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Jeffrey Herf: Undeclared Wars with Israel – East Germany and the West German Far Left 1967-1989 (Book Review)

Jeffrey Herf: Undeclared Wars with Israel
East Germany and the
West German Far Left 1967-1989
Cambridge University Press, New York 2016
ISBN 978-1-107-46162-8

Jeffrey Herf is a history professor at the University of Maryland and has published extensively on Nazi Germany, the Holocaust, and political Islam. Undeclared Wars with Israel 1967-1989 is his latest book. At the core of this book is the ideological, economic and military support for Arab dictatorships and the Palestinian nationalist movement by the government of the German Democratic Republic in the period between the 1967 Six-Day War and the end of the East German state in 1989/1990. Herf uses extensive research of the Stasi (GDR secret service) archives, the official party press, documents from the United Nations, including the extensive reports by Israeli ambassadors regarding the territorial intrusions and massacres perpetrated by the PLO and its associated member groups in those years.

This (partially new) research is embedded in a history of the relationship of the Soviet Bloc with the state of Israel and the development of the struggle of Arab/Palestinian nationalists against Israel, whether through open warfare, shelling of Israeli cities across the border with rockets, guerrilla actions inside Israel – often consisting in massacres of civilians – or hijackings and murder in the international arena, or through diplomatic means on a bilateral level and often at the UN.

Herf is broadening this research to cover the role of the West German far left in the context of these conflicts. The post-1967 radical left is portrayed here as radically anti-Zionist, if not anti-Semitic. Prominent examples after that time are people and organisations like Dieter Kunzelmann and the Tupamaros Westberlin, Ulrike Meinhof and the RAF, the Revolutionary Cells and their partaking in the hijacking of an Israeli plane to Entebbe, as well as examples from the so-called K-Groups. In my opinion, Herf, while accurately displaying dubious points in the history of the radical left in West Germany, fails to describe the often contradictory developments of some of these groups. For this reason I divide this review in two parts. The first is the book review proper, while the second extends the discussion of the relationship of some of the groups on the West German radical left with both anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism in a way that goes far beyond the confines of a book review and hopefully offers additional insights.


In 1947, the United Nations proposed a partition plan for the British mandate Palestine towards a two-state solution for an Arab and a Jewish state next to each other. The two-state solution was rejected by the Palestinian nationalists as well as by the Arab countries, and the state of Israel was declared unilaterally. The next day, the combined armies of the neighbouring countries attacked Israel with the intention of destroying the state and ‘driving the Jews into the sea’.

The founding of Israel was initially supported and diplomatically recognised by the Soviet Union. A speech by foreign minister Gromyko had previously affirmed the right of the Jewish people to a national homeland on the territory of the former British mandate. It was the weapons acquired from Czechoslovakia that proved instrumental for Israel to win the war.

Soon after, however, the Soviet Bloc made a u-turn and began to regard Israel as a part of the ‘imperialist bloc’. This change went along with an anti-Semitic turn in domestic affairs. This can be exemplified in the wave of show trials in the last years of Stalin’s rule, most notably the ‘doctor’s plot’ in the Soviet Union, a completely invented conspiracy claiming that a group of (mostly Jewish) doctors were plotting to assassinate Soviet leaders. Another example is the ‘Slansky trial’ in Prague, where 14 members of the leadership of the Communist Party, 11 of them Jewish, were accused of being involved in a ‘Trotskyist-Titoist-Zionist’ conspiracy. Eleven of the 14 were executed. These are just two out of many events that show the emergence of a new anti-Semitic paranoia which was given an anti-Zionist ‘gloss’ in the Eastern Bloc.

After Stalin’s death in 1953, the overt anti-Semitism merged into an anti-Zionist consensus which remained in place until the breakdown of the Eastern Bloc, and now enjoys an after-life in some sections of the international left. This phenomenon became particularly virulent with the events around and after the Six-Day War of 1967. After that event, the Eastern Bloc intensified its diplomatic relations with the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) as well as the regimes of Syria, Iraq and other countries.

These alliances have to be seen in the context of the Cold War constellation and the striving of the GDR, in particular, for international diplomatic recognition. Indeed, by positioning themselves on the side of the PLO, the GDR gained diplomatic recognition from a number of countries. This helped to break the isolation caused by West Germany’s ‘Hallstein Doctrine’, a policy designed to keep the Federal Republic of Germany from entertaining diplomatic relations with any country that recognised the GDR, which prevented many countries from doing so.

But the GDR’s alliances went deeper than mere tactical lip service. They provided not only propagandistic, but also logistical support, including weapons sales and deliveries. These, as Herf documents, reached substantial proportions, calling into question the often repeated argument by certain apologists for the GDR that at least the GDR prevented further wars from being waged from German soil. Not only were hundreds of thousands of Kalashnikow rifles and other weaponry exported, including rocket launchers and Mig fighter planes, these planes were also serviced by East German technical personnel. About 3,000 foreign military were trained in East Germany, including members of the PLO. There were also direct contacts to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), the so-called left groups within the PLO.

Recipients of this support were countries like Egypt and Syria, both countries who harboured many former Nazis, many of whom were in positions as advisors to military and government. Also supported was the Palestinian nationalist movement, whose historic leader, Hadj Amin al-Husseini, had been a German ally in the second world war. Nevertheless, in 1967, the Soviet ambassador to the UN, Nikolai Fedorenko, ‘compared Israel to Nazi Germany and called for Israel’s leaders to be put on trial as the Nazi leaders had been in Nuremberg’ (p.44), a line that was soon enough parroted by Walter Ulbricht, the East German leader.

Although it is particularly insidious – and a feat of political pseudo-psychology to boot – to equate Zionism with fascism, one has to keep in mind that, ever since they became a political power in the 1920s, Stalinists have regularly resorted to slandering others as ‘fascists’. Social democracy was slandered as ‘social fascism’ in the period of the late ‘20s to the early ‘30s, then Trotsky was slandered as a fascist agent, later students were shouting ‘USA-SA-SS!’ while carrying pictures of Ho Chi Minh at demonstrations against the Vietnam war. Only a little bit later, some Maoists charged the Soviet Union with being fascistic, or social-fascist.

The closest Stalinism came to a ‘fascism theory’ was Georgi Dimitrov’s idea that fascism was just a particularly brutal form of capitalist domination to which the bourgeoisie, in times of crisis, would resort. Fascism was thus seen merely as a tool to smash the working class organisations, and since the Stalinists saw themselves as the very embodiment of the working class organisation, in the form of the “Communist Party”, they could level the charge of fascism at anyone who was seen to be on the ‘other side’.

Unfortunately, this bad habit was also picked up by some leftists in the West. When ‘applied’ to Israel, it took on quite peculiar forms, such as Dieter Kunzelmann demanding the left should get rid of its ‘Jew-complex’, and Ulrike Meinhof’s opinion that the massacre of the Israeli athletes at the Olympic games in Munich was an anti-fascist action showing that the developed imperialism was a ‘through and through fascist system’ (i.e. even more fascist than ‘NS-fascism’) (see more below).

Certainly one factor that caused some of the New Left to turn against Israel in the summer and autumn of 1967 was the German press coverage, which described the Israeli military campaign in glowingly positive terms as a Blitzkrieg and Moshe Dayan as a latter-day ‘desert fox’. Nevertheless this doesn’t explain the historically wrong and absurd justifications prevalent in the left. It seems rather the case that Kunzelmann’s anti-Semitism, for example, was ‘unlocked’, and his organisation tried to bomb a Jewish community centre in West Berlin on the very anniversary of the day the Nazis unleashed their violent public attacks on Jews in 1938, the ‘Kristallnacht’.

Neues Deutschland in the meantime inevitably reported the wars and conflicts in the Middle East as a conflict of an imperialist Israel as the only aggressor, all the while keeping quiet about the aggressive activities of the other side. If the official language of the GDR media and politicians glossed over the terrorist activities of the GDR’s Palestinian allies, then this may have been tactical. Herf writes: ‘When speaking frankly to one another, however, Stasi officials used refreshing candor, acknowledging the nature of terrorism and their willingness to support it’.

In other publications in the GDR, the issue was handled slightly differently. For example, in Terror – Hintergründe, Täter, Opfer by Martin Robbe (Dietz 1987, the title means Terror – Backgrounds, Perpetrators, Victims) the PFLP is clearly described as a terrorist organisation, although some excuses are made. The main thrust of the booklet is still the dominant anti-Zionism. Crucially, George Habash, the leader of the PFLP, is quoted as saying (p.31): ‘The attacks of the People’s Front are based on quality, not quantity. We believe to kill a Jew away from the battlefield is more efficient than to kill 100 of them in battle; it draws more attention. And if we set fire to a department store in London, these few flames are worth more than if we burn down two Kibbuzim’. The remarkable thing is that Habash is clearly speaking about Jews (and not ‘Zionists’) and declares them to be worldwide targets. He makes no effort to conceal the clearly anti-Semitic nature of the campaigns of the PFLP, nor does the GDR-journalist Robbe see a need to camouflage it.

Nevertheless, the GDR needed to balance its support for the ‘anti-Imperialist struggle’ with retaining a certain respectability, meaning to avoid being seen as state sponsors of terrorism. Herf calls this a ‘eurocentric’ approach, which meant at once supporting the activities in the Middle East, but also not allowing its territory to be a springboard for terrorist activities in Western Europe.


Herf is using some examples of the radical left and its support for Palestinian terrorism. Here he is very selective with the information he provides and leaves out substantial context. I will illustrate this with three examples.

1. Ulrike Meinhof

In the July 1967 issue of the monthly left-wing news magazine Konkret, Ulrike Meinhof’s editorial was titled ‘Three Friends of Israel’ (Drei Freunde Israels). Only weeks after the Six-Day War, she expressed the solidarity of the left with Israel, a solidarity she described as unconditional, but something she managed to express in a critical way, pointing out ‘justified demands’ of the Arab side. She juxtaposes this solidarity with the other two friends of Israel (besides the left): US imperialism and the German right-wing press. Both of these are shown to simply instrumentalise a supposed friendship with Israel for their own particular purposes. Both are shown to be hypocritical compared to a left solidarity based on anti-fascism.

As far as I know, Meinhof did not return to this topic in her time as Konkret’s star columnist. Increasingly, Konkret’s coverage reflected the ‘anti-Zionist turn’ of the rest of the left in those years. Meinhof in the meantime was drifting away, but for different reasons. She and her husband, Konkret publisher Klaus Rainer Röhl, developed all kinds of differences, personal, political and concerning the direction of the magazine.

Meinhof radicalised her position to the point of picking up arms against the state and became one of the founders of the Red Army Faction. This is not the place to reiterate the history of this most important of the German urban guerilla groups, but to mention the text she wrote following the kidnapping and subsequent killing of 11 Israeli Olympic athletes at the Munich Olympic games in 1972. In her text The Action of Black September in Munich, on the Strategy of Anti-Imperialist Struggle (Die Aktion des Schwarzen September in München: Zur Strategie des antiimperialistischen Kampfes) she celebrates the massacre as ‘simultaneously anti-imperialist, anti-fascist and internationalist’. Herf calls this text ‘one of the most important documents in the history of anti-Semitism in Europe after the Holocaust’. In any case, there is nothing ‘anti-imperialist, anti-fascist and internationalist’ about kidnapping and murdering Israeli athletes. The whole text is a mind-boggling read, much less stringent and articulate than Das Konzept Stadtguerilla, the first programmatic text of the RAF from April 1971, and an eternity away from the nuanced Konkret column from just five years earlier. Herf however presents Meinhof’s position as static, rather than the end point of a shocking development.

He does the same when he describes the coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the paper Arbeiterkampf where the development went in the opposite direction:

2. Arbeiterkampf

Under the sub-chapter title ‘The West German Radical Left Responds to the PLO’s Terrorism’ (p. 282), Herf focuses on two communist organisations in Germany: the Kommunistische Bund Westdeutschland (KBW) and the Kommunistische Bund (KB) and its paper, Arbeiterkampf. Both organisations are commonly seen as so-called K-Groups, Marxist-Leninist groups which formed in the period of decline of the radical student movement after 1968 following an ‘anti-revisionist’ line, meaning they opposed the Soviet Union and supported Maoist China. While the KBW stayed firmly Maoist until its end in the early to mid-80s, the KB was a more independently-minded organisation and moved from a broadly Maoist outset to a more undogmatic position.1

The problem here is that the author doesn’t take into account the development of the KB organisation. Even in the context of the Munich massacre of 1972 there were differing opinions expressed in Arbeiterkampf, one of which Herf quotes, creating the impression that this was the organisation’s sole opinion. Granted, even the differing opinions were at this point firmly rooted in an anti-Zionist consensus and only differed minimally.

If we look at Arbeiterkampf’s coverage of the Yom Kippur war in 1973, it is striking how Israel is constantly portrayed as the only aggressor. The coverage is one-sided, often manipulative and frankly dishonest. Much is made of the Israel-friendly press coverage by the Springer-papers, as if that proved already that surely Israel was wrong, evil, and its enemies should be supported. Meinhof’s crucial insight into this matter from 1967 had been well and truly forgotten in the radical left by 1973, sacrificed for an uncritical anti-imperialism. This was certainly the case with most of the K-Groups.

However, an article in issue 37 (December 1973) of Arbeiterkampf titled ‘The Arab Bourgeoisie – With the People Against the People’ – mainly focusing on Egypt – is interesting in that it shows this anti-imperialism not being devoid of criticism: It describes a society between the demagoguery of ‘Arab Socialism’ of the ruling party and the ‘islamic-fascist’ Muslim Brotherhood. It also denounces not only the opportunistic foreign policies of the Egyptian government, but also its ‘fascist domestic policies’, even pointing out that under the post-1967 war economy the people were burdened with economic hardship while the war against Israel was used to deflect the class struggle.

Over the years, other cracks in the consensus started showing in Arbeiterkampf, albeit slowly. In July 1981, (ak 205) an article was published under the title ‘Hoffmann bei “den Palästinenstern”? – Anmerkungen zu Neonazis und ihren arabischen Freunden’ – “Hoffmann with the ‘Palestinians?’ Notes on Neo-Nazis and their Arab Friends”. Here the authors react to reports in the press that the Neo-Nazi paramilitaries of the ‘Wehrsportgruppe Hoffmann’ (“Hoffmann paramilitary group”) had contacts to the PLO/Al Fatah that included arms deals and training in Palestinian camps. Although the authors partially try to dismiss these reports, they made their own investigation of the ‘brown trail of relations between (west) German fascists and arab right wing extremists’, which was ‘clearly possible to follow and is beyond doubt’.

The article traces the exodus of Nazis from Germany to Egypt in 1945 and the opportunities they had there to continue their anti-Semitic agitation. ‘The central figure was the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and symbolic leader of “all Palestinians”, Hadji Amin al Hussein [sic], then based in Cairo. Before 1945, he was active as a Nazi-propagandist, first in Berlin, then in France’. The Nazis in Egypt had a field day after the coup d’etat of Gamal Abdel Nasser: ‘Under Nasser former Nazi-Wehrmacht officers, SS men and Gestapo-cadres were moving in droves into the teams of experts of the Egyptian police, army and propaganda apparatus’. The article also mentions the promotion of Hitler’s Mein Kampf as well as the denial of the holocaust in this remarkable quote from Egyptian foreign minister Hussein-Zulfiqar Sabry (1915-94) from a speech in the Egyptian parliament: ‘The Nazis never exterminated 6 million Jews, not even one million. Hitler allowed Jews to emigrate if they paid a certain sum. As far as the poorer Jews were concerned, he sent them into camps, so he could negotiate with the Zionist leaders in order to get the finance and materials he needed for the continuation of the war’ (Le Monde 5-5-1962, quoted in AK).

The ‘first activists’ of the post war Nazi scene ‘knew therefore exactly who they had to approach for their efforts at “German-Arab friendship”‘ and when former Goebbels co-worker Egon-Arthur Schmidt organised a first meeting to found a ‘German-Arab League’, representatives of the Arab League as well as the consulates of Egypt and Syria were present. Several such attempts at forming collaborative organisations followed by different sections of the German far right, both from ex-Nazis as well as from the Otto Strasser movement. Their ‘Deutsch-Arabische Gesellschaft’ (“German-Arab Society”) was, according to AK, ‘excelling at anti-Israel propaganda as well as propaganda directed against the Wiedergutmachungsleistungen (restitutions) towards Israel’. Erwin Schönborn, an organiser, publisher and holocaust-denier with a decades long history was the connection from the post war days to the later neo-Nazi movement.

In the final paragraphs, the Arbeiterkampf authors point out that the ‘assassins (Attentäter) of Black September (at the Munich olympics 1972)’ chose ‘a lawyer explicitly from the far right scene, RA (attorney) Schöttler, from Recklinghausen, (…) who otherwise is mainly known for his legal actions on behalf of Croatian terrorists associated with the Ustasha’. The article then points out that prominent Nazi terrorists found refuge in the middle east and Iran, among them Manfred Roeder and the aforementioned Hoffmann. The article ends: ‘Instead of conducting the unthankful business of fabricating out of this a renewed “proof” of the connection between “right and left terror”, it would be necessary to completely uncover this thread of international brown contacts. At least the federal German VS [Verfassungsschutz – internal secret sevice] doesn’t seem to be in a mood for this’.

Well, the German left wasn’t very much in the mood for it either. Arbeiterkampf also joined the anti-Zionist chorus again when, a year later, the 1982 Lebanon war broke out and the paper titled: ‘Final Solution of the Palestinian Question’. But by then this wasn’t the consensus anymore, it was rejected by central committee member Eva Groepler and others. Groepler published a series of articles in AK dealing with the history of anti-Semitism, but ended up leaving the KB in 1986. From 1989 onwards, though, there were some radical changes and a faction of the KB started developing a more systematic and explicit critique of anti-Zionism. When the KB finally split and dissolved itself in 1991, one faction (initially calling itself Gruppe K, and publishing the journal Bahamas, which still appears today) moved towards a position of unconditional solidarity with Israel. And even the other half, which went on to publish Arbeiterkampf after re-naming it analyse & kritik (which also still appears today) abandoned the uncritical anti-Zionism of yesteryear.

3. Revolutionary Cells: From Entebbe to ‘Gerd Albartus is Dead’

The most infamous case of German left anti-Semitism of the 1970s is probably the involvement of two members of the Revolutionary Cells in the hijacking of an Air France plane on its way from Tel Aviv to Paris. The hijacking was done by a spin-off of the PFLP, the PFLP-External Operations under orders from Wadie Haddad. The plane eventually landed in Entebbe, Uganda, where the hijackers enjoyed the protection of dictator Idi Amin, a vicious anti-Semite and admirer of Hitler.

As the story goes, the passengers were divided into two groups, Jewish and non-Jewish. The non-Jewish half was freed, the other kept as hostages. If this is true, then this was the first time since the holocaust that Germans were involved in selecting Jews for possible murder. Testimony from Jewish survivors is that they felt a mass execution was imminent.2

This did not happen. Instead, an Israeli commando flew to Uganda and managed to free most of the hostages. Three hostages, the Israeli commander – Jonathan Netanyahu (brother of the current prime minister), all the hijackers, and several dozen Ugandan soldiers were killed.

Indeed this instance has, according to their own testimony, lead several figures from the far left to distance themselves from previous activities and from former comrades.
As far as the revolutionary left was concerned, Wilfried Böse and Brigitte Kuhlmann, the members of the Revolutionary Cells who took part in the hijacking, were initially seen as victims of imperialism.

This only changed when in 1991 a Revolutionary Cell3
published a text titled ‘Gerd Albartus is Dead’, which detailed that Albartus (one of their members) had been executed in Syria by one of the Palestinian groups after a mock trial. It was suspected that the real reason was Albartus’ homosexuality.

This shock prompted the group to take stock of their previously uncritical support for Palestinian nationalism (and Third-Worldism in general), as well as look at the anti-Semitism embedded in the movement, including in the events at Entebbe. This in turn caused an extended controversy in the German radical left.4

This development is also left out by Herf, which makes it possible that the book can be used as a weapon against the left of any type. This can be shown to be the case with the positive review in the Weekly Standard, the flagship magazine of the US Neo-cons.5

To sum things up: With Undeclared Wars with Israel, Herf presents a very interesting book with substantial work on the support of the Eastern Bloc, and in particular the GDR, for the war against Israel. He’s backing this up with original and thorough research. His section about the West German radical left is not incorrect but it’s incomplete, and as such potentially misleading. The differences between different sections of the German far left and their often contradictory developments should not be underestimated, nor instrumentalised.

What needs to be examined in more detail is the almost desperate desire of some of the radical left to find another canvas to project their anti-imperialist fantasies on, after the Viet Cong slowly went out of fashion.

There was a strange overlapping of open anti-Semitism and the continuation of the Nazi project to eradicate Jews with Cold War power relations. Zionists of all denominations were vilified by the Western left despite the fact that some of the Palestinian organisations supported by the Eastern bloc were also funded by the international far right. This included the supposedly left PFLP which received money from François Genoud, the Swiss Nazi banker.6

A reasonable and principled response by pro-revolutionaries should be to scrutinize the history of the left and draw conclusions from it, namely in order to avoid making the same mistakes and in order to purge the poisonous and counter-revolutionary legacy of Stalinism from its ranks.
Or to quote the title of the booklet documenting the discussions and controversies concerning ‘Gerd Albartus is Dead’ from 1992: Critique only makes us stronger.

End Notes

1‘Kommunistischer Bund’ should be translated as ‘Communist League’. Herf instead gives it two names and two different sets of numbers of members and circulation of the paper within the space of two pages (p.283-284). Once he calls it ‘Communist Organization’ and once ‘Communist Association’. Membership is given as 1,700 strong once and as 800-1,500 a page later, circulation of Arbeiterkampf as 24,000 and 17,000 respectively. This is an example of shoddy copy editing on the side of author and publishing house (and not the only one).

2A recent book titled Legenden um Entebbe, edited by Markus Mohr (Unrast Verlag, Münster, 2016) tries to show that the ‘selection narrative’ is ‘nonsense’. While Mohr and his co-authors amassed an impressive amount of material and provide an interesting read, they fail in the stated aim. Even if there were no strict separation between Jewish and non-Jewish passengers (but ‘only’ one based on whether they held Israeli passports), there was clearly a specific selection. The use of the term is justified, even if a handful of Jewish passengers were freed, for whatever reasons. After all, the selections in the extermination camp were not separating Jews from non-Jews, but those Jews who were about to be murdered immediately from those that were still of some ‘use’ in the work camp.
While it is worthwhile to scrutinise these ‘narratives’, one should remember that history does not merely consist of narratives.

3The organisation was more of a network than a homogeneous structure

4Kritik macht uns nur stärker – Texte zur rz-Diskussion, Berlin 1992.

The Weekly Standard is unable/unwilling to make a distinction between different strains of leftism. For them, everything that starts with a C is the same. Obviously this is not just unscientific, but straight up stupid. Unfortunately, Herf doesn’t safeguard his research against such instrumentalisation. Or is this Herf’s intention? This would be somehow strange since he shared a stage among others with Stephan Grigat, Gerhard Scheit, Matthias Küntzel, Thomas von der Osten-Sacken, who are Marxist publicists as recently as January 2017.

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