Gregory Paul Wegner. Paedagogica Historica. Volume 43, Issue 3, 2007.
Victor Klemperer (1881-1960), a diarist of daily life under the Third Reich, offered readers of I Will Bear Witness meaningful insights about the influence of propaganda in shaping conceptions about citizenship in German society. As a Jewish professor of Romance languages at Dresden Technical University until he lost his post in 1935, Klemperer was in a unique position to observe the growing anti‐Semitic brutality of the regime. How deeply rooted anti‐Semitism was in the population remained a question which challenged him throughout many of his daily interactions with Germans on the street as well as in factories where he worked as a forced laborer. In his philological notebooks which later appeared as The Language of the Third Reich, Klemperer noted that LTI (Lingua Tertii Imperii), essentially the propaganda language of the regime, ‘seized hold’ of all aspects of institutional life both public and private in nature.
One insight which emerged from his experience was the realization that not all Germans were rabid anti‐Semites. Some of his co‐workers and neighbors provided various kinds of assistance and support while expressing moral outrage against Nazi anti‐Semitic policies. Not to be overlooked was the fact that Klemperer also suffered indignities and personal attacks from avowed anti‐Semites in various quarters. The legacy of German anti‐Semitism, so Klemperer discovered, was more complex than initially expected.
The profoundly anti‐Semitic character of Nazi propaganda language revealed itself in Victor Klemperer’s reading of the daily press and occasional radio broadcasts. Among the multitude of propagandists espousing the anti‐Semitic agenda with the blessing of the Third Reich was Johann von Leers (1902-1965), then a professor at the University of Jena. Klemperer encountered the writings of Leers in the popular press several times beginning in the summer of 1943. Exploiting familiar anti‐Semitic themes in a lecture called, ‘The Jews are to Blame’, Leers castigated the Jews for the defeat of Germany in the First World War as well as fomenting the Revolution of 1918. The propagandist concluded that the extermination of Jews in Europe was fully justified as a form of retribution and self‐defense. Klemperer captured what he felt were the hallmarks of the anti‐Semitic propaganda espoused by the professor from Jena—‘feigned objectivity, the obsessiveness, the populism, the reduction of everything to one denominator, the emphasis: The Jewish question is alpha and omega’.
Klemperer’s observations suggest that Johann von Leers was more than simply an ideological foot soldier for the Third Reich. Once called ‘a propagandist of extermination’ by a circle of scholars in Britain, Leers authored no less than 27 books and countless journal and newspaper articles between 1932 and1944 making him one of the most prolific of all anti‐Semitic writers in the Third Reich. His work connected him in a variety of ways with the Ministry of Propaganda, the SS, Kanzlei Rosenberg, the National Socialist Teachers Union (NSLB), the National Socialist Studentenbund (NSDStB), and the university community at Jena.
As Klemperer noted earlier, schools represented but one of many institutional settings for anti‐Semitic propaganda. Although never a classroom teacher himself, Leers took a particular interest in reaching children through a variety of media including school newspapers and stories, as well as through more indirect means like curriculum development for educators. Certainly, Leers was not alone in this endeavor. With a doctorate in law, Leers was but one figure in a vast publishing enterprise involving a large network of teachers, educational policy‐makers, medical doctors, professors, race hygienists, and school inspectors.
Establishing the Context
What constitutes the major focus for this study is the perspective of Johann von Leers on anti‐Semitism in the formation of young children. To better understand the context for the pedagogical writings of Leers, readers are initially directed to historiographical considerations regarding one of the most prolific propagandists in the Third Reich. A number of biographical themes emerge thereafter including intellectual influences, the formation of a young anti‐Semite, and early activities in the Propaganda Office of the Nazi Party as publicist, editor and speaker. Closing this biographical overview is a brief sketch of Johann von Leers as a professor in the history seminar at the University of Jena, a post he held for almost nine years.
Leers enthusiastically exploited education as a means of advancing anti‐Semitic thinking. The major body of this study examines his anti‐Semitic ideas for young children through a series of writings published in Hilf mit and collected essays from Für das Reich. Essential to the efforts of Leers in reaching as broad a school audience as possible were his ties to the NSLB. The NSLB provided a critically important publication infrastructure connected to schools located in every district throughout Germany. The NSLB monthly school newspaper Hilf mit (translated as ‘Contributing’) deserves special attention since it reached the largest number of school children among all of Leers’ education related publications. More than any other ongoing Nazi publication, it was Hilf mit to which Leers contributed writings over the longest period of time (1933-1941).
The anti‐Semitic writing of Leers in Hilf mit represented what Klaus Fischer called ‘German Judeophobia’ as well as an obsessive hatred of a culture he knew little about. The prolific storyteller certainly did not limit his efforts to Hilf mit. During the late 1930s, Leers began collecting a number of previously published short stories and printed them in a volume called Für das Reich: Deutsche Geschichte in Geschichtserzählungen (1940). The subtitle suggested that the stories belonged in the history curriculum, but Leers cautioned students and their teachers not to view the volume as a history textbook. It would be enough to please the writer, Leers told students, if, by reading these pieces, even a few German youth could ‘feel pride for their bloodlines and way‐of‐life’ growing from ‘the struggles to awaken long submerged racial powers’.
The vast majority of the pieces Leers published in Hilf mit were relatively short, ranging between one and three pages in length. Although anti‐Semitism remained an obsession for Leers, the Jewish question was not the only issue he wrote about. Military heroes, the historical struggle of German farmers to eke out a living, ancient Germanic religion, and the importance of food production in the Reich were among the other themes common to the writings he submitted for his young readership, many of whom ranged in ages from eight to eighteen. Thus, Hilf mit also became part of the literature read by some members of Jungvolk and Hitler Youth.
Studying the anti‐Semitic propaganda flowing from Leers’ pen for the intended reading of young children raises a daunting challenge. The dimensions of traditional anti‐Semitic thinking emerging from Leers’ pedagogical writings are interrelated in nature and spring from the heart of his dedicated propaganda activity. One notes that the criminalization of the Jew—the most persistent and pervasive of all anti‐Semitic categories of expression for Leers—remained invariably linked in his pedagogical works to the power of money and religion. Such categories of thought are ancient in the history of anti‐Semitic prejudice and hatred, a fact about which Leers was keenly aware. His was the propaganda of the familiar articulated against what he insisted was an old enemy.
Concluding the section on Leers’ pedagogical writings is a piece intended for teachers, one which linked Arab and Jewish conflicts over land in Palestine with the anti‐Semitic agenda of the Third Reich. As one will later note, Leers exploited the issue of land in a way that invariably set him apart from the vast hoard of other propagandists in the service of the regime. The question of Arab claims to a homeland in Palestine remained a propaganda tour de force for Leers not only for his time as a Nazi agitator from the Third Reich, but even more so after 1945.
With these developments in mind, the essay moves toward a consideration of Leers as a fallen Nazi scholar whose reputation suffered greatly among academic circles during his professorship at the University of Jena. The story might have ended here were it not for his successful moves to South America and the Middle East to continue a new chapter in his life as agitator. Preceding the conclusion is a consideration of the legacy of anti‐Semitism in postwar Germany.
Johann von Leers remains largely overlooked by historians to this day. By contrast, the historiography reveals several works exploring prominent figures in the propaganda machine of the Third Reich including Julius Streicher (1885-1946) and Joseph Goebbels (1897-1945) as well as the importance of myth in advancing Nazi ideological perspectives. Leers is mentioned only briefly by historians writing on the history of Nazi medicine as well as German historians and university students under National Socialism. George Mosse’s notable volume on the intellectual origins of the Third Reich described Leers as ‘a guiding spirit’ in ‘formulating the racial policy’ of the Nazi regime. Short vignettes about his work as a professor in the history seminar at the University of Jena appear in two institutional histories. Studies of literature under the Third Reich give Leers short shrift. A recent insightful study of ‘scholarly anti‐Semitism’ in the Third Reich briefly examined two writings by Leers intended to persuade readers about the criminal nature of the Jewish community. The scope of Leers’ publication agenda is reiterated, albeit briefly as well, in a thoughtful examination of anti‐Semitic propaganda which also appeared in 2006. Here one finds references to Leers’ exploitation of alleged Jewish influences in the Franklin Roosevelt administration as well as his ruminations in the journal Die Judenfrage extolling the virtues of Islam as a natural bulwark against Jewish domination in the Arab world. Another work on the resurgence of fascism devoted probably more attention to Leers than any other book in print. Even then, the coverage remains decidedly thin. No published book or academic essay exists on the work of this enigmatic figure.
The recent scholarship of noted historian Christopher Browning on The Origin of the Final Solution (2004) suggests that roughly two groups of German anti‐Semites dominated the Third Reich. One group, relatively moderate, pursued a conservative and xenophobic agenda which dismissed Jews as undesirable foreigners. By contrast, radical anti‐Semites took on the qualities of ‘redemptionist’ and ‘chimeric’ anti‐Semitism. To members of this group, Jews held responsibility for all of Germany’s misfortunes and thereby deserved elimination. Radical anti‐Semites thereby saw elimination as a way of redeeming the country’s honor. Browning concluded that the radical anti‐Semites were never representative of the majority of the German populace or even a majority of Nazi Party membership. They got their way largely because of the passivity and indifference of most other Germans.
What set the radical anti‐Semite Leers apart from members of German academe like historian Günther Franz (1902-1992) from the University of Jena or philosopher Alfred Bäumler (1887-1968) from the University of Berlin, both of whom rejected Nazism after 1945, was that he remained totally and unapologetically united to Nazi racial and anti‐Semitic ideals to the time of his death. Moreover, unlike many other figures from the Nazi circle, Leers would continue spreading anti‐Semitic propaganda after 1945 during his years in Argentina (1952-1956) with the support of Juan Peron (1895-1974) and in Egypt (1956-1965) under the auspices of strongman Gamel Abdel Nasser (1918-1970) who offered him a post as propaganda adviser on Jewish affairs in the Information Department of the Ministry of Guidance. More will be said about these postwar developments later.
Johann von Leers wrote for a variety of German audiences including the general public, academics, party officials, children, and school teachers. The sheer volume of his writings and the range of topics addressed reflected the feverish activity of a person determined to make a name for himself in the Nazi community. Although anti‐Semitic propaganda remained the central focus for much of his professional life, Leers also assumed the role of expert on such diverse topics as the history of the German peasantry, religion, Japanese culture, and the dangers of alcohol on the body politic.
In a sense, Leers was not very different from other anti‐Semitic propagandists and educators in that he tried to translate the major tenets of Mein Kampf into the daily instructional reality of the school. As a Volkish writer, Leers drew from a nationalist perspective which integrated notions of blood, soil, race, and soul. There were others who passed before him in the Weimar era who advocated a strong racial and anti‐Semitic focus in the education of children. The personal papers of Leers reflect a deference to Count Artur de Gobineau (1816-1882), Paul de Lagarde (1827-1891) and the subsequent work of Hans F. K. Günther (1891-1968), a man whose anthropological and self‐proclaimed scientific writings figured prominently among Volkish thinkers of the Third Reich.
There existed the ruminations of one figure, by Leers’ own admission, who held particular sway over his own formation as an anti‐Semitic author and publicist. That person was Theodor Fritsch (1852-1933), the author of The Handbook on the Jewish Question, a work that appeared in over 47 editions from 1923-1942. For Leers, Fritsch’s journal called Hammer, initially appearing in 1902, provided an important foundational publication for early members of the SA or Brown Shirts of which he became a member in 1930. With characteristic exaggeration, Leers later claimed that these two works by Fritsch were most often recalled by the ‘old fighters’ from the Nazi movement as being the most important in helping them understand the scope and seriousness of the Jewish question. Fritsch provided Leers with a model of prolific anti‐Semitic authorship which he never forgot.
What National Socialism offered the young and idealistic Johann von Leers was a platform to articulate a linguistic violence directed against Jews which rivaled even that of Hitler’s Mein Kampf or Julius Streicher’s virulent newspaper, Der Stürmer. Johann von Leers was a propagandist moved to write and speak about Jews through exploiting the language of criminality. While engaged in writing for a variety of audiences, the publication record of Johann von Leers and his personal papers reflected a desire to reach both young children and their teachers with an idealism that was both anti‐Semitic and racist in nature. Before investigating the contributions of Johann von Leers to anti‐Semitic education in the schools of Nazi Germany, the reader continues with a biographical overview as part of the historical context.
The Formation of a Young Anti‐Semite
Born in 1902 in Vietlubbe bei Gadebusch (Land Mecklenburg) to a family of landed nobility, Johann von Leers subsequently attended Gymnasium in Stralsrud, Neustrelitz and Waren where he became enamored with the study of languages and culture. Following the Abitur, Leers studied law, history and economics at Kiel, Berlin and Rostock. As a student bitterly disillusioned with the Treaty of Versailles, the November Revolution of 1918, the Weimar Republic, and the specter of world communism—all of which he insisted came about because of a Jewish conspiracy—Leers joined the Viking Division of the Freikorps in 1923. Completing his law degree in 1925 at Rostock, Leers moved to Berlin where he entered a seminar on Japanese language. His fluency in Japanese helped him secure a post as cultural attaché in the Foreign Ministry from 1926-1928.
The time spent by Leers in the foreign office came to an abrupt end with struggles over the loss of family property under the hyper inflation of the Depression and a series of legal judgments against him for unresolved debts. These disappointments affirmed Leers’ already deep suspicions about what he derisively called ‘die Judenrepublik’ and his assumption that the Jewish community bore special responsibility for Germany’s failures. Not long afterwards, on 1 August 1929, the young Leers joined the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP) as party member Nr. 143709 thus identifying himself as an ‘alte Kämpfer’ or old fighter from the Nazi movement.
Early Activities as Nazi Propagandist
Leers’ enthusiastic embrace of the Nazi anti‐Semitic platform did not go unnoticed. By the end of 1929, Leers already joined the fray as head of the National Socialist Student League and district speaker for the NSDAP. Earlier that same year, his dedicated work caught the eye of Joseph Goebbels who engaged Leers as associate editor of the propaganda ministry’s journal, Auf Wille und Weg as well as contributing author for the weekly newspaper, Der Angriff. Like many of the other freelance writers in these offices, Leers made a salary by producing lines of copy. Another sign of Goebbels’ favor came with the subsequent appointment of Leers (1933-1935) to teach and assist in the planning of academic seminars for the Hochschule für Politik in Berlin.
Beyond these academic and editorial responsibilities, Leers took on the ministry’s charge to write propaganda designed to popularize Nazi ideology for the masses. A flood of publications followed. The first book to gain public attention for Leers was Juden sehen dich an (Jews Look at You), appearing in 1933. In a pattern to emerge many times later, Leers integrated old anti‐Semitic stereotypes associated with lies, subversion, deceptions, lust for gold and an innate desire for Jews to exert political, economic and intellectual control over Germany. To further personalize his message and add a ‘human face’ to his charges, Leers printed numerous pictures of prominent Jews including, among others, Theodore Lessing (1872-1933), Albert Einstein (1879-1955) and Lion Feuchtwanger (1884-1958). The captions included the incendiary words, ‘Not Hanged Yet’.
The barrage of anti‐Semitic writing from the pen of Leers continued without pause during the year of Hitler’s rise to power with the publication and wide distribution of Leers’ incendiary pamphlet calling for Jews to get out of Germany or to face brutal consequences. Once again, his prodigious output of anti‐Semitic writings, which continued throughout the 1930s and early 1940s, brought him recognition by certain Nazi leaders. Agricultural Minister Walter Darre (1895-1953) extended enthusiastic support for Leers’ writings on the Volkish history of the German farming community. In May of 1936, Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler (1900-1945) offered Leers an honorary commission in the SS as Untersturmbannführer attached to the Staff of the Racial and Resettlement Office.
The Propagandist as Professor
Such developments served the propagandist well in his efforts to secure a special teaching post at the University of Jena in the fall of 1936. With the aggressive intervention of Gauleiter Fritz Sauckel (1894-1946) from Thuringia and Jena University Chancellor Karl Astel (1898-1945), Leers joined the Jena faculty lecturing students on ‘legal, economic and political history on a racial basis’ and became closely involved with the NS‐Dozentenbund or union of university lecturers. The appointment raised more than a few eyebrows in the Nazi academic community. Leers newfound academic position eventually meant the displacement of Professor Günther Franz, a scholar who generally enjoyed a much stronger reputation as a major historian in Bauerngeschichte or the history of agriculture. Under Nazi university life, a jurist like Leers could become a faculty member in a history seminar and moreover, eventually gain promotion in 1938 to professor at age 36. Such radical departures from tradition on the questions of academic rank and expertise could find realization at Jena, the ‘brownest’ of all German universities under the Third Reich. The university in Thuringia remained the academic home for Leers until the end of the war and the collapse of the Third Reich.
The Story as Nazi Pedagogical Device: Leers and the Criminalization of the Jews
With the Nazi assumption to power in 1933 came the challenge of ideologically transforming German schools in a direction very different from that assumed by the failed Weimar democracy. In one of the first curriculum policy directives on race education coming from the Ministry of Education, Bernhard Rust (1883-1945) directed educators to provide youth with a schooling based on ‘vision, feeling, thinking, and will’. In classes on Rassenkunde initiated in the Volksschule, the ministry applied a major tenet of Hitler’s thinking. Enshrined in the curriculum was the cardinal rule that the racial composition of present day Nordic peoples was to be presented in diametric opposition to ‘foreign racial groups, especially the Jews’. The Jew as ultimate racial ‘other’ represented an ideological cornerstone for the Nazi formation of the young. Leers threw himself into this pedagogical task with the passion of a zealous crusader.
The characteristic which bound together much of Leers’ anti‐Semitic propaganda, regardless of the audience for which he wrote, was a crude reductionism associated with criminalizing the Jews. For older readers and adults, Leers often printed many statistics—usually without citing any sources—for the purpose of ‘proving’ that Jews held a greater propensity for criminal acts than any other part of the population. In the case of elementary school children, Leers exploited the old tradition of story telling to socialize youth with anti‐Semitic values legitimized by the regime. In Hilf mit and in other publications, Leers articulated anti‐Semitic thinking by introducing a distorted and falsified historical context.
‘The Crook from Betsche’, like many other of Leers’ writings, framed the Jewish question in a fictitious historical setting. To accentuate differences in religious traditions between Christians and Jews, the author set the story in the Christmas season of 1832. Investigating the theft of money intended for the end‐of‐year salary payments for professors and staff at the university, local police investigators narrowed the short list of suspects down to one person. Moses Löwenthal, a Jewish trader from Mecklenburg, came under intense scrutiny and eventually faced trial. The ‘police records’, so the story goes, revealed a long string of recent thefts by Jews throughout the province. The author took special pains to rattle off a list of Jewish family names from the arrest records so his readers would not forget.
With evidence stacked heavily against him, Löwenthal eventually received a very light sentence. Frustrations among the townspeople rose when the police uncovered a web of conspiracy involving the banker Baron Rothschild in Frankfurt. The power and influence of wealthy Jews entered the picture and ensured that Löwenthal would escape justice. Adding insult to injury, two of Löwenthal’s sons became lawyers decades later to ‘pervert the law’ at the expense of German working people.
A closer look at the story reveals something of what George Mosse described as a mystical element in Volkish thinking. How was the reader to understand the motivations of Löwenthal? The answer rested in the ‘soul’ of the Jew. Not only did Jews look physically different from Aryan Germans, they also possessed a distinctly different ‘soul’ which defined their criminal character. Leers thereby drew from an aspect of Volkish thinking that existed since the late nineteenth century when he integrated into the storyline a curious assumption. Existing inside the soul of the criminal Jew, the author wrote, were two tendencies. One was his fear of a long prison sentence. The other was his feeling that, as a Jew, he had to rely on the criminality of others to avoid justice.
As a lawyer by training, Leers continued to exploit legal justifications for the oppression of the Jews in much of the literature he wrote for children. He already had the full legal weight of the Nuremberg Laws from 1935 behind him to support his anti‐Semitic assumptions. Even more importantly, Leers exploited a long tradition of anti‐Semitic stereotypes of an economic nature with roots extending to the Middle Ages. Frankfurt am Main remained a strong geographical point‐of‐focus in several essays for Hilf mit primarily because of the perceived concentration of Jewish money in the hands of the Rothschild family. Readers learned from Leers that Frankfurt was a center of profound evil made possible by the lust for gold by the Jews. The tentacles of the Rothschild bankers sunk deeply into governments all over the world. In an illustration entitled, ‘World Enemy #1’, a stereotyped Jewish man is shown sitting on top of the world planting flags with the star of David on all of the continents.
The language of criminality which Leers used so freely and without any qualification when applied to Jews came into even sharper focus in a story, ‘From the Recollections of a Public Prosecutor’. As usual, what Leers hoped to elicit in his readers was the unquestioned assumption that all Jews carried criminal tendencies regardless of their respective stations in life. Although the author as lawyer did not have experience as a public prosecutor, the essay assumed an authoritative and presumptuous tone. One of the driest and most densely written of the essays he published in Hilf mit, Leers mythologized the experiences of a former prosecutor named Kiel assigned to Räuberbanden or gangs of robbers in the Rheinland of the late eighteenth century. As expected, the merchant of negative and unfounded anti‐Semitic stereotypes pointed to the Jews in his rendering of the prosecutor’s select memory. For the adolescent reading these lines, the conclusion remained inescapable:
Yes, that was public prosecutor Kiel. During his entire life, this honest man fought crime. I have in any case learned something from him: I initially assume that every person is respectable until he convinces me otherwise. However, I assume that every Jew is a crook and to this day, I still have not been convinced otherwise.
Any serious look at this series of writings from Hilf mit would remain incomplete without a consideration of Leers’ anti‐Semitic exploitation of the German peasantry. By the mid‐1930s, Leers had already earned a reputation as an accomplished agronomist. The school newspaper provided yet another outlet for his anti‐Semitic venom. In ‘The Peasant King from Hessen’, Leers once again condemned Jewish moneyed interests for holding peasants hostage through ‘debt slavery’. Who was guilty for the sorrowful state of economic affairs in the countryside? Leers provided children with a quick and easy answer. The essay opened with a call to action: ‘Peasants, wake up! The Jews hold you in their claws! Defend yourselves!’ Returning to the page was the ancient charge that, unlike the peasants who remained close to the soil and earned their living by the sweat of their brows, Jews avoided working with their hands and honest labor.
For a more mature audience, Leers appealed to a kind of rationalized pseudo‐science to justify his rank stereotypes of the Jewish community. As late as 1944, Leers churned out a ten chapter volume on Die Verbrechernatur der Juden (The Criminal Nature of Jews) replete with warnings to those who would dismiss his psychologized portraits of Jews as crooks, murderers, peddlers of pornographic literature, sexual offenders, thieves, cheats, and gangsters. Assuming the role as race expert as he had done so many times, Leers calls citizens to a great, unavoidable struggle with religious overtones:
Judaism is hereditary criminality. The Jews are not a people like other peoples and also not the result of some mere racial mixture. Rather, Judaism perverts the divine and actively engages in Satanism. Because of this, there exists a duty for every individual human being in the world to participate in fighting back against the Jews. No one can stand off to the side.
Religious Anti‐Semitism and Criminality
In yet another insidious way, Leers tapped religious prejudices in an essay which also used Frankfurt as a cultural backdrop. The politically astute Leers, knowing that many of his potential young readers were Catholic or Protestant, avoided any outright condemnation of Christianity. This he saved for adult readers, more specifically his attacks on Cardinal Michael von Faulhaber’s disdain for old Germanic pagan religions. In the story of ‘the evil alley’, one learns about the theft of a communion chalice from a Catholic church. Boruch Singerle, a notorious Jewish usurer and pawnshop owner, knowingly accepted the item as payment for a debt. When brought before the municipal judge, Singerle lied about who brought him the chalice while taking an oath on the Talmud. All of this happened at a time of great poverty in the city. The story closed with impoverished members of the local guild which produced the chalice leaving the city on Christmas eve amidst loud celebrations in the Jewish quarter. The travesty of justice staged by Leers taught readers that a good National Socialist could never trust the word of a Jew.
An underlying religious theme also emerged in a story about the archbishop of Lyon and his unfortunate dealings with the Jewish community. What transpired were the struggles of a community suffering morally and economically from the slave trade. Without any basis in historical fact, Leers wove a story about a Jewish family engaged in enslaving Christian children. More than any other of Leers’ entries in Hilf mit, this story demonized Jews with a language both shrill and damning. Appealing to the archbishop Agobard, a grandfather asked for help in releasing his granddaughter from the clutches of Jewish family Samuel. For the bishop, dealing with Jews was most distasteful and, judging from his sermons, somewhat dangerous. After all, as the prelate preached to his flock, Jews remained stained with the charge of deicide in the death of Christ and, moreover, symbolized an inordinate influence in the king’s court.
Throughout the negotiations for the girls’ release from money paid by the church, the archbishop struggled with another kind of slavery gripping his community. The Jewish lust for money and profit through usury exacted a moral price which ruined the lives of many Christians. The propaganda value of this piece, so Leers thought, came through drawing a simple but disturbing parallel. Moral degradation grew only from Schuldknechtschaft or ‘debt slavery’, but also from the enslavement of Christian children under the evil hand of the Jew. Realizing that children constituted the major audience for these particular writings, the author integrated a subtext with sexual undertones. For a child to be brought under the control of male Jews through slavery or any other means suggested sexual perversion. The story of Archbishop Agobard remained significant for another reason. This essay was one of the rare pieces in which Leers lionized a Catholic clergyman.
The spirit of Theodore Fritsch’s vicious attacks against Jewish religion from Der Hammer in a previous generation took on renewed fervor with the writing of Leers directed toward teachers. Goebbels’ enthusiastic understudy launched into a tirade against the conspiratorial nature of Jewish religious traditions. Frequently misquoting and fabricating lines associated with the Books of Moses, Leers applied the ancient propaganda tradition of misappropriating language as a weapon against enemies of the state. After all, Leers queried, didn’t the Book of Deuteronomy exemplify for teachers in the clearest of terms the Jewish lust for the destruction of other peoples, all in the name of Yahweh? Pupils were to understand that National Socialism was the only salvation against this global onslaught and the threat of racial mixing with this the most dangerous of peoples.
Leers had the power to choose his friends and enemies under the broad rubric of Christianity. Like many of his fellow propagandists, Leers saw great promise in using the anti‐Jewish fervor of Martin Luther to support the Nazi worldview. Liberally quoting Luther’s incendiary pamphlet, ‘On the Jews and Their Lies’ (1543), Leers encouraged teachers to introduce children to the Great Reformer’s violent rage directed at the Jewish community. In a special issue of the NSLB journal, Der Deutsche Erzieher (The German Educator), the Nazi propagandist reprinted several aggressive measures advocated by Luther in dealing with the infidels. Heading the list was the burning of Jewish synagogues, schools and homes followed by the initiation of forced labor—actions which subsequently found an eerie resonance in the Third Reich.
Consistency was not a hallmark of Leers’ thinking about the religious implications of anti‐Semitism. On other occasions, in articles published by regional NSLB newspapers, Leers castigated Christianity for being too soft on Jews. ‘Racial psychology’, Leers wrote, suggested that one of the weaknesses of Christianity was its association with Jewish tradition. The special edition of Der Deutsche Erzieher devoted to the Jewish question came off the press only one month after the Night of the Broken Glass. In this issue, Leers criticized Catholic and Protestant traditions for going ‘back and forth’ on the status of the Jewish community. He praised Thomas Aquinas for the anti‐Jewish tone implicit in some of his teachings. On the other hand, Leers condemned Pope Pius XI’s declaration of friendship for Israel and the prelate’s insistence that persecution of Jews stood against Catholic principles. While Luther always remained one of Leers’ great anti‐Semitic heroes, he remained troubled by Lutheran pastors from the twentieth century who saw the Old Testament as a foundation stone for Protestant belief. Conspicuous in its absence was any discussion about the Jewish heritage of Jesus Christ.
That Christianity represented a potentially harmful barrier to the realization of a racial state was a theme that Leers pounded incessantly into many of his writings for teachers. In a series of instructional ‘self‐teaching letters’ created by Johann von Leers and Willi Becker for educators, the two writers mounted an attack on what they regarded as the misplaced and uninformed liberal belief in the equality of human beings. This time, their purview expanded to include other racial pariahs under the protective auspices of church teaching:
If the individual is Aryan or Jewish, if he is German or Negro, if he is racially inferior and subversive, if he is healthy or sick in blood and mind, that is all the same to the church…The German woman of the Nordic race and the woman of the Sudanese race from the former Cameroons are not only different based on their physical characteristics, differentiated not only by the color of skin, the eyes, and the hair as well as the form of the skull, the lips and the nose. Rather—and these facts give racial teaching their greatest meaning—they are also mentally different from each other in their feelings, thinking and will. No more than a Nordic woman can become a Negro either physically or mentally, so it is also impossible to shape the Sudanese woman into a Nordic woman through education, instruction or further influences.
That people with black skin scarcely existed in the Third Reich was not a matter of concern to Leers and Becker. Their mere existence as a force in the world, like that of the Jews, was justification enough for Nazi racial condemnation. Emerging from this revealing passage for teachers is the ridicule of a profoundly anti‐Nazi sentiment enshrined in church teaching about social equality. Trained in German legalisms and steeped in his own racial perspective on history, Leers also looked to the marketplace and law as fertile areas for further exploitation of anti‐Semitic propaganda for children. Once again, in Leers’ propaganda universe, the interrelated nature of anti‐Semitic thinking linked economics with religion and criminality. As the master reductionist wrote in a volume for a series on the Jewish question, ‘all money and property which the Jews have is entirely stolen from Christians ten times over’ through ‘profiteering and deception’. A relentless repetition thus remained at the center of Leers’ propaganda strategy.
Jews in the Marketplace: Law and the Power of Money
When taken as a whole, the short stories from Hilf mit and Für das Reich do not depart from the long tradition of anti‐Semitic stereotypes—both religious and economic—which gained a foothold in the Middle Ages. One notes in these two sources that Leers remained uninterested in schooling young readers in the more recent and complex ‘scientific’ elements of racial anti‐Semitism which emerged in the late nineteenth century with roots in eugenics. Leers felt that the best way to reach young people, especially elementary‐aged children, was through mythologizing the Jew via traditional stereotypes. Again, the connection between money and crime constituted an essential propaganda relationship.
Law enforcement in the police state emerged once again as a formative theme. Drawing from a book by A. F. Thiele called The Jewish Crooks in Germany, Leers put together a vignette called ‘The Faithful Policeman’. The central character of the story discovered, through brave and loyal service to the German community, that the ‘respectable Jew’ existed only as fiction. This courageous man of the law, Leers wrote, discovered the level of criminality to which Jews were capable of reaching in order to satiate their lust for money. Here was an administration of law that saw Jews for who they really were without flinching.
The Rothschilds never fell out of Leers’ sights for they provided him with a convenient economic foil for anti‐Semitic rhetoric. ‘Jews Sell the German Navy’ is a carefully crafted tale showing how Bank Rothschild became involved in lending money to keep the navy afloat in the wake of the war with Denmark in the late 1840s. Germany was not yet unified into a nation, so the navy found itself without the necessary funding to continue the struggle. Leers’ capability for not only exploiting historical imagination, but also cleverly passing myth as fact were critical aspects of his writing. What he wanted young children to believe was that the German navy became incapable of fully engaging the enemy because their key ships were heavily financed with Jewish money out of Frankfurt. Jewish investment in the German Union had to be protected even at the cost of the navy’s security.
Rothschild made matters worse by demanding full payment on all of the loans heedless of what such demands would do to the already imperiled conditions faced by the navy in its fight for national honor. In the end, the ‘fat Jewish brokers’, as Leers called them, forced an auction of the navy to secure payment on the loans. Baron Thun, representing German interests, became the target of Rothschild’s harsh insults when the Jewish financier assured him that he could still retain ‘a tired civil servant, a hungry wretch, and a stumbling sextant’.
Leers layered this anti‐Semitic collection with yet another example of Jewish greed to influence young minds. ‘So They Became Rich’ recounted events leading up to the suicide of a construction tradesman in Berlin during the closing decade of the nineteenth century. Speculation in the city’s housing market, manipulated by Jews, made it impossible for the man to continue in business. High interest rates made matters worse. The refusal of Jewish bankers to lend him money for the continuation of his business insulted his pride. A broken and exhausted man, he took his own life, a victim of Jewish economic conspiracy.
The last paragraph of the story brought together what Leers felt was the core message of history instruction. This collection of stories was not the only piece Leers contributed to race education, but it remained one of the few he devoted specifically to the readership of children in the elementary history classes. As was his style, Leers appealed to emotion and often used potentially explosive language to advance his anti‐Semitic agenda. In this closure, Leers brought pupils to one inescapable conclusion, the nature of which offered a justification for even more brutal oppression:
Jewry is unabashed swindling. The Jews, in all times, beginning from the founding fathers to the present, used the deception of working people as their weapon to gain power. In economic life, the Jews have for centuries brought that serious spirit of the black marketer which must also be removed from its last slippery corner. Also, the years of rapid industrialization from 1872 were in reality a Jewish era. Those people who are harmed by Jews every day have been in large measure falsely treated. In deep shame over this, ruined economically and oppressed by crooked Jewish debt structures, many of these people have given up or hidden themselves in the darkness of poverty. Correctly handling the situation at that time were those who already freely characterized Jewish crookedness. The struggle against the Jews is a struggle against ancient evil in the world. If what matters is who survives this struggle, then we will survive and the Jews shall perish. The fewer the Jews, the happier is the world and all working peoples! [Leers’ exclamation point].
This is the kind of loud and unrelenting anti‐Semitic rhetoric for which Leers became well known. There are few other passages with the possible exception of Mein Kampf, Der Stürmer or Ernst Hiemer’s work which brought to children such a direct and powerful suggestion about the annihilation of the Jews. His propaganda was relentless. The entire collection closed with yet another story of a failed farm family who lost their property because they could not keep up debt payments to Jewish financiers. This time, the story added a new and equally ominous twist with powerful religious connotations. Faced with the prospect of Christmas without enough money for presents, the dejected son Klaus, a member of the Hitler Youth, came home to his father and explained to him what he had learned in school. ‘The Jews’, he said, ‘crucified Christ’. The father accentuated this point and added that this was a strong reason why Jews were the enemy of the people, especially farmers. The family experienced a kind of emotional catharsis by carving out a sign for the entry gate which declared that entry for Jews was forbidden.
Jews, Arabs and Palestine
The tight and inflexible world view articulated for teachers and pupils on the Jews also hinged on what Leers regarded as a geopolitical reality related to the Middle East. Penning lines for the most widely circulated teacher journal in the Reich, Leers praised Hadj Amin‐el Husseini (1888-1974), the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, for leading the Arab world in its ‘struggle against the Jewish invasion of Palestine’. Internationalizing the Jewish threat, Leers argued that Jews had already displaced Arabs from their lands before the time of Mohammed. Setting himself apart from other anti‐Semitic writers of his age, Leers warned educators that the ‘warlike strength’ of the Talmud would lead contemporary Jews to plot a ‘cultural catastrophe’ in order to destroy Arab peoples and satisfy the Jewish lust for land.
While not known for intellectual originality in his articulation of anti‐Semitic thinking, Leers’ emphasis in 1938 on the Jewish threat through aggressive land acquisition broke some new ground in the German propaganda war on the Jews. Heretofore, the oppression of Jews remained justified by traditional religious and economic grounds which later took on even more sinister character with the emergence of ‘racial science’ in the late nineteenth century with Jews designated as racial pariahs. Leers expanded these boundaries for anti‐Semitic thought in the Third Reich by insisting that the criminal nature of Jews also remained closely tied to their lust for land at the expense of the German community.
Moreover, Leers’ anti‐Semitic propaganda reflected a shift in his own thinking about Zionism as a solution to the Jewish question. As early as August 1933, Leers expressed common cause with Zionists noting that the establishment of a Jewish ‘nation among nations in their own land is sound and justified, as long as it is not connected with any plan for world domination’. He proceeded with a pointed endorsement for a Jewish homeland in Palestine:
If Israel takes up the plough, the hoe and the scythe and is no longer intent on making other nations its servants, and wants instead to be a free nation among free nations and develop its productive power to the same extent that it developed its demonic powers, it will find friends where before it only found enemies, and Israel and its neighbors will greet each other across freshly‐plowed fields.
Some five years later, the propaganda language of Leers in regard to Palestine took a dramatic turn. Under Leers’ biting polemic from 1938, as noted above, readers of Der Deutsche Erzieher noted the expression of a very different relationship between Jews, Arabs and the land of Palestine. The scope of rationalizations justifying violence against Jews now expanded to include the charge that Jews, as the ultimate materialists, lusted for land for which they did not claim an honest title. As we are about to see, Leers’ anti‐Semitic activities after the war showed that ideas like these remained potentially explosive for a life and death struggle between two Semitic cultures.
A Fallen Nazi Scholar
As Victor Klemperer would remind us, the figure of Leers as master reductionist, fanatic, and obsessive hater of Jews symbolized an important aspect of the Nazi culture which produced this propaganda. At the same time, something of contextual importance eludes us. There is another dimension of Leers’ experience which demands clarification. The young Nazi idealist whom Joseph Goebbels took under his wing eventually suffered from those who doubted the authenticity of his thinking and scholarship.
Kanzlei Rosenberg, which exercised oversight responsibilities for party speakers and research activities for university professors, eventually turned against Leers. In the wake of a political fallout out with Alfred Rosenberg, Leers found himself the target of growing criticism for his eclectic publishing activities. Uncritically embracing the controversial research of Hermann Wirth (1877-1956) on ancient Germanic religion and sacred runes, Leers came under renewed attack for lacking academic integrity. Others in the academic community saw in Leers a certain arrogance for posing as an expert in disparate fields ranging from Japanese culture to German agrarian history to Islam. Eventually, Kanzlei Rosenberg quietly removed his designation as party speaker. Not long afterward, Leers found himself in an extended legal battle ending with a judgment against him for plagiarism.
The Postwar Journey to Argentina and Egypt
One might be tempted to write off Leers as just one of many career opportunists in the Nazi bureaucracy driven to ingratiate themselves while speaking the party line. While opportunism remained an important part of Leers’ strategy in trying to move up through the ranks of the regime, it was his firm dedication to anti‐Semitic ideals which most deeply marked his character as a National Socialist. May 1945 meant the end of the Third Reich, but the collapse certainly did not spell the end for Leers as master propagandist. After his release from an American prison camp in September of that year, Leers eventually went into hiding in Switzerland, Austria and Italy. Even while in Zurich and Rome, Leers pursued a publication agenda under the pseudonym Hans Oehler for Nation‐Europa, published in Colberg, and Der Weg, based in Buenos‐Aires for the German community.
The rise of the Peron regime in Argentina preceded Leers’ next move. In 1952, Leers came to Buenos Aires where he took up another round of anti‐Semitic writings for the journal while expanding attacks on West Germany, the allied occupation government and Israel. Four years later, Leers accepted a position in Cairo with the Nasser government as adviser in the Office of Information attached to the Ministry of National Guidance. His major charge from the Egyptian government was to organize a vigorous propaganda campaign against Israel. CIA intelligence reports confirmed that Leers remained directly linked to the leadership of the Arab League and the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem with whom he enjoyed a long friendship.
Converting to the Moslem faith and taking on the Moslem name of Omar Amin von Leers, he also joined the faculty at Cairo University as Professor of German. Not forgetting his SS roots, Leers became an operative for ODESSA in the Middle East and assisted former SS doctor Hans Eisele from Buchenwald to flee Germany and settle in Egypt. Leers remained a committed Nazi ideologue and dedicated anti‐Semite to the end. Until his death in 1965, the aged propagandist remained convinced about the righteousness of the murderous anti‐Semitic policies pursued by Hitler’s Reich under the banner of the war against the Jews. Buried as a Moslem in Cairo, Leers saw in the Middle East the next great battleground over the fate of world Jewry. The battle continues with much bloodshed to this very day.
Anti‐Semitism in Postwar Germany
Part of the legacy of Johann von Leers in the field of anti‐Semitic propaganda is evidenced in a deceptively simple finding. The power of myth was stronger than reasoned argument regardless of the audience. His stories for children related this conclusion in the clearest of terms. There is no doubt that his writing helped to legitimize an ideological justification for what became the mass murder of the Jews. What remains unclear are the effects of Nazi anti‐Semitic propaganda on the lives of those students who matured in postwar Germany.
Surveys conducted by the Office of Military Government‐United States (OMGUS) in 1946 and 1948 offer some useful revelations. Results of these surveys concluded that about two of every ten Germans in the American zone of occupation were ‘clearly anti‐Semitic’. The OMGUS report noted that Germans between the ages of fifteen and nineteen exhibited more anti‐Semitic attitudes than any other age group. These young German citizens were among those pupils to whom Leers had appealed with his propaganda message. Anna and Richard Merritt, in pointing to the results of an OMGUS survey administered in 1947, concluded that ‘it is not difficult to demonstrate the persistence in postwar Germany of perspectives closely related to National Socialist ideology’. Comparing the results of two studies completed on anti‐Semitism in 1946 and 1948, the authors noted that overt anti‐Semitism had decreased slightly. More importantly, over the same period, racist attitudes which formed an essential basis for anti‐Semitism rose from 22% to 26%.
Recent scholarship by Jeffrey Herf noted that anti‐Semitism and the legacy of the Holocaust remained important aspects of what he called, ‘the division of memory along the fault lines of the Cold War’. East and West Germany legitimized their own conflicting political interpretations about what should be officially forgotten or remembered about the fate of the Jews under the boot of the Nazi dictatorship. The anti‐Semitic stem of the Third Reich did not disappear, although for reasons closely related to the context of Cold War tensions.
The East German government exploited anti‐Semitism as a means to consolidate its power during the late 1940s through the mid‐1950s. Moreover, the memory of the Holocaust remained marginalized under the Walter Ulbricht dictatorship. Memorials to the Holocaust, like the one established in 1954 at Ettersburg near Buchenwald, downplayed the murder of the Jews while memorializing the anti‐fascist resistance fighters associated with the Red Underground. By contrast, the Adenauer government in West Germany assumed a policy of silence on the legacy of the Holocaust. Casting an extended and sharp focus on the crimes of the Nazi past beyond the Nuremberg Trials as well as a prolonged denazification, so Adenauer feared, might threaten West Germany’s chances in establishing a liberal democracy. The Realpolitiker sensed that consolidating political support for this purpose hinged on sparing postwar Germans ‘excessive reflection on the Nazi past’.
The Allied occupiers in the West, like the Soviet rulers in East Germany and postwar German leaders, remained targets of Leers’ aggressive postwar propaganda tracts published in Buenos Aires during the 1950s. Not surprisingly, Leers saved some of his most vicious attacks for the Allied initiation of the Nuremberg Trials from 1946-1949 which he viewed as a gross insult to German honor. Through much of this postwar period, Leers saved a special animus for the State of Israel while resurrecting his old anti‐Semitic rhetoric from the 1930s.
Leers lived long enough to work his vigorous anti‐Semitic propaganda against Jews not only in Europe, but also in South America, the United States, and Israel. We are not speaking about a man highly placed in the Nazi pantheon. Evidently, Leers was not important enough to be included in the dossiers of Simon Wiesenthal, the Nazi hunter, for postwar investigation or prosecution. Neither did American occupation authorities bother to go beyond the initial denazification process in removing him from the faculty at Jena. Other Nazi professors—notably Alfred Bäumler (1887-1968) from the Union of German Academics and a long‐time critic of Leers’ anthropologist friend Hermann Wirth—gained much more prosecutorial attention from the Allies.
Even with these developments, it would be easy to forget something very essential coming out of this study: Leers symbolized the kind of fierce ideological loyalist and propagandist upon whom the Nazi regime depended. Moreover, as recently declassified CIA files suggest, the long and bloody history of Arab‐Israeli relations in the Middle East invariably connects with the dynamic campaign of anti‐Semitic hate language conducted by Johann von Leers during the late 1950s and early 1960s from Cairo with the blessing of the Arab League. This curious and vital chapter on the contemporary history of conflict in the Middle East remains unwritten.
The journey of Leers under the shadow of Hitler briefly sketched in these lines invites a useful comparison to another much more well‐known Nazi figure. Like the young architect Albert Speer (1905-1981), Johann von Leers gained a certain entrée into Nazi circles with the encouragement of Joseph Goebbels. These three university‐educated figures shared a similar task—that of legitimizing and glorifying Nazi ideas through propaganda. For Leers, the printed word provided the major medium for his work of enlisting the passionate loyalties of fellow Germans in an anti‐Semitic crusade. Through architecture, Speer stage‐managed a glorification of the Third Reich on a huge scale through public buildings and party rallies.
As profoundly different these two men were in character, temperament and political power, they shared both a boundless ambition and the universal tendency of propagandists to mythologize the regime for which they labored with intense dedication. In the end, as former Reichsminister, Speer denied any personal knowledge about the deadly outcome associated with the vigorous administration of anti‐Semitic policy. Leers assumed the opposite position. For him, the brutal oppression of Jews remained the ideological centerpiece for the Third Reich and a celebrated symbol of what he stood for in advancing anti‐Semitic rhetoric as editor, publicist, educator, and professor.
Speer subsequently mounted the docket at Nuremberg and faced conviction for crimes against humanity committed as Minister of Armaments. Like so many of the young idealists originally pressed into service by the Nazi propaganda machine, Leers never stood before a tribunal for the violent anti‐Semitic propaganda he perpetrated through the power of the word. Nevertheless, both the architect and publicist bore important responsibilities for legitimizing the public face of Nazism.