Angelika Timm. Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies. Volume 18, Issue 3.
The approach of the East German political elite to Zionism had its ideological background in the communist approach to the “Jewish question,” antisemitism, and nationalism, while the most important criterion in shaping attitudes towards Israel was the incorporation of the GDR Middle East policy into the foreign policy of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact. Like other communist parties, the ruling Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED) characterized Zionism as bourgeois nationalism and chauvinism. In addition, the East German political elite followed its own political interests. It would be a simplification to identify anti-Zionism with antisemitism, but one cannot ignore that anti-Zionism promoted antisemitic stereotypes and prejudices and kept old antisemitic views alive; antisemites could veil their anti-Jewish attitudes behind an anti-Zionist cover. Some Jewish and non-Jewish communists, leaders of Jewish communities, and representatives of the churches did not accept the official propaganda and policy, but their voices were not heard in public.
On 12 April 1990 the first freely elected parliamentarians in the history of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) declared unanimously, “We ask the Jews all over the world for their forgiveness. We ask the people in Israel to forgive the hypocrisy and hostility shown in official GDR policy towards the state of Israel, and to forgive the persecution and degradation of Jewish compatriots in our country also after 1945.” This statement was warmly welcomed by Jewish organizations all over the world and by Israeli politicians. It was also understood by many East Germans as an obvious break with former official positions.
Communist Attitudes toward the Jewish Question, Zionism, and the State of Israel
The attitude of the ruling East European Communist parties—including the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED)—towards antisemitism, 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 antisemitism and the persecution of Jews as an economic and political problem of feudal and capitalist societies that would be resolved, more or less automatically, in the socialist society. The path to social liberation was open to all the oppressed; therefore, the participation of citizens of Jewish faith in the creation of a socialist society was regarded as quite normal. It was expected that the assimilation process which had started after the French revolution in Europe and which was stopped by the Holocaust would continue. Ignoring Jewish history and tradition, Jews were characterized only as a religious group. This elimination of many cultural aspects of Judaism implied condemnation of racist Nazi ideology as well as the rejection of Zionist aspirations.
Zionism was not accepted as a reaction to antisemitic persecution or as an attempt to stop the assimilation process, to fight symptoms of decline in Jewish community life, and to realize national self-determination in Palestine. While ignoring the relevance of Jewish history and tradition for Jewish life in Europe, the communists characterized Zionism as bourgeois nationalism and chauvinism, as an attempt to distract the working masses from class struggle and to split the worker’s movement. Zionism and Marxism, struggling for the soul of European Jewry at the end of the nineteenth and during the first decades of the twentieth century, remained opponents even after European Jewry was annihilated during the Holocaust. In the East European countries, Zionism became, after World War II, a code word for imperialism and racism: The multifaceted political scene in the Zionist movement was overlooked.
Besides ideology, after the war some political, strategic-military, and economic issues played an important role. The Middle East became of critical importance in the context of Moscow’s East-West competition or global role. Hoping that the termination of the British Mandate would strengthen Soviet influence in the region, Stalin supported the partition of Palestine and the creation of the State of Israel, permitted the emigration of some 200,000 Jews from Eastern Europe, and provided Israel—via Czechoslovakia-with weapons during the War of Independence in 1948/49. A number of developments within the Soviet Union and its allies as well as developments in the Middle East, especially Israel’ s integration into the western world, influenced the policy of the Warsaw pact toward the Jewish state during the following decades. During the Cold War, the Soviets allied with the Arab states in the Middle East conflict and supplied them, beginning in the mid-1950s, with modern weapons.
Soviet Middle East interests dominated the policy of all East European countries towards Israel. At the same time, the importance of domestic issues cannot be ignored. The Jewish factor—more accurately, the receptivity of the Jewish population to Zionist ideas as well as international political pressure on communist regimes to allow Jewish emigration to Israel—influenced the official attitude toward Zionist activities and led to a negative approach to Israel.
In the official propaganda another aspect became important: The ruling communists tried to convince their people that it was necessary to fight the “imperialist enemy” all over the world. During the Cold War, attacks against the imperialist powers were emotionally backed up by solidarity with the struggle of the Arab peoples as well as with the Palestine Liberation Movement.
The Specific East German Situation
As far as East Germany is concerned, some further factors should be mentioned. One of these factors was the relationship between the two German states. In its efforts to break through the West German Hallstein doctrines and to be recognized as an independent and sovereign state, the GDR searched for and found desired support in some Arab countries. With the establishment of diplomatic relations with Iraq, Sudan, Syria, South Yemen, and Egypt in 1969, a first step was made toward worldwide recognition of the GDR. In 1989 the East German state maintained full diplomatic relations with 13 Arab countries and the PLO.
The second factor was the historical background of the GDR. The GDR denied any East German responsibility for the Holocaust. This refusal originated above all in the self-understanding of the GDR as an antifascist state that—as its leaders declared-“had broken up once and for all with all hostile and inhumane traditions of chauvinism, racial and national hatred and anti-Semitism.” Moreover, the political elite was afraid of Israel’s claiming reparations as well as compensation for former Jewish property on the territory of the East German state. Compensation to be paid by the East German government to individuals living in Western countries or to the Israeli government was rejected on the grounds that it would strengthen “imperialism” and, moreover, could only be done at the expense of reparations to Moscow. Heavy attacks against the Luxembourg agreement on reparations, signed by West Germany and Israel in 1952, were officially based on anti-Zionism as well as on the exposure of the imperialist cooperation between the Federal Republic of Germany and the Jewish state.
Furthermore, one should not underestimate economic considerations favoring the extension of relations to Arab states that were rich in oil and interested in importing industrial goods. It could be expected that an improvement in relations with Israel would endanger contacts with the Arab states and lead to strong economic pressure on their part. The permanent economic weakness of East Germany led thus to a kind of pragmatism in its foreign policy that was only imperfectly veiled in ideology.
Therefore, the pro-Arab and anti-Israeli foreign policy of the GDR has to be seen, first of all, in the context of the Middle East policy of the Warsaw pact. At the same time, East German politicians looked after their own interests by expanding diplomatic relations with Arab countries. They made efforts to gain international recognition as well as economic profits. For ideological and pragmatic political reasons, the German shadow over Israel was permanently ignored. The anti-Israeli and anti-Zionist propaganda even promoted antisemitic stereotypes and prejudices and kept old antisemitic views alive.
The Approach of the GDR Political Elite toward Zionism and Israel during Four Decades
Although internal and external factors did not basically change over the four decades of the GDR’s existence, the actual policy did undergo some modifications; it was not monolithic. Several phases can be distinguished.
The first stage was very short. It was characterized by pro-Israeli positions in 1947/48 and during the following War of Independence. Most important was, of course, the support of the Soviet Union for the partition of Palestine and the establishment of the State of Israel. Moreover, strong feelings of guilt towards Jews because of the Shoah articulated by many anti-fascists—communists and non-communists—played an important role at that time in East Germany. 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 on 24 February 1948 in the SED daily Neues Deutschland, “The Jewish population has the sympathy and active assistance of all progressive forces. Especially 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 the 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 the January of 1950, the newly established East German Foreign Ministry launched an initiative requesting the establishment of an Israeli diplomatic outpost in Berlin, offering compensations to individuals and proposing direct commercial relations between the GDR and Israel.
The second stage began in the autumn of 1952 when the antisemitic Slansky show trial in Prague was held. The campaign was primarily aimed at people who had found refuge during World War II in Great Britain, the United States, Mexico, or other western countries. Among them were many Jewish officials in the SED and in the Association of Victims of Nazi Persecution (VVN) as well as Jewish community leaders. Jewish intellectuals were suspected of still having contacts with Jewish organizations abroad and betraying their country. Communist leaders like Walter Ulbricht used Stalin’s advice to get rid of some opposition forces—communists and non-communists alike. In addition, compensation claims of Israel and Jewish organizations against both German states promoted the readiness of GDR politicians to follow the political line of Stalin.
In 1952, East German politicians linked the compensation issue, for the first time, with their attitude toward Zionism and Israel. It was not by chance that the first article in the SED newspaper Neues Deutschland responding to the Luxembourg Agreement on reparations was published only three days after parts of the indictment in the Slansky trial were printed. The article under the headline “Reparations—For Whom?” spoke of “a deal between West German and Israeli big capitalists.” The SED monthly Einheit published in the February of 1953 a paper approved by the SED Central Committee and titled “The lessons from the trial against the conspiracy center of Slansky.” It was said, among other things, 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, it serves exclusively its interests and the interests of the Jewish capitalists.”
The ruling Socialist Unity Party of Germany purged its ranks of “Trotzkyist, Titoist and Zionist elements,” as they were officially termed. Paul Merker, until 1950 a member of the SED Politburo, was charged with being the head of a Zionist spy ring and with “defending the interests of Zionist monopoly capitalists,” having arranged “the financing of the emigration of Jewish capitalists to Israel.” He was imprisoned from 1952 to 1956. Like him, the Jewish communist Paul Baender, state secretary in the Ministry of Commerce and Trade, was arrested on suspicion of espionage and imprisoned. Baender had been the only Jew among fifty-two cabinet ministers and state secretaries of the GDR in 1952. Show trials like the ones in Budapest and Prague did not take place in East Berlin; attempts to stage such trials ceased primarily as a result of Stalin’s death.
After the death of the Soviet dictator in March of 1953, relations between the East European countries and Israel normalized to some extent. When the foreign ministers of the allied powers met in early 1954 in Berlin to discuss the future of Germany, Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurion put his finger again on the reparations issue. In a diplomatic correspondence of 15 July 1955 addressed to the Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister, Israel once again demanded “that the German people, who were responsible for all this misery and who continue in possession of the economic assets taken from the Jews, dead and alive, should be required to make reparation for the benefit of the survivors.” The German Federal Republic agreed on the tenth of September 1952 to pay to the Government of Israel two thirds of the estimated financial cost involved in the rehabilitation in Israel of victims of the Nazi regime. The remaining third remains a debt of the German Democratic Republic.” A similar letter was sent to the GDR Embassy in Moscow on 3 August 1955. The East German reply of 28 December 1955 contained the following, “The government of the German Democratic Republic has done everything in its power to destroy German fascism in its roots and create conditions that preclude the possibility of another threat to the security and existence of other peoples—including the Jewish people—arising in Germany. The victims of fascism living within 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 repeated by GDR diplomats and politicians in subsequent decades. It also became a catch phrase used by East German journalists and scholars. The simplistic “antifascist” legitimization of the SED regime and its dependence on the Soviet Union superseded any other approach. The last official contact between representatives of the two states was held in the summer of 1956.
For decades, the relationship between the GDR and Israel was characterized by a policy of confrontation. While the Federal Republic of Germany improved its relations with Israel (starting from the Luxembourg Agreement in 1952 and progressing to the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1965), the East German state tried to extend, first of all, its relations to the Arab world. The GDR sided with the Arab countries in the Middle East conflict and condemned Israel as an “aggressor state.” The Foreign Ministry advised its diplomats in January 1963 not to put at 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.” The GDR foreign policy did not achieve a real break-through in the Arab world until Walter Ulbricht visited Egypt in February/March 1965.
Israel, Zionism, and the “Jewish question” were treated and distributed as stereotypes. Strong anti-Israeli propaganda was published alleging that Israel was an outpost of international monopoly capitalism and had close relations with the United States and the Federal Republic of Germany. Although the Soviet Union and other East European countries maintained diplomatic relations with Israel until the Six-Day War in June 1967, the GDR was never interested in establishing formal relations with the Jewish state. During the first decade the main obstacle was the rejection of Israeli reparations claims, but the involvement of the Middle East conflict in the superpowers’ rivalry steadily gained significance. The GDR political elite was eager to gain the recognition of the Arab states, which they considered the enemies of Israel. Protests of Arab governments against the Luxembourg Agreement strengthened the East German position.
Some contacts were held in the early 1960s, when Karl Friedrich Kaul, a German-Jewish lawyer, was sent to Jerusalem to attend the Eichmann trial and to present documents on West German politicians who were accused of being former Nazis. One of the exposed officials was State Secretary Hans-Maria Globke, a former official for Jewish Affairs in the Nazi Ministry of the Interior. Kaul met Israeli Minister of Justice Pinchas Rosen and General Staff Prosecutor Gideon Hausner; several official letters were exchanged. The SED used the Eichmann trial to prove a line of continuity from the “Hitlers” and “Eichmanns” to the political elite in West Germany and to demand a similar trial against Globke and other “men behind Eichmann.” At that time, attacks against the Israeli government and Zionism were less important. Israeli diplomats who occasionally met East German counterparts in Prague, Warsaw, and other East European capitals realized some moderate tendencies. They reported on diplomatic letters and information material sent by GDR embassies to Israeli representations. Interested, first of all, in closer relations with West Germany, the Israeli ambassadors in Poland and Czechoslovakia in 1961 even considered “a flirt with Pankow” possible in order to put some pressure on the Bonn government, which was not ready at that time to establish diplomatic relations with Israel, fearing that some Arab countries would respond by recognizing the GDR.
In connection with the visit of head of state Ulbricht in Cairo in 1965 and the prospect of official Arab recognition, GDR politicians strengthened their pro-Arab and anti-Israeli positions. The East German government condemned “the imperialist aggression of Israel” in 1967 and named “the United States and West Germany accomplices to the aggressor.” During the following years resolutions of SED party congresses or conferences, official statements of political representatives, and communiques signed by officials of the East German state stressed the “GDR’s firm solidarity with the Arab states in the anti-imperialist struggle, especially in repelling 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.”
In the mid- 1970s, a strong anti-Zionist campaign was held in all the East European countries. More important than considerations in foreign affairs were domestic issues. The campaign was “made in the Soviet Union” because of an explosion of Jewish applications for emigration to Israel. The Communist Party of the Soviet Union strongly urged its East German colleagues to fight Zionism already in 1971. The State Secretariat for religious affairs in East Berlin, for instance, following this recommendation, prepared a paper dealing with Zionist ideology and policy and discussed it with the leaders of the East German Jewish community. While in the late 1950s and the 1960s Zionism was not explicitly attacked, many articles were published now denouncing Zionism as a chauvinist and nationalist ideology.
In 1975, the GDR did not hesitate to condemn Zionism as a form of racism at the United Nations plenary meeting. The East German representatives strongly supported the UN resolution on the elimination of all forms of racial discrimination, approved on 10 November 1975. This resolution implicitly identified Zionism with racism and racist persecution. As well, the GDR press published many articles on this issue condemning “aggressive and chauvinist Zionism” as “a racist doctrine.” Most of the East German authors emphasized that Israel’s right to exist as a state was not questioned, yet many observers believed that East Germany was taking a line of even greater virulence than the Soviets.
Another campaign was launched in the early 1980s. During the Lebanon War of 1982, Israel was attacked and its military actions were compared with the practice of the Nazi German army in the GDR press as well as in official statements? At the same time, relations with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) improved. Since the 1970s, the GDR had cooperated with the PLO on a military level; already the first official agreement between the SED and the PLO, signed in 1973 in Berlin, included the supply of non-civilian goods to the Palestinians. Training bases for the PLO in the GDR were opened. The general principle of the “joint straggle against imperialism, colonialism, neocolonialism, and Zionism” formed the ideological background.
Only the last five years of the very existence of the GDR saw some changes in its foreign policy. The new line of Gorbachev gave more latitude to the Soviet allies, but, at the same time, fostered clear recognition of facts. Therefore, for the first time GDR leaders tried to modify their Middle East policy and began to think about normal relations with the Arabs as well as with Israel. But what seemed to carry even more weight than Soviet foreign policy was the hope that the World Jewish Congress would be helpful in initiating an invitation for SED Secretary General Erich Honecker to the United States and achieving some trade benefits. In this context the negative attitudes toward Zionism and Israel had to be changed.
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 fiftieth anniversary of the Nazi “Kristallnacht” in 1988 were undoubtedly a turning point in the official East German approach to Israel. For the first time representatives of the Israeli state were invited, such as Dr Yitzhak Arad, director of Yad Vashem, Dr Yosef Burg, former Minister of Interior and Religious Affairs, and other public figures. In late January 1989 the GDR’s State Secretary for Religious Affairs, Kurt Loffler, left for an official visit to Israel, leading a delegation which included two diplomats of the East German Foreign Ministry. The first ever talks at a governmental level were held when LOftier met the Israeli Minister of Religious Affairs, Zevulun Hammer, in Jerusalem? However, there was never a return visit because both sides insisted on certain pre-conditions. The GDR politicians were very much interested in intensifying contacts but still made it conditional on Israel’s attitude towards settling the Middle East conflict. On the other hand, Israel considered the East German position on accepting its responsibility for the past and on moral and material compensation as being insufficient. In contrast to Hungary and Poland, where the relations to Israel gradually began to normalize, and unlike the Soviet Union, where negotiations at a consular level were under way, the GDR did not manage to have further official talks with Israel before the upheavals in the autumn of 1989.
One reason for this failure was its attempt to sustain and even to improve friendly relations with the PLO at the same time. Arafat visited the GDR in 1988 three times. On 15 November 1988 the GDR recognized the proclaimed State of Palestine, and in January 1989 the Embassy of the PLO was renamed “Embassy of the State of Palestine in the GDR.” It was obvious that the Middle East policy of the GDR had not changed in spite of the contacts with the World Jewish Congress and first meetings with Israeli politicians. The attempt in 1988 and 1989 to improve relations with Israel was, therefore, first of all an attempt to propitiate the United States, since the GDR leaders believed that a direct line of influence existed between leaders of American Jewish organizations, who had criticized the continuous East German anti-Israeli and antiZionist propaganda, and the American government. Still, their pragmatic policy failed.
Only in late January 1990—after the changes in the GDR and the opening of the wall—did negotiations towards establishing diplomatic relations with Israel begin. During the second round of negotiations in Copenhagen, in March 1990, the GDR declared its readiness to modify its position on Zionism and announce a revision of its previous position towards Israel. On 9 March 1990, a letter from the GDR’s Prime Minister was handed over to Israeli Prime Minister Shamir, saying, “The GDR recognizes that all German people are responsible for what happened in the past. This responsibility results from the deep guilt of 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 repression, having gone through immense suffering, and reinforces its 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 the SED was striving for Jewish support for political and economic reasons. But beyond these considerations it cannot be denied that the upheaval in East Germany in the fall of 1989 also meant a break with former SED policy. The anticipated establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel and the end of anti-Zionist propaganda were understood by the public as an important signal and an expression of political changes. On 12 April 1990, the GDR parliament, the Volkskammer, accepted German historic responsibility for the Holocaust in a statement that went even further than the declaration of West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer 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 for the 1975 UN resolution in which Zionism was equated with racism?
Positions of the East German Jewish Community
The Jewish population in the GDR was very small. No more than about three percent of the prewar Jewish population in East Germany lived there after the Holocaust. In 1949, only 3,750 Jews were registered in the eight Jewish communities of the GDR and in East Berlin. In 1955, their numbers were only half that: 1,715. In 1976, no more than 728 members of synagogues were registered. When the GDR ceased to exist in 1990, the Association of Jewish Communities in the GDR had only 372 registered members.
During the first years of the so called “antifascist democratic transformation,” friendly relations existed between members of the Jewish communities and leading non-Jewish communists and social democrats. Because of the memory of the hard years in prison or exile, mutual assistance and friendship were promised. Many Jewish survivors—communists, social democrats, and liberals—took an active part in political life during the early postwar years. The Jewish communities celebrated Israeli Independence Day and Yom ha-Azma’ut, and raised the Israeli flag.
This period came to an end when Stalin’s antisemitic policies began to have a highly negative influence on the GDR and when SED leaders began to use them to eliminate their opponents. As mentioned above, the Slansky trial in 1952 in Prague and the “doctors’ accusations” in 1953 in Moscow had crucial consequences for the GDR. Prominent Jewish victims of this campaign included the editor in chief of Neues Deutschland, the editor in chief of the radio station Deutschlandsender, the Deputy Inspector General of the People’s Police, and high-ranking officials in several ministries of the GDR, especially in the Foreign Ministry. Julius Meyer, president of the Association of Jewish communities in the GDR, escaped possible arrest by leaving the country. With him fled six out of seven heads of the provincial Jewish communities and the former head of President Wilhelm Pieck’s chancellery, Leo Zuckermann. After his arrival in West Berlin, Meyer declared in an interview, “All Jews are in acute jeopardy, if not today, then tomorrow.”
It was estimated that approximately 600 Jews moved during the first three months of 1953 from East Germany and East Berlin to West Berlin, or about 30 percent of the total number of Jews who were residents in the GDR as of the first of January 1953. When the antisemitic propaganda came to an end in August 1953, approximately 1,900 Jews were left in the GDR (including East Berlin).
During the following years, the GDR leadership did everything to prove that its policy was not antisemitic, but based on “proletarian internationalism.” For that reason, the SED Politburo attempted to use Jews for political purposes. For example, the case of the declaration by Jewish personages regarding the Six-Day War, published by Neues Deutschland on 11 June 1967, should be mentioned. Not only did the declaration condemn the “aggression of Israel” and even characterize the War of Independence of 1948/49 an Israeli aggression, but it also included the following sentence, “Already the very birth of Israel was 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 resolution prepared by Albert Norden, a member of the SED Politburo. Several other documents available at East German archives also show that many Jews living in the GDR did not agree with the party line, especially in regard to the official East German Middle East policy?
Although in early June 1967, Aris did not publicly announce his position, Professor Jean Edward Smith of the Political Science Department, University of Toronto, who interviewed him a few months later, observed that he “refrained from giving the government even token support on its Middle East policy.” It might be interesting that Albert Norden, son of a rabbi, did not sign the declaration mentioned above. He did not consider himself Jewish and was not interested in having his Jewish background be made public.
In 1975, strong opposition was announced by some leaders of the Jewish communities regarding the GDR’s support for the UN resolution condemning Zionism as a form of racism and racial discrimination. After a serious discussion with leaders of the Jewish community, officials of the State Secretariat for religious affairs reported to the Central Committee of the SED, “The Jewish communities are not able to give serious thought to the 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.” Peter Kirchner, head of the East Berlin Jewish community, tried to explain in a paper of 15 pages the character of Zionism and mentioned not only its historical background but also the existing wings in the Zionist movement. He pointed to the dangerous consequences of comparing Zionism with Nazism and spoke about uprising antisemitic feelings among the East Germans. He was not arrested for his brave attempt to convince the officials in the State Secretariat and the Party hierarchy, but nobody was ready to hear his voice.
Besides representatives of Jewish communities, there were also many members of the churches who did not accept the official GDR attitude toward Zionism. In a resolution adopted by the Conference of Protestant bishops on 27 November 1975, they underlined the German responsibility for the Holocaust and called upon the GDR government to retract its vote for the UN resolution. The bishops’ resolution was not published in the East German media but was announced in all Protestant churches. This development caused some excitement among the ruling politicians, but after they had signed the Helsinki accords it was not easy to silence these voices.
Fearing to be called antisemites, GDR officials in the public mostly distinguished between the Israeli government on one side and the people in Israel on the other. But this was not true for the Israeli army. Following the Lebanon War of 1982, articles equating Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and the Nazi Wehrmacht strengthened anti-Jewish stereotypes. These tendencies were not accepted by the Jewish community in the GDR. Its journal Nachrichtenblatt for the first time openly criticized the East German media in 1982.
There was a growing discrepancy between official anti-Zionist positions and public interest in Jewish history and Israel. In the 1980s, more and more East Germans interested in the past and, especially, in Jewish history raised their voice. An exhibition named “And teach them not to forget!” in 1988 had thousands of visitors every day. Workshops organized by the Society for Christian-Jewish cooperation of the Protestant Church and the festival of Yiddish culture in Berlin were very popular, especially among the younger generation. For many people, a participation in these events was an expression of non-conformist thinking and behavior. Children of Jewish re-emigrants joined the Jewish communities in search of their roots and, often, in opposition to the political system in East Germany. In 1987 a new Jewish group, named “We for Ourselves” (Wir far uns) was established by approximately 150 East Berliners who were not members of the religious community but who wanted to learn more about Jewish culture, history, and religion.
Representatives of the Jewish communities in both German states, and also of Jewish organizations in America, never stopped calling attention to the necessity of settling questions of guilt and reparation claims and coming to a change in the relations between the GDR and Israel. It was Heinz Galinski, president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany (a West German council), who asked again and again about a change in the relations between the GDR and Israel. After his meeting with Honecker in June 1988, he declared, “The issue of Israel was a crucial point in our discussion. I appealed to the [SED] chairman also with regard to the media that reporting should be more balanced.” Siegmund Rotstein, chair of the Association of Jewish communities in the GDR, also raised the problem of anti-Zionist propaganda in a meeting with Honecker some days before.
Unfortunately, it was not internal opposition which forced changes in the official anti-Zionist and anti-Israeli propaganda, but pragmatic considerations in the sphere of foreign policy that led the East German government to take some new steps at the end of the 1980s. It was not until the revolutionary events at the end of 1989 which changed the whole political landscape in the GDR that serious attempts to come to terms with the past and especially with antisemitism and anti-Zionism became possible.
The approach of the East German political elite to Zionism had its ideological background in the communist approach to the “Jewish question,” antisemitism, and nationalism, while the most important criterion in shaping attitudes towards Israel was the incorporation of the GDR Middle East policy into the foreign policy of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact. The East German government had only limited scope for independent decision-making. During the Cold War it more or less identified with the attitude of the Soviet leadership towards international affairs and, thus, with its position on Zionism and the Middle East conflict. It was not until the late 1980s that the GDR attained some political latitude and, hence, was able to modify its foreign policy for its own ends, largely on behalf of economic aims.
Another criterion was the connection between ideology and Realpolitik in GDR foreign policy, which led to a specific approach to the Middle East problems. Like other communist parties, the ruling Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED) characterized Zionism as bourgeois nationalism and chauvinism. At the same time, the communists considered the Arab national movement part of the “third revolutionary current.” With the desired “non-capitalist development” or “socialist orientation” of several Arab countries, the Warsaw Pact countries hoped for territorial and powerful expansion of so-called “real socialism.” As a result of this attitude, they sided with the Arab countries in the Middle East conflict without differentiating between the acting political forces in the region.
In addition, the East German political elite followed its own political interests. The government of the GDR refused to negotiate Israeli claims for compensation, saying that the reparations were defined by the four Allies to compensate for damages caused by Nazi Germany, and that the East German government derived its responsibility from the Potsdam Agreement. The refusal to take any responsibility for the Holocaust above all originated in the self-understanding of the GDR as an antifascist state that had eliminated fascism and antisemitism at their roots. The East Germans as citizens of the antifascist state who had learned the lessons of the Nazi past, more or less, absolved themselves of any guilt for the Holocaust. Many of them believed that the Nazi chapter of German history was closed once and for all.
Furthermore, the relationship between the two German states should be considered. In its efforts to be recognized as an independent and sovereign state, the GDR government used the temporary contradictions that arose between some Arab countries and the Federal Republic of Germany over its relations with Israel. The SED heavily attacked the West German-Israeli cooperation following the Luxembourg Agreement of 1952 and the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1965.
Following the Soviet political line, the GDR sided with the Arabs in the Middle East conflict. At the same time, East German politicians were interested in using Arab support for their political aims. An improvement in relations with Israel—this was the calculation—would endanger the contacts with the Arab states and could lead to strong economic pressure on their part. One cannot ignore the fact that the permanent economic weakness of East Germany and its efforts to be internationally recognized led to a kind of pragmatism in its foreign policy that was only imperfectly veiled in ideology. This development seriously influenced the official East German attitude toward Zionism, Israel, and the Middle East conflict.
Last but not least, the domestic policy of the SED should be taken into account. The GDR, as was true for other East European countries, tried to convince its own people that it was necessary to fight the “imperialist enemy” all over the world in order to prove its own legitimacy. At the same time, solidarity was declared with “anti-imperialist liberation movements,” e.g. the struggle of the Vietnamese people or the Palestine Liberation Movement. For ideological and pragmatic political reasons, the German shadow over Israel was permanently ignored. The anti-Israeli and anti-Zionist propaganda promoted antisemitic stereotypes and prejudices and kept old antisemitic views alive.
Nevertheless, it would be a simplification to identify anti-Zionism with antisemitism. One could call it ideological narrow-mindedness, ignorance of historical German responsibility, or, above all, pragmatic foreign policy. This does not mean that there did not exist any antisemites in the GDR. They did exist, and the anti-Zionist policy and propaganda lent support to their views. Antisemites could veil their anti-Jewish attitudes behind an anti-Zionist cover; anti-Zionism promoted new anti-Jewish feelings. Jewish and non-Jewish communists, leaders of Jewish communities and representatives of the churches who did not accept the official propaganda and policy could not gain enough strength to influence the governmental policy. It was the contradiction between the antifascist and socialist claims on one hand and the political reality on the other hand that—in addition to other, not least, economic reasons—paralyzed development in the GDR and caused the collapse of the East German state.