to a photo of Axel and Friede Springer looking down from an El-Al-airplane. (Igal Avidan)
Curator Dmitrij Belkin next to a photo of Axel and Friede Springer looking down from an El Al airplane. (photo credit: Igal Avidan)

Springer discovered Israel in 1966 and visited there at least once a year. “He regarded the Shoah as a betrayal of Christian values,” said Belkin. “And he felt it was his mission to save the sick German nation through reconciliation with the Jews. That’s why he traveled to Israel once or twice a year, bought an apartment in Jerusalem with a view of the Ascension Church and went to pray in churches.”

Mayor Teddy Kollek guided him through Jerusalem and helped him to meet with David Ben-Gurion, Moshe Dayan and Gold Meir, all of these encounters being documented by Springer’s son and excellent photographer, Sven Simon.

‘Begin was anti-German, but after he had read Springer’s articles in translation, he realized that Springer shares the same views. So he agreed to meet’

“Axel Springer wanted, by any means available, to meet prime minister Menachem Begin, and Kollek felt obliged to try and arrange this because Springer had donated millions of German marks to Jerusalem,” recalled historian Tom Segev, then Kollek’s bureau chief. “Begin was anti-German, but after he had read Springer’s articles in translation, he realized that Springer shared his views. So he agreed to meet him together with Kollek. I believe they met one evening at Begin’s home because the prime minister wanted to keep this meeting a secret.”

Everyone in Israel knew and loved “the good German.” Meanwhile, in West Germany, students demonstrated against him, the Red Army Faction planted a bomb in his Hamburg office injuring 17 people, and his grandson was kidnapped. East Germany, as well, fought the staunchly anti-Communist Springer, planting a spy in his office and even producing a five-part propaganda TV series to demonize him. “In this very professionally produced television series Springer plans together with the first Israeli ambassador Asher Ben-Natan how to run the world to defeat the Communists,” recalled Belkin.

The Six Day War also marks the start of the Israel bashing in Germany, which culminates in Günther Grass’ infamous accusations that Israel plans to annihilate the Iranian people with German submarines. As this exhibition clearly shows, Israel had become in 1967 a mirror for the inner-German conflict between left and right.

Axel Springer in the Via Dolorosa, June 1967. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Axel Springer in the Via Dolorosa, June 1967. (photo credit: Courtesy)

After the Six Day War, Springer introduced a passage in all contracts in which editors and journalist had to pledge their support for the reconciliation between Jews and Germans and for “the existence of the Israeli nation.” Springer probably meant the Israeli Jews and not all Israelis, but none of the prominent journalists and politicians interviewed for this exhibition took notice of this. Their video interviews reflect various positions to this unique passage. The investigative journalist and author Günter Wallraff, an Israel-supporter, says in a recorded video interview screened in the exhibition: “The special paragraph was justified at the time because anti-Semitism was then very strong among Germans. Today it should have been expanded by saying that one is allowed to criticize Israel.”

Axel Springer’s life, which started 100 years ago and is only partly depicted in this fine exhibition, reads like a novel: he was hailed and hated intensively; he tried to make politics and even flew to Moscow in 1958 in order to convince Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to allow German reunification. After he was humiliated there he became a staunch anti-Communist. His closest aide, Ernst Cramer, was a German Jew who fought as a GI against the Nazis, but had to work daily with former SS officers who also became Springer’s top advisors. Springer married five times and had numerous affairs, his son Sven Simon committed suicide. Until his last day he fought for German reunification, but died in 1985, too early to see it. Today, his successors at the Axel Springer Publishing House continue his pro-Israeli and pro-Jewish line, yet feel free to criticize the Israeli settlements and occupation.

The Axel Springer exhibition at the Jewish Museum in Frankfurt runs until July 29th, see also

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