Remembering a friend

Berlin publisher, Axel Springer, would have celebrated his one hundredth birthday on 2nd May 2012. DIG-Magazin spoke to Friede Springer about his legacy and his special relationship to Israel.


Berlin and Jerusalem were anchors in Axel Springer's life, cities with a strong emotional draw for him.  Everyone who witnessed the opening of the publishing house's new offices next to the Berlin Wall in October 1966 could sense that.  It has frequently been written of Axel Springer that he felt Israel was his 'second fatherland'.


Photo – Daniel Biskup!


Friede Springer: No, I wouldn't say “second fatherland”.  For Axel Springer Israel was the Holy Land.  As a committed Christian he felt Israel was his second home.


Even among experts the initial motivation for this close relationship still remains something of a puzzle. It is known that his childhood home in Hamburg-Altona was frequented by many Jewish friends and acquaintances.  Did his memories of this period prompt him to reach out to the fledgling state of Israel later as a successful publisher?


Friede Springer: No, that all developed much later.  He grew up in a liberal family.  His parents maintained wonderful relations with those belonging to other faiths and this of course influenced Axel Springer.  But it did not directly cause him to campaign later for the fledgling state of Israel.


Axel Springer was in Israel for the first time in 1966 and he subsequently made more than 30 visits there.  What was the key reason for this dedicated commitment?  Was is partly due to his connection to the Hamburger Erik Blumenfeld?  Blumenfeld, who was persecuted for his Jewish ancestry under the Nazi regime, was a CDU member of the Bundestag with direct access to Konrad Adenauer.


Friede Springer: Erik Blumenfeld certainly gave the decisive signal that it was the right time to travel to Israel.  Axel Springer saw it as his duty as a German to do something for this continually threatened country.  Ernst Cramer encouraged Axel Springer and accompanied him on all his important trips, not only those to Israel but also to the United States.  But Ernst Cramer was not the guiding spirit behind his commitment in Israel.  That was definitely Erik Blumenfeld.


Asher Ben-Nathan, the first Israeli ambassador to the Federal Rebublic of Germany, spoke as early as 1967 of the instrumental role he played establishing Axel Springer's contacts in Israel. Is that the case?


Friede Springer: Yes, it was the case. Amazing: Asher Ben-Nathan and Axel Springer looked very similar.  They were friends right from the beginning. Axel Springer and his commitment to Israel always had to do with people. That's how he came to Jerusalem and met Teddy Kollek, who had just become mayor.  A close friendship quickly developed between them.  Personal meetings, personal friendships always played a very important role for Axel Springer.  By the way, Asher Ben-Nathan came to the opening of the Berlin offices and presented Axel Springer with an amphora which still stands on the 19th floor.


To return to Teddy Kollek: Kollek was just as convinced of the reunification of Jerusalem, as Axel Springer was of the unity of Berlin and Germany. Obviously two souls had found each other - and this despite the fact that Teddy Kollek was a socialist and Axel Springer, in contrast, was more of a conservative liberal.


Friede Springer: This friendship and kinship of souls had nothing at all to do with political orientation.  Teddy Kollek had his office in central Jerusalem next to the wall.  And Axel Springer said to him at their first meeting, “Yes, I have also built my office in Berlin right next to the wall – facing east”.  The two men understood each other.  This understanding, on many levels, was the decisive factor. Not political orientation. That was also the case with Asher Ben-Nathan.


At the inauguration of the Berlin offices in October 1966, Axel Springer announced the establishment of a charitable foundation for the Library of Archeology and Art and the Auditorium of the Israel Museum.  Why these particular institutions? In his extensive biography of Springer, the historian Hans-Peter Schwarz describes the surprise among the dignitaries gathered in Berlin that the publisher should so demonstratively link the inauguration of his building with parallel construction plans in Jerusalem.


Friede Springer: The museum was built at the time when Teddy Kollek had just become mayor, it was his first big project. Initially, it was just a normal library.  There were opponents in Jerusalem city government who did not really want to accept money for the Israel Museum from a German.  Kollek informed Axel Springer and explained the situation.  In response he received a telegram: “I wanted to help, not be named!' That very quickly left a deep impression. 


Axel Springer was not exactly what one would call a devotee of all that is  military.  But he revealed himself as an admirer of the Israeli Army, and he also supported Israel around the time of the Six Day War. Was this a conscious signal to domestic and international politics to resolutely stand up for the defence of Israel's right to exist?


Friede Springer: He was there just two days after the end of the Six Day War.  He walked with Teddy Kollek through the city.  Kollek loved moving freely around without security.  You are right: Axel Springer was not an admirer of the military, he was much too much a civilian.  But he understood Israel's need to courageously defend itself. As a result, of course, he was held in great esteem.


Axel Springer always made use of his influence when recognition of Israel was contested.  That is why there were difficulties between the Holy See and Israel.  It is known that the publisher used his contacts to the Cardinal of the Roman Curia, Augustin Bea, who came from the Black Forest, to try and smooth out difficulties.


Friede Springer: Yes. In 1967 after the aforementioned stay, shortly after the end of the Six Day War, Axel Springer flew from Tel Aviv to Rome.  He met Cardinal Bea to convince him that it was high time for the Holy See to recognise Israel.  But it took almost three decades longer for recognition to finally come. Through all his work for Israel, his guiding principle was: I am acting as a committed Christian because Jesus Christ was a Jew. And Jerusalem is the centre of the world.


Axel Springer saw himself as a committed Lutheran Christian. Did he want to give a clear signal through his dedicated work for Israel, that Jews, as the 'older brothers and sisters', deserved special solidarity from Christians?


Friede Springer: Yes, that is also shown in the formerly 4, now 5 principles, which editors of our publishing house sign.  These include the commitment to support Israel's right to exist.  But it is important to remember that Axel Springer never assumed a false role.  He always acted as a German patriot, as a Lutheran Christian, and that was well received in Israel.  He was admired in Israel for remaining genuine, for never currying favour and not being inhibited.  Whenever I am in Israel, I am amazed at how well-known the name Axel Springer is, what a positive echo it has.


Today Israel faces renewed political and military threats.  What does this mean for the publishing house Springer – in particular for its journalistic stance?


Friede Springer: I will be quite clear on this - we can criticise Israel's politics when it is appropriate. We are not obligated to endorse all Israel's policies. Axel Springer did not want that either.  We support fully the state's right to exist, but that does not preclude criticism of decisions the government makes.


We remember that in Jerusalem a reconciliation occurred between Axel Springer and the former Chancellor Willy Brandt (SPD) –  between two men who had become divided mainly over the 'Ostpolitik' policy.


Friede Springer: It was during Axel Springer's last visit to Israel in late 1985.  We were in a restaurant. Suddenly Teddy Kollek said to Axel, 'By the way, Willy Brandt is here too. I would so like to reconcile the two of you”. They shook hands in the restaurant.  It really was very, very moving that virtually at the end of their lives these two men reconciled...


Friede Springer spoke with Gernot Facius and Knut Teske