East Meets West

Undeclared Wars with Israel: East Germany and the West German Far Left 1967–1989

by Jeffrey Herf 

Cambridge University Press, 506 pp., $29.99

In the quarter of a century following the Six-Day War, the East German government and the West German far left demonized Israel time and again, often vilely equating it with the worst thing in their own nation’s history: Nazism. Worse than that, they contributed not only rhetorically but materially to the Arab countries’ and the Palestinian terrorists’ war against the Jewish state. 

They didn’t do this by themselves, of course, nor did they do it together. East Germany was part of the Soviet bloc, which took its cues on Israel as well as everything else from Moscow; members of the West German far left were closer to their radical counterparts elsewhere in the West and in the Third World than their communist fellow Germans in the East. What they had in common, as Jeffrey Herf demonstrates in his deeply researched new book Undeclared Wars with Israel: East Germany and the West German Far Left 1967–1989, was the perverse and perversely influential depiction of Israel as the true heir to their own people’s genocidal history.

The drab communists who led the German Democratic Republic (GDR) immediately after World War II weren’t anti-Zionist. Indeed, early in 1948 the Central Committee of the East German Communist Party declared: “We consider the foundation of a Jewish state an essential contribution enabling thousands of people who suffered greatly under Hitler’s fascism to build a new life.” But this was merely a reaffirmation of what was, very briefly, the official Soviet line, and when the USSR turned against Israel so did East Germany. By the time that the East German leader Walter Ulbricht visited Cairo in 1965, he could claim that “the issue of Israel was utterly separate from ‘the suffering and injustice inflicted by the criminal Hitler regime on the Jewish citizens of Germany and other European states.’” Israel was, according to him, nothing more than a base of Western imperialism. 

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About the Author

Allan Arkush is professor of Judaic studies and history at Binghamton University and the senior contributing editor of the Jewish Review of Books.


gwhepner on July 6, 2017 at 7:30 pm

The Germans, not the Greeks, have got a word for it
Vergangenheitsbewältigung, which means
the past should not be something that you choose to spit
out or at, but something that has liens
upon the future that you must accommodate,
while making sure that it is understood,
including complicated parts you must relate
although you can’t relate to them. The good
is oft interred with bones, they say Mark Anthony declared,
but we decide that what’s really rotten
like dirty laundry should be regularly aired
and never be, like what is good, forgotten.
And yet we have to come to terms with what has passed,
not feel eternally condemned by deeds
committed in the past, though we are aghast
at ancient crimes as well as ancient creeds.
Those crimes and creeds can’t be rewritten but they can,
by being understood, enable us
to realize that every action that we plan
is one that our descendants will discuss.

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