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Anti-Zionist Policy

On May 13, 1965, the headline on the front page of the Neues Deutschland national East German newspaper announced the establishment of “Diplomatic relations between Mideast conspirators Bonn-Tel Aviv.” This news was a slap in the face for the German Democratic Republic. Instead of allying itself with the anti-Fascist GDR, the Jewish homeland of Israel had established relations with the successor state of Nazi Germany.

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Great pals – Erich Honecker and Yasser Arafat in Berlin, 1980

Communist strategy

The difficult relationship between East Germany and Israel can be divided into three phases. Until 1952, East Germany, which was then still under Soviet administration, maintained an overall stance of positive neutrality. After 1952, however, the show trials against Jewish party members and doctors in the Eastern bloc, which had been initiated by Stalin, signaled a distinct anti-Semitic turn – a development that was amplified by Israel’s increasing alignment with NATO. The third phase, which involved rapprochement between the two nations, began in 1985 with the reform policies of Mikhail Gorbachev.

In the official historiography of East Germany, the Communist resistance had been the most important victim during the Hitler years. In this anti-Fascist mythology, Jews figured only as passive victims. As a result, East Germany felt itself under no obligation to provide any form of reparation to Jewish victims of Nazi persecution, apart from a small pension. In the 1950s, the show trials against high-ranking Communists such as Paul Merker in East Germany and Rudolf Slansky in Czechoslovakia, who were both convicted of being agents of Zionism, served as further evidence of increasing rancor toward the Jewish state.

This state of “non-relations” with Israel continued to deteriorate after 1965. The German Democratic Republic began to seek relations with the Arab states. Anti-Israel polemics flourished in East German media during the 1967 Six-Day War, the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and the 1982 Lebanon War. An article published in the Deutsche Lehrerzeitung of 1975 stated, “Let us be clear: Zionism and Fascism share a common ideological platform. And this is the ideology of racism.” During the conflict with Lebanon in 1982, East German media made mention of a “well-prepared Holocaust.” And in the late 1960s, the German Democratic Republic began supporting the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO).

To avoid possible accusations of anti-Semitism that their anti-Israel policies might elicit at home and abroad, the East German regime held up the example of the publically-lauded Jewish and socialist artist and intellectual. One such figure was the singer and actress Lin Jaldati, who as a young woman had met Anne Frank in the concentration camp.

The East German regime thus took care to preempt any accusation of deliberate persecution of their own Jewish citizens, and even greater care to avoid any accusations that their foreign policy aimed to bring about the erasure or elimination of Jews.

Hypocrisy and hostility

Anti-Zionist and anti-Jewish rhetoric was deployed in tactical fashion, whenever it appeared that it might serve the regime’s propagandistic desire to portray itself as an “ordinary” member of the community of nations. But East Germany’s refusal to acknowledge the realities of the past and its demotion of Jews to “second-class” victims of Nazism was a clear and fundamental moral and ethical lapse.

On April 12, 1990, East Germany’s first and only freely elected parliament issued a declaration apologizing for the hostility of the “Workers’ and Farmers’ state” toward Jews and toward Israel: “We ask Jews all over the world for forgiveness. We ask the people of Israel for forgiveness of the hypocrisy and hostility of the official GDR policy toward the State of Israel, and for the persecution and degradation of our Jewish fellow citizens in our country, even after 1945.”


Christian Nestler is a Ph.D. candidate at the Department of Political Sciences at Rostock university

Photo Credit: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-W1229-028/Reiche, Hartmut/CC-BY-SA 3.0

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