Pursuing a powerful prince of printing

Our editorial page recently quoted from remarks made at Boston University by Axel Springer when he received an honorary degree. His remarks were complimentary to the United States of America, and he was identified as a prominent German publisher. 'Twas in 1953 that I interviewed Herr Springer in his Hamburg publishing house, when he was already a most prominent German publisher but there were doubts about his attitude toward the US. He was a man coming up, to be watched, and I've felt since then that he has not been quite recognized in this country for his success. A degree from Boston University is a fair start.

When the Allies occupied Germany, there was a perplexity about newspapers. The old publishers were tarnished by years of Nazi control, and could not reasonably be allowed to resume at the old stands. A licensing system was set up , which was neither all good nor all bad, and publishers had to be acceptable to the Occupation. In the American zone, at American expense, a German language newspaper, Die Neue Zeitung, was established to ensure responsible information to the defeated people, and this was scrapped after it served its purpose. A similar paper, Die Welt, was set up in the British zone, at Hamburg, but instead of scrapping it the British recovered some of the investment by selling it to Axel Springer. This was a prestigious property, and Mr. Springer showed extreme acumen in handling it. By 1953 he had Die Welt, his Abendblatt, and a radio-television magazine Hor Zu. These seemed respectable enough, but he had lately established a most un-German kind of daily publication called Bild Zeitung. People called it a blot on the dignity of German culture, and many said it should be suppressed. But it boasted 3 million copies a day, newsstand and street sales only - no subscriptions - and no working journalist is about to knock 3 million copies. I felt I should interview Mr. Springer.

Most Germans, and certainly all other German editors and publishers, believed Springer's scandal sheet was patterned on American ''yellow journalism,'' but I knew we had nothing in the US that even approached his handling of crime, disaster, cheesecake, and other commodities that made the B-Z (bay-tset) sell. There was a bit of difficulty in reaching Mr. Springer to ask him some questions about all this. Our consulate, I found, had no rapport with the man, and our information officers felt I should not give him the encouragement of a visit. They felt he was indifferent toward the US, perhaps even hostile, and that he certainly was in disrepute with the rest of the German press which we had so carefully nourished and should support. A German chap who did translating for our nonlingual Foreign Service said perhaps he could arrange a meeting with Mr. Springer. He tried, and in a few days three well-dressed young men came to my hotel in furtive manner to question me about my purposes.

Thus I learned that Mr. Springer had become cautious as he had become prominent, and had security provisions. This was like a visit from the CIA, perhaps the Mafia, and I was not told if I had passed and would meet the Great Man. Two days later my translator came, not in disguise but in stealth, to tell me I had a rendezvous on the Jungfernstieg, and at the appointed time I was intercepted there by three more young men who took me to a secluded apartment. There, a female who looked like Mata Hari served cookies and tea and I was further interrogated. I was then told to be patient, and in due time I would be informed of my appointment. I spent a couple of days looking over my shoulder, wondering.

I heard nothing, and there was no more cloak-and-dagger. One morning I walked to Mr. Springer's publishing house, took the paternoster to the right floor, and walked in to introduce myself to his secretary. She knew nothing about my inquisition, and asked me to follow her. Mr. Springer sat at his wide executive desk, which was bare except for a vast vase of red roses, and he was buffing his nails. His English was British and excellent. No, there was no American influence. He had never been to America. His Bild Zeitung derived from the penny press of London. The 3 million were now 41/2. Yes, he knew what the other German publishers thought of his sensationalism. He betrayed no reason for our State Department to mistrust him. He was warm and friendly, and thanked me for wanting to talk. As I left, he returned to buffing his nails - relaxing, I suppose, from the heavy responsibilities of being Germany's prominent publisher.

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