Axel Springer, 73, the strong-willed, innovative and controversial builder and ruler of a West German publishing empire that brought him influence and power and reflected his vigorously anti-Communist views, died last night in West Berlin.

A spokesman for his publishing company said that Mr. Springer, who had been ill for a brief period, died after a heart attack early in the evening.

Combining financial acumen with an almost mystical belief in the validity of the ideas he championed, Mr. Springer often was likened to the visionary, idiosyncratic giants of the past who placed their personal stamp on the world of mass-circulation newspapers and magazines.

Mr. Springer's views found expression in as many as seven newspapers that he owned, including the sensationalistic pictorial daily, Bild Zeitung, and the prestigious Die Welt. At one time, his opinions dominated more than 30 percent of all daily newspapers sold in West Germany.

His name, emblazoned on his$20 million, 22-story West Berlin headquarters abutting the Berlin Wall, is visible throughout Communist East Berlin and was regarded as a flamboyant symbol of his wealth and power, and of his hostility to the East German regime.

In addition to owning newspapers and magazines, Mr. Springer was a major book publisher and recently branched out into television. Starting in the aftermath of World War II with little more than a typewriter, he achieved a measure of success that reflected and symbolized West Germany's economic recovery.

In 1967 and 1968 his views made him the target of violent demonstrations by radical students, who objected to his anti-Communism and what they perceived as his strident nationalism, as well as what they viewed as his excessive power over the nation's press and public opinion.

The riots of the turbulent '60s included an attempt to burn his publishing house in West Berlin. In 1972, his plant in Hamburg was bombed.

In the 1970s, Mr. Springer attracted wide attention by the zeal with which he threw his publishing empire into the fight to oppose efforts by then-Chancellor Willy Brandt to improve relations with Eastern Europe.

But Mr. Springer's outlook and philosophy were not limited solely to German nationalism and anti-communism. In the 1930s he showed no sympathy for the Nazis, and in the years after World War II he denounced extremist groups on the radical right with the same fervor that enraged the country's leftist students when directed toward them.

One of the four principles that Mr. Springer established for his publications was opposition to totalitarianism in any form. Others were to work for German reunification, support free enterprise, and seek reconciliation between Germans and Jews.

An outspoken friend of the state of Israel, Mr. Springer upheld the "special obligation" of Germany toward the Jews.

As a young man in 1933, he recalled, he had seen elderly Jews beaten by Nazis in Berlin.

"I couldn't do anything about it," he said, "but I never forgot it."

While his critics noted that some of his editors had produced propaganda for the Nazis, Mr. Springer also persuaded Jews who had fled Hitler's Germany to return and work for him.

In championing free enterprise, Mr. Springer paid homage to a system that had enabled him to salvage fragments of a family business from the wreckage of postwar Europe and to build from those ruins an empire that employed 11,000 people.

Mr. Springer was born May 2, 1912, the son of Heinrich and Ottilie Springer. His father owned a small publishing firm. Mr. Springer said later that his mother, versed in art and literature, exerted a strong influence on his life.

As a young man he served an apprenticeship in a paper factory, worked as a reporter, and became an editor on a newspaper published by his father. Exempted from the draft during the war because of diabetes and a respiratory ailment, he worked with his father in the printing business.

The plant was destroyed in a British bombing raid, but Mr. Springer salvaged some of its equipment and obtained a license from the military occupation authorities in 1945 to launch a magazine that was his first independent publishing venture.

Financing himself, in part, with money earned from his family's wartime book publishing business, he added other magazines. In 1948 he was able to start a newspaper. Within two years, aided by vigorous promotion, it became Hamburg's biggest paper.

Bild Zeitung was launched in 1952. Mr. Springer, a man of pensive mien who reflected great charm, made a success of Bild with a spicy blend of sex, crime and sports. He maintained that such publications made it possible for him to publish more serious material. In 1953, he bought Die Welt.

"Write about people and for people -- and keep it short," was the formula that he exhorted his editorial staff to follow.

Much of Mr. Springer's success was attributed to his sensitivity to his readers' interests.

"No minister can tell me what the people think," he once said. "I've got a sixth sense, plus the letters-to-the-editor column."

Mr. Springer married five times and is survived by a son and a daughter.