The Nazi Invention of Anti-Imperialist Antizionism

With the completion of the genocide against European Jewry in sight, they worried that antisemitism might no longer own the same mobilizing force once Europeans, and Germans in particular, were no longer confronted with real-life Jews, and this even though the fight was far from over. This was when they focused their propaganda on Zionism, the face of "Jewish Imperialism", and on Chaim Weizmann, "the single most dangerous troublemaker in the world."

In their attempt to assert that nothing could be more authentically Jewish and less antisemitic than their antizionism, leftist antizionists in particular like to point to the fact that prior to the Second World War, Zionism was a minority position among the world’s Jews and more or less violently opposed by various Jewish factions. This is, of course, a fundamentally ahistorical and anachronistic argument, since at least three factors have changed radically in the meantime. Firstly and most importantly, the Shoah raised the question of Jewish survival and security with a previously unimaginable urgency. Secondly, the State of Israel now exists. As the head of the Soviet delegation at the United Nations, Andrei Gromyko, told the UN Security Council—“with beautiful vibrato,” as Jean Améry later wrote—on 21 May 1948:

As regards the Jewish State, its existence is already a fact; whether or not anyone likes that State, it is actually there; … The USSR delegation cannot but express surprise at the position adopted by the Arab States in the Palestine question, and particularly at the fact those States—or some of them, at least—have resorted to such action as sending their troops into Palestine and carrying out military operations aimed at the suppression of the national liberation movement in Palestine. … We cannot identify the vital interests of the peoples of the Arab East with the statements of certain Arab leaders or with those actions of the Governments of certain Arab States which we are witnessing at present.


Thirdly, antizionism has taken a radical anti-imperialist turn since the 1940s. Not least against the backdrop of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, this shift is once again being attributed primarily to Stalin and interpreted as a waymark in the long history of supposedly perennial Russian antisemitism, reflected not least in Putin’s bizarre portrayal of Ukraine’s Jewish president as a Nazi. Yet, as Gromyko’s statement indicates, this version of events simply does not add up. When it comes to the new form of antisemitism that developed from the 1940s onwards in the guise of anti-imperialist antizionism, the Nazis beat Stalin to the punch and arguably helped create the circumstances, both in Eastern Europe and in the Middle East, that eventually led Stalin too to adopt it as a useful tool.

Hard leftists may find this a stark claim, given how many of them have taken to conspiracy theories suggesting that Nazis and Zionists were best buddies. In fact, while, in the first instance, the Nazis had an obvious preference for Jews who wanted to remove themselves from Germany and Europe more widely over Jews who were determined to stay, the Nazis were always antizionists. It is well known that in 1942, they already had a skeleton Einsatzgruppe on standby, whom they intended to send to the Yishuv as soon as German troops arrived there. Given the active collaboration of the Arab leaders in Palestine with the regime in Berlin (documented in detail, inter alia, by Klaus-Michael Mallmann and Martin Cüppers), the Nazis took it for granted that the Einsatzgruppe would only need to supervise the annihilation of the Yishuv’s Jews, as Germany’s local Arab partners would surely be keen to carry out the slaughter themselves. But for the Allied victory at El Alamein, the Yishuv too would have been completely wiped out.

Even so, Nazi attitudes towards Zionism did undergo a radical transformation toward the end of the Second World War. Put bluntly, in 1944, Zionism was recategorized: rather than being portrayed merely as a symptom of the Jewish world conspiracy, it was henceforth presented as its embodiment per se. The reason for this dramatic shift in emphasis was as simple as it is striking. The Nazis, of all people, were unable to foresee the viability and potency both of antisemitism without Jews and of secondary antisemitism (i.e., defensive antisemitism “because of Auschwitz”). With the completion of the genocide against European Jewry in sight, they worried that antisemitism might no longer own the same mobilizing force once Europeans, and Germans in particular, were no longer confronted with real-life Jews, and this even though the fight was far from over. The following story has been told before. It featured in Max Weinreich’s Hitler’s Professors (1946), and Léon Poliakov and Joseph Wulf published some of the relevant documents in 1955. More recently, Michael Berkowitz has presented it in The Crime of My Very Existence (2007). Yet, if the widely circulated accounts of the Stalinist origins of anti-imperialist antizionism are anything to go by, it remains largely unknown to a wider readership. I hope that this article will help rectify this state of affairs, not least by adding to earlier accounts some further context and evidence of the immediate impact of this reorientation on the press of the Greater German Reich.

As early as the autumn of 1943, Klaus Schickert, a prominent academic antisemite, lamented in the leading Hitler Youth periodical, Wille und Macht, that “hundreds of thousands of young Germans reach military age no longer knowing what a Jew is—this sounds like some distant legend. Is the Jew more than a museum exhibit one can glance at inquisitively and with some measure of abashment, a fossilized wondrous beast with a yellow star on its chest that bears testimony to the past but no longer exists in the present? … How could this pitiful creature possibly be dangerous?” Not least in light of “our innate inclination to treat other peoples and races like ourselves and prioritize right before might, to opt for compassion and let feelings sway us in the face of life’s stern eternal laws,” the younger generation was at risk of letting down its guard, Schickert lamented.

Schickert was clearly not alone with his concerns. Wolf Meyer-Christian, a loyal Nazi since 1926, was equally alarmed. The erstwhile director of Goebbels’s German Press Academy, he had published a 200-page monograph, Die englisch-jüdische Allianz (The Anglo–Jewish Alliance), in 1941 that was actively promoted by the Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda and caused quite a stir. In March 1944, he finalized a proposal for “The Treatment of the Jewish Question in the German Press.” It had four parts: the main proposal (eleven pages), an appendix with detailed notes on how Zionism should henceforth be treated (seven pages), a four-page chronology of Zionist history, and a detailed glossary (fifteen pages). He submitted the completed proposal to Walther Koerber, a senior civil servant in the Propaganda Ministry’s press department responsible for the so-called Schnelldienst (rapid service) tasked with the prompt assessment of press reports coming in from abroad with a view to possible coverage in the German press. On 13 June 1944, Koerber, in turn, passed the proposal on to the deputy head of the press department, SS Obersturmbannführer Helmut Sündermann, who was well known for his “sledgehammer approach” to most issues.

In his cover letter, Koerber noted that two relevant experts in the field, Karl-August Stuckenberg and Franz Gengler, expressly supported Meyer-Christian’s proposal. Stuckenberg, who had served as chair of the Committee for the Creation of a World League Against Colonial Bolshevism—one of the ministry’s front organizations—was an expert on “colonial bolshevism.” In 1941, he was responsible for all matters Jewish in the colonial section of the ministry’s propaganda department. (Ludwig) Franz Gengler was a veteran party propagandist who had been talent-spotted by Julius Streicher, the editor of the infamous Der Stürmer who was later sentenced to death at Nuremberg. Gengler was already nationally renowned (or reviled, depending on one’s point of view) for his outrageous antisemitic provocations in the 1920s, long before the Nazis came to power. His most original contribution to antisemitic agitation was the use of the blood libel to explain the phenomenon of “race defilement,” i.e., the sexual “desecration” of non-Jewish women by Jewish men, by relating sexual lust to bloodlust. He seems to have been responsible for the publications of the Institute for the Study of the Jewish Question, another front organization of the Propaganda Ministry. Gengler was also associated with the department of Himmler’s security apparatus devoted specifically to ideologically relevant research (RSHA VII)—a department which also maintained a working group on the Jewish Question. It is unclear in which of these capacities Gengler was consulted on Meyer-Christian’s proposal; perhaps in all of them.

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

Like Schickert, Meyer-Christian pointed out that “Young twenty-year-old officers, when asked, explain that they have never consciously seen a Jew.” To them, “typically Jewish” meant about as much as “typically Chinese.” It was little wonder that “the old methods” of antisemitic propaganda enjoyed little resonance, now that “its target” had been eliminated. Yet, it was wrong to assume that the Jewish Question had been resolved. In actual fact, it had only become more acute and urgent since 1933. The point of origin of this dramatic escalation was easy to pinpoint: it was the creation of the Jewish Agency in 1929. It had, “for the first time in the history of the Jewish people, united Jewry in its entirety, and this under the flag of Zionism.” In so doing, it pitted the world’s remaining “ten to twelve million Jews,” backed by enormous financial, intellectual, and political resources, against Germany. Note that Meyer-Christian’s calculation of the world’s Jewish population already excluded the six million European Jews whose annihilation he simply took for granted.

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

On Meyer-Christian’s account, Zionism was in fact pursuing a two-track agenda that envisaged both a Jewish state and the global imposition of Jewish domination. He identified Chaim Weizmann as the principal author of the Zionist movement’s alleged turn to “imperialist Jewish world politics.” Indeed, for Meyer-Christian, Weizmann was the “single most dangerous troublemaker in the world.” The Jewish state that the Zionists demanded was “solely designed to create a base for global Jewish imperialism from which to bolster Jewish power throughout the rest of the world.” Consequently, it was in the interest of all “sound” nations to prevent this, and German propaganda was duty-bound to prompt them accordingly.

The general insight apart that papers in Greater Germany almost invariably printed what they were told to print, there is some clear evidence for the adoption and impact of Meyer-Christian’s initiative. I suspect that it was preceded by some internal wrangling over the issue. The main front-page article in the regime’s principal daily, the Völkischer Beobachter, of 6 March 1944 still reads as though it has been written by a committee (metaphorically speaking). It offered no fewer than five different explanations for developments concerning Palestine: firstly, “the Jews” and the Soviet Union were in cahoots and trying to bring the Middle East under their control; secondly, Britain and the United States were engaged in what antisemites today would describe as “pity-washing”—supporting Zionism to give the impression that they cared about Jews when, in fact, all they were interested in was, thirdly, “power and, thus, oil”; fourthly, Britain “refuses to recognize that it has in fact become their [i.e., the Jews’] servant”; and, finally, there is a section specifically about the machinations of the Jewish Agency that is remarkably similar to the position developed by Meyer-Christian in rather more detail in his proposal. Like the proposal, it singles out Weizmann and his synthetic Zionism as the principal foe, aligns Ben-Gurion with Moscow and, rather strikingly, also mentions the figure of “ten to twelve million Jews” pitted against Germany by Zionism. In this widely circulated newspaper article too, then, five to seven million Jews who had previously featured in the Nazis’ statistics simply no longer existed, providing additional evidence of the well-established fact that, while the regime certainly did not want the genocide perpetrated against European Jewry to be spoken about in public, it was anything but a secret. Yet, while some of the salient information underpinning Meyer-Christian’s proposal was referenced in this final section of the article, there was as yet no suggestion that Zionism qua Zionism should henceforth be considered the principal foe. Indeed, on 13 May 1944, one month before Koerber submitted Meyer-Christian’s proposal to Sündermann, the front-page headline of the Völkischer Beobachter read: “Moscow to be the Official Centre of World Jewry: The Jewish State of Palestine as the Corner Stone of Soviet Control in the Mediterranean.”

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

Although they were likely not aware of it, the Nazis had a deeper reason for needing to disavow any notion that Zionism was a truly “national” movement. Modern political antisemitism draws its strength in large part from the fact that “the Jews” are widely seen as not one other national group but as a force subverting the national principle. Other nations may be enemies, but they are enemies within a functioning world order built on the coexistence of nation states. By subverting this world order, “the Jews” pose an infinitely greater threat than any competing nation ever could. If one acknowledged that Jews were capable of organizing themselves as a nation and running a nation state, that threat would be radically diminished. Arguably, this helps explain the remarkably widespread enthusiasm for Israel among West German conservatives after the war. They hardly shed their antisemitism; but the notion that Jews could be a nation at least rendered them much less threatening, and the need to combat them much less urgent.

Alas, the following generation had no sensorium for such nuances. The young revolutionaries of the late 1960s interpreted the often helpless and hollow attempts of their parents’ generation to overcome what they considered the godlessness of Nazism by reverting to an order based on a conservative interpretation of Christian values as simply a continuation of Nazism itself. Consequently, they assumed that they were engaged in mortal combat with Nazism when in fact they were, in large part, merely rebelling against their parents’ post-Nazi conservatism. To many young leftists, support for Israel seemed part and parcel of that conservatism. Having mistaken that conservatism for Nazism, it followed that support for Israel was as reprehensible, and needed to be combatted with the same vehemence and urgency, as any other aspect of Nazism. Paradoxically, the desire to oppose the ostensible Nazism of the previous generation thus led most New Leftists to align themselves with the radical antizionism of the actual Nazis that many of their parents had, to varying degrees, overcome.

It bears emphasizing that, while Meyer-Christian and his colleagues were working hard to secure the future of Nazi antisemitism by placing anti-imperialist antizionism center stage, in the Soviet Union, the Jewish Antifascist Committee, whose delegates had just returned from a spectacular seven-month tour of the United States, Mexico, Canada, and the United Kingdom, was intensifying its activities, supporting survivors and documenting the atrocities against Jews perpetrated by the Germans and their allies in the Soviet Union. Ilya Ehrenburg was able to publish two volumes on the Shoah, in Yiddish, in April and September 1944 respectively. In July 1944, as Meyer-Christian’s initiative began to bear fruit in Germany and Austria, the Red Army liberated Majdanek. The publication of the more comprehensive Black Book documenting Jewish suffering in the Soviet Union was not thwarted until the end of 1946. In November 1947, the Soviet Union voted for the partition of Mandate Palestine, and we have already seen what Gromyko had to say about the Israeli declaration of independence. Czechoslovakia, already firmly under Soviet control, was Israel’s most important supplier of weapons and munitions during the War of Independence.

The enormous enthusiasm that greeted Golda Meyerson (later Meir) when she arrived in Moscow as Israel’s first ambassador to the Soviet Union in September 1948, and (perhaps more importantly) awareness of the strong and serious desire expressed by numerous Soviet Jews to help defend Israel in the War of Independence, doubtless nurtured Stalin’s fantasies about a possible lack of loyalty among Soviet Jews. Yet, the ensuing antisemitic campaign, which affected not only the Soviet Union but all of the Central and Eastern European countries under Soviet control, was ultimately motivated by a much more fundamental agenda. It was designed primarily to appease the indigenous populations in the countries in question, where all too many believed passionately in the Judaeo-Bolshevik canard—a canard that had led significant numbers of Eastern Europeans to welcome the German occupiers who, in turn, had done their level best to propagate and nurture it yet further. The equally histrionic and horrific antisemitic campaign was conceived by the Soviets primarily as a means of demonstrating beyond all reasonable doubt that there could be no suggestion whatsoever of the Soviets acting in cahoots with, or on the behest of, “the Jews” (something of which nobody would ever have suspected the Nazis, of course). Like Meyer-Christian and his colleagues some four years earlier, the Soviet authorities now opted for the weaponization of antizionism because it promised to be an effective means of bringing “sound” nations on side: first in Central and Eastern Europe, then in the Middle East, where numerous former Nazi propagandists seamlessly resumed their previous careers.

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