Axel Springer's 100th birthday If it's not big, it's nothing

Axel Springer in front of the publishing house in Hamburg.
Axel Springer in front of the publishing house in Hamburg. | Photo (detail): © Axel Springer AG

Axel Springer, publisher and creator of the “Bild” newspaper, would have been 100 years old on May 2, 2012. We provide a retrospective here of the eventful life of this famous and controversial character.

Axel Springer actually wanted to be a singer, but his voice wasn't good enough. Instead, he did an apprenticeship in printing and volunteered at a newspaper before becoming one of the most important and controversial personalities in German media history.

The legend of “Bild”

A passionate supporter of Israel, visionary journalist and unswerving proponent of German reunification, Axel Springer was also a staunch member of the conservative social order, a class enemy of the East German government and an object of scorn from the left. Indeed, he was many things, and therefore difficult to encapsulate. Even during his lifetime, the countless anecdotes of his enigmatic personality had morphed into a pretty impressive narrative. Claims like the fact that “DDR” (German Democratic Republic) was always written in quotation marks in his newspapers were widely held as true, or that he would crawl around on his hands and knees in his Hamburg apartment with glue and scissors working on a new kind of newspaper. With his sights on the average man on the street, Springer ultimately devised the prototype of the German tabloid, Bild Zeitung, which was published for the first time on June 24, 1952. The trademarks of the rag: a bright red title page, large fonts (Springer: If it's not big, it's nothing) and headlines that played on emotions instead of reason.

Education and publishing career

Son of the Altonaer Nachrichten publisher, Axel Springer was born directly into the newspaper business on May 2, 1912. After an apprenticeship in typesetting and printing at his father's business, and internships at a newspaper and a news agency, Springer decided in 1946, amidst the chaos of postwar Germany, to found his own publishing company. The British occupiers offered the upstart businessman a license to print the Nordwestdeutsche Hefte magazine and in the same year he launched the TV program guide Hörzu. Revenues from the latter, which quickly became a popular household item, spurred the publishing house's growth. In the wake of monetary reforms in 1948, the first issue of the Hamburger Abendblatt was released that same year and in 1953 a daily newspaper with nationwide reach was added to the Springer stable: Die Welt.

Reunification and anti-communism

Axel Springer was not a fan of clever numbers games or political maneuvering. Totalitarian systems, whether they are brown or red, were abhorrent to him. The guilt from National Socialism pained him his whole life, but Springer saw two ways of releasing the pressure of those feelings: subsidies for the state of Israel and strict anti-communism combined with an unswerving belief in German reunification. In 1958, Springer traveled to Moscow to visit Nikita Krushchev with a five-phase plan in his briefcase designed to convince the Kremlin of the benefits of reunification. Is it a coincidence that the sign on his 19-story publishing house building from the 1960s faced defiantly to the east over the Russian sector border in Berlin? “Open the gates,” read the headline in Bild, which, as the most widely read newspaper in Europe during the chilling era of the Cold War, became an effective voice of anti-communism.

Disquieting times

The provocative headlines and opinionated style of Bild were enough to raise hackles among the intellectuals, writers, leftists and liberals of the 1960s, who were uneasy about the influence of the company. As a result, they openly attacked the media mogul. By uniting 39 percent of German newspapers and 18 percent of domestic magazines within his empire, Springer's publishing house instigated debate in the public arena about consolidation in the media. Rudolph Augstein, founder of Der Spiegel, a news magazine, broadsided the publisher in 1966, calling for a “Lex Springer”, a “…law prohibiting him from further spreading his influence in the media, publishing and printing sectors as well as in his opinion-forming methods.” Springer reacted by selling five of his magazines, but was unable to overturn his already reactionary public image. He was particularly loathed among student movements, which perceived him as the incarnation of an outdated system and lambasted him with “Oust Springer” slogans. His response, in the form of headlines such as “Stop the terror of the young reds now”, of course fuelled the fires of social agitation.

The conflict reach new heights when Rudi Dutschke, a student leader and one of the heroes of the anti-Springer campaign, was shot on April 11, 1968, by a right-wing extremist who claimed to have formed his opinion based on Springer newspapers. Demonstrators rioted in front of the publishing house building in Berlin, the Hamburg printers was placed under siege to prevent delivery of the hated newspaper, and 17 employees were injured in a Red Army Fraction (RAF) bombing at the Hamburg facility. Already in its third decade, the publisher was experiencing its first unstable moment.

Axel Springer AG today

Still, Springer's business didn't fail. His sense of what readers want was as steady as his courage to come up with innovative approaches to communication. In 1985 he floated the publishing house on the stock market but in September of that year the media giant died, before his dream of German reunification was fulfilled. Active in 34 countries by 2012, Axel Springer AG is Germany's largest newspaper company and third-largest magazine publisher. The tenets of its founder (fighting for reunification, conciliation with the Jews, fighting political extremism and supporting a free social market economy) are still part of Axel Springer AG's principles and guidelines.

Literature:

Claus Jacobi:
Der Verleger Axel Springer (lit. Publisher Axel Springer, Herbig, 2005)

Michael Jürgs:
Der Verleger - Der Fall Axel Springer (lit. The Publisher – The Fall of Axel Springer, List Taschenbuch, 2001)

Jochen Staadt / Tobias Voigt / Stefan Wolle:
Feind-Bild Springer. Ein Verlag und seine Gegner (lit. The Enemy. A Publisher and His Opposition, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2009)