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Us vs. Them: How Germany’s Largest Paper Frames the News

Victoria Schneider Victoria Schneider
8th December 2023
Us vs. Them: How Germany’s Largest Paper Frames the News
BILD is putting ethics and moral standards aside (Getty)

Note: The views and opinions expressed in editorial articles are those of the author. They do not reflect the views or opinions of Misbar.

Germany’s public discourse has not shifted over the past two months as Israel’s genocidal offensive in the Gaza Strip has claimed thousands of civilian lives and unleashed a humanitarian catastrophe. German mainstream media still sticks to what German politicians call “Staatsraison” (reason of state), the unconditional support of Israel. 

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While mainstream media collectively follows this narrative, no one does it as radically as the BILD Zeitung, the country’s best-selling daily tabloid, which consists, as its name suggests (Bild means picture), mostly of pictures and large lettered, sensationalist headlines. 

During the ceasefire, BILD posted an image on their social media post which, according to the text, shows how “Israelis peacefully celebrate the return of hostages” on one side, while “Palestinian ex-prisoners are cheered for at terrorist marches” on the other. 

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These two pictures say ALL about the war “Freed Israeli hostages” - “Released Palestinian terrorists”

Palestinians and Arabs, or Muslims, are being equated with the “terrorist beasts” that is Hamas, and information coming out of Gaza is generally labeled as false and unreliable terrorist propaganda

BILD’s daily print circulation of more than a million is the highest in Europe, and among the highest in the world, making it a source of powerful influence. And even though not many intellectuals would admit it, it is the go-to platform for anyone who wishes to get a sense of what is happening in the country. 

BILD is also considered highly problematic. The tabloid systematically incites, polarizes, and spreads lies and gets the majority of reprimands of the German Press Council. It is known for deliberately putting ethics and moral standards aside in order to meet its agenda, which the promotion of the State of Israel is an integral part of.

This bias is not coincidental. There is a profound reason behind the extreme bias and it has nothing to do with the shareholding portfolio of the publishing house Axel Springer SE, its funders, or its readership (Springer is majority owned by American private equity firm KKR which invests in Israel but has no Israeli background).

BILD’s political direction is closely linked to the worldview of its founder Axel Springer (1912-1985), a non-Jewish German media mogul and businessman, for whom the reconciliation between Jews and Germans and the support of the State of Israel was some sort of life mission. 

Springer was one of Germany’s most hated public figures after the Second World War, but also one of the most successful and influential businessmen. The media empire he built is comparable to the one of Rupert Murdoch.

The Only Media Empire Guided by a Constitution

As the only media company in the world, Axel Springer SE has a corporate constitution which lays out five essential values employees across its publications and subsidiaries, including BILD and the weekly broadsheet Die Welt, have to contractually commit to. Being pro-Israel is one of them. 

While staff in Germany have to sign what is internally referred to as “the essentials,” Springer employees who work for subsidiaries outside of Germany, such as Politico or Insider, are expected to adhere to them. 

The support of “the Jewish people and the right to existence of the State of Israel” comes as the second essential value after being pro-Europe and pro-democracy. Number three to five require employees to be pro-free market economy, pro-NATO and against political and religious extremism. 

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These values were written down by Springer himself in 1967 as he felt that “media companies have societal responsibility in a democracy, because they shape the way their readers, listeners, viewers, and users form their opinions.” The values, he wrote, were defined “to ensure that it [Axel Springer] takes account of this responsibility in a transparent manner.”

Ironically, those who criticize these principles of freedom and democracy, or disobey, run the risk of being fired. Just recently, an employee lost his contract after he had criticized Israel’s genocidal attack in Gaza on his social media. 

In 2021, Springer CEO Markus Döpfner made it clear that anyone who does not agree with the pro-Israeli stance of the publisher should not work for them. Employees had reportedly voiced discomfort over the raising of an Israeli flag on the outside of the Springer building in Berlin. In a company-wide call addressing the around 16,000 employees, Döpfner said: “I think, and I’m being very frank with you: a person who has an issue with an Israeli flag being raised for one week here, after antisemitic demonstrations, should look for a new job.”

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The support of Israel is aligned with the other four essentials which dictate how the almost 20 news outlets owned by Springer SE depict reality.

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“Palestinian war against Israel” was the breaking news title on BILD TV on 7 October 2023.

In Springer’s worldview, the West represents the “free world” while anyone who disagrees is not only unfree and extremist, but essentially wants the destruction of this “free world.” Israel is part of the free world, while Palestine and its Arab neighbours are not. They are terrorists that constitute a threat for Israel, as well as Europe’s democracies.  

When BILD recently interviewed Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu (after CNN and FOX News) it was along this very narrative, offering a platform for anti-Arab propaganda and justifying the atrocities Israel is committing in Gaza. “Germany is next” titled the interviewed, warning of the imminent threat of Islamist terror that Netanyahu said will come to Germany if nothing is done to stop them. 

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“Germany is next” - “What would you do if 10.000 people were killed in Germany in one day?”

Language is a crucial tool in the fabrication and maintaining of the narrative. Both BILD and the weekly national paper “die Welt,” make use of words to convey the message. 

While BILD’s tone is blatant, die Welt is applying a more moderate tone to convey the same biased framing. In an analysis of the Welt’s coverage of Israel/Palestine in the early 2000s, researchers Jäger and Jäger found that the paper systematically portrays Palestinian leadership as the main problem in the “conflict,” while the Israelis are generally depicted as solution-oriented and interested in negotiations. Palestinians represent violence and the threat of Islamic fundamentalism. 

Apart from general framing, one of the most efficient tools used by Springer media is the convolution of anti-Zionism and antisemitism. This works particularly well in Germany where people fear to be labeled as antisemitic, even if it is unfounded. 

What Made Axel Springer Be So Pro-Israel?

Many have tried to understand what it was that made Springer so obsessed with the Israeli nationalist cause, concluding that the reason is most likely not one dimensional. Apart from the urge to rectify the past and his strong Christian faith, (Jesus was a Jew), Israel embodied the nation state that was aligned with his belief system. A capitalist, free-market, and liberal democracy. 

Springer was one of the first public figures to adopt a staunch pro-Israeli voice after the Second World War, embracing the concept of collective guilt and committed to do everything needed for the reconciliation between Germans and Jews. 

“As a German, Axel Springer understood it as a duty to do something for this constantly threatened country," said Springer's last wife Fried Springer about her late husband’s first visit to Israel in 1966. 

That year, Springer donated 3.6 million Deutsche Mark ($900.000) to the Israel Museum, which was the first of many personal financial contributions he made to Israeli institutions and programs. Until today, his foundation supports German-Israeli youth exchanges.  

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Axel Springer looking at Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives during his visit in June 1967

However, he believed that no money cannot compensate for what Germans owe the Jewish people, which is one of the reasons why he dedicated personal diplomacy to the cause as well as the collective voice of his media conglomerate. 

In the years until his death in 1985, Springer visited Israel on an annual basis. During one of the most prominent visits right after the Six-Day-War, another side to Springer’s Israel-obsession was revealed: As a patriot, he longed for the reunification of Berlin, which had been divided by the Allied Forces after World War II, and identified Jerusalem as a similar case. The city’s mayor, Teddy Kollek, became a close friend.

Springer’s commitment to Israel grew stronger with the Six-Day-War. Unlike today, many media houses in Germany had started adopting a more critical voice towards Israel in light of the brutalities it committed against the Palestinians in 1967. Axel Springer did the opposite: he ordered journalists to cover the war solely from an Israeli perspective. He was quoted as saying that the BILD Zeitung became an “Israeli paper for a week, apart from being published in German as that would have affected sales.” 

On June 6, BILD announced the “Battle for Jerusalem,” and declared two days later: “Jerusalem is ours.”

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Battle for Jerusalem - Jordanians storm UN headquarters USA: We remain neutral Kreml: We help the Arabs / Israel is not guilty

It is not surprising that Springer is popular in Israel. He was awarded medals and several honorary doctorates from Israeli institutions such as the Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan (1974), and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (1976). He became an honorary member of the Weizmann Institute of Sciences in Reḥovot, and was given the gold medals of the Israeli Association of Daily Paper Publishers (1984) and of the B'nai B'rith League (1985).  

Springer’s Controversial Relationship With Jews

Looking at Springer’s biography, however, it is questionable whether his solidarity with Israel was motivated out of genuine empathy for the Jewish people or out of convenience as the concept of Israel as a western-modeled nation state suited his worldview. 

For critics, however, he was an unethical, profit-seeking capitalist. Ulrike Meinhof, a journalist and later member of the radical left-wing organization Red Army Faction (RAF), wrote about Springer that he was one of three types of "Israel friends," the one who only backs Israel as it shared the common principle of being an anti-communist state. The other two were the one whose solidarity with Jewish people was aligned with anti-fascism (like herself), and the one who backs the USA, and therefore Israel.

There were aspects of Springer’s life which defy the unconditional solidarity with Jewish people, such as his divorce of his half-Jewish wife in 1938 which his biographer called “a career-decision,” or his role as editor of the Hamburg based Altonaer Nachrichten, which provided a platform for antisemitic propaganda during the Second World War. 

Springer might not have been a Nazi official, but he was also not among the non-jewish Germans who stood up against the crimes of the Holocaust. 

After being cleared by the Allied Control Council which assessed Germans on their Nazi sympathies, Springer surrounded himself with hardcore ex-Nazis. They worked alongside formerly persecuted Jews like Erik Blumenfeld and Ernst Cramer, who were also considered close advisers to the media mogul. 

How and why Nazis and Jewish people were working side by side in Springer’s growing media empire is considered one of many contradictions in the life of the publisher, which is aligned with the contradiction of his commitment to stand for freedom and democratic values while the practices of the media he owned indicated the opposite.

Springer publications have a history of disrespecting ethics and journalistic standards, and have been made responsible for severe cases of violence.

“A BILD headline is more violent than a stone thrown at a policeman’s head,” wrote the German weekly paper die ZEIT in the 1960s. 

BILD’s Language and Headlines

An example was the 1960s when negative sentiments against Springer peaked with the anti-capitalist and anti-Zionist student movement identifying the publisher as the epitome of Western capitalism, campaigning for its expropriation. 

The publishing house’s response was to call for the destruction of the movement and its leaders. At the time, the BILD Zeitung was read by a large part of the population reaching a readership of close to 5 million people daily. Headlines read "Eliminate the troublemakers," or "Stop the terror of the young reds now!"

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Stop the terror of the young reds now! in BILD on 7 February 1968. Dutschke was shot two months later. 

The incitement was so blatant that Springer, especially BILD, was accused of being responsible for the attempted assassination of the popular student leader Rudi Dutschke in 1968, who was shot three times at close vicinity by a far-right gunman.

BILD also has a track record of violating personal rights which has resulted in numerous court cases against the publishing house. BILD still receives the majority of reprimands by the German Press Council, all of which seems to not bother the company’s management. 

That’s how it keeps on doing what it set out to do from its beginnings: incite, polarize, damage. Over the past two months, BILD has been doing its job of painting the picture in black and white, while die Welt has painted the same picture, just in a more moderate tone. Even Politico, the once a-political U.S. American analysis platform which was acquired by Springer in 2021, replicates the agenda. 

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Statement released by Axel Springer SE after 7 October

“Making sure that never again is not just an empty phrase” was the headline of a statement that the media house released in October, in which twelve journalists shared impressions from the ground. Independently, the article said. Knowing the context and history of Springer, however, the word “independent” does not mean much. 

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