How I finally met the German man of mystery

Many happy memories go with appearing here each week, and one big one began on a warm August afternoon in 1953, when I had been keeping company here a mere decade.

We were on the farm and I had pulled the green pea vines that day, gleaning the last mess of the season. Marm was baking hot biscuits, and we had roast pheasant I'd poached.

As we were about to sit at table, the telephone rang. We still had a magneto rural line, and it rang two longs and four shorts, which was us. In my usual manner I lifted the thing and said, "Sam's clam shop and variety boutique, your order, please!"

As usual the voice on the other end said, "Oh, I'm sorry; I believe I have the wrong number!" It turned out it was our Department of State in Washington, D.C. I told the man I was, indeed, the fellow in the paper, and he asked, "How soon can you leave for Germany?" I asked if I had time for one hot biscuit.

His story took my fancy. He said in our postwar occupation of Germany, some problems lingered about finding editors and publishers who had not been Nazis. He wanted me to look things over and make suggestions. He thought it would take three months, perhaps four. So between the last green peas and Christmas, I shook hands with and talked with some 400 German newspaper editors and publishers, wrote a lengthy report for Washington, mailed a dispatch each week to this paper, and perhaps saved journalism in Germany.

We had been led to believe that Hitler had "taken over" the German press and thus fed his propaganda to the people, who got only what he wanted them to get. It wasn't exactly that way. For some time German publishers had been relying on "mat services" for reading matter. A mat is a matrix, and the mats came ready to stereoplate and print everything, from editorials to Feuilleton. The mats were a cheap service that made an expensive staff unnecessary. Hitler didn't need to storm 400 publishing houses, he merely occupied the mat service.

I was told by most editors in Germany that they had no choice, all at once their papers were Nazi-controlled against their will. Maybe so, but having been Nazi, the publishers were not eligible to publish during the occupation. I found the Munich paper was being published by Communists, our folks content that they hadn't been Nazi.

Anyway, a happy memory of that visit to Germany was my meeting Axel Springer of the upstart Bild Zeitung, a picture journal. No need to rehash the whole German press story now, but in postwar times, as our occupation people were trying to reinstate the antebellum and stodgy German press, Herr Springer appeared on the scene with a different kind of newspaper that was deplored by old-time journalists but was shortly selling 2 million copies a day - street sales only; no subscriptions, no newsstands. It seemed to me I should have a talk with Herr Springer. I asked our State Department people to make an appointment.

"He's very hard to reach! He's under constant bodyguard; he keeps entirely to himself, I doubt if we can reach him." Here's a man who sells 2 million copies of his paper a day, and our State Department can't reach him?

Then one day a German girl employed as a typist at our consulate told me in confidence that I should stand in front of a certain store, and at 2 p.m. I'd be approached about meeting Mr. Springer. I was there, and a man walked up to me, looked both ways, and said, "The gentleman in question is a busy man." I asked, "And just who is that man?" He said, "You will hear soon." I asked and no one at the consulate knew anything about this. I surmised someone was an addict of spy stories.

Two days later, all by my little self, I walked to the Springer publishing house. The lobby was empty and an elevator was going up and down. A directory said Herr Springer was on stage four. When I stepped off at four a lady at a desk looked at my feet and said, in English, "Good morning, may I help you?" Only Americans wear American shoes. I said I was hoping to find Mr. Springer. She said, "Certainly, he's in his office," and pointed at a door.

Herr Springer sat at a double desk, alone. There was no telephone. A long-stemmed red rose in a tall vase was the only thing on his desk. He was buffing his fingernails. He looked at my feet. "Come in, come in!" He stood up. I told him my name, that I wrote for this newspaper, and wanted only to shake his hand and wish him well. He was good looking, young, and well-tailored. We sat down for a two-hour chat. I began to think our State Department might be another problem we should survey.

Herr Springer told me he did not borrow from US tabloids to inspire his Bild Zeitung, although he was aware that most German publishers thought he did. He hoped some day to visit America. And he said he had felt Germany was ready for a new kind of paper, and the oldstyle publications our occupation was trying to reestablish were out of date.

So, I was glad I persisted and found the man who couldn't be found, and it pleased me when he was acknowledged as Germany's leading publisher.

And I was glad he finally did get to visit the US. He toured our country from the Boston airport to as far west as Cambridge. That was when Harvard gave him an honorary doctorate.

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