Jeffrey Herf. Undeclared Wars with Israel: East Germany and the West German Far Left, 1967-1989. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. Illustrations. 493 pp. $29.99 (paper), ISBN 978-1-107-46162-8; $99.99 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-107-08986-0.
Reviewed by David Schoenbaum (University of Iowa)
Published on H-Diplo (July, 2016)
Commissioned by Seth Offenbach
One of Thomas Mann’s finest creations, Dr. Serenus Zeitblom, remembers things past. History, in this case World War II, is meanwhile happening in real time right outside his window. Sooner or later, as Jeffrey Herf’s new book reminds us, virtually every historian with a concurrent interest in twentieth-century Germany and life after Adolf Hitler experiences a Zeitblom moment, recalling the past while history is occurring right outside. But relatively few have acted on it with Herf’s single-mindedness. Herf himself acknowledges the shadow of Zeitblom in the very first sentences of his preface.
Among the fallout products of World War II were two German states, each a protégé of the victorious superpowers. Both made it their mission to “master the past,” as the prevailing euphemism had it. But it was clear from the moment of conception that they were reading from very different playbooks with a very different sense of what needed to be mastered.
With an eye to foreign and especially American expectations, West Germany regarded Jews as the canary in its postwar mine shaft. Concern for Jews enjoyed near constitutional status, and included the State of Israel as well as individuals. An extensive schedule of reparations, both individual and collective, was among the early items on the Federal Republic’s to-do list, negotiated at the summit by West Germany’s first chancellor and Israel’s first prime minister. In the backwash from the Suez conflict a few years later, there were even covert arms transfers.
With an eye to Soviet expectations, East Germany went the other way. In fact, a diaspora of thoroughly assimilated Jewish functionaries and intellectuals returned to fill senior positions in government, the media, and academia. Their offspring grew up as socialist princes and princesses, presumptive heirs to the socialist kingdom. But there was nothing specifically Jewish about their or their government’s interests or concerns. Occasional exceptions, like the novelists Stefan Heym and Jurek Becker, addressed Jewish themes. There was even a flicker of interest in 1987, when an improbable flirtation with Washington led to the appointment of an American rabbi and Shoah survivor to serve as rabbi to East Berlin’s tiny congregation. But in principle, the mantle of anti-fascism was one size fits all, and there was no affirmative action for Jews after a honeymoon interval in 1947-48.
Eager to get Britain out of the Middle East and connect with an influential subculture of Jewish sympathizers, the Soviet Union supported a two-state partition of Palestine. It initiated transfer of captured German arms to the Haganah via Czechoslovakia. It raced the United States for the honor of being first to recognize Israel. But it ended abruptly as Joseph Stalin rediscovered his inner pogromchik, and the romance was gone by the mid-1950s. As the post-Ottoman order crumbled and European trustees were replaced by indigenous nationalists and military dictators, Moscow declared the new regimes “progressive” and East Berlin joined the chorus, supporting the postcolonial Arab states against the postcolonial Israel.
A decade after the Suez Crisis, East Germany, like its Soviet patron, declared Israel the aggressor in the Six-Day War. It then proclaimed Israeli occupation of the Sinai, West Bank, and Golan imperialist. In the follow-on wars with Egypt and Syria, East Germany stood with the Arabs in general and Palestinians in particular. But so did a cohort of young West Germans, determined to expiate the sins and failings of their parents by assassinating bankers and public officials at home and hijacking airplanes abroad in the name of anti-imperialist anti-fascism.
This is where Herf comes in. In 1976, a couple of self-proclaimed revolutionaries from Frankfurt took over a French airliner en route from Tel Aviv to Paris and diverted it to Entebbe, a major town in central Uganda. Herf, in West Germany to research his dissertation, could hardly help but notice as they separated the Jewish passengers, held them hostage at the point of a machine gun, and threatened to blow them up if Palestinian prisoners in other countries were not released. In the event, it was they who lost their lives when an Israeli strike force arrived to rescue the hostages. While much of the world celebrated the Israeli intervention, official East Germany proclaimed the hijackers heroes and martyrs.
“Why were West German radicals doing that?” Herf asked himself quite reasonably. “Why were East German Communists, who had fought the Nazis and celebrated their anti-fascist traditions, giving aid to Israel’s enemies and embracing Yasser Arafat on the front pages of their government-controlled press?” he pondered (p. ix). It was 2011 before he set out full time to find the answers. But the intervening years were a credible down payment. As though preparing for the task ahead, Herf became uncommonly knowledgeable about German experiences in the Middle East both during and after the Nazi years. He gave serious attention to a divided Germany’s divided perception of German history.
Add a bit of windfall luck of a kind historians ordinarily only dream about. In 1989, East Germany disappeared, leaving its archives behind and mostly intact. As his latest book confirms, Herf made the most of his opportunity. Like the Starship Enterprise, his book goes where no researcher, at least no Anglophone researcher, has gone before, or will likely need to go again.
Full disclosure and qualified spoiler alert, the story line tends to longeur. But the fault is not entirely Herf’s. East Germany offered good theater. Its bookstores offered the Marxist classics at an attractive price. Though postcolonial Iraqis were unhappy about it, there was the Ishtar Gate in the Pergamon Museum. But few were likely to think of East Berlin as Fun City.
The critical mass of communism and bureaucracy only added to the specific gravity of a message scarcely varied over at least a quarter of a century. Party officials, diplomats, and editorial writers inevitably repeated themselves. Inevitably, West Germany’s small Jewish community, and a succession of Israeli UN ambassadors, whose job must surely have been among the most thankless known to the profession, repeated themselves too.
Motives, context, and a cat’s cradle of trade-offs behind East German policy are implied and acknowledged. But they tend to lose out in the battle for space. A little more attention to West Germany’s sea change from coal to oil, its course correction from non-recognition of East Germany to tentative embrace, and the impact of both on the other Germany would spare the reader some obvious ellipses. A little more attention to East Germany’s need for West German subsidies, international legitimacy, and plausible deniability of whom and what they were supporting would be helpful too. The special relationship with Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) alone shows why plausible deniability was desirable but not always easy to attain.
East Germans had no problem with Palestinian operations in Palestine. But with such precedents in mind as the 1972 assault on Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics, they had many problems with Palestinian operations in Europe. Arafat agreed to be “moderate,” which meant, freely translated, that the PLO would concentrate on the former and avoid the latter. East Berlin reciprocated by making the PLO its most favored Palestinians. The PLO agreed to keep tabs on the Arab competition. In principle, it was win-win. But practice fell short of perfect. In 1977, East Berlin’s Stasi, responsible for state secrecy, contracted for 2.5 million dollars to train Libyans. But the Libyans had not agreed to East German rules. In 1986, Libyan Embassy personnel bombed a West Berlin disco frequented by Americans. Sources confirm that the Stasi was aware that this was coming. Herf is neutral on whether its failure to intervene was due to intent or incompetence.
But despite deficiencies of motive and context, none of this diminishes his achievement. Voluminously documented, his new study is the most comprehensive inventory yet of how much of what—treaties, speeches, editorials, state visits, General Assembly votes, military and technical training, academic exchanges, and even enumerated bullets—East Germany did to make Arab friends and influence Arab people. From the late 1960s to the memorable autumn of 1989, a parade of Arab leaders, military and technical delegations, scientists, and aspiring revolutionaries visited East Germany for acclaim, legitimacy, all possible instruments of both hard and soft power, and even access to the West via East Berlin. Meanwhile East Germany offered a home away from home to fugitive West German lefties.
Large and small, the takeaway messages are billboard clear. Plane hijackers make good copy. But the real story is the volume, variety, and sheer per capita effort a self-proclaimed citadel of post-Nazi anti-fascism invested in making life hard for survivors of Hitler while denying any anti-Semitism.The ironies don’t end there. On a visit to Damascus in 1898, Emperor William II proclaimed himself Protector of the Muslims. In that sense, East Germany was his successor too. There was more. Returning to Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, in 1988, terminally frustrated by eight months in East Berlin, East Germany’s American rabbi could at least console himself with a new wife, Eva Gruenstein, daughter of a former inspector general of East Germany’s People’s Police and one of East Berlin’s Jewish princesses.
Twenty-eight years later, a latter-day Herf can hardly help but notice that significant numbers of former East Germans are conspicuously supportive of an organization called Patriotic Europeans Opposed to the Islamization of Europe (PEGIDA) and conspicuously hostile to Middle Eastern refugees. Give or take another few decades, there might yet be a book in that too.
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David Schoenbaum. Review of Herf, Jeffrey, Undeclared Wars with Israel: East Germany and the West German Far Left, 1967-1989.
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