The Return of the Repressed: On the Nazi Origins of New Leftist Antizionism in Germany

Paul Klee, Lumpen Ghost, 1933, water and paste colour on card, 48 x 33.1 cm, Paul Klee Foundation, Berne

His unmastered past is betrayed with particular clarity by his totally uncritical philosemitism which, in the same way as the Nazis considered them the scum of the earth, views the Israelis (‘the Jews’) as the new apex of humankind, no matter what—specifically: unambiguous fascist and imperialist tendencies notwithstanding.[1]

This article has three parts. In the first part, I revisit the German New Left’s response to the Nazi past which turns out, as in the case of sexual morals, so too in the case of antisemitism, to have been a response not to Nazi continuities but to the parent generation’s problematic attempt to overcome those continuities. Insofar as the parent generation’s ostensible philosemitism was in many respects simply an inversion of their earlier antisemitism, its violent rejection by the New Leftists now re-inverted that inversion, taking them full circle. This takes us to a far-reaching and innovative policy shift initiated by leading figures in Goebbels’s Ministry of Popular Education and Propaganda in the summer of 1944, when it was decided that Zionism qua Zionism should henceforth be singled out as the principal foe, and that the previously deployed antisemitic tropes should no longer be rehearsed in order not to draw attention away from Zionism. Not only was this the best way of keeping antisemitism fresh and vibrant, now that the annihilation of European Jewry was nearing its completion. Antizionism would also be a useful tool in bringing other ‘wholesome’ nations on side. In the final section, I give some pointers for a more general contextualization of the issues discussed in the first two parts.

Among the fundamental misunderstandings that have dogged the left for a century now, rendering it ridiculous and ineffective on some occasions and callous and oppressive on others, one of the most significant is the assumption that fascism in general and National Socialism in particular (assuming leftists are able and/or willing to make this distinction) are (or were) simply crass forms of conservatism. The distortion of history and reality required to uphold this misconception is considerable. Although there has never been a German regime more radically disruptive of established orders and norms than National Socialism, for decades, leftists considered the suggestion that it was revolutionary in nature the worst kind of blasphemy.[2] Revolution was their preserve, and they reserved the term exclusively for forms of radical change they would be willing to embrace. Moreover, most leftists were no more willing to face up to the fact that National Socialism had enjoyed unprecedented levels of popular support than those who knew better because they were there but had obvious reasons for not wanting to dwell on the matter.

One context in which this fundamental misapprehension has found particularly striking expression is that of sexual politics. Beginning in the 1920s, first the Old and then the New Left took it for granted that sexual repression produces fascism and vice versa.[3] With the benefit of hindsight, it now seems rather obvious that the New Left has predominantly been a force of integration rather than radical disruption, and that its activists, for the most part, functioned as the shock troops of capitalist modernization in the social and cultural sphere rather than a revolutionary vanguard fundamentally transforming the social order in its own image. Arguably, this also holds true for its emphasis on sexual liberation, the cause in whose pursuit it has had the greatest impact. Crucially for our discussion here, most German New Leftists managed to convince themselves that the pursuit of sexual liberation was also a means of facing up to, and drawing a line under, the Nazi past and its legacy. They had grown up in a sexually repressed environment and took it for granted that the sexual repression they encountered was a product of National Socialism.

Yet, the sexual repression they were confronting had nothing to do with the Nazis, far from it. It was in fact integral to a conservative backlash against National Socialism. The prevailing political consensus in the early Federal Republic, such as it was, was predicated on the notion that the ‘excesses’ of National Socialism had only been possible because all too many in German society had abandoned its traditional Christian values.[4] If one wanted to leave the Nazi past behind and ensure nothing similar could recur, one needed to return to those values and learn once again to respect the limitations they set—including appropriate sexual restraint. For the Nazis were in fact anything but committed to sexual repression. Given their ambitious agenda, they wanted healthy ‘Aryans’ to produce as much offspring as possible and really did not care whether that offspring was the product of marital, pre- or extra-marital sex. While they doubtless also reasoned that straight Germans were likely to be more loyal and productive, the more sexually satisfied they were, they also simply wanted their compatriots to have fun. Far too little attention tends to be paid to the fact that the overwhelming majority of Germans reaped enormous benefits from National Socialism as long as its winning streak lasted.

Given that virtually all Germans subsequently portrayed themselves as victims of National Socialism and many were genuinely committed to the agenda of conservative Christian renewal, it is little wonder that the measure of sexual liberation many had enjoyed under the Nazis was rarely if ever the object of conversation between the parent generation and their offspring.[5] This made it all the easier for the children to misidentify West German postfascist sexual morality as Nazi sexual morality. Where they thought they were rebelling against the Nazis’ sexual politics they were in fact rejecting the—admittedly misguided, helpless and frequently self-righteous—attempt of the parent generation to break with National Socialism.[6] It is worth noting that the ease with which most leftists took the universal sexual repressiveness of National Socialism for granted also reflected an extraordinary failure to acknowledge the extent to which Nazi repression and Nazi crimes were forthrightly directed against very specific target groups—notably the Jews—and by no means against the German public at large. Dagmar Herzog was not the first to draw attention to this misidentification, though arguably the first to bring it into the realm of mainstream historiography.[7] Despite its massive implications for the conceptualization of West German society’s dealings with the Nazi past, its reception has been surprisingly (or perhaps not so surprisingly) muted.

The same mechanism governed the New Left’s (ostensible) treatment of Nazi antisemitism. In this instance, it effected the extraordinarily aggressive rejection of the parent generation’s postfascist ‘philosemitism’, specifically in its principal guise as remarkably widespread enthusiasm for Israel’s achievements and its military prowess in particular.[8] While Christian conservatism did have something to say about the systematic annihilation of civilian populations, when it came to antisemitism, it had no leg on which to stand. Antisemitism was woven deep into the fabric of both Christian theology and popular Christian religiosity. Without this well-established and long-standing antisemitism—which theologians and the churches did not begin to engage in earnest, if at all, until decades later—the Nazis would have had a very hard time indeed in gaining acceptance for—or at least acquiescence into—their radical and eventually genocidal anti-Jewish policies. Both main churches not only granted the Nazi authorities access to documentation required to identify Christians who had converted from Judaism and their descendants but also disavowed them with appalling ease and callousness.

To suggest that any kind of meaningful anti-antisemitic consensus could conceivably have emerged ‘organically’ in Germany in the second half of the 1940s and the early 1950s would be absurd. The few surviving Jews well and truly had other things to worry about, and non-Jewish attitudes towards Jews that were, at best, ambivalent had been so prevalent in Germany even before the Nazis came to power that there were, some exceptions notwithstanding, simply not enough individuals around who could have tried to foster such a consensus. It would have needed to emerge quite literally from nowhere. Even the simple insight that it would probably be opportune simply to keep a lid on whatever one thought about Jews did not go without saying to quite the extent one might have expected. Fortunately, the Allies had informed the West German political class in no uncertain terms that the country’s rehabilitation and reintegration as a trustworthy nation state deserving of independence and self-rule would depend in no small measure on the attitude it henceforth displayed towards Jews. Consequently, references to what ‘das Ausland’—a noun used in the singular to denote all that lay beyond Germany’s borders—might think frequently had to be invoked where insight and contrition among Germans were sorely lacking.

Two principal factors eventually did bring about some measure of change on grounds other than mere opportunism: the organized Christian–Jewish dialogue and the aforementioned admiration for the achievements of the State of Israel and its military prowess in particular. The former is beyond the remit of this discussion. Suffice it to say that, then as now, organized Christian–Jewish dialogue has tended to veer towards emphasis on the far-reaching commonalities between or, indeed, on the (imputed) essential sameness of, Jews and Christians. In so doing it is constantly at risk of articulating a form of solidarity that, for all its good intentions, negates the otherness of Judaism and Jewishness it is supposedly designed to appreciate and respect.

More important for the purposes of this discussion is the way in which Israeli achievements were able to catch the West German popular imagination. Being congratulated as a German Jew by one or more German non-Jews on Israel’s military successes, especially in June 1967, seems to have been something of a rite of passage. This is an intriguing, highly complex phenomenon. Contrary to what most leftists would have you believe, there is nothing inherently sinister about the assumption that Jews elsewhere on the planet might take pride in Israel’s success. That said, by all accounts, Israel was frequently referred to as ‘your country’ in this context, betraying a rather troubling underlying assumption that, when push came to shove, German Jews were really Israelis.[9]

I am interested in a different aspect of this phenomenon, however. Herzog has suggested that ‘the excitement of West German conservatives at the Israeli victory’ of 1967 ‘appears to have something to do with the relief Germans felt at Jews no longer being victims’.[10] This may be so, but I would argue that something much more fundamental was at work in this context. Contrary to postcolonial and intersectional myth, othering is not some universal human impulse that wafts around and randomly attaches itself willy-nilly to any old phenomenon that happens to catch its fancy. Generic features and the possibility of some measure of overlap notwithstanding, othering invariably projects specific perceptions onto a specific, by no means random or interchangeable foil in order to satisfy specific needs and stabilize the projecting individual in its grappling with specific issues. Moreover, not all others bear equal significance.

Many Germans traditionally viewed France as Germany’s archenemy. Yet France was one other among several within an existing, inherently stabilizing set of coordinates. Even as an enemy nation it fit into a world ideally divided up into nation states. By contrast, in the second half of the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries, Jews were considered primarily not one other national group but the exact opposite, they were seen as the embodied subversion of the national principle. This made them not one enemy among others within an existing order but an essential threat to the entire world order—and therefore infinitely more dangerous than even a long-standing archenemy like France. Against this backdrop, the creation and consolidation of the State of Israel fundamentally opened up a new way of looking at ‘the Jews’. Evidently, whatever else might be peculiar or potentially troubling about them, Jews were capable of engaging in sustained nation-building after all. For many older West Germans, Israel’s achievements provided an important safety valve, radically diminishing their internalized fear of the Jews—and thus the urge to combat them—as they turned from a threat to the world order into a threat within the world order.

There is no denying, of course, that the attempts of West Germans to ‘like’ Jews were almost invariably helpless and hollow and predicated in large measure on the mere inversion of existing stereotypes. The very qualities that had previously made them a threat were now presented as symptoms of their admirable prowess. As long as the word Jew was infinitely more likely to be used pejoratively than not, it made perfect sense to compel Germans as best one could to keep their peace, but there is no denying that this created an unhealthy atmosphere in which virtually every conversation about Jews (real or imagined) involving non-Jews was pervaded by awkwardness and anguish. Since the 1990s, public discourse on matters Jewish has become much less inhibited—mostly, but not always, for the better—but the issue continues to elicit considerable awkwardness among ‘ordinary’ Germans. There were (and are), then, ample grounds for legitimate criticism.

Yet, rather than actually engage with these issues in an attempt to overcome them, the New Left mounted a spectacular kneejerk response, focussing their contempt and resentment not on the shortcomings of the parent generation’s ill-fated attempts at postfascist anti-antisemitism but on that undertaking as such. Since that postfascist anti-antisemitism had done little more than invert what had widely been taken for granted under the Nazis, the New Left’s inversion of that inversion now brought them full circle as they proceeded to propagate the mirror image of the mirror image. In the process, the New Left reinjected the excess passion the generation of their parents had just about managed to withdraw from their investment in antisemitism by making the identification of Israel as the quintessential embodiment of all that is and always has been wrong with nationalism and militates against the vision of a more peaceful and just post-national world one of the core tenets of a renewed form of now proudly antizionist antisemitism.[11]

Whatever else one may want to say about the New Left’s antizionist revolt against the supposedly still inherently fascist ‘philosemitism’ of the parent generation, it most certainly did not pit them against the Nazis, quite the opposite. Not only did the Nazi regime form embryonic Einsatzgruppen tasked with preparing for the immediate annihilation of Jews living in territories Germany had not yet conquered.[12] Even as the likelihood of defeat increased, the Nazis still liked to think ahead and began to give serious consideration to the question of what should come next, now that the annihilation of European Jewry was nearing its completion.

In the September/October 1943 issue of Wille und Macht, the leading Hitler Youth periodical, Klaus Schickert (b. 1909), one of the prominent academic antisemites in Nazi Germany, warned that this initial success came with its own risks.[13] ‘Each year’, he lamented, ‘hundreds of thousands of young Germans reach military age no longer knowing what a Jew is. Germany under Jewish rule—this sounds like some distant legend. Is the Jew more than a museum exhibit one can glance at inquisitively and with some measure of abashment, a fossilized wondrous beast with the yellow star on its chest that bears testimony to the past but no longer exists in the present? … How could this pitiful creature possibly be dangerous?’ So far, the weakness resulting from ‘our innate inclination to treat other peoples and races like ourselves and prioritize right before might, to opt for compassion and let feelings sway us in the face of life’s stern eternal laws’, had not obstructed the regime’s determined and systematic implementation of its anti-Jewish policies, but it was now high time to shore up the public’s commitment to the antisemitic cause and further professionalize the antisemitic propaganda effort, Schickert insisted.[14]

Schickert was by no means alone with his concerns and in March 1944, one of his colleagues, Wolf Meyer-Christian (1902–1983),[15] finalized a proposal for ‘The Treatment of the Jewish Question in the German Press’. It had four parts: the main proposal (11 pages), an appendix with detailed notes on how Zionism should henceforth be treated (7 pages), a four-page chronology of Zionist history and a detailed glossary (15 pages).[16] This proposal he submitted to Walther Koerber, a senior civil servant in the Goebbels ministry’s press department who headed up the so-called Schnelldienst (rapid service) tasked with the rapid assessment of press reports coming in from abroad with a view to possible coverage in the German press.[17] Koerber, in turn, passed on the proposal to the deputy head of the press department, SS Obersturmbannführer Helmut Sündermann (1911–1972), well known among his peers for the ‘sledgehammer approach’ he liked to take to many an issue.[18] In his cover letter, dated June 13, 1944 and posted the following day, Koerber noted that two relevant experts in the field, Karl-August Stuckenberg (b. 1907) and Franz Gengler, expressly supported Meyer-Christian’s proposal.

Stuckenberg, who had served as chair of the Committee for the Creation of a World League Against Colonial Bolshevism, one of the ministry’s front organizations, was an expert on ‘colonial bolshevism’ and now apparently (also?) responsible for matters Jewish in the colonial section of the Goebbels ministry’s propaganda department.[19] (Ludwig) Franz Gengler (1902–1946) was a veteran party propagandist. Talent-spotted by Julius Streicher, the editor of the infamous Der Stürmer who was sentenced to death in Nuremberg, in the 1920s, Gengler was nationally well known for his outrageous antisemitic provocations even before the Nazis came to power. His most original contribution to antisemitic agitation was the use of the blood libel to explain the phenomenon of ‘race defilement’, i.e., the sexual ‘desecration’ of non-Jewish women by Jewish men, relating sexual lust to bloodlust. He seems to have been the publications man at the Institute for the Study of the Jewish Question, another front organization of the Goebbels ministry, responsible, inter alia, for the continuation of the Handbuch der Judenfrage (Handbook of the Jewish Question, formerly Antisemiten-Katechismus, Antisemites’ Catechism), an antisemitic compendium first published in 1887 and periodically updated thereafter by Theodor Fritsch (1852–1933), one of the founding fathers of modern  political antisemitism. Gengler was also associated with the department in Himmler’s security apparatus devoted specifically to ideologically relevant research (RSHA VII) which maintained a working group on the Jewish Question. Presumably, he was consulted on Meyer-Christian’s proposal in one or other or both of these capacities.

Just in case the gist of Meyer-Christian’s proposal might be lost on anyone who read the main memorandum, Koerber added that Meyer-Christian, in the cover letter he, in turn, had submitted to Koerber with the memorandum, ‘stresses the need to place particular emphasis on the insight that Zionism functions both as an instrument of, and as a means of camouflaging, Jewish imperialism which has entered into a marriage of convenience with the three familiar (English, Russian and US-American) imperialisms’. Indeed, so significant was this concern, according to Meyer-Christian’s cover letter, ‘that all the other worn-out Jewish issues must disappear’, i.e., no further reference should be made to the issues on which antisemitic propaganda had hitherto relied.[20]

Meyer-Christian’s point of departure was much the same as Schickert’s. ‘Young twenty-year-old officers, when asked, explain that they have never consciously seen a Jew’, he noted.[21] While the designation ‘typically Jewish’ told the older generation everything they needed to know, for the younger generation it supposedly had no more meaning than the designation ‘typically Chinese’.[22] All too many assumed that the Jewish Question had been resolved, and it was little wonder that ‘the old methods’ of antisemitic propaganda enjoyed little resonance now that ‘its target’ had been eliminated.[23] Yet,  not only had the Jewish Question not been resolved, it had become much more acute and urgent since 1933. This unprecedented escalation was owed to the creation of the Jewish Agency in 1929, which ‘for the first time in the history of the Jewish people has united Jewry in its entirety, and this under the flag of Zionism’.[24] It now operated as the government of the ‘Jewish world power’, pitting, he explained—expressly noting that the ‘six million European Jews’ could be disregarded—an estimated ‘ten to twelve million Jews’, backed by enormous financial, intellectual and political resources, against Germany.[25]

Antisemitism was ‘the most important weapon’ when it came to bringing other ‘wholesome’ nations on side, Meyer-Christian noted, and therefore frequently described ‘rather neatly and accurately as the Führer’s secret weapon’.[26] Yet this weapon was not, alas, being deployed to its full potential, and this urgently needed to change. To this end, Meyer-Christian presented a ‘Plan of Attack’ that would ‘inevitably succeed because it is underpinned by historical necessity’. Leaving the logistical issues to one side, the central plank of this plan of attack was the demand that the principal enemy should henceforth be Zionism qua Zionism. The fight needed to focus on Zionism’s ‘specific goals, its leaders and their aspirations, its overt and covert institutions and ancillary entities, its plan of creating a Jewish state, its ideology and its political praxis’. In order to pursue this principal focus with the requisite single-mindedness, one needed to stop referencing ‘the numerous other, currently insignificant grounds for hostility, such as the personal characteristics of the Jewish race, corruption, fraud, avarice, sloth, cowardice etc.’[27] Headlines in particular needed henceforth to be absolutely to the point. Anything that shifted attention from ‘world Jewry in its entirety’ to individual Jews and their activities and thus stressed ‘the insignificant at the expense of the truly decisive questions’ was counterproductive and urgently needed to be avoided.[28]

In its original Herzlian guise, Meyer-Christian suggested in the appendix on Zionist politics, Zionism aspired to a solution of the Jewish Question that envisaged all Jews withdrawing from the diaspora and settling in a self-contained Jewish territory.[29] Yet the movement had long since abandoned this goal and was now pursuing a two-track agenda that envisaged both a Jewish state and the global imposition of Jewish domination. Hence, ‘instead of solving the Jewish Question’, Zionism in its current, perverted form, should it succeed, would instead lead to the ‘intensification and perpetuation’ of the Jewish Question.[30] Zionism had become inextricably intertwined with the interests of Jewish high finance and British and US-American ‘oil capitalism’, and its ‘subterranean relations with certain state and finance powers turn out to amount to a kind of freemasonry covertly pursuing goals that are quite different from those’ expressed in public.[31]

In the context of his discussion of the Balfour Declaration, Meyer-Christian embarked on a rather curious digression. The world, especially insofar as it was subject to Anglo-American influence, he argued, liked to put a legal gloss on, and establish legal grounds for, unusual state measures, especially when they precipitated fundamental change—such as ‘the excretion of the Jews from German life’. Germany had missed a beat in not placing its anti-Jewish policies on a ‘formal legal’ footing of this kind.[32] The Balfour Declaration had addressed its guarantees to world Jewry in its entirety. Consequently, the Zionist leadership, which had already shown its true colours by shifting its focus from Berlin to London in the first half of the Great War, by welcoming the Balfour Declaration, had acknowledged that all Jews were ultimately British subjects and thus, from Germany’s point of view, enemy aliens and potential enemy combatants. In this respect, nothing had changed since 1917, and no one had any grounds to be surprised if Germany had decided to treat her Jews accordingly now that the two countries were once again at war. I do not know whether this was just Meyer-Christian’s pet theory or an opinion held more widely. What is so curious about this discussion is the way in which his own polemic overtakes him. If the rest of the world was in fact only interested in putting some sort of legal gloss on political measures, then it would be ridiculous to engage in this activity oneself. If, on the other hand, he assumed that his theory had genuine legal merit, then why polemicize against the convention of providing legal grounds in the first place? I have gone into this particular aspect of Meyer-Christian’s discussion because it points, however perversely, to the central dilemma inherent, by its very nature, in the practice of lawfare when it comes to delineating form and content and law and politics.

In the glossary, Meyer-Christian again picked up on this point, stating that ‘on the behest of the powerful assimilated Jews in London, the British government offered guarantees to non-Zionist world Jewry in the Balfour Declaration. By accepting these, the Zionist leadership—and this has frequently been overlooked—stripped the movement of its original völkisch character, since this implies a clear acknowledgment of the Jewish position of power within the wholesome nations as a second bedrock of Jewish power (alongside Palestine).’[33] Meyer-Christian identified Chaim Weizmann as the principal author of the Zionist movement’s alleged turn to ‘imperialist Jewish world politics’.[34] Indeed, for Meyer-Christian, Weizmann was the ‘single most dangerous troublemaker in the world’.[35] Given that the Jewish state the Zionists demanded was ‘solely designed to create a base for global Jewish imperialism from which to bolster Jewish power throughout the rest of the world’, the ‘wholesome nations’ would doubtless want to prevent its creation, and German propaganda was duty-bound to prompt them accordingly.[36]

Needless to say, the Nazis were in no position fundamentally to take issue with the fact that Zionism was a national movement. Anyone familiar with late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century antisemitic writings will be familiar with the perplexing paradox that Jews were regularly attacked, often by one and the same author, both for being unable to assimilate and for wanting to assimilate, i.e., for being willing to give up their ethnic identity in the first place. In short, the Nazis really had little choice other than to suggest that Zionism was not really or only coincidentally a form of nationalism and merely tasked with providing an (additional) front for Jewry’s attempts to consolidate and intensify its domination the world over. While the New Left initially inclined more to the assumption that the State of Israel was designed to provide cover to US rather than Jewish imperialism—a position that has since been reversed among radical leftists—its pronounced ability to take us into the worst of all worlds by harmonizing the concept of Israel as the uncontested extreme case of both exclusionary particularism and oppressive universalism does seem to have added something new and phenomenally toxic and potent to the mix.

I suspect that Meyer-Christian’s proposal may have been preceded by some internal wrangling over the issue. The main front-page article in the regime’s principal daily, the Völkischer Beobachter, of March 6, 1944 reads as though it has been written by a committee (metaphorically speaking).[37] It offered no fewer than five different explanations for developments concerning Palestine: firstly, ‘the Jews’ and the Soviet Union were in cahoots and trying to bring the Middle East under their control; secondly, Britain and the US were engaged in what antisemites todays would describe as ‘pity-washing’, they were supporting Zionism to give the impression they cared about Jews when, in fact, all they were interest in, thirdly, was ‘power and, thus, oil’; fourthly, Britain ‘refuses to recognize that it has in fact become their [i.e., the Jews’] servant’; and, finally, there is a section specifically about the machinations of the Jewish Agency that is remarkably similar to the position developed by Meyer-Christian in rather more detail in his proposal. Like the proposal, it singles out Weizmann and his synthetic Zionism as the principal foe, aligns Ben-Gurion with Moscow and, rather strikingly, it mentions the figure of ‘ten to twelve million Jews’ pitted against Germany by Zionism (i.e., between five and seven million fewer than were usually mentioned in the past). Yet, while some of the salient information underpinning Meyer-Christian’s proposal (dated March 1944) was referenced in this final section of the article, there is as yet no suggestion that Zionism qua Zionism should henceforth be considered the principal foe. Indeed, on May 13, 1944, one month before Koerber submitted Meyer-Christian’s proposal to Sündermann, the front-page headline of the Völkischer Beobachter read: ‘Moscow to be the Official Centre of World Jewry: The Jewish State of Palestine as the Corner Stone of Soviet Control in the Mediterranean’.[38]

On July 4, 1944, within three weeks of Koerber submitting the proposal to his superiors, the Völkischer Beobachter published a front-page editorial (running over onto the second page) on ‘The Dangers of Zionism’ by Walter Freund. ‘Does Jewry not have the right too to call a state its own, just like all other nations on earth?’ he asked rhetorically, adding that ‘the answer to this frequently heard question can only be an unambiguous “no”. … The Jews merely want to create a central state there from which they would then rule and exploit the non-Jewish world. … If this Satanic plan were to succeed, they [the Jews] would then visit the subjugated peoples with a Hebrew passport in their pockets and chain them to the central committee in Palestine.’[39] A fortnight later, on July 16 and 17, respectively, the Grenzbote, a weekly published in Hainburg/Danube (close to the current border with Slovakia) and the Neueste Zeitung: Das Innsbrucker Abendblatt published a long editorial, ‘What is Zionism’, by Karl Friedrich Euler (1909–1986).[40] Euler was a theologian who specialized in Old Testament Studies and made substantial contributions to the work of the infamous Institute for the Study and Elimination of Jewish Influence on German Church Life based in Eisenach.[41] All the Zionist slogans and concepts were ‘only seemingly national’, Euler explained. Zionism ‘was like all other forms of Jewishness—merely a form of Jewishness camouflaged as national in character. Hiding behind the mask of a national movement is the international Jew.’

There is something profoundly ironic about the fact that leading figures in the Goebbels ministry of all people failed to anticipate just how popular both antisemitism without Jews and secondary antisemitism would prove, and therefore genuinely feared, rather naïvely, that they would be unable to maintain a state of sustained panic about a problem—the deleterious impact of European Jewry—which the regime had, on its own admission, already solved. Yet the prescience of Meyer-Christian and his colleagues in identifying antizionism as the means by which Germany would be best placed to appeal to other ‘wholesome’ nations can hardly be overstated. As Michael Berkowitz pointed out in 2007—which, in the light of his recent involvement in the assault on the IHRA definition of antisemitism, now seems a lifetime ago—their contribution was ‘crucial in shaping an anti-Semitic policy that would have a shockingly warm and enduring reception in the wider world, well into the twenty-first century’.[42]

In this respect, the Nazis clearly beat Stalin’s Soviet Union to the punch. It bears emphasizing that, while all this was going on, in the Soviet Union, the Jewish Antifascist Committee, whose delegates had just returned from a spectacular seven-month tour of the USA, Mexico, Canada and the UK, was intensifying its activities, supporting survivors and documenting the atrocities against Jews perpetrated by the Germans and their allies in the Soviet Union. Ilya Ehrenburg was able to publish two Yiddish volumes on the Shoah in April and September 1944, respectively. In July 1944, a week after Euler revealed the true nature of Zionism to the readers of two Austrian papers, the Red Army liberated Majdanek. The publication of the more comprehensive Black Book documenting Jewish suffering in the Soviet Union did not fail until the end of 1946. In November 1947, the Soviet Union voted for the partition of Mandate Palestine and on 21 May 1948, the head of the Soviet delegation at the UN, Andrei Gromyko (1909–1989), clarified, ‘with beautiful vibrato’, as Jean Améry later wrote,[43] his country’s position before the security council: ‘As regards the Jewish State, its existence is already a fact; whether or not anyone likes that State, it is actually there; … The USSR delegation cannot but express surprise at the position adopted by the Arab States in the Palestine question, and particularly at the fact those States—or some of them, at least—have resorted to such action as sending their troops into Palestine and carrying out military operations aimed at the suppression of the national liberation movement in Palestine. … We cannot identify the vital interests of the peoples of the Arab East with the statements of certain Arab leaders or with those actions of the Governments of certain Arab States which we are witnessing at present.’[44] Czechoslovakia, already firmly under Soviet Control, was Israel’s most important supplier of weapons and munitions in the War of Independence.

The enormous enthusiasm that greeted Golda Meyerson (later Meir) when she arrived in Moscow as Israel’s first ambassador to the Soviet Union in September 1948 and, perhaps more importantly, awareness of the desire expressed by numerous Soviet Jews to help defend Israel in the War of Independence, doubtless nurtured Stalin’s fantasies about a possible lack of loyalty among Soviet Jews. Yet the ensuing antisemitic campaign, which affected not only the Soviet Union but all the Central and Eastern European countries under Soviet control, was ultimately motivated by a much more fundamental agenda. It was designed primarily to appease the indigenous populations in the countries in question, where all too many believed passionately in the Judaeo-Bolshevik canard. The equally histrionic and horrific antisemitic campaign was conceived primarily as a means of demonstrating beyond all reasonable doubt that there could be no suggestion whatsoever of the Soviets acting in cahoots with, or on the behest of, ‘the Jews’ (something of which nobody would ever have suspected the Nazis, of course). Like Meyer-Christian and his colleagues some four years earlier, the Soviet authorities now opted for the weaponization of antizionism because it promised to be the best means of bringing ‘wholesome’ nations on side.

The vehemence of the hostility towards Israel whose eruption and consolidation Jean Améry described with such extraordinary acuity and prescience and ever increasing desperation at the time, and which has been integral to the New Left ever since, will surprise only those who misunderstand the functioning and dynamics of antisemitism.  Antisemitism is not some doomed ideological remnant of a bygone age that is radically at odds with the modern world and merely needs to be kept in check with a combination of educational measures, getting to know one another and, where nothing else will do, repression until it finally dies off. It is every bit as modern as any other competitor on the ideological marketplace, and both its shapeshifting and matchmaking abilities by far exceed those of pretty much any of its competitors. That said, for all its remarkable qualitative adaptability to varying contexts, the longer I study the phenomenon, both historically and conceptually, the clearer it seems to me that antisemitism per se actually does very little waxing and waning (in quantitative terms). What does vary over time is its social and political significance. Crises (whether real or imagined) do not turn non-antisemites into antisemites, rather, they bestow a new-found meaningfulness on the antisemitic predisposition that has always been part of the furniture but hitherto seemed to be of little immediate consequence. As long as antisemitism has the capacity to contribute to the psychic and emotional stability of individuals by subjectively helping them make sense of the world and their position within it, the best we can hope for are effective means of keeping a lid on it. Short of radically transforming the entire economic, social and political world order for the better, it is simply grotesque to suggest we could put an end to antisemitism.

But this is not all. The new-found meaningfulness of antisemitism at such junctures inevitably begs the question of why one has hitherto been blind to this meaningfulness. Clearly, something must previously have gone wrong. This leaves two basic options. The fault may lie with the individual who has been too deluded and/or sentimental to recognize the truth and must therefore urgently take radical measures to purge themselves of their misguided philosemitism. Alternatively, the individual must have been duped by some kind of truth-distorting conspiracy (no prizes for guessing who might be behind such a conspiracy). Most people seem to fuse both responses. For this reason, the pendulum never makes it into a neutral position. The history of Jewish/non-Jewish relations can best be understood as one in which non-Jews (both Christians and Muslims) generously take the risk, time and again, of making concessions to Jews only to find after some time that the Jews are taking liberties or, to put it differently, conducting themselves as though their right to exist was not owed to non-Jewish generosity. The conclusion, then, is that one should have known all along that the risk was too high and that decisive measures are now required to correct the initial error. Contrary to myth, this ‘insight’ is rarely, if ever, triggered by some form of real-life, empirically verifiable conflict between (some) Jews and (some) non-Jews. It is when Jews come too close to really being treated just like anyone else—and are therefore at risk of losing their capacity to be reduced to conceptual putty—that suspicion is urgently called for.

What is often described as a perplexing paradox—that it was the Germans, among whom Jews were so extraordinarily integrated by the standards of the time, who perpetrated the Shoah—is anything but. The higher the achieved degree of integration, the more apocalyptic the backlash when it comes. Weimar-era Jews who assumed that they were now sufficiently secure to place their own issues and concerns squarely centre stage and leave that outdated old beast antisemitism, which would run its course anyway, to the non-Jews (as they should, by rights, be able to), were in no position to envisage just how horrendous a possible future backlash might be. We are.


[1] Erdmute Beha, ‘Der Illustrierten-Autor,’ in Kürbiskern no. 1 (1972), 100–105, here 103. The text purports to present a characterization of the paradigmatic West German author of run-of-the-mill magazine features.

[2] This inability to acknowledge National Socialism’s revolutionary character was owed in no small part to the simplistic economist conviction of many leftists that only regimes that replaced capitalism with a non-capitalist economic and social order might possibly qualify as revolutionary.

[3] Rather perversely, this has not prevented leftist theoreticians and activists of various stripes from denouncing National Socialism as some kind of (male) homosexual conspiracy.

[4] It is worth bearing in mind that the Nazi regime felt compelled temporarily to halt (and then continue in much greater secrecy) the systematic murder of patients it deemed ‘unworthy of living’ due to protests not from liberals or leftists, many of whom were to varying degrees attracted to eugenics in the Weimar era, but from Christians who insisted on the sanctity of life, no matter what—the sorts of people, in other words, who would also insist that abortions are justified only in absolutely extraordinary circumstances, if at all.

[5] In the light of recent research, it is clearer than ever before that pretty much everything you think you know about denazification is probably wrong. Firstly, the denazification measures established by the Allies in the western occupation zones not only did not promote serious soul searching but deliberately sought to avoid it. The question the Allies wanted answered was not whether Germans were capable of genuine insight and contrition but whether they were willing to portray themselves as having always been democrats at heart and, consequently, as willing to embrace the new democratic order. Requiring Germans to confront their actual sins would only have made it more difficult for them to make their peace with the new order and would therefore have been counterproductive. Secondly, and these two issues are obviously closely connected, far from being predicated on anything resembling an assumption of collective guilt, denazification was underpinned by a crass concept of totalitarianism. The assumption that the Nazi regime had spent day and night trying to control absolutely every aspect of every German’s inner and outer life turned every little shred of normality that did not conform totally to Nazi ideology into an expression of resistance. This made it much easier for Germans to portray themselves as long-standing democrats who had basically just let National Socialism wash over them. For many it was then only a short step from their true selves having been entirely unaffected by National Socialism to their having themselves been its victims. See Hanne Leßau, Entnazifizierungsgeschichten. Die Auseinandersetzung mit der eigenen NS-Vergangenheit in der frühen Nachkriegszeit (Göttingen: Wallstein, 2020).

[6] I refer to the parent generation rather than parents because most New Leftists may have taken issue with the generation of their parents but only very few of them ever confronted their actual parents about their Nazi past. That German New Leftists, like most leftists today, were quite so inventive in finding pretty much anything under the sun more similar to Auschwitz than Auschwitz itself resulted not least from the fact that their critical dealings with the Nazis’ crimes almost invariably ended where they would have needed to confront not just abstract structures and prominent public figures but the complicity or involvement of their own relatives in those crimes. To this day, even most Germans who would readily admit that ‘most Germans’ supported National Socialism are convinced that their own forebears resisted.

[7] Dagmar Herzog, Sex after Fascism. Memory and Morality in Twentieth-Century Germany (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), chapter 4.

[8] This seems all the more remarkable, given that leftist rejection of the bogeyman philosemitism, having been widespread in the Second International, was by no means without precedent. See Lars Fischer, ‘Anti-“Philosemitism” and Anti-Antisemitism in Imperial Germany,’ in Adam Sutcliffe and Jonathan Karp, eds. Philosemitism in History (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 170–189; The Socialist Response to Antisemitism in Imperial Germany (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), chapter 1 and passim. That the New Left lacked awareness of this precedent speaks to the way in which the brazen claims of New Leftists to be the ones learning from history combined radical misinterpretation and plain ignorance to maximum toxic effect.

[9] This may in some cases have been true insofar as there were, of course, Jews living in Germany who (also) held Israeli passports, but I think we can safely assume that this is not what motivated German non-Jews when they identified Jews living in Germany as Israelis, let alone that they checked their passports first.

[10] Herzog, Sex after Fascism, 177.

[11] Not that this was without precedent. Ever since the emergence of Jewish nationalism in the nineteenth century, leftists have been able to see the drawbacks of nationalism more clearly in the Jewish than in any other case. This is only to be expected. After all, ‘the Jews’ are perennially treated as conceptual putty, as the embodiment of any number of theological, philosophical, metaphysical, ontological and, increasingly, sociological and political concepts and principles. More, and more consistently, than in the case of any other group, the right of ‘the Jews’—infinitely more often a product of the imagination than the object of knowledge or experience in any meaningful sense of the word—to exist has been determined in terms of principles applied with the same mercilessness in no other context (least of all one’s own), in terms of principles that cannot in fact be implemented perfectly under real-world conditions. Just as the Jews’ vices are generally assumed to be earth-shatteringly total, so too the degree of virtue they would need to demonstrate in order to justify their existence needs to be equally total. The right and freedom to put the Jews’ right to life up for grabs in order notionally to resolve conflicts in a clean and neat manner that cannot in fact be resolved in the real world and experience the satisfaction of resolution not attainable in reality at the expense of the Jews has always been one of the columns on which Western and Muslim civilization rests.

[12] See, e.g., Klaus-Michael Mallmann and Martin Cüppers, ‘“Elimination of the Jewish National Home in Palestine”: The Einsatzkommando of the Panzer Army Africa, 1942,’ Yad Vashem Studies, Vol. 35 (2007), 111–141.

[13] Even by the lax standards applied to most officials and academics after the war, Schickert (like some of the other Nazis we will now meet) had taken things too far and he was unable to continue his academic career. Instead, he went on to run the affairs of the West German furniture retailers’ association.

[14] I have been unable to access the original article, ‘Kriegsschauplatz Israel’ (Israel, Theatre of War; Schickert used the term Israel not in the sense of the future State of Israel but as a collective designation for all Jews). It is quoted extensively in ‘Die Mumie des Antisemitismus: Nazi-Warnung an die deutsche Jugend,’ in Die Zeitung, January 14, 1944, and Stefan Busch, Und gestern, da hörte uns Deutschland: NS-Autoren in der Bundesrepublik (Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 1998), 147, n 48.

[15] Meyer-Christian joined the Nazi movement in 1926. A law graduate, he was more interested in journalism and, in 1934, was appointed founding director of Goebbels’s German Press Academy. In 1936, he was accused of making sexual advances to a male colleague and, although the charges were repeatedly dismissed, his superiors and peers, many of whom he had alienated with this overconfidence and irreverence, came down on him like a ton of bricks. Dismissed with immediate effect, he was eventually able to secure employment with the semi-official international press agency Transozean whose correspondents were also involved in espionage for the Nazis. In 1940, he joined the Wehrmacht. In 1941, he published a monograph of some 200 pages, Die englisch-jüdische Allianz (The Anglo–Jewish Alliance) that was actively promoted by the Goebbels ministry and widely discussed in the Nazi press. Meyer-Christian had a great deal to say about Zionism in the book but did not, on this occasion, single out Zionism qua Zionism as the most fiendish foe of all. That Wolfgang Müsse, in his monograph on the German Press Academy, downplays the significance of Die englisch-jüdische Allianz and fails to mention Meyer-Christian’s proposal of 1944 at all is baffling. Wolfgang Müsse, Die Reichspresseschule—Journalisten für die Diktatur? (Munich: K G Saur, 1995), 161–171. After the war, Meyer-Christian worked as a solicitor. Among his clients were the high-ranking former Nazi officials arrested in 1953 as conspirators in the Naumann Affair. He also ran the affairs of the German Association of Slot Machine Wholesalers.

[16] Meyer-Christian’s proposal was first discussed by Max Weinreich in Hitler’s Professors. The Part of Scholarship in Germany‘s Crimes Against the Jewish People (New York: Yivo, 1946), 235–238. Koerber’s cover letter and the main proposal were published in Léon Poliakov and Josef Wulf, Das Dritte Reich und seine Denker: Dokumente (Berlin: arani, 1959), 461–468. In The Crime of My Very Existence. Nazism and the Myth of Jewish Criminality (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), Michael Berkowitz offers a detailed discussion and contextualization of the proposal. The documents are held by YIVO.

[17] Trial of the Major War Criminals Before The International Military Tribunal, Nuremberg 14 November—1 October 1946 (Nuremberg: IMT, 1948), vol. 32, 315. After the war, Koerber, listed in relevant directories as a ‘retired’ senior civil servant and with his doctoral title, ran the affairs of the second largest West German civil service union, the Deutsches Beamtenkartell.

[18] Stefan Krings, Hitlers Pressechef. Otto Dietrich (1897–1952)—Eine Biografie (Göttingen: Wallstein, 2010), 451. After the war, Sündermann and his wife, Ursula, née von Druffel-Freiin von und zu Egloffstein, widowed Sudholt, founded the extreme right-wing Druffel publishing house, also known as Druffel & Vowinckel, which is now part of the Verlagsgesellschaft Berg, a conglomerate of neo-Nazi publishing enterprises run by Ursula Sündermann’s son from her first marriage, Gerd Sudholt. Sündermann maintained that the number of Jews murdered in the Shoah probably lay ‘somewhere between’ 6,000 and six million, and that there was no evidence to suggest that the regime had ordered such murders as did occur.

[19] After the war, Stuckenberg, listed in relevant directories as a ‘retired’ senior civil servant, headed up the emigration department (Amt für Auswanderung) in the Central Federal Administration (Bundesverwaltungsamt). For somebody tasked with providing useful information on emigration, he also had a great deal to say about the ‘guest workers’ that started arriving in West Germany in the 1950s and the ensuing dangers of miscegenation. See Julia Woesthoff, ‘“When I Marry a Mohammedan”: Migration and the Challenges of Interethnic Marriages in Post-War Germany,’ in Contemporary European History, 22, 2 (2013), 199–231, here 213–215.

[20] Koerber, cover letter, 2.

[21] Meyer-Christian, proposal, 3.

[22] Ibid., 4.

[23] Ibid., 2.

[24] Ibid., 2.

[25] Ibid., 3.

[26] Ibid., 4.

[27] Ibid., 6–7.

[28] Ibid., 7.

[29] It is highly doubtful that discussions of this kind were ever anything other than rhetorical. The notion that ‘the Jews’ were by their very nature parasites and inherently unable to sustain themselves without exploiting other nations was so integral to Nazi ideology that any ‘solution’ which envisaged ‘the Jews’ establishing a self-contained and self-sufficient existence, whether in Palestine, on Madagascar or elsewhere, automatically implied their eventual demise.

[30] Meyer-Christian, appendix, 1.

[31] Ibid., 5.

[32] Ibid., 5.

[33] Ibid., 2.

[34] Meyer-Christian, glossary, 2.

[35] Ibid., 14.

[36] Ibid., 8.

[37] ‘Der Nahe Osten unter internationaler Kontrolle. Das Judentum im Zusammenspiel mit den Bolschewisten’, in Völkischer Bobachter (Wiener Ausgabe), March 6, 1944, 1.

[38] ‘Moskau wird offizielles Zentrum des Weltjudentums. Judenstaat Palästina als Eckstein der Sowjetkontrolle im Mittelmeer,’ in Völkischer Beobachter (Wiener Ausgabe), May 13, 1944, 1.

[39] Walter Freund, ‘Der Zionismus und seine Gefahren,’ in Völkischer Beobachter (Wiener Ausgabe), July 4, 1944, 1–2. Freund also noted that the Zionist movement had begun its activities by creating an ‘extraordinary global spy network’.

[40] Karl Friedrich Euler, Was ist Zionismus?’ in Grenzbote, July 16, 1944, 2; Neueste Zeitung: Das Innsbrucker Abendblatt, July 17, 1944, 1–2.

[41] For a sample of Euler’s work, see Karl Friedrich Euler, ‘The Yiddish Language as Expression of the Jewish Mind,’ in Anson Rabinach and Sander L. Gilman, eds. The Third Reich Sourcebook (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013), 226–228. After the war, Euler served as hospital chaplain in Gießen and apparently pioneered the therapeutic use of hospital libraries. Following his death in 1986, the Upper Hessian local history society eulogized its honorary member Euler in its newsletter. Without wasting a single word on his antisemitic academic activism, the obituary noted that ‘the collapse of 1945 also ended his academic career’ and went on stress (unironically) that Euler had brought the same ‘meticulous scholarly attention to detail’ that had characterized his earlier university career to bear on his post-war contributions to the study of local history. Hans Szczech, ‘Karl Friedrich Euler in memoriam,’ in Mitteilungen des Oberhessischen Geschichtsvereins, N.Ser. Vol. 71 (1986), xiii–xv.

[42] Berkowitz, The Crime of My Very Existence, 125.

[43] Jean Améry, Essays on Antisemitism, Anti-Zionism, and the Left, ed. Marlene Gallner, transl. Lars Fischer (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2022), 38.

[44] UN Security Council, 299th Meeting, 21 May 1948, Official Records. Third Year, no. 71, 6–8 (https://digitallibrary.un.org/record/636336/files/S_PV-299-EN.pdf).

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