Germany’s Anti-Palestinian Stance Is Rooted in Anti-Communism

German police shut down a Palestine solidarity conference last week, the latest in a long line of repressive moves. The anti-Palestinian witch hunt is rooted in a political culture that stigmatizes left-wing radicalism while indulging the far right.

A press conference after police officers shut down an event in solidarity with Palestine on April 13, 2024, in Berlin, Germany. (Adam Berry / Getty Images)

In Heinrich Böll’s 1974 novel The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum, adapted as a film a year later by Volker Schlöndorff and Margarethe von Trotta, a young woman’s life is destroyed by the tabloid press, which invades her privacy and torments her on account of her fleeting romantic association with an alleged anarchist bank robber. Quite justifiably, readers and viewers at the time interpreted the work as an allegory for the prevailing political climate in the Federal Republic.

Originating from the country’s student movement in the late 1960s, armed conspirational groups such as the Red Army Faction (RAF) and the Revolutionary Cells (RZ), had wreaked havoc by assassinating key political and business figures and bombing US military installations. Influenced by Latin American and Chinese guerrilla struggle theory, these groups believed that their actions would cause the state to shed its liberal facade, in turn enabling a social revolution.

They were quite right about the first part of their assumption, but fatally wrong about the second. In the course of trying to track down and neutralize these groups, West Germany was indeed transformed into an authoritarian police state, where the borders of the Rechtsstaat — the rule of law — were frequently transgressed. However, rather than provoking a social revolution, these measures were largely accepted by the broad populace, further isolating the entire radical left, even those who fundamentally disagreed with the tactics of the terrorists.

RAF figures like Ulrike Meinhof, Gudrun Ensslin, and Andreas Baader became pariahs, depicted by the tabloid press as spoiled middle-class children murdering innocent civilians and indulged by lazy intellectuals. Böll himself was frequently accused of being a Sympathisant — a “sympathizer” — of the RAF’s ideology and tactics, and his novel was a thinly disguised polemic against the methods employed by the Bild, Germany’s notoriously right-wing conservative tabloid.

Being a “sympathizer” was the worst thing one could be in the eyes of West Germany’s guardians of public discourse at the time — it was a slur capable of destroying livelihoods and ending careers. The arrests of the RAF’s founders and their deaths in custody in 1977 accelerated the decline of the radical left, as former radicals joined the emerging Green Party or withdrew from politics altogether.

Militant Democracy

What is less remembered today, however, is that those extreme measures were not so much implemented by Christian Democrats — although they firmly supported them — but by the Social Democrat–led governments of Willy Brandt (1969–74) and Helmut Schmidt (1974–82). It was the Brandt government — widely remembered today as a beacon of social modernization — that legislated the infamous Radikalenerlass in 1972, the banning of individuals holding “extremist views” from public service, which overwhelmingly affected the radical left.

Compared to the conservative right, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) identified far more strongly with the Federal Republic and its self-definition as a “militant democracy” (wehrhafte Demokratie). The concept means that in contrast to the liberal Anglo-Saxon model, the German state deems the suspension of certain civil rights tolerable, if this serves to safeguard democracy in the long run. Germany’s internal intelligence service, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, compiles annual lists of organizations under surveillance, which according to its view threaten the “liberal democratic basic order.”

Among those under surveillance are not just neo-Nazi organizations, but Islamist organizations, other “foreign extremists” (mainly sympathizers of Palestinian, Kurdish, Tamil, or other movements) and practically every relevant radical left-wing organization. This doesn’t mean that Germany is an “illiberal democracy” like Hungary or Turkey. The judiciary is independent and has recently played a contradictory role, banning some pro-Palestinian demonstrations yet overturning bans on others for being unconstitutional. It does mean, however, that in contrast to the British state, for example, the right to free speech is subordinated to what the German state regards as the long-term interest of “democracy.”

The concept of militant democracy was first officially formulated by West Germany’s constitutional court in 1952, in the context of the banning of a neo-Nazi party. But it would be used again to legitimize the banning of the German Communist Party (KPD) four years later. Indeed, in a context where former Nazis populated virtually every corner of West Germany’s politics, media apparatus, and business community, it was the radical left rather than the extreme right that was on the receiving end of the state’s wrath.

Decades of “militant democracy” have done nothing to disrupt the collusion of the German “deep state” with neo-Nazi militants, as the cover-ups around the case of the National Socialist Underground (NSU) terrorist organization and its killing spree against migrants in the 2000s show, as do revelations on the existence of neo-Nazi cells within the country’s armed forces. During the Cold War, the dominant equation of fascism with Stalinism conveniently externalized responsibility for Nazi crimes to an abstract “totalitarianism,” while directing the charge of “extremism” against any challenge from the Left. Today, the neofascist Alternative for Germany party (AfD) can proudly proclaim membership in the mainstream by, among other things, accusing the Left of “extremism” as well as “antisemitism” due to its perceived support for Palestinians.

That the conservative right would identify with the anti-left thrust of “militant democracy” is obvious enough. Their ranks being full of former Nazis, the Christian Democrats loved a doctrine that regarded the Federal Republic as a complete break with the Nazi regime. But why did the SPD identify with the concept so much, to the extent that it oversaw an authoritarian transformation of the state, which targeted the entirety of the radical left, not just the RAF?

Social Democratic Anti-Communism

Part of the answer lies in the history of German Social Democracy. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the SPD was a self-proclaimed revolutionary party. However, its championing of a gradual transition toward socialism through incremental reforms gave birth to a conservative layer of bureaucrats that saw its main role as that of an arbiter between the state and the working class.

It was this transformation that, with the honorable exceptions of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, led to the party’s capitulation to its “own” ruling class at the outbreak of World War I. Following the war, Social Democratic leaders like Gustav Noske worked together with the protofascist Freikorps paramilitaries to suppress the socialist revolution. The SPD was still a party that commanded the allegiance of millions of workers. But its insistence on advancing working-class interests through avenues it could control led it to effectively assume a counterrevolutionary role.

The SPD subsequently identified strongly with the Weimar Republic. It attributed the eventual demise of the Weimar system with the rise of the Nazis to power in 1933 to both “extremes” — the Nazis and the Communists — who were accused of working almost in tandem to undermine Germany’s first liberal democracy. The KPD’s disastrous “social fascism” position during that time, by which it labeled the SPD as more dangerous than the Nazis, does lend credence to this thesis. But this does not absolve the SPD of its own responsibility.

Like the KPD, the party also rejected a united front against Adolf Hitler. Furthermore, it supported the growing authoritarianism of the Weimar Republic in its final years, which effectively rendered it a preparatory regime for the Nazis. It went so far as to support the election of right-wing field marshal Paul von Hindenburg as president in 1932, ostensibly to stop Hitler. Claiming that democracy was undermined by “both extremes” and that today this necessitates a “militant democracy” has historically served to obscure the SPD’s own disastrous role in inadvertently enabling the rise of fascism.

Following World War II, the experience of the forced merger between the KPD and the SPD in the Soviet occupation zone hardened the SPD’s anti-communism. Its postwar leader, Kurt Schumacher, spoke of Communists as “red-painted Nazis.” The 1950s SPD still claimed adherence to Marxism and opposed the Federal Republic’s integration into NATO.

However, by the early 1960s, the party had dumped Marxism and embraced Atlanticism. ‘“Militant democracy” at home translated into militant anti-communism abroad. In 1973, for instance, the SPD was instrumental in the creation of the Portuguese Socialist Party — founded in a wine pub in the small town of Bad Münstereifel — which would play a key role in weakening the Portuguese Communist Party and diverting the 1974 Carnation Revolution into “safe” parliamentary avenues.

It is important to emphasize that the reason behind all these right-wing shifts was not a sinister desire to betray the workers and world revolution. The SPD simply regarded the German state as its own. It saw working-class interests as being best served through redistributive policies that demanded a strong (West) German capitalism.

This reformism by definition included attempts to claim the state’s ideology as its own. Even in the late nineteenth century, during the party’s revolutionary phase, SPD leader Wilhelm Liebknecht could proudly proclaim that the Social Democrats were “a thousand times more patriotic” than the ruling class.

In the 1970s, such reformism brought about social reforms that benefitted millions of workers, such as easing access to higher education for working-class youth. In addition, it involved distancing the Federal Republic from the United States by engaging in Ostpolitik, an opening to the Eastern Bloc that saw West German firms reaping the benefits of cheap Soviet natural gas. But it also meant the SPD would apply an iron fist against forces in society that wanted to go beyond mere reforms, as well as implementing racist deportation policies and clinging on to an ethnic conception of German citizenship.

The SPD has long embraced the logic of neoliberalism. In terms of membership, it is a shadow of its former self. Olaf Scholz is not near to being a modern-day Brandt or Schmidt, charisma-wise. And the party looks on helplessly as the AfD’s rise in the polls continues unabated.

But echoes of its adherence to “militant democracy” are still heard, as it — together with the Greens — joins the parties of the Right and extreme right in cracking down on solidarity with the people of Gaza wherever it can, ostensibly out of a sense of responsibility for past German crimes against the Jews and a corresponding commitment to “openness” and “democracy.”

Neither Guilt nor “Germans Being Germans”

The slur of “Israel-centered antisemitism” or “left-wing antisemitism” has become the German establishment’s weapon of choice for silencing critics of Israeli war crimes and the German government’s well-documented complicity in them. Very recently, philosopher and critical thinker Nancy Fraser published a letter from the rector of the University of Cologne, Joybrato Mukherjee — an SPD member of Indian heritage — informing her of the university’s decision to cancel her planned visiting fellowship, the reason being Fraser’s signing of a petition in solidarity with Palestine.

The incident adds to a long list of cancellations by German institutions of invitations, awards, and funding of scholars and artists for their support of Palestinian rights. The list is becoming longer, with a great percentage of names on it, like Fraser herself, being conspicuously Jewish, disproving the thesis that Germany’s current anti-Palestinian witch hunt is guided by a sense of guilt for the Holocaust. Many outside Germany have been astonished by the rapid provincialization of German discourse, while German scholars, many of whom have been silent on the genocide committed in Gaza, are slowly beginning to sense the dangers of isolation from the global realm of critical thinking.

Much like the West German discourse that castigated left-wing intellectuals in the 1970s as spiritual forefathers of the RAF’s terrorism, contemporary German commentary never ceases to attack “postcolonial theory” or figures such as Judith Butler as intellectual apologists for “Hamas terror.” Whereas liberal philosopher Jürgen Habermas accused left-wing students in 1967 of being “left-wing fascists,” today’s German mainstream media warn of “left-wing antisemitism” at German campuses due to the growth of Palestine solidarity initiatives within them.

The absurdity of current German discourse has for some years now been the subject of interventions by scholars and journalists that lament the parochial turn taken by Germany’s once-celebrated Erinnerungskultur (“memory culture”). The narrative here deconstructs this manufactured “antisemitism crisis” as a nationalist project.

On the one hand, this project resists the penetration of German discourse by new ideas (largely situated within English-speaking academia) that seek to illustrate lineages between European colonialism and the Holocaust or to generally “decolonize” taken-for-granted epistemologies. On the other hand, it seeks to discipline the increasing diversity of German society and politics that became exponentially more tangible following the so-called “summer of migration” in 2015. According to this viewpoint, only those who are fully able to assimilate the lesson that Holocaust guilt must translate into uncritical support of Israel can be considered “real Germans.”

These explanations are certainly true to a very large extent. There are some quite uncomfortable continuities at play in a situation where Germans virulently attack Jews critical of Israel of “antisemitism.” But it would be too easy here to draw the false conclusion that German culture is exceptionally parochial and needs to become more like the United States or Britain.

For one thing, an overwhelming majority of Germans have been critical toward Israel’s conduct in the Gaza Strip, with popular attitudes toward the conflict showing no great divergence from other European countries. The United States is still the world’s most pro-Israel country. On the other hand, state-sanctioned racism and police repression have been the response of Western governments everywhere to popular indignation at Israel’s genocidal policies toward the Palestinians. What, then, explains the German establishment’s current zealous identification with the most extreme right-wing Zionist positions?

Antisemitism, Philosemitism, and Anti-Communism

Ever since national unification in the late nineteenth century, German elites have had a complex — to say the least — relationship to the country’s Jews. Unlike France, where the French Revolution granted Jews full civil rights in its immediate aftermath, the political emancipation of German Jews was a drawn-out process, with legal equality only being achieved in 1871.

Even then, while generally faring well economically, Jews faced numerous restrictions. Antisemitism was a foundational ideology of many powerful institutions, including the state-affiliated Protestant Church, the German universities, or the Junker landowning class. German capitalism was not entrenched as a result of a revolution that handed power to the bourgeoisie, as had previously been the case in Britain or France, but rather was imposed by the absolutist state.

As such, the German romantic nationalism that developed during the nineteenth century championed an ethnic, hereditary conception of citizenship, which — increasingly influenced by pseudoscientific race theories — began to see Jews as the ultimate Other. The pervasiveness of antisemitism in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century German culture provided the Nazis with a ready-made discursive arsenal, by which Jews could be scapegoated as culprits for all of society’s ills, subsequently expelled from the social realm and dehumanized, and finally exterminated in the Holocaust.

The most principled opposition to this antisemitism did not come from German liberals but rather from the workers’ movement, in which Jews assumed positions as key thinkers and even leaders. August Bebel’s famous notion of antisemitism as the “socialism of fools” was not so much intended as a moralistic condemnation of Jew-hatred, but as a strategic guiding principle emphasizing the fundamental incompatibility between antisemitism and working-class interests.

Antisemitism was mostly entrenched in the middle classes, whose destruction following the 1929 Wall Street crash would accelerate the growth of the Nazi party. At the same time, anti-socialist and antisemitic rhetoric tended to fuse, epitomized by the construct of “Judeo-Bolshevism” and the genocidal character of Hitler’s war against the Soviet Union.

The aftermath of World War II, the division of Germany, and the practical disappearance of German Jewry, either through emigration or annihilation, reconfigured the German establishment’s attitude to Jews. The 1952 Luxembourg Agreement between West Germany and Israel — which offered generous financial aid to Israel as “reparations” for the Holocaust in exchange for German rehabilitation in the eyes of Zionism — primarily benefited the US goal of reintegrating an eventually rearmed and barely de-Nazified West Germany into the US-led alliance.

While diffuse antisemitism at the social level negatively identified Jews with Israel at that time, leading conservatives, such as Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and Bavarian prime minister Franz Josef Strauss, increasingly saw Israel in a positive light. US inclinations toward détente following the 1956 Suez/Hungary double crisis, which saw Dwight D. Eisenhower pull the plug on the Anglo–French–Israeli attack on Egypt while de facto accepting the Soviet sphere of influence in Eastern Europe, made German conservatives look to Israel as part of a global anti-communist crusade.

The sentiments were also shared by the SPD, albeit from a different starting point. The Socialist International had supported Israel and identified ideologically with the ruling “socialist Zionism” of Mapai, the Israeli Labor Party, as a third way between capitalism and state socialism. In opposition, the SPD was vocal in its support of the Luxembourg Agreement, while conservatives equivocated.

However, for the Social Democrats, it wasn’t simply moral considerations that led them to support the agreement. The SPD was especially nationalist at the time. Its opposition to NATO did not stem from principled anti-imperialism but from the fact that Adenauer’s turn to the West was solidifying the division of Germany, severing it from its traditional heartlands in eastern Germany. The SPD also needed a “clean slate” for German nationalism.

When Israel militarily defeated Pan-Arabism in 1967, West German conservatives could openly embrace Jews and Israel (seen as one and the same) as worthy allies, embodying Prussian militarist values in the Middle East by defeating the Soviet-backed armies of Egypt and Syria. As in the United States, the West German establishment offered “communal membership” to Jews. Their acceptance was essentially conditioned upon their usefulness as anti-communist foot soldiers.

Thus, the symbiotic relationship between antisemitism and anti-communism was replaced by an equally projective relationship between philosemitism and anti-communism. The constant was, of course, the assumption that Jews could never really be considered part of the national body, with their “real” homeland being Israel, not Germany.

It is a cliché in Germany nowadays to claim that the West German radical left had an antisemitism problem due to its support for Palestinian liberation. The story of RZ terrorists separating Jewish from non-Jewish passengers during a hijacking in Entebbe in 1976 is always mentioned as exemplary of the post-1968 left hitting a moral ground zero. However, there are several issues with this narrative.

In a context where almost nonexistent Jews were positively conflated with Israel, it is quite plausible that, for many individuals within the radical left, zealous identification with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was a convenient way to deflect their feelings of intergenerational guilt for Nazi crimes. Like any other racism, antisemitism is a social phenomenon that can also infect people holding progressive views.

However, the West German radical left was not just comprised of the RAF and the RZ. It included many Maoists, Trotskyists, orthodox Communists, and even young socialists, who were also strongly supportive of the Palestinians (albeit not uncritically) and who had serious disagreements with the tactics of urban guerrilla warfare. The only evidence of a programmatic articulation of antisemitism within the radical left that the accusers (many of whom are former leftists) can present is the Left’s anti-Zionism, as expressed in support for objectives like a single “secular democratic state for Jews, Muslims, and Christians” that denies “Israel’s right to exist.”

Toward the “Anti-Fascism of Fools”

Up until the late 1970s, Holocaust memory played little part in West German political discourse. Support for Israel was, of course, justified with a German responsibility for the Holocaust, but it was subordinated to the Federal Republic’s main raison d’etre, anti-communism. As such, there were some divergences.

The SPD-led governments in the 1970s, while still strongly supportive of the Zionist state, nonetheless pursued an opening toward the Arab world, guided by the prospect of lucrative energy and arms deals. This also included contacts with the PLO and a recognition of the Palestinians’ right to self-determination.

But growing awareness of the Judeocide in the United States began reaching West Germany through television series like Holocaust. While there was widespread recognition of the crimes committed against the Jews, both conservatives and social democrats, for different reasons, assigned exclusive responsibility for them to the inner core of Hitler’s entourage. Only the post-1968 radical left was willing to raise the tough issues about fascist continuities within the Federal Republic. Questions about the responsibility of ordinary Germans thus began to arise.

At the same time, German conservatives embarked on a project of rehabilitating German nationalism, rolling back the social gains of 1968 and increasing their autonomy in foreign affairs. Chancellor Helmut Kohl famously spoke in 1984 in the Israeli Knesset of the “mercy of being born late,” implying that younger generations such as his were untainted by the Nazi past and were thus less restricted by the lessons of German history. In 1985, Kohl and Ronald Reagan paid a joint visit to a cemetery in the small town of Bitburg, where members of the Waffen-SS were also buried.

Two years later, the Historikerstreit — the “historians’ quarrel” — would give concrete expression to the positions of German revisionism and its discontents. Historian Ernst Nolte provoked the debate, framing the Holocaust as a “preemptive” measure against Bolshevik atrocities.

Habermas correctly attacked Nolte’s revisionism and neo-nationalism, while espousing a nonethnic conception of “constitutional patriotism.” However, by emphasizing the Holocaust’s fundamental incomparability — detaching it from the wider dynamics of capitalist crisis, counterrevolution, colonialism, and imperialism — Habermas would lay the groundwork for today’s climate of anti-Palestinian censorship.

Essentially, the Historikerstreit was resolved through a convergence between various political actors. Former radicals turned liberals, now organized through the framework of the Green Party, began institutionalizing themselves within the German state and its ideologies, just like the Social Democrats a century earlier. On the other hand, the limits of a neoconservative project in postwar Germany became evident. Any kind of projection of German power, especially after reunification, would have to tread carefully and take place within the framework of European integration.

Rather than being a source of shame, memories of the Holocaust and the processing of their history by Germans now became sources of pride. This pride would eventually be articulated by Angela Merkel’s 2008 placement of “Israel’s security” as part of Germany’s Staatsräson, its raison d’etre — the idea that Germany’s commitment to Israel should trump any other consideration, including human rights and international law.

For Palestine solidarity in Germany, the entrenchment of this new ideology had disastrous effects. If the Holocaust lay beyond history, and if the state of Israel resulted from the Holocaust, then any questioning of its self-ascribed “right to exist” meant that one was now making common cause with German neoconservatives. The fringe Antideutsch current within the post-reunification radical left certainly took this conclusion to the extreme, identifying itself fully with the George W. Bush wars in the early 2000s as crusades against “Islamofascism.”

But it wasn’t just the Antideutsche that were affected. Broad swaths of the Social Democrat and Green mainstream have adopted what can only be described as an “antifascism of fools,” devoid of any class content and willing to equate both “extremes,” drawing an equal sign between a radical and violent far right with a class-oriented and pro-Palestinian left.

The Need for a Class-Oriented Left

Just how entwined an anti-left attitude is with a militant pro-Zionist posture was shown during the process of the Left party (Die Linke)’s institutionalization in the late 2000s and early 2010s. Threatened by this new party, the establishment made strategic use of accusations of “left-wing antisemitism” to weaken its more radical wing. These attempts were successful, as they would be some years later in the case of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party.

Die Linke’s radical edge has long been dented, with the party moving in the direction of social liberalism. What bothered the establishment was not so much the active solidarity of some Linke members with the Palestinians, but its anti-neoliberal and anti-militarist stance. In this context, Israel Marxist Moshe Zuckermann correctly described the accusation of antisemitism as an “instrument of domination” (Herrschaftsinstrument).

Today the charge of antisemitism in Germany serves explicitly anti-left purposes. As it is directed against a large swath of the working class that is of Arab or Turkish heritage, it is inherently divisive, propagating a “sacred union” of German workers with their bosses and the state against “imported antisemites.” On the other hand, the accusation of “left-wing antisemitism” against the radical left represents a throwback to the dark “years of lead” of the 1970s anti-left witch hunt.

As absurd as it appears from the outside, many of those behind the censorship of pro-Palestinian voices, including of many Jewish voices, sincerely believe their actions help to defend democracy and counter a rising far right. But just as the SPD’s “patriotism” that enabled its acceptance of German imperialism in 1914 or its defense of the Weimar Republic against both “extremes,” which enabled the rise of the Nazis, and just as the “militant democracy” of the 1970s helped defeat the radical left and pave the way for Kohl’s neoconservatism, the “anti-antisemitism” of German liberals, Greens, and Social Democrats today, rather than hindering the Right, endows it with more legitimacy.

It is important to bear these facts in mind. In a climate of economic malaise and growing militarism, especially following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Germany is not exceptionally parochial. It is rather the most acute example of the crisis of liberal hegemony and the willingness of liberals everywhere to indulge racism and police repression against the Palestine solidarity movement, elements that inadvertently strengthen a neofascist right.

What can stop the current witch hunt is not so much the opening up of German academia to liberal English-speaking discourse but a class-oriented and internationalist left that is able to stand up to militarism, whether in Gaza, Ukraine, or elsewhere.