Ideology and Realpolitik : East German Attitudes towards Zionism and Israel

Angelika Timm. Journal of Israeli History. Volume 25, Issue 1. March 2006.

Over several decades, the East German stance towards Israel was marked by condemnation of Zionism, a unilateral position on the Arab-Israeli conflict and denial of reparations and restitution claims. This position had its ideological background in the communist approach to the “Jewish question,” anti-Semitism and nationalism, while the most important criterion in shaping attitudes towards Israel was the incorporation of the German Democratic Republic’s Middle East policy into the foreign policy of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact. In addition, the East German political elite followed its own political interests when it tried to break through the West German Hallstein doctrine with the help of some Arab countries.

The negative attitudes of the East German political elite towards Zionism, and their anti-Israel politics and propaganda, became part of academic and political discourse after the German Democratic Republic (GDR) was dissolved in 1990. Using newly discovered archival material, historians and political scientists explored whether the GDR’s one-sided Middle East policy and its failure to assume responsibility for the Holocaust should be labeled as anti-Semitic. This article seeks to portray a critical but complex and differentiated picture. It addresses the ideological and political background of anti-Zionist and anti-Israel positions, and highlights some changes in the image of Israel during the forty years of the GDR’s existence.

The Antifascist Legacy of the GDR

In order to understand the attitude of the GDR’s political elite to Zionism and the State of Israel, one should first consider the context of political developments in East Germany. East Germany’s foreign and domestic policy was shaped by the Cold War, the division of Germany and the GDR’s membership in the Warsaw Pact and the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (COMECON). From the very outset, East Germany viewed itself as the antithesis of West Germany. Thus, West German political and juridical claims to represent all of Germany were countered with the moral argument that the “antifascist democratic transformation” after 1945 and the establishment of the German Democratic Republic in 1949 had opened “a new chapter in German history” and become even “the turning point in European history.” By constructing a continuous tradition of revolutionary socialist and communist opposition to National Socialism, the existence of the East German state was legitimized. As a central element in the self-definition of the GDR, antifascism was instrumentalized from the very outset to justify the rise of the new communist elite and the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED). The communist opposition to Hitler was addressed in a special way because it embodied “the link between native antifascism, the Soviet Union as liberator and protector, and the first generation of political leaders in the GDR.”

Allied with the Soviet Union and represented by Communists, who had been persecuted under the Nazi regime, East Germans became increasingly convinced that they were among the victors in World War II. The fact that both East and West Germans had supported Hitler and only a few of them had actively resisted Nazism was ignored. The narrow ideological definition of National Socialism as fascism—that is, “the open terrorist rule of the most reactionary, most chauvinistic, most imperialist elements of finance capital”—absolved most of the German population of Nazi complicity. Although members of the former military establishment, the upper strata and the middle class were categorized as fascist activists or supporters of the Nazi regime, the members of the working class were automatically assumed to be antifascist. During the first postwar years, the crimes of the Nazi era were debated in public, and a relatively broad denazification process ensued. Still, neither at that time nor later was there a general debate on personal guilt and responsibility.

The claim that “the legacy of antifascist resistance has been fulfilled in the German Democratic Republic” was repeated time and again. In memorial ceremonies commemorating the victims of fascism at Buchenwald in 1958 and Sachsenhausen in 1961, Prime Minister Otto Grotewohl and SED leader Walter Ulbricht underscored the continuity of the antifascist struggle and political developments in East Germany. About three decades later, Ulbricht’s successor, SED Secretary General Erich Honecker, declared: “As the GDR approaches the 40th anniversary of its founding, we can say with every justification that our people seized their historical opportunity by forging a socialist system that rests on unshakable antifascist foundations.”

The political leadership emphasized the importance of communist resistance to the Nazi regime in order to legitimize its dominant position in the newly established state. This point of view placed anti-Semitism and the Holocaust on the margins of the discussion and gave Communists a higher status than those who had been persecuted for religious or racial reasons, such as noncommunist Jews, as the latter were presumed to have refrained from active resistance against the Nazi regime. Although anti-Semitism, racism and xenophobia were prohibited by law, official restrictions were not sufficient to counteract them. The antifascist legacy lost its significance after the early postwar years as antifacism became more and more an aphorism that was never really accepted by most East Germans.

The Holocaust in Political Culture and History

The Holocaust was not ignored in East Germany, but for decades it played only a minor role in the GDR’s historiography and political culture. The writings and the speeches of party leaders were characterized by acceptance of the basic positions adopted by Marx, Engels and Lenin on the “Jewish question,” and by endorsement of communist doctrine on the nature of fascism and the parallel concept of antifascism. Anti-Jewish pogroms were thus regarded as none other than a weapon used by the ruling class to enslave the German working class and destroy other peoples. The Holocaust was woven into the communist narratives because it symbolized and illustrated the cruelty of the Nazi regime. At the same time, anticommunism and anti-Bolshevism were viewed as central or defining features of German National Socialism.

High school and university students in East Germany were taught about Kristallnacht and the racist Nuremberg laws. The Diary of Anne Frank was published and made into a film in 1950, several movies on Jewish life and death during the Nazi period were made, and memoirs of Jewish survivors were published. Nonetheless, the full magnitude of the Holocaust was not addressed. The memorials in Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen did not mention Jewish inmates of the concentration camps. The collective memory also excluded Roma and Sinti, homosexuals and others persecuted by the Nazi regime who did not fit into “Aryan” society.

It was mainly Jewish communities, Christian religious groups and the Association of Victims of Nazi Persecution (VVN) that commemorated the Holocaust and organized memorial events. Apart from the 40th and 50th anniversaries of Kristallnacht in 1978 and 1988, when the government organized official commemoration ceremonies, the annual celebrations of the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 and the German revolution of November 1918 overshadowed the remembrance of the Nazi pogroms.

Only during the early postwar years did some Communists emphasize the suffering of Jews during the Nazi era as a focal issue of antifascism. They argued in favor of restitution of Jewish property and compensation for Jewish victims, in addition to promoting close relations with Israel. Paul Merker, member of the SED Politburo, and Leo Zuckermann, secretary of the Presidential Chancellery, should be mentioned in particular. Zuckermann, for instance, stressed in an article in Die Weltbühne on 27 April 1948 that the Germans should pay global recompense to the Jews after the establishment of a Jewish state.

Academic publications dealing with the Holocaust were very rare in East Germany until the Eichmann trial in 1960-61. Only when world attention focused once again on the annihilation of European Jewry did the issue gain priority in the GDR. However, the trial in Jerusalem did not serve primarily to publicize the Holocaust but rather to attack the political elite in the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) and to unmask former Nazis in high-ranking positions there. The SED used the international attention that Eichmann and the Holocaust received as a means of linking the “Hitlers” and “Eichmanns” with the political elite in West Germany. Friedrich Karl Kaul, a Jewish-German lawyer, was sent to Jerusalem to present documents on State Secretary Hans Globke of West Germany, a former official for Jewish Affairs in the Nazi Ministry of the Interior who had written a commentary on the Nuremberg race laws. The Committee for German Unity, under the auspices of the Central Committee of the SED, published several brochures on this issue. Furthermore, an international conference of historians was held in East Berlin in order “to scientifically prove the antidemocratic and barbarous nature of German imperialism,” with the Eichmann trial as a starting point.

In addition to dozens of propaganda brochures, a collection of documents was published in 1960 entitled “The Struggle of the Revolutionary German Labor Movement against anti-Semitism and the Persecution of Jews.” Three years later, documents on the persecution of Jews in Leipzig (Saxony) were published. By 1966, after years of bitter fighting against the propagandists in the SED, Helmut Eschwege, a historian from Dresden, succeeded in publishing a comprehensive study on the persecution and annihilation of German Jews. A number of other scholarly publications followed in the 1970s.

It was only in the 1980s that GDR historians began to deal with the Nazi regime in a more complex fashion. New topics such as the bourgeois opposition and the persecution of Jews became feasible. It was admitted that “no group was hit [as] hard as the Jews.” Newspapers and journals published interviews with representatives of Jewish communities and articles on Jewish history in East Germany. The 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht on 9 November 1988 was commemorated by the government and the SED leaders. Jewish guests from all over the world, including Israel, were invited to memorial ceremonies. On that occasion, the president of the East German parliament, the Volkskammer, portrayed anti-Semitism as “the lynchpin of the fascist racial ideology,” and quoted Wilhelm Pieck, the first president of the GDR, who in 1938 had called for “solidarity with the persecuted Jewish population.”

This new approach was mainly pragmatic. In 1985, after US President Ronald Reagan and Federal Chancellor Helmut Kohl had laid wreaths at a cemetery in Bitburg where Wehrmacht soldiers and SS officers were buried, GDR leaders sought to use critical statements by Jews as a means of improving the international prestige of their regime. Deriving legitimacy from the distinction between their approach to National Socialism and the approach of the Federal Republic, the political representatives of the GDR sought an opportunity to prove that a better German state had been set up in the east. Towards that end, Honecker planned to visit the United States as an official guest of the White House. He expected the World Jewish Congress to help him receive an official invitation, and hoped that the visit would broaden economic relations with the United States.

Despite these efforts, the general approach of the GDR to the Holocaust did not change. In a speech delivered on the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht, Honecker stated that “the burning synagogues were a plea to the conscience of people and nations. After all, the aim of the hideous crimes perpetrated during that night was to deal a blow to all antifascists, to threaten all those who opposed the impending savage war of annexation, and to leave them in a crippling mood of resignation.” Although Israeli guests were invited to East Berlin, any reference to the State of Israel, where thousands of European Jews had found refuge, was avoided.

The Marxist-Leninist Approach to the So-Called Jewish Question

The attitude of the ruling East European communist parties—including the SED—towards anti-Semitism, Zionism and the State of Israel was based on the Marxist-Leninist approach to the so-called Jewish question. According to this ideological doctrine, Communists regarded anti-Semitism and the persecution of Jews as an economic and political problem that concerned feudal and capitalist societies, and which would be resolved more or less automatically in socialist society. Because that ideology viewed the path to social liberation as being open to all oppressed people, the participation of Jewish citizens in the establishment of a socialist society was regarded as quite normal. It was expected that the assimilation process, which started after the French Revolution in Europe and stopped with the Holocaust, would continue after World War II. This approach characterized Jews only as a religious group and ignored their history and tradition. Thus, condemnation of racist Nazi ideology was implicitly accompanied by rejection of Jewish national aspirations.

According to communist ideology, which propagated proletarian internationalism, the ‘solution to the Jewish question’ was assimilation and the elimination of the social roots of anti-Semitism by revolutionary means and through the establishment of a socialist society. However, this came into conflict with fundamental Zionist ideas, which aimed to ensure the survival of the Jewish people and saw Jewish mass emigration to Palestine and the establishment of a Jewish state there as the ultimate solution to the problem of persistent anti-Semitism. Hence, Zionism was not accepted as a reaction to anti-Semitic persecution or as an attempt to curtail the assimilation process and fight symptoms of decline in Jewish community life. Nor was it endorsed as a legitimate effort to achieve national self-determination in the Land of Israel. Rather, it was characterized as an effort to distract the Jewish working masses from a class struggle and divide the workers’ movement.

Zionism and Marxism had vied for the soul of European Jewry at the end of the nineteenth century and during the first decades of the twentieth century, and remained in conflict even after European Jewry was annihilated in the Holocaust. In Eastern Europe, Zionism became a code word for imperialism and racism. Soviet authors consistently opposed Zionism as an ideology that conflicted with the interests of the Jewish working class and portrayed Israel as a dangerous “bridgehead of imperialism” in the Middle East. They described Zionism as an ideology “based on the dogma of racial exclusiveness” that advocated “the expulsion of all non-Jews from the ‘Promised Land.'” These stereotypes drew a parallel between Judaism, Zionism and Israel, and perpetuated classic anti-Semitic stereotypes. The relevance of Jewish history and tradition to Jewish life in Europe was ignored, and the multifaceted political scene in the Zionist movement was overlooked.

Like other communist parties, the SED portrayed Zionism as upper-class nationalism and chauvinism. Its leaders followed the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) without taking their specific responsibility as Germans into consideration. Convinced that the antifascist GDR bore no responsibility for the actions of the Third Reich, anti-Zionist and anti-Israel campaigns were sometimes even fiercer than the propaganda in other East European countries. As Jeffrey Herf concluded, “the more they remembered the Nazi era in their own ideological framework, the more convinced they were of the need to participate in the ‘struggle against Zionism.'”

East German politicians did not accept Israel as the representative of the Jewish people and denied its right to speak on behalf of Holocaust victims and survivors. After the establishment of diplomatic relations between the FRG and Israel, Head of State Walter Ulbricht stated, for instance, in an interview with the Egyptian newspaper Akhbar il-Yom on 21 August 1965:

They [the Jews] were not the only victims of the Hitler regime. The fascists also murdered millions of non-Jewish citizens of Germany, Poland, the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, France, Belgium, Norway and many other countries. The State of Israel has nominated itself, so to speak, as the general heir of the Jewish citizens of all those countries murdered by Hitler. That is not justified by anything.

East German Interests in the Middle East

Although the ideological approach towards anti-Semitism, Zionism and the Holocaust played an important role in political discourse, one cannot ignore the pragmatic interests that guided East German policy in the Middle East. The most important factor that shaped attitudes towards the Arabs and Israel was the integration of the GDR’s foreign policy with the foreign policy of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact. The East German government had limited power for independent decision making. During the Cold War, it more or less identified with the approach of the Soviet leadership to international affairs and, thus, with the Soviet position on the Middle East conflict. Nuances in official and semi-official statements had hardly any impact. It was not until the 1980s that the GDR attained some political latitude and, hence, was able to modify its foreign policy for its own ends, largely in order to achieve economic goals.

After World War II, the Middle East began to play a crucial role in the conflict between East and West. Having emerged as a superpower, the Soviet Union sought not only to weaken the West but also to lay the groundwork for expanding its influence to the region. The Cold War thus had a strong impact on the attitudes of East European countries towards Israel and the Arab world. In the hopes that the termination of the British Mandate would strengthen Soviet influence in the region, Stalin supported the partition of Palestine and the establishment of the State of Israel. Thus, some 200,000 Jews were able to emigrate from Eastern Europe, and Israel was provided with weapons during the War of Independence in 1948/49. Several developments within the Soviet Union and among its allies influenced the policy of the Warsaw Pact countries towards the Jewish state in subsequent decades. This policy was also affected by developments in the Middle East, and especially by Israel’s integration into the Western world.

The pro-Arab and anti-Israel foreign policy of the GDR should be viewed, above all, in the context of the Middle East policy of the Warsaw Pact countries. At the same time, East German politicians looked after their own interests. They were eager to undermine the West German Hallstein doctrine of 1955, which declared that the Federal Republic would cut off diplomatic relations with any country establishing relations with the GDR. In an effort to be recognized as an independent and sovereign state, the GDR sought and obtained support in the Third World, especially in some Arab countries. This aim strongly influenced its approach towards the Middle East conflict. The East German government took advantage of a temporary dispute that arose between the FRG and Arab states due to West German relations with Israel. It sided with the Arabs and attacked Israel as a ‘spearhead of imperialism’ in the region. Ulbricht’s visit to Egypt in 1965 and the establishment of diplomatic relations with Iraq, Sudan, Syria, South Yemen and Egypt in 1969 were the first steps towards worldwide recognition of the GDR. Over the two decades that followed, East Germany strengthened its political, economic, military and cultural ties with those countries and with other Arab states, in addition to improving relations with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). As of the 1970s, the GDR provided military support and opened training bases for the PLO. The first official agreement between the SED and the PLO, signed in 1973 in East Berlin, included the supply of non-civilian goods to Palestinians. By 1989, the East German state maintained full diplomatic relations with thirteen Arab countries and the PLO, but never established diplomatic relations with Israel.

In addition to political interests, it is important to mention the economic considerations that favored the expansion of relations with Arab states. Notably, those countries were rich in oil and had an interest in importing services and industrial goods. According to official views, improvement in relations with Israel would have endangered contact with the Arab states and possibly led them to place strong economic pressure on East Germany. By the end of the 1980s, the Arab countries—above all Iraq and Syria—had a debt of DM 2 billion to the GDR. As a result of its perpetual economic weakness and the need for this income, the GDR adopted a kind of pragmatism in its foreign policy that was only partially veiled in its ideology.

Last but not least, the domestic policy of the SED should be taken into consideration. The leaders of the GDR, as in other East European countries, tried to convince their own people that it was necessary to fight the “imperialist enemy” throughout the world in order to prove the legitimacy of the communist regime. As a country that identified with the Western world and cooperated with the United States, Western European countries and South Africa, Israel was considered “an imperialist outpost in the Arab region.” At the same time, politicians in the GDR confirmed that their country ‘supports the struggle of the peoples of all continents for political and economic liberation from imperialist oppression and exploitation in many ways.’ Thus, they declared their solidarity with the Vietnamese people, the Arab national movement and the PLO. From the “class point of view,” the East German leadership condemned any kind of cooperation between “imperialist powers” and the Israeli government (and later with the Arab reactionaries) as being directed against peace and progress in the region. Its ideological offensive was based on the general principle of “the joint struggle” of all progressive forces “against imperialism, colonialism, neocolonialism, and Zionism.” For ideological and political reasons, the German shadow over Israel was permanently ignored.

The Attitude to Zionism and Israel among the GDR’s Political Elite

Although there were no fundamental changes in internal and external circumstances during the four decades of the GDR’s existence, some modifications in actual policy did occur. Several phases can be distinguished. During the first brief phase, which lasted from 1947 until the early 1950s, the foreign policy of the GDR was largely pro-Israel. At that time, the Soviet Union’s support for the partition of Palestine and the establishment of the State of Israel was clearly the main determinant. Moreover, many East German antifascists—Communists and non-Communists—articulated strong feelings of guilt towards Jews in the wake of the Holocaust. In early 1948, the Central Committee of the ruling SED officially announced: “We consider the foundation of a Jewish state an essential contribution that makes it possible for thousands of people who suffered a great deal under Hitler’s fascism to build a new life.” Politburo member Paul Merker wrote in the SED daily Neues Deutschland: “The Jewish population has the sympathy and active assistance of all progressive forces. In particular, the democratic forces in Germany are compelled to show their sympathy and readiness to help.”

Even after the publication of anti-Zionist articles in the Soviet press in autumn of 1948, newspapers and journals in the Soviet Occupation Zone continued to announce their support for the Jewish state. Several contacts between East German and Israeli representatives are documented for the years 1949 and 1950, when talks about trade relations and the delivery of archival material from East Berlin to the Central Jewish Archives in Jerusalem were held. In January 1950, the newly established East German Foreign Ministry launched an initiative requesting the establishment of an Israeli diplomatic outpost in Berlin, offering compensation to individuals and proposing direct commercial relations between the GDR and Israel.

The second phase began in autumn 1952, when the anti-Semitic Slánský show trial was held in Prague. The campaign in East Germany was primarily aimed at people who had found refuge during World War II in Great Britain, the United States, Mexico and other Western countries. That group included many Jews who worked as officials in the SED party apparatus or belonged to the Association of Victims of Nazi Persecution (VVN), as well as Jewish community leaders. Jewish intellectuals were suspected of maintaining contacts with Jewish organizations abroad and betraying their country. Communist leaders like Walter Ulbricht adopted Stalin’s advice to eliminate some opposition forces—which included Communists and non-Communists alike. In addition, compensation claims made by the Israeli government and Jewish organizations against both German states encouraged GDR politicians to follow Stalin’s political line. The non-Jewish Communist Paul Merker, a strong opponent of Ulbricht, was accused of being the head of a Zionist spy ring, “defending the interests of Zionist monopoly capitalists,” and of having arranged “the financing for Jewish capitalists to emigrate to Israel.” He was imprisoned from 1952 to 1956. Hundreds of Jews, among them many survivors of the death camps, escaped to the West for fear of possible arrest.

In 1952 East German politicians linked the compensation issue with their attitude towards Zionism and Israel for the first time. Not surprisingly, the first article published by the SED newspaper Neues Deutschland in response to the Luxembourg Agreement for reparations appeared only three days after excerpts from the indictment in the Slánský trial were printed. The article headlined “Reparations—For Whom?” referred to “a deal between big capitalists from West Germany and Israel.” In February 1953, the SED monthly Einheit published an editorial paper approved by the SED Central Committee, entitled “Lessons from the Trial against the Conspiracy Center of Slánský,” which claimed that “the Zionist movement has nothing in common with the aims of humanity and true love of mankind. It is dominated, directed and commanded by US imperialism, and devotes itself exclusively to its own interests and the interests of the Jewish capitalists.”

After Stalin’s death in March 1953, relations between the East European countries and Israel normalized to some extent. When the foreign ministers of the Allied powers met in Berlin in early 1954 to discuss the future of Germany, Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion again raised the reparations issue. In diplomatic correspondence dated 15 July 1955 and addressed to the Soviet deputy foreign minister, Israel once again demanded

that the German people, who were responsible for all this misery and who maintain possession of the economic assets taken from the Jews, dead and alive, should be required to pay reparations to the survivors. On 10 September 1952, the German Federal Republic agreed to pay to the Government of Israel two-thirds of the estimated financial cost for the rehabilitation of victims of the Nazi regime. One-third of the cost remains a debt owed by the German Democratic Republic.

However, the East German government had paid the Soviet Union reparations amounting to about $14 billion, and was eager to gain a foothold in some Arab countries. Hence, a response dated 28 December 1955 indicated that

the government of the German Democratic Republic has done everything in its power to root out German Fascism and create conditions that preclude the possibility of another threat to the security and existence of other peoples—including the Jewish people—in Germany. The victims of Fascism residing in the territory of the German Democratic Republic were given generous support and aid. The government of the German Democratic Republic has thus fulfilled all of the requirements of the four Allied powers for reparations to compensate for the destruction wrought by German fascism.

This statement was continually reiterated by GDR diplomats and politicians in subsequent decades. It also became a catch phrase used by East German journalists and scholars.

In the three decades that followed, the GDR was primarily interested in improving its relations with the Arab world, and adopted a policy of confrontation vis-à-vis Israel. Thus, the Foreign Ministry advised its diplomats in January 1963 not to risk the relatively good relations with some Arab states “by striving to establish official relations with Israel in the present stage of struggle for international recognition of the GDR.”

There was no real breakthrough in the GDR’s foreign policy towards the Arab world until Walter Ulbricht visited Egypt in February/March 1965. In the joint communiqué signed in Cairo by Ulbricht and Nasser on 2 March 1965, both sides condemned “the aggressive imperialist plans that promoted the establishment of Israel as a spearhead of imperialism directed against the rights of Arab nations and their struggle for liberation and progress.” At a time when the other East European countries maintained simultaneous diplomatic relations with most of the Arab states and with Israel, an official declaration of this nature was rather unusual. The GDR ignored international protests, including strong criticism by the Communist Party of Israel, and showed no interest in a balanced Middle East policy. In their effort to thwart the Hallstein doctrine, East German politicians took advantage of every opportunity to mention that their country was a firm ally of the Arab countries at a time when West Germany was strengthening its cooperation with Israel.

The development of relations with some Arab countries was accompanied by anti-Israel statements. The East German government condemned “the imperialist aggression of Israel” in 1967, and named “the United States and West Germany [as] accomplices to the aggressor.” However, always fearing that harsh attacks against Israel might be understood as anti-Semitic, the GDR leadership attempted to use Jews for political purposes. On 11 June 1967, the daily Neues Deutschland published the following declaration by prominent Jewish citizens regarding the Six Day War:

As citizens of the German Democratic Republic of Jewish origin, we raise our voice in order to solemnly condemn the aggression, of which the ruling circles of Israel have made themselves guilty vis-à-vis the neighboring Arab states. We consider ourselves justified and obliged to raise our voice, because as citizens of the GDR, in which anti-Semitism has been extirpated and in which there is no room for anti-Semites, who ourselves have suffered severely from the persecution of Hitler-fascism, we mourn the loss of numerous family members who were murdered by the German imperialists, even as many citizens of Israel do.

The declaration included the following sentence: “The very birth of Israel was already marked with a breach of promise and annexation.” This was the reason why public Jewish figures—including President of the Association of Jewish Communities in the GDR Helmut Aris and the famous writer Arnold Zweig—were not willing to sign the declaration, which had been prepared by Albert Norden, a member of the SED Politburo. The Nachrichtenblatt, the official quarterly of the Association of Jewish communities in the GDR, did not publish the declaration and made no reference to it.

In the years that followed, resolutions of SED party congresses or conferences and official statements of political representatives of the East German state reiterated the “GDR’s firm solidarity with the Arab states in the anti-imperialist struggle, especially in counteracting Israeli aggression and overcoming its consequences.” For instance, the Eighth Party Congress of the SED in 1971 “strongly denounced Israel’s aggression against the Arab countries and demanded that Israel withdraw its troops from all areas occupied in violation of international law.” While the legitimate interests and rights of the Arab Palestinian people were supported as “crucial to a lasting and just settlement of all problems in the Middle East,” Israel’s right to exist was rarely mentioned. Sometimes East Germany adopted, both publicly and behind the scenes, an even more virulent line than that of the Soviets. For example, in 1969 and 1970, Walter Ulbricht wrote two letters to CPSU Secretary General Leonid Brezhnev, which went so far as to suggest that volunteers be sent from socialist countries to liberate the occupied Arab territories.

The anti-Israel positions were well known to the Israeli government. Therefore, it came as no surprise when Israel’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Yosef Tekoah, voted against admitting the GDR to the United Nations in September 1973. He placed Israel’s opposition on the record, and emphasized that the East German state ‘has ignored and continues to ignore Germany’s historical responsibility for the Holocaust and the moral obligations arising from it. It has compounded the gravity of that attitude by giving support and practical assistance to the campaign of violence and murder waged against Israel and the Jewish people by Arab terror organizations.’ A few months earlier, Israel had renewed its claim for reparations from the GDR as a partial successor to the Third Reich. The SED continued to reject all Israeli demands for reparations, declaring that the Jewish state had not come into existence until 1948 and was thus not a legitimate actor empowered to forward its claims to Germany. Furthermore, the GDR refrained from establishing relations with Israel because of “Israel’s aggressive imperialist policy.”

As in 1952, the GDR government tried to justify its refusal to accept Israel’s material claims by labeling the Jewish state as “imperialist” and “Zionist.” This time, however, the possible reaction of Arab states played a more important role than it had twenty years earlier. To avoid harming relations with Egypt, Syria, Iraq and other countries, the GDR Ministry of Foreign Affairs informed all of its embassies abroad about its position regarding reparations and compensation. The official documents issued by the Kollegium (leading board) of the Ministry stressed the traditional friendship with the Arab world and condemned “the foreign policy of Israel and imperialist Zionist organizations.” Furthermore, the paper reiterated that the GDR would never pay reparations to Israel because the Jewish state had not existed during the period referred to in the reparations claims.

In the mid-1970s a virulent anti-Zionist campaign was waged throughout Eastern Europe. Notably, at that time domestic issues were given more priority than foreign affairs. The campaign was initiated by the Soviet Union in response to a deluge of Jewish applications for emigration to Israel. The CPSU had already advised its East German counterpart to wage an all-out struggle against Zionism in 1971. Following this advice, the State Secretariat for Religious Affairs in East Berlin prepared a paper dealing with Zionist ideology and policy, and discussed it with leaders of the East German Jewish community.

The fifteen-page document portrayed Zionism as “a reactionary nationalistic ideology of the Jewish haute bourgeoisie” and as “anti-Arab racism.” Moreover, the authors invoked the myth of a worldwide Jewish conspiracy, and claimed that the Zionists sought to control Jewish communities and people of Jewish origin in almost one hundred countries. Furthermore, they described the activities of the World Zionist Organization as “part of the ideological imperialist infiltration of the socialist countries.” As early as 1968 the GDR had used classic anti-Semitic stereotypes after the armies of the Warsaw Pact invaded Czechoslovakia. At that time, the press had published articles about Zionist attempts to change the political order in Czechoslovakia. The SED daily Neues Deutschland charged that “Zionist forces had taken over the leadership of the Czechoslovak Communist Party.”

East German representatives strongly supported the UN resolution on the elimination of all forms of racial discrimination, approved on 10 November 1975—a resolution that implicitly identified Zionism with racism and racist persecution. Additionally, the GDR press published many articles on this issue condemning “aggressive and chauvinist Zionism” as “a racist doctrine.” The biweekly Deutsche Lehrerzeitung, a journal for teachers and educators in East Germany, published the following statement: “One has to declare openly that Zionism and fascism have the same ideological platform—racism.”

Although the media did not challenge these statements and more or less followed the official party line, critical voices were heard in the Jewish communities and among some members of the churches. After a major dispute with leaders of the Jewish community, officials of the State Secretariat for Religious Affairs reported the following to the SED Central Committee: “The Jewish communities are unable to give serious consideration to Zionist ideology. They try to evade a clear condemnation of Zionism and the aggressive Israeli policy. Zionist tendencies among them should be exposed and strictly eliminated.” In a resolution adopted on 27 November 1975, the Conference of Protestant Bishops underscored the German responsibility for the Holocaust and called upon the government of the GDR to retract its vote in favor of the UN resolution. The bishops’ resolution was announced in Protestant churches, but it was not published in the East German media.

Another anti-Israel propaganda campaign was launched in the early 1980s. During the Lebanon War of 1982, the GDR press not only attacked Israel as an aggressor but compared its military actions with the practices of the Nazi German army. Reports on the massacres in the Palestinian camps of Sabra and Shatila aimed primarily to depict the brutality of the imperialist enemy. However, it cannot be denied that anti-Jewish sentiments also played a role. Those sentiments were encouraged when the press kept silent about the role of the Lebanese militia in the massacres while emphasizing “the systematic extermination of the Palestinians by the Israeli army.” Not for the first time, but louder than before, anti-Semitic voices were heard in East Germany, as reflected in an anonymous letter addressing the Jewish Community of Berlin in August 1982: “We never thought that Jews are so bad. You told us that all the Germans are guilty. Now we are saying that you all are guilty … You are a thousand times worse than the Nazis.”

It was only during the last five years of the GDR that some changes in the approach to Israel became evident. The new line of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev gave more latitude to the Soviet allies and, at the same time, fostered clear recognition of facts. For the first time, GDR leaders attempted to modify their Middle East policy and began to think about normalizing relations with Israel. Notably, what seemed to carry even more weight than Soviet foreign policy was the hope that the World Jewish Congress (WJC) would be involved in arranging an invitation for SED Secretary General Erich Honecker to visit the United States and obtain trade benefits.

When WJC President Edgar M. Bronfman visited the GDR in October 1988, he openly advocated the building of “bridges … between the GDR and the people and government of the Israeli state.” At a press conference in East Berlin, he said he “had been given the impression that a certain renewal in the relations between the two countries is seriously being considered.” The commemoration ceremonies marking the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht in 1988 were undoubtedly a turning point in the official East German approach to Israel. For the first time, official representatives of Israel were invited, such as Dr. Yitzhak Arad, director of the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Authority, Dr. Yosef Burg, former minister of the interior and minister of religious affairs, and others.

In late January 1989, the GDR’s State Secretary for Religious Affairs, Kurt Löffler, came on an official visit to Israel, leading a delegation that included two diplomats from the East German Foreign Ministry. At that time, Löffler met with Israeli Minister of Religious Affairs Zevulun Hammer in Jerusalem. This was the first contact between government officials from the two countries. However, there were no follow-up visits, and no more formal talks were held between officials from the GDR and Israel before the political uprising in autumn 1989 because both sides insisted on certain preconditions. Despite their keen interest in intensifying contact with Israel, GDR politicians linked such progress with Israel’s position on resolving the Middle East conflict. For its part, Israel claimed that East Germany had not accepted enough responsibility for the Holocaust and had not provided sufficient moral and material compensation. By contrast, Hungary and Poland had gradually begun to normalize relations with Israel, and meetings with the Soviet Union were under way at a consular level.

Another reason for the failure to develop the contact with Israel was the GDR’s attempt to sustain and even to improve its friendly relations with the PLO. Yasser Arafat visited the GDR three times in 1988. On 15 November 1988, the East German government gave formal recognition to the Palestinian state proclaimed by the PLO, and in January 1989, the embassy of the PLO was renamed “the embassy of the State of Palestine in the GDR.” Thus, it was clear that the Middle East policy of the GDR had not changed despite contacts with the World Jewish Congress and initial meetings with Israeli politicians. Essentially, it seems that the GDR’s attempts to improve relations with Israel in 1988 and 1989 aimed to open doors to the leading country of the Western world, the United States of America. The leaders of the GDR believed that a direct line of influence existed between the US government and leaders of American Jewish organizations, who had criticized the continuation of East German anti-Israel and anti-Zionist propaganda.

It was only in January 1990, after the dramatic political changes in the GDR and the fall of the Berlin Wall, that negotiations began towards the establishment of diplomatic relations between the GDR and Israel. Two months later, during the second round of negotiations in Copenhagen, the GDR declared that it was ready to modify its position on Zionism and formally revise its previous position towards Israel. On 9 March 1990, a letter from the GDR’s new Prime Minister Hans Modrow was delivered to Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, saying that

the GDR recognizes that all German people are responsible for what happened in the past. This responsibility results from deep guilt for the crimes which the fascist regime under Hitler committed against the Jewish people in the name of the German people … The GDR recognizes its humanitarian duty towards all Jewish people who survived Nazi oppression and have gone through immense suffering … [We emphasize our] readiness to show solidarity and give material support to all Jewish victims of Nazi persecution.

Many observers believed that the GDR was eager at that time to prove its legitimacy as an independent state. Others felt that the SED sought Jewish support for political and economic reasons. Beyond those considerations, however, it cannot be denied that the East German revolution, which began in the fall of 1989, also meant the discontinuation of former SED policies. The anticipated establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel and the end of anti-Zionist propaganda were understood by the public as an important signal of political changes. On 12 April 1990, the GDR parliament, the Volkskammer, unanimously accepted German historic responsibility for the Holocaust in a statement that went further than the declaration of West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer had done in September 1951. This document was unique in that it asked “all Jews around the world for forgiveness.” On 22 July 1990—less than three months before the unification of both German states—the East German Parliament decided to retract the GDR vote in favor of the 1975 UN resolution that equated Zionism with racism.


Over several decades, the East German stance towards Israel was marked by condemnation of Zionism, a unilateral position on the Arab-Israel conflict, and denial of reparations and restitution claims. The media did not shy away from comparing the Israeli army with the Nazi occupation forces in Poland and the Soviet Union. Hence it seems justified to examine whether the GDR policy towards Israel could be characterized as anti-Semitic. However, it would be too simple to give a short affirmative answer to this question.

Anti-Semitism obviously survived the Third Reich in both German states. Although officially taboo, undercurrents of anti-Semitism persisted in both societies. A survey sponsored by the American Jewish Committee in the immediate aftermath of German unification compared, for the first time, West and East German attitudes to Jews, Israel and remembrance of the Holocaust. The results speak for themselves: in October 1990, 44 percent of the East Germans and 65 percent of the West Germans believed that the time had come to put the memory of the Holocaust behind them; 45 percent of the West Germans and 20 percent of the East Germans agreed that “Jews are exploiting the Holocaust for their own purposes.” Considering that the East Germans received one-sided information on the Middle East conflict, Israel and Zionism, it is surprising that 33 percent of both East and West Germans agreed that “Zionism is racism,” although 41 percent of the West Germans and 38 percent of the East Germans disagreed with that statement. Even if we take into consideration that in 1990 West Germans were more likely than East Germans to openly express their opinions, the figures do not show that anti-Semitic sentiments were stronger in the East than in the West. On the contrary, later surveys confirmed the findings of 1990—although the evidence indicates that general xenophobic tendencies were more prevalent in the East.

In order to determine whether the GDR policy was anti-Semitic, several points need to be addressed:

First, the official policy towards Israel was not anti-Semitic from the outset, but evolved out of pragmatic interests. The Cold War between the two superpowers, and the GDR’s membership in the Warsaw Pact, as well as Israel’s affiliation with the Western world, influenced the relationship between Israel and East Germany. When the GDR leaders sided with the Arab states and the Palestinians in the Middle East conflict, they followed the Soviet Union and their own political interests in the region. Israel’s right to exist was not denied, and many journalists and academics tried to differentiate between the Israeli government and the Israeli people. However, when the GDR media reported on the wars between Israel and the Arab states or on Israeli policy in the territories that were occupied in 1967, they drew a one-sided and undifferentiated picture of the events in the region. Attacks against Israel as an imperialist enemy, as well as the characterization of Zionism as racism and the comparison of the Israeli army with the Nazi Wehrmacht, promoted anti-Semitic stereotypes and kept them alive.

Second, the psychological and political impact of the Holocaust on Israel was ignored. The East German political elite denied Germany’s direct responsibility to the Jewish state. Their approach to the issue of reparations and compensation was based on a general approach to world history and German history, which argued that German capitalists were responsible for the Nazi crimes. Accordingly, the lesson to be learned from the past was that since capitalism was the basis for fascism, racism and militarism, it should be eliminated. Public debate on the Third Reich focused on the persecution of political opponents and the war against the Soviet Union, while the Holocaust was marginalized. East Germany rejected the material claims of Jewish organizations and the State of Israel, on the grounds that such payments would strengthen imperialism. This approach prevented a critical debate on German responsibility for the Holocaust. The attempt to confront the Holocaust in 1987 and 1988, in preparation for the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht, exposed philo-Semitic tendencies that ultimately strengthened anti-Semitic opinions.

Third, the observation that the domestic policy of the vanguard SED was not anti-Semitic excludes 1952 and 1953, when Jews were dismissed from political and academic positions, discriminated against, and sometimes even arrested. Ulbricht used Stalin’s anti-Semitic policies for his own political purposes, and even maintained those policies for several months after Stalin’s death. The political campaign against emigrants who had returned to the eastern part of Germany from Western Europe or America was directed largely against Jews. Focusing on Zionism and the “imperialist” State of Israel, it weakened and destroyed the anti-fascist sympathy that Germans had voiced during the early postwar years. The political leadership of the GDR did not shy away from using anti-Semitic stereotypes, which remained alive even after the end of the Third Reich.

Fourth, the declaration that fascism and anti-Semitism should be rooted out, and the continual reiteration of this declaration precluded a systematic discussion of anti-Semitism and xenophobia. It was naturally assumed that everyone had learned a lesson from the past, and that “the bad Nazis” remained on the other side of the Wall. Hence, there was no need to look for them or their followers inside East Germany. Anti-Semitic propaganda was banned, but efforts to eliminate it were insufficient. On the assumption that anti-Semitism would automatically disappear after the socialist revolution, anti-Semitic incidents were mostly ignored or denied. This approach prevented society from recognizing the dangers involved in the recurrence of such incidents.

Following German unification, a revival of anti-Semitism in East and West Germany became evident. For example, in 1992 a Holocaust memorial for Berlin Jews who had been deported to the death camps was bombed. In addition, the “Jewish barracks” in the former Sachsenhausen concentration camp near Berlin were burned down, and there was an increase in the number of anti-Semitic crimes registered in Germany in the mid-1990s. Especially since the outbreak of the second Intifada in 2000, criticism of Israel has often been based on anti-Semitic stereotypes. Notably, Germans have not hesitated to compare the actions of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to those of the Nazis. Furthermore, some statements made by German Members of Parliament in 2002 and 2003 suggest that there may be increasing tolerance of public expressions of anti-Semitism.

In recent years, anti-Israel sentiment has been heard in both parts of united Germany. This sentiment comes very close to anti-Semitism when it denies Israel’s right to exist and holds Jews throughout the world accountable for Israeli policy in the Palestinian territories. In East Germany its roots can certainly be traced to what amounted to the demonization of Zionism and Israel during the GDR’s existence. Nonetheless, an explanation that focuses exclusively on historical antecedents and on the failures of East Germany cannot fully reflect reality. It should also be sought in the political developments within united Germany.