Defining the "International Left"

"No western Left was as philo-Semitic and pro-Zionist prior to 1967. Probably none subsequently identified so strongly with the Palestinian cause," wrote historian Moishe Postone of the German New Left.

In reflecting on the ways in which the Six-Day War impacted on the international Left's view of Israel, it is essential to define terms. In 1967, the phrase "international Left" referred to four phenomena: the Soviet Union, its Warsaw Pact allies and the Communist parties around the world who looked to Moscow for leadership; Maoist China and the Maoist groups it inspired; leftist governments and movements in what was then called "the third world'; and the global "New Left," most prominently in Western Europe, Japan and the US.

By the mid-1950s, the first three broad currents of the international Left had made their hostility to Israel perfectly clear. The Soviet Union and its allies had begun to arm the Arab states in the 1950s. Mao's China opened an office of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) in Beijing in 1965. The "non-aligned" nations at the UN had placed Israel on the wrong side of the global divide between imperialism and anti-imperialism well before the war. For these three currents, constituting the majority of the people and organisations of the international Left, the war did not transform their views of Israel. Rather it provided the occasion to vigorously voice long held views and policies.

It was only in the New Left in Europe and the US that the war witnessed a break from past leftist empathy and support for Israel to an era of antagonism that has persisted to the present. The reactions of the East German Communist regime and that of the West German New Left to the Six-Day War clearly illustrate this global development.

The Continuity of Anti-Israel Policy in East Germany

In June 1967 the East German government, known as the German Democratic Republic (hereafter East Germany), made clear that it was a passionate supporter of the Arab states and a bitter foe of the State of Israel. In so doing, along with its Warsaw Pact allies, East Germany continued a policy that begun in 1949. In the course of the "anti-cosmopolitan purges" in the Soviet bloc of 1949 to 1956, the East German leadership denounced Israel as a branch of Western, and especially American, imperialism. Those Communists who thought close relations with Israel were the logical result of Communist anti-fascism were purged and denounced as tool of an international Zionist and American conspiracy. The purges redefined the meaning of anti-fascism in the Soviet bloc. As evident in Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko's support for the UN Partition Plan in 1947, Soviet anti-fascism during World War II and in the immediate post-war years led to a brief period of Soviet Zionism and support for a Jewish state in Palestine. During the Slansky Trial in Prague and then in the purges in East Berlin in winter 1952-1953, Stalin and Stalinists placed the language of anti-fascism and anti-imperialism in the service of attacks on Zionism and Israel. The break from wartime solidarity with the Jews of Europe to post-war antagonism to Zionism and Israel was an accomplished fact as demonstrated by the executions in Prague of Slansky and 10 others and the arrests of pro-Israeli Communists in East Berlin in late 1952.

Beginning in the mid-1950s, the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies became the primary military supplier of the Arab states at war with Israel. According to reports by the Central Intelligence Agency, East Germany, with a population of only 17 million people and very small arms industry, delivered only 3 per cent of Soviet-bloc military supplies to the Middle East from the 1950s and 1970s. Yet the fact that a German government so soon after the Holocaust sent a single bullet to states and organisations at war with Israel was a remarkable and too often overlooked development. That such assistance to those attacking the Jewish state took place under the banner of anti-fascism was a bitter irony. Moreover, the East German government never had diplomatic relations with Israel. It denounced West German restitution payments to survivors of the Holocaust as a cynical effort to assist in the restoration of West German capitalism. In accord with the policy of long-standing antagonism to Israel and partisanship for the Arab states, East Germany sent weapons to Egypt, led by Gamal Abdul Nasser, and to the Baathist-ruled Syria, led by Hafez al-Assad from 1970. By the beginning of April 1967 East Germany had sent 20 MiG-17F fighter jets to Egypt. In July, it sent 30 more. In June 1967 alone, East German deliveries to Egypt included: 35 Soviet T-34/85 tanks; 5,000 Kalashnikov 7.62 millimetre machine guns with 600,000 bullets; 6,000 MPi 41 Kalashnikov machine guns; 3,500 Kalashnikov machine guns, as well as an additional 11 million 7.62 millimetre bullets and five million 7.9 millimetre cartridges.

PLO leader Yasser Arafat shakes hands with East German leader Erich Honecker in Berlin, March 1982.

The continuity and passion of East German anti-Zionism and antagonism to Israel was fully evident in a speech delivered by Walter Ulbricht, the General Secretary of the Socialist Unity Party (the East German Communist Party) and leader of the regime, in Leipzig on 15 June 1967. Ulbricht denounced Israel and supported the Arab states. He claimed that Israel had faced no military threats before the war – this despite the encroachment of Arab armies to Israel's borders, Nasser's decision to close the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping, and the verbal threats by Arab capitals in the weeks preceding the war to drive the Jews into the sea. Rather, Ulbricht insisted that the war was a result of the "global strategy of US imperialism" and its willing tool Israel – again, this despite the fact that Israel fought the war primarily with weapons from France. It was during the war that the Soviet Union first engaged in what the late Israeli historian Robert Wistrich called "Holocaust inversion," that is, making the accusation that Israel behaved like Nazi Germany. At the UN in New York, Soviet Ambassador Yakov Malik had compared Israel's surprise attack that began the Six-Day War to the Nazis's war on the Eastern Front in World War II.

Ulbricht offered his own comparison of Israel to Nazi Germany. With allusions to the Nazi Protectorate in Czechoslovakia and to the General Government of occupied Poland, he said that the "world could not accept that a quarter of a century after the Second World War, the aggressor Israel and its men behind the scenes (Hintermänner) form a Sinai Protectorate or a General Government of Jordan for the purpose of renewed colonial oppression of the Arab peoples." In the subsequent decades, the association of Israel with Nazi Germany remained an enduring element of Communist, Arab, Palestinian and West German and West European leftist anti-Israeli propaganda. Yet the Communist propaganda of the Cold War from the 1960s to 1989 went beyond accusing Israel of being part of the imperialist system. For the Soviet Union and its allies, including East Germany, attacking Israel both verbally and assisting those who were attacking it militarily became essential aspects of the new meaning of anti-fascism.

Playing the anti-Israeli card opened the door to diplomatic recognition in the Middle East for East Germany.

The-Six Day War did not transform East Germany's view of Israel. However, the intensification of the Communist regime's diplomatic, propaganda and military support for the Arab states during the war laid the groundwork for one of the greatest foreign policy successes of its 40 year history. It facilitated the transformation of East Germany from an isolated, despised dictatorship into a regime with popularity and support among a growing number of states inspired by leftist nationalism, resulting in the decisions of Iraq, Syria, Egypt and Sudan to establish diplomatic relations with it. Before then, countries outside the Soviet bloc had refrained from doing so in the face of the West Germany's "Hallstein Doctrine," which threatened to break diplomatic and economic relations should they do so.

In all of the communiques that accompanied the establishment of diplomatic relations, the East Germans agreed with their new Arab state partners that Israel was a racist, imperialist and aggressive state. Marxist-Leninist ideology and the conventional pursuit of national interest became mutually reinforcing factors. Playing the anti-Israeli card opened the door to diplomatic recognition in the Middle East. It also placed West Germany on the defensive in the Arab states, all of whom broke off diplomatic relations when the Federal Republic established diplomatic relations with Israel in 1965.

The West German Left After the Six-Day War

In contrast to the continuity of anti-Israeli policies in East Germany, change was the predominant feature of the reaction to the Six-Day War in the West German New Left. Until the late 1960s, empathy and support for Israel was a defining component of leftist politics in West Germany. The Socialist German Student Association (SDS) favoured West German diplomatic relations with Israel and restitution payments to individuals Jews and to the State of Israel. In 1957 Deutsch-Israeli Studiengruppe (DIS), the first "German-Israeli Study Group," was established at the Free University in Berlin, and in 1962, DIS initiated a campaign to support the establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel. West German liberals and leftists were vocal in their criticisms of the Egyptian government's decision to employ about 500 West German missile engineers and scientists, many of whom had worked on the V2 missile programs for the Nazi regime, to build missiles to be aimed at Israel.

Until the late 1960s, support for Israel was a defining component of leftist politics in West Germany.

When Konrad Adenauer's successor, Ludwig Erhard, established diplomatic relations with Israel in 1965, he did so with strong support across the full political spectrum of the Federal Republic. Up to the Six-Day War, the fundamental stance of the pro-Israeli, West German non-communist Left remained intact. Sympathy for Israel seemed like the self-evident and logical response to the crimes of the Nazi regime and to opposing residues of anti-Semitism in post-war Germany and Europe.

Between June and September 1967, SDS and thus the West German New Left upended the meaning of anti-fascism, replaced empathy with hostility to Israel and became a partisan of the Arab states but even more so of the Palestinian armed organisations waging war against Israel. In so doing, it echoed a similar transformation taking place in the global New Left.

Yet the pace and intensity of the transformation had a great deal to do with local politics. A conjuncture of two simultaneous but causally unrelated episodes of international and local politics in June 1967 – war in the Middle East and the shooting death of a student protester by police in West Berlin – precipitated and accelerated the shift of sentiment towards Israel. On 2 June a demonstration against the Shah of Iran's visit to West Berlin turned into a violent confrontation between police and protestors in the course of which a West Berlin policemen, Karl-Heinz Kurras, shot and killed 26-year-old Benno Ohnesorg, a student at the Free University of Berlin. The shooting reinforced a belief in the New Left that the West German government was an authoritarian or even fascist regime.

The shooting of 26-year-old student Benno Ohnesorg by West German police on June 2, 1967, helped catalyze the transformation of the West German New Left.

Research in the files of East Germany's Ministry of State Security (the Stasi) has subsequently revealed that Kurras had been an agent of the Stasi since 1955. So far no evidence has turned up indicating that Kurras was ordered to shoot one of the demonstrators in order to lend credence to East German and Soviet accusations about the "neo-fascist" nature of the West German government and thus radicalise the student left in the Federal Republic. The shooting had the effect of reinforcing those beliefs. Had Kurras's connection to the Stasi been known at the time, the political results would likely have been dramatically different, as it would have focused attention on Communist efforts to subvert West German democracy by erroneously depicting it as a neo-fascist regime. Instead, a murder carried out by an agent of the East German intelligence services became conclusive evidence for West German leftists that the West German government and the Social Democratic government of West Berlin were fascist, authoritarian regimes. One of the three major leftist terrorist organisations of the 1970s decided to call itself "the June 2nd Movement," named for the date when Kurras shot Ohnesorg.

A second aspect of the conjuncture in West Berlin and West Germany concerned the newspapers of the conservative Axel Springer press, especially its tabloid Bild-Zeitung, which took a leading role in denouncing the New Left. Yet the Springer newspapers were also leading voices in support of Israel in West German journalism. Following the principle that the friend of my enemy is my enemy, the young Left's turn against Israel drew further emotional energy from the combination of the Springer press support for Israel's, criticism of the New Left and the shooting of Ohnesorg. For the young Left, the simultaneity of the Six-Day War and the Ohnesorg shooting had the effect of associating support for Israel with their West German conservative antagonists.

At a SDS meeting on 4-9 September 1967 on the campus of Johan Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt/Main delegates passed a resolution that codified SDS's turn against Israel. It expressed the mélange of neo-Marxism, Marxism-Leninism and radical enthusiasm about third-world revolutions that had become a defining feature of the New Left around the world. Like their counterparts elsewhere, the West German SDS leaders were focused on the war in Vietnam. Yet the Nazi past, the geographical proximity of the Middle East, the West German government's "special relationship" and diplomatic relations with Israel, and their own contacts and discussions with Arab students in West Germany, made the Middle East a much more salient issue for the New Left in West Germany than in other centres of New Left radicalism in 1967.

The Socialist German Student Association (SDS) codified its turn against Israel in September 1967.

The SDS resolution illustrated the shift away from the anti-fascism of the 1940s to the "anti-imperialism" of a "third-worldist" Left in the late 1960s. It was a transformation that had taken place during the anti-cosmopolitan purges of the early 1950s in the Soviet bloc. The SDS resolution stated that the Six-Day War could "only be analysed against the background of the anti-imperialist struggle of the Arab peoples against their oppression by Anglo-American imperialism." The resolution called for the "rehabilitation of hundreds of thousands of Arab refugees back to their motherland." The September resolution criticised Israel for a "policy of expulsion and oppression of Palestinian Arabs." SDS reassured Jews that they had a right to exist "in Palestine" but not to have a state of their own, i.e., Israel. The problem would be resolved by a "revolutionary socialist movement" that "overcomes imperialism" and creates unity between socialists in the Arab countries and "socialist Israel."

From 1967 to 1970, the radicalisation of the West German New Left led to support of the PLO's "armed struggle" against the existence of Israel. In these years, contacts between West German leftists and Arab and Palestinian students studying in West Germany began to materialise, contacts that later contributed to the subsequent collaboration of West German leftists terrorist organisations with comparable Palestinian organisations, most importantly the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

Although it was the PLO, more than the Arab states that captured the imagination of West German leftists, it is important to recall that by expressing solidarity with the PLO, the West German leftist groups were affirming their support for its 1968 Charter . The PLO Charter designated a geographical area called Palestine, which included all of what was then Israel, as "the homeland of the Arab Palestinian people." The "Palestinian people" had a "legal right" to this territory. Article Six stated that the Jews who had resided in Palestine "until the beginning of the Zionist invasion will be considered Palestinians." The date of the beginning of that "invasion" was a source of uncertainty. If, as was often argued, the "invasion" began in 1917 with the signing of the Balfour Declaration, then only 60,000 of the approximately 2.5 million Jews living in Israel in 1968 would be considered Palestinian. If the "invasion" was dated from 1947, then about 700,000 Jews would be so defined and could thus remain in the Palestinian state to be created. The rest would not be considered "Palestinians" in a new state and thus presumably would be expelled. Article Eight asserted that in the "national struggle for the liberation of Palestine," those "in the national homeland or in diaspora," that is in the Middle East and in Europe, constituted "one national front working for the retrieval of Palestine and its liberation through armed struggle." Article Nine stated that "armed struggle is the only way to liberate Palestine. This is the overall strategy, not merely a tactical phase." According to Article 10, "commando action constitutes the nucleus of the Palestinian popular liberation war."

The New Left's turn against Israel paved the way for German radicals to become terrorists for the Palestinian cause. Wilfried Böse (top left) and Brigitte Kuhlmann joined the Palestinian PFLP-GC in hijacking Air France Flight 139 in June 1976 (both died in the famed Israeli raid on Entebbe Airport, Uganda, a week later.)

Article 22 was the opening salvo in a propaganda campaign that reached fruition seven years later in November 1975 when the UN General Assembly declared Zionism to be "racist and fanatic in its nature, aggressive, expansionist, and colonial in its aims, and fascist in its methods. Israel is the instrument of the Zionist movement, and geographical base for world imperialism placed strategically in the midst of the Arab homeland to combat the hopes of the Arab nation for liberation, unity, and progress." The great propaganda victory of the PLO was to make two lies part of world political culture. The first was that Zionism was a form of racism. The second was that the PLO's Charter was not a racist document, for any careful reading would indicate that if implemented it would have required the expulsion of the vast majority of Jewish citizens of the State of Israel. Remarkably, the racist element of the PLO has never become a major theme of world politics, whilst decades of efforts by Israeli Ambassadors to the UN to draw attention to the issue were unsuccessful.

When anyone in the West German New Left voiced "solidarity" with the PLO in those years, they were effectively expressing support for these very public, very clear positions which amounted to a declaration of war, the aim of which was the destruction of the State of Israel by the use of arms.

For the New Left, the rhetoric of anti-imperialism offered a kind of liberation from the burdens of German history.

Though the PLO Charter appealed to all "all progressive and peaceful forces" around the world, it struck a nerve in the West German radical Left because the rhetoric of "anti-fascism" and "anti-imperialism" offered another kind of liberation from the burdens of German history after the Holocaust. In post-Nazi Germany it also led to a bizarre description of Israel that echoed the antisemitic accusations hurled for centuries against the Jews of Europe. One striking feature of both the East German Communist regime and the West German radical Left was a kind of obliviousness to the similarities between older antisemitic stereotypes of evil and powerful Jews and the attacks on Zionism and Israel as inherently aggressive, racist and even exterminatory.

One very serious problem that Israel's victory posed for the West German and West European Left was that the Jewish state had won a war decisively. While post-war West Germans disdained the hard power of states which they associated with Nazi Germany, the lessons learned by Jews and citizens of Israel from the Holocaust were precisely the opposite, namely that those without a state and its hard power are at the mercy of those who may wish to murder them. Israel's victory in 1967 did not fit into the leftist categories of "imperialism" and "anti-imperialism" yet, as those were the categories available to the radical leftists of those years, the radicalising New Left used them to misplace the outcome of the war into that inappropriate paradigm: Israel was now "imperialist."

In November 1969, radical leftists placed a bomb that failed to explode in the Jewish Community Center in West Berlin. A leaflet entitled "Shalom and Napalm" was distributed in Agit 883, a journal widely read in the West Berlin leftist scene. In addition to expressing support for the Palestinian "armed struggle" against Israel, it called on West German "anti-imperialists" to play an active role in the battle against supporters of Israel in West Germany, that is, to engage in attacks on Jews in West Germany, especially those who publicly supported Israel.

'Shalom and Napalm" also included an attack on the West German tradition of Vergangenheitsbewältigung ("overcoming the past"). In so doing, it echoed arguments that had been made in the 1950s by the East German government. It denounced West German restitution payments and development aid as a contribution to the Zionist defence budget. "Under the guilt-laden pretext of coming to terms with the fascist atrocities against the Jews, they [West German government and industry] make a decisive contribution to Israel's fascist atrocities against Palestinian Arabs." The leaflet's authors coyly accepted responsibility for placing a bomb in the Jewish Community Center and declared war on the government of West Germany. The redefinition of anti-fascism that had taken place in the Soviet bloc now occurred in the West German Left. The authors wrote that "true anti-fascism is the clear and simple expression of solidarity with the fighting fedayeen ... the Jews who were expelled by fascism have themselves become fascists who, in collaboration with American capital, want to eradicate the Palestinian people." "Shalom and Napalm" was the first of a series of statements of Holocaust Inversion from the West German far Left that inspired West German leftist terrorist organisations to collaborate with like-minded Palestinian groups – most famously in the hijacking and then the separation of Israeli from non-Israeli hostages at the airport in Entebbe, Uganda in 1976.

Holocaust inversion among the West German far Left began in the wake of the 1967 war.

One distinctive feature of the secular leftist antagonism to Israel, first in the Soviet bloc and then in the global New Left, was its indignant assertion that it had absolutely nothing to do with antisemitism. Yet the eagerness with which Israel's enemies spread lies about Zionism's racist nature and were willing to compare the Jewish state to Nazi Germany suggested that an element of antisemitism was indeed at work in the international Left as it responded to Israel's victory in June 1967.

For the Soviet Union, it was infuriating and embarrassing to see its Arab clients fail so miserably. It was a severe blow to its efforts to drive out Western influence in the Middle East and gain control over oil supplies so vital to the global economy. Yet the leftist Holocaust inversion did rest on very old and false attributions of enormous power and great evil which religious and secular antisemites had attributed to the Jews in Europe. Rather than acknowledge that the Jews, like any other nation with a state of its own, had defended itself against a real threat and won a war, the Communists and the radical Left applied the negative attributes once applied to the Jews of Europe to the State of Israel. While antisemites before 1945 had described the Jews as the center of a powerful international conspiracy, the anti-Zionists of the Cold War era described Israel as the spearhead in the Middle East of a conspiracy led by the US and supported by West Germany. Rather than describe the war for what it was, a war of self-defence in the face of serious threats, Israel's leftist antagonists during and after 1967 tried to delegitimate its victory as an act of aggression. In the aftermath of the Six-Day War, the idea of the powerful and evil Jew, so familiar in the history of European antisemitism, assumed a new form of a powerful and evil Israel. The Communists and the radical Left in the West blinded themselves with such hatred they were unable to understand why and how a people threatened with destruction less than a quarter of a century after the Holocaust could have fought and won a war against great odds.

Jeffrey Herf is a history professor at the University of Maryland-College Park and a fellow at the Middle East Forum. This article draws on his book Undeclared Wars with Israel: East Germany and the West German Far Left, 1967-1989 (Cambridge University Press, 2016).