East Germany’s Jewish Problem

Jeffrey Herf, Undeclared Wars With Israel: East Germany and the West German Far Left 1967–1989 (Cambridge 2016)


After 1945, Communist East Germany and the far Left in West Germany felt that they had no moral responsibility towards Israel. In their eyes it was just another outpost of imperialism that had placed the yoke of colonialism around the necks of Palestinian Arabs. Prof. Jeffrey Herf’s latest book, Undeclared Wars With Israel: East Germany and the West German Far Left 1967–1989, documents the desire of the East German state and circles in the West German Left to overcome the Judenknacks (Jewish complex) and not to be paralyzed by the guilt of recent history.
East Germany – misnamed the German Democratic Republic – was the only member of the Soviet bloc never to have
established diplomatic relations with Israel and refused to institute restitution payments to survivors of the Holocaust. Its long-standing Stalinist leadership always separated the victims of Nazism from the citizens of Israel – as if there was
never a connection.

Instead East Germany devoted itself in the 1960s to establishing the notion that Israelis were latter-day fascists, that Moshe Dayan was the Israeli Himmler and that national Zionism was equivalent to National Socialism. A few days after the victory in the Six Day War, East German leader Walter Ulbricht spoke about “a Sinai protectorate” and “a General Government” of Jordan– evoking the terminology of Nazi control of Poland after 1939.

East Germany became the powerhouse for arms for the radical Arab states. Even before the war of 1967, East Germany supplied Syria with MiG-17 fighters, more than five million bullets for Kalashnikovs and Nazi-era machine guns that had been captured by Soviet forces in 1945.
It is Herf’s focus on the West German far Left that is of greater relevance today. Its adherents argued that pro-Israel sentiment
was embedded in “the same political structure as political anti-Semitism.” It was therefore a philo-Semitic anti-Semitism that was exhibited by support for Israel in 1967. Herf disparagingly writes that this conclusion was arrived at through “the magic of radical dialectics.”
The distance between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism was shortened when a bomb was placed in a Jewish community center in 1969. It fortunately failed to explode. A leaflet proclaimed that Kristallnacht was repeated every day in the Palestinian refugee camps.
In 1970, there were 26,000 Jews in West Germany, a small number of whom were students. Yet there were 16,000 Arab students, of whom 3,000 were Palestinians. The General Union of Palestinian Students (GUPS) had branches in 26 West
German universities. This was a period of aircraft hijackings and acts of terrorism against civilians, conducted by radical
Palestinian groups – the followers of Habash, Hawatmeh and Jibril. It was emulated by Fatah’s front organization, Black September, and all these roads led to the killing of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972.
Events such as the attack on Christian pilgrims by the Japanese Red Army at Lod airport not only impressed the West German
far Left, but were enthusiastically welcomed by GUPS. Moreover, the hinterland of support that GUPS provided persuaded several leftists to move beyond the realm of revolutionary theory. Some had already visited the training camps of Fatah and the Democratic Front in Jordan as early as 1969 and there was an impetus to participate in the actions of an embryonic “Arab Vietcong.” Ulrike Meinhof (of the Baader-Meinhof Gang) welcomed the Munich killings. She commented that “it showed courage and strength… a class consciousness that was aware of its historic mission of being a vanguard.”
Herf records that the West German Revolutionary Cells were responsible for 67 firebombings and explosions between 1973 and 1980 with targets including Jewish firms and institutions – and there were plans to assassinate the leaders of Jewish
communities of West Berlin and Frankfurt. The apogée of such a strategy was reached when two members of the Revolutionary Cells assisted a faction of the Popular Front in hijacking an Air France plane and flying it to Entebbe in 1976.
Identifiable Jews were famously separated from non-Jews, the list for pre-ordered kosher food studied and Jews wearing
kippot hit on the head.
The political dialogue between the German hijackers and some of their Jewish passengers – not included in this book – about the Jewish question and the nature of Zionism, could easily have taken place today in London or Paris between Zionists and their far Left opponents, albeit in more salubrious circumstances.
East Germany’s deputy minister of state security was responsible for intelligence about the European far Left and the instigators of terrorism in the developing world. East Germany was considered a safe haven for those on the run and they were often spirited out of the country. While their activities were monitored by the Stasi, they were certainly not handed
over to the West Germans.
Perhaps the weakness of Herf’s book is an inability to demonstrate an absolute connection between East Germany and the West German far Left. Maybe it hardly existed. Perhaps the destruction of the Stasi files in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall destroyed the evidence. Perhaps the Stasi was remarkably efficient in ensuring that the paper trail did not lead back to them. Even so, much of the arms used by the West Germans originated in East Germany.
Yasser Arafat was deeply worried about developments in East Germany in 1989, as he was when the USSR was about to collapse in 1991. He even sent a telegram of support to the Chinese leadership after the killings in Tiananmen Square. To advance the cause of freedom for the Palestinians, he turned a blind eye to the cause of freedom in East Germany and elsewhere. It was only with democratic elections in 1990 that East Germany accepted its responsibility
for addressing Nazi crimes.
Jeffrey Herf shines a searchlight into dark episodes into Germany’s troubled past.

Jerusalem Post 22 July 2016


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